WWMS: What Would Marx Say about Digital Commons

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

John “Locke”: Because he was exercising his natural right to liberty…

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.”

Blamed Capitalism before it was mainstream....
Blamed Capitalism before it was mainstream….

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.


  1. This is a really fun and thoughtful post, Becca. I think it’s interesting that you say Marx would see the Internet as symptomatic of capitalism’s downfall. I’m definitely inclined to agree with that. However, I think Marx might also notice the diverse and very creative ways that corporations have found to exploit this “equalizing” market. Maybe this is the Lessig hangover talking, but if legal and monetary red tape is keeping people from accessing information (and you do have to pay to get to some parts of the web, like getting a ‘premium’ account on Pandora so my Led Zeppelin marathon isn’t interrupted by a lipstick ad), isn’t that what capitalism is all about? Those with wealth and power calling the shots? If Lessig’s dream of “free culture” on the Internet is realized, then I totally agree that Marx would see it as capitalism’s death knell. As of today, though, I think that no matter how much piracy, screen-shot-stealing, etc. happens, there will always be a MPAA or RIAA around to sue some poor college student for millions of dollars.

  2. Thanks for the response Christine! I totally see what you’re saying. Of course, according to Marx, nothing that we ever do can be outside of the mindset and goals of capitalism. So any attempts to move past that, whether it be opening up property on the internet of even communism itself, will necessarily be tainted and mere bandaids used to protect capitalism until its downfall. So, if the internet still has red tape and fences put up as you suggest (and I agree usually….one exception may be Project Gutenberg), then I think you’re right in saying this is actually capitalists fighting back and keeping strong footing. In the end, I’m not suggesting that Marx would actually think that open sourcing on the internet is a good thing; I think he’d say that it’s part of the process toward decline (because of over-production, etc.), and what will follow is unimaginable to us today. Anyways, I’m no expert on Marx, economics, or the apocalypse, and I get fed up with Marx’s dead-ends and ambiguities. So I’m more interested in the ways in which open-sourcing challenges traditional capitalism, and how the it-will-curb-creativity argument sounds like arguments against capitalism and in support of competition. Thoughts?

  3. Hey Becca, sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I’m certainly not a Marx expert either, but what you say makes a lot of sense to me. The thing is, Marx’s claim that capitalism will eventually fall reminds me of a random little parable my sister once told me. Two men, one smart and one dull, stood in front of a treasure chest with the inscription, “He who opens this will die.” The smart man tells the dull one to go open it for him, thinking that the fool will take the bullet for him, and he can swing by later to pick up the treasure. But the dull man opens it, takes the treasure, and lives a long, happy, wealthy life. What happened? Everybody dies. The treasure chest never said when. It was totally unnecessary for me to tell you that story, but the point is that Marx’s prediction that people will keep putting band-aids on capitalism until it collapses is… well… almost a tautology. Everything collapses. Marx made his claim almost 200 years ago and capitalism doesn’t look anywhere near the sort of overthrow he described.
    As far the role the Internet plays in it, I don’t think it will speed up or slow down this fall. I think it will impact the nature of the path it takes there, but like we both already said… the Internet is just a virtual version of the real world, where sometimes you have to deal with capitalist red tape (lipstick ads), and sometimes you enjoy socialist open-access (Gutenberg’s a great example).
    Furthermore, I don’t think open-sourcing is a hit to creativity at all. We’ve all heard stories about best selling authors who started out by getting big followings for their fan-fiction pieces, or prominent comedians, actors, and singers who went viral on YouTube. Some writers may find an e-zine that will pay them to write articles whereas others might be more eager to share their work in blog form, the same way someone could start their own community newsletter if they couldn’t get paid to work as a columnist.
    Again, sorry it took me so long to see your response!!

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