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This is an excerpt from the Q&A period of a speech given by Noam Chomsky at Washington State University on April 22, 2005. He points out how the intellectual property regime has nothing to do with “progress”, but rather with preventing it. This applies not only to individual companies or people but also whole nations, which is why intellectual property rights figure heavily in international trade negotiations.

“That’s a very interesting question. It has an interesting history. The World Trade Organization, the Uruguay round that set up the World Trade Organization imposed, it’s called a “free trade agreement”. It’s in fact a highly protectionist agreement. The US is strongly opposed to free trade, just as business leaders are, just as they’re opposed to a market economy. A crucial part of the Uruguay round, WTO, NAFTA, and the rest of them, is very strong (what are called) intellectual property rights. What it actually means is rights that guarantee monopoly pricing power to private tyrannies.

So take, say, a drug corporation. Most of the serious research and development, the hard part of it, is funded by the public. In fact most of the economy comes out of public expenditures through the state system, which is the source of most innovation and development. I mean computers, the internet. Just go through the range, it’s all coming out of the state system primarily. There is research and development in the corporate system, some, but it’s mostly at the marketing end. And the same is true of drugs.

Once the corporations gain the benefit of the public paying the costs and taking the risks, they want to monopolize the profit. And the intellectual property rights, they’re not for small inventors. In fact the people doing the work in the corporations, they don’t get anything out of it, like a dollar if they invent something. It’s the corporate tyrannies that are making the profits, and they want to guarantee them.

The World Trade Organization proposed new, enhanced intellectual property rights, patent rights, which means monopoly pricing rights, far beyond anything that existed in the past. In fact they are not only designed to maximize monopoly pricing, and profit, but also to prevent development. That’s rather crucial. WTO rules introduced product patents. Used to be you could patent a process, but not the product. Which means if some smart guy could figure out a better way of doing it, he could do it. They want to block that. It’s important to block development and progress, in order to ensure monopoly rights. So they now have product patents.

Well if you take a look at, say, US history. Suppose the colonies after independence had been forced to accept that regime. Do you know what we’d be doing now? Well first of all there’d be very few of us here. But those of us who would be here would be pursuing our comparative advantage and exporting fish and fur. That’s what economists tell you is right. Pursue your comparative advantage. That was our comparative advantage. We certainly wouldn’t have had a textile industry. British textiles were way cheaper and better. Actually British textiles were cheaper and better because Britain had crushed Irish and Indian superior textile manufacturers and stolen their techniques. So they were now the preeminent textile manufacturer, by force of course.

The US would never have had a textile industry. It grew up around Massachusetts, but the only way it could develop was extremely high tariffs which protected unviable US industries. So the textile industry developed, and that has a spin off into other industries. And so it continues.

The US would never have had a steel industry. Again same reason. British steel was way superior. One of the reasons is because they were stealing Indian techniques. British engineers were going to India to learn about steel-making well into the 19th century. Britain ran the country by force, so they could take what they knew. And they develop a steel industry. And the US imposed extremely high tariffs, also massive government involvement, through the military system as usual. And the US developed a steel industry. And so it continues. Right up to the present.

Furthermore that’s true of every single developed society. That’s one of the best known truths of economic history. The only countries that developed are the ones that pursued these techniques. The ones that weren’t able… There were countries that were forced to adopt “free trade” and “liberalization”: the colonies, and they got destroyed. And the divide between the first and the third world is really since the 18th century. It wasn’t very much in the 18th century, and it’s very sharply along these lines.

Well, that’s what the intellectual property rights are for. In fact there’s a name for it in economic history. Friedrich List, famous German political economist in the 19th century, who was actually borrowing from Andrew Hamilton, called it “kicking away the ladder”. First you use state power and violence to develop, then you kick away those procedures so that other people can’t do it.

Intellectual property rights has very little to do with individual initiative. I mean, Einstein didn’t have any intellectual property rights on relativity theory. Science and innovation is carried out by people that are interested in it. That’s the way science works. There’s an effort in very recent years to commercialize it, like they commercialize everything else. So you don’t do it because it’s exciting and challenging, and you want to find out something new, and you want the world to benefit from it. You do it because maybe you can make some money out of it. I mean that’s a… you can make your own judgment about the moral value. I think it’s extremely cheapening, but, also destructive of initiative and development.

And the profits don’t go back to individual inventors. It’s a very well studied topic. Take one that’s really well studied, MIT’s involved: computer controlled machine tools, a very fundamental component of the economy. Well, there’s a very good study of this by David Nobel, a leading political economist. What he pointed out and discovered is the techniques were invented by some small guy, you know working in his garage somewhere in, I think, Michigan. Actually when the MIT mechanical engineering department learned about it they picked them up and they developed them and extended them and so on. And then the corporations came in and picked them up from them, and finally it became a core part of US industry. Well, what happened to the guy who invented it? He’s still probably working in his garage in Michigan, or wherever it is. And that’s very typical.

I just don’t think it has much to do with innovation or independence. It has to do with protecting major concentrations of power, which mostly got their power as a public gift, and making sure that they can maintain and expand their power. And these are highly protectionist devices and I don’t think… You really have to ram them down people’s throats. They don’t make any economic sense or any other sense.”

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Infowars has pointed out some WikiLeaks cables that show how US diplomats have worked closely with Monsanto to push foreign governments to accept Monsanto’s genetically modified (GMO) crops to their market. The US ambassador to France went as far as to suggest that they “calibrate a target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU” to punish EU countries that have opposed the introduction of GMO products into Europe (the EU has a very strict regulation for GMO in place with several countries banning GMO crops altogether). This is just more evidence for the fact that the GMO industry is very much a part of the power politics of the US corporatocracy, and has absolutely nothing to do with providing the world’s farmers with better seeds. Health and environmental issues aside, this is already reason enough to engage in a global resistance movement against the GMO industry. Food should, after all, be at the very heart of any struggle for freedom, since those who control the food system are in effect also controlling the people.

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Jason Hickel makes an important point when he writes in his article over at Common Dreams that the Occupy movement has failed so far to capture the imagination of the Global South. Despite the international nature of the movement, the various occupations have been mostly concentrating their biggest efforts on local issues and the effects of the deterioration of the Western middle class. There’s of course nothing wrong with that per se, but eventually the movement will have to tackle the difficult issues of global inequality and poverty, including the environmental changes that are amplifying those issues, in order to be able to promote social justice on a global scale.

I would have to argue here that the only way to achieve lasting changes in global wealth and power distribution in the long run is for us in the West to wind down our consumer culture, and with it, the global trade structures that uphold it. We must realise that most of us living in the West are a part of the global 1% that is living comfortably on the expense of the other 99%. Hickel agrees when he writes that “instead of ‘developing’ the global South, we need to un-develop the West; we need to subvert and dismantle the flows of tribute that underpin Western affluence.” But this is, naturally, going to be a very long and gradual process, like any change on a cultural level is bound to be. There are, however, some things that we can do to decrease global inequality in the relatively short-term as well. Here, I list some of these things.

1. The very first thing we should address, I think, is the so-called intellectual property question. Intellectual property, that is patents, copyright and trademarks, has become one of the most important ways for global capital to integrate the Global South into its neo-colonialist system. Gene patents, in particular, are being used to steal the agricultural heritage of Global South peoples, as well as to place their farmers under debt slavery by forcibly selling them patented GMO seeds.¹ Medical patents are also used to deny the poor people of the Global South affordable generic drugs that could save millions of lives.

Discussion about intellectual property here in the West has been mostly revolving around the rights to the products of Western popular culture, which on a global scale is, let’s face it, a negligible issue. We who are critical of intellectual property rights should try to steer the discussion more towards actual matters of life and death. We should work to undermine the whole concept of intellectual property by showing how it’s being used to uphold massive global inequality and deprive people in the Global South of their right to self-determination and a decent livelihood. We should use these arguments to oppose any new international intellectual property treaties, such as ACTA, and also to demand a renegotiation of existing treaties, such as TRIPS.

Another way to undermine intellectual property monopolies is by civil disobedience. We should work meticulously to preserve and share information, in any form and by any means, disregarding any intellectual property rights that may be attached to it. Thus we’ll be able to create a more even distribution of information globally and start to dismantle the power structures inherent in the intellectual property regime. Here’s where we can put our beloved p2p-networks to genuinely beneficial use, not forgetting of course that many people in the Global South don’t have access to the Internet (although a growing number do).

2. The second important front of opposition is to the international “free trade” treaties. The only freedom these treaties provide is the freedom for Western corporations to extract cheap labour and natural resources from the Global South with impunity. We must demand a renegotiation of these treaties to allow the Global South nations to arrange their economies on their own terms. We can also organise boycotts against any corporations that engage in exploitative practices in the Global South.

On the side of the financial markets, we must engage in a full on war against the terrorist regime of the IMF. In this battle, we in Europe have a key position as we’re all at least indirectly partial to the schemes the IMF has concocted for the debtor nations within the EU. We should all in our own countries reject any “bailout” plans that involve the IMF, and also support the people of Greece and other debtor nations in their effort to throw out the IMF vultures once and for all. Such an action by the people is perfectly feasible, as Argentina’s experiences in the early 2000s showed. This would set an example for all the Global South nations that they don’t need to submit to the demands of fraudulent financial institutions such as the IMF and would also undermine the position of the IMF as a global player.

Furthermore, we must demand the cancellation of most, if not all of the debts the Global South nations owe to Western nations, banks and international institutions. These debts are a result of hundreds of years of extreme exploitation on the part of the West and have no moral basis whatsoever.²

3. We must also act against international weapons trade. The year that just ended provided many examples of how weapons imported from Western countries were used by totalitarian regimes in the Global South against their own people. Ideally, we should aim for a global ban on all export of weapons to any country, including “non-lethal” weapons and surveillance technology. The people of each exporting country can begin by demanding an export ban nationally. This would also cut down on the volume of global arms trade, thus making the world a safer place in the long run.

4. Finally, we should begin to forge more personal relationships with ordinary people in the Global South, not as a part of any “mission” or “aid program,” but as human beings of an equal standing. We must try to get rid of the idea of the Global South as “undeveloped” or “backwards.” As Hickel also points out, the notion that every nation should pursue Western living standards and consumer culture is a disastrous one, to say the least. On the contrary, we in the West should be following the example of the subsistence economies that still exist in the Global South on how to live well outside the capitalist system.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that we cannot fight the fights of the people in the Global South for them. Local problems must be solved locally. We can of course show solidarity and provide help in areas where we have something genuinely valuable to offer, such as in information technology issues. In the end, however, I think the old adage of “think globally, act locally” is still relevant here.

¹ Vandana Shiva has discussed these issues in length. See eg. the book Protect or Plunder – Understanding Intellectual Property Rights (2001).

² See the pages of The Committee for the Cancellation of the Third World Debt (CADTM) for more information.

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This is a speech given in 2008 by Vandana Shiva, one of the world’s most prominent environmental activists who has specialised on issues of food and water security. Here, she argues that the commodification of food and industrial food production have contributed to increasing poverty, malnutrition and outright famine in the third world. By dumping cheap, subsidised agricultural produce into the third world countries and by stealing their traditional crop varieties using intellectual property rights, Western corporations have practically destroyed whole subsistence economies in many parts of the world.

This commodification is of course not just a problem of the third world. Also here in the West, our food system has become inherently diseased with obesity and various food-related illnesses running rampant while millions of animals are tortured horribly in the food factories on a daily basis. When it comes to food, the “free market” is literally an engine of death.

Shiva has gone as far as to say that the only way we can actually survive as a species is by switching to a system of local, organic agriculture globally. Clearly, if we want to create sustainable communities, food production is one of the first things we need to take back from the corporate machine. So, support your local small-time farmers, or if you have a big enough yard, grow your food yourself! For a healthier culture and a healthier body!

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