Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 26, 2014

Boycott Lawrence and Wishart

Filed under: capitalist pig,intellectual property,Internet — louisproyect @ 1:32 pm

Screen shot 2014-04-26 at 9.30.07 AM

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Lawrence and Wishart have just proved themselves to be opportunist bourgeois profiteers pimping of the workers movement by denying people access to works from a century and a half ago so they can extort money from, in the last analysis, college students or taxpayers.

A comrade hints that he might be OK with it because they co-published some book about a strike a hundred years ago.

Oh! I almost forgot. Eleanor Marx was involved. In the strike, not the book, but –perhaps– that makes L&W A-OK.

Information wants to be free, especially if it can help working people understand the nature of the system so we can smash it.

David Walters and the MIA have NO CHOICE but to respect this bourgeois “intellectual property,” or the MIA would be shut down. So I totally understand and support them in their stance of respecting bourgeois “intellectual property,” including making nice-sounding diplomatic noises about copyrights, the DMCA, and so on.

But the rest of us are not under those constraints. People should download the material to be censored and share it as widely as possible, especially through torrents, which are a very efficient means of distribution, and through “darknet” sites, though that is quite a bit more complicated.

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I’m not just  being ornery or ultraleft. This is the right policy, the right response, to a bourgeois publisher who PRETENDS to be an ally to the socialist movement, but instead seeks to EXPLOIT working people when the opportunity arises.

The argument is that the translations are “new,” even if the works are old, and copyright fees are just because the people who made these new translations have to be paid royalties is 1,000% bogus.

Find me the translator who says they’re getting royalties from sales of Marx and Engels translations and I’ll show you a liar. Or any translator of ANY work. Apart from Gregory Rabassa, the translator of Gabo’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and one or two others, any translator who claims he or she has received one cent from royalties AFTER the initial fee is lying.

I’ve been translating “professionally” (i.e., for money) for more than four decades, and Rabassa is the only one of our tribe that I’ve ever met who got post-publication royalties. And as someone who has been and continues to be a “content creator,” I totally support writers, actors, and everyone else like that who is involved in actually creating “works of authorship” getting paid.

But PUBLISHERS (whether known by that name or others, like Hollywood studios, record labels, TV networks, web sites, content aggregators, or whatever), are parasites. They are the ENEMIES of content creators (authors, translators, editors, film makers, etc.). In the real world, the monopoly that copyright law grants benefits THEM much much more than it does US, and is even a weapon used against us. The media monopoly mafia use their hoards of “copyrights” to tell us we either sell to them cheap, or we won’t sell at all. They have tons of content that they already own and they don’t needs ours.

And because they own the distribution channels, the threat is quite credible.

In practice, this works out to the overwhelming majority of content creators being forced to work under conditions where their EMPLOYER, a corporation, is the “author,” and the actual creative human beings have no rights, none whatsoever, under copyright law.

This corporate monopoly has been based on the capitalist’s control of the means of producing and reproducing works and distributing them.

What gave rise to this sort of copyright law is the printing press. You need to be a capitalist to have one.

We journalists know that “freedom of the press belongs to those that own one,” but the same is true of copyright. Copyright belongs to the capitalists, to the bourgeoisie.

Digital technology and especially the Internet has given regular people –us– tools to begin shattering that monopoly. David Walters and his friends in the MIA deserve credit for using those tools to give untold millions of people access to something that belongs to everyone.

Now, some will say that a publisher, even in this day and age, needs to recoup their investment in these “new” translations, otherwise there will be no more.

But in the REAL world, a publisher pays for a translation on the basis of the expected sales of a book over at most 2-3 years. The reason for that is simple, and mathematical. The money paid out for a translation is an investment, and the value of that investment compounds over time. Because it is a risky investment, it needs to have a high rate of return. Either you make back the money very quickly, or after a few years a $10,000 investment needs to yield double, triple or quadruple that figure (or even more).

Why? To compensate for inflation, pay for the publisher’s bets that didn’t work, provide the “normal” rate of return for a “safe” long-term investment and provide a hefty premium on top of that since this isn’t a safe investment.

But these MECW works aren’t five or ten years old, they were done DECADES ago. And they were not done as a profit-making capitalist venture. The technology available in those days did not allow massive free distribution, but the intent was clear from pricing that was a small fraction of comparable academic editions of other works from previous centuries.

Claiming bourgeois “intellectual property” rights on these works to put them behind a pay wall after they have been freely available for many years is obscene. L&W’s suggestion that this will somehow preserve or guarantee the access to these works is ridiculous. There would be countless academic institutions quite willing to host the entire corpus for free, if given the chance.

What L&W are doing is pure and simple rapacious corporate profiteering by executives who had NOTHING to do with these editions, who contributed absolutely NOTHING, but now want to put them behind a pay wall, to pocket the profits.

So fuck them.

Let’s pirate, not just the M&E collected works, but EVERYTHING under the imprint of these profiteering scumbags.

BOYCOTT anything you have to pay L&W for, unless you’re accessing it to pirate it.

Joaquín Bustelo, Marxmail subscriber

April 3, 2013

Thoughts on Harper’s Magazine and intellectual property

Filed under: intellectual property,Internet,journalism — louisproyect @ 5:38 pm

John R. “Rick” MacArthur

This morning Les Schaffer, the technical coordinator of Marxmail, and I got an email from the webmaster of Harper’s Magazine:

Hi there,

I’m the web editor at Harper’s Magazine. I’m afraid we don’t allow copies of our articles to be hosted on other sites. Will you please remove this article — http://www.marxmail.org/EagletonMarx.pdf — immediately? I trust you understand; I’d rather not have to send a formal DMCA notice, but will if necessary.

Thanks very much.
Jeremy Keehn
Harper’s Magazine

There were a couple of things that popped into my mind right off the bat. How in the world did Keehn get wind of my “pirating” their intellectual property? Did one of my thousands of enemies snitch on me? Or is part of Keehn’s job description to police the Internet to make sure that nobody is purloining Harper’s material? I am sure that the actual web chores take up little of his time since the Harper’s website is notoriously underdeveloped, a policy decision made by their publisher John R. Macarthur, about whom I will have more to say momentarily.

The first thing I did was Google DMCA. What the hell did that stand for? Don’t Mess with Corporate Assets? Dickwad Micromanaging Commodified Archives?

It turns out that this stands for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, legislation enacted in 1998 to protect the rights of “content providers” in danger of being hijacked by people like me. What makes the legal focus on Youtube, bit torrent, and other Internet technologies so interesting is that it can’t  possibly be argued that anybody is benefiting financially by putting the Eagleton article, a Bob Dylan performance, etc. online as if my posting an article will rob Harper’s out of millions of dollars. In reality, they will benefit from my posting of an article since the average Marxmail reader or Facebook friend has no idea what Harper’s Magazine is about. Maybe they’ll buy one because they liked the Terry Eagleton article. After all, the music industry figured out that Youtube clips were a good way to boost revenue by raising awareness about an artist. Too bad that Harper’s is so backward that it can’t see an upside to my bad behavior.

Harper’s has been published since June 1850. I have been a subscriber since the early 80s and have stuck with the magazine over the years because of the occasional investigative journalism piece like one on mountaintop removal in West Virginia from about a decade ago. But the real attraction is the British-style “difficult” crossword puzzles that I enjoy doing. The Nation Magazine has them as well and I might even shell out money for an electronic subscription just to be able to do them even if it means putting up with all the “why Obama should do this or that…” manure.

The Atlantic Monthly used to have those kinds of crossword puzzles as well but discontinued them a few years ago. Speaking of which, all of the Atlantic Monthly’s content is online and they are running a profit unlike Harper’s that relies on John R. MacArthur’s largesse.

John R. “Rick” MacArthur is the grandson of John D. MacArthur who died in 1978 at the age of 80. He established the MacArthur Foundation in the year he died. It sometimes sounds like half the shows on PBS are funded by this foundation that is also known for its yearly “genius grants”. In 1980 Rick engineered a takeover of the magazine by the MacArthur Foundation. Katrina Vanden Heuvel’s inherited wealth keeps The Nation afloat, just as Rick’s does for Harper’s. At least with Harper’s you don’t get the pro-DP slop even though Thomas Frank, one of his top editors, made the case for an Obama vote in 2011.

All evidence points to MacArthur being primarily responsible for the strict DMCA enforcement his webmaster is carrying out. He really seems to hate the Internet:

This for-profit theft is committed in the pious guise of universal access to “free information,” as if Google were just a bigger version of your neighborhood public library. Acceptance of such a fairy tale lets parasitic search engines assert that they are “web neutral,” just disinterested parties whose glorious mission is to educate and uplift.

This is nonsense, of course. Google’s bias for search results that list its own products above those of its competitors is now well-known, but equally damaging, and less remarked, is the bias that elevates websites with free content over ones that ask readers to pay at least something for the difficult labor of writing, editing, photographing, drawing, and painting and thinking coherently. Try finding Harper’s Magazine when you Google “magazines that publish essays” or “magazines that publish short stories” — it isn’t easy.

Oh well, now that my favorable references to Harper’s articles will be coming to an end, there’s at least one less route to his magazine that can be relied on.

I first began to question MacArthur’s competence after I discovered that he had fired his very capable editor Roger Hodge in 2010. Hodge was the author of a very good critique of Obama that I reviewed for Swans in 2011. In an interview with Guernica, Hodge described his differences with MacArthur over the web:

Guernica: What are your thoughts on the current state of Harper’s and its prospects for the future?

Roger D. Hodge: Frankly, I despair for the future of Harper’s Magazine. Although I am grateful for all the money Rick MacArthur has contributed over the years, it’s just not possible to publish a great national magazine in 2011 using a business plan that was devised in 1984. The world has changed; the audience has changed. Harper’s used to be at the heart of the national debate. It was also the most vibrant and exciting literary magazine in the world; nowadays many people don’t even realize that it still exists.

It’s a damn shame. And the story didn’t have to end this way. Harper’s remains a very good magazine—it still publishes excellent journalism and fiction, outstanding literary criticism. And, with the exception of the cover, which has been outsourced, it’s the most beautiful magazine I know. But all those riches are hidden from view. The newsstand industry is dying; direct mail is a failure; the Internet in all its gaudy diversity is the only hope. Contrary to the assertions of Harper’s management, magazines truly are using the web to build circulation. The Nation has a very successful model; the Atlantic, after a long struggle, is turning a profit; Mother Jones is thriving and has raised millions of dollars. There are people out there who know how to use the web to connect with readers. Some of them used to work for Harper’s.

At the risk of getting a cease-and-desist DMCA letter from N+1, the spunky magazine that I began subscribing to last year, I am going to quote from a piece that appeared in issue number 15 that deals with print publications and the Internet. I couldn’t have put it better:

With enough money, you can force the past into the present, or at least hold the future at bay. Harper’s, it turns out, is the Petit Trianon of publishing. Marie Antoinette had her artificially aged cottages and working dairy farm, and MacArthur has his fully operational magazine, which both embodies and celebrates the values of his old Chicago newsroom. At Harper’s, the administrative staff is largely female, the board is entirely male, the writers are almost all male, and the internet barely exists.

It would be one thing if Harper’s nostalgia were only a question of office culture or distribution. But it permeates the pages of the magazine, determining not only the approach to subject matter but what subjects are worthy of being included at all. Although Harper’s circulation is small, its reputation is such that it continues to have a say in what counts, and what subjects are worthy of serious thought by serious people: in other words, what constitutes the nation’s public life — and, by extension, which lives constitute “the public.”

We imagine asking Harper’s, What about women? Their response would probably be, Well, what about women? The voice of Harper’s is pitched such that the question can only be asked rhetorically. Matters of gender and sexuality do not actually matter. In one of the few instances where they were even raised, when Thomas Frank wrote about abortion in October 2011, the case was actually made that the pro-life movement is ineffective, and that abortion rights are a non-issue. Frank suggests that what happens on the state level just doesn’t matter, because it’s not on the national stage — an argument that willfully overlooks decades of pro-life activism that has strategically and deliberately built the movement state by state, and that this tactic has accounted for much of its growth and many of its victories.

Finally, and most importantly, MacArthur has operated just like a typical capitalist when it comes to the right of his wage slaves. If writing for Harper’s is just a form of the commodity exchange process, in which everything has a price including labor, it is no surprise that he is taking a stance reminiscent of Charles Montgomery Burns of “The Simpsons” fame. The Maida Rosenstein mentioned in this article, by the way, led a very successful strike at Barnard in the mid-90s that I remember well. You do not want to get on her wrong side:

There will be a few key names missing from the masthead of Harper’s Magazine next month. The non-profit magazine laid off Literary Editor Ben Metcalf and an Associate Editor, Theodore Ross, in January. Harper’s, which has a circulation of 200,000, said it made the layoffs for economic reasons.

“At the end of the day, we are in a difficult economy and we felt that Ben and Ted’s work could be absorbed,” said John Rick MacArthur, who has been the publisher of Harper’s for nearly the past 30 years. “Businesses are often faced with laying off employees and Harper’s is not an exception, although we have had to make very few cuts compared to our peers.”

But the union that has been representing more than a dozen of Harper’s editors since last October said that Metcalf, at least, was let go because he was one of the leaders of the magazine’s recent union organizing drive.

“We believe it’s a retaliatory layoff because he was a very public supporter of the union,” said Maida Rosenstein, the president of United Auto Workers (U.A.W.) Local 2110, which represents the editors. “We believe that layoff should be retracted and he should be brought back.”

Several Harper’s editors expressed an interest in joining U.A.W. Local 2110 last spring, according to the union. Local 2110 said that the editors, who declined requests to speak to WNYC on the record, wanted a union to give them job security and pay increases.

Harper’s declined to disclose salary information to WNYC, but the union said assistant editors start out with an annual salary of $31,000. The literary editor who was laid off on Friday after 17 years on the job, Ben Metcalf, made $99,000 a year, and magazine employees working on the business side of Harper’s make more than $200,000 a year, according to U.A.W.

My final words of advice. Don’t bother with a sub to Harper’s. Save your money for N+1.The magazine has gone downhill over the years, even if the puzzle remains tip-top. Here’s a clue from the latest: “I was fired in just one war—Europe”. The answer: Stoneware. Mystified? Look at it this way: “I was fired in just one war—Europe”.

January 14, 2013

Thoughts on Aaron Swartz’s suicide

Filed under: computers,imperialism/globalization,intellectual property,Internet — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm

On January 9th my CounterPunch tribute to Sol Yurick concluded with this offer:

There are 13 articles by Sol Yurick listed in JSTOR, including the two I cited above. As most of you know, JSTOR has been a kind of battleground over the past several years with a 26 year old Stanford dropout named Aaron Swartz being arrested for downloading all of the JSTOR articles from MIT with the obvious intention of making them available to the hoi polloi—in other words, the opposite of the Athenian ruling class revered by Sophocles.

If there were any justice in the world, those articles above all should be accessible to the kinds of people who would have taken a class with Sol 30 years ago at the Brecht Forum or who are CounterPunch readers today. In the same defiant spirit as Aaron Swartz, but on a scaled-down level, I invite anybody who wants to read a Sol Yurick article without paying 15 dollars for the privilege to contact me at lnp3@panix.com and we’ll work something out. You can get a list of Sol Yurick’s articles doing a search on jstor.com without paying a penny and I encourage you to so without delay.

Two days later the world learned that Aaron Swartz had hung himself. Needless to say, I feel like I have lost a comrade even though I never met him. Like him, I have always believed in sharing JSTOR articles even though I never would have taken the kind of risk that he did. For me, it has amounted to passing along something like 200 JSTOR articles or so since I first gained access to the database as a Columbia University employee in 1991, including a dozen or so Sol Yurick articles in response to those who had accepted my invitation. One of the recipients was a fellow named Nicholas Levis, a Greek-American who chaired the protest against Golden Dawn in Astoria a while back. With his Hellenic ties, it was natural for him to request a copy of Sol’s article on Oedipus Rex. That, in my view, is exactly the kind of connection that Aaron Swartz sought to facilitate—even giving his life in the process. While the N.Y. Times obituary claims that it might have been depression, an illness he had been battling for many years, that caused the suicide, his family and partner thought differently:

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

Like Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, Aaron Swartz was a victim of a national-security state that is anxious to keep critical information out of the hands of its citizens. Since most of JSTOR consists of narrowly focused, if not pedantic, articles mostly designed to help academics survive the “publish or perish” ordeal, one might wonder if there is any connection between Wikileaks and JSTORLeaks.

In one of a number of memorable tributes to Swartz, Glenn Greenwald explained what was at stake in the persecution of Aaron Swartz:

Nobody knows for sure why federal prosecutors decided to pursue Swartz so vindictively, as though he had committed some sort of major crime that deserved many years in prison and financial ruin. Some theorized that the DOJ hated him for his serial activism and civil disobedience. Others speculated that, as Doctorow put it, “the feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in the hopes of turning one of them.”

I believe it has more to do with what I told the New York Times’ Noam Cohen for an article he wrote on Swartz’s case. Swartz’s activism, I argued, was waged as part of one of the most vigorously contested battles – namely, the war over how the internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it – and that was his real crime in the eyes of the US government: challenging its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that information. In that above-referenced speech on SOPA, Swartz discussed the grave dangers to internet freedom and free expression and assembly posed by the government’s efforts to control the internet with expansive interpretations of copyright law and other weapons to limit access to information.

As I began collecting my thoughts on the meaning of Aaron Swartz’s death, it began to dawn on me that the stakes are even higher than those set down by Glenn Greenwald. If there was someone with the focus and the Marxist erudition of V.I. Lenin today, a primary task would be to analyze “the latest stage of capitalism” in terms of the evolving character of American imperialism and its cohorts in the advanced industrial countries, for whom intellectual property is beginning to assume the same critical function as a steel mill or a bank did in 1914.

I could not help but reminded of this every time I put a screener from The Weinstein Company, the Walt Disney Corporation, et al on my DVD player in November and December in order to help me nominate best picture, director, actor, etc. for NYFCO’s annual meeting. Every one of them starts with a warning that if I distribute the DVD to just about anybody, I face a 5 year prison term and a $250,000 fine. When I sit through something like “The Dark Knight Rises”, I feel like that is punishment enough.

In 2001 my colleague and friend Michael Perelman wrote a book titled Steal This Idea: Intellectual Property and the Corporate Confiscation of Creativity. You can read an article based on the primary thesis of the book in the January 2003 Monthly Review. Perelman states:

The dramatic expansion of intellectual property rights represents a new stage in commodification that threatens to make virtually everything bad about capitalism even worse. Stronger intellectual property rights will reinforce class differences, undermine science and technology, speed up the corporatization of the university, inundate society in legal disputes, and reduce personal freedoms.

We have no precise measure of the extent of intellectual property, but a rough calculation by Marjorie Kelly suggests the magnitude of intellectual property rights. At the end of 1995, the book value of the Standard and Poor (S&P) index of 500 companies accounted for only 26 percent of market value. Intangible assets were worth three times the value of tangible assets.1 Of course, not all intangible assets are intellectual property rights, but a substantial proportion certainly is.

While the legal protection of intellectual property might seem inseparable from contemporary global capitalism, until fairly recently capitalists were equivocal about such things. During the first six decades of the nineteenth century, corporations in the United States were not inclined to respect such intellectual property rights. For example, they often paid as little as possible, or nothing at all, to inventors. In addition, the United States did not even recognize international copyrights.

The free-marketeers of the nineteenth century vigorously opposed intellectual property rights as feudalistic monopolies. Their view of intellectual property rights mostly dominated political economic opinion in the United States until the massive depression of 1870s weakened faith in market forces. In the context of the economic crisis, business was desperate for anything that would return profits to what they considered to be an acceptable level.

At first, business owners tried forming cartels and trusts to hobble competitive forces. In response to vigorous protests, Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act. However, corporations were able to use patents, which were perfectly legal, as a convenient loophole to evade the intent of that law. Through patent pools, they could divide up the market and exclude new competitors. In this way, intellectual property rights were important in establishing monopoly capitalism.

The strengthening of intellectual property rights accelerated once again as the bloom wore off the post-Second World War “Golden Age” and the United States’ export surplus disappeared. Behind closed doors, corporate leaders successfully lobbied the government to strengthen intellectual property rights that would give advantages to their industries. Just as in the late nineteenth century, business saw property rights as a means of increasing profits when economic conditions began to sour. The public never had a clue about the extent to which the government had given away important rights.

With its hold over the developing world becoming ever more tenuous and enforced nowadays more by Predator Drones than boots on the ground, American imperialism must do everything in its power to control information. That information can be the State Department cables that Bradley Manning turned over to Wikileaks. It can also be the JSTOR articles that are stockpiled behind a paywall as if they were gold bars at Fort Knox. Considering the fact that anybody can go to the N.Y. Public Library, take out a print journal, Xerox an article, take it home, scan it, and send it out to thousands of recipients, it shows how vulnerable corporations seeking to leverage their control over intellectual property can be. Since the true model for the Internet should be the Public Library, the powers-that-be have a big job on their hands. They want the Internet to be an open exchange of information since so much of commerce is based on this model, but they want to keep certain parts of it off-limits to the unwashed masses—the very people whose cause Aaron Swartz took up.

Speaking of Monthly Review, it is worth mentioning that John Bellamy Foster, its current editor, and former editor Robert McChesney had some very interesting things to say about the struggle to keep the Internet open and free along the lines of the public library. In a March 2011 article titled The Internet’s Unholy Marriage to Capitalism, they wrote:

This economic context points to the paradox of the Internet as it has developed in a capitalist society. The Internet has been subjected, to a significant extent, to the capital accumulation process, which has a clear logic of its own, inimical to much of the democratic potential of digital communication, and that will be ever more so, going forward. What seemed to be an increasingly open public sphere, removed from the world of commodity exchange, seems to be morphing into a private sphere of increasingly closed, proprietary, even monopolistic markets.

There are many distinct levels at which Internet activity takes place, and all of them are in the process of being commercialized. The second area where conventional microeconomics would raise eyebrows if not ring alarm bells is how capitalist development of Internet-related industries has quickly, inexorably, generated considerable market concentration at almost every level, often beyond that found in non-digital markets. What this means is that there are multiple areas where private interests can get a chokehold on the Internet and seize monopoly profits, and they are all being pursued. Google, for example, holds 70 percent of the search engine market, and its share is increasing. It is on pace to challenge the market share that John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil had at its peak. Microsoft, Intel, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Cisco, and a handful of other giants enjoy considerable monopolistic power as well. The crucial Wi-Fi chipset market, for example, is a duopoly where two firms have 80 percent of the market between them. Apple, via iTunes, controls an estimated 87 percent market share in digital music downloads and 70 percent of the MP3 player market.

As should be obvious from the citation above, Foster and McChesney are obviously looking at “the latest stage of capitalism” even if they probably don’t see themselves as following in Lenin’s footsteps. In a way, this is the logical outcome of being disciples of Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy who could be described as continuing the tradition of Lenin’s classic treatise on imperialism.

As Facebook, blogs, YouTube, and email lists become increasingly more important in connecting the left globally, we can expect more and more efforts to hinder the efforts of those who constitute its vanguard—like the young people who stepped to the forefront in the Arab Spring. Like Mayor Bloomberg forcing antiwar or Occupy activists into penned areas, we can expect the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world to draw closer to those in power in order to keep the left on a tight leash. It is one thing to allow people to put a video of a cat playing with a ball of cotton on Youtube. It something else altogether to use the Internet to build a march on Washington demanding that the government step down. I strongly suspect that the moves against Swartz, Manning and Assange are designed with that future Armageddon in mind.

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