Information goods as genuine societal goods

[This is a translation of a German article by Stefan Meretz, also discussed on (in german: 1|2|3|4). The article has been published in the magazines »Streifzüge« (issue 40/2007) and »Contraste« (issue 2/2007). Translation was done by Stefan Merten — many thanks!]

In issue 31 of the magazine krisis, Ernst Lohoff published a very interesting article. Title: »Der Wert des Wissens. Grundlagen einer politischen Ökonomie des Informationskapitalismus« (»The value of knowledge. Fundamentals of a political economy of the information capitalism«). It discusses the question whether digital information goods are commodities and whether they represent value substance (»Wertsubstanz«). Lohoff’s answer: They are neither commodities nor in an economical sense do they contain value. Here are the arguments in a short form.

  1. Information goods are not exchange goods. Exchange depends on an »change of hands«. The information good, however, does not leave the hands of the »seller«, who is in the nice situation to sell the same good for money multiple times. This phenomenon must not be confused with the production of equal material goods in the industrial mass production. Here, every new entity needs to be produced anew, while for information goods this happens only once.
  2. Information goods are universal goods, while conventional goods are of a singular nature. Though information goods need a carrier, the connection to the carrier is volatile and the spreading to other carriers is very easy. To be used information goods in digital form need universal machines. These universal machines are transformed into manifold specialized machines by appropriate software — where the software already belongs to the universal goods. Often only use creates the intended utility. Universal machines and universal goods create an uncloseable universe of utility. Conventional goods on the other hand embody a singular utility. If the wanted utility changes a new good must be created.
  3. Information goods are genuine non-exclusive, i.e. they don’t prevent someone from use. Moreover, they are non-rival in use — my use does not limit others‘ use. Information goods gain their utility through use while conventional goods gradually loose their utility through use. Information goods can only »wear out morally« (Marx) while conventional goods wear out mainly technical.
  4. Information goods may be made exclusive by setting up technical barriers which prevent access or at least make access harder. However, these technical add-ons don’t change the universal character of the good. Technical add-ons don’t transform universal goods into commodities but their form is changed in a paradoxical way: They become privatized universal goods. If the technical barriers are removed the universality comes out again unrestricted. Breaking copy protection is an act of de-privatizing, the restoration of the universal character of the information good.
  5. The »societal hieroglyphs« (Marx), that is the societal relationships mediated by the goods, differ for privatized universal goods and commodities heavily. The bourgeois society does not have a concept of this and thinks of all payed goods of »commodities«. Nonetheless, it codified the difference by law: While the property of traditional goods usually is transferred exclusively to the buyer, the buyer of the information good receives only a limited co-use right.
  6. Information goods are created by common labor (»allgemeine Arbeit«) or — if they appear in the privatized form as payed goods — by privatized common labor. In that respect they are similar to science. Conventional goods on the other hand need the repeated application of direct labor (»unmittelbare Arbeit«) for their production. Following Marx common labor is unproductive labor as far as their potential of creating value is concerned. Only direct labor is producing value. However, that may not be short-circuited to the equation direct = material = productive. Direct labor comprises material as well as mental activity. However, mental activities are only productive if they apply existing knowledge in the production process — such as knowledge which science delivers as gratis productive power — but not activities which create new knowledge. The same applies when knowledge and information take on the »material« but nonetheless volatile digital form: Information goods with universal nature created by common labor do not embody value.
  7. If information goods in privatized form succeed as payed goods there is no »buy« but an permission to use it is granted. Nonetheless there is an unidirectional value transfer from the one asking for permission to the one granting permission. This value must come from other creation of value — for instance mediated by selling labor power. In the same manner as the landlord who for the permission to use his ground receives a ground rent the controller of the privatized universal good receives an information rent.
  8. For the private producer of universal goods the information rent means an income, on whole of society the basis of valorization is not expanded, however. As a consequence the picture of a self-supporting wave of accumulation of information capitalism is a mirage.
  9. [not contained in the printed magazines] It is a dubiously, but outmost effective achievement of the value form to translate societal relationships into isolated single connections of things. This reification (Wikipedia: ‚thingification‘ of social relations) — or dynamized: the fetishism — constitutes the social relations, wherein the participants of the commodity world can relate to each other. A precondition of the achievement is, that the reified sociatability is fulfilled completely by changing hands and locations and terminating afterwards. Marx called this the „mystery of the value form“ lying in the elementary form of value: „By means, therefore, of the value-relation expressed in our equation, the bodily form of commodity B becomes the value form of commodity A, or the body of commodity B acts as a mirror to the value of commodity A.“ This value-related expression does not constitute itself at all, if „the bodily form of commodity B“ extends to an arbitrary and non-finalizable amount of exemplars, wherein the commodity A wants to express. If one would construct this relationship in thought, then the quantum of the bodily form being the equivalent cannot not be determined, because it would not be clear, when the digital information good has stopped to replicate itself. And driving the construction further, the value would asymptotical go against zero to the extend as new equivalent exemplars are born as copies.

This list of arguments is not complete — please read yourself [which is impossible unless you understand German — the translator]. What does these new insights mean?

I must change my assessment of Free Software. The special quality of free Software is not that it creates a sphere without value substance being outside of the otherwise value producing sphere of proprietary software. As a universal good software can not embody value as a matter of principle. Inside the proprietary software production — being determined by the value form — products are created whose universal character contradicts their private form.

The new in the old emerges also in the old forms, not only besides them. Free Software as universal production which also takes on the form of societal production (»vergesellschaftete Produktion«) is the mode of production adequate to the universal character of the good. This is the new quality and this constitutes its germ form character.

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