The political economy of Marx and Engels’ writings

Benkler-Yochai

By Maxigas

“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come intoconflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.” – Karl Marx, Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859).

The contradictions between the contemporary intellectual property regime – or more precisely the right of owners to exert rent over knowledge and information – and the peer production of the knowledge commons have found another profound expression last week, reminding us of Proudhon’s famous maxim that “Property is theft”.

The publishing house of the English language Collected Works of Marx and Engels (in 50 volumes) started enforcing copyright against the volunteer-run Marxist Internet Archive which carried some content from the first ten volumes integrated into the website. As Pepperell points out Lawrence & Wishart had an agreement with the Archive and an option to cancel. The conflict was handled reasonably (for better or worse) by both parties with a concise statement from both sides.

The occassion presented itself for everybody on the Internet to do what they are best in:

  • Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing articulated the default digital native point of view: there are many ways to put it, but let’s say that you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. So he created a torrent. Because Internet.
  • Alex Golub on Savage Minds joined many academics in a genre of trolling which is older than the Internet: sectarian Marxist in-fighting in the face of requests for solidarity – without proposing any practical solutions.
  • Christian Fuchs on his blog also did what he does best: analysing the political economy of digital labour and coming up with an action plan. Firstly, like others, pointing out the most obvious conceptual mistakes in the publisher’s statement. On the one hand (like Golub), the argument by Lawrence & Wishart that their upcoming electronic edition will ensure the public availability of the works and therefore it would be a contribution to the commons is bogus, since university paywalls are concrete barriers to access for most people. On the other hand (like Doctorow), the material conditions of contemporary communication means that take down notices are bound to backfire. Secondly (like Proudhon), he retraced and recounted the work – in terms of human labour time — which went into the volumes and concluded that if Lawrence & Wishart contends that the Marxist Internet Archive steals from them then they also have to contend that they themselves steal from Marx and Engels. Thirdly (like let’s see who), he identified the root of the problem in the fact that there is no other translation of these works in the public domain.

And there goes everybody, he called on the Internet to re-translate and re-produce the 50 volumes of the Collected Works via technologically mediated open mass collaboration. Because we need a thoroughly modern, maintainable and legal translation. Having argued that, he set to work and translated the first few passages.

The gesture – attentive readers may have already found out – is that of Richard Stallman, who founded free software by leading the people to rewrite the whole UNIX operating system under the name GNU: “GNU Is Not Unix”. Indeed, since that time it became routine for free software programmers to create free software alternatives by reimplementing the features of commercial tools. It worked with the most sophisticated operating system of the time, and it worked again in another context with Encyclopedia Britannica. Can it work with Marx? Only if both publishers and academics can come to terms with peer production, get off their asses and get out of their ivory towers – and carry out their social functions of producing and distributing knowledge to all. The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

Maxigas Maxigas studied literature, films and philosophy before becoming a social scientist in Science and Technology Studies. He learnt life as an avantgarde troublemaker, media activist, radical sysadmin and connoisseur of cyberculture. He is currently investigating the unfinished artifacts and architectures of hackerspaces as a Phd candidate at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) within the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), and on a quest to build a biological computer in the biolab of Calafou.       @metatronrunit