J. Martin Pedersen on Information Exceptionalism

Last month J. Martin Pedersen published, on the P2P Foundation Wiki, a summary of his article “Property, Commoning and the Politics of Free Software.”

As I understand his argument, Martin objects to what he calls “information exceptionalism,” or the belief that information is uniquely qualified to be free because of some fundamental distinction (in terms of non-rivalry and zero marginal cost of reproduction) between it and material goods.

Martin argues, as I understand him, that unless we address the question of property rights in the material realm as well, the free culture movement in the immaterial realm will simply become a vehicle for exploitation by those who control the property rights in the material realm.  So the free culture movement must be part of a larger libertarian communist solution that includes the material realm as well.

I agree that it’s a mistake to overstate the material-immaterial dichotomy.
First of all, material scarcity is a matter of degree.  And artificial scarcities in the immaterial realm like copyrights and patents are a source of artificial scarcity — and artificially high prices resulting from artificial scarcity rents — in the material world.  The propertied classes’ control over the material requisites of production is tighter and more extensive than it would otherwise be, thanks to the “intellectual property” regime.  “Intellectual property” means that a major part of the price of means of production is comprised of embedded rents on patents and copyrights, rather than the actual cost of producing the means of production.  “Intellectual property” also serves as a legal bulwark in support of the ability of a handful of large corporations to restrict the right to use the means of production to engage in producing particular kinds of material goods.

Scarcity in the material realm is becoming relatively less important as the capital inputs required for independent production plummet.  In recent years homebrew micromanufacturing technology has reduced by one or two orders of magnitude the cost of the means of production required to manufacture physical goods.

The original reason for the factory and wage systems was the shift from individually affordable, general-purpose craftsmen’s tools to extremely expensive, product-specific machinery.  Technological advances in the means of physical production are reversing this shift, and “intellectual property” is one of the main barriers preventing such advances from being reflected in imploding costs.

Abolishing all forms of property in the material is not necessary for drastically reducing costs.  Property in land based on homesteading by admixture of labor, accompanied by the nullification of absentee claims to vacant and unimproved land, will drive down the overall site-rents of land by a great deal.  Eliminating licensing and building code restrictions on cheap, vernacular building techniques will drastically lower the costs of housing.  For the rapidly growing portion of total subsistence needs that it’s possible to produce through self-provisioning in the informal household sector, or household-based microenterprises using spare capacity of ordinary household capital goods, eliminating zoning and other regulatory barriers to doing so will radically reduce the cost of obtaining these goods.  And eliminating patents will eliminate the portion of the price of manufactured goods which reflects embedded rents on IP.

Now let’s approach it from the opposite direction:  “Free” in the digital realm is a source of leverage in the physical realm:  The greater the portion of the use-value that we consume which is free, the more of our subsistence needs which can be met outside of wage-labor.  The reduction of artificial scarcity rents in the total price of our subsistence needs translates directly into a proportional reduction in the number of wage-hours we are required to work to pay them.  The greater the total share of subsistence needs can be met through self-provisioning, the greater the bargaining leverage workers have against those who control access to the portion of subsistence needs that are not free.   A household which requires twenty hours of wage-labor to meet its needs, is largely free of debt, and has substantial savings, is far more capable of riding out periods of unemployment while awaiting terms of employment to its liking, than a household that will be faced with homelessness and eviction after a week or two without forty hours of wage labor.

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