anti-Star Trek

We Have Always Been Rentiers

April 22nd, 2013  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Statistics

In my periodic discussions of contemporary capitalism and its potential transition into a rentier-dominated economy, I have emphasized the point that an economy based on private property depends upon the state to define and enforce just what counts as property, and what rights come with owning that property. (The point is perhaps made most directly in this essay for The New Inquiry.) Just as capitalism required that the commons in land be enclosed and transformed into the property of individuals, so what I’ve called “rentism” requires the extension of intellectual property: the right to control the copying and modification of patterns, and not just of physical objects.

But the development of rentism entails not just a change in the laws, but in the way the economy itself is measured and defined. Since capitalism is rooted in the quantitative reduction of human action to the accumulation of money, the way in which it quantifies itself has great economic and political significance. To relate this back to my last post: much was made of the empirical and conceptual worthiness of Reinhart and Rogoff’s link between government debt and economic growth, but all such disputations presume agreement about the measurement of economic growth itself.

Which brings us to the United States Bureau of Economic Analysis, and its surprisingly fascinating “Preview of the 2013 Comprehensive Revision of the National Income and Product Accounts”. The paper describes a change in the way the government represents the size of various parts of the economy, and therefore economic growth. The most significant changes are these:

Recognize expenditures by business, government, and nonprofit institutions serving households (NPISH) on research and development as fixed investment.

Recognize expenditures by business and NPISH on entertainment, literary, and other artistic originals as fixed investment.

The essential issue is whether spending on Research and Development, and on the production of creative works, should be regarded merely as an input to other production processes, or instead as an investment in the creation of a distinct value-bearing asset. The BEA report observes that “expenditures for R&D have long been recognized as having the characteristics of fixed assets—defined ownership rights, long-lasting, and repeated use and benefit in the production process”, and that therefore the BEA “recogniz[es] that the asset boundary should be expanded to include innovative activities.” Likewise, “some entertainment, literary, and other artistic originals are designed to generate mass reproductions for sale to the general public and to have a useful lifespan of more than one year.” Thus the need for “a new asset category entitled ‘intellectual property products’,” which will encompass both types of property.

What the BEA calls “expanding the asset boundary” is precisely the redefinition of the property form that I’ve written about—only now it is a statistical rather than a legal redefinition. And that change in measurement will be written backwards into the past as well as forwards into the future: national accounts going back to 1929 will be revised to account for the newly expansive view of assets.

Here the statisticians are only following a long legal trend, in which the state treats immaterial patterns as a sort of physical asset. It may be a coincidence, but the BEA’s decision to start its revisionist statistical account in the 1920’s matches the point at which U.S. copyright law became fully disconnected from its original emphasis on limited and temporary protections subordinated to social benefits. Under the Copyright Term Extension Act, creative works made in 1923 and afterwards have remained out of the public domain, perpetually maintaining them as private assets rather than public goods.

A careful reading of the BEA report shows the way in which the very statistical definitions employed in the new accounts rely upon the prior efforts of the state to promote the profitability of the intellectual property form. In its discussion of creative works, the report notes that “entertainment originals are rarely sold in an open market, so it is difficult to observe market prices . . . a common problem with measuring the value of intangible assets.” As libertarian critics like to point out, an economy based on intellectual property must be organized around monopoly rather than direct competition.

In order to measure the value of intangible assets, therefore, the BEA takes a different approach. For R&D, “BEA analyzed the relationship between investment in R&D and future profits . . . in which each period’s R&D investment contributes to the profits in later periods.” Likewise for creative works, BEA will “estimate the value of these as­sets based on the NPV [Net Present Value] of expected future royalties or other revenue obtained from these assets”.

Here we see the reciprocal operation of state power and statistical measurement. Insofar as the state collaborates with copyright holders to stamp out unauthorized copying (“piracy”), and insofar as the courts uphold stringent patent rights, the potential revenue stream that can be derived from owning IP will grow. And now that the system of national accounts has validated such revenues as a part of the value of intangible assets, the copyright and patent cartels can justly claim to be important contributors to the growth of the Gross Domestic Product.

The BEA also has interesting things to say about how their new definitions will impact different components of the overall national accounts aggregate. They note that the categories of “corporate profits” and “proprietors’ income” will increase—an accounting convention perhaps, but one that accurately reflects the constituencies that stand to benefit from the control of intellectual property. Thus the new economic order being mapped by the BEA fits in neatly with Steve Waldman’s excellent recent post about late capitalism’s “technologically-driven resource curse, coalescing into groups of insiders and outsiders and people fighting at the margins not to be left behind.”

The changes related to R&D and artistic works may be the most significant, but the other three revisions in the report are worth noting as well. One has to do with the costs associated with transferring residential fixed assets (e.g., the closing costs related to buying a house), while another has to do with the accounting applied to pension plans. Only the final one, a technical harmonization, has to do directly with wages and salaries. This is perhaps an accurate reflection of an economic elite more preoccupied with asset values than with the direct returns to wage labor.

Finally, the reception of the BEA report provides another “peril of wonkery”, related to the one I described in my last post. The Wonkblog post about the report makes some effort to acknowledge the socially constructed nature of economic statistics: “the assumptions you make in creating your benchmark economic statistics can create big swings in the reality you see.” And yet the post then moves directly on to claim that in light of the statistical revisions, “the U.S. economy is even more heavily driven by the iPad designers and George Lucases of the world—and proportionally less by the guys who assemble washing machines—than we thought.” This is no doubt how the matter will be described going forward. But the new measurement strategies are only manifestations of a choice to attribute a greater share of our material wealth to designers and directors, and that choice has more to do with class struggle than with statistics.

Robots and Liberalism

December 12th, 2012  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Politics, Socialism, Time, Work

People know my beat by now, so everyone has been directing my attention to Paul Krugman’s recent musings on the pace of automation in the economy. He moves away from his earlier preoccupation with worker skills, and toward the possibility of “‘capital-biased technological change’, which tends to shift the distribution of income away from workers to the owners of capital.” He goes on to present data showing the secular decline in labor’s share of income since the 1970’s.

He then notes that his position “has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism”, but reassures us that this uncomfortable realization “shouldn’t be a reason to ignore facts”. The implication of those facts, he says, are that neither the liberal nor conservative common sense has anything to say about our current predicament: “Better education won’t do much to reduce inequality if the big rewards simply go to those with the most assets. Creating an “opportunity society” . . . won’t do much if the most important asset you can have in life is, well, lots of assets inherited from your parents.”

Meanwhile we have Kevin Drum despairing that the coming decades will be “mighty grim”, as automation means that “the owners of capital will automate more and more, putting more and more people out of work”. And we have the Financial Times publishing Izabella Kaminska arguing that “we’ve now arrived at a point where technology begins to threaten return on capital, mostly by causing the sort of abundance that depresses prices to the point where many goods have no choice but to become free.” This, of course, leads to attempts to impose artificial scarcity through new forms of property rights (with dire consequences for growth and prosperity), but I’ve written all about that elsewhere.

What I mainly find interesting is what all this interest in technology and jobless growth says about the limits of contemporary liberalism. We can all hope that Gavin Mueller’s reverie of Paul Krugman dropping LSD and becoming a Marxist will come to pass, but in the meantime his type seems to have no real answer. Nor do those of a more labor-liberal bent, like Dan Crawford at Angry Bear, who laments being called a neo-luddite and scornfully says: “As if widespread use of automated systems was automatically good for us overall”. As if a world in which we hold back technical change in order to keep everyone locked into deadening jobs is a vision that will rally the masses to liberalism.

In its more sophisticated form, this kind of politics takes the form of Ed Miliband’s “predistribution”, which Richard Seymour glosses as a belief that “rather than taxing the rich to fund welfare, the government should focus on making work pay more.” But if the structure of the modern economy is, as Krugman argues, one which depends on increasing numbers of robots and diminishing numbers of people, this project is bound to be either ineffectual or pointlessly destructive of our potential social wealth. The idea that there is something inherently superior, either politically or morally, about raising pre-tax and transfer incomes, rather than doing redistribution, is one that has never seemed to me to be especially well grounded. At times I suspect that it stems from an uncritical embrace of the historically specific white populist identity politics of the working class, and its accompanying fetish for the point of production, that I talk about here.

Not to say I have all the answers either, but here on the crazy Left we at least have some ideas. Ideas that don’t presuppose the desirability of keeping the assembly line of employment going at all costs, pumping out something that we can call “middle class jobs”. Ideas that get back to crazy notions like working time reduction and the decommodification of labor. These days, the unrealistic utopians are the nostalgics for the Fordist compromise, who see the factory worker with a high school diploma and a middle class income as the apex of human emancipation. But as Lenin said, “One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself”.

The Disposition Matrix

October 24th, 2012  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Politics

“The Disposition Matrix” sounds like a dystopian science fiction novel. And indeed it is, but unfortunately it’s being written by the American counter-terrorism bureaucracy, and rolled out as the blueprint for a future of state-sanctioned death squads.

The Washington Post prints a riveting chapter of this story, a sequel to Obama’s notorious “kill list”. We discover the existence of a “next generation targeting list” (the aforementioned matrix), a spreadsheet of doom which will be used to keep track of all the undesirables now targeted for elimination by the CIA.

The story expertly combines bureaucratic tedium with horrific violence, and it is full of bizarre and terrifying lines. “The database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the ‘disposition’ of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.” Drone assasination is now the first resort of the state.

“‘We can’t possibly kill everyone who wants to harm us,’ a senior administration official said. ‘It’s a necessary part of what we do.'” Killing is ineffectual, which is why killing must remain our business forever. “Mitt Romney made it clear that he would continue the drone campaign. ‘We can’t kill our way out of this,’ he said, but added later that Obama was ‘right to up the usage’ of drone strikes and that he would do the same.” We can’t kill our way out of this, so we must keep killing. You must go on. You can’t go on. You’ll go on.

“‘We had a disposition problem,’ said a former U.S. counterterrorism official involved in developing the matrix.” The problem was that there remained some people that the U.S. government was unable to kill.

Once, a man was captured off the coast of Yemen. “‘Warsame was a classic case of “What are we going to do with him?” ‘ the former counterterrorism official said. In such cases, the matrix lays out plans.” Perhaps we require “camps . . . used for ‘suspects’ whose offenses could not be proved and who could not be sentenced by ordinary process of law.”

“The proposal, which would need White House approval, reflects the [CIA]’s transformation into a paramilitary force, and makes clear that it does not intend to dismantle its drone program and return to its pre-Sept. 11 focus on gathering intelligence.” This will be very different from the Tonton Macoutes. There will be no rustic straw hats and denim shirts this time.

“The matrix was developed by the NCTC, under former director Michael Leiter, to augment those organizations’ separate but overlapping kill lists, officials said.” This is typical of the bloated, inefficient government bureaucracy. One day they’ll think to outsource the machinery of death entirely.

“‘The problem with the drone is it’s like your lawn mower,’ said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and Obama counterterrorism adviser. ‘You’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back.'” You kill them and kill them, but they just keep growing back. After a time, “Targeted killing is now so routine that the Obama administration has spent much of the past year codifying and streamlining the processes that sustain it.”

“The approach also applies to the development of criteria for ‘signature strikes,’ which allow the CIA and JSOC to hit targets based on patterns of activity . . . even when the identities of those who would be killed is unclear.” Like Google’s search algorithm, the characteristics that will make you deserving of government assasination are obscure.

“For an administration that is the first to embrace targeted killing on a wide scale, officials seem confident that they have devised an approach that is so bureaucratically, legally and morally sound that future administrations will follow suit.” Barack Obama truly deserved his Nobel peace prize after all; he inaugurated the most moral campaign of wide scale killing in history.

“The number of targets on the lists isn’t fixed, officials said, but fluctuates based on adjustments to criteria. Officials defended the arrangement even while acknowledging an erosion in the caliber of operatives placed in the drones’ cross hairs.” Targeted killing used to be glamorous and sophisticated, but these days it’s a bore. All the good targets are already dead.

“A senior aide to Panetta disputed this account, and said Panetta mentioned the shrinking target list during his trip to Islamabad but didn’t raise the prospect that drone strikes would end. Two former U.S. officials said the White House told Panetta to avoid even hinting at commitments the United States was not prepared to keep.” If we stop the killing, the terrorists will have won. If we say that we will stop the killing in the future, the terrorists will have won. If we hint that we might commit to stopping the killing in the future, the terrorists will have won.

It comes back, as it always does for me, to “Four Futures”. The fourth chapter of that essay is titled “Exterminism”, and it suggests the following:

Many of the rich . . . have resigned themselves to barricading themselves into their fortresses, to be protected by unmanned drones and private military contractors. Guard labor . . . reappears in an even more malevolent form, as a lucky few are employed as enforcers and protectors for the rich.

But this too, is an unstable equilibrium, for the same basic reason that buying off the masses is. So long as the immiserated hordes exist, there is the danger that it may one day become impossible to hold them at bay. Once mass labor has been rendered superfluous, a final solution lurks: the genocidal war of the rich against the poor.

Until now, we have relied on the prison system to warehouse the unemployed and unemployable, but there just seem to be more and more of them. How long until someone like Pete Peterson demands, in the name of fiscal responsibility, that we begin liquidating these stocks of unproductive bodies?

Fortunately, the disposition matrix has nothing to do with such fears. The targets of the lists are not surplus labor, after all, we are merely terrorists.

The 3-D Printed Future and its Enemies

October 9th, 2012  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy

@makerbot store

Lately, it seems like everyone is talking about 3-D printers. Until recently, these devices have been seen either as novelties or as expensive pieces of equipment suited only for industrial use. Now, however, they are quickly becoming affordable to individuals, and capable of producing a wider range of practical items. Just as the computer became a vector for pervasive file-sharing as soon as cheap PCs and internet connections were widespread, we may soon find ourselves living in a world where cheap 3-D printers allow the dissemination of designs for physical objects through the Internet.

The line between science fiction and reality is moving rapidly. Scroll through these links at BoingBoing and you’ll see 3-D printers churning out everything from guitars to dolls to keys to a prosthetic beak for a bald eagle.

Ensconced in the home, the 3-D printer is a step toward the replicator: a machine that can instantly produce any object with no input of human labor. Technologies like this are central to the vision of a post-scarcity society that I outlined in “Four Futures”. It’s a future that could be glorious or terrible, depending on the outcome of the coming political struggles over the adoption of these new technologies. As the title of a report from Public Knowledge puts it, “It will be awesome if they don’t screw it up.”

Battles over 3-D printing will be fought on two fronts, and two mechanisms of power are likely to be mobilized by the rentier elites who are threatened by these technologies: intellectual property law and the war on terror.

I wrote earlier this year (at Jacobin, the New Inquiry, and Al Jazeera), about the fight over laws like the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have given the state broad and ambiguous powers to monitor and persecute alleged copyright infringers. The intellectual property lobby is currently in retreat on this front, but the general problem of intellectual property stifling progress has not abated. Aaron Swartz, who was the victim of one of the more ludicrous recent piracy busts, is still facing multiple felony counts. Apple and Google, meanwhile, now spend more money on patent purchases and lawsuits than they do on research and development. And the next front in the war over IP is likely to center on 3-D printing.

Like the computer, the 3-D printer is a tool that can rapidly dis-intermediate a production process. Computers allowed people to turn a downloaded digital file into music or movies playing in their home, without the intermediary steps of manufacturing CDs or DVDs and distributing them to record stores. Likewise, a 3-D printer could allow you to turn a digital blueprint (such as a CAD file) into an object, without the intermediate step of manufacturing the object in a factory and shipping it to a store or warehouse. While 3-D printers aren’t going to suddenly make all of large-scale industrial capitalism obsolete, they will surely have some very disruptive effects.

The people who were affected by the previous stage of the file-sharing explosion were cultural producers (like musicians) who create new works, and the middlemen (like record companies) who made money selling physical copies of those works. These two groups have interests that are aligned at first, but are ultimately quite different. Creators find their traditional sources of income undermined, and thus face the choice of allying with the middlemen to shore up the existing regime, or else attempting to forge alternative ways of paying the people who create culture and information. But while the creators remain necessary, a lot of the middlemen are being made functionally obsolete. Their only hope is to maintain artificial monopolies through the draconian enforcement of intellectual property, and to win public support by presenting themselves as the defenders of deserving artists and creators.

This same dynamic will arise with 3D printing. Now, however, it is industrial designers who will be cast into the role of the artists and writers, while certain industrial manufacturers will be threatened with death by dis-intermediation. Designers will still be needed to create the patterns that are then fed into 3D printers, while the factories will be superfluous. Imagine a world in which you could download the blueprints for an iPhone 5, and print one out at home. Suddenly, Foxconn and the Apple Store are out of the picture—the only indispensable part of the Apple infrastructure is industrial designers like Jonny Ive, who are responsible for the putting together the sleek and attractive design of the device. The Public Knowledge report cited above predicts that “as 3D printing makes it possible to recreate physical objects, manufacturers and designers of such objects will increasingly demand ‘copyright’ protection for their functional objects.”

In the last issue of Jacobin, Colin McSwiggen admonished designers to pay attention to the fact that they “make alienated labor possible”. The idea of “design” as separate from production is tied to the rise of large scale capitalist manufacturing, when skilled craftspeople were replaced with factory workers repetitively churning out copies from an original pattern. But the order McSwiggen critiques is one which will be undermined by the dissemination of micro-fabrication technology.

3-D printing isn’t going to restore the old craft order, in which design and production are united in a single individual or workshop. What it will do instead is make some designers more like musicians, struggling to figure out how to react to consumers who are trading, remixing, and printing their creations all over the place. At the same time, it will blur the line between creation, production, and consumption, as amateurs delve into creating and repurposing design. Like musicians, professional designers will have to decide whether to scold their customers and join industrial interests in fighting for strong copyright protections on designs, or whether to look for new ways of getting paid and new ways of connecting with their fans.

The dark side of being able to print any physical object is that other people can print any physical object. It’s all well and good when people are just making clothes or auto parts, but recently there have been stories about more unsettling possibilities, like 3-D printed guns. The first of these was ultimately over-hyped, but did show that the day was at least approaching when home-printed firearms would be a reality. Then, there came a story about a 3-D printer company revoking its lease and demanding its device back after it got wind of a collective that intended to make and test a 3-D printed weapon.

This story is significant because it indicates a line of attack that will be used to restrict access to 3-D printing technologies in general. I have no particular love for the gun-enthusiast crowd. Those leftists who think access to guns is somehow useful to revolutionaries are living in the past and underestimate the physical power of the modern state, and having your own gun is more likely to lead to you getting shot with it than anything else. But guns, and other dangerous objects, will surely be used as the pretext for a much wider crackdown on the free circulation of designs and 3-D printing technology.

When the copyright cartels were still only trying to control the circulation of immaterial goods like music and software, they faced the problem that it was hard to convince people that file sharing was really hurting anyone. Notwithstanding a few lame attempts to link piracy to terrorism, the best they could do was point to the potential loss of income for some artists, and the possibility that there would be less creative work at some point in the future. These same arguments will no doubt be rolled out again, but they will be much more powerful when linked to fearmongering about DIY-printed machine guns and anthrax.

This is where the intensification of the surveillance state, throughout the Bush and Obama administrations and under the rubric of the “war on terror”, becomes important. The post-9/11 security state has gradually rendered itself permanent and disconnected itself from its original justification. We will be told that our purchases and downloads must all be monitored in order to prevent evildoers from printing arsenals in their living rooms, and it will just so happen that this same authoritarian apparatus will be used to enforce copyright claims as well. Meanwhile, the military will of course proceed to use the new technologies to facilitate their pointless wars. Readers who are interested in a preview of this dystopia of outlaw fabricators trying to outrun the police are referred to Charles Stross’s novel, Rule 34.

There really are dangers in the strange new world of 3-D printing. I’m as uneasy as anyone would be about unbalanced loners printing anthrax in their bedrooms. But we have seen all too well that the repressive state apparatus that promises to keep us safe from terror mostly manages to roll up a bunch of inept patsies while remaining unable or unwilling to stop a deranged massacre from going down now and then.

Terrorism, like drugs before it, is only a pretext for ratcheting up a repressive apparatus that will be used for other purposes. Today, we are familiar with the statistics showing that terrorism has killed 32 Americans per year since 9/11, while gun violence has killed 30,000. Soon enough we will be able to add 3-D printers to the list of phantom menaces that are trotted out to justify wiretaps, raids, and indefinite detentions.

William Gibson famously said that the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. In the future, expect the copyright cartels and the national security state to team up to bring you a new announcement: the future is here, but you’re not allowed to have it.

Manufacturing Stupidity

April 17th, 2012  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Work

I don’t usually write about education. I don’t have any special expertise or knowledge about it, and anyway, fellow Jacobin writers Andrew Hartman and Megan Erickson are on the case. But this story (via Slashdot) touches on some of my more typical themes.

The linked post is written by Rob Krampf, a science educator in Florida who found some serious problems when he was trying to develop practice materials for fifth grade students preparing for the state’s mandatory science test, the FCAT. This is one of those so-called “high stakes tests” which are the idol of the education reform movement and the bane of left-wing education critics, because they are used to dole out financial incentives or penalties to schools. But the trouble with these tests goes beyond the standard criticism of testing-focused education. In the test questions Krampf received from the state, many of the “wrong” answers turned out to be just as correct as the supposedly “right” ones. This led to an exchange with state authorities that should be read in its entirety, for the dark comedy if nothing else. Here, however, is a representative sample from the FCAT:

This sample question offers the following observations, and asks which is scientifically testable.

  1. The petals of red roses are softer than the petals of yellow roses.
  2. The song of a mockingbird is prettier than the song of a cardinal.
  3. Orange blossoms give off a sweeter smell than gardenia flowers.
  4. Sunflowers with larger petals attract more bees than sunflowers with smaller petals.

The document indicates that 4 is the correct answer, but answers 1 and 3 are also scientifically testable.

For answer 1, the Sunshine State Standards list texture as a scientifically testable property in the third grade (SC.3.P.8.3), fourth grade (SC.4.P.8.1), and fifth grade (SC.5.P.8.1), so even the State Standards say it is a scientifically correct answer.

For answer 3, smell is a matter of chemistry. Give a decent chemist the chemical makeup of the scent of two different flowers, and she will be able to tell you which smells sweeter without ever smelling them.

While this question has three correct answers, any student that answered 1 or 3 would be graded as getting the question wrong. Why use scientifically correct “wrong” answers instead of using responses that were actually incorrect? Surely someone on the Content Advisory Committee knew enough science to spot this problem.

I’d just add that you could probably find scientists who’d call 2 a right answer as well (survey a random sample of listeners about the prettiness of birdsongs, and voila…) This would be embarrassing enough if it were merely a sloppy oversight. But when he asked for an explanation of this bad question, Krampf received the following justification:

Christopher Harvey, the Mathematics and Science Coordinator at the Test Development Center told me:

“we need to keep in mind what level of understanding 5th graders are expected to know according to the benchmarks. We cannot assume they would receive instruction beyond what the benchmark states. Regarding #1 – While I don’t disagree with your science, the benchmarks do not address the hardness or softness of rose petals. We cannot assume that a student who receives instruction on hardness of minerals would make the connection to other materials. The Content Advisory committee felt that students would know what flowers were and would view this statement as subjective. Similarly with option 3, students are not going to know what a gas chromatograph is or how it works. How a gas chromatograph works is far beyond a 5th grade understanding and is not covered by the benchmarks. As you stated most Science Supervisors felt that student would not know this property was scientifically testable. The Content Advisory Committee also felt that 5th graders would view this statement as subjective. We cannot assume that student saw a TV show or read an article.”

Here we have the ideology of testing reduced to its fatuous essence. The ritual memorization and regurgitation of a decreed list of “facts” is the paramount value, superseding all other goals of education. We simply “cannot assume” that a student might “receive instruction beyond what the benchmark states”, that they could “make the connection to other materials”, or that they “saw a TV show or read an article.” Not only does the FCAT not assume these things, it actively penalizes them. The test is not merely indifferent but actually hostile to any understanding or learning that happens outside the parameters of the testing regime.

Krampf’s commenters continue to pile on; a reading teacher reports tests full of “bad grammar, incorrect spellings, and questions that simply made no sense”. You might ask what sort of system could produce the kind of pathological rationalization for these errors that I quoted above. Another commenter refers to “a culture of bureaucratic ass-coverage”, which lends credence to David Graeber’s claim, which I discussed the other day, that much of the apparatus of late capitalism has degenerated into a sclerotic order dominated by “political, administrative, and marketing imperatives”.

A slightly different question, though, is what sort of society can tolerate this kind of dysfunctional education system? I’m not a rigorous structural functionalist—that is, I don’t think every social phenomenon can be explained in terms of the role it plays in optimally reproducing the social order. But I’m enough of one to think that as a rule, the behaviors that are encouraged by a society are those that are useful to it, or at least not actively hostile to it. Capitalism is unusually hospitable to sociopathy, for example, because the sociopath approaches the ideal-typical personification of capital itself. Conversely, capitalism is an unfriendly place for those of us who tend to prefer time over money, because this is in tension with capital’s need for ceaseless expansion.

One might think that capitalism requires workers who know how to do and make things, and that therefore our elites would not complacently accept the emergence of Florida’s regime of enforced stupidity through testing. There is a narrative of cultural decline to this effect, still available in both liberal and conservative packaging. According to this lament, America neglects the proper education of its populace at its peril, as we allow ourselves to be eclipsed and out-competed by better-educated, more ambitious hordes from abroad. This is a reassuring argument, in a way, because it presumes broad agreement about the purpose of education: to produce a society full of practically skilled workers, capable of at least enough critical thought to do their jobs.

Critique from the left tends to spend its time condemning models of education that are narrowly focused on the instrumental task of creating a new generation of obedient and productive workers. Megan Erickson’s essay, for instance, worries that under the influence of self-styled reformers, “social studies and music classes are commonly replaced by . . . glorified vocational training”. But a farce like the Florida science exams fails even at this narrow task. A population raised to take the FCAT will be ill-prepared to be either engaged citizens or productive workers. Can the ruling class really be so inept, so incapable of producing the proletariat it requires?

An alternative explanation is the one I’ve explored in my writings on the disappearance of human labor from production—most notably, in “Four Futures”. My analysis of the political economy (recently summarized and seconded by Matt Yglesias) is that we are experiencing a slow transition from a capitalist order in which accumulation is based on the exploitation of labor, into a “rentist” order based on rents accruing to land or intellectual property. Such a society is not, in my view, functionally compatible with the ideals of broadly-distributed critical thinking or practical work skills.

In a rentist order, an increasing percentage of the population becomes superfluous as labor—but they are still necessary as consumers. For reasons of ideological legitimacy and political control, the fiction that everyone must “work” is maintained, but work itself must increasingly be pointless make-work. What kind of populace is suited to this habit of passive consumption and workday drudgery? One that accepts nonsensical and arbitrary rules—whether they are the rules of endless work or endless consumption. Students who learn to answer the questions the testing bureaucracy wants answered, irrespective of their relationship to scientific knowledge or logic, will be well trained to live in this world.

Krampf’s description of the Florida science testing dystopia is a grim vindication of something I wrote in an old post about the Mike Judge movie Idiocracy. I think of that post as kind of a lost chapter in my “rentism” series—I wrote it just after “Anti-Star Trek” and intended it as a follow-up, but it’s been read by orders of magnitude fewer people. I hope you’ll go read that post, but my general critique was that Judge portrayed stupidity as being inherent and genetic, even though the logic of his own movie suggested that stupidity is socially produced.

And mindless, bureaucratized testing is exactly the sort of system fit to produce the citizens of our future idiocracy. The mentality required to correctly answer the questions on the FCAT is a mentality suited to a world of pervasive marketing and advertising, in which reality is reduced to a postmodern nominalism of disconnected slogans. The students who unthinkingly repeat the assertion that smell and texture are not scientifically testable will grow up to confidently inform you that they water their crops with Brawndo—it’s got electrolytes, after all, they’re what plants crave!

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 Peer-to-Peer Future

December 22nd, 2011  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

Now that the new Jacobin is live, I can point out the essay I’ve been teasing for a while in my posts. It builds on the thought experiment I carried out in my “Anti-Star Trek” post, in which I imagined a fully automated economy where class and profit was based entirely on intellectual property. In the new piece, that hypothetical is just one of four possible futures—two egalitarian utopias and two class-divided dystopias. It’s an attempt to think more systematically about the interaction between automation, ecological and resource limits, and class, and it’s available to read online.

A side issue in the essay, as well as a number of my blog posts, is that I often gesture at things like open source software and other kinds of peer-to-peer (P2P) production, as prefigurations of what labor might look like when freed from its oppressive form as capitalist wage labor. But there are others on the left who see P2P as a negative development, or at least one without much liberatory potential. Take the anonymous Mr. Teacup, whose archives I’ve recently been reading through with great interest. He (I’ll use that pronoun since the alias is male whether or not the blogger is) recently put up a two-part post on “The Peer-Production Illusion”.

The first post argues that “in practice, the open source software movement is compatible with and influenced by capitalism”, which “casts doubt on overly optimistic claims that peer production is intrinsically anti-capitalist.” Teacup shows that much of what looks like voluntary non-waged peer production really isn’t, because most of the work is done by employees of private firms which pay them to work on open source projects. He compares things like the Apache web server software to physical infrastructure: just as capitalists pay taxes that go to build things like roads and sewer systems through the medium of the state, so too firms will collectively fund the development of software that they all use, but from which none of them derives a comparative advantage.

I find little here to disagree with—clearly, P2P isn’t inherently anti-capitalist, and the analogy with physical infrastructure is an astute one. But the second post in the series goes on to to criticize a slightly different view:

The establishment of gift economies, even if they grow profits right now, might contain the seeds of eliminating capitalist production altogether. I’m going to call this the Beachhead Hypothesis: in the vast territory controlled by capitalism, P2P creates autonomous spaces free from exploitative wage labor that can be expanded to encroach further on enemy territory.

I disagree with this hypothesis because I don’t think we took this territory, I think it was created by capitalism.

I believe something quite close to the “Beachhead Hypothesis”, even though I also agree that the P2P space was in many ways created by capitalism. I don’t think this is a contradiction: capitalist relations first arose within a feudal context, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t ultimately point beyond feudalism. The crucial point is that the same set of relations can have a very different meaning depending on the larger social context in which it’s embedded.

While the first “Peer Production Illusion” post argued that much apparently P2P labor was really just capitalist wage labor organized at a supra-firm level, the second post employs a very different line of argument against the Beachhead Hypothesis. Teacup claims that even where “real” peer-production is done by people who aren’t paid for it, it still isn’t promising or liberating. Rather, peer production is actually an integral part of the ideology and practice of neoliberalism, which is built on a “civil society” in which unpaid acts become a source of private profits. Just as the ethic of charity can obscure the need to change structural inequalities, “the altruism of individuals participating in P2P gift economies obscures their role as free labor for capitalism.”

The implication here is that anyone who embraces the P2P ethic is kind of a sap, tricked into doing free labor for the man when they should be demanding a wage for it. Which in a way is true, because the problem with P2P as it exists now is that it is embedded in a society that’s still organized around wage labor. Everyone is still expected to support themselves by working for pay, but capitalists who profit from the work of the P2P economy are evading the fundamental bargain between capital and labor: I, the worker, will do work from which I am alienated and from which someone else profits, and in return you, the capitalist, must pay me a wage.

One response to this is to denounce P2P and other forms of free labor, in an attempt to shore up the wage. This is the direction in which Mr. Teacup seems to tilt. But another answer to this untenable situation is that the problem is not with P2P but with the institution of wage labor itself. If we are all, more and more, producing economic value even when we aren’t at work, this strengthens the case for a “social wage” paid to everyone—i.e., something like my perpetual hobbyhorse, the Unconditional Basic Income. This, indeed, is the direction that post-Autonomists like Hardt and Negri ultimately went. Another way to put this is that the rich need to pay a tax in order to support a piece of social infrastructure that they depend upon: the P2P economy.

But you obviously can’t take that position if you think P2P production is an inseparable part of a neoliberal capitalism that’s even worse than the order that preceded it. The alternative that remains is basically to go back to mid-20th Century social democracy, and to try to restore a real, pure capitalism in which all value-creating labor is rewarded with a wage (although as David Graeber points out, actually-existing capitalism has always depended on lots of labor that doesn’t fit the archetype of contractual wage labor).

A better strategy, I think, would be to learn from those moments when the working class responded to new forms of exploitation not by shoring up the old status quo, but by making a counter-move that advanced the economy forward to yet another new stage. When industrialization threatened traditional craft skills, one response of the labor movement was a craft unionism that tried to preserve the privileges of a small subset of skilled workers. But it was the more radical industrial unions that ultimately helped make possible the social democratic compromise that neoliberalism later undermined—a compromise based on accepting certain kinds of productivity-enhancing, deskilling technological changes in return for a share of the resulting rise in output. Just as craft unions were inadequate to an industrial age, the logic of class struggle in the factory is unlikely to be adequate to a post-industrial context. The question then, isn’t whether P2P is or isn’t capitalist, but whether we can get its capitalist integument to burst asunder.

Copying, Stealing, and the Moral Economy of Knowledge

September 6th, 2011  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy

There’s a perpetual argument, among people who care about intellectual property law, about whether unauthorized copying (downloading mp3s, say) is properly called “stealing”, and whether it’s morally equivalent to taking a physical object from someone. There are powerful forces that want to draw an equality between copying and stealing, as we recently saw in comical style in the Aaron Swartz case. The contending positions in this debate reflect fundamental differences of opinion about how we should view the circulation of immaterial goods like musical recordings or software; I want to draw out some of these differences by contrasting three recent posts from three different authors on the copying-versus-stealing issue.

Matt Yglesias recapitulates the standard argument of intellectual property critics, which is the one I’ve always been most sympathetic to: copying and stealing are totally different things. This position turns on the distinction between what economists call “rivalrous” and “non-rivalrous” goods. A good is rivalrous if you can’t give one person access to the good without reducing someone else’s access to it. If I walk into a store and take a pair of shoes, for example, then I have more shoes than I had before, but the store has less shoes. With non-rivalrous goods, on the other hand, you can expand access without reducing anyone’s ability to enjoy the good. So if I copy an mp3 file, then I have one more mp3 than I had before, but nobody else has less mp3s. The upshot of this argument is that it doesn’t make sense to restrict the distribution of non-rivalrous goods unless such restrictions are necessary to encourage people to create the non-rivalrous goods in the first place. That latter rationale is the one written into the part of the constitution that permits copyrights, but IP critics today hold that copyright has expanded far beyond this original purpose.

Yglesias was responding to a post from Gavin Mueller, which stakes out the position that copying and physical stealing are basically the same. But rather than take the IP lobby position that copying is stealing, Mueller basically argues that stealing isn’t really stealing either, because things like mass-produced shoes aren’t scarce in the way the theory of rivalrous goods requires. I have some problems with Mueller’s argument, so let me reconstruct it in a form that I think is more defensible.

In a capitalist economy, manufactured commodities aren’t “scarce” in the narrow sense. That is, the quantity of shoes in the world isn’t fixed. There are factories around the world that could ramp up production of shoes if they wanted to, especially in a recessionary period like this one. What constrains the supply of shoes at the margin is the lack of demand for them. But if some people go and steal some shoes from a store, then the owner will have to order more shoes sooner than she otherwise would have, and as a result there will be more shoes in the world than there would have been otherwise. As long as the amount of shoplifting is small relative to the amount of shoes that are sold, the result will not be to put the shop out of business; rather the loss will be absorbed through some combination of reduced profits or higher prices for paying customers.

You could therefore make the argument that a certain amount of shoplifting is welfare-improving for society as a whole, particularly if the owners and paying customers are richer than the shoplifters, and thus able to afford absorbing the cost of the shoplifted loot. Moreover, shoplifting is good Keynesian stimulus! The problem, of course, is that it’s heinously unfair to decide who gets free shoes on the basis of who’s crafty and daring enough to be a good shoplifter–but that’s a different kind of argument, a moral argument, and I’ll get to that below.

For the third position in this debate, we have Kevin Drum, who also takes the position that copying and stealing aren’t so different–but he touches down close to the IP lobby position that copying is like physical stealing, and both are always wrong. Drum bases his argument on the monetary cost of copying or stealing. If you steal shoes from someone, you’ve deprived them of the retail price of the shoes (or perhaps somewhat less than that if the shoes were bought on discount, old and worn, etc.) Likewise, if you copy somebody’s album, then “his loss is the royalty payment he won’t get on the album you didn’t buy.”

The problem with this line of argument is that Drum has redefined “stealing” in a way that makes it almost infinitely expansive: whether you steal a person’s shoes or copy their album, he says, “in both cases, you’re causing [them] to take a financial loss.” But the right not to take a financial loss is not a right that capitalist societies have traditionally recognized–indeed, the notion that property owners should be guaranteed a revenue stream from their property is a rentier logic. It’s a bogus argument when it’s made by German banks demanding full payment on their crappy loans, and it’s equally bogus in this context.

By the “financial loss” criterion, all kinds of things that we think of as legitimate constitute “stealing”. If I badmouth a bad auto mechanic on the Internet and reduce his business, I’m “stealing” his reputation. If Apple introduces a really popular new iPhone that causes people to switch from Android, it’s “stealing” Android’s market share. Drum recognizes this and admits that “there are lots of ways of causing people to take a financial loss, and not all of them come under the rubric of stealing.” But he doesn’t make a real case for why copying is more like shoplifting than it is like posting negative Yelp reviews. Instead, he blows off the whole argument by saying that “it mostly seems to be a way of avoiding the very real fact that you’ve caused someone a financial loss by appropriating something you haven’t paid for.” But this just begs the question: the whole issue under debate is about what it’s legitimate to make people pay for.

My take on all of this is that these issues can’t be resolved by appeals to economics or financial damage. This argument is really about two conflicting sets of values about how culture and knowledge should be treated, or two different “moral economies”. The term “moral economy”, as used by historians, refers to the beliefs people hold in common about what constitutes legitimate and proper behavior by economic actors, and what is unacceptable even if it is legal or profitable. As E.P. Thompson said in a famous essay about English bread riots in the 18th century:

It is of course true that riots were triggered off by soaring prices, by malpractices among dealers, or by hunger. But these grievances operated within a popular consensus as to what were legitimate and what were illegitimate practices in marketing, milling, baking, etc. This in its turn was grounded upon a consistent traditional view of social norms and obligations, of the proper economic functions of several parties within the community, which, taken together, can be said to constitute the moral economy of the poor. An outrage to these moral assumptions, quite as much as actual deprivation, was the usual occasion for direct action.

Thompson goes on to observe that at this time, “bakers were considered as servants of the community, working not for a profit but for a fair allowance”; hence their behavior was constrained not just by what was legal or profitable, but by what was considered morally right.

Moral beliefs about what is legitimate economic behavior are not unique to early capitalism, but exist even in a hyper-marketized age like our own. As Karl Polanyi argued, all economies are embedded in a broader set of social relations. And moral economies are very much in play in the debate over copying and stealing. In the Aaron Swartz case, for example, a lot of the outrage was about a moral assumption: that academic work done mostly for free, by professors who are often supported by taxpayer money, shouldn’t be locked up behind an incredibly expensive paywall.

In the general debate over intellectual property, I discern two antithetical moral economies, which I think lie beneath many of the contending positions.

The first views the wealth of human culture and knowledge as something that is the shared cultural wealth of all of us. It recognizes that all new works of art and science are built on the foundation of older works, and go on to influence future works in their turn. It regards sharing, adapting, and improving older works as a positive value, and restricting access to existing culture as a negative value. Thus, in this moral economy, it is of the utmost importance that we be able to share and copy freely. Any restriction on the right to share and copy must be rigorously justified and shown to be in the interest of increasing our cultural wealth overall–as in the U.S. Constitution’s statement that copyright is allowed if it serves “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” While it isn’t inherently incompatible with intellectual property, the trajectory of this moral economy is to create a new kind of class struggle and to put us on the road to dotCommunism.

The contrasting moral economy holds that when someone participates in generating a new work of culture or knowledge, then that person has the inherent right to control the distribution and reuse of that information, and to receive payment for any profitable use to which that information may be put. Far from seeing pervasive restrictions on copying as a necessary evil, it sees them as exalting and honoring the hard work and creative genius of those who make new art and science. In this moral economy, to appropriate the creations of another is to violate the creator. But that way lies anti-Star Trek.

I think the debates about intellectual property would be a lot more productive if we recognized that they are fundamentally about two different and competing moral orders. I know that whenever I talk about these issues with normal people–i.e., not geeks who are obsessed with IP law–they aren’t very interested in arguments about economic efficiency or rentier capitalists. They’re interested in what’s right, and views about that range from the demand that culture should be free as in freedom to the insistence that above all else, you must pay the writer.*

* Which, to be clear, I’m in favor of. I just have other ideas about how the writer should get paid.

Das Anti-Star Trek

August 29th, 2011  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Shameless self-promotion

It’s pretty cool to discover that someone likes your writing enough to translate it for free. So I’m happy to report that my most popular post of all time is now available in German at, which was described to me as “a blog platform with a broadly left-libertarian and anarchist focus.”

Thanks to Chris from systempunkte for doing the translation. If any of my readers happen to be Deutsch-speaking, let me know what you think of it.

The Return of the Politics of Debt

August 24th, 2011  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Politics

Yesterday I saw Doug Henwood interview the anthropologist David Graeber about his new book about debt. It was a fascinating discussion, and it made me decide that I’m going to have to read the book, despite it coming in at 500 pages and being a bit overpriced in its e-book edition.

One of the themes that came up a lot in the discussion was the way that debt has historically functioned as the foundation of economic domination in a lot of different social formations. As Graeber wryly put it, conquering invaders will happily tell their new subjects that they now owe a debt that must be repaid for the cost of conquering them. And rulers in various times and places have canceled debts as a way of keeping the peace, as in the tradition of the Jubilee year.

Graeber cited the historian Moses Finley, who identified “the perennial revolutionary programme of antiquity, cancel debts and redistribute the land, the slogan of a peasantry, not of a working class”. And as Mike Konczal (who was also there last night) notes, “The balance-sheet recession policy for USA is basically: ‘abolish the debts, and redistribute the land.'”.

But if we seem to be returning to a millenia-old politics of debt, that only highlights the anomaly of the past two centuries. In at least some places, “cancel the debts, redistribute the land” hasn’t been the primary slogan. Rather, the demands were for “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest”, and later for more jobs, or higher wages, or more job security.

These demands, of course, all presuppose a society of generalized wage labor, in which people think of it as normal or inevitable to work for a boss in order to procure the means of subsistence. And it is the presence of generalized wage labor–and therefore, of capitalism–that marks out the 19th and 20th centuries as anomalous. When we think about this in relation to debt, we can see that one of the distinctive features of capitalism is that it is a system that can, in principle, control the exploited classes without pervasive debt relations. That is, the archetypal wage laborer does not necessarily have any debt. But they also don’t have the means of production to produce for themselves, hence they are forced to work for a wage. Thus, the worker is “free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realisation of his labour-power.”

In practice, of course, individual debt has always been an important part of capitalism, and debt and credit are indispensable to other parts of the system as well. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is something significant about the increasing importance of debt in our political economy. It may be indicative not merely of a short-term debt bubble, but a longer-term shift away from the canonical form of capitalism I just described. This is related to my previous discussions of rentier capitalism, since one of the problems I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about is how one could maintain relations of class power if it becomes possible for people to survive outside of wage labor. I’ve mostly been concerned with the way in which the state can create artificial scarcity through intellectual property laws and the like (e.g., anti-Star Trek). But debt is an equally important part of the picture, and one which I think I’ve tended to overlook.

This suggests one source of the left’s political confusion today. Leftists and liberals are used to viewing issues of jobs, hours and wages as the core problem facing workers. And insofar as most people are still wage laborers, that still appears to be the case. Yet it seems to me that we could easily arrive at a situation where it is technically possible for people to opt out of wage labor (due to the wonders of the Internet, 3D printers, small-scale communal production, and so on) but where people are still compelled to work for bosses in order to pay off their debts. (And we can only guess at what new forms of debt will be concocted to cement this system in place. Perhaps we will all one day be born with debt, for the privilege of being born in America?) In that situation, it might appear that the fundamental problem was inadequate demand, or low wages, or something else to do with the labor market. But the real problem would be the existence of all this inviolable debt.

Indeed, widespread and large debt loads are one of the most important ways in which my generation differs from those that immediately preceded it. The need to service debts–chiefly student loan debt, but also credit card debt in many cases–shapes every decision people make in their early adulthood. People who might otherwise want to sacrifice some income in order to pursue their goals are forced into corporate careers in order to pay off their debts. This has direct implications for the left: more than once, older comrades have noted to me that it has become much more difficult to live in the kind of bohemian poverty that sustained an earlier generation of young radicals and activists.

As a matter of political consciousness, it’s important to drive home the point that insofar as we are burdened with debt, we are not free people–not even in the impoverished sense in which Marx spoke of the “free” laborer. In the spirit of Corey Robin’s call to reclaim the politics of freedom, it’s time to demand freedom from debt.

And there may be some advantages to a politics centered around debt rather than wage labor. The problem confronting the wage laborer is that they are, in fact, dependent on the boss for their sustenance, unless they can solve the collective action problem of getting everyone together to expropriate the expropriators. Debt, on the other hand, is just an agreed-upon social fiction denoting an obligation for some act of consumption that has already occurred. The only way to make people respect debt is through some combination of brute force and ideological legitimacy–a legitimacy that we can only hope is starting to slip away.