“Intellectual Property” is Not Progressive

There’s an entire cottage industry of writers—Mark Helprin and Jaron Lanier among them—who attack “the new collectivism” of  network culture based on its supposed violations of “intellectual property” rights and its destruction of “authorial voice.”  Chris Hedges, at Alternet (“Are Corporations Using the Internet to Accelerate Our Cultural, Political and Economic Decline?”), has the virtue of novelty in that he regurgitates every single one of Helprin’s talking points—but does so under the pretense of defending “progressive” values against corporate power.

The Internet, Hedges argues, has been hijacked by corporate interests and become a tool of corporate power because it—get this—“efficiently disseminates content, but… does not protect intellectual property rights.”   “Intellectual property” is the enemy of corporate power, see, and it’s those corporate fat cats who are undermining it!

In Hedges’ jeremiad, this weakening of “intellectual property” rights is somehow identified with the “new global serfdom,” in which “[a]nything that can be digitized can and is being outsourced to countries such as India and China where wages are miserable and benefits nonexistent,” where “the only professions that pay a living wage are propaganda and corporate management.”

News flash:  We’ve already had a century and a half of corporate serfdom, and people like Hedges are its useful idiots.  “Intellectual property” is the linchpin, the keystone in the arch, of global corporate power.  It’s the primary means by which our global corporate masters are currently holding onto power.

Global corporate serfdom is only possible through corporate ownership of “intellectual property,” which permits them to maintain control of the outsourced production Hedges complains of.  Corporate ownership of patents and trademarks is absolutely essential to the Nike model of outsourced production.  Does Hedges really not know this?

Hedges complains, in the same terms as Lanier and Helprin, that original work is copied and mashed up, and deprives content creators of a source of revenue.  Content aggregators (he mentions Google specifically) are especially blameworthy.  So Hedges takes his stand alongside “progressives” like Rupert Murdoch.  Golly, it’s a good thing Newscorp isn’t one of those nasty old corporations, like Google!

Hedges displays some confusion in his critique of Internet culture, ironically echoing earlier leftist critiques of the mass culture associated with mass production industry and mass consumption at the height of twentieth century Consensus Capitalism.  But in fact networked culture is diametrically opposed to it.  It used to be said that the First Amendment guaranteed our right to a free press—so long as we were rich enough to own a printing press.  The desktop revolution and the Internet have brought the  cost of a printing press down to a few hundred dollars at most.  Writers like Robert McChesney and Noam Chomsky once lamented the fact that the U.S. media was controlled by a handful of giant corporations.  It was the Internet that brought about an end run around this corporate control of the media.

If you doubt the political significance of this, just compare the size, level of organization, and public profile of the antiwar movement before the first Gulf War with its counterpart before Bush II’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Compared the detailed, merciless dissection of mainstream corporate reporting, which liberal bloggers like Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein do on a daily basis, to the world of twenty years ago where such analysis was only available to people with a subscription to The Nation.

Hedges quotes Lanier’s Weimar America scenario (apparently borrowed from Thomas Frank), in which a population of angry white men, impoverished by Internet-enabled outsourcing and downsizing, and manipulated by the Tea Party politics of some new Karl Rove, organize through the Internet to take over the legislatures and burn down abortion clinics.

Well, I have a scenario of my own.  When the world is on the threshold of abundance, and the capital outlays and work hours required to produce a comfortable standard of living are imploding, our corporate feudal lords snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by using totalitarian government controls—draconian digital copyright laws, industrial patents, ubiquitous Internet surveillance—to maintain the artificial scarcity rents on which their parasitic livelihoods depend.  And they do so with the help of “progressive” useful idiots like Hedges.  That’s exactly what the “progressive” cognitive capitalism model of Bill Gates, Bono, Paul Romer and Richard Florida is all about:  an attempt to capitalize improvements in productivity, through artificial scarcity and artificial property rights, as a source of rents for themselves.  It’s what Tom Peters is talking about when he gushes that nine tenths of the price of his new Minolta comes from “intellect” rather than the actual labor and material costs of production.   They want a world in which nine tenths of the hours we work are to pay tribute to our corporate masters.  And if they succeed, it will be with the help of unwitting stooges like Hedges.

Fortunately, they won’t succeed.  The technologies of abundance are blasting the foundations of the old corporate order Hedges defends, and the legal framework it depends on are becoming utterly unenforceable.

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