Archive | November, 2007

Science Fiction Writers for Censorship

As I’ve mentioned before, while I (mostly) support the demands of the striking Hollywood writers, I don’t regard those demands as representing pre-contractual IP rights (since I don’t believe in IP). Rather, in my view their demands are ones that can become rights only via contract; I just think the contractual rights they’re negotiating for are ones that are on the whole fairer than the media companies’ proposal.

Verne spaceship Of course in our current culture of political confusion these distinct issues are bound to get muddled together. Hence I was interested to see this piece on AICN:

Mike Capobianco, president of the Science Fiction Writers of America (the organization that represents, well, I guess it’s self evident…) has released a solidarity statement endorsing the WGA’s strike against Big Media. But reading it over, am I the only one who noticed a very interesting subtext going on? See, this comes less than two weeks after the SFWA Copyright Exploratory Committee, which was hastily assembled following the disastrous cock-up that led to the dis-banding of the organization’s e-piracy committee, released its recommendations for dealing with digital rights management. As we recall, the misuse of the DMCA, not to mention the strong-arm tactics on behalf of even writers who had even released the material under creative commons license, ignited the blogosphere and had some people calling for the resignation of the SFWA’s leadership. (Which, granted, was a bit of an overkill.)

So when Capobianco talks about how “writers and other creators are having their work distributed digitally without seeing any benefit at all,” and how “these precedents will hurt creators as digital distribution [becomes] the predominant method for distributing and accessing content”, it almost feels like he’s not just talking about the WGA. Is he trying to lend a little bit of moral authority to SWFA’s anti-piracy actions by somehow tying it into the WGA’s struggle to keep the tradition of residuals alive in the information age? Is he maybe wagging the finger a little bit at the Scribds out there who are peer-to-peering SFWA members’ works without their approval? Probably not. I’m sure I’m just imagining.

Capobianco’s letter of support for the WGA is here. Material from the SFWA website relevant to the e-piracy flap is here, here, here, here, here, and here. For two opposing takes on the issue, see Cory Doctorow and Ursula LeGuin. (Am I the only one who finds it a bit ironic to see the author of The Dispossessed eager to restrict others’ freedom in the name of property rights?)

One interesting, perhaps non-coercive way to combat “piracy” is this one. It borders on fraud (representing inaccurate copies of copyrighted works as accurate), and I suspect it’s immoral, but if no consideration is exchanged it may not be unjust. What do you think?

Workers For Rent?

Thanks to Anon2 for pointing me to David Ellerman’s online book Property and Contract in Economics: The Case for Economic Democracy. Thus far I’ve only looked at (really just skimmed) the first 40 or so pages out of 184, so I can’t yet say how much of it I’ll end up agreeing or disagreeing with, but I can see already that this is an important book that left-libertarians should be reading.

the separation of labour from management Briefly, here’s what I’ve gotten out of it so far. Both defenders and critics of capitalism (where by “capitalism” Ellerman seems to mean not the market economy per se but the separation of labour from management) assume that the ownership of the means of production automatically brings with it presumptive ownership of the product. Hence defenders of capitalism tend to infer the legitimacy of the capitalists’ ownership of the product from the presumed legitimacy of their ownership of the means of production, while critics of capitalism tend to infer the illegitimacy of capitalists’ ownership of the means of production from the presumed illegitimacy of their ownership of the product. But as Ellerman (who, ironically enough, looks like Uncle Sam and has worked for the World Bank) points out, ownership of the product of, say, a factory is determined by a contract between the factory owners and the workers, not by the mere fact of who owns the factory. (After all the workers own a crucial means of production too – namely themselves.) If we think in terms of the factory owner hiring workers, then it will seem natural to regard the factory owner as having first claim on the product, minus whatever he agrees to pay the workers. But if we think instead in terms of the workers renting a factory, then it will seem natural to regard the workers as having first claim on the product, minus whatever they agree to pay the factory owner.

All of the above is absolutely right, and shows that “capitalism” in the sense of free markets and private ownership of the means of production doesn’t necessarily entail “capitalism” in the sense of managerial hierarchy and the wage system. This is welcome news for those, like me, who seek lefty-style worker empowerment within the context of libertarian economic laissez-faire – and it raises natural questions about what, exactly, determines the relative strengths in bargaining power between owners of labour and owners of capital, and whether the prevailing balance is mainly the result of free markets, government intervention, or other. (As my regular readers will know, I think capital’s dominance stems primarily not from free markets but from government intervention plus “other,” the other being socio-cultural stuff.) Ellerman’s points also lend support to Kevin Carson’s critique of the presumption that labour contracts must be interpreted in term favourable to the owners of capital.

Now from what Ellerman has said so far, my impression – which may or may not turn out to be right – is that he is about to go on to argue that because self-ownership is inalienable and indivisible, contracts to rent oneself out (which is how Ellerman describes labour contracts) are not legitimate even though contracts to rent out inanimate objects like property are perfectly fine – so that contracts whereby labour hires capital are permissible while contracts whereby capital hires labour are not. Thus capitalism conflicts with self-ownership, and workers are after all entitled to their “whole product” – though they may legitimately have to pay the owners of capital out of it.

Anyway, whether or not this is what Ellerman is going to argue, it’s something that somebody might argue, and indeed arguably something that various folks historically have argued (isn’t this after all more or less what William Godwin means when he distinguishes the legitimate “empire to which every man is entitled over the produce of his own industry, even that part of it the use of which ought not to be appropriated to himself” (emphasis added) from the illegitimate “faculty of disposing of the produce of another man’s industry”), so let me say what initially strikes me as right and wrong about it.

Libertarians are divided over the precise nature of service contracts. For some libertarian theorists, when I make a contract with you to perform some service, you thereby acquire a right to my service, and may legitimately compel its performance. This position, taken to its logical extreme, implies the possibility of my conferring upon you a right to any and all of my future services – a slavery contract – and a number of libertarian thinkers, most notably Robert Nozick and Walter Block, have indeed drawn that conclusion and defended the libertarian legitimacy of voluntary (that is, initially voluntary) slavery.

Other libertarian theorists – including Murray Rothbard, Randy Barnett, and your humble correspondent – regard moral autonomy as inseparable from moral personality, and so hold that I have no power to grant you any right to compel my services. On this view, contracts over inalienable services, in order to be legitimately enforceable, must be founded on or translatable into contracts over alienable goods. Thus if you pay me $50 to weed your garden, what you acquire is not a right to compel me to weed your garden, but rather a right to get your $50 back, plus damages, if I don’t weed your garden.

On this interpretation, it will be quite true that contracts to “rent oneself out” or “rent out one’s labour” will not be legitimate, at least if understood as granting to the employer an unconditional right to direct the employee’s labour.

But it doesn’t seem to follow that employment contracts per se are illegitimate; for can’t the factory owner (assuming, as Ellerman is willing to do, that the owner’s claim to the factory is legitimate) reason as follows?

The Capitalist Speaks “This factory, and the raw materials in it, are my property, and I allow the workers to use it only on certain conditions, which are spelled out in the contract. The workers are taking stuff that I own and rearranging it to make new stuff; I agree to allow them to do this, on condition that I get to keep what they make – and they agree to this stipulation, on condition that I pay them an agreed-upon amount. So the contract concerns only alienable goods; the employment contract doesn’t involve renting people or renting people’s labour, it merely concerns conditional transfers of inanimate objects. Now just as the money I pay them is theirs only on condition that they do what they agreed to – for otherwise I acquire a right, not to compel their service, but to reclaim my money – so the factory equipment and raw materials are theirs to use only on condition that they again do what the agreed to, namely, turning over the products to me. If they don’t, my claim to the equipment and materials reverts back to full force, and they have in effect been using my property without my permission. You don’t get a right to the improvements you made in something if it was someone else’s property at the time.”

Hence while I agree that the prevailing system of wage contracts is both undesirable in itself and unlibertarian for “thickness” reasons (e.g. it draws support from statism logistically, props up statism psychologically, and is wrong for some of the same reasons that statism is wrong), I can’t see that wage contracts in their current form are per se a violation of libertarian rights.

Those, anyway, are my preliminary reactions – to a work I’ve only read the first bit of, and that in a cursory fashion – so I’m not sure how applicable my remarks are to Ellerman’s position or, if they are, what responses he might already have developed. I definitely plan to read further and more thoroughly, but I wanted to alert my readers to this fascinating book (I’m sure some of you know about it already, but I reckon many won’t), share some initial thoughts, and invite my readers into the conversation.

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In related news, Kevin Carson has posted some more chapters (see here and here) of his book on the managerial irrationality of statism-dependent hierarchically structured firms. Enjoy!

Talking Turkey

I see that Hürriyet, Turkey’s main – sometimes I think only! – national newspaper (the name means “liberty,” or equally “republic”), has an article on Ron Paul. (Conical hat tip to LRC, which reports that the coverage is largely favourable.)

What little Turkish I once knew (from back in the 1990s when I was dating a Turkish woman) has pretty much expired, but I think the headline means something like “Behold, dollars rule! – The World Wide Web is vomiting forth American dollars on behalf of surprise U.S. presidential candidate Ron Paul ….” (I would not recommend too much confidence in this translation, however.)

Well, I imagine that the prospect of an American President who isn’t constantly forcing Turkey to choose between maintaining good relations with its neighbours (both European and Middle Eastern) and maintaining good relations with the U.S. might be something of a relief.

Two Mad Kings

I could swear that I’d linked to these two marvelous lefty anti-authoritarian short stories before, but I can’t find any reference to them on my website, so maybe not.

every inch a king The first, a brief La Boétiean fable titled “The Actor and the King,” is by the enigmatic German anarcho-individualist novelist B. Traven a.k.a. Ret Marut (1890?-1969), best known today as the author of The Treasure of Sierra Madre and the Jungle novels. The second, variously titled “A King’s Lesson” and “An Old Story Retold,” is by the English art designer, fantasy novelist, and libertarian communist William Morris (1834-1896), best known today for News from Nowhere and The Wood Beyond the World. Enjoy!

We Apologise for A More Stressful Than Intended Marooning Experience

Currently in DC Comics’ Salvation Run event, which is part of its bigger Countdown to Final Crisis event, a secret government agency is rounding up supervillains without trial and relocating them on what the agency mistakenly believes is a safe and pleasant planet. (The agency has been duped by two figures we’ve only seen in shadow, though they look like Darkseid and Desaad to me.) In fact the planet is a hellish place where the supervillains have to fight a constant battle for survival. I’m betting that at some point they come back to Earth a trifle peeved.

Jules Verne - The Mysterious Island It’s rather odd timing for DC to be running this story, since it looks like a blatant rip-off of Marvel’s recent Planet Hulk story (with a dash of Civil War for the secret-supervillain-prison element). In Planet Hulk, a secret group of superheroes decides the Hulk is too dangerous to be allowed to roam the Earth freely, so they kidnap him and send him to what they mistakenly believe will be a safe and pleasant planet. Through some sort of glitch, the Hulk instead arrives on a hellish world where he has to fight a constant battle for survival. Plus he gets married, only to lose his wife to an explosion for which the superheroes who exiled him are made to appear responsible. Needless to say, the Hulk eventually makes it back to Earth a trifle peeved. (Of course the Hulk’s angry return, chronicled in World War Hulk, came just shortly after DC’s Black Adam’s angry rampage, likewise over a slain wife, in World War III; both were announced well ahead of time so I’m not sure who’s copying whom on that one.)

But both these stories are arguably drawing on an earlier Star Trek storyline, one that began in the original series episode “Space Seed” and was later continued in the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Captain Kirk exiles genetically enhanced supervillain Khan Noonian Singh and his followers (veterans of the Eugenics Wars, which were initially supposed to be conventional wars in the late 20th century, then were retconned into being conventional wars in the 22nd century, only to be re-retconned into being covert struggles in the late 20th century ….) to what he mistakenly believes to be a safe and pleasant planet. Shortly after Kirk departs, an unforeseen astronomical catastrophe transforms the planet into a hellish place where Khan and his people have to fight a constant battle for survival. Khan even loses his wife, and when he finally gets off the planet he’s a trifle wrathful.

But maybe Jules Verne got there first. At the end of The Children of Captain Grant (better known to American audiences as In Search of the Castways), the novel’s chief villain, Thomas Ayrton, is exiled on a desert island. We meet him again later in The Mysterious Island (which serves as a sequel both to Children and to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), where we find that those who marooned him have underestimated, not the physical harshness of the island, but its psychological harshness; Ayrton has gone cuckoo from isolation. Once rescued and reassimilated into society, however, Ayrton turns out to be reformed rather than revengeful – so the parallel’s not especially close.

Ice Ice Beowulf

Beowulf Animated Epic I’m looking forward to the new Beowulf (which I’ll have a chance to see locally in 3-D), but I still have an unquenchable fondness for this beautiful 1998 animated version. Admittedly it’s just half an hour long and massively overpriced, but it’s more faithful to the original in both letter and spirit than any other version has been, and clearly more so than the new one will be. The new one is Robert E. Howard’s Beowulf, as it were, but the 1998 version is Tolkien’s Beowulf. (Or to put it another way, the new movie – with its “I am ripper, tearer, slasher, I am the teeth in the darkness, I am Beowulf!” business, has the roaring, swaggering feel of an Irish saga like Táin Bó Cúailnge, while the older version has the grimmer, more somber character of an Icelandic saga. An Icelandic hero wouldn’t say “I am ripper, tearer, slasher!”; he’d say something more understated, like “you’ll receive small thanks here.”)

In related news: for an mp3 of Tolkien reading his poem “The Hoard,” inspired by the Beowulf story, go to this page and choose the third file.

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