Melting Pot Markets & Digital Commons

By Mute Editor, 10 July 2001


Including: Ted Byfield interviews James Boyle, James Flint and Hari Kunzru futurecast the British countryside, Delhi's Sarai Centre, JJ King on ICANN, Maria Fernandez and Suhail Malik on the Cyborg Manifesto, Matthew Hyland on social exclusion protest and the politicisation of the 'mentally ill', reviews: John Hutnyk's South Asian Sound of London special, Esther Leslie on Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth

In mid 1600s Britain, with food prices reaching record heights, the notion of common land became intensely political. A group called the Diggers, led by one Gerrard Winstanley, alarmed the Commonwealth government and roused the hostility of local landowners with their claims that common land should be made available for the very poor to cultivate. Dogged by legal actions and mob violence, and abjuring the use of force themselves, the Diggers movement ended scarcely a year after it began. But it had succeeded in bring the idea of commons as a political scene into the European consciousness.

This issue of Mute is dedicated to the theme of the digital, or intellectual, commons. The term enjoys a certain currency at the moment, and for good reason. It implies that the world’s growing wealth of information might turn out to be a parallel to the shared, common land that was once our birthright and that, like its physical analogue, this shared information space could be revealing itself as an intensely political domain.

But, in Western Europe, this revitalisation of the commons comes at a different time of crisis, one that is arising from the increasing homogenisation and democratic dislocation of party politics. Our evolutionary interpretation of political history has left us with a managerial style of governance that many are less than happy with. Its dominance may be attributed to the success of consumer capitalism or the so called ‘end of history’, but its brand of perfect pragmatism feels ever more out of touch.

So, let’s turn this ostensively static situation on its side. Consider this ‘ordinary’ crop of events, just for a moment. 1) The UK Conservative Party responds to the apocalypse of a second New Labour landslide with plans to nurture a more ‘caring’ and ‘inclusive’ image. 2) UK New Labour leader Tony Blair celebrates his now secure second term in EU politics by building prime buddy relations with right-wingers Silvio Berlusconi and José Maria Aznar. 3) ‘Social Democrat’ Euro-politicians, Tony Blair among them, criticise Gothenburg’s anti-capitalist protestors for their authoritarian tendencies. 4) In the UK’s Daily Telegraph, arch right wing cultural critic Roger Scruton defends the protestors’ use of violence. He compares their revolt favourably with the ‘spoilt-brat’ leftist uprising of ’68 Paris and affirms its critique of unaccountable, secretive and virtualised global governance. 5) Finally, the World Bank withdraws from its scheduled meeting in Barcelona citing ‘freedom of expression’ as the cause for a ‘move online’.

Our homogeneous evolutionary pinnacle, it seems, is producing some contradictory results. Faced with restrictions in choice at the local level, and an escalating sense of crisis and inequity at the global level, citizens are rewarding their political ‘managers’ with what, to them, must seem a curious mixture of apathy and direct action. Left and right are borrowing each other’s mantles and totems in a race to be most democratic.

But increasingly frequent public lurches towards nationalism and fascism at one end of the political spectrum, and towards a new leftism at the other, seem to be leaving their representatives alone in preaching the centre ground. Is it possible that our sense of stasis cloaks a dramatically turbulent and open political scene?

Politics is fought, now more than ever, in the realm of the symbolic. The ‘information’ so central to it takes routes through megacorp-owned news media, public relations tools, stock exchanges, the entertainment industry, public policy documents and independent media. While it twists and turns tactically, strategically mixes and melts, the premium on information grows whilst its value appears to diminish. So, where does it end up? Who owns it? Can it provide a shared history and resource? Is there now, or will there ever be, such a thing as a digital commons? In the main section of this issue, James Boyle, Ted Byfield, members from Delhi’s Sarai New Media Initiative and JJ King provide some tentative answers to this vexed question.

Pauline van Mourik Broekman <>