Three proposals for a real democracy

Partagez —> /

Information-Sharing to a Different Tune[This text was written for the “Sourcebook” of the upcoming Werkleitz
program on Common Property (www.werkleitz.de). It’s a continuation of the
excellent polemic launched by Rasmus Fleischer against flat-rate proposals
designed to “compensate” copyright holders for file sharing (see nettime,
13/7/04, and below). Is a flatrate better than Digital Rights Management
as it’s beginning to emerge? No doubt, but it isn’t a reason to stop
thinking about a world that you’d really like to live in. – BH
Since their invention a few years ago, p2p file-sharing networks for the
free exchange of music have been the gadfly of consumer capitalism.
Puncturing the profits of the recording industry, they have brought
unlimited pop to teenagers’ lives, and an ironic smile to the lips of
those Internet purists who always scorned the profit-seeking illusions of
the “new economy.” For the politically minded – and particularly the older
set, who still equate guitars with protest movements – this massive
transgression of copyright law could make it seem like a long-awaited
breath of cultural revolt was in the air. But there was just one problem:
who would pay the piper? How would the artists (and, some added, the
recording companies) survive in a world of free music? Recently, quite a
narrow range of solutions have been proposed: either pay-per-song download
sites, in a centralizing scheme favored by the music industry; or a
“flatrate” tax on Internet users, preserving file-sharing by prov iding a
source of monetary compensation to be distributed among the copyright
holders. One of the flatrate proposals, specifically addressed to the EU’s
Internal Market Directorate, makes this case for peer-to-peer
technologies: “The digital revolution holds the potential of a semiotic
democracy, the reuse and remix culture being one of its most promising
innovative aspects.”(1) So let’s ask a question: exactly what’s being
promised here? And above all, how to get it? How to move from a semiotic
to a real democracy?

Take another example of the digital revolution: the call for
electronic publication of scientific and scholarly journals, by groups
like the Public Library of Science or the Budapest Open Access
Initiative.(2) Such publication projects have received extensive support
from scholars and scientists, as they would eliminate the barriers to the
exchange of knowledge represented by skyrocketing costs for peer-reviewed
print journals, which have become prohibitively expensive even for many
universities in the developed world. Together with guidelines for
self-archiving (i.e. electronic publication without peer review), these
initiatives promise the (re)creation of what certain theorists have begun
to call an “information commons,”(3) resulting in a major transfer of
knowledge from the wealthier institutions to their poorer cousins, and
ultimately, from the North to the South. Of course, we are still talking
about purely semiotic freedoms. But what might arise from the “reuse and
remix” of scientific and scholarly knowledge? Well, technological
development, for one thing. And there, the need to go beyond a semiotic
democracy is obvious.

Consider the case of highly expensive AIDS drugs. The knowledge and
technology required to manufacture these medicines at low cost is already
widely available. But the capacity to do so is limited by
patent-protection regimes established on a global scale by the World
Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the TRIPS agreement
(Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) of the WTO. It’s
against international law to save poor people’s lives with rich people’s
science. Nonetheless, the combined efforts of AIDS activists, NGOs, health
ministries in the underdeveloped countries, and risk-taking manufacturers
such as Cipla in India, led to the deliberate transgression of the patent
regimes (in 2001, Cipla could offer its tri-therapy generics to Medecins
sans Frontieres for a cost of $340 a year per patient, compared to $10,400
for the high end of the trademarked medicines (4). The result of this
activism was the WTO’s historic Doha Declaration, which granted exceptions
to the TRIPS provisions on patent law in the case of “national
emergencies,” specifically including epidemics of AIDS, malaria and
tuberculosis.(5) Yet the intent of the declaration is now being blocked,
by collusion between the transnational drug industry and the current US
administration.(6) Intellectual property laws make it difficult to realize
the promise of free information exchange.

Why are the hidden connections between file-sharing (in everyday
life), open publishing (in scientific and scholarly disciplines) and the
transfer of vitally needed technologies (in North-South relations) not
immediately obvious to large numbers of people? Or in other words: why is
the democratic promise of the Internet (or the digital revolution) so
broadly ignored? Let’s go back to the departure point: solutions to the
“problem” of free music. An essayist named Rasmus Fleischer has a critique
of the flatrate proposal, and specifically, of its claim to offer
compensation to property-rights holders without exerting any control over
users: “The record industry builds its power and its business model upon
the ability to control people’s musical preferences, and it’s damn
important for them not to loose their grip over that. It seems unsure how
long they could go on motivating their existence in a situation where they
do not themselves control how music is packaged and prese nted, what kinds
of collection albums and boxes are marketed, when the different singles of
an album are released in different parts of the world, etc. In fact, one
could say that the music industry needs the money that current copyright
laws grant them precisely in order to exercise control.”(7)

Fleischer puts a finger on exactly what most advocates of free
file-sharing fail to mention: what’s being massively exchanged over p2p
systems are not independently developed works like open-source software,
but commercially produced pop tunes which form a part of today’s control
culture. In contemporary societies, the word “control” can serve to
designate the ways that exclusive property rights are defended from
effective critique, through a carefully orchestrated media modulation of
attention, memory and belief. We’re no longer talking about ideology as a
single, totalizing worldview, and Debord’s description of the spectacle
society was still too general, too imprecise; what we find in reality is a
rivalrous mesh of solicitations, distractions, incitements, all
reinforcing different aspects of the basic set of social roles that shape
our productivity and desire. Maurizio Lazzarato describes the ways that
corporations “create worlds” for their workers and consumers, and engage
in “aesthetic wars” to maintain their attractive power and belief-inducing
consistency: “It is enough to turn on the television or the radio, go for
a walk in a city, buy a weekly or daily newspaper, to know that this world
is constructed through a statement-assemblage, through a sign regime, the
expression of which is called advertising; and what is expressed (the
meaning) is a prompt or a command, which in themselves are a valuation, a
judgment, a belief about the world, about oneself and others. What is
expressed (the meaning) is not an ideological valuation, but rather an
incentive (it gives signs), a prompt to assume a form of living, i.e. a
way of dressing, having a body, eating, communicating, residing, moving,
having a gender, speaking, etc.”(8)

The creation of rhythmically modulated worlds of sensation and desire
is easy enough to grasp in the case of pop-music consumption – and
innocuous enough, you might think. A more pointed example would be the
endless streams of advertising for pharmaceutical products, offering a
longer and healthier life, modulating moods and promising vitality, even
ecstasy. But advertising is only one part of the control equation.
Consider the complex opinion-shaping operations required to maintain the
belief that the sky-high prices of pharmaceutical products are justified,
even when the scientific discoveries that underlie them have most often
been made at public universities, using public funds (as is the case in
the United States). The classic argument – repeated in the news media
whenever necessary – is that it costs a total of $500 to $800 million to
develop, test and produce a new drug, expenditures beyond the reach of any
public research institution. However, those figures are provided by a
lobby, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, and by a
research center which receives 65% of its funding directly from the
industry; real costs are probably a small fraction of the claimed amount.
When pressed by a South African court to open their books and prove the
research costs which justify their need for exclusive patents on AIDS
drugs, 39 pharmaceutical companies preferred to withdraw their suit
against the manufacture and distribution of generic medicines.(9) Such
cases threaten the industry’s manipulation of our belief; yet it remains a
$400 billion business worldwide, the third most profitable in 2003 (down
from first in 2001 and 2002). Marcia Angell makes this remark: “The most
startling fact about 2002 is that the combined profits for the ten drug
companies in the Fortune 500 ($35.9 billion) were more than the profits
for all the other 490 businesses put together ($33.7 billion).”(10) The
good life isn’t exactly free these days.

So what are the melodies that big pharma would like us to hear? One
that entices, another that deceives, and a third that motivates – like the
sound of a jackpot tinkling in the till. Among the neoliberal
transformations of the public sector is the way that research is
conducted. In the United States (which Europharma envies (11), the results
of research conducted with federal grant money can be patented by the
university and licensed exclusively to private start-ups, which then sell
their patented technologies to major corporations; inventors receive a
portion of the licensing revenues and may also have an interest in the new
business.(12) Withholding publication for patent protection has therefore
become increasingly frequent.(13) In this way, the culture of
privatization subtly controls the availability and applications of
research – but also the very motivation and desire of researchers, who are
encouraged to seek their own profit rather than to share knowledge as a
public good.

A bit of common knowledge applies here: “He who pays the piper, calls
the tune.” But when the payments have become structural, when they involve
a vast, interlocking system of regulations, interests, strategies and
seductions, then a change in the controlling rhythms of social experience
requires the introduction of something fundamentally different, entirely
outside the prevailing systems of payment (or extortion) that characterize
cognitive capitalism.(14) The free exchange of music files has that
something – not so much in the branded tunes as in the fact of free
exchange, outside a market structured overwhelmingly in the favor of
exclusive rightholders and monopolistic corporations. And each file
exchanged is a gift that challenges not just one industry (the recording
business) but the whole institution of intellectual property. Nonetheless,
if we are to make something of this upsurge of the commons in immediate
daily experience, it must be linked to a wider program for the
transformation of what are now the basic rules of social interchange. This
entails inventing and instituting the conditions for the production and
distribution of alternative forms of journalism, scientific and scholarly
knowledge, but also cultural creations such as music, literature and the
visual arts. Such alternative forms, in all their diversity and intricacy,
can also become war machines of a new and astonishing kind, in the
aesthetic struggle to create the worlds in which we live. What we need
today, on the Left, is to transform the possibilities of semiotic play,
stimulated by the “digital revolution,” into a far-ranging, multi-leveled,
but above all communicable and workable program for a real democracy.

To begin doing this requires a debate about the kinds of practices, struggles and goals that could effect such transformation. In other words, it’s necessary to grapple with the preconditions, both semiotic and material, of alternative information exchange – which ultimately means changing the current relations between the market, the state and the public domain or the commons. Without such a debate, aiming to create a program of substantive social change, what used to be called “the Left” will grow increasingly weaker, while the culture of privatization heightens world tensions by deepening basic inequalities. So let us begin right here. Starting with the promise of free information exchange, one could develop three interlinked proposals:

1. The constitution of a cultural and informational commons, whose
contents are freely usable and protected from privatization, using forms
such as the General Public License for software (copyleft), the Creative
Commons license for artistic and literary works, and the open-access
journals for scientific and scholarly publications. This cultural and
informational commons would run directly counter to WIPO/WTO treaties on
intellectual property and would represent a clear alternative to the
paradigm of cognitive capitalism, by conceiving human knowledge and
expression as something essentially common, to be shared and made
available as a virtual resource for future creation, both semiotic and
embodied, material and immaterial.

2. The egalitarian transformation of existing, publicly funded cultural
and scientific infrastructure (where elite interests determine the forms
of mass consumption), through the invention of new forms and protocols of
access to the means of the production and distribution of journalism,
culture and scientific knowledge, and to the complex resources necessary
for that production/distribution (archives, libraries, studio and
rehearsal spaces, laboratories, university courses, etc.). This
transformation – which alone can allow us to go beyond the domination of
public-opinion formation by market-driven televisual media – would serve
to encourage reasoned democratic debate (the exchange of ideas), but also
autonomous artistic creation and expressive politics (social movements).

3. The re-invention of former programs of collective insurance
safeguarding the health and well-being of society’s members, but in a new
and more diversified form, integrating both the demand for equality and
the right to difference: guaranteed basic income, provision of low-priced
lodging and basic services, health insurance and high-quality education
for all. The challenge here being not to revive the bureaucratic state
with its stultifying procedures of categorization and homogenization, but
rather to invent new forms of appropriation and even of property, whose
effects would be liberating but not isolating, socializing rather than
narrowly individualizing.

Together, these proposals sketch the outlines of a far-reaching
transformation. Yet each is simply essential for the concrete
participation of citizens in an egalitarian democracy. For you cannot
contribute to the wealth of global common goods without having access to
the tools of production/distribution, and to existing informational and
cultural resources; and yet this kind of engagement also requires that you
have the time, time liberated from the relentless need to earn money for
the basic necessities of social reproduction. The apparent audacity of
ideas like the information commons or the guaranteed basic income – their
apparent lack of “realism” – merely underscores the crying absence of the
political in today’s debates. There’s more at stake here than a catchy
tune, or a pill to make you dream. Only an ambition to change the rules of
the economy and, ultimately, the existing form of state, can supply the
oppositional force that is needed in the early twentieth-first century.
Yet the proposals above, inspired in part by the “digital revolution,”
indicate pragmatic changes which are already underway; they do not depend
on electoral victories for their realization. Rather than a complete,
finished program, they point toward an exodus from the present impasse.
Semiotics with material consequences. Information-sharing to a very
different tune.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons
Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial License. To view a copy of this
license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/1.0/ or send a
letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California
94305, USA.


1 “Berlin Declaration on Collectively Managed Online Rights: Compensation
Without Control,” at http://wizards-of-os.org/index.php?id=1699.

2 For a good description of the BOAI and links to corresponding
initiatives, see the FAQ at

3 The information commons – a notion strongly influenced by the practice
of open-source software distributed under the General Public License – is
succinctly defined by Yochai Benchler in his article “The Political
Economy of Commons,” in Upgrade, June 2003, vol. IV, #3, available at

4 Source: Libération, July 8, 2004, at

5 Text at

6 See the Health Global Access Project article at

7 “‘Content Flatrate’ and the Social Democracy of the Digital Commons,”
posted on nettime on 13/7/04, at

8 M. Lazzarato, “Créer des mondes,” in Multitudes 15 (Winter 2004), at art1285; the passage
quoted figures in “Struggle, Event, Media” at
www.republicart.net/disc/representations/lazzarato01_en.htm (translation

9 Source: “Yale University Shares Profits From AIDS Drugs,” Le Monde
diplomatique Feb. 2002, available at

10 “The Truth About the Drug Companies,” New York Review of Books, vol.
51, # 12 (July 2004), available at www.nybooks.com/articles/17244.

11 Not only the free research, but also the extraordinarily high
profitability of the manipulated US market excite the greed of European
pharmaceutical corporations. See the references to the U.S. in the 2003
industry report of the European pharmaceutical lobby EFPIA, at

12 The relevant legislation is known as the Bayh-Dole act, passed in 1980
at the very outset of the neoliberal turn; text at

13 Source of these assertions: Eyal Press, Jennifer Washburn, “The Kept
University,” The Atlantic (March 2000), at

14 Much of the writing in the French journal Multitudes has been devoted
to the contradictions of “cognitive capitalism,” which displaces the
creation of surplus value into a largely semiotic realm – but to do so,
relies on the intellectual and affective cooperation of people creating
their own measures of value, and working outside any direct labor
discipline. See esp. Multitudes 2 (May 2000), or the anthology Vers un
capitalisme cognitif (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2001).