Law in the Internet Society
When we talked today about political economy, I started thinking - I must confess, as I am prone to do - what would Marx make of this?

Well, he would probably think he was right. Such thinking fits neatly with his thinking: the spread of machines, or the creation of the all-encompassing, pervasive neuro-anatomy of the internet reminded me of a quote from the Communist Manifesto: 'the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.'

Such prescience is characteristic of Marx. (Speaking of which, when I googled that quote, it actually returned this. But I digress.)

So then, how would Marx agree that the consumer driven economy as a method of resolving the problem of surplus? (o be honest, I'm not sure he would accept that this resolves the problem, which arguably was better managed by the destruction of capital via two World Wars. Perhaps the reliance on a consumer is mere temporary management of the chaotic nature of capitalism rather than its resolution.

For Marx in that sense, then, does the creation of the internet - like the industrial revolution, or the proletarianisation of Chinese peasants, say - pave the way for revolution? Is this what transforms the working class into the revolutionary class (like the bourgeois who now dominate)? Or is that age passed now? Is there another class of people who are the lynchpin to production (and consumption) that have the power to transform society? It leads me to an uncomfortable possibility that this class may in fact be techies and nerds. I doubt it, I still think it's the working class - the people who make and consume things - that make the world go around. I'd be curious to know if others agree.

-- LizzieOShea - 17 Sep 2015

You could take my contribution to this rumination to be the dotCommunistManifesto of 2003, I suppose.....

Yes I like this! And if anyone ever needed a justification for the abolition of property in ideas, surely this serves that purpose. Imagine a world where this was renationalised or re-appropriated!

My concern is that if we do think that 'the creators' are the revolutionary class (and this probably needs greater analysis) I'm a bit worried that this will go awry. There are so few people with knowledge and understanding of the web and how it works that a key project must be to develop such literacy more broadly, kind of like general literacy. The Rights of Man was read aloud in pubs because people couldn't read - so there are ways around it. But I'm concerned that the creators do not have political grounding (or a developed political culture) that protects against cooptation or compromise. There is no real movement to hold them accountable. Many techies I meet also think that technology will find a solution to many of these problems, like surveillance, data accumulation etc. That seems fundamentally to misunderstand the world we live in.

So we need more people who can speak their language to argue about these points and more people who speak the language to orient toward mass movements, away from power and privilege. Obvious really, I guess, just hard to put into action.


I share Lizzie's concerns, and add that I remain unconvinced by Eben's answer to my question today in class. As much as I agree that "increasing the quantity of human knowledge" is important for increasing class consciousness, I nonetheless feel that this revolutionary prescription departs from Marxist canon, the persuasiveness of which relies on its intimate marriage with the really existing material forces that govern human existence.

You did hear me point out that I'm not in fact a Marxist, right? I don't depart from the canon, I make off with it. In fact, I'm not a Marxist any more than Marx was. I am also a historically-oriented social theorist, with a set of concerns that take their root in political economy and technology. I'm no philosopher, as my co-author was no computer programmer at all. Neither of us follows one another's doctrine, of which there isn't any. We are thinkers and politicians who are part of the long struggle for freedom of thought. I think the idea we call "Marx" along with the idea we call "Darwin" and the idea we call "Freud" are the greatest intellectual achievements of the period from the French Revolution to the First World War that we call the Nineteenth Century. Comprehending the implications of those ideas is what it means to have attained intellectual culture in our time, from my point of view: being "against" one of them makes no more sense than being "against" Isaac Newton or Pablo Picasso. But I'm not a Newtonist or a Picassist, either.

I didn't say increasing the quantity of intelligence was important for increasing class consciousness: I said it was important for solving the myriad hard problems that collectively constitute the problem of subsistence. I said that from my point of view there is no point of investment of social force where one can achieve as many advances as one can here. I was then and I am speaking of advances on the problem of subsistence: how, as I said, to make a human population as large as the carrying capacity of the planet itself live without poverty and deprivation. I think, as I said, that the point of attending to the brains growing within the network is that the brains thereby liberated think about the problems of survival and welfare of the people around them. By multiplying the quantity of human intelligence we multiply the intelligence devoted to human survival and welfare, which does not scale by quality, but by quantity. These are the things I said, and which I think. Perhaps you think something else, and that would be the place for us to resume the conversation. The rest of this schematic below doesn't seem to be responsive to what I said at all, wherever it comes from (note: referenced schematic has been removed)

So I think you're being at once too functionalist and too idealistic, Shay. We have the productive capacity to feed everyone in the world (a gift, shall we say, of the industrial revolution, though it is a more recent capacity) and yet we fail to do that. We also now have the infrastructure in place to allow people to read and learn and think in a way that simply wasn't possible fifty years ago. And yet people can't read and write. These problems are as much a function of politics as technology. The the current capacity of technology is limited by politics. How do we transform that into a society that has food, clothing, shelter but also knowledge? Wresting control of technology from the current power brokers is a necessary step. It's not just a matter of the revolution reaching people. That sounds nice but I think you've simplified it in your own mind.* How does that work? Where would it start? Would it not look like taking control of technology? Would it not look like more time to learn, less working, more health care, less profiteering from pharma? etc etc

For what it is worth - and in the interests of intellectual honesty - I do identify as a Marxist. Not dogmatically; perhaps a little instinctively, in that I can't find anyone with a more convincing set of analytical tools for understanding the world, even if we can argue endlessly about their application. So if that just makes me a thinker and a politician so be it. What I would say is that Marxist thinking, in my view, certainly is not simply concerned with materialism. It's about bread and roses.

*sorry this sounded patronising - I don't know what goes on in your mind, but I think you've simplified it nonetheless.

Eben - I apologize if my previous comment was unclear, but its intention is to demonstrate that one of the most important implications of "the idea we call 'Marx'" is that the ultimate constraint on human freedom is the struggle for subsistence. Your response demonstrates exactly what I take issue with. How can you on the one hand invoke Marx's name and on the other argue that reducing human illiteracy is more socially productive than investing directly in expanding access to food, water, or (as I hope to do) energy? The children of the world are not exploited because they use the incorrect software. They are exploited because they do not possess sufficient resources to survive. The anxiousness and fear resulting from that insufficiency convinces them to engage in a system of production that is fundamentally exploitative and directs their labor time to frivolous endeavors.

The United States is one of the most literate nations in the world, and how do American prodigies use that literacy? By building Facebook, iPhones, and Tinder - precisely the sort of innovations you condemn. The most talented, successful and well-educated should be spending their time solving the problem of subsistence. As I see it, the Revolution should begin there - not by hoping that others will do it for us.

Lizzie - I don't think we actually disagree, My position is that the primary barrier to change is that labor and capital are not being directed to their proper use. The solution is to begin directing labor and capital to their proper use. That necessarily involves politics and technological change. I am unconvinced that it necessarily must involve fundamentally altering the software we use to communicate and acquire information.

Sure - I think you are right Shay, that we agree on many things. But in respect of your ideas about barriers to change: an injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. Democratic software development is one way to struggle for liberation; the development of accessible, sustainable energy for populations in developing countries is another. They aren't mutually exclusive, and one's not necessarily better than the other. We need lots more of both - don't you agree? I think creating social change is about finding what you are good at, identifying how that challenges power and then pushing. Hard. Answering those questions is not always easy to do, but the answers will certainly not be the same for everyone.

To be clear Lizzie, my purpose in this challenge is not to demean Eben's life work, but to understand it as a (relatively) like-minded individual. As a materialist it is obvious to me what reducing the price of energy does for human economies. That effect is tangible, proven, and grounded in laws of the physical environment. When the marginal cost of producing energy is zero, poverty and strife will disappear and there will be no limit on what human societies can achieve.

At some level I still do not see that with the free software movement. I do not see how dropping more informational material on people creates fundamental change on its own. The most well-educated climate change deniers have plenty of access to information, but they simply use that information as a means to solidify their own self-interested belief system. The most well-educated CEO of a commercial bank also has plenty of access to information, but simply uses that information to structure his learning process around the financial goals of his organization - and no amount of education about the structure of a credit default swap will make it any more ethical or socially valuable. So long as there remains a dominant economic order that fails to marry economic activity with use value, more information will merely augment the superstructure of an unjust system.

But Shay you talk about reducing the marginal cost of producing energy to zero as if it is just question of physics. It's not. It's political. You're falling into the exact trap that I worried about way back when I was typing in grey about techies thinking technology will solve the problem (which, fwiw, I don't think is what Eben thinks but he can speak for himself). You're right, dropping more science, physics, information onto people won't change things. What's concealed in your simple dream of a world where the 'marginal cost of producing energy is zero' is a massive revolutionary upheaval that will transform industry, politics and presumably art and culture also. So creating spaces for people to dream about these things and paths for them to put them into action is the project we all agree on, even if we are taking on different roles in signposting the way. There are no shortcuts or simple answers.

You are correct that I place a substantial amount of faith in technological growth and deemphasize the role of politics. I was raised by engineers, so perhaps I approach social policy as essentially an engineering problem - one that can be solved simply by redirecting resources to their optimal use, and revising long-standing policies through a systemic framework. The truth is that I do not think coming up with the policy solutions is all that hard. When you live in a world where a total of 85 people control as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent of humanity, and when the predominant source of that wealth is investment in economic waste, it does not exactly take a fucking astrophysicist to figure out what must be done.

The problem with the world is that people are doing too much thinking and too little doing. The pieces are there and the policy solutions have been plastered across every journal from here to Moscow. Yes, politics is slow and controlled by vested interests. But if the People connect with one other and demand what is rightfully ours, we will get it. Where free software fits into that picture is what I find confusing, since I do not see how the tools we already use are inadequate for reaching people and sparking dissent. See Egyptian Revolution of 2011.


Webs Webs

r15 - 25 Sep 2015 - 00:43:23 - ShayBanerjee
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM