[KEYWORDS: Commons, Information Commons, General Intellect, Frontier, Bad Frontier, Immaterial Labour, Affective Labour, Paolo Virno, Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Fragment on Machines, Fixed Capital, Internet, ARPA, ARPANET, Piracy, Kingdom of Piracy, KOP, Enclosures, Diggers, Hobbes, Sovereignty, Oppositional Intellect]



Towards an ‘Army of Ideas’ -

Oppositional Intellect & The Bad Frontier


J. J. King <jamie@jamie.com>


[...] you strive to take away my livelihood, and the liberty of this poor weak frame of my body of flesh, which is my house I dwell in for a time; but I strive to cast down your kingdom of darkness, and to open hell gates, and to break the devil’s bonds asunder wherewith you are tied, that you my enemies may live in peace; and that is all the harm I would have you to have.


Gerrard Winstanley[1]


By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.


William Shakespeare




To commence anecdotally: I recently ecountered, uncoincidentally in a part of London that has over the last five to seven years been gentrified beyond anything but the barest degree of recognition, in a cafe that has got itself up in some sort of impression of a souk, and in which coiffed quasi-bohos lounge with lattes and smouldering joints, a young ‘cracker’ who had until recently been part of a pirate community which took part both in the ‘chipping’ of mobile phones (releasing a user’s hardware from indenture to a particular service provider), the copying of DVDs, modification of gaming consoles, so on. The person in question had been engaging in such activities for years, he explained, until realising that, far from challenging traditional market structures, his group was actually performing a form of underground marketing that had already been recognised by certain corporations – he named Sony specifically. Increasingly those corporations were using underground ‘cracker’ communities to distribute early versions of their products which, with their readymade illict halo, had an instant appeal to the youth market at which they were largely targeted. Disgusted, the young activist immediately ceased his activities.[2]


This anecdote speaks very well to the problems of ‘piracy’ and its status as a form of oppositional culture. It gives us cause to remember that there can be no Kingdom of Piracy without a Kingdom of Property, and, therefore, to think through the ways in which we sustain and constitute the very economies we want to operate against. In this essay, by exploring a series of proximate and crosslinked ideas, I will attempt to articulate the reasons why a ‘Kingdom of Piracy’ must, if it is to ever move beyond the position of intolerable ‘counterculture’ naivety expressed by the subject above, actively configure itself as opposition, and not assume that it posseses a privileged oppositionality which, in fact, is all too easily co-opted by commodity culture.


This argument is not only not as esoteric as it might first appear, but is in fact aboslutely timely in discussions that have been going on for a while (in one circle) around the so-called ‘information commons’ and ‘intellectual property’, and (in entirely another) around ‘immaterial’ or ‘affective labour’ and the ‘general intellect’. It seems to me that we can profit by bringing these two discourses into proximity, for a limited period only, and letting them duke it out. Finally we shall progress onto a terrain that I want to call, tentatively, ‘the bad frontier’, the best place to begin the vital business of working towards oppositional intellect, the final neologism of this investigation, by which I mean a general intellect that constitutes itself in deliberate opposition to (and perhaps flight from – they can amount to the same thing) market capitalism.


The Information Commons


A new phrase, ‘information commons’, has gained significant currency as a way of describing community-shared information, particularly that enabled and enacted through information networks. Proponents argue its value as a theoretical premise lies in its ability to ‘provide a coherent framework and language for explaining phenomena that are otherwise ignored or misunderstood’[3] today, to whit, certain ‘constitutional and cultural norms that are increasingly threatened in the new digital environment.’ [4]


 ‘Information commons’, it is held, is a metaphor that can help us understand the importance of the new kinds of ‘social spaces’ opening in and around networks. ‘Commons’ itself is also, no less importantly, a way of suggesting the commonality of certain key resources- genetic code, for example, or, more generally, scientific data – and promotiong our shared responsibilities towards such resources by emhpasising their universal value. But the term takes us analepetically to the commons of feudal europe, an extraordinarily complex system of open fields and common rights which supported Europe’s agrarian community throughout the 1500s. These commons were under community regulation: the peasantry had customary rights over them which had never been encoded in law,[5] rights premised on the ‘self-governing and customary elements in the structure of the pre-capitalist village community’,[6] and on that community’s ‘collective memory’.[7]


Ominously, the first point of similiarity often drawn between the feudal commons and the ‘information commons’ is with regards to the Enclosures, through which the landed classes of England, and a rising class of mechant farmers, siezed and developed these lands in the advance of what Hannibal Travis terms the ‘propertarian ideology’.[8] The Enclosures asserted over free farming peasants and their land near-absolute rights of perpetual duration, substituting communal land regulation for individual tenure.[9] Through the the 1700s and early 1800s, a series of 4,000 acts of English Parliament authorized the seizure of some seven million acres of commons. Village-held lands were fenced off and given to private interests, as customary relations fell, piecemeal, to the forces of law and coercion which supported this ‘propertarisation’.


The ‘Enclosure’ of the ‘information commons’ is taken by James Boyle[10] and others to be an apt way of describing the attempts of commercial interests to maintain or gain control over, for example, the information shared over various social and information networks, and the valorisation of this information as ‘intellectual property’. The landmarks in this process are already well-documented, and since it is beyond the scope of this essay to provide a thorough review of them all, a few examples will have to suffice here. 1998’s US Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which added twenty years to the copyright protection of works produced after 1923, ensured that many thousands of works that had fallen or were due to fall into private hands would not re-enter the public domain until 2019; the same year’s infamous Digital Millennium Copyright Act, prohibiting the circumvention of any technical measure that controls access to a work, criminalised not only the manufacture and distribution of software that can bypass technical protection measures, but even the mere sharing of information about that protection[11]; today Microsoft’s ‘Palladium’ project attempts to secure information as ‘intellectual property’ by engineering its operating system such that the average user will find it very difficult to run anything other than Microsoft-‘authorised’ files. The intended outcome of all of these initiatives is to convert disrete sets of freely shared or shareable information into privately controlled commodities – and to ensure that those sets whose commodity-status is currently challenged retain that status.


The last few years have seen longstanding provisions for access to scientific knowledge begin to fall to a similar set of processes. Patent claims increasingly reach further ‘upstream’ from end products, covering fundamental discoveries that provide the knowledge base for future product development.[12] The patent is taken to play a critical role in the development of pharmaceutical products, and the support of aggressive patenting extends through government and legislature of both North America and Europe. The TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) agreement, formulated by the World Trade Organisation, means that all WTO states are forced to introduce patent legislation into national law that makes patents available for any invention or product that meets the criteria of novelty, inventiveness and industical applicability.[13] This definition includes biotechnology, and provides for the patenting of life-forms.


It is not at all in question that these are significant and concerted attempts at preventing various networks - public, academic, scientific and agrarian - from the free sharing of information and common-wealth through the construal of such as ‘property’.  But whereas, in the case of a commonly shared physical resource - aquifers, for example, forests, or the gene-pool[14] – it might be possible to imagine a kind of ‘enclosure’, is the same true of purely informational economies involving audio, text, film and spoken language? What are the consequences of using the notion of ‘information commons’ to conceptualise such attempts as ‘enclosure’?[15] 


There are serious consequences, first of all, to reading information as constitutive of a space in its own right. The internet-as-territory (‘cyberspace’), and specifically as ‘frontier’ are obvious exampes of such a reading. Via the imaginary-historical frontier of Frederick Jackson Turner, with its radicalising economic, social and political potentials, the science-fictional frontiers of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert A. Heinlein and William Gibson, the militarily enacted frontiers of the Cold War, and the ‘Final Frontier’ of ‘outer’ space, the Internet became constituted in the popular mind of the last decade as a ‘new frontier’, a ‘wild west’, a ‘place’ in which exploration, innovation, self-fulfillment, self-realisation and wanton speculation were, as on the original imaginary frontier, the rule: the grand narrative of the American Idea played out over this novel information network. Internet-as-cyberspace-as-frontier is still a powerful formulation today. The fact that both the latter terms have fallen into disuse does not change one iota its instrumentality in the net’s development as a socioeconomic architecture. And, in the shape of the ‘information commons’, we can see a new spatial imaginary rising up to take its place.      


But, as with the ‘digital frontier’, there are signs that the ‘information commons’ is not necessary or sufficient or to its object. In what sense is a  ‘second enclosure’ now underway? In point of fact, the distribution of ‘intellectual property’ may be systematically checked and contested, but it is nonetheless virulent: not only unabated, but more rife than ever. Media types currently traversing various networks include audio files (most popularly in MP3 and Ogg Vorbis formats), images (JPEG, GIF), video (MPEG, AVI, DivX;-) ) including but not limited to full feature films, works of literature in ‘plaintext’ or other forms, essays, academic papers, textual discussions on Web-based boards (using, for example, software like Slashdot or Kuro5hin) and Usenet, weblogs (most often a form of public diary), databases (for example of search queries), software and code libraries ( ‘Free Software’ under the GNU copyleft license, but proprietary software also circulates freely) scientific data, molecule research, and so on and so forth. All of this despite the bilateral legislation and trade agreements, despite attempts at hardware restriction, despite systematic erosion of freedom of speech rights: the expansion of this shared body of information continues apace.


A very recent example speaks volumes about the degree of desperation now being experienced by the establishment as a consequence of this burgeoning ‘Kingdom of Piracy’: the attempt by Senator Hollings of the U.S. Senate to pass a bill allowing companies to engage in licensed sabotage of peer to peer networks. What is revealed in this declaration of war on the multitude of p2p users seems to depend on personal prediliction. The media owner sees in it gloves-off support by the American legislature for IP rights – to the extent of legalising corporate warfare. The commons-protectionist sees in it doom for the commons and a statement of the intent to decimate peer information architectures. We, on the contrary, can read in it an implicit admission that other forms of civil control are simply not working, and indeed that the legislative and technological ‘enclosures’ so bemoaned by commons proponents are more or less ineffective. In what other context would state-licensed corporate sabotage manifest itself as a possible strategy?


It possible that the ‘information commons’ is not only beyond protection, but beyond control? Is it realistic to maintain definitive enclosure as a possibility, and to conceive of  (a sort of ‘ecological’) protectionism as the best or only solution to that enclosure?[16] Is it possible that, in the case of our informational communities, we need to think not of defending against, but of attacking with?  


Introducing the General Intellect 

In an interview for Mute magazine conducted by Ted Byfield, ‘information commons’ proponent James Boyle explicitly links his project to a ‘Marxian’ one.[17] This is curious for two reasons: first, since Boyle often carries out defense of the ‘information commons’, posed against the Draconian ‘fencing’ off of ideas and social knowledge, by arguing that such ‘enclosures’ are a counterproductive check on innovation. The argument that a regulated, shared, common resource is the best, most productive and ‘ethical’ way to structure capital in the tertiary ‘informational’ economy seems about as far from Marx and Marxism as it is possible to get.

The second reason it is suprising is that Marx has already come up, in the Grundrisse, with a very potent way of understanding the ‘economy of information’, one which presents a set of serious challenges to proponents of the ‘information commons’. Marx’s idea, which comes complete with its own phrase, the ‘general intellect’, has enjoyed its own popularity in the last six years or so, particularly with Italian autonomist theorists such as Antonio Negri and Paolo Virno, who have rather successfully sought to take it beyond the bounds in which Marx’s text deliniated it.


Marx uses this term ‘general intellect’ to refer to the social knowledge or ‘collective intelligence’ of a society at a given historical period. Just as collective corporeal power is necessary to complete certain tasks of production, so too production employs collective intellectual power. As technologies and machines become more important as a means of production, Marx says, the creation of real wealth will come to depend not on the direct expenditure of labour time in production, but on two interrelated factors: technological expertise – ‘scientific labour’ - and organisation – ‘social combination.’ [18] The crucial factors in production become the ‘development of the general powers of the human head’; ‘general social knowledge’; ‘social intellect’ and ‘the general productive forces of the social brain.’[19]


In other words, it is during the translocation of the business of production into productive technologies – ‘fixed capital’ –  that social knowledge becomes a ‘direct force’[20] in market capitalism. 


In three distinct moments just such a translocation has occurred in the predominant capitalist countries; from economies driven by agriculture and the extraction of raw materials in the Middle Ages, to industry and the manufacture of durable goods in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to the current paradigm in which services and the manipulation of information are the dominant economic factor.


In the move towards an industrial-informational economy,  'intellectual' labour has become a critical driver of the entire capital system, even of what might be called 'traditional' industries. We could think of the crucial role of the 'creative' in selling products, of artist communities in city 'regeneration', or, more generally, of the centrality of traditionally ‘cultural’ discourse in establishing what we 'buy into' across the board. One only need to look at today’s stock market to understand that the intellectual work that goes into 'representing' a company, that labour undertaken by such as Arthur Anderson, Accenture, by CEOs, by marketing companies and PR gurus, by city 'analysts' and stock-pumpers the world over, is far more important to that company's 'value' than any 'honest' assessment of its 'bottom line', profit and loss account, or even projected earnings. (And indeed, the combined ‘free’ and immaterial labour of hundreds of thousands of day-traders and more casual private investors and speculators, has already been observed to have extraordinary market-moving power.)

The formula is simple. Once fixed capital takes care of the mass of production, what becomes important is the knowledge that operates, designs, maintains, directs and deploys it. The key innovation of the Italian autonomists is the vital observation that this ‘mass intellectuality’, this ensemble of `know-hows' which supports capital, is not limited to those who ‘directly’ minister capital’s machines, but actually is comprised of ‘the social body’ itself, a ‘repository of knowledges indivisible from living subjects and from their linguistic co-operation’[21], comprising a whole gamut of qualifications, modes of communication, local knowledges and language games. For Antonio Negri, this ‘mass intellectuality’ is indeed the defining activity of a whole ‘post-Fordist proletariat’. For Paolo Virno, the ‘general intellect’ extends right the way down into the ‘epistemic models that structure social communication’ itself, the ‘intellectual activity of mass culture, no longer reducible to ‘simple labor,’ to the pure expenditure of time and energy’:

There converge in the productive power of the general intellect, artificial languages, theorems of formal logic, theories of information and systems, epistemological paradigms, certain segments of the metaphysical tradition, ‘linguistic games’ and images of the world. In contemporary labor processes there are entire conceptual constellations that function by themselves as productive ‘machines’, without ever having to adopt either a mechanical body or an electronic brain.[22]

What does all this mean? Let us return to the example of the stock market. The value of a company, of course, is not only supported by the various actors and institutions immediately orbiting it, not merely by ‘economic factors’ but also by the economy of social life itself; by the entire gamut of ‘language games’ (meant, roughly, in the Wittgensteinian sense) that surround, inform, and provide the ‘bedrock’ upon which the company’s idea of itself is founded, and upon which it sells itself and (decreasingly) its product back to the very communities that substantiate that value. One can see this clearly in the intimate relation of the stock market to social change. Each of us, insofar as we act, speak, read, write, think and move through our culture in various modalities, are more or less implicated in the processes of valorisation and de-valorisation that cause the market’s peaks and troughs. In this sense, we never stop ‘working’. The so-called ‘production of affect’,  the constitution of subjectivity, is a full time job. So is the production of desire. And it is clear that this mobilisation of the general intellect in the service of capital’s machinery is more critically important than ever before. Capital has become utterly dependent on our ability to conceive of, and constitute desire for, new products, new markets; we have trained ourselves to appreciate subtle variegations in all products (cars, houses, clothes, and so on) and to link those variegations not only to notions like ‘status’ and ‘style’, but to the fundamentals: ‘happiness’, ‘pleasure’, ‘freedom’. The general intellect, our own form-of-life, is therefore discovered as absolutely complicit in the production of the horrible state of abjection in which we currently find ourselves. And capital has become absolutely dependent upon this complicity, this willing domestication of our ways of life to its imperatives.


It is more important than ever to the market that ‘knowledge, skill, and [...] the general productive forces of the social brain’[23] are put to work, and put to work in the right way.


And in that very dependency lies a striking political potential.


‘Information Commons’: Meet ‘General Intellect’


Surely the shortcomings of ‘information commons’ are obvious from even this cursory reading of ‘general intellect’. ‘Commons’ promotes the idea of the ‘shared space’ of ‘ideas and information’ as somehow distinct from (although linked to) the market, to capital, a privileged ‘zone’ that, on the one hand, requires ‘protection’ from market forces, and, on the other seeks to satisfy the demands of that market through its putative ‘freedom.’  ‘General intellect’ allows us to see the always-already implicated nature of social communities, right down into the very fabric of sociality, and therefore the retarded nature of conceiving of a ‘space of ideas’ that could ever subsist  ‘outside’ it. What could be the meaning of ‘enclosure’ or of ‘protection’ against enclosure in such a context? How, after all, could capital more thoroughly contain or ‘enclose’ ‘this plural, multiform constantly mutating intelligence’[24] of mass intellect within its structures than it does already? Is the ‘information commons’ not already folded into capital? Is capital not also folded into it? ‘Enclosed’ or ‘unenclosed’, won’t the two’s mutual embrace remain as tight?


The second decimating feature of ‘general intellect’ for the ‘information commons’ is its illumination of the political potential of contemporary social consciousness. ‘Information commons’ relegates social knowledge to the status of a ‘threatened ecology’, immediately subjugating it to those powers nominally able to articulate its ‘protection’ – in this case, presumably, the liberal-democratic regimes of Europe and North America, prompted into action by some ungodly admixture of left-liberal-lawyer lobbyists, NGO gonks and wild-eyed info-ecologists.[25] In doing so, it only promotes the role of intellectual labour in the production of consumption, in market-regulated cultural and scientific ‘advances’ that only rarely equal more than the development of new products and new markets. 


For reasons that I will now expand on, assuming this subjugant position can be seen as mistaken and unnecessary. The absolutely crucial role that we all have, as intellectual or 'immaterial' labourers, in the current scene should not be underestimated. It is crucial to understand the extent to which the general intellect, given its paramount importance and complete imbrication with the processes of capital, can begin to do more than simply facilitate production, and more than demand ‘protection’ on the basis of such facilitation. We must go further, and ask at what moment this shared force, already mobilised by capital, could begin to constitute itself against capital. In doing so we arrive at the root of  ‘oppositional intellect’.


Internet As Fixed Capital

A brief aside may prove productive. Without wanting to initiate a lengthy meditation on the relation between technology and paradigm change, what seems clear here is that underestimations of the oppositional power of peer information relations stem from fundamental failures to follow through identifications of the essential conditions of digital mediation itself. Let us re-analyse at this point the development of the Internet at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in the 1960s as a deliberate streamlining of the general intellect (in the first instance, of its scientific hemisphere) both in order to extract maximum value from the machines (computers, et cetera) invested in by ARPA and in order to put that intellect to work in creating fixed capital (ICBMs, more computers, transport systems, et cetera: whatever proved necessary to ‘beat the Russians’ or at least pacify the general public terrified by the success of Sputnik.)[26] Paradoxically it was in the end ARPANET itself, designed to network the general intellect and produce it as a properly efficient factor, which developed most rapidly of all ARPA’s ‘blue-sky’ technologies, a direct consequence of its efficiency not only a facilitator of the general intellect for the creation and operation of fixed capital, but as fixed capital in its own right, a ‘social machine’ that brought network architecture to human discourse.

It seems that two key factors contribute to the Internet’s radicalisation of the communication process: digitality itself (form), which provides for non-finite, zero-cost multiplication of media objects, and ‘distribution’ (structure), which allows those multiplying objects to reach potential recipients with the minimum of resistance. This particular form and structure massively augments, for example, the research potential of a scientific or academic community- ARPANET’s original function. As has been explained many times, a major consequence of this innovation is that an idea (musical, theoretical, scientific, poetic, whatever) is no longer limited to a cumbersome physical instantiation, but may immediately take flight, in a variety of digital formats, across the network, multiplying as necessary at zero cost.[27] Discounting all the mistakes made, in the last five years or so, about ‘making money “on” the internet’, which of course stem in no small measure from identifications with that ‘frontier’ metaphor, it is immediately obvious the ways in which these radical qualities have benefitted capital. ARPANET, becoming Internet, has underwritten a massive increase in the potential of the general intellect both as affective labour, as biopower, and, at the same moment, as a force for change. But a further consequence of these same communicative qualities, inscribed as they are into the Net’s basic protocols, is their production of a systematic contestation of the whole category of ‘information property’. What can be the meaning of ‘owning’ a musical idea if that idea is potentially in the hands of everyone with a computer and connectivity within moments of its release? And what algorithm, what legislation, can protect one’s ‘information property’ if, once finding its way on the network, it is prey to the liberatory intent of the multitude? Indeed, what could be the sense of retaining the category of ‘information property’ in such a context?

The establishment must now face the conditions brought about by its own piece of fixed capital, conditions which it itself now requires to operate. Ideas, ‘memes’, desires, must mutiply in order to generate new markets, products and so forth. But the system that provides for the multiplication does not provide, at least not in any systematic way, for the sort of ‘top-down’ control needed to enforce exceptions to this rule of multiplicity.[28] Reintroducing such control is not only problematic, it is very probably impossible. Perhaps the only way to achieve it would be to shut down the net, to remove this fantastically efficient and critical piece of fixed capital, certainly the most essential social technology of the past decade. This would mean not only uprooting the net backbone-and-all, but outlawing all networks independent of global control at the operations level, outlawing TCP/IP, and taking into account the independent, DIY networks being built in cities across the world under the 802.11b architecture. All of this seems as unlikely as it is difficult to carry through.[29]

In this context, it is only possible to see the ‘information commons’ movement as entirely wrongheaded. Why demand protection for our common information if attempts at ‘enclosure’ are necessarily failing and doomed? Why, if the general intellect is so fundamental, should we ask for anything at all? Such a posture will only, after all achieve the wresting of political, oppositional potential from the multitude in return for the granting of certain ‘freedoms’, freedoms that are anyway ours. 

Instead we must try to draw out the oppositional possibilities of the peer community as general intellect.  

Oppositional Intellect... And The Bad Frontier

It is worth noting that Gerrard Winstanley, ‘representative’ of the anti-Enclosure ‘Digger’ movement, never limited his demands to the ‘protection’ of common land or to arguments against enclosure. Winstanley’s claims went far further than reeastabling the pre-enclosure situation and the removal of the Norman Yoke; he wanted the restoration of the ‘the pure law of righteousness before the Fall’[30]. True human dignity would be possible only when communal ownership was established as a general condition, and buying and selling of land and labour ceased altogether.[31] For Winstanley, like Marx, the state would wither under such conditions: ‘What need have we of imprisonment, whipping or hanging laws to bring one another into bondage?’ he asked. ‘Only covetousness made theft a sin.’[32]


Winstanley challenged property theory at its strongest, not arguing for a privileged zone of free exchange, but for the absolute abolition of individualist property relations, the only thing that could get rid of the coercive state and the preachers of sin, both of which had come into place to protect property:

Wheresoever there is a people [...] united by common community of livelihood into oneness, it will become the strongest land in the world, for then they will be as one man to defend their inheritance [...] Whereas on the other side, pleading for property and single interest divides the people of a land and the whole world into parties, and is the cause of all wars and bloodshed and contention everywhere [...] But when once the earth becomes a common treasury again, as it must, [...] then this emnity of all lands will cease, and none shall dare to seek dominion over others, neither shall any dare to kill another, nor desire more of the earth than another.[33]

(To the accusation that his beliefs would ‘destroy all government and all our ministry and religion,’ Winstanley replied cooly, ‘It is very true.’[34])


We too need to expand the scope of our ambitions as immaterial labourers. Marx, we hope, was right to argue that the motion of scientific knowledge and social co-operation, capital’s motors, would ultimately destroy capital: but it seems likely that  the development of the deliberate intent of the general intellect to produce this destruction is one of its necessary conditions. The expected huge increase in the value of intellectual labour is occurring, and for the ‘information class’, as I have argued in a recent essay, private ownership of material objects has become absolutely relegated to the value of the ‘brand of me’[35]. But let us leave aside the notion that automation and socialisation together create the possibility of—or necessity for—the ultimate dispensation with wage labour and private ownership. Capital may be working towards its own dissolution as the dominant social form,[36] but oppositionality can only help expedite the process.


What forms of action might this oppositionality dictate? I want to end this essay by offering some tentative suggestions. The first hinges on the notion that ‘frontier’, this dialectics of ‘sectional cleavage’, of economic expansion and innovation in ‘wilderness’ zones, underpins the capital cycle.[37] It reverses the valency of this sectional dialectic, producing what I am tentatively calling ‘bad frontier’. (We need not fall back into the practice of conceptualising the general intellect as territory in order to do this. Let us simply preserve the idea of frontier as a dialectical process of innovation and co-option. This always-already co-opted nature of territories-yet-to-be-exploited has far more in common with general intellect than it does with ‘information commons’.) 


Can we conceive of activities that the general intellect could undertake ‘in the wilderness’ that, once co-opted, might begin to operate against capital? Can we imagine constituting a shared community of ideas that, expecting such co-option and acting in prescience, deliberately designs itself to appear, perhaps, palatable, but to be, in fact, poisonous?[38] The ‘dot com’ bubble manifests itself as something of a template here: the production of ‘business plans’ which, glittering brightly with the promise of future accumulations, in fact only drained money from venture capital coffers and burned it systematically in the ridiculously consumptive lifestyles of the information class masquerading as ‘entrepeneurs’. Might there be other actions that could be equally damaging to capital that could take into account this formula, ‘bad frontier’?


Returning to the Italian Autonomists’ notion of the centrality of language, of the constitutive social structures of the everyday, in the operation of capital, I want to finally suggest that, in formulating oppositional intellect, a return to Artaudian insanity via Burrough’s ‘language-virus’ might be a potent strategem. Of course we must confront the problem that capital itself, even on its own bizarre terms, is ‘insane’. Nonetheless: could an institutionalisation of discrete ‘insanity’ within the class of immaterial workers, this ‘new proletariat’, inform a series of actions that, when subsumed into capital, would be productive not merely of the fiscal atrophy associated with the ‘dot com’ boom, but of a more thorough discombobulation, a warp in the weft, the folding-in of something too corrosive to contain? If the development of communications networks truly has an organic relationship to the emergence of the world order— effect and cause, product and produce – then our communications must not only express the movement of globalization, but must organise it through the multiplication and structured interconnections of its networks. Let us formulate disconnections and abhorrent structures. Let the next ‘enclosure’, the next folding-in of our life-world to capital, find us clutching something wicked. Let us not beg a ‘protection’ for which we have no need. Let us attack, instead, with the full force of our ‘Army of Ideas’.

[1] G.H. Sabine, Ed., The Works of Gerarrd Winstanley (Cornell University Press, 1941), p. 333.

[2] The individual in question wishes to remain anonymous.  

[3] David Bollier, ‘Why we must talk about the information commons’, presented at the American Library Association retreat on ‘New Technology, the Information Commons and the Future of Libraries,’ November 2-4, 2001, Wye River, Maryland. See also Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth (Routledge, 2002, forthcoming.)

[4] Ibid.

[5] George C. Comninel, ‘English Feudalism and the Origins of Capitalism’, in The Journal of Peasant Studies (July 2000) pp.1-53.

[6] E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: Penguin, 1991), p.238.

[7] Thompson, English Working Class, p.238.

[8] Hannibal Travis, ‘Pirates of the Information Infrastructure: Blackstonian copyright and the First Amendment’ in Mark Berkely Technology Law Journal (Spring 2000)

[9] It is worth noting, however, that the right of ‘perfect usufruct’, of utilising the land without altering or depleting it, had never existed free of contestation. Even in the sixteenth century it had been in direct antagonism with the Common Law established by William the Bastard after the Norman Conquest of 1066, the so-called ‘Norman Yoke’ which rested upon the individual rights of freehold tenure. In this light, the prolonged and systematic elimination of custom by Common Law that occurred from the sixteenth century onwards can be seen merely as the realisation of a longstanding ideological conflict.

[10]We are in the middle of a second enclosure movement; it sounds grandiloquent to call it "the enclosure of the intangible commons of the mind" but in a very real sense, that is just what it is....’ Boyle writes in the introduction to his paper in the proceedings of the Duke Conference on the Public Domain (available as a PDF online).

[11] As has been lamented on many occasions since ’98, the DMCA eliminates the public’s right to ‘fair use’, which has allowed people to quote and re-use works in certain contexts and venues. The DMCA also overrides the ‘first-sale’ doctrine, the legal rule that allows people to share the books or videotapes they buy with whomever they want. The perceived need for this strict control is a direct function of the non-excludable’ nature of digital media, for a brief discussion of which, see the body of this text, below. Controlling the flow of works in society to serve private commercial ends, the DMCA is a direct affront to America’s much loved First Amendment.

[12] See Arti K. Rai and Rebecca S. Eisenberg, ‘The Public and the Private in Biopharmaceutical Research’, also part of the Duke Law Conference proceedings.



[13] TRIPS Article 27(1)

[14] And the potential to ‘enclose’ the gene-pool, it seems, is directly related to the low level of penetration of information on genetic engineering into the public domain. Heath Bunting’s ‘Biotech Hobbyist’ project sardonically tried to address this issue. In time, if the shifting and splicing of genetic information becomes plausible in a home lab, the ‘enclosure’ of genetic data will also be problematised. 

[15] Although it is quite crucial to note the constant, constitutive relations between ‘intellectual’ and material propety, it is to the ‘information commons’ that this essay restricts its critique.

[16] I will avoid examining here, because it seems unnecessarily confusing, Boyle’s related notion of ‘an environmentalism for the Net,’ which seeks to turn the defence of the ‘informational environment’ into a movment, presumably replete with NGOs given over to this protection. (The notions of ‘commons’ and ‘environmentalism’ are quite distinct, as Ted Byfield points out, arising in different regions with dramatically different social and political conditions.)

[17] Ted Byfield, ‘Control Shift Commons’, in Mute magazine, archive available at <http://www.metamute.com/mutemagazine/issue20/boyle.htm>

[18] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 705.

[19] Marx, Grundrisse, pp. 694, 705, 706, 709.

[20] Marx, Grundrisse, p . 706.

[21] Paolo Virno, ‘Notes on the General Intellect,’ in Marxism Beyond Marxism, ed. Saree

Makdisi, Cesare Casarino, & Rebecca E. Karl (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 270.

[22] Paolo Virno, ‘Virtuosity and Revolution: The Political Theory of Exodus’, in Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt, eds., Radical Thought in Italy, A Potential Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996) , p. 22.

[23] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 694.

[24] Jean-Marie Vincent, ‘Les automatismes sociaux et le “general intellect.'”’, in Futur Antérieur 16 (1993), p. 121 (trans. by Nick Dwyer Witherford in Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High Technology Capitalism (University of Illinois: 1999), available at <http://www.fims.uwo.ca/people/faculty/dyerwitheford/index.htm|>

[25] It is difficult to sense which way Boyle and the others are coming at this: defending the ‘Commons’ in order to defend market capitalism; or preaching the language of market capitalism in order to defend a commons whose perceived ‘autonomy’, at any rate, they seem prepared to ditch in the cause... Were establishment forces to agree to ‘protecting’ the ‘commons’, to hold off from ‘enclosure’, they would do so simply because they had understood the sophisticated argument that this was they best way of valorising  ‘free’ intellectual labour, of putting it to work. This is a point not all that difficult to comprehend; think again of  the ‘pirate’ fileshare community which in fact operated as a trailblazer for music consumption of the typical form; or of bloggers who are the prey of idle and incompetent journalists; of the fact that ‘free software’ is now a recongised and operational business model; or of the incorporation of intellectual and theoretical discourse taking place in public discussion lists and forums into state- sponsored and –sponsoring academic discourse..

[26] In the mid sixities Bob Taylor developed the first stages of ARPANET as a solution to the problem of computing resources becoming monopolised by the work of particular research groups within ARPA’s funding suite. The principle of networking turned out to satisfy a series of economic imperatives: the isolation of ARPA’s computers was leading to costly machines being underutilised, and the general lack of communication between research efforts was leading to unnecessary duplication of work. By building a system of electronic links between machines, researchers undertaking similar work in diverse locations could share their results and resources. There was a consequent relief on DARPA’s budget.

[27] Or, to put it technically, digital information is ‘non-excludable’. Let us by all means avoid Stewart Brand’s 1984 anthropomorphisation. Information does not ‘want to be’ anything!

[28] This is not the place to enter into a discussion about the possibilities for centralised control within the ‘distributed’ structure of the internet. Suffice it to say that the political experiment of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers as a center of ‘net governance’ and enforcer of digital IP ‘rights’ seems to be in the final throes of failure. New IP enforcement initiatives are already having to contend with the ‘post-web’ context, for example peer-based information distribution architectures that do not rely on domains and therefore can dispense with the DNS, registries, registrars, ICANN and the ruins of the tendentious IP enforcement structure botched together by WIPO and the rest. In fact the best way to conceive of ‘control’ is not through the attempt to instigate centralised or ‘top-down’ power within distributed systems, but in terms of bio-power. See, on ICANN, J.J. King, ‘They Came, They Bored, They Conquered’, in Mute Magazine, Spring 2002;  on distribution and biopower, see J.J. King ‘Cyberspace as ‘Technology of Power’, Chapter Six in ‘The Cultural Construction of Cyberspace’ <www.jamie.com/thesis/thesis.pdf>

[29] One popular argument is that stronger encryption will secure media and therefore prevent its wholesale unauthorised copying and distribution. And yet it is plain that these underlying conditions of digitality and distribution mean that in any particular instance an encryption algorithm need only be broken once for a multitude of copies to be produced and deposited across the network. In other words, to be useful, an algorithm must never be broken, a condition which, despite claims to the contrary from various security companies, is demonstrably impossible to satisfy. The legislature understands this, and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act is its attempt to make the very attempt of breaking an algorithm illegal, to provide a meta-layer of legal protection around the encryption. (Fortunately that layer does worse than provide no protection: it actively erodes the protection provided by the algorithm. By effectively outlawing those professionals who study such matters, it not only prevents the advance and development of more robust security provisions but also antagonises the security community, motivating them to want to break encryption algorithms as a matter of defiance against an idiotic law. In the act of driving those expert communities underground, the DMCA does the establishment it tries to serve a grave disservice. The rest of us should, therefore, be glad of it.) 

[30] Sabine, The Works of Gerarrd Winstanley, p.292.,  quoted in Christopher Hill, The World Turne Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Middlesex: Penguin, 1972), p. 134.


[31] Sabine, pp. 316, 519-20, 595-6, cf. pp. 192 and epigraph to that chapter; again quotes in Hill. P.134.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Sabine, pp. 262, 253-4.

[34] Sabine, pp. 567-9.

[35] See J.J. King, ‘Break Down: Landy’s (Failed) Gesture and the General Intellect’, in Metropolis M (2002, forthcoming).

[36] Marx, Grundrisse 700.

[37] Territorial gains in the move ‘out’ and ‘away’ are accompanied by the capital benefits arising from the exploitation of new resources: following such gains an increasing saturation of newly-taken territory produces the need to expand (‘go West’) again.

[38] I keep wanting to use the phrase ‘bad snacks’ here, for which – admittedly in a different context – I have Dr. Angela Piccini to thank.