March 8, 2006

On Liberalism, Anarchism, and Humanism

Category: F/OSS,Hackers,Liberalism — @ 9:48 am

So I have to say that David’s and Scott’s responses have really been engaging, and of course, have sparked a tremendous amount of ideas and responses. On the whole I tend to agree with the responses. When it comes to Raymond’s politics, Scott says it quite cogently. Raymond’s formulations, he writes, “serve similarly as an ideological guidepost for the corporate opensource folks; I’m not certain that places him at the opposite end of the liberal spectrum, but he certainly does put language to work distancing himself from Stallman and his unruly band of ideological tub-thumpers.” Can’t agree with this more. Raymond opened up a space by which a series of important translations and network extensions (in the Latourian sense) could unfold, ones that placed certain aspects of open source closer and within neoliberal territory.

That said, because of the work of Lessig as well as others like David Bollier and Siva Vaidhyanathan (other prominent spokespersons, again in the Latourian sense of the word, that translated the meaning of open source and brought it to new audiences) have brought the discourse of open source away from neoliberal territory. Using the very language of open source, they use the example of this mode of social, legal and technical production to argue against neoliberalism, to argue that the market should not determine the logic and meaning of all forms of production and sociality. So to grapple with the meaning of open source discourse is also to take stock of the the various, sometimes contradictory ways it has been deployed.

And Scott’s point about retaining an idea of the difference between the positions of spokespersons and those of developers on the ground is an important one. And I don’t think the disjuncture is one inherent to spokespersons/discourse vs. practice but should be framed as a historical question. My feeling is that at one point in history (between 1998-2000), Raymond monopolized the discourse of open source and garnered a lot of respect from many developers. As the open source genie has been let loose and has been taken on by other interested parties, the story is now more textured and complex. There is less of an alignment between his position and those of many developers. After about 2003, I met many developers who got sick of Raymond “speaking for them” and there were different discourse, such as that offered up by that of Lessig by which to draw from and understand the significance of open source. And many now use the language of Lessig to conceptualize the political significance of their technical labor. And this has already started to shift. Now that Creative Commons has existed for a number of years, we are starting to see more critiques of Creative Commons from some free software advocates. So again whether or when the viewpoints of dominant discourses match with or don’t with the views of developers, I think, is less of a question of the inherent nature of discourse vs practice but how we the power of discourse shifts within the tides of historical change.

It seems like a hanging question still remains from the comments and it is a call for clarification over what I mean by the relationship between neoliberalism, IP, and trade treaties. In his comment, David writes:

“I would have thought that trade treaties that regulate an international global system of IPR law as totally contrary to the spirit of neoliberalism. In effect it is the granting of special monopoly rights to a distinct corporate group of private actors. Hardly the shrinking of the state! In fact it causes parts of the state to be co-opted by private interests… but thats another line of research…”

He hit the hammer on the nail on this one. However, the assumption here is that neoliberalism is free from a series of deep contradictions. And this is what is nice about David Harvey’s recent account on Neoliberalism. His aim is not just to show the varied convergences behind the ascendancy of neoliberalism but to take seriously the contradictions that are part and parcel to neoliberalisms’ practical articulation. And now I am just about to self-plagiarize from the paper I just presented in Indiana to explain what I mean:

“Neoliberalism is in the first instance” writes Harvey “a theory of political economic practices that proposes human well-being can be best advanced by liberating entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong property rights, free markets, and free trade” (2005: 2). As Pierre Bourdieu previously theorized, this renders neoliberalism a “utopia of a pure and perfect market” (1998) that denies the political and social conditions of its making. What Harvey brings to light is that when we unravel the conditions of its making, there are a collection of contradictions that lie between neoliberal theory and its practice. While neoliberalism champions the rights of individuals, attacks most forms of monopolies, and relishes in building a world free of government regulation so goods, and especially capital, can cross national boundaries with little or no friction, in practice, active state intervention and regulation, are everywhere needed to realize certain forms of free trade.

And the global regulation of IP law, I think, is one of the best examples of the contradictory underpinnings of neoliberal practice (which Harvey causally mentions but does not fully address. It is unpacked within a neoliberal framework in Susan Sell’s Private Power, Public Law). So once we acknowledge these contradictions, I think, the “harmonization of IP” is one of the most salient, tangible products of the contradictory terrain of neoliberalism.

Also I agree that to collapse anarchism and Marxism is to overlook crucial differences, and as you mention “the state” is that entity that gets in the way if we try to merge them. I see, however, Anarchism and Marxism in serious conversation with each other though (not only because some seminal Anarchist writers like Bakunin were pretty well versed in Marxist theory and influenced by it) but because both make the ideals of mutual aid, human liberation, egalitarianism as central and both seek to build a world free from labor alienation, exploitation, and private property. Marxism values the role of that the state can play in this historical development, while anarchism sees the state as part of the problem. But despite some serious differences, there are many productive theoretical affinities between the two.

Added to that because of these commitments, of course, I would never map liberalism on the same axis with Marxism or Anarchism. If I were to visually map them, it would be as cross cutting axis that run in serious opposition to each other, and end up in very different places, but there is one point in the middle where they meet and it concerns some version of freedom and humanism.

And I got thinking in this way after reading Negri and Hardt’s Empire. While I have a lot of trouble with the book, the part that most strongly resonated with me was the section where they talked about the birth of immanence, humanism, and freedom during the pre-Enlightenment and Enlightenment period, a birth that conceptualized humans actors as endowed with capacity, to some degree, to control their worldly destines (a point also explored in the works of Foucault and many others of course). As they explain, “Humans declared themselves masters of their own lives, producers of cities and history and inventors of heaven. …the affirmation of the powers of this world, the discovery of the plane of immanence.” (p. 70, 71). To the extent that Anarchism, Liberalism and Marxism can be compared, I think, it is in relation to the birth of a certain version of Humanism and Freedom. How to realize freedom and the content of the meaning of freedom certainly do differ so that you can’t collapse them, you can’t even conceptualize them in the same camp, but you certainly can see how there may be some affinities due to their connection to Enlightenment reconfigurations more generally. And because hackers use both liberal and anarchist discourses of freedom, I am forced to bring these together, even if, they sit in tension with each other.

March 5, 2006

Neoliberalism continued

Category: F/OSS,Hackers,Liberalism — @ 2:34 pm

Scott Dexter over at Decoding Liberation wrote a good response to my post below on neoliberalism and hacking. Between David Berry’s response and this one, I am due to give another one. The two comments have really made me rethink some stuff so hopefully I will have another reply soon.

March 1, 2006

The Soul of Intellectual Property Law

Category: Books/Articles,IP Law — @ 9:43 am

There is “soul food.” And you can eat soul food while hearing soul music. Poems and literature often direct us into the depths of soul. But academic books rarely enter that sacred territory. And being a social sciencey type of academic, it sort of makes me sad sometimes that our lot rarely spice our writings with the traces of soul. That sort of thing is discouraged, for reasons that often have to do with the “science” half of “social science.” For research, analysis, and writing, dispassion is supposed to be our guiding light and for the most part, this is not necessarily bad for it makes for more comprehensible, manageable works. And let’s face it, too much soul, and you get intractable mush.

But every once in a while a dash of passionate soul is delectable and thankfully does creep into our work to shake away the cobwebs of dispassion that cling to define our academic style of writing. The genre of ethnography, being it is so interpretive, is somewhat susceptible to such outpourings and we can find traces of soul in more daring political tracts, cultural studies material, as well as literary analysis too.

Now the study of intellectual property, being it is dry and arcane, is probably one area that seems more like a “soul-crusher” than a soul-magnet. But this week I was pleasantly surprised to find the strong currents and overtones of soul in Paul Saint-Armour’s delightful book on IP law: The Copywrights: Intellectual Property and the Literary Imagination

I guess I am just saying that alongside a really set of interesting arguments about the dynamic history of IP and literary property, the book is written really, really well. In particular, the chapter on Oscar Wilde is simply stunning and not to be missed. And given that Oscar Wilde’s writing and life are as soulful as soul can get, the chapter is doubly soulful! Take a look:

Rather than naively imagine orality as a tonic to writing, as nature to writing’s artifice, or as authenticity to the travesty of type, Wilde recognized that the longing for orality as origin, nature, or authentic prehistory may be the most characteristic thing about print culture, which thrives by manufacturing origins and measuring its distance form them in order, alternately, to wound or worship itself. His writing both embodies and inflicts an ache for the forms of orality while elaborately demonstrating their irrecuperability even their unknowability: we must return to the voice, yet as it now is, we cannot do so. (p. 94)