anti-Star Trek

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.

Artificial Scarcity Watch: Barack Obama vs. Innovation

August 4th, 2011  |  Published in anti-Star Trek

Barack Obama is so full of bad policy ideas these days, some of them seem to be slipping under the radar. But this piece by Zach Carter at the Huffington Post zeroes in on one especially bizarre bit of the President's posturing around the debt ceiling deal: his claim that one of the best ways to create jobs is for Congress to "send me a bill that would make it easier for entrepreneurs to patent a new product or idea, because we can't give innovators in other countries a big leg up when it comes to opening new businesses and creating new jobs".

Anyone who's been reading my recent posts about intellectual property law can probably guess what I think about this: the last thing we need right now is to make it easier to get patents. As NPR's Planet Money makes clear in a great follow-up to their This American Life piece on patent trolls, the flood of vague and useless patents is already gumming up the legal system with litigation and probably costing jobs. In fact, Intellectual Ventures, the villian of the TAL piece, turns up in the HuffPo piece as one of the companies lobbying against anything that weakens patent protections.

But as with most things in our political system, the patent "reform" legislation has turned into a gigantic contest of corporate lobbyists, with the rest of us left watching from the sidelines. The whole article is worth a read, but here are a few highlights.

Carter explains that this has ended up coming down to a contest between tech companies and drug companies. The tech companies are, relatively speaking, the good guys here. They're tired of being subjected to lawsuits from patent trolls, and want some protection from Congress. Unfortunately, they seem to have lost out to the drug companies, who depend heavily on sales of patent-protected drugs to make their money. So the tech giants have given up on patent reform, and are focused instead on teaming with Pharma to demand a ludicrous tax holiday.

Meanwhile, Wall Street--in a great example of the narrow-minded selfishness of the capitalist class--managed to get a special exception dropped into the bill by their man, New York Senator Chuck Schumer. The exception would make it easier to invalidate "business method" patents--but only in the finance industry. This provision is thought to be targeted specifically at a company that holds patents on check processing, and has managed to extort a bunch of money out of the big banks as a result. This is indeed stupid, but rather than fight for a more sane system for everyone, Wall Street just wants to get special treatment and leave everyone else to fend for themselves.

What's interesting is that this fight doesn't really come down along partisan lines, although the Republicans are predictably the worst. Schumer is being opposed by a coalition that includes Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters, and a couple of Republicans, who all make the preposterous claim that invalidating business method patents in finance would "stifle innovation". There is also an amusing story about patent-troll advocates whipping up a Tea Party astroturf campaign fronted by the likes of Phyllis Schlafly and Ed Meese.

Finally, the article also includes an amusing set piece that often appears in stories on the broken patent system: a parade of ridiculous patents. Carter recounts:

In recent years, patents have been approved for products including a wheeled flower pot (patent No. 7,908,942), the crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwich (patent No. 6,004,596), a decorative box that can be placed in a casket (No. 7,908,942) and an accounting scheme that helps people dodge taxes by moving stock options around (No. 6,567,790).

This got me wondering just how easy it is to find things like this. So I wrote a little script that generates a link to a random patent from among the last million patents issued. That covers those issued in the last five years or so. (Incidentally, this is about 1/8th of all the patents issued since 1836, which itself says something about how out of control the system is.)

The first random patent I found at least seems like a plausible invention, although I don't really have the expertise to judge. Patent 7,121,819:

Auxiliary end heating devices on an elongated, heated hot melt distribution manifold body assist in maintaining uniform temperatures throughout all portions and passageways of the manifold body. The heating devices preferably take the form of thick film electrical resistive heaters of plate-like construction. The end heaters are on their own control circuit separate and apart from the circuit for other heaters for remaining portions of the manifold body. Special isolating slots are formed in lower corners of the manifold body between supporting standoffs and overhead melt passageways in the manifold body.

The next one I got, though, was Patent 7,127,671:

A method for publishing a customized publication including an article for a customer includes obtaining information from the customer including a topic for the article and the identity of a primary source for quotable information about the topic. The method also includes establishing and following a defined schedule for a three-step process for obtaining information about the topic prior to preparing and printing the publication.

It's hard to make sense of exactly what this is supposed to be, but to me it sure looks like someone patented the idea of being hired to talk to sources and write an article for a single person. Reading the rest of the patent didn't really make it look any better. I did like the section that defines such "technical terms" as "article", "printing", and "quotable information".

Anyone reading this is welcome to try this out themselves. If my rudimentary PHP is written correctly, the following link is randomly generated, and should go to a different patent for everyone who reads this:

Your Random Patent, Patent Number 7336506.

Reloading the page will generate a new random link. If you find any particularly good patents, please leave them in the comments.

Artificial Scarcity Watch: Nathan Myhrvold is a vile patent troll

July 23rd, 2011  |  Published in anti-Star Trek

When I wrote the first "Artificial Scarcity Watch" post, I envisioned it as an occasional feature, highlighting some of the trends that led me to cook up Anti-Star Trek. I think I'm going to have to pace myself, though, because otherwise I'll spend all my time writing about intellectual property run amok. For instance, this story, about PayPal teaming up with the London police to shut down alleged music piracy websites, is barely worth mentioning.

I saw something else, though, that is too juicy to pass up. The latest episode of This American Life is called "When Pattents Attack!", and NPR's Planet Money blog also tells the story. It's a devastating exposé of a company called Intellectual Ventures, and I highly recommend reading it if you feel that your blood pressure is too low or that you need more anger in your life.

IV is run by Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive who is confused about climate chage and also has a book about modernist cooking. Malcolm Gladwell had a piece about the company in the New Yorker a few years ago, in which he portrayed IV as a kind of laboratory for innovation, focused on the science of coming up with good new ideas.

That all seems pretty laughable in retrospect. The Planet Money post reveals Intellectual Ventures to be a wretched hive of scum and villainy, and Nathan Myhrvold to be that lowest of rentier-capitalist parasites: a patent troll. Intellectual Ventures does not, for the most part, come up with ideas. What it does is buy patents--often very broad, legally dubious patents--and then extort licensing fees out of companies that allegedly infringe on them. Or else it licenses its patents to shell companies that exist only to sue people, thus producing eerie scenes like this:

And, in fact, that's what's happening with Chris Crawford's patent. Intellectual Venures sold it to a company called Oasis research in June of 2010. Less than a month later, Oasis Research used the patent to sue over a dozen different tech companies, including Rackspace, GoDaddy, and AT&T.

. . .

The office was in a corridor where all the other doors looked exactly the same —locked, nameplates over the door, no light coming out. It was a corridor of silent, empty offices with names like "Software Rights Archive," and "Bulletproof Technology of Texas."

It turns out a lot of those companies in that corridor, maybe every single one of them, is doing exactly what Oasis Research is doing. They appear to have no employees. They are not coming up with new inventions. The companies are in Marshall, Texas because they are filing lawsuits for patent infringement.

As Planet Money points out, this is a gangster business model: pay me, or I sue you.

Technology companies pay Intellectual Ventures fees ranging "from tens of thousands to the millions and millions of dollars ... to buy themselves insurance that protects them from being sued by any harmful, malevolent outsiders," Sacca says.

There's an implication in IV's pitch, Sacca says: If you don't join us, who knows what'll happen?

He says it reminds him of "a mafia-style shakedown, where someone comes in the front door of your building and says, 'It would be a shame if this place burnt down. I know the neighborhood really well and I can make sure that doesn't happen.' "

Hence even companies that know they are in the right will be reluctant to go to court against IV and its patent portfolio, due to the high cost of litigation. But of course, John Gotti is deeply offended by the suggestion that he might be involved in something unsavory. Says the lawyer who coined the term "Patent Troll" (!), but who now works with Intellectual Ventures:

In an email to us, Peter Detkin called the comparison to the mafia "ridiculous and offensive." Detkin wrote:

We're a disruptive company that's providing a way for patent-holders to recognize value that wasn't available before we came on the scene, and we are making a big impact on the market. That obviously makes people uncomfortable. But no amount of name-calling changes the fact that ideas have value.

True enough. But you can see why many people feel like lots of butcher shops have been burning.

Ah, if only Al Capone had been clever enough to cloak his enterprise in business school jargon--the mafia is a "disruptive company" that is "making a big impact on the market"! Brad DeLong cites this story as evidence that the patent system is broken. But from the perspective of Anti-Star Trek, it isn't broken, at all. It's doing exactly what it's supposed to do: create artificial scarcity and enrich a small class of parasitic rentiers.

Anti-Star Trek Revisited: A Reply to Robin Hanson

July 21st, 2011  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, xkcd.com/386

[Update: A commenter informs me that Hanson actually does believe in intellectual property for utilitarian rather than moral reasons, so my apologies if I've misrepresented him on that point. It was totally unclear from the post I was replying to, but I should have done some more poking around before I made that assumption.]

One of the best things about having something you wrote go flying around the Internet for a few days is that you get lots of feedback and ideas from interesting people with whom you'd normally never interact. This is the promise of what Brad DeLong called the "invisible college", and I must say I'm really enjoying it. It's kind of like getting peer reviewed for a journal article, except that the volume and quality of reaction I've gotten to Anti-Star Trek has been superior to the actual peer reviews I've received.

Most people who took the time to write about my post were inclined to view it favorably, but of course the real fun is being told that you're wrong on the Internet. Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias actually tried to defend Anti-Star Trek as a superior arrangement to actual Star Trek. I think Hanson is some kind of libertarian, and the tone of the post is pretty snide and condescending, but whatever; I've said nastier things about libertarians. It's still worth addressing what he says. His argument has three separable components: the first misses the point, the second is irrelevant, and the third reveals an important moral disagreement about what makes for a good society.

First, Hanson wants to say that really, my portrayal of Star Trek as a communist society is wrong. There are still some resource constraints, we see market exchange (although I'd argue it's mostly what Erik Olin Wright likes to call "capitalism between consenting adults), and so on:

Now it should be noted that Star Trek fiction has many cases of people using money and trading. Even setting that aside, replicators need both matter and energy as input, and neither could ever be in infinite supply. So even an ideal “communist” Star Trek must enforce limited budgets of access to such things. Lawyers and guardians would need to adjudicate and enforce such limits.

True enough, but this was a thought experiment. I was trying to extract the element of the Star Trek universe that is both unusual and resonant with present-day trends, and that's the existence of post-scarcity technologies. Allocating scarce goods and resources is an old and not as interesting problem, so I wrote that stuff out of the thought experiment.

Second, Hanson claims that I'm glorifying the government/military hierarchy of Starfleet over the hierarchies that would be produced by the intellectual property-based regime of Anti-Star Trek.

After all, this might lead to unequal "classes," where some own more than others. This even though Star Fleet displays lots of hierarchy and inequality, and spends large budgets that must come at the expense of private budgets.

The far future seems to have put Frase in full flaming far mode, declaring his undying allegience to a core ideal: he prefers the inequality that comes from a government hierarchy, over inequality that comes from voluntary trade. Sigh.

But the structure of Starfleet has nothing to do with the underlying economic basis of the Star Trek universe. The fact that people can engage in the kind of space adventure we see on the show is something made possible by abundance and an underlying communist social structure, but it isn't a necessary consequence of it. And the fact that Starfleet is structured like a Naval hierarchy is justified by the existence of hostile alien races--which, again, isn't the aspect of the Star Trek universe that I was interested in for this thought experiment.

Finally, Hanson wants to suggest that it is just and right that people should be rewarded monetarily for the intellectual property they create.

In both the Star Trek and Anti-Star Trek societies, the main source of long term value seems to be the accumulation of better designs. Yet Frase (and apparently Yglesias) is horrified to imagine that the people who contribute this main value might get paid for their contributions. After all, this might lead to unequal "classes," where some own more than others.

Of course, he doesn't really mean people should be "paid for their contributions". That would just mean rewarding people when they come up with a good idea. Anti-Star Trek, however, adds the further requirement that the original creator should get paid every time someone makes use of their idea.

It's hard to see why you would approve of this, unless you justify it on the grounds of morality rather than economic efficiency. In this regard, it's interesting to contrast Hanson's vitriol with Matt Yglesias's favorable reaction to what I wrote. Both Hanson and Yglesias approve of a maximalist neoliberal vision of markets and commodification in a way that I don't, although Yglesias's politics are much closer to mine. But Yglesias approaches intellectual property in basically utilitarian terms: he views the artificial monopoly and scarcity mandated by IP law as justified if and only if it leads to more creation of knowledge and culture. This is also the view of IP that's enshrined in the constitution: the point of copyright is "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."

Hanson, in contrast, seems to be taking a position that I often see on the libertarian fringes: he thinks that people have some kind of inherent right to be showered with riches if they come up with a popular idea. One response to this is the Yglesias/utilitarian one: this is silly because it doesn't lead to maximizing overall human well-being, and it's clear that lots of valuable new ideas get created even in the absence of IP rights.

My response is somewhat different: I don't think it even makes sense to obsess about who did or didn't "create" some specific idea. The progress of human culture is a cumulative process--"standing on the shoulders of giants", Stigler's Law, and so on. Moreover, all creators are dependent on living in a very specific type of society--technologically advanced, low levels of violence, high levels of education, and so on--that facilitates their work. And the ubiquity of simultaneous invention suggests to me that there is little rationale behind the desire to anoint some specific person as "the creator" of a good idea. Even from a more libertarian perspective, I don't see the point of rewarding people for coming up with ideas. As Levine and Boldrin like to argue, the trick is to successfully implement and popularize an idea. Or as the Mark Zuckerberg character says to the Winklevii in that Facebook movie: if you had invented Facebook, then you would have invented Facebook.

Nevertheless, I think Hanson's response is worth paying attention to, because the transition to a world like Anti-Star Trek probably requires a cultural shift from the utilitarian Yglesias perspective on intellectual property to the Hansonian moralistic view, in which copying is viewed as morally equivalent to theft. Yglesias noted in a follow-up that some people objected to Anti-Star Trek on the grounds that under current IP law, things like replicator patterns might not be covered, and in any case copyrights don't last forever. But as he then notes, laws can change, especially when powerful rentier interests want them to change. And it will be much easier to bring about the transition to eternal, all-encompassing intellectual property protections if people stop thinking of IP as a necessary evil to encourage innovation, and start thinking of it as a basic human right of "creators".

Artificial Scarcity Watch: Indicted for Downloading from JSTOR

July 19th, 2011  |  Published in anti-Star Trek

Apparently Internet activist Aaron Swartz has been indicted for downloading articles from JSTOR, the database of academic journal articles. Note that Swartz had legal access to the database through MIT, he's just being accused of downloading too many articles.

It's not quite as simple as that, of course. There is some stuff in the indictment about him circumventing JSTOR's attempts to block him, as well as entering an MIT wiring closet without permission in order to attach a computer to the network. But I think this Wired article gets at the heart of it: "In essence, Swartz is accused of felony hacking for violating MIT and JSTOR’s terms of service." And, I might add, for doing a scaled-up version of what journalists and academics do all the time when they circumvent the JSTOR paywall by emailing articles to each other.

And what's really scary is the charge of "theft" for copying the documents. This is the kind of thing we'll see a lot of in the transition to Anti-Star Trek. And the New York Times account even gives us an example of the kind of warped moral reasoning that is required to equate copying copyrighted material with the theft of physical property:

"Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars," said [U.S. Attorney Carmen] Ortiz in the press release.

In other words, "stealing is stealing whether you're downloading an electronic file without permission or forcibly depriving people of their posessions". Besides being despicable, this conflation also seems to pose a risk to people's ability to correctly apprehend the nature of reality. Both this Ars Technica story and the Wired account refer to the fact that Swartz didn't distribute the articles and that JSTOR "got the documents back" from him. But the latter statement is incomprehensible--how could they have "gotten back" the articles? He just made a copy, JSTOR never lost them in the first place. And what does it even mean to "give back" a digital file?

Hopefully this all blows up in the faces of the prosecutors, as Henry Farrell predicts. Restricting access to academic journals is particularly egregious, since almost nobody involved in their production--the authors, the peer reviewers, most of the editors--gets paid by the companies that own the journals.

Anti-Star Trek: A Theory of Posterity

December 14th, 2010  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Art and Literature, Political Economy

In the process of trying to pull together some thoughts on intellectual property, zero marginal-cost goods, immaterial labor, and the incipient transition to a rentier form of capitalism, I've been working out a thought experiment: a possible future society I call anti-Star Trek. Consider this a stab at a theory of posterity.

One of the intriguing things about the world of Star Trek, as Gene Roddenberry presented it in The Next Generation and subsequent series, is that it appears to be, in essence, a communist society. There is no money, everyone has access to whatever resources they need, and no-one is required to work. Liberated from the need to engage in wage labor for survival, people are free to get in spaceships and go flying around the galaxy for edification and adventure. Aliens who still believe in hoarding money and material acquisitions, like the Ferengi, are viewed as barbaric anachronisms.

The technical condition of possibility for this society is comprised of of two basic components. The first is the replicator, a technology that can make instant copies of any object with no input of human labor. The second is an apparently unlimited supply of free energy, due to anti-matter reactions or dilithium crystals or whatever. It is, in sum, a society that has overcome scarcity.

Anti-Star Trek takes these same technological premises: replicators, free energy, and a post-scarcity economy. But it casts them in a different set of social relations. Anti-Star Trek is an attempt to answer the following question:

  • Given the material abundance made possible by the replicator, how would it be possible to maintain a system based on money, profit, and class power?

Economists like to say that capitalist market economies work optimally when they are used to allocate scarce goods. So how to maintain capitalism in a world where scarcity can be largely overcome? What follows is some steps toward an answer to this question.

Like industrial capitalism, the economy of anti-Star Trek rests on a specific state-enforced regime of property relations. However, the kind of property that is central to anti-Star Trek is not physical but intellectual property, as codified legally in the patent and copyright system. While contemporary defenders of intellectual property like to speak of it as though it is broadly analogous to other kinds of property, it is actually based on a quite different principle. As the (libertarian) economists Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine point out:

Intellectual property law is not about your right to control your copy of your idea - this is a right that . . . does not need a great deal of protection. What intellectual property law is really about is about your right to control my copy of your idea. This is not a right ordinarily or automatically granted to the owners of other types of property. If I produce a cup of coffee, I have the right to choose whether or not to sell it to you or drink it myself. But my property right is not an automatic right both to sell you the cup of coffee and to tell you how to drink it.

This is the quality of intellectual property law that provides an economic foundation for anti-Star Trek: the ability to tell others how to use copies of an idea that you "own". In order to get access to a replicator, you have to buy one from a company that licenses you the right to use a replicator. (Someone can't give you a replicator or make one with their replicator, because that would violate their license). What's more, every time you make something with the replicator, you also need to pay a licensing fee to whoever owns the rights to that particular thing. So if the Captain Jean-Luc Picard of anti-Star Trek wanted "tea, Earl Grey, hot", he would have to pay the company that has copyrighted the replicator pattern for hot Earl Grey tea. (Presumably some other company owns the rights to cold tea.)

This solves the problem of how to maintain for-profit capitalist enterprise, at least on the surface. Anyone who tries to supply their needs from their replicator without paying the copyright cartels would become an outlaw, like today's online file-sharers. But if everyone is constantly being forced to pay out money in licensing fees, then they need some way of earning money, and this brings up a new problem. With replicators around, there's no need for human labor in any kind of physical production. So what kind of jobs would exist in this economy? Here are a few possibilities.

  1. The creative class. There will be a need for people to come up with new things to replicate, or new variations on old things, which can then be copyrighted and used as the basis for future licensing revenue. But this is never going to be a very large source of jobs, because the labor required to create a pattern that can be infinitely replicated is orders of magnitude less than the labor required in a physical production process in which the same object is made over and over again. What's more, we can see in today's world that lots of people will create and innovate on their own, without being paid for it. The capitalists of anti-Star Trek would probably find it more economical to simply pick through the ranks of unpaid creators, find new ideas that seem promising, and then buy out the creators and turn the idea into the firm's intellectual property.

  2. Lawyers. In a world where the economy is based on intellectual property, companies will constantly be suing each other for alleged infringements of each others' copyrights and patents. This will provide employment for some significant fraction of the population, but again it's hard to see this being enough to sustain an entire economy. Particularly because of a theme that will arise again in the next couple of points: just about anything can, in principle, be automated. It's easy to imagine big intellectual property firms coming up with procedures for mass-filing lawsuits that rely on fewer and fewer human lawyers. On the other hand, perhaps an equilibrium will arise where every individual needs to keep a lawyer on retainer, because they can't afford the cost of auto-lawyer software but they must still fight off lawsuits from firms attempting to win big damages for alleged infringment.

  3. Marketers. As time goes on, the list of possible things you can replicate will only continue to grow, but people's money to buy licenses--and their time to enjoy the things they replicate--will not grow fast enough to keep up. The biggest threat to any given company's profits will not be the cost of labor or raw materials--since they don't need much or any of those--but rather the prospect that the licenses they own will lose out in popularity to those of competitors. So there will be an unending and cut-throat competition to market one company's intellectual properties as superior to the competition's: Coke over Pepsi, Ford over Toyota, and so on. This should keep a small army employed in advertizing and marketing. But once again, beware the spectre of automation: advances in data mining, machine learning and artificial intelligence may lessen the amount of human labor required even in these fields.

  4. Guard labor. The term "Guard Labor" is used by the economists Bowles and Jayadev to refer to:

    The efforts of the monitors, guards, and military personnel . . . directed not toward production, but toward the enforcement of claims arising from exchanges and the pursuit or prevention of unilateral transfers of property ownership.

    In other words, guard labor is the labor required in any society with great inequalities of wealth and power, in order to keep the poor and powerless from taking a share back from the rich and powerful. Since the whole point of anti-Star Trek is to maintain such inequalities even when they appear economically superfluous, there will obviously still be a great need for guard labor. And the additional burden of enforcing intellectual property restrictions will increase demand for such labor, since it requires careful monitoring of what was once considered private behavior. Once again, however, automation looms: robot police, anyone?

These, it seems to me, would be the main source of employment in the world of anti-Star Trek. It seems implausible, however, that this would be sufficient--the society would probably be subject to a persistent trend toward under-employment. This is particularly true given that all the sectors except (arguably) the first would be subject to pressures toward labor-saving technological innovation. What's more, there is also another way for private companies to avoid employing workers for some of these tasks: turn them into activities that people will find pleasurable, and will thus do for free on their own time. Firms like Google are already experimenting with such strategies. The computer scientist Luis von Ahn has specialized in developing "games with a purpose": applications that present themselves to end users as enjoyable diversions, but which also perform a useful computational task. One of von Ahn's games asked users to identify objects in photos, and the data was then fed back into a database that was used for searching images. It doesn't take much imagination to see how this line of research could lead toward the world of Orson Scott Card's novel Ender's Game, in which children remotely fight an interstellar war through what they think are video games.

Thus it seems that the main problem confronting the society of anti-Star Trek is the problem of effective demand: that is, how to ensure that people are able to earn enough money to be able to pay the licensing fees on which private profit depends. Of course, this isn't so different from the problem that confronted industrial capitalism, but it becomes more severe as human labor is increasingly squeezed out of the system, and human beings become superfluous as elements of production, even as they remain necessary as consumers.

Ultimately, even capitalist self-interest will require some redistribution of wealth downward in order to support demand. Society reaches a state in which, as the late André Gorz put it, "the distribution of means of payment must correspond to the volume of wealth socially produced and not to the volume of work performed". This is particularly true--indeed, it is necessarily true--of a world based on intellectual property rents rather than on value based on labor-time.

But here the class of rentier-capitalists will confront a collective action problem. In principle, it would be possible to sustain the system by taxing the profits of profitable firms and redistributing the money back to consumers--possibly as a no-strings attached guaranteed income, and possibly in return for performing some kind of meaningless make-work. But even if redistribution is desirable from the standpoint of the class as a whole, any individual company or rich person will be tempted to free-ride on the payments of others, and will therefore resist efforts to impose a redistributive tax. Of course, the government could also simply print money to give to the working class, but the resulting inflation would just be an indirect form of redistribution and would also be resisted. Finally, there is the option of funding consumption through consumer indebtedness--but this merely delays the demand crisis rather than resolving it, as residents of the present know all too well.

This all sets the stage for ongoing stagnation and crisis in the world of anti-Star Trek. And then, of course, there are the masses. Would the power of ideology be strong enough to induce people to accept the state of affairs I've described? Or would people start to ask why the wealth of knowledge and culture was being enclosed within restrictive laws, when "another world is possible" beyond the regime of artificial scarcity?