General Intellect as a Vanguard: Keeping the Pigs from Grazing in the Knowledge Commons

It is not a coincidence that when patents and copyrights are described in formal documents or discussions they are always labeled as “intellectual property” and virtually never as the simple term “property.” Calling it simply property would generate confusion with actually existing forms of private property, such as land, cars, and stocks. Such private property is ruled by an entirely different regime of rules that, if applied to patents and ideas, would reduce their market value to zero. Consider this: copying a car parked in a Taco Bell and driving off with a second car does not violate any property rights. Or pretending that your phone is dead and asking a random person for permission to use theirs for an urgent call — then making ten copies of the phone right in front of them with a Star Trek replicator, and offering to sell them one for $99.99 — is rude for sure, but still does not constitute theft or a violation of someone’s property. Rather, there is a class interest in creating IP regimes that lump up intellectual property with private property as simply another component, since private property has a positive connotation in liberal democracies and is associated with personal freedom. If we described IP laws more accurately, we’d be left with such names as the Central Agency Commission for Regulating Exclusive Permissions & Usage of Human Generated Thought.

In Lockean property theory, John Locke reasoned that if it’s documented in the Bible that the world has been gifted by God to humankind, no one but God can assert a claim to property on any piece of land. But people own themselves, and thus own their labor, so any extension of their labor is theirs too. So the only way to appropriate a chunk of the world is by mixing a person’s labor with natural resources. According to Locke, God mixed his labor with energy and created the world in seven days, and he was cool enough to waive his right to the land and give it to the tenants for free without paying rent to the landlord — since then, he has been known as ‘The Lord’. That is to say, liberal property theory is founded on the assumption of a grand gift economy initiated by a divine biblical christian god, and that’s the starting point for individuals.

When it comes to intellectual property, in order to appropriate an idea, the “natural resources” used along with a person’s labor aren’t freely gifted by God, but have been created by the labor and intellect of other men and women dating back to the earliest forms of human societies, from languages to mathematics to philosophy to every single scientific field, and every form of art. And even if dead, they surely have descendants in the hundreds of millions who inherited their property rights, and those people aren’t as merciful as God, those are the ones who God promised to send to Hell. With this logic, anyone claiming a patent should have to pay for these raw intellectual materials before claiming ownership, ideally generating a CVS-length receipt that requires a truck to move around, creating jobs in the processes. If property rights were so asserted, contemporary IP regimes would implode, but IP regimes aren’t meant to protect property claims, they are used selectively to benefit the class of suit-wearing pigs and to pour more grease on their bacon, just like every other property “rights” regime used by capitalism.

Intellectual property is the glue that keeps contemporary capitalism running. The biggest estimate is that it represents about a third of American GDP, at the same time, it is the easiest property regime to repeal. It would only require a single vote by Congress to make it disappear, it doesn’t even need a single sheriff clutching his gun or evicting a single person. But even so, that would never happen. Repealing IP laws entirely would mean one third of the economy vanishing in a second, arguably the fastest transfer of wealth in history, and if a third of the economy disappears in a single day, it would drag down the entire financial industrial complex along with it. The immediate abolition of the U.S. IP regime is out of the question for any level headed lawmaker. But this shouldn’t be an excuse for defeatism.

Intellectual property, if defined as any product a person creates using his intellectual labor, has a natural market-exchange value of zero. Even if it’s a cure to cancer for children or the elixir of youth, a truly free market means an intellectual commodity can only be sold once before endless copies are made and price drops to zero. The only profitable exception to the rule would be if a producer can guarantee the sale of his commodity with a breakeven volume of one. This leaves the only realistic option for intellectual labor as intellectual wage labor, and not as intellectual commodity production to be exchanged in the market. This isn’t to say intellectual products can’t be of value for the producer, but they can’t capture and hold that value. A common example is the open source software engineer or scientist who would labor for free to create a product of value and share it publicly for free, then use that to polish his reputation and make income as a consultant. Even with that, the producer is not rewarded for the initial labor, but is rewarded with the option to sign a contract for intellectual wage labor and work more hours, only this time paid. Much like the classical feminist critique of markets, that house chores and raising children are the equivalent of a full time job, but end up being treated as free labor for capitalism to function, intellectual property isn’t well accounted for in market models. Both intellectual labor and household labor can be used as arguments against markets, or at least market centrism, since these sectors — that when combined should represent a majority of the value created in society and in a functioning economy — aren’t covered by traditional market logic.

When realizing that intellectual commodities have a market-exchange value of zero, arguments arise to artificially create scarcity, so that intellectual commodities can be sold for a price tag rather than be freely available to all. A regulatory government monopoly is installed to control copyrights and usage licenses, stretching the market into areas that it cannot function in, an ironic market intervention in the name of free markets. This reasoning isn’t much different from arguments to enclose common property and consolidate property rights within a single party. It is argued in similar ways too, with a thought experiment of cattle herders grazing a commons, until the open field is destroyed, hence the need to enclose it into private property. Of course this ignores the many real-world examples of communities managing common resources quite efficiently and fairly, but yes, let’s defer to class-interested economists because who would think farmers can manage their own lives.

Marx’s Grundrisse mentions General Intellect as a collection of skills, technical expertise, and scientific knowledge used along with labor and capital in production. Given the type of life in 19th century Europe, it is understandable why it was only allocated a few paragraphs, rather than a multiple volume book such as Das Kapital. Nothing existed during the first century of the industrial revolution like Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors on a computer chip doubles and drops in price roughly every two years, and that machines grow by the thousandfold in less than a decade. A modern iteration of the General Intellect has been described as commons-based peer production, Linux and Wikipedia are used as flagship examples. And generally this development can be traced back to four currents and social movements each with its own unique characteristics: free software, open source software, creative commons, and finally the ambiguous disorganization of IP violation, ranging from hackers in the 80s distributing cracked software just to show their 3DGY $K1LLZ, to three Swedish activists establishing a torrent pirate bay, or simply good samaritans in neighborhood stores selling Chinese Rolex knockoffs off the books for people who can’t afford the real thing.

IP circumvention is arguably the most effective method for undermining the current IP regime. While the Pirate Party in the EU is admirable in this area, it was bittorrent that really sent painful shocks through the entertainment industry and gave teenagers all around the world Linkin Park albums for free. Industry cartels such as RIAA & MPAA spent a decade lobbying congress without any good outcome for them. Kevin Carson even wrote a book about this, and we should expect this kind of circumvention to extend to manufacturing plane engines — and just about anything else — in backyards soon.

But IP circumvention has its limits. While it’s true the internet gave a hard blow to the entertainment industry which has never fully recovered, it’s still a billion dollar industry, and no new mode of organization has replaced it. What this did achieve, however, is a market with more room for low budget artists. Beyond that, Netflix now has a market value of billions, and capitalism has, like always, adapted with the new landscape. The $8 per month price Netflix started out with may be lower than what people were paying at Blockbuster before that, but it’s still an extortion! The natural price is zero.

With the existing IP regime, capitalism has leveraged the legal system to give companies like Netflix an edge over other methods of distributing movies, such as a website that costs no more than a few hundred dollars to operate. Now, Netflix is selling convenience, not access, allowing Hollywood to still be profitable, only due to consumers choosing to pay a few dollars rather than spending ten minutes on sketchy websites promoting Russian drugs. Same goes for Spotify. Users would rather pay a few dollars because it’s the cheapest option on the app store, since pirate apps aren’t legally allowed to step foot on the app store. Non-legal options exist, they just aren’t convenient to use.

We can also look at manufacturing. While it seems it will only be a matter of time for manufacturing to be cheap enough to make industrial goods in home garages, currently it’s possible to 3d print an entire rocket with a dozen engineers. By the 2050s, makers of industrial machinery might be in the domain of girl scouts, knocking on doors with a smile: “Hello sir, would you like to buy our metal casting machine for $19.99 and support South Town Children’s hospital?”. But by itself this wouldn’t be sufficient to sustain Kevin’s home-brew industrial revolution, capitalism would likely adapt — though damaged — by finding chokehold points, or creating them. For example, the auto industry would be eaten alive with the rise of cheap CNC mills and metal 3D printers; nothing would stop local auto shops from manufacturing Fords and Toyotas. The problem is the existing regulatory body, where driving without a licenses plate could lead to jail. The auto industry would fight to death to maintain the DMV, and probably even fund it themselves if required to ensure each car on the road paid IP rent to Detroit’s big three. So, while IP circumvention could do amazing damages to patent and copyright holders and drag their investments to the ground, the existence of a legal IP regime would still allow large corporations to function, on a scale of billions too. IP abolition is necessary!

Copyleft is a clever trick to undermine IP, using existing laws to prevent them from being appropriated. The Free Software Movement has been a pioneer, starting in the 80s as a revolt by hackers in companies and research universities against their own class of employers who were enclosing every software they could put their hands on. The GNU system was born in reaction, software that is free and everyone can freely edit and distribute it. Starting with a decent burst, GNU has been stagnant for some time. Currently the only important component of the GNU ecosystem widely used is the gcc compiler.

The rest of the movement has been taken over by its younger cousin, Open Source. This movement was founded by a faction of  sharp minded right-libertarians within the free software movement, who liked the superior mode of collaborative production but didn’t want to be part of a social movement against corporate capitalism. “Open source” projects thus became the business-friendly version for companies to adopt and allowed them to hire hackers to tinker with their software in-house for a wage. Open source is now a codeword for free subsidies to expensive operations.

Finally, Creative Commons is embarrassingly the least effective of them all. The project was founded by Lawrence Lessig, a sincere liberal, who even attempted to run for president in 2016 on an explicit platform to get money out of politics. Lessig believes that filesharing is still a form of theft, and what is needed isn’t IP repeal, but a more fair licensing scheme by lawmakers. Currently, creative commons is only a rubber stamp for artists who want to distribute their content for free without companies making money from them.

Free Software has dwindled away after a few years of militancy against software vendors, the open source movement became a pool of free labor for Silicon Valley, and the creative commons is dead in the water. Where they all failed is in addressing the question of organized labor!

The struggle of labor has been a long one, and constantly changes shape. From artisan radicals forming guilds, to the early industrial unions organizing unskilled workers such as the IWW, later the CIO during its militant phase in middle of the Great Depression, and black Detroit auto workers forming unions against union bosses, labor organizing takes many forms. A call for organized labor is necessary here too as copyleft fails to reward labor and allows laborers to remain at the mercy of corporate sponsorship, donations, or just volunteer opportunities. If general knowledge is seen as a commons, it needs to be fenced in to keep freeloaders from using it, just like every other living corporation. In fairness, Richard Stallman mentioned something similar in the GNU manifesto, that it should be governed in such a way as to remain open, and that he didn’t think public domain would be sufficient to do so, hence creating copyleft licenses.

GNU is not in the public domain. Everyone will be permitted to modify and redistribute GNU, but no distributor will be allowed to restrict its further redistribution. That is to say, proprietary modifications will not be allowed. I want to make sure that all versions of GNU remain free.

But it appears he hasn’t figured out an answer to the question of labor. Giving everyone equal access — including corporations — to GNU, won’t create an equal playing field due to issues of prefiguration. What is needed is a commons that is governed to be inclusive for most while being hostile to predatory actors such as agents of capital.

The biggest difference between Marx’s General Intellect and commons-based peer production is that General Intellect is perceived as a component integrated in the legacy mode of production. Commons-based production, at the most thoughtful level, is considered to be some form of post-capitalism working in parallel to legacy production. Both are useful but, when it comes to labor, in the case of commons-based production, one mode of production is leeching off the other as a freeloader. Capitalism keeps appropriating community projects and using them as an opportunity to lower production costs by socializing the risks to others, with no protection mechanisms from outside predatory actors.

General Intellect should act as a vanguard of labor, in which intellectual property rights are asserted and registered to a commons with some type of copyleft licenses, working as a trap door where things go in but can’t come out.

This vanguard would be an umbrella organization that manages governance, similar to the Free Software Foundation, Mozilla, or Wikimedia Foundation — with dues paying members for access to the entire commons, and self government inside the commons. This organization would provide  a long list of open source tools for manufacturing and online platforms for coordinating and organizing production. Industries with a heavy investment in IP can be easiest to grow, and the pharmaceutical industry would end up competing with a large organization possessing an endless collection of copyleft drug patents, where the majority of the population can use them, but not the organization itself. In reality, the ‘organization’ is a phantom, it is made of small pharma producers, either working as independent shops or factories managed as worker cooperatives. Microprocessors can be designed and edited online with ad-hoc organizing, but only worker-owned chip foundries are allowed to fabricate. Competition is allowed among different actors inside the commons. Cooperative auto shops can start manufacturing auto parts in neighborhood garages scattered across the rust belt and send them to an assembly ‘front’ managed by them to get a regulatory approval stamp. Individual consumers can submit their personal data to encrypted clouds, so AI teams can have superior data to the mega corporations who fight over recreating piles of data for each company. With very simple rules, all intellectual property rights are surrendered to the commons licensed as copyleft, what you take you give back if improved on — and do not scab!

There might be a need to compensate intellectual labor in order to keep the commons running, with an internal economy within the commons itself. But most importantly, it shouldn’t be transactional, otherwise it would recreate market logic. Perhaps it should have some income sharing mechanism where those who produce commodities give back to the commons to maintain it, but one maintained in such a way as to avoid the coercive nature of taxation, and also not create a form of some parliamentary system tasked with distributing resources based on their own opinion. Each actor has a right to spend their own ‘tax’ on what they see fit to any other actor who contribute to the commons, to gift to whom they please as long as it fits a broad set of rules democratically agreed upon.

This General Intellect Commons shouldn’t restrict  itself to acting independently, rather it should it see itself as part of the labor of movement of cooperative companies and networked craftsmen. Workers in other legacy industries shouldn’t be seen as competitors, but as workers yet to join. Solidarity funds can be set aside for critical strikes, cooperative food stores can develop an ethic to send free groceries to ease the life of those recently fired for workplace militancy, and collective buying from a specific store by a group of well funded worker cooperative can expand its operations. If workers understand that they have a chance to devalue their bosses equity by raising labor demands, then take it over, each dollar earned in wages is a dollar lost in profit, meaning devaluation in stock price, and a cheaper price to buy their own company. With enough militancy and outside support, workers could eventually reach a point where it becomes possible to purchase their own company from their employer below market rate – because who wants to buy a company with nasty workers — and with the understanding that once a worker cooperative, the commons suddenly becomes open to them for use as new revenue sources and fast company rejuvenation. A mutual bank can help facilitate this transition, and probably even have its own formula to decide whether to loan or not based on special calculations such as potential profit margins after becoming worker owned with new revenues from the commons.

To conclude, the general intellect should be seen as a foundational infrastructure for labor, by asserting intellectual property rights and freely distributing them among each other with a few exclusionary exceptions for holders of patents and capital. It can be best seen as a evolution of the traditions of guild socialism along with industrial democracy and the traditional workers movement against bosses. Steve Ballmer of Microsoft once called Linux in its early days cancer, describing its viral GPL licenses which forces any link to other software to be licensed under GPL as well. General Intellect should be configured in a similar way too, as the cancer spreading on the body of capital, whether it unleashes a moral panic among politicians to ease IP regimes to weaken the power of the labor movement and shoot themselves in the foot, or wait and die a slow and painful death. Both are positive outcomes.

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