The shift from markets to networks and from ownership to access, the marginalization of physical property and the ascendance of intellectual property, and the increasing commodification of human relationships are slowly leading us out of an era in which the exchange of property is the critical function of the economy into a new world in which the purchase of lived experiences becomes the consummate commodity.
–Jeremy Rifkin, The Age of Access
Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military, defence, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary. But beyond these tasks the state should not venture. State interventions in markets (once created) must be kept to a bare minimum because, according to the theory, the state cannot possibly possess enough information to second-guess market signals (prices) and because powerful interest groups will inevitably distort and bias state interventions (particularly in democracies) for their own benefit.
–David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism
A society in which every transaction must be mediated by the market, in which everything is privately owned and strictly controlled, will come to resemble a medieval society—a world of balkanized fiefdoms in which every minor grandee demands tribute for the right to cross his land or ford his streams. The flow of commerce and ideas—and the sustainability of innovation and democratic culture—will be serious impeded. Furthermore, such a market-dominated society is not likely to cultivate the sense of trust and shared commitments that any functioning society must have….
The truth is, we are living in the midst of a massive business-led enclosure movement that hides itself in plain sight.
–David Bollier, Silent Theft
I read John DuPuis’ post Penguin ebooks & The Research Works Act: Publishers gain, communities lose with great interest. I’d already been thinking about his tweet from last week (that I caught on Facebook): “Publishers want to monetize all reading and sharing transactions. Are publishers basically saying that they are opposed to the core values that libraries represent?” The final question is one I’ve been thinking about lately, and I believe the answer is, yes, they are saying that. Publishers are indeed opposed to the core values of libraries. However, it’s more than that. Corporations are opposed to the core values public goods, public space, and and other values that resist commercialization and commodification. Libraries are merely part of an international trend in contemporary capitalism and are just starting to feel the impact of trends that have been building for the past forty years or so.
I don’t have a full blown thesis at the moment, and am using this post to sketch out the broad outline of what might be my next research project (my research agenda seems to be to take whatever I happen to be reading about at the moment and stick “Libraries and…” in front of it). There has been a movement afoot to commodify every aspect of human life, to make every human exchange a market transaction, and to reduce every domain outside the market as much as possible. Call the movement what you will–neoliberalism, market fundamentalism, the monetarization of reading transactions, or the commodification of culture–but the dominant belief is a faith that private property and markets are always good and everything outside those markets is bad, or at the very least that everything outside those markets is inefficient, and inefficiency is in itself always evil. The most important thing is the protection of capital and ensuring its free movement, regardless of any other values that might interfere with that goal: human rights, popular sovereignty, a social safety net, or free access to information by citizens of a (nominally?) democratic republic.
This ideology can play itself out on an international scale, such as the power debtor nations might cede to the World Bank or the IMF, or on a national scale, such as when financial institutions “too big to fail” are bailed out by the government but not, say, homeowners duped into buying mortgages they could really never afford. It ranges from Margaret Thatcher saying there’s no such thing as society to Elsevier paying members of Congress to support the Research Works Act. Privatizing public schools, eliminating public funding for higher education, or defunding libraries are some ways that governments acquiesce to the neoliberal dogma that the private sector always knows best. Private-sector corporations act rationally and merely do their best to ensure that governments institute laws favorable to corporations, even if at the expense of the public good.
I’m not saying anything particularly new. Included below are a few books I’m currently reading that touch on these issues. The “commodification of human culture,” as Jeremy Rifkin calls it, isn’t a new trend; nor is it yet complete. There are still spaces of resistance within commercialized culture, spaces motivated by noncommercial values. I say “noncommercial” deliberately, rather than anticommercial. As David Bollier notes in Silent Theft, “the issue is not market versus commons. The issue is how to set equitable and appropriate boundaries between the two realms—semi-permeable membranes—so that the market and the commons can each retain integrity while invigorating that other. That equilibrium is now out of balance as businesses try to exploit all available resources, including those that everyone owns and uses in common.” Libraries are examples of spaces dominated by noncommercial values, a semi-permeable membrane between the market for books and the democratic need for a knowledge commons. A noncommercial ethic can coexist alongside markets, and all can thrive. But public goods and noncommercial spaces can’t coexist with a market fundamentalism that believes all public goods and noncommercial spaces are evil, at least not if that market fundamentalism controls the laws. The more or less successful drive to extend intellectual property rights into perpetuity and to wither the public domain into nonexistence is a good indication that the ethic motivating libraries isn’t winning many political battles.
In his post, John is right that “private interests are attacking the public good.” They always have been, but at the moment their power is increasing because of legal and technological changes seemingly beyond our control, as well as the successful ideological campaign to persuade people that freedom means the freedom to engage in commercial transactions but not the freedom to read. Can the public good or noncommodified culture be saved? I have no idea. The problem is so much larger than libraries or open access scholarship or ebooks or any of the specific issues we address piecemeal. The best I can hope for is that we think globally and act locally, which requires understanding the larger context behind the specific challenges to the public good while doing what we can to fight against those challenges. This is the briefest of sketches because I’m still trying to understand that larger context.
Bollier, David. 2002. Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth. New York: Routledge.
———. 2005. Brand Name Bullies: The Quest to Own and Control Culture. Hoboken, N.J.: J. Wiley.
Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Hess, Charlotte. 2007. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice / Ostrom, Elinor. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Kallhoff, Angela. 2011. Why Democracy Needs Public Goods. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.
Miller, Laura J. 2006. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rifkin, Jeremy. 2000. The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism, Where All of Life Is a Paid-for Experience. New York: J.P. Tarcher/Putnam.
Saad-Filho, Alfredo. 2005. Neoliberalism: A Critical Reader / Johnston, Deborah. London ; Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press.