Scenes from the Class Struggle in Second Life

Anyone who felt that my suggestion that all property in Second Life should be collectively owned was overly fanciful should perhaps direct their attention towards a couple of recent developments in the area of SL commerce.

First up: the changes to the structure of XStreet listing fees and commission charges. The exact ins and outs of this are detailed elsewhere; the main thing is that the service has become much less friendly for small-scale vendors, and more orientated towards big operations.

Secondly, Pink Linden recently sent out a questionnaire to a sample of SL merchants, canvassing their opinion on various hypothetical developments, including setting up an official Linden-sponsored shopping mall. Again the pricing and commission structure would favour large, established businesses over their smaller or newer competition. (It may be relevant that Pink used to work for eBay, who have also been accused of squeezing small sellers off their platform).

This initially reminded me of the concept of State Monopoly Capitalism. The intricacies of this theory are too complicated to go into here, but it can be roughly summed up as the idea that in the late stages of capitalism the state becomes increasingly identified with the interests of a particular section of capital, specifically the big monopolies, to the detriment not only of the proletariat, but also the smaller capitalist enterprises.

The thesis is not without its problems, though a full discussion of these is beyond the scope of this column, and it has been rather discredited by its association with the Popular Front orientation of Stalinist Communist Parties in post-war Europe. The question of the power of monopoly capital and its relationship with the state is more interesting than ever these days though, and it’s still worth reading Lenin on Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, and Mandel on The Economics of Neo-Capitalism.

To transfer the concept of SMC to Second Life, one would have to see the Lindens as the equivalent of the state, and the big merchants as monopoly capitalists. Are either of these assumptions valid?

To quote Engels, from The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State:

[The state] is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.

A “society … entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself … split into irreconcilable antagonisms” does sound like a description of Second Life, and the Lindens certainly have the coercive powers usually associated with the state, but is it a state in the modern, capitalist, sense of the term? There may seem to be “classes with conflicting economic interests” among the residents of SL, but what is the nature of these classes? To answer these questions we must determine where avatars stand in relation to the means of production, which in turn requires us to decide what form the “means of production” take in a virtual world.

Virtual items may be created in the minds and on the computers of designers, but they only take on a social reality when they become available for exchange, when they are uploaded to the platform. Thus the virtual world itself forms the means of production. Linden Lab owns the world in its entirity, which means that no one else can independently control those means of production, and thus no resident can really be said to be a capitalist, let alone a monopoly capitalist.

Second Life may indeed be the scene of class struggle, but the conflict is not between workers and capital. The social relations that operate are more akin to those pertaining between feudal overlords and their serfs, with the Lindens taking on the role of absolute monarchs, supported by a small group of robber barons. The virtual masses are not proletarians free to sell their labour power to the highest bidder, but peasants obliged to toil for the benefit of their masters.

How can we move on from this obviously unsatisfactory state of affairs, and build a virtual communist society? I have a plan, but I’ll need another post to explain it properly. I might even make it my entry for the Linden Prize

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