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The New Morality of Capitalism

by BILL GLAHN

“You’re not going to believe what I saw on TV this morning!” I had called my wife from the road while on a business trip and these were the first words out of her mouth. I could tell she was pissed. Not just a little pissed. Her voice was trembling. I’ve heard this tone from her maybe one or two times in our 29 years together and I feared for whoever was the object of her wrath (a farm news commentator). By the time she was done telling her story, though, I was ready to hold the bastard down while all of her 90-pound frame stomped the shit out of him. And I’m a practicing pacifist (but certainly not a born one).

“I was watching the farm news this morning and this guy was talking about the record industry. I thought, ‘This is kind of unusual.’ He was stating how music downloaders who had no respect for copyrights had decimated the music industry. ‘Thieves’ he called them. I was wondering what the hell this had to do with farming until he got to talking about soybeans and how farmers were storing seeds for next year’s crop. Apparently, this is a violation of the seed vendor’s copyright and the farmer is required to buy new seeds every year. The seeds are a patented hybrid and the price of seeds has been increasing. The reason the price of seed has risen is because the price includes a royalty payment. The guy talked about how not paying the royalty could have the same effect on agribusiness as downloaders have had on the record industry. He talked about how farmers were a moral group. Then he asks, ‘Are you willing to sacrifice your morality for $30 a bushel?’ (emphasis all Deborah’s and “emphatically stated” would be a gross understatement)

Agribusiness, apparently, is learning some marketing strategy from the RIAA. Decimate agribusiness? Hell, since corporate farms moved into Missouri just 10 years ago, sixty per cent of all family farmers in our state have been run out of business. That’s not a typo. Six out of ten! In just one decade. Almost all the survivors are under contract to large conglomerates, working for slave wages well below the minimum hourly wage “enjoyed” in such professions as French fry specialist and dish washer. Hourly wages don’t apply to farmers. They are subcontractors. As one former cattle farmer told me, “I used to make $50 on one steer. When it got to the point where I made $50 on the whole herd, I gave up.”

Deborah and I live in a farming community. Deborah is in the unique position of having a husband (me) who used to earn a living retailing music and being surrounded by neighbors who used to earn a living farming. She’s not buying into “this asshole’s” version of morality.

Family farmers aren’t the only thing vanishing from the landscape. There are 1300 fewer independent record stores this year than there were last year. This has nothing to do with copyright infringement anymore than farms failing because they don’t pay royalties to some conglomerate that has a monopoly on a hybrid seed. In fact, it is corporate control of intellectual property that is the cause of all this misery.

When Adam Smith invented capitalism a few years before this nation was formed, he recognized its limitations. Before becoming an economics philosopher, Smith had a previous career as a moral essayist. He knew there was a danger of an immoral dominance in capitalist economics but he theorized that the “invisible hand” of society would overcome this. Smith speculated that the self-interest of the capitalist would benefit the community because the capitalist needed the community. But in Smith’s time, the industrial revolution had not occurred, nor the more recent technological one. 100 years after Smith set up this whole farce, Karl Marx was asking what happens when machines replace workers. Where would the “invisible hand” be then? In 2003 the rate of unemployment of the next generation of workers in the United States (age 16-24) is the highest it has been since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started keeping statistics. During the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt implemented social programs to provide work because he recognized that not to do so would lead to the Fascism that ultimately occurred in Nazi Germany. George Bush is no Franklin Roosevelt. And Roosevelt’s policies (a four-term president) are routinely lambasted by right-wing pundits on corporate controlled radio stations as “Communist” (read “immoral”). “Morality” is the new Fascist marching tune. Maybe before you goose-step along you should ask yourself who should define morality in your life.

I posed the following question to Khalid Yahya, Associate Professor of Religion at Temple University and Director of Graduate Studies in that department. “You use the term ‘late capitalism’. Is this a reference that we are in the late stages of capitalism whereby the moral capitalist, one who’s ambitions are not only to improve his own economic stature but those of his community as well, has been thwarted by the immoral capitalist who is bound by no moral restrictions?”

Yahya’s response is enlightening.

“I imagine that I picked up this term from hearing it used. What I mean by it, I suppose, is that I do not believe that capitalism as we have known it can long persist as a system, so that we are in its later rather than its earlier or middle phase. Secondly, I suppose that I mean that the present capitalist environment constitutes a deterioration from earlier times even in terms of capitalism’s own standards. That is, capitalism in its ideal senses of democracy, individual liberty, free enterprise, private ownership, etc., is actually less in evidence now than before. Also, I suppose I mean that the “rulers of the world” who are presiding over “late capitalism” are dwarves compared with the leaders who preceded them. I think that your comments on moral vs. immoral capitalism are also relevant and illuminating here. I would say that today there has been a huge rise in the latter at the expense of the former. I experienced firsthand that this need not be the case when I lived in the Muslim countries, where capitalism is still mostly quite small-scale, personal, and heavily informed by Islamic moral teachings.”

“Capitalism historically has transformed whole populations of formerly independent people into dependents on its faceless system. Once farmers who formerly grew their own food are driven off the land, they become helplessly dependent, no more able to survive on their own than housecats if released in the forest, and thus mostly immured in the new social prison camps of the megacities with their megaslums. Agribusiness now threatens to annihilate not just farming and the countryside everywhere in the world, but even to destroy all villages and small towns, except those few reserved for tourism. The face of capitalism becomes ever more centralizing, totalitarian, and apparently violent, and in equal measure less benevolent. Its propaganda becomes more strained, perhaps failing to carry conviction even with those who manufacture it, suggesting disintegration. This is not like it was a century or even fifty years ago.”

I asked Yahya, a Muslim, about his religion’s view on copyright.

“There are few relevant texts of Qur’an and Sunnah. Theft is prohibited and real private property rights are upheld, especially individual ownership. But the further elaborated laws of usufruct, renting, etc., are as complicated as those of any legal system and contain considerable differences of opinion on various points. Against the right of private property is set the principle of maslahah or public interest, especially elaborated by the Andalusian jurist al-Shatibi (d. 1388). Also, as you observed, human private property rights are limited in Islam by the fact that God alone is the ultimate reality. Thus, “We are God’s and to Him we return”, and “Whoever is tight-fisted is only tight-fisted against himself, for God is Free of need while you are the needy”. That is, humans have only been entrusted with this life so that they have a chance to prove themselves by doing good. Still, the religious leaders’ overall elaboration and extension of property rights is not that surprising, because of the prevailing idea of private property. Thus, if someone writes a book, as the `ulama’ often do, they want to enjoy control over it and rights to profit from it. But in classical times, they did not alienate these rights by trading in them, and it is also not clear to me that there were ever any attempts to keep people from copying books if they wanted to. Of course, in a manuscript society, one did not really have to worry about a widespread unauthorized diffusion, and there were no giant corporate institutions with the means to profit. Thus, the further elaboration of copyrights at this time is a modern innovation arising out of modern circumstances.”

“I believe that the `ulama’ who have approved such extensions, especially those involving such matters as buying and selling copyrights, have not thought sufficiently deeply about the issue. I myself claim no authority to make a religious opinion on this, of course, although I can express myself to those who do have that authority. But I have noticed that, despite the majority view favoring extending copyrights, expressed by scholars such as the Syrian Wahbah al-Zuhayli, there is also a minoritarian undercurrent repudiating them, as represented by Dar al-`Ulum Karachi in Pakistan, led by the high-ranking Pakistani jurist Muhammad Taqiuddin Usmani, a former supreme court justice and a widely-respected scholar of the Deobandi tradition. According to its own statements, it would seem Dar al-`Ulum Karachi’s view is informed by the current situation, in which copyrights become the basis for entitlement-type exactions. Thus, this issue is not definitively settled in current Muslim law. However, it is likely that the increasingly aggressive and rapacious character of current capitalism, as exemplified by the seizure and offer for sale of the whole country of Iraq under the most illegitimate circumstances imaginable, will influence Muslim discourse on this point, because there is no question that Islam stands for justice first of all.”

As for his personal views on the music industry’s reaction to P2P, as represented by the RIAA, Yahya states, “I would say that it is an aggressive oppression for the music industry to try to stop file trading over the Internet and especially to try to cloak itself in a veil of morality in doing so. Rather, it is a pinnacle of immorality and a defense of their own already piratical and lawless activity.”

“I can only view the behavior of that industry as exemplifying the desperation and increasing fascism of late capitalism. Indeed, I would not be surprised if the music industry tried to make it a criminal offense even to verbally or publicly oppose the copyright laws. I can only applaud the kids who try to evade this monopoly and hope that they not just take advantage of the Internet for their personal use but also vocalize their defense of their legitimate rights.”

Deborah, who lives by the basic Christian philosophy of “What you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me” is in agreement. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” has been cut off all the way up to the shoulder and squeezed into the same sausage casing as soybean seeds, pharmaceuticals, DNA, and just about anything else you care to name. Like “Fair & Balanced”, “Invisible Hand” is just another phrase waiting to be copyrighted. Deborah’s extreme reaction to the TV editorial was her way of crying out for justice.

The RIAA’s morality is spelled Morality™ and consists of one doctrine. “Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law.” If you don’t know which moral philosophy that is, you really ought to find out.

RIAA Watch Note: 204 more lawsuits against file sharers were announced this week.

BILL GLAHN writes the RIAA Watch column for CounterPunch. His Husgow Record Guide appears at www.mondogordo.com Feature articles appear in BigO magazine. Alt.Culture.Guide–The Journal of (Un)Popular Culture (Rev. Keith A. Gordon with BILL GLAHN, Anthem Pop/Kult Publishing) purchased online from Sound Products. He can be contacted at billglahn@hotmail.com

 

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