Archive for January, 2012

Intellectual Property and the Progressive Bourgeoisie

January 18th, 2012  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy

Today is a day of protest against SOPA and PROTECT IP, two proposed pieces of legislation which are being promoted as necessary responses to copyright infringement, and which threaten to impose serious restrictions on Internet communication. Big sites like Wikipedia and Reddit—and small but dear to my heart sites like the Marxists Internet Archive—have gone dark to register their opposition to the legislation. Stopping legislation like this is very important to me, because the continual escalation of intellectual property enforcement is the foundation of the incipient rentier dystopia I’ve explored in much of my previous writing. But since I’m not important enough to make much of an impression by shutting down, I’ll instead provide something topical to read until those sites return.

While SOPA and PROTECT IP aren’t dead, they look significantly less threatening now than they did a couple of months ago. Some of the worst provisions of the bills have been removed or softened in response to organized opposition, and SOPA (the House version of the bill) seems to be dead for the time being. The fight is not over, however, and the current version of the bill still has a lot of disturbing implications. See here for a detailed explanation. One of the worst provisions, for people who care about censorship on the Internet, is one that would allow Internet service providers to block users as long as they can claim to be acting “in good faith” to combat piracy. This is likely to give rise to a situation where risk-averse companies pre-emptively block users in response to the claims of the big copyright owners, even where the claims are baseless. Worse, this provision creates an opening for governments or private actors to censor political expression under the guise of enforcing copyright. It’s not hard to imagine the governments of New York or Oakland issuing bogus takedown notices for images of police brutality against Occupiers; indeed, this isn’t entirely a hypothetical scenario, as Google has already reported receiving precisely this kind of questionable takedown order from a law enforcement agency.

The resistance to SOPA and PROTECT IP has been stronger and more effective than I expected, which is encouraging. And the coalitions that have lined up on each side of the issue cut across the normal partisan divisions in American politics, as explained in this article by Zach Carter and Ryan Grim. But while it’s tempting to read the backlash as an example of grassroots mass movements fighting back the corporate power of the copyright cartels, it’s at least equally important that these bills have exposed a deep division between two factions of big Capital—and forced Leftists and liberals to decide which faction they side with.

In the House, SOPA was introduced by right-wing Republican Lamar Smith, a member of the Tea Party caucus. But among the bill’s cosponsors are a number of liberal Democrats—including John Conyers, Jr., lately a fan of liberals due to his full employment jobs bill. On the other side, an equally motley crew of representatives quickly came out against SOPA and PROTECT-IP, with Democrats like Zoe Lofgren and Anna Eshoo standing alongside Ron Paul and even Michelle Bachman.

It’s tempting to see this as reflecting some kind of libertarian-statist divide that cuts across typical partisan cleavages. But it’s more likely that the surprising coalitions in congress reflect an equally unusual division among the corporate interests that move policy in Washington. A number of big corporations and industry groups have come out strongly against SOPA and PROTECT-IP, including Facebook, Google, and the Consumer Electronics Association. That helps explain why Lofgren—whose district covers an area around San Jose, California—has taken the lead in opposing the bills in congress. And it’s easier to see how Conyers found himself on the same side as the Motion Picture Association of America, Pfizer, and Mastercard, once you know that the legislation has also received support from the AFL-CIO.

The presence of labor union support may tempt some liberals into supporting this legislation (and not for accelerationist reasons). They could nod along to journalist Robert Levine, who calls technology companies “digital parasites” bent on demolishing the economic foundations of media creation. Conyers has promoted the laws, implausibly, by claiming that they will “protect jobs” in creative industries. This is a canny move, since working writers and artists are a sympathetic group when contrasted with big media companies parasitically making money by copying their work. But that’s not really what this fight is about—rather, it’s a struggle between two different fractions of Capital.

The basic divide at work here is between those capitalists that make money by selling access to content, and those that make money by controlling the content distribution networks. For content sellers like the music business, extremely harsh intellectual property laws are desirable because they create the artificial scarcity upon which their whole business model depends. Companies like Facebook and Google, in contrast, still mostly make their money by controlling the platforms on which people distribute various kinds of media, and selling access to their user base to advertisers. For them, looser copyright laws don’t pose a threat to profits, and in fact they facilitate the business model: by increasing the amount of copying and sharing, they increase the popularity of the distribution networks, which in turn makes them more valuable to advertisers.

One of the hallmarks of Marxism (at least my version of it) is that it regards capitalist development not as an unambiguous evil but as a simultaneously progressive and exploitative phenomenon. In the traditional view, capitalism develops the forces of production which are the precondition for socialism, but eventually becomes an impediment to both economic rationality and human well-being. This implies that while the capitalist mode of production is a historically limited form that must ultimately be superseded, there are situations in which capitalism—or some aspect of capitalism—has a progressive aspect that is preferable to those reactionary forces that would prefer to maintain the status quo. Hence it’s worth asking whether things like SOPA/PROTECT-IP amount to “bailouts of dying industries” “at the expense of the future”.

To be sure, trying to pick and choose between progressive and reactionary factions of capital can get you into some squirrelly situations. In the Communist movement—particularly among Maoists—it was once common to distinguish between a reactionary “comprador” bourgeoisie and a progressive “national” bourgeoisie in peripheral countries. While the compradors were dependent on and politically allied with international capital, it was argued, the national bourgeoisie and the working class shared an interest in resisting imperialist control and developing an independent national economy. This analysis was sometimes used to justify Communist support for bourgeois governments on the grounds that they were based on the national bourgeoisie rather than the comprador elite. In practice, this led to some unfortunate political errors, with Communists issuing apologetics for various unappealing regimes in the post-colonial world.

But despite these pitfalls, picking sides between capitalists is sometimes unavoidable if you want to avoid the self-serving and moralistic cop-out of dogmatic third campism. Some might argue that the network capitalists are worse than the more old-fashioned content capitalists. The old media model at least pays some wages to creators, after all. This the vibe I get, for example from Mr. Teacup, whose posts often critique the radical potential of peer-to-peer and open source production from an apparently anti-capitalist direction. This post, for example (which I discussed here), argues that the whole idea of voluntary, non-waged production networks is actually a key part of the ideology of neo-liberalism.

But in the context of the current debate over intellectual property, I would argue it is the capitalists who control the networks and distribution channels—like Google and Facebook—who represent the more progressive segment of the bourgeoisie. Which is not to say that they’re either admirable companies or, in the long run, friends of the Left. It’s certainly true that they are, in one sense, parasites: they profit from the labor and creativity of users who make, remix, upload and share content for free. But their great virtue, in contrast to the pro-intellectual property side, is that they at least accept the existence of a cultural milieu based on sharing and access to knowledge, rather than trying to restrict it by tightly controlling access to information. As the French economist Yann Moulier-Boutang says in a recent interview, Google poses a threat to “the united front maintained by the intellectual property advocates” because “they have built an economic model that meshes with this free-use era.” He goes on to say:

Google represents a huge step forward. It forced the gaps wide open and caused a crisis, or at least an awkward predicament, for those supporting the proprietary system. This is why I believe it is strategically sound to create an alliance with Google to dismantle old, archaic models, even though I feel we simultaneously need to be ready to fight it, because Google’s goal is to make money, and the company could, in any case, be bought out by Chinese pension funds or anyone else at any point, which could easily lead to problems, especially around the issue of privacy, since Google uses personal data.

The idea of an “alliance with Google” might sound fanciful or silly. But in practice, things like the SOPA fight force everyone to be in an alliance with Google or an alliance with the MPAA. This is the sort of thing I think about when I see people making critiques—often sensible ones—of the exploitative social network capitalists, and then going on to suggest that we should actively dismantle emerging commons and systems of peer production—that “rather than advancing the bounds of the beachhead, we should turn back and destroy it—not just the new forms of peer production and social enterprises that are emerging, but the traditional system of charitable giving and volunteering and the ideal subjectivity of sharing, altruism and cooperation that supports both”.

People making this critique may believe that they are staking out a left-wing alternative to a nefarious new form of postmodern capitalism. But this critique strikes me as an un-dialectical, abstract negation of capitalism, which fails to recognize the way a post-capitalist future can, and must, develop out of capitalism. And given the current balance of class forces, I worry that rejections of peer production and the commons mostly serve to shore up the ideological legitimacy of the most reactionary and ossified parts of capitalism—the same elements that make up the vanguard of rentism.

The time has come for us to civilize ourselves

January 16th, 2012  |  Published in Politics, Work

Commenter JKudler alerted me to one of the less well understood aspects of Martin Luther King’s legacy. I knew that MLK had described himself as a democratic socialist, but I didn’t know that he said this:

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Naturally I agree, and I encourage you to read the whole thing, which ends on the note I quoted in the title. It’s something to ponder as you go about marking the occasion of MLK day—or, as Ron Paul calls it, Hate Whitey Day—in whatever way you find appropriate.

More Jacobin Content: Working Time and Feminism

January 12th, 2012  |  Published in Shameless self-promotion, Social Science, Time, Work

With all the writing I do about our encroaching dystopia of artificial scarcity and rentier elites, it’s always slightly embarrassing when my writing is trapped behind a paywall. Fortunately, both of my contributions to the new Jacobin have entered the digital commons, now that my editorial on working time and feminism has been posted online. This web version preserves the print and PDF formatting, so it also shows off the work of our fantastic new designer, Remeike Forbes.

My editorial isn’t particularly radical, especially in contrast to the speculative reveries of my main essay in the issue. But I felt like it was worth taking the time to say that if we’re to talk about reducing working time—something that’s a central political concern of mine—we have to be clear that paid work isn’t the only kind, and that reducing time in waged work can sometimes be in tension with equalizing the gender division of labor.

I do wish, though, that I’d said a little more about the institution of the nuclear family, which functions as a kind of unstated premise of my whole editorial. Just after I wrote it, I read this essay by Jenny Turner on recent feminism, which draws out a great point from Toni Morrison by way of Nina Power:

‘Sometimes the things that look the hardest have the simplest answers,’ Nina Power writes towards the end of her chapbook, One Dimensional Woman. She then hands over to Toni Morrison speaking to Time magazine in 1989. On single-parent households: ‘Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community … The little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for white people or for black people. Why we are hanging onto it I don’t know.’ On ‘unwed teenage pregnancies’: ‘Nature wants it done then, when the body can handle it, not after 40, when the income can … The question is not morality, the question is money. That’s what we’re upset about.’ On how to break the ‘cycle of poverty’, given that ‘you can’t just hand out money’: ‘Why not? Everybody [else] gets everything handed to them … I mean what people take for granted among the middle and upper classes, which is nepotism, the old-boy network. That’s the shared bounty of class.’

What about education? If all these girls spend their teenage years having babies, they won’t be able to become teachers and brain surgeons, not to mention missing out on cheap beer, storecards, halls of residence. To which Morrison, with splendour, rejoins: ‘They can be teachers. They can be brain surgeons. We have to help them become brain surgeons. That’s my job. I want to take them in my arms and say: “Your baby is beautiful and so are you and, honey, you can do it. And when you want to be a brain surgeon, call me – I will take care of your baby.” That’s the attitude you have to have about human life.’

Leaving aside the point about “just handing out money“, which I obviously love, this point about the nuclear family struck me just recently, because I was writing an entry for an academic encyclopedia on the topic of the “24/7 economy”—that is, the fact that 40 percent of employees in the United States don’t work Monday to Friday 9 to 5 jobs, but instead work evenings, nights, weekends, or rotating shifts. Scholars of these “non-standard” work schedules often point out that they tend to make child care logistically difficult, but usually this is posed as a contrast with the “normal” situation of a couple working standard hours. Workers with non-standard hours are much more likely to rely on their relatives for child care, for example; but rather than viewing this the way Morrison does, as an opening onto a more humane and realistic way of organizing care work, it is instead portrayed as a problem and a burden, something which threatens to strain relations between family members.

As long as single and dual parent nuclear families are the norm, it makes sense for the Left to demand policies that at least ease the burden of unpaid work on women, which is what my essay was about. But I’d very much like to reclaim the old socialist-feminist idea that, as Turner puts it, “any politics worth having has to start with the nuclear family: its impossibility, its wastefulness, its historical contingency.” I wouldn’t ultimately be satisfied with reforming the current relations of re-production any more than I just want to humanize the relations of production—the point is to overturn them.

Regulating the Social Network

January 5th, 2012  |  Published in Political Economy

Tom Slee linked this danah boyd post which posits that Facebook is a “social utility”, and hence is likely to end up being regulated like a power company or a cable provider. Slee hopefully predicts that in 2012, “boyd’s view that ‘Facebook is a utility; utilities get regulated’ will become mainstream”.

This would definitely be a step in the right direction, and until recently I would have completely endorsed the sentiment, since I’ve thought this way about big Internet companies for a long time. Even before Facebook, it always seemed to me that Google’s search engine, for example, was an immensely important and valuable social utility, and one that’s too important to be left in the hands of a single private sector company. So my suggestion, only a bit joking, would be that we ought to nationalize Google and Facebook.

But I’ve started to wonder if this is the best way of characterizing what Facebook is, and what it does. Is it a company that delivers a necessary good to its customers, or is it an intermediary that facilitates transactions between its customers? Or to put it another way: is Facebook more like a utility, or is it more like a bank?

The most important distinguishing characteristic of utilities is that they tend to be natural monopolies. Because of the huge capital investment involved in laying down things like power or sewer lines, there are huge barriers to entry for competitors and one company tends to dominate. In order to prevent such utilities from extracting huge rents from their monopoly position, the government either has to heavily regulate them, or else take them over and run them directly.

Facebook doesn’t have the kind of massive physical infrastructure of traditional utilities, but it has another kind of barrier to entry: since a social network is valuable in proportion to how many people you know who are already on it, Facebook’s very size tends to draw in new members and dissuade people from jumping to alternative, smaller networks. As boyd points out in her post, a lot of people feel like they need to be on Facebook for social or professional reasons, even if they dislike the company’s approach to to its users’ data.

But it should already be clear from the above that while Facebook’s position resembles that of the traditional utility monopolist in some ways, it isn’t quite the same. Facebook’s power comes not from controlling a lot of expensive infrastructure, but from the fact that people want to communicate and share with as many of their friends as they can, and they need to be on Facebook to do that. But what if it were possible to connect and share with someone on Facebook without joining Facebook?

To explain what I mean by that, I need a different analogy. Instead of a utility, compare Facebook to a bank. Banks operate as part of a larger national monetary system, in which the government regulates commerce, and the Federal Reserve creates money. The banks are repositories for that money, which they are allowed to take in as deposits and send out as loans. In order for the overall financial system to function, there have to be regulations that ensure that customers at different banks can easily deal with each other. For example, the Uniform Commercial Code specifies that if I write a check to a someone and they deposit it at a different bank, my bank is obligated to transfer the funds. So Citigroup isn’t allowed to say that I can only write checks to other Citigroup customers.

This is where the analogy with Facebook comes in. The “stuff” that flows through Facebook’s network—the shares, connections, messages, etc.—is a sort of currency, less like the electricity that you get from the power company and more like the money that’s exchanged between bank customers. An electric company actually creates electricity, but Facebook doesn’t create its content any more than banks create money. (Yes, I know, banks kind of do create money, just bear with my simplification for a moment.) So the paradigm we need is not necessarily a single regulated or nationalized social network, but a tightly regulated social networking system that allows people to communicate across multiple social network institutions.

Imagine that there was a standard social networking protocol, which specified the general things you want to do on a social network: connect your account to the accounts of other people, post status updates, send private messages, post photos, send event invitations, and so on. Now suppose that you’re on Facebook and I’m on Diaspora*, and you want to friend me. In a regulated social networking system, Facebook would be obligated to accept the connection between my Diaspora account and your Facebook account, and to deliver whatever messages or media I chose to share with you. Since the account wouldn’t be on Facebook’s servers, they wouldn’t necessarily know anything about me, I wouldn’t be subject to their ever-changing privacy settings, and the only information they would have about me would be whatever I chose to share with my Facebook-using friends.

Of course, being able to monitor the flow of sharing between Facebook and non-Facebook users still gives Facebook a lot of marketable data, and still raises privacy concerns. But this isn’t an insurmountable regulatory problem, nor is it that different from what happens in the financial system. Credit card companies collect a lot of personal information about us too, after all, even though people seem less inclined to make a fuss about that than they are to fret about Facebook.

This is all a sort of half-formed thought, and it probably doesn’t work for some reason I haven’t thought of yet. And to turn this back around again, the way retail banking is currently structured may not even work very well for banking, much less as a model for social networking. As Ashwin Parameswaran has argued, there’s a good case for replacing federally-insured private banks with a public bank to take retail deposits, something like the postal banking system. So maybe we’re back to nationalizing Facebook after all. I certainly wouldn’t be sorry to see Mark Zuckerberg expropriated.