In this interview, Shareable publisher Neal Gorenflo, John Robb of Global Guerrillas, and P2P foundation's Michel Bauwens talk to David de Ugarte, one of the originators of the Spanish cyberpunk scene about his more recent work developing a multinational worker cooperative, Las Indias, that is a culmination of his community's thinking and work for the last decade. Las Indias is the manifestation of a unique socio-economic philosophy that synthesizes many strains of thinking and culture including cyberpunk, anarchism, network thinking, and cooperatives - all with a Spanish twist. It's important because it points to a possible future for those who think outside of national boundaries and desire or need to take control of their own economic destiny. It's a possible future that takes the centuries old logic of cooperatives and remixes it for the urban-centered, global network society we live in today.
Michel Bauwens: Explain to us what Las Indias is, and where it comes from, and what makes it distinctive?
Cyberpunk was mainly a conversational / cyberactivist virtual community. It became transnational quickly and contributed some very good discussions and theories that helped us understand the social impact and possibilities of distributed networks.
But in 2002 three of us founded Las Indias Society, a consultancy firm focused on innovation and networks dedicated to empowering people and organizations. Our experience soon became very important in understanding the opposition between “real” and “imagined” communities, and the organizational bases for an economic democracy. After the cyberpunk dissolution in 2007, the “Montevideo Declaration” openly stated that our objective will be to construct a “phyle,” a transnational economic democracy, in order to ensure the autonomy of our community and it members.
Now, we define ourselves around five main values:
Distributed network architectures as a way of generating abundance, empowerment, and to ensure the widest plurarchy – the maximum of individual liberties – for the members of our community.
Transnationality (which means a rejection of national identities as well as universalism) as a consequence of putting the real community of persons who live and work in Las Indias at the center of our work
Economic democracy as the way to build personal and community autonomy through the market
Hacker ethics as a way to foster community knowledge generation, common deliberation, personal passion, and a collective pleasure in learning
- Devolutionism: all our production of knowledge – books, software, contents, even recipes – is returned to the commons, generating more abundance
Our vision is not a universalist one. We don't proselytize and we really believe that diversity is a desirable consequence of freedom.
But we have a vision for us – the phyle – and a wish: to see the birth of a wider, transnational space of economic democracies. We imagine networks of phyles generating wealth, social cohesion, and ensuring liberties for real people rather than the governments' power and their borders and passports.
We are not naive nor utopian. Distributed networks gave our generation the opportunity to build a new world. But this new world, based on the commons, communities, economic democracy and distributed networks isn't complete at birth. And the old world, based on the artificial generation of scarcity, corporations, inequality, and centralized networks isn't dead.
It is very symptomatic that European crisis manifests as a debt crisis. Governments are suffocating society in order to feed privileged groups – big corporations, some sectors dependent of public money – who have captured state rents or ensured it through monopolistic law. So, the main objective and the main vision now is to stop these decomposing forces in our environments.
There are different levels of engagement and commitment. As a phyle we are really a network. In the periphery there are individual entrepreneurs with their initiatives. In the core there are the associated cooperatives, and at that core. the indianos.
We differentiate between the community (the core of the phyle) and the Cooperative Group.
Indianos are communities that are similar to kibbutzim (no individual savings, collective and democratic control of their own coops, etc.). But there are some important differences like the lack of a shared national or religious ideology, being distributed throughout cities rather than concentrated in a compound, and not submitting to an economic rationality.
At this moment we have four coops: Las Indias (a consultancy dedicated to innovation and network analysis); El Arte (a product-lab where we develop products from books to beer to software); Fondaki (global and strategic intelligence for small businesses) and Gaman (educational tools and campaigns).
All of them are expressions of our members' different passions that answer different needs of our community and environment.
MB: How do you position yourself vis-a-vis the current global capitalist system? What alternative are you proposing?
We think cooperatives and economic democracy (a rent-free market society), hand in hand with a liberated commons as the alternative to capitalism can be made possible through distributed networks.
But we are economic democrats, so we don't want the state to provide the alternative to crony-capitalism and accumulation. Indeed, we think it can't. We have to build it by ourselves, and demand the state to remove the obstacles (as IP, contracts for big politically connected corporations, etc.) that protects privileged groups' rents from competition in the market.
The alternative will not be build through government regulations, but inside our own networks. It will not defeat the corporate organization through courts or elections, but through competition.
NG: We live in a world saturated in corporate media. How do you maintain a culture of cooperation at Las Indias in the face of this onslaught of atomizing, consumerist messages? What spiritual or cultural practices and artifacts can you point to that are especially helpful?
All of us spent many years sharing small apartments downtown, walking or going to work by bus, working in bad jobs through school and after finishing our degrees. It is not a particular condition, it is the reality of the job market in Spain, Portugal and, many Latin American countries for a wide group of middle class children of our generation.
The result of this experience for many people was a particular culture that mixed a lot of inmaterial, cultural consumption – some of it provided free by the state – with a reduced access to consumerism compared to older people.
In 1996 I was 26 finishing a degree in economics in Madrid. I worked in a call center earning 450€ a month working eight hours a day from four to midnight. I spent 300€ on the rent, around 100€ for food, electricity, telephone and public transport and 48€ on an Internet connection. As you can imagine, my “leisure” time was spent around the public library, museums, the public filmotheca (60 cents for a ticket to a classic movie), at cheap potluck dinners and, of course, online.
My experience was not extraordinary at all, and it's even more common now.
This mode of cultural consumption based on public cultural goods, cheap second-hand or popular edition books and “cocooning,” the P2P world made sense in our everyday culture.
So, some years later our incomes increased, we earned autonomy, but for us a good living still means good broadband, access to cultural works, good museums, and good meals in comfortable but not very expensive flats downtown.. None of us has a car or has bought a house.
But please don't get confused. We don't make of austerity a cult. We simply have a different culture, we enjoy different things. None of us has a TV neither, but many of us have projectors for watching videos off the Internet.
NG: In Spain, you're often associated with the cyberpunk movement, which was born in the US in the early 80s. How has cyberpunk influenced you and Las Indias? And how is cyberpunk relevant today?
Cyberpunk activism was strongly influenced by cyberpunk literature. Even today classic cyberpunk works like Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net or Green Days in Brunei and post-cyberpunk like Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age provide models for discussing subjects we think are important at this moment: distributed vs centralized networks, economic democracy vs corporate power, etc.
Cyberpunk taught us to discuss in a mode outside the political tradition: not around theses and programs, but around models and myths, where auto-criticism and irony were easier and dogmatism almost impossible.
MB: For me, some of the most innovative concepts in the Las Indias books were the concepts of phyles and neo-venetianism. What do these mean?
Phyle is a community that develops an economic structure based in economic democracy in order to ensure its own autonomy. The order of the terms is important: phyle is a community with firms, not a community of firms, nor a community of people who own some firms. The firms are tools for the autonomy of the community, a mean, not and end, and are always less important than the needs of community members.
Neovenetianism is the ideology of those who see phyle-making as the natural evolution of their communities in order to make its conversation, its deliberation, autonomous of the political or economic decomposition of the states and the markets they live in.
Virtual communities are by nature transnational. If they have borders, these are the borders of language. A few days ago I saw a Tweet saying “When the Canadian border crossing guards asked me where I was from, I was really tempted to say 'the internet.'” Many people feel like that Twitter. But that causes a kind of schizophrenia: their life becomes divided in two, the virtual life and the working life. Phyles reunify our lives around our intentional virtual community.
MB: What do the new concepts of the sharing economy (Shareable), p2p (P2P Foundation), the commons, and resilience (Global Guerrillas) evoke for you, and how does Las Indias relate to them?
P2P means distributed networks, commons, abundance. It's the meaning of life!
The sharing economy means community, autonomy, commons, gift, joy, abundance again. It is the real sense of our core, the “how-to” of abundance, the way we live.
Resilience is at the same time the golden rule and the consequence of building community on a shared economy under a P2P architecture. It is our main virtue and the only thing that can guarantee survival even under increasing global decomposition.
JR: Any plans for micro-finance or a bank to speed cooperative growth?
Yes! We have signed an agreement with the main credit cooperative in Uruguay – which is based on microfinance – in order to do it in Uruguay. We hope it will start having results this year.
But in a way, Las Indias Cooperative Group through its “Cooperative Investment Funds” works like that with less funding but in a wider area (Spanish and Portuguese speaking communities). We want to invest in new coops as a way of helping communities to gain autonomy, but there are few cooperative entrepreneurs, or at least fewer than we would like there to be. So we are considering making the diffusion of cooperative values and its possibilities our main strategy for the coming year.
And we are also betting on “Bazar” a free piece of p2p software that will be released in the next weeks. Bazar is dedicated to creating trade and collaboration networks between groups of coops, small firms, etc., as we believe that collaboration between and globalization of “the small” is a key issue.
JR: How long does it take to train a regular person in cooperative business practices? Are there plans for teaching cooperative thinking online to grow it faster?
It takes a time! Unfortunately almost everything in the mainstream culture teaches us that the world is a zero-sum game, and that markets must be ruled by jungle law, but the simple truth is that they shouldn't be and we, people, can make the difference.
Until now, we have focused on online courses, books, papers, documentaries, and novels for the new "indiano" to read and discuss on their blog. New indianos spend six months on P2P culture – from Sterling and Bey, to Stephenson and Urrutia – and around three months more on cooperative practices.
JR: How do Las Indias cooperatives tie into the physical community?
Our sense of community is indeed very physical on all levels. The inner circle, los indianos, try to work together as much as possible, sharing offices or houses.
The wider community, the aggregation of our families and close friends, is at the center of our concerns. I mean, it is not only the question of time management, the possibility of spending more time with your people than in a “normal job.” The kind of security you build in a model like ours it is not only about yourself, you know that all the common resources will be ready for your family and your people if they will need it.
MB: Where will humanity be in 20 years?
I hope we will see big transnational spaces with freedom of movement and trade, instigated by networks of economic democracies building wider commons accessible to everyone.
I hope we will know a society where capitalism will be marginal but with a market that will not allow rents nor privileges, where the mix of small and ubiquitous tools of production will be furthered by big global repositories of public domain designs as innovative and popular as free software is now.
I hope we will be living in a transitional society in twenty years but it is not historically determined. There are a lot of agents pushing towards recentralization: IP lobbies, big Internet firms, rent seekers, state machinery, financial interests, global mafias, etc. So the possibility of terminal nationalism and statism with its social decomposition is also there.
The choice between a society of freedom, based in an egalitarian market and robust commons, and global decomposition depends of our actions in this decade.
Check out these free books by David de Ugarte, which further articulate his unique vision: