Mars, Medak & Sekulic
Taken Literally

Taken literally
Marcell Mars
Tomislav Medak
Dubravka Sekulic

Free people united in building a society of
equals, embracing those whom previous
efforts have failed to recognize, are the historical foundation of the struggle against
enslavement, exploitation, discrimination
and cynicism. Building a society has never
been an easy-going pastime.
During the turbulent 20th century,
different trajectories of social transformation moved within the horizon set by
the revolutions of the 18th and 19th century: equality, brotherhood and liberty
– and class struggle. The 20th century experimented with various combinations
of economic and social rationales in the
arrangement of social reproduction. The
processes of struggle, negotiation, empowerment and inclusion of discriminated social groups constantly complexified and
dynamised the basic concepts regulating
social relations. However, after the process
of intensive socialisation in the form of either welfare state or socialism that dominated a good part of the 20th century, the
end of the century was marked by a return
in the regulation of social relations back
to the model of market domination and
private appropriation. Such simplification
and fall from complexity into a formulaic
state of affairs is not merely a symptom
of overall exhaustion, loss of imagination
and lacking perspective on further social
development, but rather indicates a cynical
abandonment of the effort to build society,
its idea, its vision – and, as some would
want, of society altogether.
In this article, we wish to revisit the
evolution of regulation of ownership in the
field of intellectual production and housing

as two examples of the historical dead-end
in which we find ourselves.

According to the text-book definition, the
capitalist mode of production is the first
historical organisation of socio-economic relations in which appropriation of the
surplus from producers does not depend
on force, but rather on neutral laws of economic processes on the basis of which the
capitalist and the worker enter voluntarily
into a relation of production. While under
feudalism it was the aristocratic oligopoly
on violence that secured a hereditary hierarchy of appropriation, under capitalism the
neutral logic of appropriation was secured
by the state monopoly on violence. However, given that the early capitalist relations
in the English country-side did not emerge
outside the existing feudal inequalities, and
that the process of generalisation of capitalist relations, particularly after the rise of industrialisation, resulted in even greater and
even more hardened stratification, the state
monopoly on violence securing the neutral
logic of appropriation ended up mostly securing the hereditary hierarchy of appropriation. Although in the new social formation
neither the capitalist nor the worker was born
capitalist or born worker, the capitalist would
rarely become a worker and the worker a capitalist even rarer. However, under conditions
where the state monopoly on violence could
no longer coerce workers to voluntarily sell
their labour and where their resistance to
accept existing class relations could be


expressed in the withdrawal of their labour
power from the production process, their
consent would become a problem for the existing social model. That problem found its
resolution through a series of conflicts that
have resulted in historical concessions and
gains of class struggle ranging from guaranteed labor rights, through institutions of the
welfare state, to socialism.
The fundamental property relation
in the capitalist mode of production is that
the worker has an exclusive ownership over
his/her own labour power, while the capitalist has ownership over the means of production. By purchasing the worker's labour
power, the capitalist obtains the exclusive
right to appropriate the entire product of
worker's labour. However, as the regulation
of property in such unconditional formulaic
form quickly results in deep inequalities, it
could not be maintained beyond the early
days of capitalism. Resulting class struggles
and compromises would achieve a series of
conditions that would successively complexify the property relations.
Therefore, the issue of private property – which goods do we have the right to
call our own to the exclusion of others: our
clothes, the flat in which we live, means of
production, profit from the production process, the beach upon which we wish to enjoy
ourselves alone or to utilise by renting it out,
unused land in our neighbourhood – is not
merely a question of the optimal economic
allocation of goods, but also a question of
social rights and emancipatory opportunities that are required in order secure the
continuous consent of society's members to
its organisational arrangements.

Taken literally


Both the concept of private property over
land and the concept of copyright and
intellectual property have their shared
evolutionary beginnings during the early capitalism in England, at a time when
the newly emerging capitalist class was
building up its position in relation to the
aristocracy and the Church. In both cases, new actors entered into the processes
of political articulation, decision-making
and redistribution of power. However, the
basic process of ( re )defining relations has
remained ( until today ) a spatial demarcation: the question of who is excluded or
remains outside and how.
① In the early period of trade in books, after
the invention of the printing press in the 15th
century, the exclusive rights to commercial
exploitation of written works were obtained
through special permits from the Royal Censors, issued solely to politically loyal printers.
The copyright itself was constituted only in
the 17th century. It's economic function is to
unambiguously establish the ownership title
over the products of intellectual labour. Once
that title is established, there is a person with
whose consent the publisher can proceed in
commodifying and distributing the work to
the exclusion of others from its exploitation.
And while that right to economic benefit was
exclusively that of the publishers at the outset, as authors became increasingl aware that
the income from books guaranteed then an
autonomy from the sponsorship of the King
and the aristocracy, in the 19th century copyright gradually transformed into a legal right

that protected both the author and the publisher in equal measure. The patent rights underwent a similar development. They were
standardised in the 17th century as a precondition for industrial development, and were
soon established as a balance between the
rights of the individual-inventor and the
commercial interest of the manufacturer.
However, the balance of interests between the productive creative individuals
and corporations handling production and
distribution did not last long and, with
time, that balance started to lean further
towards protecting the interests of the corporations. With the growing complexity of
companies and their growing dependence
on intellectual property rights as instruments in 20th century competitive struggles, the economic aspect of intellectual
property increasingly passed to the corporation, while the author/inventor was
left only with the moral and reputational
element. The growing importance of intellectual property rights for the capitalist
economy has been evident over the last
three decades in the regular expansions of
the subject matter and duration of protection, but, most important of all – within
the larger process of integration of the capitalist world-system – in the global harmonisation and enforcement of rights protection. Despite the fact that the interests of
authors and the interests of corporations,
of the global south and the global north, of
the public interest and the corporate interest do not fall together, we are being given
a global and uniform – formulaic – rule of
the abstract logic of ownership, notwithstanding the diverging circumstances and

interests of different societies in the context of uneven development.
No-one is surprised today that, in
spite of their initial promises, the technological advances brought by the Internet,
once saddled with the existing copyright
regulation, did not enhance and expand
access to knowledge. But that dysfunction
is nowhere more evident than in academic publishing. This is a global industry of
the size of music recording industry dominated by an oligopoly of five major commercial publishers: Reed Elsevier, Taylor
& Francis, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell and
Sage. While scientists write their papers,
do peer-reviews and edit journals for free,
these publishers have over past decades
taken advantage of their oligopolistic position to raise the rates of subscriptions they
sell mostly to publicly financed libraries at
academic institutions, so that the majority of libraries, even in the rich centres of
the global north, are unable to afford access to many journals. The fantastic profit
margins of over 30% that these publishers
reap from year to year are premised on denying access to scientific publications and
the latest developments in science not only
to the general public, but also students and
scholars around the world. Although that
oligopoly rests largely on the rights of the
authors, the authors receive no benefit
from that copyright. An even greater irony is, if they want to make their work open
access to others, the authors themselves or
the institutions that have financed the underlying research through the proxy of the
author are obliged to pay additionally to
the publishers for that ‘service’. ×

② With proliferation of enclosures and
signposts prohibiting access, picturesque
rural arcadias became landscapes of capitalistic exploitation. Those evicted by the
process of enclosure moved to the cities
and became wage workers. Far away from
the parts of the cities around the factories,
where working families lived squeezed
into one room with no natural light and
ventilation, areas of the city sprang up in
which the capitalists built their mansions.
At that time, the very possibility of participation in political life was conditioned
on private property, thus excluding and
discriminating by legal means entire social
groups. Women had neither the right to
property ownership nor inheritance rights.
Engels' description of the humiliating
living conditions of Manchester workers in
the 19th century pointed to the catastrophic
effects of industrialisation on the situation
of working class ( e.g. lower pay than during
the pre-industrial era ) and indicated that
the housing problem was not a direct consequence of exploitation but rather a problem
arising from inequitable redistribution of
assets. The idea that living quarters for the
workers could be pleasant, healthy and safe
places in which privacy was possible and
that that was not the exclusive right of the
rich, became an integral part of the struggle
for labor rights, and part of the consciousness of progressive, socially-minded architects and all others dedicated to solving the
housing problem.
Just as joining forces was as the
foundation of their struggle for labor and
political rights, joining forces was and has
remained the mechanism for addressing the

Taken literally

inadequate housing conditions. As early as
during the 19th century, Dutch working class
and impoverished bourgeoisie joined forces
in forming housing co-operatives and housing societies, squatting and building without permits on the edges of the cities. The
workers' struggle, enlightened bourgeoisie,
continued industrial development, as well
as the phenomenon of Utopian socialist-capitalists like Jean-Baptiste André Godin, who, for example, under the influence
of Charles Fourier's ideas, built a palace for
workers – the Familistery, all these exerted
pressure on the system and contributed to
the improvement of housing conditions for
workers. Still, the dominant model continued to replicate the rentier system in which
even those with inadequate housing found
someone to whom they could rent out a segment of their housing unit.
The general social collapse after
World War I, the Socialist Revolution and
the coming to power in certain European
cities of the social-democrats brought new
urban strategies. In ‘red’ Vienna, initially
under the urban planning leadership of
Otto Neurath, socially just housing policy
and provision of adequate housing was regarded as the city's responsibility. The city
considered the workers who were impoverished by the war and who sought a way out
of their homelessness by building housing
themselves and tilling gardens as a phenomenon that should be integrated, and
not as an error that needed to be rectified.
Sweden throughout the 1930s continued
with its right to housing policy and served
as an example right up until the mid-1970s
both to the socialist and ( capitalist ) wel-

fare states. The idea of ( private ) ownership became complexified with the idea
of social ownership ( in Yugoslavia ) and
public/social housing elsewhere, but since
the bureaucratic-technological system responsible for implementation was almost
exclusively linked with the State, housing
ended up in unwieldy complicated systems
in which there was under-investment in
maintenance. That crisis was exploited as
an excuse to impose as necessary paradigmatic changes that we today regard as the
beginning of neo-liberal policies.
At the beginning of the 1980s in
Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher created an atmosphere of a state of emergency
around the issue of housing ownership
and, with the passing of the Housing Act
in 1980, reform was set in motion that
would deeply transform the lives of the
Brits. The promises of a better life merely
based on the opportunity to buy and become a ( private ) owner never materialised.
The transition from the ‘right to housing’ and the ‘right to ( participation in the
market through ) purchase’ left housing
to the market. There the prices first fell
drastically at the beginning of the 1990s.
That was followed by a financialisation
and speculation on the property market
making housing space in cities like London primarily an avenue of investment, a
currency, a tax haven and a mechanism
by which the rich could store their wealth.
In today's generation, working and lower
classes, even sometimes the upper middle
class can no longer even dream of buying
a flat in London. ×


Social ownership and housing – understood both literally as living space, but
also as the articulation of the right to decent life for all members of society – which
was already under attack for decades prior,
would be caught completely unprepared
for the information revolution and its
zero marginal cost economy. Take for
example the internet innovation: after a
brief period of comradely couch-surfing,
the company AirBnB in an even shorter period transformed from the service
allowing small enterprising home owners to rent out their vacant rooms into a
catalyst for amassing the ownership over
housing stock with the sole purpose of
renting it out through AirBnb. In the
last phase of that transformation, new
start-ups appeared that offered to the
newly consolidated feudal lords the service of easier management of their housing ‘fleet’, where the innovative approach
boils down to the summoning of service
workers who, just like Uber drivers, seek
out blue dots on their smart-phone maps
desperately rushing – in fear of bad rating,
for a minimal fee and no taxes paid – to
turn up there before their equally precarious competition does. With these innovations, the residents end up being offered
shorter and shorter but increasingly more
expensive contracts on rental, while in a
worse case the flats are left unoccupied
because the rich owner-investors have
realised that an unoccupied flat is a more
profitable deal than a risky investment in
a market in crisis.


The information revolution stepped out
onto the historical stage with the promise
of radical democratisation of communication, culture and politics. Anyone could
become the media and address the global
public, emancipate from the constrictive
space of identity, and obtain access to entire
knowledge of the world. However, instead
of resulting in democratising and emancipatory processes, with the handing over of
Internet and technological innovation to the
market in 1990s it resulted in the gradual
disruption of previous social arrangements
in the allocation of goods and in the intensification of the commodification process.
That trajectory reached its full-blown development in the form of Internet platforms
that simultaneously enabled old owners of
goods to control more closely their accessibility and permited new owners to seek out
new forms of commercial exploitation. Take
for example Google Books, where the process of digitization of the entire printed culture of the world resulted in no more than
ad and retail space where only few books
can be accessed for free. Or Amazon Kinde,
where the owner of the platform has such
dramatic control over books that on behest
of copyright holders it can remotely delete
a purchased copy of a book, as quite indicatively happened in 2009 with Orwell's 1984.
The promised technological innovation that
would bring a new turn of the complexity in
the social allocation of goods resulted in a
simplification and reduction of everything
into private property.
The history of resistance to such extreme forms of enclosure of culture and
knowledge is only a bit younger than the

Taken literally

processes of commodification themselves
that had begun with the rise of trade in
books. As early as the French Revolution,
the confiscation of books from the libraries
of clergy and aristocracy and their transfer
into national and provincial libraries signalled that the right of access to knowledge
was a pre-condition for full participation
in society. For its part, the British labor
movement of the mid-19th century had to
resort to opening workers' reading-rooms,
projects of proletarian self-education and
the class struggle in order to achieve the
establishment of the institution of public
libraries financed by taxes, and the right
thereby for access to knowledge and culture for all members of society.

Public library as a space of exemption from
commodification of knowledge and culture
is an institution that complexifies the unconditional and formulaic application of
intellectual property rights, making them
conditional on the public interest that all
members of the society have the right of
access to knowledge. However, with the
transition to the digital, public libraries
have been radically limited in acquiring
anything they could later provide a decommodified access to. Publishers do not
wish to sell electronic books to libraries,
and when they do decide to give them a
lending licence, that licence runs out after 26 lendings. Closed platforms for electronic publications where the publishers
technologically control both the medium
and the ways the work can be used take us

back to the original and not very well-conceived metaphor of ownership – anyone
who owns the land can literally control
everything that happens on that land –
even if that land is the collective process
of writing and reading. Such limited space
for the activity of public libraries is in radical contrast to the potentials for universal
access to all of culture and knowledge that
digital distribution could make possible
at a very low cost, but with considerable
change in the regulation of intellectual production in society.
Since such change would not be in the
interest of formulaic application of intellectual property, acts of civil disobedience to
that regime have over the last twenty years
created a number of 'shadow public libraries'
that provide universal access to knowledge
and culture in the digital domain in the way
that the public libraries are not allowed to:
Library Genesis, Science Hub, Aaaaarg,
Monoskop, Memory of the World or Ubuweb. They all have a simple objective – to
provide access to books, journals and digitised knowledge to all who find themselves
outside the rich academic institutions of the
West and who do not have the privilege of
institutional access.
These shadow public libraries bravely remind society of all the watershed moments in the struggles and negotiations
that have resulted in the establishment
of social institutions, so as to first enable
the transition from what was an unjust,
discriminating and exploitative to a better society, and later guarantee that these
gains would not be dismantled or rescinded. That reminder is, however, more than a

mere hacker pastime, just as the reactions
of the corporations are not easy-going at
all: in mid-2015, Reed Elsevier initiated
a court case against Library Genesis and
Science Hub and by the end of 2015 the
court in New York issued a preliminary
injunction ordering the shut-down of
their domains and access to the servers. At
the same time, a court case was brought
against Aaaaarg in Quebec.
Shadow public libraries are also a
reminder of how technological complexity does not have to be harnessed only in
the conversion of socialised resources back
into the simplified formulaic logic of private property, how we can take technology
in our hands, in the hands of society that is
not dismantling its own foundations, but
rather taking care of and preserving what
is worthwhile and already built – and thus
building itself further. But, most powerfully shadow public libraries are a reminder to us of how the focus and objective of
our efforts should not be a world that can
be readily managed algorithmically, but a
world in which our much greater achievement is the right guaranteed by institutions – envisioned, demanded, struggled
for and negotiated – a society. Platformisation, corporate concentration, financialisation and speculation, although complex
in themselves, are in the function of the
process of de-socialisation. Only by the
re-introduction of the complexity of socialised management and collective re-appropriation of resources can technological
complexity in a world of escalating expropriation be given the perspective of universal sisterhood, equality and liberation.



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