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.

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