Left, Right and Centre: Property is Misunderstood

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This brief reflection on the nature of property was spawned by a misleading statement about the political persuasion of Lawrence Lessig et al. by http://techliberation.com.

If, as it is claimed “they set the intellectual agenda for the Left on information technology policy“, then there is no left.

Lessig et al. are liberals and right of centre in any sensible political analysis. Last time I checked one of the main points of leftist politics was a critique of the ownership of the means of production in the tangible realm and a clear rejection of the predominance of exclusive private property in that context.

Lessig, however, has stated repeatedly that he sees no problem with the conventional liberal understanding of exclusive private property as the best way to organise the tangible realm. This position of his has been brought out in debate with the far right people – or property fundamentalists (like Epstein) – who believe that exclusive private property should also rule in the intangible realm.

Benkler remains “suspicious” of accounts that use the term property, which is not quite the same as accepting exclusive private property in the tangible realm, but it is a clear rejection of property as a protocol for social organisation of the intangible realm.

They essentially reject “property in general” on the basis of a very “particular form of property”, namely exclusive, private property (in the tangible realm) with a collocation of exclusionary and exchange rights. That is a pretty much the same as saying that I am suspicious of Italy, because I once had a bad experience in Rome airport, while in transfer. You cannot simply reject something in general on the basis of a very particular instance. One piece of software might be bad, like Windows, but could I sensibly reject a GNU/Linux system on that basis (without sounding like I had no clue)?

Apart from this rather grave intellectual flaw in their arguments, Lessig and Benkler et al. also forego the opportunity to make sense of the “networked information economy” in terms of property in such a way as to expand and enhance the critical tools, techniques and arguments around “property in general” that could be used to – in turn – criticise the exclusive private property relations in the tangible realm.

While they often suggest that they have no issue with ownership of the means of production in the tangible realm, they nevertheless have to deal with it, because the debates about network neutrality and common carriage are precisely about issues of private property in the tangible realm, which cannot be excluded from or seen as apart from anything in the intangible realm, since nothing immaterial can really be produced without material means. Even a sage programmer in a cave would need to drink, eat (and shit) and have a computer to code on that was hooked up to cables, wires, antennas and switches.

The tangible/intangible divide does not always constitute a fundamental difference; on the contrary, there are relevant, shared concerns across that “divide”: for instance, the availability of hardware and the distribution of care are crucial, central concerns for any software project, as are the cables, wires, routers, switches, satellites and so on that technostructurally sustain cyberspace. Additionally, there are more conceptual factors (than whether something is material or not) to the organisation of a given good or resource, such as environmental costs, capacity and frequency, and social patterns of (normal) use.

These latter aspects, to his credit, are similar to those that Benkler has developed, in particular in “Sharing Nicely”, and are essentially justificatory narratives for different forms of property, yet he chooses not to call them so; but they are.

Property is a very very wide conceptual framework with an enormous amount of different possible configurations. They might have gotten lost in the myth making of capitalism, but that is a reason to rediscover them, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Continuing to exempt information from this debate is intellectually dubious and politically self-defeating in the long run, if your concerns are with the freedom of creativity and mind. No measure of reorganisation in the intangible realm alone can mend the injustices arising from the distorting exclusive ownership typical of the tangible realm.

Property relations are social relations. Property, conceptually speaking, are protocols – into which social values are encoded – for the purpose of organising the the care, production, distribution/circulation of goods and resources. Whether the good or resources are tangible or intangible might matter in terms of how you articulate the protocols to organise them with, but it does not constitute an either/or dividing line between property (in the tangible realm) or not property (in the intangible realm).

Stallman holds the same position as Lessig et al and claims that Free Software is not an issue of property, but of freedom and human rights. However, this is a bizarre proposition, since property is often the means with which to secure freedoms and rights. So to say that it is an issue of freedoms and human rights is kind of OK, but misses the basic point: the GPL is an articulation of property, a very specific one, indeed a genius one that subverts the kind of property relations – or social values that are encoded into copyright. The GPL opens – once again – the province of jurisprudence with regard to property: the whole concept of property in general is up for discussion.

That’s what a leftist would engage with. Lessig and Benkler are liberals, right of centre from a perspective of political philosophy of law or jurisprudence.

All that said, I am not a leftist in that sense (as readers of colonos will know all too well), but simply wanted to clarify that neither are they and to say so would be to pass a death sentence to the idea of leftism. While there are good reasons to abandon the leftist position insofar as it is statist appeal to a central coercive authority, it makes no sense to start calling right-of-centre positions leftist, just because they might call in to question or go against certain capital interests. That doesn’t make it leftist. It is a necessary condition, surely, but not at all a sufficient condition and it is simplifications such as this that water down, dumb down, political debate to the level of an exchange of rhetoric, a sort of serial monologue of opinions.

Originally posted as a comment by colonos on The Technology Liberation Front using Disqus.

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