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Archive for July, 2011

The last weekend saw another gathering of the Indignant movement, or the 15-M movement as they’re also called, in Madrid, Spain. Several tens of thousands of people assembled from all over Spain and some from other countries as well for three days of demonstrations and discussion. Naturally, all this happened under the radar of most of the mainstream media once again. Nevertheless, the movement is still going strong and the next stage will be a long march to Brussels where an international social forum is planned for October.

The popular movements in Spain and Greece have displayed an ability to mobilize a large number of people across classes and generations. What is also remarkable about the movements is their egalitarianism; there are no leaders or spokespersons, everybody has an equal voice. This is no doubt one of the reasons why the movements have so far managed to avoid being appropriated by established political parties.

Just gathering a lot of people together is of course not enough to challenge the system. Little was achieved by the massive anti-globalisation protests at the turn of the millennium. What is needed is a concrete political program that people can actually start implementing in their own countries throughout Europe, instead of just camping in the streets. We’ve seen plenty of photos and videos from the Indignant gatherings, but what I’d like to see more is actual political content: manifestos, declarations, platforms, ideology, strategy, anything. I’m afraid action without a program will not produce the kind of changes we want.

I realize the movement is still in early stages, so obviously I’m not expecting a complete, implementable program yet, but there ought to be something to work from. Surely after all the discussions held at these gatherings there must be something in black-on-white? Maybe these documents do exist in Spanish or Greek, I just haven’t seen them.

For a movement that has been largely organized through the Internet, the Indignants have made surprisingly little use of the Net for political discussion. I mean, let’s face it, the people actually showing up at these gatherings will always be a small minority of the population. If this is truly to be a movement of the European people, other means of engagement need to be developed. Why not adopt a wiki-based approach to drafting the program? This would allow those of us living in the periphery to participate as well.

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The controversy regarding Harvard fellow Aaron Swartz‘s alleged hacking into the MIT network to gain access to the JSTOR archive of academic journals has been widely in the news in the recent days (The New Yorker has a useful outline of the story). More interesting than the case itself, however, is the prevailing logic of academic publishing that is at the root of the incident.

At least in Europe most scientific research is still being funded mainly by the state. This makes perfect sense since the scientific method itself is inherently public. But it also gives commercial publishers of academic journals, and archivers such as JSTOR who sell subscriptions to these journals, the chance to profit on the tax-payer’s expense.

The typical procedure of academic publication has three steps:

  1. A research project produces a scientific article.
  2. The article is submitted to an academic journal for peer-review and publication for which the journal often takes a fee.
  3. The institution behind the research project pays for a subscription to the journal to gain a limited access to the published article, available only to those who are affiliated with the institute.

So, in the worst case scenario, the tax-payer has to pay three times for the same article and even then doesn’t get access to it. Institutions engaged in scientific research are typically forced to subscribe to a large number of journals since the researchers need them for reference, and this is where the archivers come into picture. Thus, the publishers and the archivers of academic journals are able to take advantage of their monopoly position to leech money out of publicly funded institutions.

And that’s not all. A large part of the articles in the JSTOR archive are actually from the public domain, including most of the catalog of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, dating all the way back to year 1665. Thus, JSTOR is profiting on historical documents whose copyright has long since expired and which should by all intents and purposes be made available to all as a part of our shared heritage.¹ And this is from an establishment that claims to be a “not-for-profit organization helping the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways.”

Despite the recent proliferation of open access publishing, the ongoing privatization of universities is likely to lead to even more restrictions to the access to scientific publications. This can be seen as a kind of censorship, imposed to advance private interests.

(You can sign a petition in support of Aaron Swartz here.)

¹ Greg Maxwell was upstanding enough to make a chunk of these available as a torrent.

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Susan George is a Franco-American political and social scientist, activist and writer on global social justice, Third World poverty, underdevelopment and debt. She is a fellow and president of the board of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Here’s a quote by her from a recent interview:

“European policies so far are disastrous! They are the same so-called “remedies” that were forced on developing countries in the 1980s, now better known as the “lost decade for development”. The austerity programmes being imposed on Greece, Ireland or Portugal come straight from the neoliberal handbook of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), from A to Z.

The result is savage contraction of those economies to an unheard-of degree. When radical privatisation, salary cuts, social spending wipe-outs and so on were imposed in really poor countries like Niger, they actually led to famine and mass deaths. In Europe, we have more leeway, some cushions, but Greece’s economy has already shrunk by more than 5% this year, unemployment has soared with no compensation, small businesses are failing in droves and everything in sight is being privatised.

It’s a criminal policy designed to push workers back into 19th century, to get rid of the social benefits people fought for over many generations. As usual, the rich will escape and international capital will have a heyday with the privatisation possibilities. Ordinary people are paying twice for the financial crisis—first to bail out the banks and now to sacrifice and bring about the ruin of their own countries and livelihoods.

[…]

Obviously, austerity will only worsen economic woes—less tax revenue, more unemployment, low investment, a larger underground economy and so on. Plus enormous human suffering and possible breakup of the Euro. There has not been a single case where a country came out better off because of IMF austerity policies.

[…]

It’s obvious all the stopgap measures won’t work in Ireland or Greece. I’m not even sure they are meant to. In the developing countries and now in Europe, debt allows creditors to exercise a kind of colonialism without an army or an imperial administration. It’s no accident that the Latin Americans prioritised paying back the IMF as soon as they could afford to. It was the only way they could start running their own economies again.

[…]

One of the reasons we fought so hard in France against the Lisbon Treaty was that it enshrined neoliberal economic policy at the heart of Europe, and set us up for the kind of crises we now face. Now the European Commission wants to examine all individual country budgets before their parliaments vote on them to make sure they meet certain standards. This is a blatant attack on democracy.

Everything under the European Commission is now judged in terms of “competitivity” which includes suicidal competition between European countries themselves. Not everyone can be Germany. In the Euro zone, government spending is still around 50% of GDP but corporations and capital want to get control over as much of that as they can. Once again, we’re being slowly dragged back into the 19th century.”

Read the full interview here.

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The European civilization is currently facing its greatest danger since the Cold War. No, I’m not talking about immigration, but of the phenomenon that is exemplified by the so-called Bologna Process of higher education reform. The Bologna Process is set to “stregthen the competitiveness and attractiveness of the European higher education and to foster student mobility and employability” (to paraphrase the official Bologna Process website) by means of harmonizing the degree structures of European universities. It’s a part of a bigger scheme to commodificate higher education in Europe. In this scheme, students are turned into “customers” of the universities which sell them “qualifications” that can be used to apply for jobs in the private sector (Matteo Pasquinelli has called this model the “IKEA of education”). Parts of the scheme are increases in student fees and stricter bureaucratic control of students.

Another effect of the Bologna Process is what could be called the expertization of the academia. Academics are no longer perceived as intellectuals but as experts in some narrow field of knowledge, and they’re no longer involved in free intellectual discourse but “innovation,” that is to say creation of ideas that can be commercially or socially utilized. The output of academic research is being increasingly privatized by means of patents, partnerships with private companies and the replacement of public funding with private funding. The point of these developments is to subjugate academic activity to the needs of the nation and the market (which are, of course, one and the same). Criticising these institutions is no longer allowed and “useless” faculties, such as philosophy, are being starved to death.

Every expert is basically an engineer, and those who work in the field of social sciences are social engineers. An engineer is someone who builds the dam without questioning, even if it means chasing over a million people from their homes.¹ Similarly, a social engineer never questions the predominant values of the society. For the social engineer, society appears as a gigantic machine. Any conflicts in society are perceived as malfunctions of that machine, to be dealt with using technocratic means. The task of the social engineer is to make the machine work as fluidly as possible, eliminating all conflict and establishing a sort of a Western variation of the Confucian harmonious order.

The work of the social engineer is in stark contrast to the notion of academic freedom upon which the modern European university system is based. Academic freedom was established just so that academics would be able to pursue the truth and criticise the ruling classes without fear of retribution. It’s ironic that the process currently destroying this freedom was named after the city of Bologna, the home of the first university with a charter on academic freedom (the so-called Constitutio Habita).

It looks like the time of the European university as a sanctuary of free intellectual activity is coming to an end. However, I think we can still salvage its tradition. Here I would like to return to the concept of the public domain I recently wrote about. The public domain lies, by definition, outside any formal institutions, thus providing a space where ideas can be exchanged freely. Such exchange is the basis of intellectual freedom. The public domain is free of utilitarian control thus allowing us to perceive the inherent value of ideas and the free pursuit of knowledge.

David J. Staley has described a model for a “Wiki-ized University” which consists of voluntary and self-organizing associations of teachers and students, non-restricted entry, open access to all knowledge and a non-fixed curriculum with no official tenures, diplomas or administration. Such a model could provide a new forum of intellectual activity that is not only unfettered by the state apparatus and the market, but that also goes beyond the faculty limits of the academic tradition.

¹ I don’t mean to put down actual engineers here, what I’m talking about is an archetype.

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Copyright trolling

Do not feed the trolls

A worrying trend recently has been the massive proliferation of what is generally referred to as “copyright trolling.” The copyright trolls have found a cunning way to turn copyright litigation into a business. The scheme is this: the trolls find copyrighted content on the Internet, acquire the rights to represent the copyright holders of that content and then mass-post threats of legal action to the people allegedly infringing the copyright of said content. The point of this action is not to actually sue these people or to stop the infringement. The point is to intimidate people into paying a settlement fee of a few thousand dollars. Whether the accused are actually guilty of copyright infringement is unimportant; the trolls are banking on the hope that they will pay up anyway just to avoid going to court. There is even some evidence that the trolls are themselves distributing copyrighted material on the Internet to lull in potential pirates.

One group of people that has especially embraced this business model is the porn industry. Some small-time porn producers are actually making more money out of these settlements than from selling their content. These cases are particularly effective since few people are prepared to stand in court accused of downloading porn.

Now this doesn’t just sound like extortion, it is extortion, plain and simple, and extortion is a criminal activity even when it’s carried out in a nominally legal way. What these companies are involved in has nothing to do with protecting the rights of the creators. In fact, in some cases it is the creators that are being threatened. I’m sure any reasonable pro-copyrightist will agree that this is not what copyright legislation was instituted for.

Conceivably, copyright trolling could be thwarted with new legislation, but that would be missing the point. The root of the problem are not the trolls, but copyright law itself. Copyright trolls are just one example of how copyright law is being used to coerce and terrorize people. Unscrupulous entrepreneurs will always find new ways of taking advantage of the prohibitive nature of the copyright legislation to make money. To protect people from coercion, it’s the copyright law that needs to be radically reformed. And this is not a case of “consumer’s rights vs. creator’s rights” like it’s often presented, but a case of an obviously criminal and harmful activity that should be restricted.

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Pirate Party logo

In his book Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs & European Renegadoes (1995) Peter Lamborn Wilson presents the history of the Republic of Salé, a city-state in Morocco that flourished in the early 17th century. Salé was a cosmopolitan city inhabited by Moorish refugees from Spain, Sufi and Marabout jihadists, Jewish traders and other exiles from different parts of Europe fleeing from religious or political persecution. It served as the last refuge of the Iberian Moorish culture against the expanding imperialism of Spain and Portugal.

A large part of the city’s population was engaged in piracy, and many of these were so-called Renegadoes, Europeans that had converted to Islam. The pirate captains were high in the political hierarchy of the city, and piracy was its main source of wealth. Pirate expeditions from Salé extended as far as Iceland and the New World. The city was a safe haven for pirates coming from all over Europe, Maghreb and the Levant.

During its brief period of independence Salé developed a unique political system based on popular elections of the administrative bodies, their terms limited to one year. The distribution of wealth was relatively egalitarian with the crew on a pirate ship receiving almost half of the booty (compare this with, for example, the British Navy of the time where the conscripts were treated basically as slaves). The class structure of the city allowed for more fluidity than contemporary European kingdoms and the inhabitants enjoyed a higher level of laxity in sexual and religious matters as well.

Lamborn Wilson exhibits the Salé Renegadoes as sort of freedom fighters, suggesting even that they may have served as an example for the English revolution of the 1640s. The pirates were of course mainly interested in personal liberation, but to ensure this, they had to engage in collective action to establish an enclave outside the rule of the European kingdoms and the Ottoman empire. Only in such an enclave were they protected from persecution and slavery, and could enjoy their personal freedom. In this sense, the pirates were true utopians.

Today’s Internet pirates can also be seen as kind of freedom fighters. These pirates are also carving enclaves within the cyberspace in the shape of the various file-sharing networks where they can experience a freedom to exchange information and cultural goods outside the jurisdiction of the copyright empire. Internet pirates are utopians too. They share a dream of a world where information and culture flow freely and can be enjoyed and created by everyone equally, regardless of nationality, status or wealth.

Utopians are always dangerous from the perspective of the ruling classes. The Renegadoes certainly knew this, and so do the Internet pirates whose enclaves are under constant attack from the warships of the copyright empire. But as long as the desire for freedom exists in the hearts of the oppressed, new enclaves will rise to replace the fallen ones and the war will continue until the empire is eventually forced to concede defeat.

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Help Richard O’Dwyer

Richard O’Dwyer is the name of a young UK student who is facing extradition to the US for alleged copyright infringement. O’Dwyer is a former administrator of TVShack, a website that collects links to streamable video content around the Web. The US authorities claim to have jurisdiction in this case even though O’Dwyer is a UK citizen and even though the TVShack servers have always been located outside the US. Obviously the US authorities are now using “copyright infringement” as an excuse to push the boundaries of the US legal system beyond national borders in a similar fashion they’ve been previously using “terrorism.”

TorrentFreak posted a touching request for help from O’Dwyer’s mother. There’s now a petition against O’Dwyer’s extradition that you can sign here.

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