Translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen.
‘I am. I think. I will. My hands. My spirit. My sky. My forest. This earth of mine. What more must I say besides? These are the words. This is the answer.’ At what point does this list from Ayn Rand’s anthem to human freedom transform, subtly, into an anthem to private property? The transitional word would appear to be ‘sky’. The forest and the earth can be ‘mine’ not only in that I sometimes feel, in particularly happy moments, like part owner of all the world’s beauty, but in the more banal sense that one can own an acre of land. With the sky, at least for the moment, it’s more complicated: the sky can belong to a government, but it can’t belong to an individual or corporation. Then again, progress awaits.
My initial renunciation of copyright in 2003 was a spontaneous response to what appeared to be a new bourgeois-authoritarian paradigm in Russia, in which the chaos of the 1990s was replaced by a normalization that combined bourgeois ‘rules of the game’ with authoritarian rule, political conservativism with economic neoliberalism. Cultural production was to be reserved for the de-politicized middle class, which was to sigh with relief that the 1990s did not spill over into another revolution, and to sit with their hands folded, ‘doing their thing,’ as they say, and believing, as per late Soviet stereotypes, that art and political engagement were incompatible. In this situation I felt that some strange symbolic gesture was needed, to declare – however paradoxically – my independence.
The roots go back even further. In the 1990s, Russia experienced the terrible privatization of that which had previously been held in common. The factories, the oil wells, even the work of Soyuzmultfilm (the main Soviet cartoon studio), which had been built by generations of men and women working collectively, out of a belief that work for the common good was the highest purpose of mankind – all of this was sold on the cheap to a small group of private individuals. This was a colossal national trauma, and it is natural that all subsequent attempts on the part of the Russian intellectual class to find itself again should not avoid (and yet, sadly, often have avoided) addressing it.
Now, as for intellectual ideas. Postmodern philosophers have expended a great deal of energy demonstrating that collective structures are more significant than individual ones. (Poets and musicians may find that they are drawn to a much older notion, that the best works are those that seem to be pulled from some kind of social unconscious, a pre- or supra-individual source.) And yet the more we have refined the concept of the ‘death of the individual author’, the more powerfully and even limitlessly the rights of the author – or whoever could buy those rights from the author – have come to be represented in the economic sphere, to the point where Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, could declare in 1982 that intellectual property rights were the same as rights to any other kind of property. Indeed, even poets and musicians tend to find that their wonderful notions about collective art generally fade into the background as soon as one starts talking about their individual bank accounts.
In the case of poetry, of course, it may be better to speak not of a mystical universality but of a deep connection with folkloric tradition. A song appears, changes, goes from mouth to mouth, and the more successful, organic versions of it remain. One person sings this song so as to be at the centre of attention, another so as to attract a sexual partner, another to call people to revolt, yet another to earn a little money on the street. It doesn’t matter whose song it is, yours or someone else’s; all that matters is how well you sing it here and now. This is normal and natural.
Then someone comes along and buys the rights.
Ever since we formed the Free Marxist Press, which only publishes texts without copyright, I have come to view my renunciation of copyright as all the more logical. I believe that I have a moral right to publish international leftists on a non-commercial basis without copyright. In exchange, I give foreign publishers the right to publish me without copyright. If someone is willing to pay me, good; the Free Marxist Press also pays for work, when our resources allow. This is the sphere of moral decisions. That is to say that in my case we are only talking for the moment of shifting the relations around intellectual property from the legal to the ethical sphere; we are talking about a freer attitude towards a set of rights that is, let’s face it, far from the most important among human rights.
But of course a change in attitudes toward these rights must begin first of all with a change in attitude toward one’s own property.
You might say that a renunciation of copyright in this case is not a political gesture as such but rather part of an ethical transition to communism.
I understand the problem of small producers, including intellectual producers, who want to defend their property and their income from thieves and large corporations. But, as has been proved many times already, in the end there is no defence of property that does not find itself employing repressive measures, bans and prosecutions. Do you, as a poet or writer or musician, really want to go the way of prohibitions, fences, barbed wire and guard towers to defend texts and music the way some would defend private cottages, private forests, private fields and private earth?
I don’t want to go this way. I am someone who has produced a fair amount of intellectual property, as well as working in the publishing business, and I do not believe that the rights of small property owners need to be outlined explicitly. I believe that we should offer a basic income to all; despite the fact that it would be elitist for citizens of only a few super-developed countries to gain a basic income, a move in this direction would still be a progressive one. And beyond that, there are many opportunities for the accumulation of both symbolic capital (developing one’s reputation, earning ‘likes’) and real capital – by raising funds for projects and so on. This is an organic extension of the natural competition which is in many ways the motor of progress, including in the arts. Economic competition, by contrast – the uncontrolled battle of the subjects of a market economy to multiply their property and the rights to that property – is destructive and pulls us back into the past.
In terms of technology, we could now achieve that which Marx spoke of in the Grundrisse: a world where life processes are controlled by the universal intellect (that is, the sum of our knowledge, creative achievements and discoveries) rather than by private interests intent on capturing the fruits of our collective output. Everything is ready for a world where large corporations do not buy up patents to medicines, cutting off affordable treatment to millions of people; where oil lobbies do not hamper the development of ‘green’ technologies; and where texts are available for free to everyone in both virtual and physical libraries. Naturally, the defeat of the dictatorship of intellectual and other large property-holders will not come about without political effort and political will. Extravagant ethical-aesthetic gestures like mine only make sense within the context of these efforts. In John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, the soldier says, ‘Now brother, you don’t understand. There are two classes, don’t you see, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.’ Today, as I hope you understand, there are two possibilities: the sky will either be public, or it will be privatized.