Liberté, Egalité, Virtualité

There was an interesting story in the Herald this week, concerning Greg Drayman, a well-known figure around the SL auto-racing circuit I’m told, who found himself on the wrong end of a permanent banning order earlier this month, as a result of conviction on what seem like trumped-up charges. As one might expect Mr Drayman is not best pleased at this turn of events, especially since the penalty extended to the confiscation of all his virtual land and property, including the popular Kokopelli Raceway Park.

This act of Linden absolutism backs up my theory that social relations in Second Life are essentially feudal in nature, and that the conflicts that arise are analogous to those which drove the transformation of western society in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries, culminating in the triumph of bourgeois liberal democracy. (An excellent overview of this period is provided by E. J. Hobsbawm in The Age of Revolution: Europe, 1789-1848).

What are the demands that must be met before we could be confident that injustices like those inflicted on Mr Drayman could happen no more? What concessions must be wrung from the Lindens to bring the political culture of Second Life into the Nineteenth century, never mind the Twenty-first?

If we take our cue from the liberal revolutionaries of the past we would campaign for basic democratic rights: universal suffrage, civil liberties and the rule of law. The Terms of Service should be replaced by a written Constitution (approved by referendum), a Legislature should be elected to write new laws as necessary, and day-to-day policy should be directed by an elected Executive, all overseen by an independent Judiciary. Some sort of land reform would seem to be essential too. As we have noted before SL land is distributed under a leasehold system; for capitalist social relations to really take hold there would have to be the possibility of owning freehold land.

These rights might seem unobtainable, since it is difficult to see how any leverage could be exerted on Linden Lab as long as they own and control the physical infrastructure of the grid. Any assault on the virtual Bastille could be repulsed by the flick of a switch, and cyber-insurrectionists liquidated just as easily.

There may be a technical solution to this though; it would involve engineering interoperability between the main grid and OpenSims running on non-Linden hardware. The key thing would be to allow SL residents to import into their inventories items created on external systems, preferably without the Lindens being aware of this. (I have no idea if this is feasible; I imagine it would involve hacking into the asset servers in some way.) Political dissidents could reside on democratically constituted OpenSim servers, storing their virtual lives safely beyond the reach of the SL authorities, ready to be transferred to an alt when they needed to visit SL proper. Nobody would need to have a premium account, unless they particularly wanted to lease land on the main grid, though there would be no real reason to do that if land could be bought outright on a non-Linden grid. Merchants could set up in the free zones, attracted by the lower tax rates and superior governance, which would give a them a competitive edge over businesses still paying dues to the Linden empire.

If enough people got on board with this, and if the rebels were able to stay one step ahead of the Lindens’ attempts to secure their borders, the Lab’s revenue from subscription and tier payments would dwindle, to the point where they would be forced to concede to democratic demands, as the ancien régimes of Europe were obliged to cede power to a triumphant bourgeoisie in the Nineteenth century.

Would this be enough to satisfy those of us with more radical aspirations? The situation might be akin to that in Russia after the February Revolution, with Liberals and Mensheviks trusting the bourgeoisie to complete the process of democratic reform, and Bolsheviks arguing that only a dictatorship of the proletariat could truly achieve the goals of the revolution.

It seems clear that a campaign for democratic rights in Second Life is long overdue, and that communists should play a leading part in such a movement (though in organisational terms we would have to maintain a separate identity within the anti-Linden struggle, to ensure we were in a position to oppose the liberal tendency to compromise with counter-revolutionary forces). It would be a big task, but I don’t think that it’s impossible. I have some more detailed thoughts on Party structure, programme, propaganda and tactics, but I’ll save them for another post.

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