Matteo Pasquinelli on Sat, 26 Jan 2008 19:58:00 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> The Ideology of Free Culture and the Grammar of Sabotage

Dear nettimers, my last essay, that is actually an extract of a  
forthcoming book (autumn 2008) for the Studies in Network Cultures (a  
book series of the Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam,  
published by NAi Publishers, Rotterdam). Please download the printer- 
friendly PDF. /M


Matteo Pasquinelli
The Ideology of Free Culture and the Grammar of Sabotage

Abstract. Bringing post-Operaismo into network culture, this text  
tries to introduce the notion of surplus in a contemporary media  
debate dominated by a simple symmetry between immaterial and material  
domain, between digital economy and bioeconomy. Therefore a new  
asymmetry is first shaped through Serres' conceptual figure of the  
parasite and Bataille's concepts of excess and biochemical energy.  
Second, the crisis of the copyright system and the contradictions of  
the so-called Free Culture movement are taken as a starting point to  
design the notion of autonomous commons against the creative commons.  
Third, a new political arena is outlined around Rullani's cognitive  
capitalism and the new theory of rent developed by Negri and  
Vercellone. Finally, the sabotage is shown as the specular gesture of  
the multitudes to defend the commons against the parasitic dimension  
of rent.

* The living energy of machines.
* Michel Serres and the cybernetic parasite
* Digitalism: the impasse of media culture
* The ideology of Free Culture
* Against the Creative Anti-Commons
* Towards an Autonomous Commons
* Rent is the other side of the Commons
* The four dimensions of cognitive capitalism
* A taxonomy of the immaterial parasites
* The bicephalous multitude
* The grammar of sabotage


           The parasite invents something new. He
           obtains energy and pays for it in information.
           He obtains the roast and pays for it with
           stories. Two days of writing the new contract.
           He establishes an unjust pact; relative to the
           old type of balance, he builds a new one. He
           speaks in a logic considered irrational up to
           now, a new epistemology and a new theory
           of equilibrium. He makes the order of things
           as well as the states of things - solid and gas
           - into diagonals. He evaluates information.
           Even better: he discovers information in his
           voice and good words; he discovers the Spirit
           in the wind and the breath of air. He invents
           - Michel Serres, The Parasite

The living energy of machines: Michel Serres and the cybernetic parasite

Below technology, there is energy - living energy. In The Accursed  
Share Bataille described society as the management of energy surplus  
that constantly reincarnates itself in new forms of state and economy. 
1 Being consequent with his intuition, even the contemporary  
mediascape can be framed as an ecosystem driven by the growth of  
natural energies. Media are indeed feral habitats whose underground  
belly is crossed daily by large torrents of pornography and whose  
surface provides the battlefield for geopolitical warfare. Media are  
fed by the same excess of energy that shapes economy and social  
conflicts. But has the energy surplus of media ever been described in  
an effective way? If not, which understanding of energy is  
unconsciously employed by the schools of media criticism? What is the  
role of technology in the production, consumption and sacrifice of  
surplus? And exactly what kinds of surplus are involved: energy,  
libido, value, money, information? Looking at today's media  
discourse, Bataille is enrolled only to justify a sort of digital  
potlatch - a furious but sterile reproduction of digital copies. On  
the contrary, under his "general economy," energy seems to float  
around and inside the machines, crossing and feeding a multitude of  
devices. To overcome an endogamic destiny media culture should be  
redesigned around a radical understanding of surplus. Bataille  
himself considered technology as an extension of life to accumulate  
energy and provide better conditions for reproduction. Like "tree  
branches and bird wings in nature" technology opens news spaces to be  
populated.2 However something new happened when information networks  
entered the biosphere. What kind of energy do digital machines  
incarnate? Are they a further extension of biochemical energy like  
the classical technologies that Bataille had in mind? Digital  
machines are a clear bifurcation of the machinic phylum: semiotic and  
biologic domains represent two different strata. The energy of  
semiotic flows is not the energy of material and economical flows.  
They interact but not in a symmetrical and specular way, as  
propagated by the widespread digital ideology (that I will introduce  
later as digitalism).
       Energy always flows one way. Acquainted with the scenario of  
the network society and the celebration of its space of flows,3 a  
safari with Bataille along the ecosystems of excess is useful to  
remind the dystopian nature of capitalism. In Bataille economic  
surplus is strictly related to libidinal excess, enjoyment and  
sacrifice. Yet between endless fluxes and their "glorious  
expenditure"4 a specific model that explains how surplus is  
accumulated and exchange is missing. In his inspiring and seminal  
book The parasite Michel Serres catches the asymmetry of universal  
life in the conceptual figure of the parasite: there is never an  
equal exchange of energy but always a parasite stealing energy and  
feeding on another organism. At the beginning of the computer age  
(the book was published in 1980), the parasite inaugurates a  
materialistic critique of all the forms of thought based on a binary  
model of energy: Serres' semiconductors steal energy instead of  

Man is a louse for other men. Thus man is a host for other men. The  
flow goes one way, never the other. I call this semiconduction, this  
valve, this single arrow, this relation without a reversal of  
direction, "parasitic."5

If Bataille calls attention to the expenditure of energy after its  
production, Serres shows how "abuse" is at work since accumulation:  
"abuse appears before use." Serres introduces an abuse-value  
preceding both use-value and exchange-value: "quite simply, it is the  
arrow with only one direction." The parasite is the asymmetrical  
arrow absorbing and condensing energy in a natural continuum from  
small organisms to human beings: "the parasite parasites the  
parasites." The parasite is not binary but ternary. The concept of  
parasite appears like a dystopian version of Deleuze and Guattari's  
desiring machines, as it is focused more on surplus exploitation than  
on endless flows. Serres shares the same vitalism of Bataille, but  
provides in addition a punctual model to understand the relation  
between material and immaterial, biologic and semiotic, economy and  
media. In this sense the organic model of the parasite should be  
embraced as the core concept of a new understanding of media  
ecosystems.6 Indeed Serres prophetically introduced cybernetics as  
the latest manifestation of the parasitic food chain (as the opening  
quote of this text reminds).
	Moreover, Serres uses the same parasitic model for intellectual  
labour and the network itself (as Technology is an extension of the  
deceptive nature of Logos): "this cybernetics gets more and more  
complicated, makes a chain, then a network. Yet it is founded on the  
theft of information, quite a simple thing." Serres' opportunistic  
relation between intellectual and material production may sound  
traditionalist, but even when Lazzarato and Negri started to write in  
1991 about the "hegemony of intellectual labour"7, the exploitive  
dimension of capital over mass intellectuality was clear. Today the  
immaterial parasite has become molecular and endemic - everybody is  
carrying an intellectual and cybernetic parasite. In this scenario  
what happens to the notion of multitude when intellectual labour  
enters the political arena in the form of a parasite? What happens to  
network subcultures when the network is outlined as a massive  
cybernetic parasite? It is time to re-introduce a sharp asymmetry  
between the semiotic, technological and biological levels, between  
material and immaterial.
	By the conceptual figure of the immaterial parasite I name precisely  
the exploitation of the biological production through the semiotic  
and technological domain: material energy and economic surplus are  
not absorbed and consumed by digital machines but simply allocated.  
The immaterial flow extracts surplus from the material flow and  
through continuous exchanges (energy-commodity-technology-knowledge- 
money). The immaterial parasite functions first as a spectacular  
device: simulating a fictional world, building a collaborative  
environment or simply providing communication channels, it  
accumulates energy through and in favour of its physical substratum.  
The immaterial parasite belongs to a diverse family, where rents  
seems to be the dominant form of metabolism. It survives in different  
kinds of habitat. Its tentacles innervate the metropolis (real estate  
speculation through the Creative Industries hype), the media (rent  
over material infrastructures and monopoly of online spaces),  
software (exploitation of Free Software to sell proprietary  
hardware), knowledge (revenues on intellectual property), financial  
markets (stock exchange speculation over collective hysteria) and  
many other examples.

Digitalism: the impasse of media culture

Digitalism is a sort of modern, egalitarian and cheap gnosis, where  
knowledge fetishism has been replaced by the cult of a digital  
network.8 Like a religious sect it has its peculiar theology.  
Ontologically the dominant techno-paradigm believes that the semiotic  
and biologic domains are perfectly parallel and specular to each  
other (like in the Google utopia of universal digitisation). A  
material event can be easily translated on the immaterial plane, and  
conversely the immaterial can be embodied into the material. This  
second passage is the passage of a millenary misunderstanding and  
anthropology has a lot to say about the relation between magic and  
logocentrism. Economically digitalism believes that an almost energy- 
free digital reproduction of data can emulate the energy-expensive  
material production. For sure the digital can dematerialise any kind  
of communication but it can not affect biomass production.  
Politically digitalism believes in a mutual gift economy. Internet is  
supposed to be virtually free of any exploitation and tends naturally  
towards a social equilibrium. Here digitalism works as an disembodied  
politics with no acknowledgement of the offline labour that is  
sustaining the online world (a class divide that precedes any digital  
divide). Ecologically digitalism promotes itself as an  
environmentally friendly and zero emission machinery against the  
pollution of the old Fordism. Yet it seems that an avatar on Second  
Life consumes more electricity that the average Brazilian.9
  	As Marx spotlighted commodity fetishism right at the beginning of  
Capital, a fetishism of code should be put at the basis of the  
network economy. "God is the machine" was the title of Kevin Kelly's  
digitalist manifesto whose points proclaimed distinctly: computation  
can describe all things, all things can compute, all computation is  
one.10 Digitalism is one of those political models inspired by  
technology and not by social conflicts. As McLuhan once said, "We  
shape our tools, and afterwards our tools shape us."11 Internet in  
particular was fuelled by the political dreams of the American  
counter-culture of the '60s. Today according to the Autonomist  
Marxist tradition12 the network is at the same time the structure of  
the Empire and the tool for the self-organisation of the multitudes.  
But only the Anglo-American culture conceived the faith in the  
primacy of technology over politics. If today activists apply the  
Free Software model to traditional artefacts and talk of  a "GPL  
society"13 and  "P2P production"14 the do so precisely because they  
believe in a pure symmetry of the technological over the social. In  
this sense the definition of Free Culture gathers all those  
subcultures that shaped a quasi-political agenda around the free  
reproduction of digital file. The kick-off was the slogan  
"Information wants to be free"15 launched by Stewart Brand at the  
first Hackers' Conference in 1984. Later the hacker underground  
boosted the Free Software movement and then a chain of new keywords  
was generated: Open Source, Open Content, Gift Economy, Digital  
Commons, Free Cooperation, Knowledge Sharing and other do-it-yourself  
variants like Open Source Architecture, Open Source Art and so on.  
"Free Culture" is also the title of the book of Lawrence Lessing,  
founder of Creative Commons. Without mentioning the social  
improvements and crucial battles of the Free Software movement within  
the digital sphere, what it is questioned here is the off-line  
application of these paradigms.
       An old saying still resounds: the word is made flesh. A  
religious unconscious is at work behind technology. Florian Cramer in  
his book Words made flesh16 provides a genealogy of code culture  
rooted in the ancient brainframes of Western world belonging to  
Judaism, Christianity, Pythagoreans and Hermeticism. However, as  
Serres may suggest, the primordial saying must be reversed: the flesh  
is made code. The spirit itself is a parasitic strategy of the flesh.  
The flesh is first, before the Logos. There is nothing digital in any  
digital dream. Merged with a global economy, each bit of "free"  
information carries its own micro slave like a forgotten twin.

The ideology of Free Culture

Literature on freeculturalism is vast but can be partially unpacked  
through focusing the lens of surplus. Reading authors like Stallman  
and Lessig, a question rises: where does profit end up in the so- 
called Free Society? Free Culture seems to focus only on the issue of  
immaterial property rather than production. Although given a closer  
look, the ghost of the surplus reappears. In his book Free Culture  
Lawrence Lessig connect the Creative Commons initiative to the Anglo- 
American libertarian tradition where free speech always rhymes with  
free market.17 Lessig takes inspiration from the copyleft and hacker  
culture quoting Richard Stallman,18 but where the latter refers only  
to software, Lessig applies that paradigm to the whole spectrum of  
cultural artefacts. Software is taken as an universal political  
model. The book is a useful critique of the copyright regime and at  
the same time an apology of a generic digital freedom, at least until  
Lessig pronounces the evil word: taxation. Facing the crisis of the  
music industries, Lessig has to provide his "alternative compensation  
system"19 to reward creators for their works. Lessig modifies a  
proposal coming from Harvard law professor William Fisher:

Under his plan, all content capable of digital transmission would (1)  
be marked with a digital watermark [...]. Once the content is marked,  
then entrepreneurs would develop (2) systems to monitor how many  
items of each content were distributed. On the basis of those  
numbers, then (3) artists would be compensated. The compensation  
would be paid for by (4) an appropriate tax.

In the "tradition of free culture" the solution is paradoxically a  
new tax. Tracking internet downloads and taxation imply a public and  
centralised intervention quite unusual for US and imaginable only in  
a Scandinavian social-democracy. The question remains unclear. More  
explicitly another passage suggests the sacrifice of intellectual  
property to gain a larger internet. Here Lessig's intuition is right  
(for capitalism). Lessig is aware that the market needs a dynamic and  
self-generating space to expand and establish new monopolies and  
rents. A dynamic space is more important than a lazy copyright regime.

Is it better (a) to have a technology that is 95 percent secure and  
produces a market of size x, or (b) to have a technology that is 50  
percent secure but produces a market of five times x? Less secure  
might produce more unauthorized sharing, but it is likely to also  
produce a much bigger market in authorized sharing. The most  
important thing is to assure artists' compensation without breaking  
the Internet.

In this sense Creative Commons licences help to expand and lubricate  
the space of market. As John Perry Barlow puts it: "For ideas, fame  
is fortune. And nothing makes you famous faster than an audience  
willing to distribute your work for free."20 Despite of its political  
dreams, the friction-free space of digitalism seems to accelerate  
towards an even more competitive scenario. In this sense Benkler in  
his The Wealth of Networks is absolutely wrong when he writes that  
"information is nonrival." The nonrivalry of information is another  
important postulate of freeculturalism: Lessig and Benkler take for  
granted that the free digital reproduction does not cause more  
competition but only more cooperation. Of course rivalry is not  
produced by digital copies but by their friction on real space and  
other limited resources. Benkler celebrates "peer production" but  
actually he is merely covering immaterial reproduction. Free Software  
and Wikipedia are extensively over-quoted as the main examples of  
"social production" but these examples actually only points to online  
social production.

Against the Creative Anti-Commons

After an initial honey-moon the Creative Commons (CC) initiative is  
facing a growing criticism that comes especially from the European  
media culture. Scouting articles from 2004 to 2006, two fronts of  
critique can be distinguished: those who claim the institution of a  
real commonality against Creative Commons restrictions (non- 
commercial, share-alike, etc.) and those who point out Creative  
Commons complicity with global capitalism. An example of the first  
front, Florian Cramer provides a precise and drastic analysis:

To say that something is available under a CC license is meaningless  
in practice. [...] Creative Commons licenses are fragmented, do not  
define a common minimum standard of freedoms and rights granted to  
users or even fail to meet the criteria of free licenses altogether,  
and that unlike the Free Software and Open Source movements, they  
follow a philosophy of reserving rights of copyright owners rather  
than granting them to audiences.21

Berlin-based Neoist Anna Nimus agrees with Cramer that CC licences  
protect only the producers while consumer rights are left  
unmentioned: "Creative Commons legitimates, rather than denies,  
producer-control and enforces, rather than abolishes, the distinction  
between producer and consumer. It expands the legal framework for  
producers to deny consumers the possibility to create use-value or  
exchange-value out of the common stock."22 Nimus claims the total  
freedom for consumers to produce use-value out of the common stock  
(like in Free Software) but more important to produce even exchange- 
value (that means commercial use). For Nimus a commons is defined by  
its productive consumers and not merely by its producers or passive  
consumers. She claims that CC licences close the commons with many  
restrictions rather than opening it to a real productivity. In a new  
nickname, they are "Creative Anti-Commons."
       Both Nimus and Cramer's critiques remain closer to the  
libertarian tradition with few accounts of the surplus-value  
extraction and big economy behind IP (in any form: copyright,  
copyleft or CC). On the opposite among post-Autonomist Marxists a  
stronger criticism is moved against the ideology implicitly pushed by  
CC and other forms of a digital-only commonism. For instance activist  
Martin Hardie thinks that "The logic of FLOSS seems only to promise a  
new space for entrepreneurial freedom where we are never exploited or  
subject to others' command. The sole focus upon 'copyright freedom'  
sweeps away consideration of the processes of valorisation active  
within the global factory without walls."23 Hardie criticise FLOSS  
precisely because it never questions the way it is captured by  
capital and its relations with the productive forces.
       In conclusion a tactical notion of autonomous commons can be  
imagined to include new projects and tendencies against the hyper- 
celebrated Creative Commons. In a schematic way, autonomous commons  
1) allow not only passive and personal consumption but even a  
productive use of the common stock - implying commercial use by  
single workers; 2) question the role and complicity of the commons  
within the global economy and put the common stock out of the  
exploitation of large companies; 3) are aware of the asymmetry  
between immaterial and material commons and the impact of immaterial  
accumulation over material  production (e.g. IBM using Linux); 4)  
consider the commons as an hybrid and dynamic space that dynamically  
must be built and defended.

Towards an Autonomous Commons

Among all the appeals for "real" commons only Dmytri Kleiner's idea  
of 'Copyfarleft' condenses the nodal point of the conflict in a  
pragmatic proposal that breaks the flat paradigm of Free Culture. In  
his article "Copyfarleft and Copyjustright"24 Kleiner notices a  
property divide that is more crucial than any digital divide: the 10%  
of the world population owns the 85% of the global assets against a  
multitude of people owning barely nothing. This material dominion of  
the owning class is consequently extended thanks to the copyright  
over immaterial assets, so that they can be owned, controlled and  
traded. In the case of music for example the intellectual property is  
more crucial for the owning class than for musicians, as they are  
forced to resign their author rights over their own works. On the  
other side the digital commons do not provide a better habitat:  
authors are sceptical that copyleft can earn them a living. In the  
end wage conditions of the authors within cognitive capitalism seem  
to follow the same old laws of Fordism. Moving from Ricardo's  
definition of rent and the so-called "Iron Law of Wages"25 Kleiner  
develops the "iron law of copyright earnings."

The system of private control of the means of publication,  
distribution, promotion and media production ensures that artists and  
all other creative workers can earn no more than their subsistence.  
Whether you are biochemist, a musician, a software engineer or a film- 
maker, you have signed over all your copyrights to property owners  
before these rights have any real financial value for no more than  
the reproduction costs of your work. This is what I call the Iron Law  
of Copyright Earnings.

Kleiner recognizes that both copyright and copyleft regimes keep  
workers earnings constantly below average needs. In particular  
copyleft does not help neither software developers nor artists as it  
reallocates profit only in favour of the owners of material assets.  
The solution advanced by Kleiner is copyfarleft, a license with a  
hybrid status that recognises class divide and allow workers to claim  
back the "means of production." Copyfarleft products are free and can  
be used to make money only by those who do not exploit wage labour  
(like other workers or co-ops).

For copyleft to have any revolutionary potential it must be  
Copyfarleft. It must insist upon workers ownership of the means of  
production. In order to do this a license cannot have a single set of  
terms for all users, but rather must have different rules for  
different classes. Specifically one set of rules for those who are  
working within the context of workers ownership and commons based  
production, and another for those who employ private property and  
wage labour in production.

For example "under a copyfarleft license a worker-owned printing  
cooperative could be free to reproduce, distribute, and modify the  
common stock as they like, but a privately owned publishing company  
would be prevented from having free access". Copyfarleft is quite  
different from the 'non-commercial' use supported by some CC licences  
because they do not distinguish between endogenic (within the  
commons) commercial use and exogenic (outside the commons) commercial  
use. Kleiner suggests to introduce an asymmetry: endogenic commercial  
use should be allowed while keeping exogenic commercial use  
forbidden. Interestingly this is the correct application of the  
original institution of the commons, that were strictly related to  
material production: commons were land used by a specific community  
to harvest or breed their animals. If someone can not pasture cows  
and produce milk, that will not  be considered a real common. Kleiner  
says that if money can not be made out of it, a work does not belong  
to the commons: it is merely private property.

Rent is the other side of the Commons

How does cognitive capitalism make money? Where does a digital  
economy extract surplus? While digerati and activists are stuck to  
the glorification of peer production, good managers but also good  
Marxists are aware of the profits made on the shoulders of the  
collective intelligence. For instance the school of post-Operaismo  
has always carried on a dystopian vision of the general intellect  
produced by workers and digital multitudes: it is potentially  
liberating but constantly absorbed before turning into a true social  
autonomy. The cooperation celebrated by freeculturalists is only the  
last stage of long process of socialisation of knowledge that is not  
improving the life conditions of the last digital generations: in the  
end online "free labour"26 appears to be more dominant than the  
"wealth of networks." The theory of rent recently advanced by the  
post-Operaist school can disclose the digital economy more clearly.
	Autonomist Marxism has become renown for shaping a new toolbox of  
political concepts for the late capitalism (such as multitude,  
immaterial labour, biopolitical production and cognitive capitalism  
to name only a few). In an article27 published in 2007 in Posse Negri  
and Vercellone make a further step: they establish rent as the nodal  
mechanism of contemporary economy thus opening a new field of  
antagonism. Until then Autonomist Marxism has been used to focus more  
on the transformations of the labour conditions than on the new  
parasitic modes of surplus extraction. In classical theory rent is  
distinguished from profit. Rent is the parasitic income an owner can  
earn just by owning an asset and traditionally is referred to land  
property. Profit on the contrary is meant to be productive and is  
referred to the power of capital to generate and extract surplus  
(from commodity value and workforce). 28 Vercellone criticises the  
idea of a "good productive capitalism" pointing the becoming rent of  
profit as the driving force of current economy: below the hype of  
technological innovation and creative economy, the whole of  
capitalism is breeding a subterranean parasitic nature. So  
Vercellone's motto goes "rent is the new profit" in cognitive  
capitalism. Rent is parasitic because it is orthogonal to the line of  
the classic profit. Parasite means etymologically "eating at  
another's table," sucking surplus not directly but in a furtive way.  
If we produce freely in front of our computers, certainly somebody  
has his hands in our wallet. Rent is the other side of the commons -  
once it was over the common land, today over the network commons.
       Becoming rent of profit means a transformation of management  
and cognitive workforce too. The autonomisation of capital has grown  
in parallel with the autonomisation of cooperation. Today managers  
are dealing more and more often with financial and speculative tasks,  
while workers are in charge of a distributed management. In this  
evolution the cognitariat is split into two tendencies. On one side  
the high-skilled cognitive workers become "functionaries of the  
capital rent"29 and are co-opted within the rent system through stock  
options. On the other side the majority of workers faces a declassing  
(declassement) of life conditions despite skills get more and more  
rich in knowledge. It is not a mystery that the New Economy has  
generated more McJobs. This model can be easily applied to the  
internet economy and its workforce, where users are in charge of  
content production and web management but do not share any profit.  
Big corporations like Google for instance make money over the  
attention economy of the user-generated content with its services  
Adsense and Adwords. Google provides just a light infrastructure for  
web advertisement that infiltrates websites as a subtle and mono- 
dimensional parasite and extracts profit without producing any  
content. Part of the value is shared of course with users and the  
Google coders are paid in stock options to develop more sophisticated  

The four dimensions of cognitive capitalism

The digital revolution made the reproduction of immaterial objects  
easier, faster, ubiquitous and almost free. But as the Italian  
economist Enzo Rullani points out, within cognitive capitalism,  
"proprietary logic does not disappear but has to subordinate itself  
to the law of diffusion."30 Intellectual property (and so rent) is no  
longer based on space and objects but on time and speed. Apart from  
copyright there are many other modes to extract rent. In his book  
Economia della conoscenza  Rullani writes that cognitive products  
easy to reproduce have to start a process of diffusion as soon as  
possible in order to maintain control over it. As an entropic  
tendency affects any cognitive product, it is not recommended to  
invest on a static proprietary rent. More specifically there is a  
rent produced on the multiplication of the uses and a rent produced  
on the monopoly of a secret. Two opposite strategies: the former is  
recommended for cultural products like music, the latter for patents.  
Rullani is inclined to suggest that free multiplication is a vital  
strategy within cognitive capitalism, as the value of knowledge is  
fragile and tends to decline. Immaterial commodities (that populate  
any spectacular, symbolic, affective, cognitive space) seem to suffer  
of a strong entropic decay of meaning. At the end of the curve of  
diffusion a banal destiny is waiting for any meme, especially in  
today's emotional market that constantly tries to sell unique and  
exclusive experiences.
       For Rullani the value of a knowledge (extensively of any  
cognitive product, artwork, brand, information) is given by the  
composition of three drivers: the value of its performance and  
application (v); the number of its multiplications and replica (n);  
the sharing rate of the value among the people involved in the  
process (p). Knowledge is successful when it becomes self-propulsive  
and pushes all the three drivers: 1) maximising the value, 2)  
multiplying effectively, 3) sharing the value that is produced. Of  
course in a dynamic scenario a compromise between the three forces is  
necessary, as they are alternative and competitive to each other. If  
one driver improves, the others get worse. Rullani's model is  
fascinating precisely because intellectual property has no central  
role in extracting surplus. In other words the rent is applied  
strategically and dynamically along the three drivers, along  
different regimes of intellectual property. Knowledge is therefore  
projected into a less fictional cyberspace, a sort of invisible  
landscape where cognitive competition should be described along new  
space-time coordinates.31 Rullani describe his model as 3D but  
actually it is 4-dimensional as it runs especially along time.
       The dynamic model provided by Rullani is more interesting than  
for instance Benkler's plain notion of "social production" but it is  
not yet employed by radical criticism and activism. What is clear and  
important in his perspective is also that the material can not be  
replaced by the immaterial despite the contemporary hypertrophy of  
signs and digital enthusiasm. There is a general misunderstanding  
about cognitive economy as an autonomous and virtuous space. On the  
contrary, Rullani points out that knowledge exists only through  
material vectors. The nodal point is the friction between the free  
reproducibility of knowledge and the non-reproducibility of the  
material. The immaterial generates value only if it grants meaning to  
a material process. A music CD for example has to be physically  
produced and physically consumed. We need our body and especially our  
time to produce and consume music. And when the CD vector is  
dematerialised thanks to the evolution of digital media into P2P  
networks, the body of the artist has to be engaged in a stronger  
competition. Have digital media galvanised more competition or more  
cooperation? An apt question for today's internet criticism.

A taxonomy of the immaterial parasites

A taxonomy of rent and its parasites is needed to describe the  
cognitive capitalism in detail. Taxonomy is not merely a metaphor as  
cognitive systems tend to behave like living systems.32 According to  
Vercellone, a specific form of rent introduced by cognitive  
capitalism is the cognitive rent that is captured over intellectual  
property such as patents, copyrights and trademarks. More precisely  
Rullani contextualises the new forms of rent within a speed-based  
competitive scenario. He shows how rent can be extracted dynamically  
along mobile and temporary micro-monopolies, skipping the limits of  
intellectual property.
       The possibility of the cognitive rent has been strictly  
determined by the technological substratum. Digital technologies have  
opened new spaces of communication, socialisation and cooperation  
that are only virtually "free." The surplus extraction is channelled  
generously along the material infrastructure needed to sustain the  
immaterial "second life." Technological rent33 is the rent applied on  
the ICT infrastructures when they established a monopoly on media,  
bandwidth, protocols, standards, software or virtual spaces  
(including the recent social networks: Myspace, Facebook, etc.). It  
is composed by different layers: from the materiality of hardware and  
electricity to the immateriality of the software running a server, a  
blog, a community. The technological rent is fed by general  
consumption and social communication, by P2P networks and the  
activism of Free Culture. The technological rent is different from  
the cognitive one as it is based on the exploitation of (material and  
immaterial) spaces and not only knowledge. Similarly attention  
economy34 can also be described as an attention rent applied on the  
limited resource of the consumer time-space. In the society of the  
spectacle and pervasive media the attention economy is responsible of  
the commodity valorisation at a large degree. The attention time of  
consumers is a like a scarce piece of land that is constantly  
disputed. At the end the technological rent is a large part of the  
metabolism sustaining the techno-parasite.
       It is well known how the new economy hype was a driver of the  
speculation over stock markets. The dot-com bubble exploited a spiral  
of virtual valorisation channelled across the internet and the new  
spaces of communication. More generally the whole finance world is  
based on rent. Financialisation is precisely the name of rent that  
parasites domestic savings.35 Today even wages are directly enslaved  
by the same mechanism: workers are paid in stock options and so  
fatally co-opted in the destiny of the owning capital. Finally even  
the primordial concept of land rent has been updated by cognitive  
capitalism. As the relation between artistic underground and  
gentrification show, real estate speculation is strictly related to  
the "collective symbolic capital" of a physical place (as defined by  
David Harvey in his essay "The Art of Rent"36). Today both historical  
symbolic capital (like in Berlin or Barcelona) and artificial  
symbolic capital (like in Richard Florida's marketing campaigns37)  
are exploited by real estate speculation on a massive scale.
       All these types of rent are immaterial parasites. The parasite  
is immaterial as the rent is produced dynamically along the virtual  
extensions of space, time, communication, imagination, desire. The  
parasite is indeed material as the value is transmitted through  
physical vectors like commodities in the case of cognitive rent and  
attention rent, media infrastructure in the case of technological  
rent, real estate in the case of the speculation over symbolic  
capital, etc. (only the financial speculation is a completely  
dematerialised machine of value). The awareness of the parasitic  
dimension of technology should inaugurate the decline of the old  
digitalist media culture in favour of a new dystopian cult of the  

The bicephalous multitude and the grammar of sabotage

Many of the subcultures and political schools emerged around  
knowledge and network paradigms (from Free Culture to the 'creative  
class' and even many radical readings of these positions) do not  
acknowledge cognitive capitalism as a conflictive and competitive  
scenario. Paolo Virno is one of the few authors to underline the  
"amphibious" nature of the multitude, that is cooperative as well as  
aggressive if not struggling "within itself."38 The Bildung of an  
autonomous network is not immediate and easy. As Geert Lovink and Ned  
Rossiter put it: "Networks thrive on diversity and conflict (the  
notworking), not on unity, and this is what community theorists are  
unable to reflect upon."39 Lovink and Rossiter notice that  
cooperation and collective intelligence have their own grey sides.  
Online life especially is dominated by passivity. Digitalism itself  
can be described as a sublimation of the collective desire for a pure  
space and at the same time as the grey accomplice of a parasitic mega- 
machine. A new theory of the negative must be established around the  
missing political link of the digital culture: its disengagement with  
materiality and its uncooperative nature. Networks and cooperation do  
not always fit each other. Geert Lovink and Christopher Spehr ask  
precisely this: when do networks start not to work? How do people  
starts to un-cooperate? Freedom of refusal and not-working are put by  
Lovink and Spehr at the very foundation of any collaboration (an echo  
of the Autonomist refusal to work).40
       "Free uncooperation" is the negative ontology of cooperation  
and may provide the missing link that unveils the relation with the  
consensual parasite. Furthermore, a new right and freedom to sabotage  
must be included within the notion of uncooperation to make finally  
clear also the individualistic and private gesture of "illegal" file- 
sharing. Obfuscated by the ideology of the Free, a new practice is  
needed to see clearly beyond the screen. If the positive gesture of  
cooperation has been saturated and digitalised in a neutral space,  
only a sharpened tool can reveal the movements of the parasite. As  
profit has taken the impersonal form of rent, its by-effect is the  
anonymity of sabotage. As rent changed its coordinates of the  
exploitation, a new theory of rent demands a new theory of sabotage  
before aiming to any new form of organisation. Which kind of sabotage  
is affecting the social factory? In cognitive capitalism competition  
is said to be stronger, but for the same reasons sabotage is easier,  
as the relation between the immaterial (value) and the material  
(goods) is even more fragile.
       The grey multitude of online users are simply learning a  
grammar of sabotage against capital and its concrete revenues along  
the immaterial/material conflict. To label as Free Culture the  
desolate gesture of downloading the last Hollywood movie sounds  
rather like armchair activism. If radical culture is established  
along real conflicts, a more frank question is necessary: does "good"  
digital piracy produce conflict, or simply sell more hardware and  
bandwidth? Is "good" piracy an effective hazard against real  
accumulation or does it help other kinds of rent accumulation?  
Alongside and thanks to any digital commonism, accumulation still  
runs. Nevertheless in contemporary hype there is no room for a  
critical approach or a negative tendency. A pervasive density of  
digital networks and computer-based immaterial labour is not supposed  
to bring any counter-effect. Maybe as Marx pointed out in his  
"Fragments on machines," a larger dominion of the (digital) machinery  
may bring simply an entropy and slowing down of the capitalistic  
accumulation. That means a more clouded and dense parasitic economy.  
A therapeutic doubt remains open to a dystopian destiny: is cognitive  
capitalism simply tending to slow-down capitalism instead of  
fulfilling the self-organisation of the general intellect?
       A breaking point of the capitalist accumulation is not found  
only in the cognitive rent of the music and movie corporations. The  
previous taxonomy of cognitive parasites has shown how the symbolic  
and immaterial rent affects daily life on different levels. The  
displaced multitudes of the global cities are starting right now to  
understand gentrification and how to deal with the new symbolic  
capital. In his novel Millennium People Ballard prophetically  
described the riots originating within the middle class (not the  
working class!) and targeting cultural institutions like the National  
Film Theatre in London. Less fictionally and less violently new  
tensions are rising today in East London against the urban renovation  
in preparation of the 2012 Olympics. In recent years in Barcelona a  
big mobilisation has been fighting against the gentrification of the  
former industrial district Poble Nou following the 22@ plan for a  
"knowledge-based society."41 Similarly in East Berlin the Media  
Spree42 project is trying to attract big media companies in an area  
widely renown for its cultural underground. It is not a coincidence  
then the Kafkaesque saga of Andrej Holm - an academic researcher at  
Humboldt University - who was arrested in July 2007 and accused of  
terrorism because of his research around gentrification and radical  
activism in Germany.43 As real estate speculation is one of the  
leading force of parasitic capitalism, these types of struggles and  
their connections with cultural production are far more interesting  
than any Free Culture agenda. The link between symbolic capital and  
material valorisation is symptomatic of a phenomenon which  
digitalists are not able to track and describe. The constitution of  
autonomous and productive commons does not pass through the  
traditional forms of activism and for sure not through a digital-only  
resistance and knowledge-sharing. The commons should be acknowledged  
as a dynamic and hybrid space that is constantly configured along the  
friction between material and immaterial. If the commons becomes a  
dynamic space, it must be defended in a dynamic way. Because of the  
immateriality and anonymity of rent, the grammar of sabotage has  
become the modus operandi of the multitudes trapped into the network  
society and cognitive capitalism. The sabotage is the only possible  
gesture specular to the rent - the only possible gesture to defend  
the commons.

Matteo Pasquinelli
Amsterdam, January 2008

Thanks to Geert Lovink, Wietske Maas and Arianna Bove for the  
precious suggestions.

A copy of this file can be downloaded from:


Bataille, Georges. La part maudite, Paris: Minuit, 1949. Trans.: The  
Accursed Share, Vol. I, New York: Zone, 1988.

Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production  
Transforms Markets and Freedom, Yale University Press, 2006.

Carr, Nicholas. Does IT matter? Information Technology and the  
Corrosion of Competitive Advantage, Harvard Business School Press, 2004.

Cramer, Florian. Words Made Flesh: Code, Culture, Imagination,  
Rotterdam: Piet Zwart Institute, 2005.

Davis, Erik. Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, Mysticism in the Age of  
Information, London: Serpent's Tail, 1999.

Hardie, Martin. "Change of the Century: Free Software and the  
Positive Possibility", Mute, 9 Jan. 2006. 

Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio and. Multitude: War and Democracy  
in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Harvey, David. "The Art of Rent: Globabalization and the  
Commodification of Culture" in Spaces of Capital, New York:  
Routledge, 2001.

Kelly, Kevin. "God is the Machine", Wired, Dec. 2002, 

Kleiner, Dmytri. "Copyfarleft and Copyjustright", Mute, 18 Jul. 2007.  

Kleiner, Dmytri and Richardson, Joanne (alias Anna Nimus).   
"Copyright, Copyleft & the Creative Anti-Commons", Dec. 2006.

Lazzarato, Maurizio and Negri, Antonio. "Travail immateriel et  
subjectivite", in Futur Anterieur n. 6, Summer 1991, Paris.

Lessig, Lawrence. Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the  
Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, New York: Penguin,  

Lovink, Geert. "The Principles of Notworking", Amsterdam: Hogeschool  
van Amsterdam, 2005. 

Lovink, Geert and Rossiter, Ned. "Dawn of the Organised Networks",  
Fiberculture 5, 2005. Web: 

Lovink Geert and Spehr, Christoph. "Out-Cooperating the Empire?" in:  
Lovink, Geert and Rossiter, Ned (eds). MyCreativity Reader: A  
Critique  of Creative Industries, Amsterdam: Institute of Network  
Cultures, 2007.

Marazzi, Christian. Capitale e linguaggio: Dalla New Economy  
all'economia di guerra, Roma: Derive Approdi, 2002.

Negri, Antonio  and Vercellone, Carlo. "Il rapporto capitale/lavoro  
nel capitalismo cognitivo", in Posse, "La classe a venire", Nov. 2007

Parikka, Jussi. "Contagion and Repetition: On the Viral Logic of  
Network Culture", Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organisation,  
volume 7(2): 2007.

Rossiter, Ned. Organized Networks: Media Theory, Creative Labour, New  
Institutions, Rotterdam: NAi Publisher, Institute of Network  
Cultures, 2006.

Rullani, Enzo. Economia della conoscenza: Creativita' e valore nel  
capitalismo delle reti. Milano: Carocci, 2004.

Terranova, Tiziana. Network Culture: Politics for the Information  
Age, London: Pluto Press, 2004.

Vercellone, Carlo. "La nuova articolazione salario, rendita, profitto  
nel capitalismo cognitivo", in Posse, "Potere Precario", 2006.

Serres, Michel. Le parasite, Paris: Grasset, 1980. Trad.: The  
Parasite, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.


[ please find notes in the online PDF ]

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info:
#  archive: contact: