On the subordination of public knowledge to private capital

Excerpted from Nick Dyer-Whiteford:

“Futuristic accumulation is the commodification of publicly created scientific knowledge, which via copyright and patent, is privatized as intellectual property for the extraction of monopolistic technological rents. Its central site is the research university, whose entrainment to business gradually evolved over the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries in both Europe and North America but reached a watershed in the United States’ mobilization of university knowledge for atomic weapons, cryptography, ballistics and military projects by the United States during the Second World War. This process, intensified in the Cold War, directly linked academy and industry.

In his study of contemporary ‘technocapitalism’ Luis Suarez-Villa (2009) describes the emergence this new modality of accumulation. The ‘massification of higher education’ created a reservoir of publicly funded knowledge, and an infrastructure of laboratory facilities supported by communication systems, into which corporations could tap. A growing emphasis on applied technological research was matched by increasingly overt forms of corporate university partnership, and a steep rise in patenting by US corporations (which multiplied four fold in US in second half of twentieth century). This process began in the 1940s, but would only come to fruition several decades later when ‘a critical mass of highly talented technologists with corporate experience had formed, based on numerous waves of university graduates in the sciences and engineering’ (2009: 23).

Futuristic accumulation was, however, only fully activated as a capitalist strategy in the 1970s in response to the crisis of Fordism, when, in answer to competitive threats to its traditional areas of industrial supremacy, and to the Vietnam war-era cycle of domestic and international struggles, North American capital increasingly turned to the development of high-technologies. The most important moment, foundational for digital labour, was the development of the US commercial computing industry from the 1970s on. This was generated by the three way partnership between the Pentagon, top rank research universities such as Stanford and MIT, and defense industries. From this ‘iron triangle’ (Edwards, 1997: 44) computing knowledge flowed – mediated, ironically, by hacking and homebrew computing cultures that believed ‘information wants to be free’ – to entrepreneurial ventures in office software (e.g. Microsoft) and video-gaming (e.g. Atari), and the creation of Silicon Valley culture.

This crucial instance of academic-capital collaboration was followed by other moments ringing changes on the same theme. ‘Biocapital’ (Rajan, 2005) was incubated in the 1980s in the couplings of academic molecular biologists, biotechnology entrepreneurs and venture capital that bred gene-decoding companies, mining ‘sequences that could be sold or licensed to pharmaceutical, chemical or agro-industrial companies’ or adopting research regimes targeted to exploit the most lucrative medical markets (Suarez-Villa, 2009: 26). A decade later, in the 1990s, the explosion of Internet dot.coms was ignited by Netscape’s commercialization of an academically developed technology, the web browser, and sustained by spin-offs from computing science departments. In all these moments, sectors of US capital acquired the rights to exploit innovations arising from publicly funded research.

This subordination of public science to private capital does not always go smoothly. The most famous apparent breakdown was the race to decode the human genome between the publicly funded Human Genome Project and Craig Ventner’s company, Celera. This conflict has been variously narrated as triumph of agile private capital over stodgy state science (Shreeve, 2004) or as staunch defense of the public interest by academic researchers (Spufford, 2004). As Ronald Loeppky (2005) argues, however, such reportage overplays the conflict; despite the real hostility between the two projects, the public program was, he argues, ultimately as dedicated to placing genetic knowledge at the disposal of industry as the private one. The distinction was between research assisting capital in general, and the proprietorial claim of one specific capital.

Even such limited friction is rare. Far more representative are harmonious arrangements such as the $500 million research consortium formed between British Petroleum and the University of California, for the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), which embeds corporate research on biotechnologically produced biofuels at the heart of Berkley campus despite manifest conflicts of interest (Herper, 2007) – a single example nevertheless paradigmatic of a normalized range of research partnerships, campus research parks, academic-commercial knowledge transfers and spin-offs.

According to Suarez-Villa commercial ‘experimentalism’ now directs the emergence of ‘critical masses of knowledge and…infrastructure’ in ‘fields that become emblematic of the twenty-first century’, including ‘every area of biotechnology, proteomics, genomics, biopharmaceuticals, and biomedicine, the nascent field of nanotechnology and all its innumerable future medical and mechanical applications, molecular computing, bioinformatics, and…biorobotics’ (2009: 10). It brings with it a systematized orientation of research to the extraction of value, deploying analytic templates, incentives, and a ‘permanent state of urgency’. It involves an acceptance of planned obsolescence; a blurring of boundaries between basic science and technological application; networks of ‘contact, diffusion and transaction’, social institutions of legitimation and individual subject formation (2009: 28). The scale of these processes is, he suggests, ‘mega’ – that is ‘all encompassing’; they ‘increasingly set the agenda for entire societies’, with an ‘intrusive reach’ and ‘scope and range’ greater than, say, the nineteenth century factory or twentieth century mass production (2009: 16), but, ‘like its predecessor, dynamizing the accumulation of capital by concocting means to seize it in ever faster and larger quantities’ (2009: 19).

‘Futuristic accumulation’ suggests an analogy and contrast between this process and primitive accumulations, the process by which agrarian populations were, by enclosure, dispossessed from common lands to become a proletarian workforce. This laid the basis for capital’s normal process of expanded reproduction in which the extraction of surplus value from workers proceeds through the buying and selling of labour power. Primitive accumulation and expanded reproduction are today ongoing processes: around the planet people continue to be displaced from the land by agribusiness and extractive industries into shanty towns, to work in industrial factories pouring out commodities of all sorts. But futuristic accumulation adds something new. It does not dispossess people from existing territories, but expropriates from them the emergent domains of life produced by advanced technoscientific innovations. These innovations deal with the basic building blocks of human existence, cognition, and biology, thought and the body: in exposing their deep structures digital labour create new territories–the genome and cyberspace. By imposing property rights on these scientific commons, capital commodifies and commands the evolution of life itself. This is the enclosure of the future, the alienation of species-becoming.”

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