Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 14, 2013

Thoughts on Aaron Swartz’s suicide

Filed under: computers,imperialism/globalization,intellectual property,Internet — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm

On January 9th my CounterPunch tribute to Sol Yurick concluded with this offer:

There are 13 articles by Sol Yurick listed in JSTOR, including the two I cited above. As most of you know, JSTOR has been a kind of battleground over the past several years with a 26 year old Stanford dropout named Aaron Swartz being arrested for downloading all of the JSTOR articles from MIT with the obvious intention of making them available to the hoi polloi—in other words, the opposite of the Athenian ruling class revered by Sophocles.

If there were any justice in the world, those articles above all should be accessible to the kinds of people who would have taken a class with Sol 30 years ago at the Brecht Forum or who are CounterPunch readers today. In the same defiant spirit as Aaron Swartz, but on a scaled-down level, I invite anybody who wants to read a Sol Yurick article without paying 15 dollars for the privilege to contact me at lnp3@panix.com and we’ll work something out. You can get a list of Sol Yurick’s articles doing a search on jstor.com without paying a penny and I encourage you to so without delay.

Two days later the world learned that Aaron Swartz had hung himself. Needless to say, I feel like I have lost a comrade even though I never met him. Like him, I have always believed in sharing JSTOR articles even though I never would have taken the kind of risk that he did. For me, it has amounted to passing along something like 200 JSTOR articles or so since I first gained access to the database as a Columbia University employee in 1991, including a dozen or so Sol Yurick articles in response to those who had accepted my invitation. One of the recipients was a fellow named Nicholas Levis, a Greek-American who chaired the protest against Golden Dawn in Astoria a while back. With his Hellenic ties, it was natural for him to request a copy of Sol’s article on Oedipus Rex. That, in my view, is exactly the kind of connection that Aaron Swartz sought to facilitate—even giving his life in the process. While the N.Y. Times obituary claims that it might have been depression, an illness he had been battling for many years, that caused the suicide, his family and partner thought differently:

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

Like Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, Aaron Swartz was a victim of a national-security state that is anxious to keep critical information out of the hands of its citizens. Since most of JSTOR consists of narrowly focused, if not pedantic, articles mostly designed to help academics survive the “publish or perish” ordeal, one might wonder if there is any connection between Wikileaks and JSTORLeaks.

In one of a number of memorable tributes to Swartz, Glenn Greenwald explained what was at stake in the persecution of Aaron Swartz:

Nobody knows for sure why federal prosecutors decided to pursue Swartz so vindictively, as though he had committed some sort of major crime that deserved many years in prison and financial ruin. Some theorized that the DOJ hated him for his serial activism and civil disobedience. Others speculated that, as Doctorow put it, “the feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in the hopes of turning one of them.”

I believe it has more to do with what I told the New York Times’ Noam Cohen for an article he wrote on Swartz’s case. Swartz’s activism, I argued, was waged as part of one of the most vigorously contested battles – namely, the war over how the internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it – and that was his real crime in the eyes of the US government: challenging its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that information. In that above-referenced speech on SOPA, Swartz discussed the grave dangers to internet freedom and free expression and assembly posed by the government’s efforts to control the internet with expansive interpretations of copyright law and other weapons to limit access to information.

As I began collecting my thoughts on the meaning of Aaron Swartz’s death, it began to dawn on me that the stakes are even higher than those set down by Glenn Greenwald. If there was someone with the focus and the Marxist erudition of V.I. Lenin today, a primary task would be to analyze “the latest stage of capitalism” in terms of the evolving character of American imperialism and its cohorts in the advanced industrial countries, for whom intellectual property is beginning to assume the same critical function as a steel mill or a bank did in 1914.

I could not help but reminded of this every time I put a screener from The Weinstein Company, the Walt Disney Corporation, et al on my DVD player in November and December in order to help me nominate best picture, director, actor, etc. for NYFCO’s annual meeting. Every one of them starts with a warning that if I distribute the DVD to just about anybody, I face a 5 year prison term and a $250,000 fine. When I sit through something like “The Dark Knight Rises”, I feel like that is punishment enough.

In 2001 my colleague and friend Michael Perelman wrote a book titled Steal This Idea: Intellectual Property and the Corporate Confiscation of Creativity. You can read an article based on the primary thesis of the book in the January 2003 Monthly Review. Perelman states:

The dramatic expansion of intellectual property rights represents a new stage in commodification that threatens to make virtually everything bad about capitalism even worse. Stronger intellectual property rights will reinforce class differences, undermine science and technology, speed up the corporatization of the university, inundate society in legal disputes, and reduce personal freedoms.

We have no precise measure of the extent of intellectual property, but a rough calculation by Marjorie Kelly suggests the magnitude of intellectual property rights. At the end of 1995, the book value of the Standard and Poor (S&P) index of 500 companies accounted for only 26 percent of market value. Intangible assets were worth three times the value of tangible assets.1 Of course, not all intangible assets are intellectual property rights, but a substantial proportion certainly is.

While the legal protection of intellectual property might seem inseparable from contemporary global capitalism, until fairly recently capitalists were equivocal about such things. During the first six decades of the nineteenth century, corporations in the United States were not inclined to respect such intellectual property rights. For example, they often paid as little as possible, or nothing at all, to inventors. In addition, the United States did not even recognize international copyrights.

The free-marketeers of the nineteenth century vigorously opposed intellectual property rights as feudalistic monopolies. Their view of intellectual property rights mostly dominated political economic opinion in the United States until the massive depression of 1870s weakened faith in market forces. In the context of the economic crisis, business was desperate for anything that would return profits to what they considered to be an acceptable level.

At first, business owners tried forming cartels and trusts to hobble competitive forces. In response to vigorous protests, Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act. However, corporations were able to use patents, which were perfectly legal, as a convenient loophole to evade the intent of that law. Through patent pools, they could divide up the market and exclude new competitors. In this way, intellectual property rights were important in establishing monopoly capitalism.

The strengthening of intellectual property rights accelerated once again as the bloom wore off the post-Second World War “Golden Age” and the United States’ export surplus disappeared. Behind closed doors, corporate leaders successfully lobbied the government to strengthen intellectual property rights that would give advantages to their industries. Just as in the late nineteenth century, business saw property rights as a means of increasing profits when economic conditions began to sour. The public never had a clue about the extent to which the government had given away important rights.

With its hold over the developing world becoming ever more tenuous and enforced nowadays more by Predator Drones than boots on the ground, American imperialism must do everything in its power to control information. That information can be the State Department cables that Bradley Manning turned over to Wikileaks. It can also be the JSTOR articles that are stockpiled behind a paywall as if they were gold bars at Fort Knox. Considering the fact that anybody can go to the N.Y. Public Library, take out a print journal, Xerox an article, take it home, scan it, and send it out to thousands of recipients, it shows how vulnerable corporations seeking to leverage their control over intellectual property can be. Since the true model for the Internet should be the Public Library, the powers-that-be have a big job on their hands. They want the Internet to be an open exchange of information since so much of commerce is based on this model, but they want to keep certain parts of it off-limits to the unwashed masses—the very people whose cause Aaron Swartz took up.

Speaking of Monthly Review, it is worth mentioning that John Bellamy Foster, its current editor, and former editor Robert McChesney had some very interesting things to say about the struggle to keep the Internet open and free along the lines of the public library. In a March 2011 article titled The Internet’s Unholy Marriage to Capitalism, they wrote:

This economic context points to the paradox of the Internet as it has developed in a capitalist society. The Internet has been subjected, to a significant extent, to the capital accumulation process, which has a clear logic of its own, inimical to much of the democratic potential of digital communication, and that will be ever more so, going forward. What seemed to be an increasingly open public sphere, removed from the world of commodity exchange, seems to be morphing into a private sphere of increasingly closed, proprietary, even monopolistic markets.

There are many distinct levels at which Internet activity takes place, and all of them are in the process of being commercialized. The second area where conventional microeconomics would raise eyebrows if not ring alarm bells is how capitalist development of Internet-related industries has quickly, inexorably, generated considerable market concentration at almost every level, often beyond that found in non-digital markets. What this means is that there are multiple areas where private interests can get a chokehold on the Internet and seize monopoly profits, and they are all being pursued. Google, for example, holds 70 percent of the search engine market, and its share is increasing. It is on pace to challenge the market share that John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil had at its peak. Microsoft, Intel, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Cisco, and a handful of other giants enjoy considerable monopolistic power as well. The crucial Wi-Fi chipset market, for example, is a duopoly where two firms have 80 percent of the market between them. Apple, via iTunes, controls an estimated 87 percent market share in digital music downloads and 70 percent of the MP3 player market.

As should be obvious from the citation above, Foster and McChesney are obviously looking at “the latest stage of capitalism” even if they probably don’t see themselves as following in Lenin’s footsteps. In a way, this is the logical outcome of being disciples of Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy who could be described as continuing the tradition of Lenin’s classic treatise on imperialism.

As Facebook, blogs, YouTube, and email lists become increasingly more important in connecting the left globally, we can expect more and more efforts to hinder the efforts of those who constitute its vanguard—like the young people who stepped to the forefront in the Arab Spring. Like Mayor Bloomberg forcing antiwar or Occupy activists into penned areas, we can expect the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world to draw closer to those in power in order to keep the left on a tight leash. It is one thing to allow people to put a video of a cat playing with a ball of cotton on Youtube. It something else altogether to use the Internet to build a march on Washington demanding that the government step down. I strongly suspect that the moves against Swartz, Manning and Assange are designed with that future Armageddon in mind.

8 Comments »

  1. Robert McChesney, not Paul.

    Comment by uh...clem — January 14, 2013 @ 9:23 pm

  2. Absolutely wonderful tribute to a young man who risked everything to liberate thought. Ideas, whether literal texts or abstact art, should never be considered private property in any rational society.

    Comment by Carl Finamore — January 14, 2013 @ 9:26 pm

  3. Depression my foot, this man was pushed into ending his life because he felt trapped. How sad such a young intellectual with a bright future has been extinguished. We will never know how he could have impacted the world. Very sad.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — January 15, 2013 @ 12:16 am

  4. And you talk about the malicious prosecution of this young man all done in the name of “justice”, when our country’s top prosecutor Eric Holder was held in contempt of congress while hiding under the apron of executive privilege to avoid a subpoena? Holder’s one of the most corrupt individuals in Washington but his staff needed to make an example out of this young man? Who in the hell are they to judge when all they’ve done is cover up for Holder in Fast and Furious? They are in no position to judge anyone. The whistleblowers were honest, but unfortunately many are not. We call this a system of justice that drove a brilliant young man to take his life. Justice for whom?

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — January 15, 2013 @ 2:29 am

  5. I’m no conspiracy monger but in this 2nd coming of Cointelpro one could successfully argue he was “Murdered by Capitalism”?

    http://www.connexions.org/CxLibrary/CX6718.htm

    I know my dad was along with a friend of my family’s, Ed Balchowsky, featured in the book linked above, a Spanish Civil War vet who lived in Chicago when I was a kid — an incredible artist who drew a great charcoal portrait of me when I was 5 that still hangs on my wall to this day.

    Aaron Swartz, Don Smith, Ed Balchowsky — Presente!

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 15, 2013 @ 3:12 am

  6. This is a beautiful tribute…thank you. I will share it widely. There is just one comment I’d like to make that I hope people can take in the right spirit. We must organize and work together in groups. Isolated actions like Aaron’s leave the actor too vulnerable, and prone to the psychologizing of the media and everybody else, which can be used as another trick to depoliticize the action.

    Comment by Barbara Regenspan — January 15, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

  7. Mr. Swartz clearly knew he was risking civil disobedience. Threatening someone with serious prison time is clearly an incredible message the government can send a group or an individual.

    I can’t get over how coincidental Louis’s post was. Apparently JSTOR had planned to announce offering greater access of its materials and had told Aaron’s lawyer as much last week. Unfortunately, Aaron never heard that news. If you haven’t already, see the interview of Aaron’s lawyer, Larry Lessig on Democracy Now! yesterday:

    http://www.democracynow.org/2013/1/14/an_incredible_soul_lawrence_lessig_remembers

    Comment by Aaron — January 15, 2013 @ 5:49 pm

  8. […] A tribute and analysis by Louis Proyect, with reflections on the JSTOR case. […]

    Pingback by Aaron Swartz, R.I.P. | Dollars & Sense Blog — January 15, 2013 @ 10:42 pm


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