A2K Symposium: Contribution by Yann Moulier Boutang

By Yann Moulier Boutang

Dear all,

I have not yet read extensively the huge and referential book edited by Gaëlle and Amy. No doubt this e-meeting and e-discussion will help every contributor to master it in a more rapid and proper way. Reading a book collectively provide richer insights inasmuch that each of us is overcrowded by many books and starts reading plenty of them without time to absorb them thoroughly.  I find the rule of this exercise (each contributor choose another contribution in the book) a good incentive.

I have chosen the contribution of Yochaï Benkler whose general book The Wealth of Networks I retain a seminal book of the new political economy I am trying to promote with my students. Benkler using such a title, wanted to ring a bell I guess : the bell of the famous The Wealth of Nations of our good old Adam Smith. For its importance and the decisive break through it provide I would preferred to compare it to Ricardo’s Principles and Ronald Coase first farewell to the classic and neo-classic economics. For economists generally so narrow minded when dealing with other disciplines, I find astonishing that a jurist has brought in, all at once, so many contents and bricks for the new building up of economics and in completely different meaning than that of Posner in law economics, since the later has consolidated the traditional axioms of mean stream economic instead of threatening the very basis of both neo-classic and heterodox schools like Benkler did.

Hence I was quite curious of his contribution in the field of political science.

In his “The idea of Access to Knowledge and the Information Commons : Long-Term Trends and Basic Elements” (pp. 217-235 of the Book) Benkler tries to embrace the unity and consistency of the A2K movement as a political movement, that mean something already rooted in institutional and historical political life (not an utopian idea about future politics).

He examines first the long term trends that have produce such an event. He identifies three movements : a) the emancipation trend which starts with decolonization from Western world, proceeds with the post-colonial studies and reach strategies of economic development after the collapse of  both substitution of imports policies (closely linked to former socialist countries) and insertion in the neo-liberal new international  division of work (from 1980 to 1995); b) The second is the shift from industrial to information economies. What I have called the rising of cognitive capitalism; c) The third long-term is the shift from mass mediated culture and monopoly telecommunications to the networked information society.

To these three factors, he adds a fourth political and ideological one, the rise of the human rights movement preoccupied by justice and freedom as an alternative both to statist and authoritarian communism and proprietary, neoliberal system.

Each of this trends have fuelled the A2K movement separately and jointly since their overlapping has fostered and triggered its potential strength. Separately first of all: decolonization and economic emancipation have convinced former Third world countries (BRIC and emerging economies) that proprietary enclosures (especially in drugs, fertilizers, cements issues, industry patents) were able to destroy all the benefits of their relative comparative advantages in wages, welfare, as well as the very health of their population heavily afflicted by aids disease.

The second and third long trends both closely interconnected, explains that dematerialization has shifted the central part of economic value into knowledge codified in IPR, and how far this has restructured deeply international trade and division of labour, and re-established a new gap between developed and developing countries. Hence battle over IPR has become central since WTO rounds including the last one about services and immaterial trade in Doha.

The strengthening of IPR and alternative A2K become strategic and explain why wages and welfare state politics have not followed the predictions of equalization of retribution of both capital and labour of the economic theory. Although Y. Benkler does not use the word, we could say that the actual form of class struggle is much more concerned by access to knowledge since knowledge has become the key factor of production, than by access to material property and/or exclusion. May be something in this true description is lacking and has not received sufficient attention : IPR enforcement strategies prepared deliberately by the Bay-Dohle act and Chakrabarty’s decision about patenting a bacteria eating oil in 1980, is not an offensive. It is already a counter-offensive and a response both to the inescapable spill over of fundamental knowledge conditioning more and more applied knowledge, hence not easy to protect by traditional IPR, and to digitalization that makes by itself very difficult the enforcement of IPR.  The commons of knowledge has preceded the reaction or counter revolution exactly in the same way the Reaganian and Thatcherian so called “revolution” was a counter revolution (theoretically against Keynes and Beveridge) but practically against the power conquered by wage earners, students, women . The battle for new enclosures is not a mere rehearse of the XVI-XVIII° centuries enclosures. The landlords had tried in those times to appropriate of the traditional commons. Whereas the IPR re-enforcement since now three decades, has been fighting to re-appropriate spaces of liberty and access that had already been created by hackers, activists, scientists. I think this is a very important detail because it explains one of the important reason why the reaction of limiting access to knowledge by various devices of the IPR mania (DRM for example) was so poorly successful  and always overtaken by new technologies and practises.

With the fourth factor, Benkler draws the logical conclusion of his book : the industrial period has been dominated by market and firms hierarchy approach (the liberal and neo-liberal) on the one hand, and by state approach (real socialism  in its hard version and social-democrat or mixed economy in its soft translation). Both have failed according to him and the Human Right approach has testified market failures and totalitarianism catastrophe. But the reason of this failure is rooted in the rise of a third device (tertium quid) between the binary opposition of market and hierarchy, or private property and State : the network. Without this economic and infrastructural basis, A2K would have not escape the well-known ambiguity of Western promotion of Human Rights.

Although I understand fully why Benkler wants to stress upon the desire for justice and equality as a fundamental spring of A2K movement, I do regret that this Human Right component is too vague in his description and can contradict the first trend he identified (the Southern component). Democracy claimed by A2K movement fits equally situations in China as our Western countries, because networks promoted and need radical democracy and not only traditional representative democracies. Radical democracy in its “ New Commoners” meaning, is not only necessary to make significant progress in the field of human justice at a world level. It is indispensable to reach economic efficiency and welfare and commonwealth. In this sense, the message delivered by Benkler is deeply optimistic, like the Marxian and Lightening thinkers. It departs from the Frankfurtian school. I do agree with this rationale although we have to face some problems. Cognitive capitalism as a whole needs liberty, autonomy, A2K, but it needs also preservation of institutional conditions of proprietary model. It can suppress formally property in order to capture positive externalities and transform human pollination into profit, but when common property (State insured public properties, communities common property) threatens private owned profit it is another story.

Industrial capitalism, in its long story has not hesitated to kill workers and reduce profit in the short run to preserve political and institutional conditions of profitability.

My last observation will deal with the explanation by Benkler of the capacity for A2K to mobilize right wing libertarians, liberals form the middle of the political spectrum and left wing “libertaires” and former “communists”. First makes understandable the power of collation of heterogeneous social forces. Second, he hints a very important point.  Nowadays proprietary ideology is still hegemonic. A2K is still an outsider. However its capacity to attract people from any part of the political rainbow, is presaging the formation of a new historical block and a possible reversal of hegemony. This block is the basis for any political alliance and it gathers productive, active forces be they in small industries, start up, entrepreneurs, or in territories, be they employed wage earners, precarious free lances, on the dole workers, unsupported mothers, creative classes.

Policies in investment for knowledge and for sustainable growth or development, fair and true reforms of the Welfare, all of them will have to face the battle for commons and the struggle against shareholders. In a way A2K ideology and values are the Saint- Simonian spirit of  the new capitalism in the age of Networks.

You may also like...