Saturday, September 24, 2005

Class, capitalism and the creative commons

Raymond Williams' wonderful little book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society opened my eyes to the language of class struggle that’s implicit in the fight over digital technologies. As an example, let’s take the term “Creative Commons”.

The terms common and commons had a very early use (16th Century) as an indicator of social division, that is, the common people as contrasted with lords and nobility. Since the Left sees itself as defending ordinary folk, and the Right is aligned with the elites, it’s no surprise to see an association between left-wing politics, the enclosure of the commons, and the needs of the “digital revolution”:

The re-election of George W. Bush makes it abundantly clear that a fierce new round of pillage and plunder is about to begin. Over the next four years, market enclosure will be taken to new extremes -- oil drilling in the Arctic wilderness, more privatization of government drug research, giveaways of the broadcast airwaves, the shrinking of the public domain, among many others. (David Bollier, The Commons as a Movement.)
This analysis also shows up in specific policy arguments: Yochai Benkler conjures up enclosure in a discussion of the spectrum commons and intellectual property (see e.g. The commons as a neglected factor of information policy) and The New America Foundation, a left-wing think tank, has been active on the topic of the spectrum commons.

In such a context, the notion of creativity also has strong class war connotations. Williams gives an excerpt from Thomas Hodgskin’s Labor Defended against the Claims of Capital (1825) in his discussion of the term capitalism in Keywords (op cit.) which argues that “all the capitalists of Europe, with all their circulating capital, cannot of themselves supply a single week’s food and clothing”, and “betwixt him who produces food and him who uses them, in steps the capitalist, who neither makes nor uses them and appropriates to himself the produce of both”. By implication, the working people are the creative ones, and the capitalists are parasites. In the discussion of class, Williams quotes O’Brien in the Poor Man’s Guardian (19 Oct 1833) writing about establishing “for the productive classes a complete dominion over the fruits of the own industry” – that could’ve been Richard Stallman talking.

Last but not least: it should come as no surprise that the entrepreneurial class sees some of these trends as a threat as grave as communism, or that activists have taken on the mantle of “commonists” (sic) with pride (Google bibliography).

These political connotations in the term “creative commons” are surely intentional, and accurate to the extent that we’re seeing a political struggle over how to structure an economic system. However, the language can become misleading because many of the semantic associations are out of date. The issues at play today are not the stuff of industrial capitalism. The “capitalists” no longer control the means of production, given that the means of production in a knowledge economy is an educated mind plugged into a network of common (in the sense of shared) interest. Since many more elements of production are non-rival, it’s no longer the zero sum fight over rival resources that it used to be.

It may still be Us vs. Them, as it is in any fight, but it would be wrong to assume that it’s that Us and Them are the same social constructs (workers, capitalists) as they were in the 19th Century.

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