Copyfarleft — a Critique

[Update 2008-06-04: A revision of the draft paper below was published in Mute-Online Magazine]

This is a translation of the corresponding german blog post »Copyfarleft — eine Kritik«.

The following critique of Dmytri Kleiners paper »Copyfarleft und Copyjustright« (published in Mute-Magazine) has got three parts. First I discuss the general theoretical principles, then the transformation of these principles to the field of information goods, and finally the concept of copyfarleft. A concluding critique closes this article.

1. Property as Key?

Dmytri Kleiner uses a very plain version of a traditional marxist approach, which sometimes I have to defend here, although myself being critically against it. It may could be, that the plainness result from the intention to be understandable. Nevertheless, I have to use this plain arguing as the basis of my text. Kleiner’s reasoning is this:

  • property is against freedom
  • property stays against propertyless workers
  • property owners can let the propertyless work for them
  • property owners only pay the subsistence of the workers and get the rest as rent
  • rent therefore is theft on the producers
  • property is theft

»Property« is meant as private property of the means of production, it is only touched at two places in the text. An affirmative reference to David Ricardo has to serve as proof of the assertion of a »iron law of wages«, however, giving no further reasons. Ricardo was cited, that there is a »natural price of labour« corresponding the subsistence of the workers and the class. The extending income being put to pocket of the »property owners« is named »rent« by the author.

Wow, there is a big lack of understanding in it. I try to decipher.

There is no »natural price of labour«. The author has to allege such a construct as Ricardo does, in order to explain, why there is a part, which can be hold by the »property owner«. In reality the author does not understand neither the difference between work force labour power and work labour, nor between value and price, nor between rent and profit. These three pairs of terms are to be explained in the following.

1.1. Work force Labour power and work labour

The »property owner« buys the work force labour power (the »doing«) and not the work labour (the »done«). The work force labour power is a commodity, its value is a dimension, which is societally build during the exchange of commodity against money—work force labour power against wage—corresponding the re-creation costs of this commodity.

The commodity »work force« »labour power« has two specific features. First, the re-creation costs depend on the societal cultural level of reproduction. For example, today computer games belong to it, which did not exist hundred years ago. The participation in these societal cultural possibilities did not come to the work force labour power seller automatically, but have to be enforced—partly in heavy fights—economically (collective action) and politically (via organisations). Some call this class struggle.

Second, only the work force labour power being a commodity is able to produce more goods and value resp. than being necessary for its own re-creation. This part is namend surplus product, or using value terms surplus value. Using value terms is more adequate, because work force labour power sellers did not get products they produce, but the value expressed as money of the successfully sold products. However, it has to be emphasized once more: The workers did not get the value of their work, but the value of their work force labour power (the wage).

The exchange of wage against work force labour power is thoroughly just. Economically viewed it is an exchange of equivalents. This is—always in terms of societal average—valid for every commodity exchange. A critique of commodity exchange being »unjust« passes the problem. This conclusion is also valid, even if you show the tremendous unequal distribution of resources as the author does. The scandal is not that capitalism is unjust, but that justly exchange is systematically producing unequalness.

1.2. Value and Price

In order to understand the systematic production of unequalness, one has to grasp the difference between value and price. This is not simple, because traditional economic sciences nearly completely ignore the value and exclusively argue in terms of price. Such suggestive examples like the well known glass of water in the desert grant a high plausibility that price develops from the balance of supply and demand. This is not completely false, however, is is only a tiny part of the truth.

The main complication during understanding of value is the fact, that value is not a physical or even in any sense a material property of the good or its circumstances of distribution. Value is an expression of a relationship. In case of a sand box like Marx played with, the formula is »x commodity A = y commodity B«. The commodity A expresses its value-being in proportions of commodity B. When transfering this to all commodities, then all commodities mutual express themselves into each other concerning value.

What is compared inside the equation has to be something common in all commodities. It is the work force labour power being required to produce the commodities. In order to simplify comparision, a special commodity was lifted and served now as a measure for all other commodities. This is money. Money itself has no value, but can represent value. This is nice, because using money one can buy everything which has a value—stop: which has a price.

Value as such does not exist, it is only a relationship. To express themself value needs commodities. A commodity is a good, which is produced for exchange. The value then expresses the relationship of values realized during exchange. Nonetheless the value does not arize from exchange, but—although being only a relationsship—it is already »there«. Because what is compared here is common human work or working time being sticked into the products. During exchange is only realized, what was already »there«. »Being there« is quoted here, because it is not physically there, but only as a potence, in order to be able to go into a successful comparision during selling.

If the exchange does not happen, then the »potencial value« will not be realized and decays. The »decayed working time« now has to be added to the other products, because the value is not only a single sand box relationship as shown above, but a general or societal relationship. In short: value is about the societal average of common human work labour »inside« the products, which are compared during exchange.

Due to value expressing a societal relationship, no one has ever seen or calculated the value of a transaction. In order to carry out a single transaction there is the price. The price is the number expression of the value, so to speak. Now, here supply and demand come into play, thus the circumstances during exchange. The price can differ from value, and in most cases it does so. On the level of entire society (today: global level) and over time of the existence of commodity production (who know how long yet) this equation must be valid: sum of value = sum of prices. Ok, this can be forgotten as a concrete exercise.

The important thing is: The price must have its fundament in value, it basically can not escape from value. However, locally and over time the price can partly shift away from value. This is the reason why the glass of water in the desert can be extremely expensive, while it can be gotten for free elsewhere. Therefore stock rates can raise (being options on futures realizations of value), even if currently only hot air is supplied. »Deflating« aka »crisis« brings value and price again closer to each other.

To solve the mystery of worldwide unequal distribution of wealth: the unequal distribution is not an result of the exchange circumstances aka »terms of trade«, it is also not a question of formation of prices, no question of in/justice, not a question of global regulation, no question of politics and also no question of property (I come back to this point), but it is a question of different productivity.—Oh, why that?

Previously I have abstained from the factor of productivity, thus from the question, how many goods are produced per working time. In truth during exchange working times are not compared independently of productivity. It does not apply »one hour x = one hour y«, but for instance »one hour x = ten hours y«, whereas x and y are working times spend at different levels of productivity. If the equation »1 hr. x = 10 hrs. y« shows an average and concerning value equivalent thus just exchange, then during the same time the same amount of identical products will be produced (however, at different productivity levels x and y), thus the same amount of work labour is materialized as products. However, exchanging identical products would not make much sense. If different products are going to be exchanged, then it comes to a materially absurd, but economically just exchange relation of, say, »one tractor = 500 sacks of corn« (historically with increasing amounts of corn)—an example, which can be found in every schoolbook.

1.3. Rent and Profit

All of this does Dmytri Kleiner not know, or it is not of interest for him. For him working time and work labour are apparently the same. Presumably he would deny, that in average working time is justly payed. And he does not know the term surplus value being the value part of those products, which are produced by work force labour power extending the value of this work force labour power. But for rehabilitation of traditional marxism this has to be clarified.

If the surplus value is related to the invested capital, then this is called profit. Instead of the term surplus value or profit, appropriated by the property owner from surplus value as income, the author is using the term »rent« (here I was quite uncertain of the translation of »rent«, which literally means »lease« of a flat etc.).

»Rent« is introduced by the author as »economic return for allowing others to use property«. Taking this defintion for the case of land, then »land rent« makes sense. Taking it for the use of work force labour power and assuming that »property« are the means of production, then this definition does not make sense.

The »property owner« (of means of production) does not allow to use his property by the workers, but inversely he buys the commodity »work force« »labour power«, in order to apply the work force labour power at his means of production. Only because the means of production belong to him and not to the workers, he can appropriate the created value to be realized on the market (selling the commodities). The commodity »work force« »labour power« is payed (=wage) from the realized value, and if necessary, the »land rent« is payed from the surplus value. The revenue of »property owner« of the means of production is not »rent«, but »profit«.

Using this result »rent« can be determined more precisely: It is the payment of an effort from value created elsewhere. Because in the case of land the land itself does not create value, but the land owner has to be payed from »elsewhere« produced value, namely from the exploitation of work force »labour power« in production.

2. Transfer to information goods

Maybe Dmytri Kleiner has used the term »rent« undifferentiated for any »income« of »property owners«, because finally it fits relatively well when transfered to information goods. Ignoring differentiation allows for appointing a unique cause: The property is guilty. Therewith the author finds himself—despite all theoretical quirks before—in the same boat with sincere critics arguing from a traditonal marxist perspective. Let’s follow his explanation.

»Property owner« are in case of information goods those, who control the means commercial utilization—instead as shown before, those who control the means of production. Via contract the producers assign their exploitation rights to the »property owners« (here: of the means commercial utilization), who only pay them their »subsistence«, thus the costs of reproducing their work force »labour power«. Thus, this looks somehow like as before, »iron law« or so—there are no detailed reasons given.

Before starting my critique below, this have to be noted: This is simply empirically wrong. The oversized number say of artists get in no way their »subsistence«, but they earn so few, that it is even not enough for pure physical survival. On the other hand there is a small artist group generating extremly high amounts of money despite assigning their exploitation rights to the mediating industry. There is simply no logical reference between income and reproduction costs as in case of selling work force labour power. Here, no work force labour power is sold, but contracts are concluded between legal entities, between corporations. The fact, that the mediating industry has a big power to dictate the conditions, is another story—this, for instance, also applies for the relationship between Volkswagen (big car company) and its suppliers. Back to Kleiner.

Since the copyleft does not bother the »property«, it can’t change the allegedly existing »iron law« of »unjust« participation in wealth such as copyright or »copyjustright« (like creative commons licenses) aren’t able to do that. On the contrary: since copyleft is only regulating usage, »property owners« can use the products.

Since the reason of this »unjustness« is already determined—the »property«—the solution suggests itself: changing of ownership structure. The workers have to own the companies themselves and rule over the means of production and exploitation. Only this way a more just distribution could be reached, because the workers as owners could determine for themselves about the distribution of wealth. This has also to be the measure for licenses, and because all existing licenses don’t touch »property« and distribution of wealth, a new license has to be created.

3. Copyfarleft

A »left« copyleft license has to distinguish between two types of »property«: workers property and »property owners« property. Or reworded: Between those, who work and those, who use wage labour. Kleiner: »it must be possible for workers to make money by applying their own labour to mutual property, but impossible for owners of private property to make money using wage labour«.

The workers-owner should be allowed to use the commons, because they are part of the commons. The workers-owner maintain a common pool of information goods, which has to be forbidden to access for »property owners« using wage labour. Thus workers-owner are allowed to be »inside« (»endogenic«), while »property owners« have to remain outside (»exogenic«).

Kleiner explains: »A copyfarleft license must allow commons based commercial use while denying the ability to profit by exploiting wage labour«. This goal is not achieved by any other license, because: »“Non Commercial“ is not a suitable way to describe the required endogenic/exogenic boundary. Yet, no other commons license exists that provides a suitable legal framework for commons based producers to use.«

Thus copyfarleft is the attempt to build two economies by law: A commons based economy and a wage labour based economy.

4. Critique

The main fault of Dmytri Kleiner is not to distinguish between work force labour power and work labour. I am not very familiar with the history of workers movement, but as far as I remember, it was Ferdinand Lassalle who similarily as the author demands an »undiminished proceeds of labor«. This was—again as far as I know—deconstructed by Karl Marx in his »Critique of the Gotha Programme«. Again the term »iron law of wages« originally created by Ricardo was shaped and used by Lasalle in order to demand a legal fixing of a kind of a minimum wage.

All in all despite using some »left« rhetorics the author merely seems to be geared to pre-marxian and bourgois theory of economics. Nevertheless, he puts his critique of property, as it was widely spread in workers movements and is already used by traditional marxism: As recently as the means of production are in the hands of the workers, they can dispose the value including the surplus value themselves and make sure for a just distribution.

Traditionally there were two ways reaching the goal of disposition of the means of production and thus of the labour results: revolution or reform. Both of them aim at achieving the power of the state, either by a »revolution« or via elections. The author proposes to convey companies stepwise into »workers property« being bound together by the commons they jointly maintain. The copyfarleft license should help by providing legal protection.

For me it is less interesting, whether a concept of changing of the ownership structure via a license could be named »naive«. It is more important to see clearly, that the author does not differ from other critics of property: He wants to change property disposition, but in no case the logic of producing goods in form of commodities operating on top of any property regime.

Producing goods in form of commodities describes the »mechanism«, that separated private producers—individual or collective ones—have to bring their products to market, in order to realize their value. As traditionally usual »production« is viewed as something neutral, while solely the distribution of the surplus value (wrongly named »rent«) is contendious. Below the line this changes—nothing.

The same applies for the so called »iron law of wages«. The fact, that the wage corresponds with the necessary means of reproduction, does not change. Also a workers owned company has look for the marketing of their products being commodities, has to keep up in competition, has to invest, has to cooperate with partners, has to outpace competitors—and can only pay the value of the work force labour power. Such »workers owned« high tech companies as the »Telekommunisten« have always existed.

A prominent example is the Berlin company PSI, one of the really big consulting companies in germany in the meantime. Now, they no longer »workers-owned«, where they started from: The collective determination was stepwise reduced to employee participation and finally abolished resulting in an ordinary company. This has to come this way, the reasons given like »effective leading of the company« were not simply pushed forward, but resulted directly from the logics of exploitation (»making more money from money«) in competition.

The development, that products of human practices »become independent« as they are produced in form of commodities, which was named »fetishism« by Marx, is one of the most misunderstood parts of Marxian theory. This process of »becoming independent«—Marx talked about »automatic subject« addressing the self-exploitating capital—is a paradox result of the production of goods as commodities. It is paradox, because we are it doing this, producing it, which then confronts us as an alien thing representing an inherent coercion.

To give a not so often used quotation from Marx: »Thus the participants in capitalist production live in a bewitched world and their own relationships appear to them as properties of things, as properties of the material elements of production.« (K. Marx, Theories of Surplus-Value, Part 3, p. 928; the german version is different: participants are »agents«). Using the term »participants« (»agents«) Marx wants to show, that we are executors of a logic operating independently from us, but being produced through us. This logic has two essential opposite roles: those being the »owner of the means of production« aka »capitalist« and those being free of them aka »workers«. Concerning this background class struggle is a fight about the distribution of the surplus value. However, this does not touch the basic principles, the commodity production.

Thus the author is not only far away from criticising the basic principles—necessarily including exchange, market, money, state—but he rejects such considerations explicitly. When I asked him whether he wants to »rescue the exchange value« he answered: »I do not want to eliminate exchange, I want to eliminate property privilege.« This corresponds to the paper discussed here.

Despite all radical rhetorics Dmytri Kleiner don’t want to touch the basic principles of commodity production, but he want have are slightly more equal distribution of wealth based on commodity production. This was the goal of many people, a lot of people tried to realize this goal, and despite of so many defeats many people already want it: They will not succeed. It is simply not sufficient to achieve the disposition over the means of production, if they are used in the same operational mode. The production is not a neutral issue being seemingly usable for arbitrary purposes, but the production of separated private works is necessarily commodity production, where the societal mediation is only occuring ex post by the comparison of values—with all consequences (from market to climate disaster).

Conclusion: A critique of property combined with a bare critique of surplus value is definitive short-sighted, only a critique of value can take the basics of our societal mediation in the focus, because this is the point: It is about a new way of producing our lives. What a production beyond the logics of exploitation can mean, is shown by the free software. Copyleft exactly in the current form keeps free software legally grounded—nothing more, but also nothing less.


As Graham told me »work« / »work force« does not make sense in english while »labour« / »labour power« is better. Thanks!

This text is also available at opentheory incl. commenting paragraph by paragraph.

Eine deutsche Version des Textes gibt es bei oder absatzweise kommentierbar bei open theory.

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