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[ox-en] Information goods as genuine societal goods

Information goods as genuine societal goods

.. note:: Translation of a German article by Stefan Meretz. The
	  article has been published in the magazine CONTRASTE_,
	  `issue 12/2007`_. Translation done by Stefan Merten.

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

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

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.

.. _issue 12/2007:


.. _issue 31:

.. _article:

.. _krisis:

Contact: projekt

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