“The People’s Platform” (TPP) is a frustrating read. An anti-techno-utopian critique of the economics and politics of culture on the Internet, it contains much interesting research and some useful ideas but is hamstrung by a year zero activism approach to the history and current state of the struggle for liberty and sustainability in technology and media.
Year zero activism has two planks. Firstly, the situation has never been worse and only now are activists starting to tackle it. Secondly, anyone who may appear to have previously done so is actually part of the problem. Previous activism is at best ineffective and at worst exacerbatory, previous activists were tone deaf to or in reality made worse the very issues they sought to address.
In TPP this leads at times to an almost ‘pataphysical identity of opposites. Google and Wikipedia are both “open”. Chris Anderson and Richard Stallman both use the word “free”. The nadir of this approach comes later in the book when TPP is explaining the economic and thereby cultural harm of free culture and free software:
Cohen is highlighting a value that has long been central to any progressive movement: respect for labor. From this angle it’s clear that “copyleft”, as the free culture position on copyright is sometimes called, is not “left” in the traditional sense. As Richard Stallman told me, he designed copyleft to ensure the freedom of users to redistribute and modify copies of users to redistribute and modify copies of software. Freedom to tinker is the paramount value it promotes, but a left worthy of the name has to balance that concern with the demand for equality, for parity of wealth and power.
There’s no part of this that’s right.
Stallman’s creation of copyleft was a product of the political development of Free Software in reaction to the alienation of the products of hacker labour. It’s an answer to the property question, which is a question of the left “in the traditional sense”. It entails respect for labour, and ensures that workers can charge for and be paid for their labour.
Users who modify and “tinker” with software do so via programming, that is by working as programmers, by performing the labour of software development. Software developers are first of all software users. If you are not free to use software you are certainly not free to develop it. The same is true of cultural production, a point that TPP seems slightly more open to.
“Copyleft” is not a blanket term for free culture approaches to copyright, it is the name of a particular licensing approach that seeks to address the restrictions of copyright. There is no single free culture approach to copyright. There are copyright abolitionists, copyright libertarians, copyright socialists and those, like Stallman, for whom copyright’s ironisation by copyleft is a means to a political end.
Seeking to reduce free software and free culture to a progressive left wing movement rather than retain the nonpartisan approach that has seen their successes (or, as TPP would have it, has led to identity with their proprietary others) would undermine them. It’s classic entryism, finding a successful specific social cause to shame into attempting more general radical politics. It’s an approach that is doomed to failure.
And copyleft is precisely intended to equalise wealth and power in the use of software. You can share that wealth, and you cannot exert power over anyone else to prevent them from doing so as well. What you cannot do without breaking the effectiveness of copyleft, and what each new critic of copyleft is drawn to like a moth to a flame, is to yoke copyleft’s reflexive ironisation of copyright on software or cultural work to extraneous political objectives.
Copyleft, with its narrow emphasis on software freedom, even when broadened to underscore the freedom of speech implications of such a position, offers a limited political response to entrenched systems of economic privilege, and it does not advance limits on profitability or promote fair compensation. Free culture, with its emphasis on access, does not necessarily lead to a more just social order.
Ignoring the slip from free software to free culture, the slip from social to economic justice, and the inaccurate characterization of free culture as emphasizing access, this is a political erasure. Free software and free culture may not have provided grossly coercive tools to the political left but they have, by TPP’s own explanation of their redistributive and deprivileging effects, led to a more just social order. And it requires precisely the ‘pataphysics of “free” and “open” that TPP develops to argue that they limit compensation but not profit.
Later, TPP calls for the development of more socialised alternatives to Web 2.0’s ad-driven surveillance model, and for the development of more equitable alternatives to unpaid cultural workers trying to live on whuffie while making Silicon Valley CEOS rich. I agree that this is vitally important. I’ve worked on several myself. I’ve seen creators paid, clients satisfied, citizens communicating, audiences enjoying media, with millions of dollars put into the cultural economy and tens of thousands of people engaged each month by projects I’ve been involved in. There is absolutely more work to do, but ignoring existing efforts or worse conflating them with the problems they exist to address will only ensure that this is always the case.
There is another key conclusion of TPP that I agree with wholeheartedly. We need a sustainable ecosystem for culture. That is, we need technological and economic systems that sustainably align consumption and production incentives with each other and with political and creative liberty. And state and corporate mechanisms for spreading risk absolutely have a part to play in this. But as blank media levies and the deep packet inspection consequences of the proposals of “Promises To Keep” show, this is a task that needs approaching with an insight and subtlety that both pro- and anti- free culture activists often lack.
In this sense at least TPP is not year zero, it is business as usual.