Throwing the IP Baby Out with the Rentist Bathwater

There is much of interest in left political economy, and this essay by Peter Frase is a real classic in the genre. It’s a model of conceptual clarity and presents very big ideas in an accessible way. Nevertheless, I found these paragraphs a bit hard to swallow:

The embryonic form of class power in a post-scarcity economy can be found in our systems of intellectual property law. While contemporary defenders of intellectual property like to speak of it as though it is broadly analogous to other kinds of property, it is actually based on a quite different principle. As the economists Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine observe, IP rights go beyond the traditional conception of property. They do not merely ensure “your right to control your copy of your idea”, in the way that they protect my right to control my shoes or my house. Rather, they give rights-holders the ability to tell others how to use copies of an idea that they ‘own’. As Boldrin and Levine say, “This is not a right ordinarily or automatically granted to the owners of other types of property. If I produce a cup of coffee, I have the right to choose whether or not to sell it to you or drink it myself. But my property right is not an automatic right both to sell you the cup of coffee and to tell you how to drink it.”

The mutation of the property form, from real to intellectual, catalyzes the transformation of society into something which is not recognizable as capitalism, but is nevertheless just as unequal. Capitalism, at its root, isn’t defined by the presence of capitalists, but by the existence of capital, which in turn is inseparable from the process of commodity production by means of wage labor, M-C-M’. When wage labor disappears, the ruling class can continue to accumulate money only if they retain the ability to appropriate a stream of rents, which arise from their control of intellectual property. Thus emerges a rentist, rather than capitalist society.

I can understand arguments for a guaranteed minimum income, especially as automation erases jobs faster than workers can train for new ones, and virtual work flattens the global labor market. However, I would hope to see a future where human needs beyond subsistence can be met. In that future, intellectual contributions to IP–be it patentable, copyrightable, or the network of associations, goodwill, and quality assurance known as trademark–would be valued, and outstanding contributions could lead to larger than average claims on whatever social surplus existed. Finally, left political economists should value the implicit industrial policy in certain IP regimes, which channel labor toward productive and away from unproductive ends. We’re certainly not there yet, but these regimes can be dimly discerned in some proposals for the patent & payment system in drugs, for example.