Assessing the goals and strategies of the A2K movement

Excerpted from a long and really interesting interview of Yann-Moulier Boutang, conducted by Gaëlle Krikorian , and which appeared in the book: Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property.

GK: In the fight to abolish slavery, the ultimate goal could be articulated clearly and simply. In the case of A2K, how is the movement taking shape, and how can the goal be articulated? What seems desirable?

YMB: I think people agree that it is time to condemn the arbitrary reign of cor-

porate power. The antimonopoly effort is one of their motivations. The demands

made, however, are more diverse in nature. Some people are in favor of the prin-

ciple of free access and believe that the domain of learning ought to be subsidized

and not represent another space occupied by merchandizing, for making profits.

Another category of people is concerned about the decline and contamination of a

public sector as a result of market norms and would like to protect this public sec-

tor while reigning in market expansion, which is a more sophisticated position. A

third type of position claims that the system of barriers protecting property is ill-

suited to the domain of knowledge and represents an impediment to innovation.

There is yet another category that takes a more technical perspective and raises

the issue of the standards battle—which in 1999 led to Tim O’Reilly from Open

Access splitting with the Free Software Foundation’s policies. They are convinced

that the fundamental issue in the industrial sector, as well as in the public sector,

is the choice of norms, which are used by companies to try to escape the effects

of competition.

Finally, there is another view, which is roughly the one I myself hold, that says

the real issue consists in finding economic models that effect a compromise involv-

ing cognitive capitalism, and a viable system for the public sector and traditional

learning, and the radical democratization of society—these are the three elements

to be brought together. This means it is vital to integrate some parts of capital-

ism, the most interesting ones, because it opens up arenas that the greatest pos-

sible number of citizens, researchers, students, and customers can use. The battle

certainly isn’t over yet. We have already seen it in the case of slavery: Almost a

century went by between the first revolt and abolition of slavery, in 1804, and the

start of its absolute abolition, in Brazil in 1889. It is in any case unsurprising that

certain parties in the so-called “real,” material economy are opposed to a radical

evolution. In some cases, it might be people drawing pensions, but it could also be

employees working to produce tangible goods who turn reactionary in the hopes

of protecting their jobs, which are more important to them than society becoming

authoritarian and noncreative.

In addition, there are complex alliances at odds with each other. We see this

with the issue of traditional knowledge. In the lawsuit over the Amazonian Ror-

aima Reserve in Brazil, for example, which the Supreme Court decided in favor

of the defenders of the reserve, there were landless groups, wealthy settlers who

wanted to grow soy, the army, prospectors working for the Brazilian national cor-

poration Petrobras, wood manufacturers, and ecologists. Their motivations were

all interlinked. Native Americans, like the Aborigines in Australia who fought

against multinational corporations, actually made a tacit, technical use of prop-

erty rights by demanding a sort of author’s right to resources in the reserve when

multinationals refused to recognize the relevance of authorship—often, in this

case, taking the form of collective author’s rights. The Brazilian state and army

had recognized the Native Americans’ right to a usufruct, but not to the trans-

ferability of property, which means, in other words, that they maintained sover-

eignty. There was a deep-rooted conflict between those who accepted the Native

Americans’ sovereignty and right to oppose the state on issues such as petroleum

development and those who denied it. In this conflict, the army pointed to the

necessity of national security, and the settlers and landless groups took the same

line, while on the other side, an alliance between proponents of Native Americans

sovereignty on Amazonian soil and ecologists who wanted to limit the clearing of

forest for farmland was endorsed by the local, but not the federal government.

Native Americans believe the forest cannot be touched because trees have souls, a

belief that they expressed tactically in the language of property because it was the

only means of making their message understandable. In the same way, Stallman

called for interoperability and nonclosure of systems in bourgeois law by creating

the idea of “copyleft” while preventing the ransacking of public space that was

attempting to consolidate private property.

In a political battle, there is unavoidably some mixing of alliances between

people with different objectives. There are two parts that make up access to learn-

ing, for example. There is access considered as an absolute, timeless virtue, and

then there is a more historically determined position, which is therefore more stra-

tegic and raises the issue of rearranging the power structure. The idea of knowl-

edge communism could represent the locus of this reorganization, the field where

all the different groups can reach an agreement. People don’t refer to it as “com-

munism,” but say “for common use,” “new common ground,” “common space.” The

term “communism” is, in fact, derived from “commoners,” and we must not forget

that in revolutionary history, it was the commoners who started things, not the

“communists.” I use the notion of the communism of capital because I think capi-

talism needs to be brought into common use by the commoners, since they are the

ones producing it and generating its income. Free access to learning can provide

the impetus for a political representation of society, the development of a coopera-

tive society in which exploitation is significantly reduced and gradually eliminated

as innovative forms of work and creation emerge.”

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