[OPE-L] Marx and "vapour ware" (review)

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Wed Apr 19 2006 - 07:47:08 EDT

Mediumi - Artikkeli - MarxIT
      Mediumi 1.5

      Tapio Mäkelä

      *M a r x  I T*
      - materialism meets vapour ware

      Jukka Heiskanen & Jorma Mäntylä (eds.):
      MarxIT. Informaatiokapitalismin kriittistä tarkastelua. [MarxIT. A
critical approach to informational capitalism.]
      Helsinki: Karl Marx-seura 2003

      Had the investment analysts of the late 1990s read their Marx
properly they might have reconsidered investments into companies,
which instead of having their value tied to the effective production
of assets and surplus value, were selling vapour ware (1), imaginary
products and future prospects.

      MarxIT - Critical Examinations into Information Capitalism, edited
by Jukka Heiskanen and Jorma Mäntylä, is a new collection of essays
(in Finnish) that looks critically at the new economy, the concept
of the information society, and the "battle" between proprietary
software industry and the free software and open source movements.

      The book is successful in pointing out where Marxist analysis is
valid in relation to IT, but not so rich in actually applying
writing by Marx or later Marxist theorists. Perhaps the title of the
book could have been "CastellsIT", since it is rather the
information capitalism by Castells, which is looked at more
carefully and critically. The discourse of new economy and attached
neo liberalist notions of flexible labour, which writers such as
Castells and Himanen have valorized in The Hacker Ethic, is
successfully critiqued by Tere Vadén and Joachim Bischoff.

      Bischoff points out how in the "new economy" employees are often
required to behave as if they were business partners, and thus
required to adjust to rapid shifts in the increasingly fluctuating
markets (37). Finnish statistics on the increased polarisation of
income since the mid 1990s would support his arguments. The embodied
labour of the IT industry has been worse exploited than the labour
of late 20th century mechanical industry, for instance. In
Information society theories the networks empower workers and
challenge old-fashioned corporations, that is in theory.

      *Software hegemony and its counter forces*

      Many essays in the collection provide interesting overviews of
political implications of software economy, production, and
alternative social organisation of software development. One of the
themes across the book is to discuss increased power of shareholders
in relation to nations and citizens. According to the German
sociologist Joachim Bischoff, the ITC has boosted instability
through stimulating faster economic rotation and capital growth
(35). The power of nation states has become more challenged, but not
insignificant, contrary to the claims of Castells. Jorma Mäntylä's
essay on Microsoft's monopoly position in the context of Marx and
Gramsci is perhaps the best read in the collection, and exemplifies
the increasing involvement of the US in political decisions on the
software market.

      Mäntylä points out that Marx predicted in the mid 19th century how
free competition leads to centralisation of capital and eventually
to monopolies. He also compares Gramsci's analysis on the crisis of
the Fordist production with the "bursting of the bubble" in the
IT-sector, where the productivity of intellectual labour rather than
that of the physical labour of individuals has been maximized.
Mäntylä supports the view by Nicholas Garnham, according to whom the
concept of Information society is a theoretical failure due to
internal contradictions and having no empirical evidence to back it
up. Garnham claims that its popularity in political discourse can
only be understood if Information Society is an ideology.

      One of the main contradictions that Garnham outlines is the
relationship of information economy with Marxist value theory. If
value is not measured against a market, where supply and demand is
tied to a regulated use of material and workforce, but instead to a
market based on immaterial value, the global market becomes
extremely risky. "In economies that produce and exchange knowledge,
stable relations between work and value crumble" (51). According to
Garnham, the social creativity of knowledge requires its free flow
unrestricted by intellectual property rights. Here he sees a major
problem in the attempts to turn universities into knowledge sales
corporations (51).

      Indeed, if one considers Information society as a hegemonic view on
contemporary society, then one could extend the Gramscian analysis
that Mäntylä proposes, to further consider what are the counter
discourses to it. Is Open Source software, for instance, a counter
discourse that the proprietary IT hegemony will attempt to include
into itself? Or is Microsoft such an empire as often described in
popular accounts that it is able to maintain its position through
practicing power rather than subtly becoming a software ideology?

      The decision by one G.W. Bush nominated judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly
not to break up Microsoft monopoly is considered by Mäntylä as a
radical shift in the bourgeois ideology. Instead of free
competition, the Microsoft court decision suggests that monopolies
can be accepted as "the normal state of the affairs". The court
decision also gave US government and military a possibility to
influence Microsoft software. Is the US information capitalism in
fact approaching a form of communist practice? One could further
discuss the bipolar nature of such capitalism, where freedom is at
the forefront of both corporate and state rhetoric, but far from
practice from the citizen's or end user's point of view.

      *Owner value melting into the air*

      Capitalist bipolarity can also be sensed in the attempts to maintain
an opposition between proprietary and free software code. Editors
Mäntylä and Heiskanen argue that it is not far fetched to analyse
conflicts and contradictions of the Internet in the context of a
battle between "commonly used" and exchange value oriented, capital
controlled technology, and between real "general work" and
"estranged" science (23). In the book it is perhaps this analysis,
which brings Marxist value theory to the "heart" of the software
industry. How can an industry prosper, if it does not have enough
"general work and intellect" compared to work and technology
controlled by cetntralised capital?

      According to Pertti Honkanen there is nothing new in capitalist
production also utilizing free resources, such as open code.
Honkanen points out that the Marxist value theory cannot undermine
Linux and free software, which also protest against the value form
and product form. He suggests that Castells' notion of value making
being a product of the financial market is difficult to accept in
the context of Marxist value theory. Marx wrote about speculative
mania, when the process of work is only a nuisance for nations
racing towards added value without labour. Honkanen rightly argues
that "expectations of "owner value" melt into air, if they are not
grounded in real addition in value, which in turn cannot happen
without a work process" (65).

      If monopolies aim at homogenizing the market, and artificially
maintaining a particular price level, it is no surprise then that
Microsoft and open source movement are in conflict. Tere Vadén in
his essay on free software movement and its social implications
suggests that owning code or freedom of code favour different kinds
of social lives. (89, see also his essay in mediumi) In as much as I
agree with the notion by Carolyn Marwin and the one implicitly
included in Vadén's argument that histories of technology are sums
of their uses, I must question the limits of "social" in relation to
software code.

      For most end users the difference between free and proprietary
software is whether one has to pay for it or not. New social
formations in relation to the code (software based P2P services are
a different issue than code) are primarily open for programmers,
system administrators, and the expert end users capable of
discussing with the right vocabulary, "the code lingo". The promise
of communities that develop software best suited for them can only
be met by long-term development efforts or by public investments
into such processes. Within media art and music composition, for
instance, there are already free software tools developed within
various networks. There is very little evidence however that the
development itself, the work of making code for shared tools, would
have led to all-together distinct social formations IRL (in real
life). One would hope that a sharper distinction would be made
between the imagined professional networks of interest, and user
cultures and subcultures that evolve around a particular new media

      *Contradicting freedoms*

      Besides the terms social and community the other term that Vadém
could have assessed more critically in the book is "free". In an
interview by Vadén on a question that addresses, especially in small
language groups like the Finnish cultural domain, music and
literature as areas where copyright is still needed, Richard
Stallman replies:

      "The current system is very bad for publishing for these people as
well. To replace this system with a non-system would not make the
situation much worse from their point of view. I believe that
support systems that are based on voluntary action could work as
well as the current one - even better" (110).

      In this respect, if free software is looked at as a individualistic
practice (and also partially as hedonistic since hackers are defined
by Stallmann as those who enjoy playful intelligence), the freedom
of it starts to sound very similar than the US rhetoric on freedom
and opportunity. In the Finnish context, copyright legislation by
the state is seen by the cultural sector and by the journalists as
the cornerstone for their livelihood (which Vadén pointed out in his
question to Stallman). Media conglomerates have been lobbying for
restrictions to or an end to an author based copyright in Finland
and internationally. Particularly US companies would like to see an
end to an author and artist driven copyright legislation. That would
have grave consequences particularly in minority cultures like
Finland. This commentary is not to critique the intentions behind
elevating free or open source software in their analysis, but to be
critical in what social and political implications are in fact
involved in anti-copyright freedom and what kinds of social
practices are generated through code.

      Jussi Silvonen considers Linux and other free software to be both a
part of IT revolution process and differ from it radically at the
same time. In his essay he analyses the four freedoms of Free
Software by Stallman. His analysis of Stallman's third clause on
freedom to distribute modified versions of software for free or for
a fee is very interesting. From consumer rights perspective,
Silvonen writes, the user becomes the real owner of the software,
and its use value exceeds that of its exchange value.

      "It is precisely this third freedom that places free software into
continuous conflict with the market economy. Also, the following
thought by Marx is opposed: "(o)nce the commodity has become the
general form of the product, then everything that is produced must
assume that form". Playfully one could say that Microsoft is
portrayed in this respect as the most vehement Marxist by not
agreeing to accept any other social formation for software than that
of the product."(122; original quote of Karl Marx from Capital. A
critique of Political Economy. Volume 1)

      The collection of essays is based on a seminar by Karl Marx
association et.al in May 2002. Hence it is understandable how the
collection is not so coherently looking at Marx and IT. For example,
Harry Nick's essay on technology development in DDR is interesting,
but does not "interface" very well with the rest. It also seems that
the combination of Marx and IT has produced a "communality" of only
male writers, and a book cover that I guess falls into the realm of
digital social realism.


      1) Vapour ware was coined by Peter Lunenfeld in his book Snap to
Grid, A User's Guide to Digital Arts, Media, and Cultures. Cambridge
Mass.: The MIT Press, 2000.

      MarxIT. Informaatiokapitalismin kriittistä tarkastelua. Toim. Jukka
Heiskanen & Jorma Mäntylä. Helsinki: Karl Marx-seura, 2003.

      For more information:

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