Oh my, with my last post I have obviously tripped right into a wasps nest. OK, I should have known, writing about reading Marx and about how the American Dream keeps people in the treadmill can only be controversial. If you’re interested, read Paul Lester‘s reaction to my rant and my rather longish reply. I hope I could clarify things and you, Paul, keep reading. You’re certainly welcome 🙂
Let me bother you once again with Marx though. I am only at 3% of “The Capital” now (yes, pages are so pre-kindle :D), and at the in the beginning he has a very lengthy but not entirely tedious part about goods and their values, and there I realized a curious thing:
Marx is convinced that the value of a manufactured good is proportional to the amount of work needed to produce it. It’s one of his key ideas, and he argues that Aristotle almost realized it himself, but that he couldn’t go that last step, because in his time work was done by slaves and in that sense free.
That’s nonsense of course, goods had value then, and while labor was cheap, it was certainly not free. You had to at least feed and control your slaves, and as a general phenomenon it was comparable between slave owners, thus if Marx is right, the effect was only a factor on the value of goods.
Maybe I only misunderstood Marx, be it as it may, in any case thinking about it made me wonder about iPhones and software.
Why? Well, to say that the price of an iPhone is proportional to the amount of work needed to produce it is probably a euphemism. I know, prices are not equal to values and I have no doubt that Marx will have some chapters for me that explain this in merciless detail, but nevertheless, thoughts are quick and that’s where mine jumped to.
The other, more interesting thing is software, and here we are back to slavery, only that now the slaves are the download servers and the downloaders themselves. Copying is free, not only to so-called “pirates” but also to the whole industry.
Software and downloadable goods in general have to be produced once, but then they can be re-produced in any quantity without additional costs. Thus, even if Marx’ dictum of value being equal to amounts of abstract work were true in his time for the goods he knew, they are not true for software.
Here we have the root problem underlying the copyright vs piracy discussion: the content providers try to treat downloadable goods as traditional physical goods, and that means to control quantity, but by their very nature downloads are something substantially (or actually insubstantially) different. Not only is copy protection an impossible task (because even consuming the goods requires an at least temporary act of copying), the attempt to thwart copying is actually destroying the trust between industry and consumer, and in its extreme form it needs ubiquitous surveillance to a degree that completely undermines democracy. It does not work. The music industry largely got it, the movie industry not and neither did the book publishers.
Interesting, huh? Digital reproduction is something that neither the traditional capitalist system understands, nor has communism a theoretical model for it, and for me that is just one more indication that we are at the beginning of something new, a new age, and that also implies that we need new ideas and new methods.
The Song of the Day is “It’s Just Work For Me” from Ry Cooder’s 2005 album “Chavez Ravine”. Hear it on YouTube.