Cancun Lessons

In Cancun and at the hundreds of less publicized anti-WTO demonstrations around the world, opponents of capitalist globalization called attention to intellectual property right agreements as a mechanism to codify corporate theft. Less, however, was said about capitalist (private) property relations’ as the instrument of theft that underpins the whole system.

Contrary to the much-stated dogma that ‘globalization’ is about increased competition, central to this process are increased patent protections. In the early 1980s the U.S. strengthened its patent laws with Canada following suit in the lead up to the signing of the first free trade agreement. Likewise, a central goal of the WTO, through the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights TRIPs agreement, is to harmonize upwards the world’s patent protection to those of the U.S. Also, the Central American Free Trade Agreement currently under negotiation between the Central American countries and the U.S. focuses on increased patent protection. The Bush administration is demanding these countries increase their patent protection beyond even the USA’s 20 years. Similarly, increased patent protection is at the forefront of Free Trade Area of the Americas negotiations as was the case for Mexico with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Coinciding with the strengthening of patent protections over the past 20 years the number of patents issued annually in the U.S. has nearly tripled. (1) In 1902 the U.S. patent bureau had given out one million patents, by 2002 five million, which is expected to increase to seven million by the end of 2004! (2)

As part of the patent expansion process multinational corporations are increasingly devising mechanisms to steal poorer countries’ indigenous and cultivated intellectual property. One of the leading authors on the subject, Indian activist Vandava Shiva writes: “Biopiracy is the theft of biodiversity and indigenous knowledge through patents. It creates a false claim to novelty and invention, even though the knowledge has evolved since ancient times. Diverting scarce biological resources to monopoly control by corporations is resource theft from the poorest two-thirds of humanity who depend on biodiversity for their livelihoods and basic needs – it creates market monopolies and excludes the original innovators from their rightful share of local, national, and international markets. Instead of preventing this organized economic theft, WTO rules (and other ‘trade’ agreements) protect the powerful and punish the victims. In a dispute initiated by the United States, the WTO forced India to change its patent laws and grant exclusive marketing rights to foreign corporations on the basis of foreign patents. Because many of these patents are based on biopiracy, the WTO is in fact promoting piracy. Over time, the consequences of TRIPs for the South’s biodiversity and southern people’s rights to their diversity will be severe. No one will be able to produce or reproduce patented agricultural, medicinal, or animal products freely, thus eroding livelihoods of small producers and preventing the poor from using their own resources and knowledge to meet their basic needs of health and nutrition.”

This theft sanctioned by intellectual property agreements is wrong. Yet so is theft sanctioned by capitalist (private) property rights that underpins its.

A recent dispatch from Cancun on reason.com by WTO supporter, Ronald Bailey, highlights an important point of disagreement inside the social justice movement. At the same time, the passage helps explain how capitalist ideologues purposefully obscure the word “property” – one reason why dissent against capitalist property relations is not more widespread.

Bailey states; “Before considering the objections being raised by anti-globalization activists to intellectual property rights, a short lesson in intellectual property rights: Property rights over things like land, houses and cars are easily understood by everyone. Fences protect land and locks protect houses and cars from being stolen or misused by others. But intellectual property by its nature cannot be protected by fences and locks…That means that the inventor, who spent the time, effort and money, to bring the benefit of a new cure to humanity would not be compensated for his labor.”

Bailey is saying that if the global social justice movement could only conceptualize intellectual property rights the same way we understand capitalist property relations, corporate monopolization over indigenous plants or life saving drugs wouldn’t seem unreasonable. And he’s right. The ownership of intellectual property isn’t more dubious than a small group of wealth-holding minorities ownership over the economy and people’s labour.

If it’s acceptable for Dole to own the labour of thousands of Honduran banana plantation workers through its “ownership” of huge swaths of land, then it should be okay for Monsanto or some other bio-engineering company to own the indigenous intellectual property of Honduras. And if it’s acceptable for IBM to own the labour of thousands of people then why wouldn’t it be acceptable for the company to hold 40,000 patents, no matter their usefulness, or who really invented them? (It certainly wasn’t the IBM shareholders.)

Justification for the ownership and monopolization of intellectual property and factories, banks, etc… is underpinned by the same basic logic. In both cases the argument is that the owner (capital) creates value whether it be through discovery, production or marketing, so capital has the right to ownership. And in both cases this is false. But first, a few precautionary words about property is in order.

Notice how Bailey’s references to property are what could be personal possessions such as “cars”, “houses” or “land” – factories, banks or other ownership of people’s labour go conveniently unmentioned. Still, no matter what capitalist ideologues might imply, owning a CD or your house is not comparable to ownership of a WalMart or a factory, both of which necessitate the “ownership” of other people’s labour.

Contrary to capital’s claim, which neoliberal ideology has strengthened, capital doesn’t create wealth, human labour does. In fact, that labour is the source of value was accepted by Adam Smith, David Ricardo and most other supporters of capitalism up until the Paris Commune of 1871 when workers took over the city, scaring the supporters of capitalism. In his yet to be published book Economic Democracy: The Alternative to Capitalism Allan Engler writes: “[after the Paris Commune] new mathematical equations were formulated to prove that exchange values could just as logically be attributed to natural resources, to machinery, or to capital.

Abstractly, that is indisputable. Since exchange value is a function of each and all of these variables, it can be related to any. The point is perspective. If natural resources or machines made the decisions to hire, rent or otherwise organize human labour time, they would likely view exchange value and surplus as a function of their activities. And from a merchant’s perspective, the money value of goods and services does appear to be determined in exchange. From a capitalist perspective, revenues and surpluses are generated by investment decisions and command over labour. Nonetheless, from a classless human perspective, exchange value is a function of the quantity and quality of human time, skill, creativity, and organization required to produce, distribute and exchange a commodity.”

Engler argues further that, “capital is theft – theft sanctified by capitalist law.” He explains; “Capital is nothing more or less than the private title wealth-holding minorities have to means of livelihood. Capital is a social relationship; the right of a few to claim ownership of socially produced goods, their right to buy, sell and otherwise dispose of, the lands, tools, and machines used by others.”

So capitalist property rights allow a small group of wealth-holders to reap the gains over other people’s labour. But at least private ownership gives individuals the fruits of their labour, right? No. Engler explains that “despite its celebration of the individual in the market, capitalism is a system of social labour, a system in which people work together to produce for others.” Today almost all work is done socially with self-employed people accounting for only between five and fifteen per cent of the workforce in more prosperous countries.

Even innovation and invention are usually accomplished collaboratively with five or dozens of scientists working together. David Noble, in America by Design, writes that in 1885 ninety-per-cent of patents were taken out by individuals. By 1950, three-quarters of patents were taken out by corporations and today that ratio is no doubt even higher. According to Engler, “in the 1990s, salaried researchers devised most of the new products, processes, programs, and technologies that drove the information stock market bubble.” Yet most ownership of innovation does not stay in the hands of individuals – it becomes the intellectual property of corporations.

With today’s reality of socialized labour and corporate domination over intellectual property our position as the global social justice movement should be that either society returns to the days when patents were a mechanism to protect the lone creator from overpowering corporations and the vast majority of people worked as small independent farmers, craftspeople or entrepreneurs. Or we implement a system of social ownership whereby the rights of capital, through its control of intellectual property and workplaces, no longer exists. yves engler is a montreal based activist currently working on a book about student activism at Concordia. He can be reached at yvesengler hotmail.com


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