Spectrum Regulation in the Communism of Capital
* Essay: Spectre of the commons: Spectrum regulation in the communism of capital. By Rachel O’Dwyer.
"The past decade has seen a growing emphasis on the social and juridical implications of peer production, commons-based property regimes and the nonrivalrous circulation of immaterial content in the online domain, leading some theorists to posit a digital communism. An acquisitive logic, however, continues to operate through intellectual property rights, in the underlying architecture that supports the circulation of content and in the logical apparatuses for the aggregation and extraction of metadata. The digital commons emerges, not as a virtual space unfettered by material exploitation, but as a highly conflictive terrain, situated at the centre of a mode of capitalism that seeks valorisation for the owners of network infrastructure, online platforms and digital content.
Using a key example from core infrastructure, this paper will explore how controversies surrounding the management of the electromagnetic spectrum provide insight into the communism of capital in the digital domain. This paper proceeds in two parts: The first is historical, exploring how the history of spectrum management provides a lucid account of the expropriation of the digital commons through the dispossession and progressive deregulation of a communicative resource. The second considers current transformations to spectrum regulation, in particular the growing centrality of shared and commons spectrum to radio policy. Does a shift towards non-proprietary and unlicensed infrastructure represent an antagonistic or subversive element in the communism of capital? Or, if this communality of resources is not at odds with capitalist interests, how is it that an acquisitive logic continues to act?"
"The facility to leverage communicative capacities, support non-hierarchical cooperation and enable the circulation of non-proprietary content, has led a number of theorists to posit a ‘virtual communism’ (Lessig, 2004; Benkler, 2006; Kelly, 2009). This traces an immaterial space that trades in knowledge and culture, at once free from commercial subjugation and conversely capable of exerting influence on the material substrate of capital.
Such ‘virtual communism’ is, to echo Virno, ‘a communality of generalized intellect without material equality’ (Virno, 2004: 18). The underlying architectures that support the circulation of content are still proprietary. While user-generated content becomes increasingly central to the economy, the possibility of a ‘core commons infrastructure’, as Benkler (2001) calls it, is constrained by a variety of institutional, technical and juridical enclosures. The digital commons emerges, not as a virtual space unfettered by material exploitation, but as a highly conflictive terrain. The commons is situated at the centre of a mode of capitalism that seeks valorisation for the owners of network infrastructure, digital platforms and online content. This proprietary interest is diffuse, and increasingly so; it blends in a series of highly confluent mechanisms the essence of ‘the commons’ with new forms of enclosure.
Today we encounter conditions in which the core tenets of communism – the socialisation of production, the abolition of wage labour, and the centrality of commons-based peer-production – are remade in the interests of capital (Virno, 2004). These conditions imply new forms of sovereignty and political economy. This is not to say that the commons has not historically potentiated capitalist accumulation, but that we are witnessing a dramatic intensification of these conditions. In turn we are faced with a number of questions: through what proprietary mechanisms and juridical processes is the digital commons enclosed? How, in turn, is surplus value extracted from the digital commons – through what technological apparatuses, property regimes and composition of capital? Finally, what political and economic possibilities might emerge alongside the hegemony of the commons?
This paper will explore how recent controversies surrounding the management of electromagnetic spectrum provide insights into the composition of contemporary capitalism. As the communications channel for all mobile and wireless transmissions, electromagnetic spectrum is a core apparatus in the digital economy; its enclosure is part and parcel of the techniques that facilitate capitalist accumulation through production over wireless and mobile networks. This discussion proceeds in two parts: First, the history of spectrum regulation provides an account of the expropriation of communicative and cooperative capacities through the dispossession, deregulation and progressive rarefaction of a common resource. As mobile data grows exponentially, however, we are witnessing changes to the ways in which this resource is managed, with many calling for a greater communality of the radio spectrum in response to perceived scarcity in mobile bandwidth. The second part of the paper explores these emergent conditions. On one hand, it appears as though antagonisms between openness and enclosure in information capitalism prefigure a crisis in property relations that potentiate possible forms of anti-capitalist ‘exploit’ (Galloway and Thacker, 2007). On the other, it is also possible that capitalist accumulation is becoming ever more tightly organised through highly fluid and distributed mechanisms that route, not only around a direct intervention in production, but increasingly around the old property regimes.
The aims of such a study are reflexive. If the burgeoning political vocabulary of the ‘communism of capital’ offers a critical insight into the enclosure of the digital commons, spectrum management also provides an empirical case to reflect on the theoretical underpinnings of this vocabulary. For example, much of this theory not only acknowledges correspondence between forms of the commons with capitalist accumulation, it also identifies a number of contradictions in such an alliance, whether through the socialisation of production or through the imminent crisis of an underlying proprietary logic. This paper explores how the production of artificial scarcity around electromagnetic spectrum, when situated against the growing demand for a greater fluidity of network resources, provides a lens for what are perceived to be the irreconcilable elements of the communism of capital. Does a shift towards non-proprietary and unlicensed infrastructure represent an antagonistic or subversive element in the communism of capital? Or, if this communality of resources is not at odds with capitalist interests, how is it that an acquisitive logic continues to act?"