Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Excerpt from the Hitman's dilemma (Keith Hart)

Keith Hart (see the linklist)

Ordinary people exchange services as equals on the internet in their capacity as individuals endowed with personality and agency. The digital revolution, by radically cheapening the information attached to long-distance transactions, makes it possible for these individuals to enter several markets, notably those for credit, as persons with a known history. Governments and corporations need each other, for sure, but their interests are far from coincident. Both may be vulnerable to self-conscious use of internet resources by democratic movements aiming to subvert their respective monopolies.

The three classes of political economy

Resources ---- Environment - Money - Human creativity
Factors ----------- Land ---------- Capital -------Labor
Classes 1 ------- Landlords ------ Capitalists ----- Workers
Classes 2 ----- Governments -- Corporations -- - Persons
Income -----------Tax --------- Rent/Profit ---- Wages

In many ways, our world resembles the old regime of agrarian civilization and this is as a consequence of the unequal power concentrated in the hands of enforcers and rentiers. Hence the appropriateness of the term “information feudalism” for our era. The world is now witnessing the triumph of that “pseudo-aristocracy” of commercial monopolists that Jefferson once saw as the main danger to liberal democracy. It is as if the East India Company had never suffered the reverse of American independence.
We could do worse then than return to Ricardo’s focus on how wealth is distributed in human society and, in particular, on the contradiction between coercive demands for tax and rent and the formation of a world market where people in general might enjoy the benefits of the machine revolution, if they were left free to exchange goods and services as equals. This rather abstract formulation can be seen at work concretely in current conflicts over intellectual property rights.
The fight is on to save the commons of human culture, society and environment from the encroachments of corporate private property. This is no longer mainly a question of conserving the earth's natural resources, although it is definitely that too, nor of the deterioration of public services left to the mercies of privatized agencies. The internet has raised the significance of intangible commodities. Increasingly we buy and sell ideas; and their reproduction is made infinitely easier by digital technologies.
Accordingly, the large corporations have launched a campaign to assert their exclusive ownership of what until recently was considered shared culture to which all had free and equal access. Across the board, separate battles are being fought, without any real sense of the common cause that they embody. The “napsterization” of popular music, harbinger of peer-to-peer exchange between individual computers, is one such battle pitting the feudal barons of the music business against our common right to transmit songs as we wish. The world of the moving image, film, television and video, is likewise a site of struggle sharpened by fast-breaking technologies affecting their distribution and use. In numerous subtle and not-so-subtle ways, our ability to draw freely on a common heritage of language, literature and law is being undermined by the aggressive assertion of copyright. People who never knew they shared a common infrastructure of culture are now being forced to acknowledge it by aggressive policies of corporate privatization. And these policies are being promoted at the international level by the same US government whose armed forces now seem free to run amok in the world. But others, notably the European Union, are not far behind. In the case of the internet, what began as a free communications network for a scientific minority is now the contested domain of giant corporations and governments.
The free software and open source movement, setting Linux and an army of hackers against Microsoft's monopoly, has opened up fissures within corporate capitalism itself. The shift to manufacturing food varieties has introduced a similar struggle to agriculture, amplified by a revival of “organic” farming in the context of growing public concern about genetic modification. The pharmaceutical companies try to ward off the threat posed to their lucrative monopolies by cheap generics aimed at the Third World populations who need them most. The buzzword is “intellectual property rights,” slogan of a corporate capitalism determined to impose antiquated command and control methods on world markets whose constitutive governments have been cowed into passivity. The largest demonstrations against the neo-liberal world order, from Seattle to Genoa, have been mobilized to a significant degree by the need to oppose this particular version of global private property.

In my recent book on money, my first idea was that the cheapening of information transfers as a result of the digital revolution might allow the impersonal economy of the twentieth century to be “repersonalized,” by attaching more information to individual transactions and potentially granting individuals greater control over work, consumption and credit. But it did not take me long to realize that a fully personal economy would return us all to the world of gangsters, both medieval and modern.
We need new impersonal norms capable of standardizing social interactions where the nation-state can no longer reach – law, money, education, technology – the list is endless. So our task is not to replace impersonal society with personal life, but to discover new ways of combining them. The hit man’s dilemma is to be human or inhuman. It is a dilemma shared by kings, generals, presidents and CEOs, when they contemplate the human cost of an action undertaken on behalf of some collective interest. It probably won’t go away.
But I have argued in this essay that our ability to devise ways of curbing the undesirable effects of high-handed behavior on the part of the powerful has been deeply undermined by the legal culture granting business corporations the rights of living persons. The liberal revolution against the old regime -- especially, in view of later developments, the American war of independence – sought to grant free citizens equal (and therefore impersonal) rights in society. This meant being very clear about the difference between individual persons and impersonal institutions. Such a separation was intrinsic to the rise of modern capitalism, as we have seen. But capitalism took a bureaucratic turn in the late nineteenth century and this was the time that business corporations, beginning in the USA, sought to collapse the legal distinction between real and artificial persons. The impersonal society of the twentieth century flourished on this basis and, for many people, the idea that they might exercise personal responsibility in the economic or political spheres became simply inconceivable. Some intellectuals jumped onto the obvious corruption of liberal ideals to advocate a variety of anti-liberal ideologies, drawing on the same confusion of people, ideas and things that had become normal in economic law.
At the beginning of this present century, we have grown familiar with the spectacle of strong states and sometimes even stronger transnational corporations riding roughshod over human rights and international law itself in the name of the “free market,” especially for digital commodities. The struggle to reverse this “information feudalism” must take place at many different levels. Here I have argued that one of them might be to re-examine the metaphysics of where personal agency meets the impersonal conditions of its expression. We might begin by making such an enquiry explicitly historical. For the confusion of our times is fed by an indifference to history that allows the heirs of America’s anti-colonial revolution to reinvent the corporate monopolies of absolutist monarchy in the name of liberal democracy. If the Europeans can’t see through this, perhaps the Chinese, Indians or Brazilians will. We cannot return to the eighteenth century, but we can learn how we got from there to here in preparation for deciding what to do next.
To borrow one of John Locke’s preoccupations, we must deal with the semantic criminals who pollute our public discourse with their dissembling words. These are the hired spokesmen of the economic criminals who aim to hijack the machine revolution for their own immoral ends. George Orwell, where are you when we most need you? As for the notion that there is a difference between the operational standards of legal and illegal businesses, well, nobody believes that any more, do they? Yet at another level we accept the idea that plutocracy is in the general interest, as if the age of money were good for all of us equally. Perhaps it takes a Nixon to explode this doublethink, to show us that capitalism’s moral economy, resting as it does on the division of human experience into personal and impersonal spheres, is a dangerous illusion. I have already pointed out that the word “don” refers to both gangsters and academics. Each is willing to suspend their humanity in order to treat people as abstract ciphers, as a contract or just an idea. There may be more to the deconstructionist mafioso joke than was apparent at first.


Piet: Keith seems to have given up on lists such as this: http://www.oekonux.org/list-en/archive/index.html and I haven't even ever spotted him here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ijccr/messages (International Journal for Community Currency Research) - Todd Boyle shows up there less and less as well .. . . how high hopes unravel .. . .

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