“Reformism” is one of those words that’s hard to pin down sometimes. It’s usually taken to mean advocating for “reform within the system” — in other words, the bad kind of reform.
A bad reform operates from the unstated – often unconscious – starting assumptions of the system. It takes the existing institutional framework of society for granted, never questioning its status as the only feasible way of doing things, given some unstated goals which are taken to be necessary – but seeks to make it operate more smoothly and fairly for everyone. It’s the kind of “reform” that can only be carried out within the existing institutional framework, by the kinds of people currently in power.
For example, in most Western countries the permissible range of “moderate” or “centrist” reforms consists entirely of measures that presuppose a society whose functions are organized around large corporations, government agencies, universities and charitable foundations, and administered from assorted central offices by a large managerial-professional class. Anything that operates outside this acceptable range is, by definition, “extremist” or “radical.”
So a moderate reform – the bad kind – is one that leaves the system intact in all its essentials, but helps it to function “better” in terms of its own starting assumptions.
But there are good reforms. The motive force behind a good reform does not come from people “working within the system,” or “stakeholders” with “seats at the table.” A good reform is one imposed from outside. It’s primary motivation is the fear the people in charge feel in the face of the sheer pressure of public demand.
You can tell a good reform by the fact that all the conventional “stakeholders,” with their “seats at the table,” consider it intolerable. When the managerial elites all howl, “But how could a modern society possibly perform functions x, y or z if we adopted this measure?” there’s a pretty good chance it’s the good kind of reform. A good reform is pronounced “impossible” by the ruling class and the elites serving its interests, because it actively undermines the functions they perform, and calls into question their naturalness and inevitability.
Sometimes good reforms are promoted by those who seem to genuinely view themselves as working within the structural presuppositions of the system, while those at the commanding heights of the system – quite rightly – see the reforms as a threat to the system itself. For example, people like Mike Masnick and Cory Doctorow claim – quite sincerely, I think – to believe in copyright on principle. They just want to reform digital copyright law to make it less onerous on the content consumer and bring it into line with the standards of print era copyright law (incorporating traditional standards like the first sale and fair use doctrines, for instance).
But the folks at the RIAA, MPAA and other representatives of the content industry are entirely correct: Such proposals won’t just “reform” the system – they’ll destroy it. The new digital copyright laws promoted by the content industry are far more draconian than traditional print copyright because they have to be, as a result of the very nature of digital content. Given the costs of setting up a competing print edition of a copyrighted work in the analog era — or owning a printing press at all — detecting violations was fairly easy. And the kinds of cheap reproduction that were within the technical means of an ordinary person — photocopies or bootleg cassettes — had a pronounced dropoff in quality. That’s not true of digital technology. The average American owns a printing press — the desktop computer, laptop, or Internet-connected mobile devise — capable of making a 100% accurate duplicate of any digital content, instantly, and free of charge.
In the current stage of capitalism, the primary source of profit is enclosing information as a source of rents. And as Johann Soderberg pointed out, in the digital era the enclosure of information requires totalitarian controls on the free flow of information. The current model of corporate capitalism requires DRM, anti-circumvention laws and three-strikes for the same reason the old Soviet nomenklatura had to control access to photocopiers.
The desktop computer, as Cory Doctorow says, is a machine for effortlessly and cheaply reproducing bits. So – and this is me talking, not Doctorow – unless the content industry can impose some artificial obstacle to computers performing this function, like DRM and criminalization of circumvention, the profits of Big Content will simply evaporate. Eliminating DRM and allowing free copying of digital content by users will destroy the basic institutional presuppositions of the system, as surely as tearing down enclosures and abolishing rents would have destroyed those of an earlier system.
The content industries are bound to lose the war anyway – in fact, they’ve already lost it – because even draconian digital copyright laws simply won’t work. They’re unenforceable. Their defeat is inevitable, even if they get every jot and tittle of their desired legal agenda. But the reforms advocated by Doctorow and Masnick would amount to surrender. And that’s a good thing.
The fundamental difference between bad and good reforms is that the former restabilize the system and make it more effective in terms of its own logic, whereas the latter destabilize it and undermine its basic logic. A good reform will knock the system off balance and force it to restabilize at a permanently lower and weaker level of equilibrium.
And that’s what we’re shooting for, folks. The corporate state will not fall all at once, nor will the successor society – horizontal, self-organized, free – supplant it all at once. Our goal is to keep the old system continually on the retreat, continually falling back and regrouping, “rationalizing” its defensive lines further and further back from the old ones. So when the system’s defenders push for what they believe are structural reforms to renovate the master’s house, but they’re actually proposing to knock out a weight-bearing wall, we should grab a crowbar and jump in to help.