Perhaps this is just because I’m currently reading The Manifesto in Humanities, but with all this talk about the consequences for private property in the digital age, I was wondering what Marx would have to say about all of this. The answer I arrive at is vague and pretty unhelpful (like Marx himself on the whole), but I’ll get there in a minute.
Before all this talk of communism, John Locke wrote about the implications of property ownership as early as the 17th century. He writes in his Second Treatise of Government (based on my limited Humn knowledge) that property was originally defined by what
you could hunt/gather for yourself without wasting. This created a level of equality among people, because amassing enormous wealth would be physically taxing and people stopped collecting things when their “natural” needs were met. Things like berries and meat spoil quickly, so it would make no sense to horde them. The appearance of money and its triumph over the barter system changed the way people owned things. Now people could own things unequally, and theoretically amass unlimited amounts of wealth that last and accumulate. This sounds like the capitalist system we have today.
Marx, of course, credits any social development throughout history to economics–essentially, the distribution of property. Engels is really the one who describes the property distribution between the upper-middle bourgeoisie class and the working proletariat. The workers are stuck in an endless cycle of poverty. Marx writes in his Manifesto that the typical system of “synthesis” that happens when “haves” and “have-nots” clash will not be possible when the bourgeoisie and proletariat of capitalism inevitably meet their end. Capitalism will finish, and some sort of revolution that is unimaginable will happen. Communism, or equal distribution of wealth, is the best way to stop putting band-aids on capitalism and urge on this “revolution.”
So, WWMS about the question of digital commons, or places online such as Digital Thoreau in which anyone with internet access can “own” something? How can anyone truly own something/the rights to something if digital sites are open-access?
I think the important thing to remember is that the nature of property distribution has changed as texts, ideas, images, etc. have moved online. Nowadays, an artist can’t be assured for one second that she’ll receive money for everything she has published; someone somewhere will undoubtably have found a way to copy-paste or download or screenshot, etc, etc, etc, her work. There’s a block in the money-centered, capitalistic flow of trade that people such as Scott Turow, Paul Aiken, and James Shapiro would argue discourages creativity and production.
This is where things get eerie, because Marx predicts the destruction of means of production as ways to combat the over-production of final-stage capitalism. The sheer volume of things produced on the web make it a perfect example of capitalism in its final stages. There’s overproduction and then unwillingness/inability to pay on the part of consumers, and then a disincentive for producers to continue….producing.
Communal spaces on the web of course sound kind of communistic in that they equalize people as consumers. However, they’re different than the material property and situation that Marx and Engels were so sure determine everything in the world. In fact, it seems to me to be more similar to the berries and meat Locke spoke of. Web content doesn’t really have an expiration date, but there’s only so much you can download and read and listen to on a computer or in a day. And the amount that you download on your computer doesn’t determine your wealth or material situation (unlike money). This is arbitrary property that falls not really under the supply/demand chain of communism, but more under the take-what-you-need-but-it-will-take-time-and-effort model of the hunter/gatherer system.
Of course where it differs is that people have to produce online content, whereas deer produce venison for us (thanks, deer). So we still have the problem of production. But, Marx would definitely say that that anxiety is the capitalist in all of us which can’t envision any other way of viewing the world except as a giant factory of creation. However, that still doesn’t help us very much in finding pragmatic ways to encourage production in a communal world without guaranteed payback for your time and effort.
So I think Marx would look at the digital age and the way property has become in nature and in distribution, shake his head, think of the end of capitalism, smile, and say I told you this was coming.