McKenzie Wark on Sun, 10 Feb 2002 18:28:02 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] Culture, Economy, Information

The Property Question:
Culture, Economy, Information
McKenzie Wark <>

[for Tiziana]

I believe that Marxist-inspired media studies
and cultural studies lost its way in part because
it has not kept up with the changes in the
property form. The position I want to advocate
is a critique of the kinds of postmarxism that are
foundational for many kinds of cultural studies,
but one that does not retreat back to the
economic determinism that postmarxist theories
were meant to overcome.

I've called this paper 'The Property Question'
after a line from The Communist Manifesto,
where Marx and Engels write of the role of the
communist minorities within the democratic
movements of the time: "in all these movements
they bring to the front, as the leading question
in each, the property question, no matter what
its degree of development at the time."

Marx also nominates an answer to the property
question, for communist militants: "centralise all
instruments of production in the hands of the

As we know, this solution did not work out so
well. Putting all property in the hands of the
state merely created a ruling class who ruled
directly through the state. The revolutions of
1989 have to my mind decisively settled the fate
of Marx's answer to the property question.

All the same, I think Marx asked the right
question, even if he didn't offer the right answer.
The leading question for those concerned with
justice and equality is still the property

When I was a radical undergraduate, everyone
was reading the works of Louis Althusser and
Antonio Gramsci. In their very different ways,
these two writers had addressed certain
inadequacies in the Marxist conception of the
social totality. There was a strong desire at that
time to extract from Marx a comprehensive
social theory. Various tactical writings and
incomplete empirical investigations by Marx
were picked over for the elements of a totalising
theory of what the Althusserians called the
'social formation'.

A problem that emerged, on the basis of a few
slender quotes from Marx, was the problem of
'base and superstructure'. Economic matters
appeared to be the engine of social change in
Marxist historiography. Political and cultural
matters were merely superstructural.

Althusser and Gramsci broke with this kind of
economic determinism. In Gramsci's writings,
there's a struggle on the political and cultural
level in which classes try to form a ruling block
through which to cement their power by
extracting the consent of the subordinated
classes. For Gramsci, oppositional politics was a
matter of a 'war of position', in which the
working class could seek influence in political
and cultural institutions in the struggle for

Althusser and his circle set themselves the task
of a close reading of Marx, and came up with
an interpretation of his historiography that
claimed a 'relative autonomy' for the political
and cultural levels of the social formation. The
economic was held to be determinate 'in the last
instance' -- a moment which 'never arrives'.
Althusser was heavily influenced by Maoist
thought, which viewed revolution as "putting
politics in command", rather than one that
awaits the maturation of the economic 'base'.

For many scholars working in the humanities
who were looking for a radical social theory,
both these currents seemed promising. They
had the advantage of a more complex and
sometimes more subtle social theory than
economic reductionism. They also offered a
more positive account of the potential for social
change than the Frankfurt school marxists. The
Frankfurt school developed a social theory
which also saw the economic as a determinate
instance, but in a much more subtle and
pervasive manner. The alienation and reification
of all social relations proceeds from their
development as homologies of the commodity
relation. Whether one turned to Adorno and
Horkheimer, to Lukacs or even Guy Debord,
this seemed a somewhat pessimistic basis for
thinking about culture under capitalism.

So attention shifted to Althusser and Gramsci.
A number of influential currents brought the
insights of these two thinkers together. The
writers associated with the journal Screen,
Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, and the
group around Stuart Hall at the Centre for
Contemporary Cultural Studies, also known as
the Birmingham school. (Or in Australia, the
work of Bob Connell.)

I don't want to go into the details of the
positions of these authors, or their ongoing
dispute with economic determinist scholars,
such as Graham Murdock and Nicholas
Garnham. At the end of the day I think both
groups were reading Marx the wrong way. My
critique does not depend on some claim to
Marxological orthodoxy. I don't think the
answer lies in fidelity to the master-text. But
there are productive intellectual tools in Marx
that have been to some extent ignored.

One should pause, however, to note that there
was a certain convenience in formulas such as
Althusser's, which asserted the 'relative
autonomy' of the political and ideological (or
cultural) 'instances'. It meant that scholarship
could function within its conventional
disciplinary boundaries and still claim allegiance
to the radical project. The problem was that in
this capitulation to specialised knowledge, a
more holistic grasp of the dynamics of the
commodity economy was lost. The opportunity
for a critique of knowledge as a form of
intellectual property, was, incidentally, also lost.

Meanwhile, the economic reductionist
approaches continued on their merry way, and
often produced detailed studies of the
development of the commodification of
information, knowledge, culture and
communication. This is particularly true in the
field of critical communication studies in the
United States, around the work of Herbert
Schiller. However, my claim is that this school
did not develop a theoretical understanding of
the changes in the form of commodity relations
to go with the often telling descriptions of its

The same goes for the Italian autonomist
Marxists, who did much to extend an analysis
of class self-formation into the realms of the
information economy, but at the end of the day
were still using concepts premised on the prior
analysis of industrial capital. To speak of
material and immaterial labour, or the social
factory, is to extend metaphors to the breaking
point rather than to begin the analysis again, at
the critical point, at which information becomes
something that can indeed be subjected to the
regime of exchange.

What was missing, in all of these approaches,
was a close attention to the 'property question'.
Marx's insight was that the legal and social form
of private property gave rise to a class relation.
On the one side, there were those who use the
legal apparatus to secure property as private
property, and on the other hand there were
those who found themselves dispossessed as a
result. The privatisation of the property relation
creates classes in the modern sense. Private
property is an abstract relation, indifferent to
the characteristics of whoever is in possession
of it. It gives rise to abstract classes, thrown
together in spite of their cultures and traditions.

Now, it is important to remember that Marx
traces this development of the privatisation of
property through two distinct phases. One is
the privatisation of land, the other is the
privatisation of productive resources in the
form of capital. While they overlap historically,
these are analytically two distinct moments.
Different innovations in property form are
involved. Different kinds of ruling class arise.
Different kinds of economic return accrue to
these distinct forms of ownership. Marx takes
over from Ricardo an understanding of the
difference between profit and rent, the returns
to capital and land respectively.

My argument regarding the property question
is this: there are already two moments in the
privatisation of property in Marx's analysis.
Why not a third? I consider intellectual property
to be a third, distinct form of private property,
which gives rise to a third, distinct class
antagonism. Historically it proceeds alongside
the privatisation of land and capital. Intellectual
property emerges -- and not without a struggle
-- in the 18th century. But it is analytically
distinct. Information is a different kind of
property. It produces, and is produced by,
quite new and different kinds of class relation.

A key tenet of the Marxist approach is that
property is not an artifact of nature. We did not
come down from the trees in prehistoric times
equipped with stock portfolios. That nature is
not a free market economy is evident in the fact
that nature gets along fine without corporate
lawyers, management consultants and
advertising account executives.

Private property, as a social creation, is
something that becomes progressively more
abstract. Capital represents an advance over
privately held land. Intellectual property further
abstracts the concept of property. Private
property comes first to land, which becomes a
universal and interchangeable substance. It is
extended to all other physical, productive
assets, and finally to information itself, to
something that can even exist independently of
any particular material support. In three distinct
phases, the particular becomes abstract.

By following the property question through
from its transformation of peasant economies
into commodity economies, on through the
development of commodity production in
manufactures, and on to it current phase of the
commodification of all aspects of information,
one can construct a quite distinctive view of the
relationship that emerges between culture and

Consider, for a moment, some of the things we
have before us requiring some explanation.
• The transformation of national conglomerates
into multinational media companies.
• The rise of media empires based around the
leadership of a powerful individual.
• The convergence of media businesses in
different industries.
• The transformation of leading manufacturers
into global industrial subcontractors.
• The rise of the brand and the trademark as a
key asset in corporate portfolios
• the rise of patents as a key asset in corporate
value and power.

And consider some of the legal and regulatory
changes that accompany these developments
• The progressive strengthening of intellectual
property rights within the developed world.
• The rise of intellectual property as a
significant issue in international trade
• Vigorous prosecution of copyright and
trademark infringements
• Deregulation of telephony, cable,
broadcasting and other media industries.

Some of these phenomena are already becoming
the subject of a popular radical literature. Books
like Naomi Klein's No Logo, and Thomas Carr
Frank's One Market Under God address some of
these topics with original reporting and
vigorous prose. But it seems to me that a
comprehensive account of the current stage of
commodity production is yet lacking.

One might mention also the critique of the
streets. Why is it that people in Karachi or
Genoa want to trash McDonalds? Is it because
they found their fries to soggy? Or is it out of
an intuition that McDonalds is a sign of
something? That something might be in part
globalisation or Americanisation, but it might in
part be a recognition of the role the trademark
has come to play in a new economy of the sign,
a new regime of commodity production.

I say commodity production rather than
'capitalism' because I think that this is no longer
capitalism, but something else. But let's take a
more comprehensive look at this.

Let's take a look first at the underdeveloped
world. The privatisation of land is still an
ongoing struggle there. In many places,
capitalism hasn't really happened. The ruling
class is in some measure a land owning class.
The land seizures in Zimbabwe, the Zapatista
movement in Chiapas, Mexico, the liberation
movements active in Irian Jaya and other parts
of the Indonesia archipeligo might be examples.

But the other story in the developing world is
the extent to which it is becoming the home of
old fashioned capitalism. It's not just the
unskilled jobs that have fled from the United
States, Europe and Japan, but increasingly the
skilled jobs as well. The surplus populations
thrown off the land by its privitisation in
Thailand or Mexico find themselves transformed
into the new globalised working class.

Now let's take a look at the developed world --
or what Paul Gilroy calls the overdeveloped
world. Capitalism is moving from the centre to
the periphery. Companies in the developed
world are divesting themselves of their
productive. Their power no longer rests on
that. It rests on the management and
development of trademarks and patents.
Whether one makes drugs, cars, shoes,
recorded music or computers, it is not land, not
capital, but intellectual property that is at the
core of one's business.

What replaces capitalism in the developed
world? In A Hacker Manifesto, I talk about the
rise of vectoralist society, and of a vectoralist
ruling class.2 It is perhaps not the most gainly
coinage, but for the moment, it is the best I can
do. 'Vector' is a word common to geometry,
physics, epidemology. In the latter, it means the
potential carrier for a disease. Bodily fluids are
a vector for HIV. Water is a vector for cholera.
We've heard a lot lately about the spores that
are the vector for Anthrax.

I apply this term to information to mean the
potential mode of transmission across space and
time. It is not enough to own the private
property rights to information. The key is the
ownership and control of the vector of
transmission, through space or time. Hence the
leading fraction of the vectoralist class are the
owners of the vectors.

The Vanderbilts and Carnegies made their
fortunes identifying strategic points in the
production cycle of capital and seizing control
of them -- steel production, or railways. The
Vanderbilts and Carnegies of our time are Ted
Turner, Rupert Murdoch, who saw the value of
owning stocks or flows of information -- news
and movies -- but also the strategic value of
owning the vector, be it satellite, cable or the
old fashioned printed page.

The vectoralist class, as owners of the vector,
confront a producer class. Just as the landlords
confronted peasants, and capitalists confronted
workers, the vectoralist confronts the hacker
class. All creators of intellectual property might
be included in this class, whether copyrights or

This isn't the first theory of class to try to come
up with some way of thinking about 'symbolic
analysts' as Robert Reich called them. There are
plenty of theories of the new middle class, the
intelligentsia and so on. But none to my
knowledge conceive of this other class as
constitute on the same basis as all the others --
out of the private property form. They usually
require the addition of some heterogeneous
principle into class analysis.

The reason for this is perhaps the only very
gradual emergence of intellectual property as a
property form of significance and currency. The
other reason is surely the bias of existing
theories towards conceiving of the economic as
in some sense a more material realm. This is true
of both economic determinist theories and the
culturalist theories that reacted against them.
Neither think of information as something that
can be directly articulated to property and

Now lets take a look at the phenomena this
analysis can help explain:
• The prominence of intellectual property issues
in the WTO, ranging from the concessions on
'patent medicines' for the developing world to
stricter anti-piracy protection.
• The restructuring of major corporations
around intellectual property and the remarkable
rise in 'outsourcing' of manufacturing. The new
ruling class is no longer prepared to
compromise with nations and peoples, and
pursues the opportunity to organise all their
activities vectorally, on a global scale.
• The rise of media conglomerates, with few
tangible assets on their books besides their
intellectual property portfolio, and the means to
realise its value -- a vectoral arsenal for putting
intellectual property in circulation.
• The campaign against 'leakage' from the new
intellectual property economy -- whether its
generic drugs or Napster file downloads.
• Push to redesign network architecture
around proprietary platforms, rather than the
open platform of the internet.

One could go on, but it seems to me that in a
time of volatility in the economic and
technological order, it seems appropriate to
look for theory that addresses this agenda. The
people make meaning, but not with the media
of their own choosing. The degree to which
media -- or in indeed all aspects of intellectual
property -- are subject to democratic control is a
way of thinking about what otherwise disparate
struggles may have in common.

Media and cultural studies has acquired a
readerly cast from its history as an offshoot of
the study of literature. Our Leavisite ancestors
speak to us of the democratic potential of
equipping students with the power to read.
Raymond Williams gave this impulse an
explicitly Marxist twist. But in the process,
attention drifted toward the superstructures,
away from an economic 'base' that was too
narrowly conceived.

But what was lost in the process was the
property question. I would suggest that the
property question lies at the nexus between
reading and writing, between consumption and
production. If, like Toni Negri we look toward
the free potential of the productive abilities of
the people, then I think we have to look where
Negri neglects to look -- the property question.
Particularly if our task is to articulate theory
that works at the nexus of teaching students
not only how to consume texts but how to
produce them. The possibilities for free
production, as opposed to production entirely
circumscribed by the logic of the commodity
hinge on the future direction of intellectual

If one were to look for the practice that might
provide the impetus for such a theory, one need
look no further than the 'collaborative filtering'
of listservers such as nettime. They provide a
working instance of a practical challenge to the
property question. A reinvigoration of the practice
of a critical theory, against the institutionalised
weight of the academy's hypocritical theory.


1.  Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 'Manifesto
of the Communist Party', in David Fernbach (ed),
The Revolutions of 1848: Political Writings,
Volume 1, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1978, p98,

2. McKenzie Wark, 'A Hacker Manifesto',

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