Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Just a quick note or two after reading the BBC story "Microsoft Steps up Piracy Fight".

First, on the political economy of digital production. Pace declarations that "a third of software worldwide is fake" or "counterfeit," in that these are digitally exact replicas of the "original" software, charges of "fakery" are ungrounded. This is not a product that is constructed to resemble what Microsoft sells. This is what Microsoft sells. I take it that the rhetoric of the "counterfeit" is invoked to suggest that "pirated" software is in some way inferior to the "real" thing. But this goes against the whole logic of the digital mode of production.

Second, on the political economy of piracy. I find it interesting that over the past thirty years or so there has been an almost exact reversal of the relation of pirates to the process of production. Classical piracy involved the disruption of distribution networks. Indeed, a common charge against sixteenth and seventeenth-century buccaneers was that they were parasitic and unproductive. Today's software (and CD and DVD) piracy, however, is stigmatized because these pirates, freed from the start-up costs of R&D, from the requirement to invest in the fixed capital of the recording studio, from the obligation to pay wages (royalties) to the artists and designers, and from taxation and other levies imposed by the state, etc. etc., are producers who enjoy unfair comparative advantage because of their overall lower unit costs.

Of course, the political economy of piracy is complicated by the political economy of digital reproduction: most people would probably suggest that pirates copy, rather than produce. But copying is an essential part of the digital production process, in a manner quite distinct from traditional production processes. In Fordist industrial production, for instance, it is not that you first produce one car and then copy that car; rather you produce moulds for the various car components, which are then assembled to construct a car. (Here a counterfeiter would produce his or her own moulds, perhaps relying on inferior technology or materials to construct a product that resembles or is a replica of the original product.) Digital production, however, involves exact duplication. It is as though the "pirates" now have the exact same moulds as the "legitimate" producers (and, as I said, their product is indistinguishable from the legitimate product). They are therefore producers no more and no less than Microsoft (or Time Warner or whoever), albeit that they have abbreviated (rationalized?) the production process.

At the same time, the political economy of classical piracy is also more complex than appears at first sight. There are two main, apparently dichotomous, approaches:

1) Pirates disrupted trade routes, forced extra costs (above all protection costs) on capitalist producers, and also often destroyed the goods that they seized. When this is taken into account along with their prevalent ideologies of freedom from state and other authority, they should be regarded as essentially anti-capitalist, perhaps even proto-communist.

2) Pirates forced open trade routes, introduced competition in the face of monopolized distribution networks, and also often sold on much needed goods to make up for the inefficiencies of over-restricted markets. When this is taken into account along with their prevalent ideologies of freedom from state and other authority, they should be regarded as essentially capitalist, perhaps even proto-neoliberal.


Craig said...

As you know, in addition to writing a book on the laws of war and peace, Grotius also spent significant time writing on the laws of the sea. The laws of the sea, war & peace, and commerce were essentially inseparable in early modern/early capitalist legal developments. It also goes without saying that boths the laws of war and of the sea were used or determined the contours of annexing foreign markets/production & extraction sites/colonies.

Perhaps more interestingly, as I'm spending time reading Schmitt's more recently translated and thus more obscure works, piracy enters as a central mode of war/politics in his analysis. I haven't collected my thoughts on the subject, so I'll leave you with references.

As most everyone knows, Concept of the Political is intended to development what the title suggests: the sphere of the political, properly called. The problem here is that the political (except in the case of civil war) is pushed to the boundaries of the state (i.e., co-extensive with foreign use of coercive force) and the "political" becomes a form of relation between two "political entities" (i.e., groupings that could conceivably decide to kill one another).

But, the political is regulated -- most importantly in Schmitt's time by the Kellogg-Briand Pact and the League of Nation -- and this means that international law becomes central to the analysis of politics. In War/Non-War, the analysis suggests that "illegal/legal" war makes no sense at all, because it begs the question of perspective:

Germany sees its war on Europe legal, but Europe's defence/counter-attack illegal; Europe sees its war on Germany legal, but Germany's defence/counter-attack as illegal. (Neutrality also becomes senseless.)

Thus, the distinction breaks down and is ultimately decided by the victor. In terms of making the decision to wage war, legality isn't much of a question: you're always going to consider your own war as legal and legitimate. This requires the analysis to turn to the question of and the decision on war or non-war. (Neutrality becomes not-yet-war or not-yet-non-war.)

Now, we're getting away from piracy, but let's get back to it. In the same book, piracy appears throughout the pages, but there is no sustained analysis. But, I think, there is a suggestion: piracy avoids the question of war altogether. No one at all considers piracy legal or legitimate (and, I think, that goes with privateering as well -- it just means you have amnesty in one jurisdiction). Piracy manages to avoid the question entirely always being illegal. And, at the same time, it is hard to think of it as war as a pirate isn't a political entity as such.

Finally, turning to Land and Sea, we get a weird fairy tale told to his daughter that tries to explain the history of the world through the interaction of maritime (or Leviathan) and land (or Behemoth) powers. Pirates, he tells us, more or less ushered in the modern era.

Haven't finished Legality and Legitimacy yet and am still waiting for Nomos of the Earth to arrive, but I'm sure pirates will pop up a few more times.

Jon said...

Yes, in fact I already wrote a little thing on piracy and Schmitt's Nomos. I need to get hold of Land and Sea, and re-read The Concept of the Political with an eye on piracy. War/Non-War is on order.

I do have a feeling that the pirate is an important (non)political (non)subject for the constitution of modern sovereignty. (I also have on order the book you mentioned a little while ago, whose title seems to suggest that its concerns are similar.)

Of course, there are many different kinds of pirate, as you note with your comment about privateering. So there's much ambivalence about the state's relation to the pirate. This only adds to the ambivalent relation between pirate and capital.

Unfortunately, I have to put my piratical studies to one side for the next month or so, but I'm giving a talk on "Piracy and Politics" at the beginning of September, so need to have some ideas by then.

Craig said...

Nomos of the Earth finally arrived at ILL. Too bad I wasn't home to go get it and now I have to wait out the long weekend. Did, however, start reading Negri's Insurgencies last night. He's a clear writer when Hardt isn't involved... what is with these Americans who do "theory" that can't write?

If you liked Insurgencies, you'll enjoy Schmitt's Legality and Legitimacy and War/Non-War, covers much of the same terrain -- i.e., Carl and Toni rip similar holes in the same people.

I picked up that title on mercanaries, pirates and sovereignty from the library the other day (along with A Genealogy of Sovereignty), but haven't opened either.

Jon said...

Insurgencies is Negri's best book, no two ways about it. (Though as for his clarity, well that's another matter...)

Libraries schmibraries. I'm waiting for amazon to come through. (Though it looks as though I'll have to have recourse to ILL for Land and Sea.)

Craig said...

I was going to write a letter for a list of in print books from Plutarch Press. Haven't got around to it yet, but it is likely the best/easiest way to get anything from them. Amazon doesn't appear to keep their titles in stock.

Plutarch Press
P.O. Box 195
Corvallis, OR

The woman who does the translations (and presumably runs the press) is named Simona Draghici.

I'd rather read Insurgencies than Empire or The Labor of Dionysus.