Piracy in retrospect and prospect

The Economist (now behind a paywall) had a couple of features last week claiming that music piracy was “in decline”. The claim was based partly on a survey of British internet users in which the percentage reporting usage of file-sharing networks declined from 22% in December 2007 to 17% in July this year. What it didn’t mention is that you don’t need file-sharing software to pirate music anymore since it’s all over the web in plain Googlable sight.

It also cited a Swedish survey in which 60 per cent of former file-sharers claimed to have cut down or quit, with half of them moving to the legal ad-supported Spotify. If such a free (or near-free) service is available in a country, it’s not surprising a bunch of people would quit bothering with piracy. But it’s hardly the case that the pirates lost: rather they won, cutting a lot of the commercial value out of music recordings and massively increasing the quantity people get to listen to.

A couple of good essays on the social and musical impact of piracy over the decade: Eric Harvey’s at Pitchfork is more detailed. But Jace Clayton – who as DJ /rupture is without a doubt on my list of top ten musicians of the decade – is able to be unambiguously celebratory in a way an industry advertising funded site can’t really be, and without lip service to ‘alternative business models’ blah blah blah.

Published in: on 23 November, 2009 at 8:01 pm  Comments (3)  

Sydney Morning Herald op-eds translated into formal logic

The first in an occasional series. Now I don’t really know my syllogisms from my enthymemes, so further translation may be required. Sydney Morning Herald op-eds do not necessarily lend themselves to a logical treatment, and I have taken the liberty of supplying some unstated but necessary propositions. In other cases, I have unable to discern the missing propositions and have accordingly left them out. Unfortunately, this means not all premises lead to conclusions and not all conclusions derive from premises.

Elizabeth Farrelly, 19 October, 2009: Wake up, Greens, and savour the organic pork belly

1. Books about organic cooking ought to be literary and aesthetic delights, and contain jokes.

2. A book I bought about organic cooking turned out to be nether literarily nor aesthetically delightful, nor did it contain jokes.

3. The nature of books about organic cooking reflects the green agenda.

Therefore: 4. The green agenda is flawed by its lack of literary and aesthetic delight, particularly in regard to jokes.

5. The green agenda is naturally conservative.

6. The voters of the Higgins electorate are naturally conservative.

7. The Green Party is radical.

8. At the upcoming Higgins by-election, the winner will be the Party whose character reflects the views of the voters of the Higgins electorate.

9. The Green Party should attempt to win the upcoming Higgins by-election and future elections of its type.

Therefore: 10. The Green Party should stop being radical and become naturally conservative.

11. A clear sign of the Green Party becoming naturally conservative would be the appearance of a recipe for organic pork belly in future books about organic cooking.

Published in: on 20 November, 2009 at 10:37 am  Comments (4)  

Social democratic utopianism and capitalist realism

This is an essay I wrote for a local newsletter. It’s fairly long and I thought about breaking it up across a few posts, but what the hell…

King Dork

King Dork

‘Social democracy’ means a lot of different things to different people, and its meanings have slipped around over the decades. Once upon a time it could be synonymous with socialism; nowadays it is a title claimed by the most moderate governments and some of the drippiest Third Way intellectuals of the ‘centre-left’. Further left, it still works as a rallying point for more radical energies. In the past, a definition of the social democratic project might have been something like ‘the project of reforming capitalism in the interests of the working class’. That is broad enough to cover a fair spectrum of radicalism, but still distinguishes it from liberal reform projects.

Nowadays, however, self-proclaimed social democrats are much more likely to speak for people in general, rather than a class, though perhaps with special reference to those from ‘socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds’, women, and ethnic minorities. Environmental concerns are likely to be central, with the likes of Clive Hamilton and David McKnight arguing explicitly against a preoccupation with ‘deprivation’ or class. It is now more difficult to draw a line between social democracy and liberalism. Though spectrum of radicalism remains, today’s social democrats might be defined broadly in terms of a desire to ‘restrain the market’, though often enough they are at pains to emphasise their understanding of the efficiency of the market in its proper place.

Our illustrious prime minister channels this rhetoric, writing in his February Monthly essay of “that particular brand of free-market fundamentalism, extreme capitalism and excessive greed which became the economic orthodoxy of our time.” [p.20] “Not for the first time in history,” he goes on to say,

the international challenge for social democrats is to save capitalism from itself: to recognise the great strengths of open, competitive markets while rejecting the extreme capitalism and unrestrained greed that have perverted so much of the global financial system in recent times… The second challenge for social democrats is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater… Social democracy’s continuing philosophical claim to political legitimacy is its capacity to balance the private and the public, profit and wages, the market and the state. That philosophy once again speaks with clarity and cogency to the challenges of our time. [pp. 20-21]

Whether Rudd can speak for social democracy is a question we’ll come back to. In any case, in that essay he gives a pretty good impression of a real social democrat. He, or whatever aide pulled the thing together, knew the buttons to push. And the fact that this stuff was said publicly by the prime minister seems to many a sign the the ideological wind has changed. If Rudd is a virtuosic opportunist – and that is a prerequisite for the job – until a few months before it had been more opportune for him to describe himself again and again as an ‘economic conservative’. But the global financial crisis apparently showed that economic rationalism, or neoliberalism, or whatever you want to call it, was rubbish. To quote the learned leader again:

The time has come, off the back of the current crisis, to proclaim that the great neo-liberal experiment of the past 30 years has failed, that the emperor has no clothes. Neo-liberalism, and the free-market fundamentalism it has produced, has been revealed as little more than personal greed dressed up as an economic philosophy… Others have argued that we are seeing a more fundamental regime change: the third in postwar history, starting with the Keynesian model, from the 1940s to the ’70s; the neo-liberal ascendancy, from 1978 to 2008; followed by a new regime, which is currently being shaped… [S]eismic changes are underway, fault lines yielding to fractures which in time may yield to even deeper tectonic shifts. Neither governments nor the peoples they represent any longer have confidence in an unregulated system of extreme capitalism. [pp. 25, 29]

That the ALP was in power for much of the period of ‘neoliberal ascendancy’ is inconvenient for Rudd’s claim that “the political home of neo-liberalism in Australia is, of course, the Liberal Party itself” [p. 27]. (Hawke and Keating, he claims, were ‘economic modernisers’, not neoliberals.) But it’s not necessarily a problem for the broader argument: social democrats who kept the faith through all those years in the wilderness can explain Labor’s apostasy in terms of its own ideological slide. Labor moved with the zeitgeist; partly because it was enthusiastically taken in, like Keating, and partly out of electoral necessity, because the media was taken in. Now the zeitgeist moves back. (more…)

A fly on the wall at the 2020 Summit

But the meeting’s facilitator, Insurance Australia Group’s Sam Mostyn, searching for solutions, not problems, replied: “Warwick, I’m looking for an idea.”

If parliament’s main committee room wasn’t carpeted, you could have heard a pin drop.

And McKibbin didn’t disappoint.

“The idea,” he replied, “is to build a framework.”

Soon everyone was piling onto the idea. After all, McKibbin wasn’t just proposing any old framework. It was, as Mostyn told the group, “a national framework, a big framework”.

But just as it seemed the room would erupt in some sort of national framework/co-ordinated policy/enabling institution fever, CSIRO economist Steve Hatfield-Dodds chipped in with a reality check.

“I think the idea we should have a co-ordinated approach to climate change does not qualify as big or new,” he proffered.

Before long, the nation’s best and brightest found themselves in a lengthy debate about what this thing might be called.

Yesterday afternoon they had their answer, as group leader Roger Beale revealed his panel’s first Big Idea: “a national, sustainability, population and climate change agenda”.

– John Breusch, “Getting to grips with the big one”, Australian Financial Review, 21 April, 2008.

Published in: on 21 April, 2008 at 9:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

Santa is a communist


In today’s Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Saunders displays the atrophy of the anti-communist argument since it had to deal with real live communists.

Following a travesty of Raymond Williams and Marcuse, the basic argument goes like this: (1) capitalism is synonymous with material progress, (2) socialists don’t want you to have the stuff you like, (3) let’s show them by enjoying ourselves this Christmas and drinking some wine!

Let’s start with number one:

Capitalism has certainly performed better than any alternative system. In 1820, 85 per cent of the world’s population lived on less than a dollar a day. Today it is 20 per cent. This dramatic reduction in human misery owes nothing to socialist engineering, nor even to ageing rock stars demanding we make poverty history. It is due to the spread of global capitalism.

Plus, if capitalism had stopped in 1977, we wouldn’t have the internet or cellphones. This reminds me of the stock giggle in countless pieces coming to terms with ‘the anti-globalisation movement’ (or whatever) after Seattle: They wear Nikes! Ha! They organise over the internet! Ha! Not really anti-capitalist, now, are they?!

Alas, this kind of argument could equally be applied to Soviet Russia: ‘Russia’s industrialisation and the dramatic reduction in human misery it brought owes nothing to capitalist markets, or even to self-satisfied entrepreneurs. It was due to the spread of global communism.’ And: ‘They went to tear down the Berlin Wall in public transport? Their shoes were made in state-owned factories? Not really anti-communist, now, were they?!’

Here’s the fallacy: if a society is capitalist, everything about it is capitalist in essence. Criticise the relations of production, and you are criticising production tout court.

Which brings us to point two. Saunders may be right about Clive Hamilton. Hamilton does indeed see the consumption as the primary problem of today’s capitalism. (This is perhaps why he is the favourite ‘anti-capitalist’ of the mainstream, and certainly the only one to get in the op-eds.) But this is far from the arguments of Williams or even Marcuse. The problem was never the consumption as such, but the way our lives are dominated from cradle to grave by the alienated labour necessary to produce and acquire the stuff. Technological progress is full of potential for a reorganised society to liberate us from necessity and take real democratic control of the productive machinery.

Number three, the punchline:

So enjoy the prawns and the chardonnay, and don’t feel guilty about the money you spend on the children’s presents. Download Bing Crosby from iTunes, phone the relatives in London at a couple of cents a minute and have yourself a really good Christmas!

What does a socialist say to that? Hell, enjoy the prawns and chardonnay, get your kids presents. (Fuck iTunes, though, steal the Bing Crosby – if that’s your thing – with filesharing software.) But give a thought this Xmas to why you can’t relax and enjoy yourself all year round – and for that matter, why the holidays are so bloody stressful when they only come but once a year.

As a postscript: it’s funny to read this kind of thing despite the total absence of a radical critique in the mainstream. What is Saunders so worried about? Where does he hear these people complaining? The Herald op-ed page runs a rabid reactionary almost every day of the week: Miranda Devine, Gerard Henderson, Paul Sheehan, Michael Duffy, Miranda Devine again on Sunday… These people are always lashing out at some outrage from the left. Which is where? They are haunted by ghosts (or should that be ‘spectres’?).

Published in: on 20 December, 2007 at 9:19 am  Comments (9)  

“What if I visualised a bunch of cheques coming in the mail?”

Channel Nine’s A Current Affair and Seven’s Today Tonight are both complete rubbish.  Obviously. But lately they’ve been enacting a great Australian comedy that Frontline could never have scripted, sniping at each other across the timeslot.

Last year there was the Wawa controversy. Nine’s 60 Minutes broke a story about a kid who was supposedly going to be eaten by his West Papuan tribe. Seven’s Today Tonight announced its shock that 60 Minutes would leave the boy to die, and sent host Naomi Robson to West Papua to rescue the boy, Wawa. Nine allegedly then tipped off Indonesian immigration and Robson was detained when she arrived. Seven also accused Nine of paying off 60 Minutes‘ sources $100,000 to refuse to guide the Today Tonight crew to Wawa’s village. It soon transpired that in fact this kid was not in danger of being eaten and the whole thing was good old-fashioned Aussie racial fantasy.

Then there was Tunnelgate, in which Today Tonight accused A Current Affair of causing a “near fatal crash” between a truck and a Mercedes in Melbourne’s Domain Tunnel.

Then things got personal, with Today Tonight going all upmarket a couple of weeks ago, running a BBC expose of the Church of Scientology, of which Nine mogul James Packer is reportedly a parishioner. Unfortunately the edge of this attack was somewhat blunted by Today Tonight‘s spruiking of its own favoured wacky occultism, The Secret.

So last night A Current Affair struck back. It entrapped one of The Secret’s investment gurus – David Schirmer – by inviting him onto the show for what he was expecting to be a puff interview, confronting him with some objective facts about missing money, and let him sputter about tragically for a few minutes, displaying all his powers of visualisation, positive thinking and self-belief to conjure the problems away.

I promise not to do this ever again, but here is a link to last night’s A Current Affair. If you get bored with all the exposition, fast forward to about five minutes into the story. It’s pretty funny, but I have to say I felt strangely sorry for the guy, and not all that much sympathy for anyone who has $96,000 to invest in a company calling itself Life Success Pacific Rim and promising 1000 per cent annual returns.

Once you watch that, take another look at the power of positive thinking as The Secret message board digests the interview:

Well, we all know what those interviewers are attracting into
their own experience. It’s like denying there is the existence of placebo effect. Anyway, David, we know that something huge is going to come out of this. It’s a certainty! And I know that David and so many people here are able to recalibrate their vibrations to open and embrace even more good and to send out more good. We create our own experiences and so do those interviewers. Abundance and blessings to all!

Then watch Schirmer’s YouTube ‘rebuttal’, in which he displays an uncharacteristic lack of confidence:

Update: Raych has informed me about Nine’s own links to The Secret. The whole thing originated as a film made by a Nine producer, and Nine provided a quarter of the funding. But once it was made Nine declined to show it, it went straight to DVD, and the rest is history. (Apparently it did get a broadcast eventually in an infomercial slot.) The producer, Rhonda Byrne, got rich, left Channel Nine, and now lives in California. So there is perhaps some extra animus behind Nine’s takedown. Incidentally, the channel signed away its rights to any DVD royalties.

Update 2: Alright, predictably, a day on and already the links and the YouTube are dead as the damage control continues. Read as much as you could possibly want to know about all this at Whirled Musings.

Published in: on 29 May, 2007 at 11:39 am  Comments (15)  


Raych got through the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday before she was halfway through breakfast and announced that there was no news. Later in the day we found out why: the journalists and other workers went on strike Wednesday afternoon, over Fairfax’s plans to introduce AWAs and cut 35 production jobs.

That’s subeditors! My first job in Australia was working as a Fairfax subeditor so I felt a bigger-than-usual burst of solidarity. Unfortunately by the time I found out about it the Industrial Relations Commission had ordered them back to work. You see, it’s illegal in Australia to strike during the life of an employment agreement. The Fairfax strikers risked $6000 personal fines for walking out in the first place. Further strike action has been explicitly banned by the Commission for three months, and the penalties for contempt of court are larger.

Inside sources tell me there is much seething anger at the Herald, not least among the most senior journalists whose jobs are not at risk, but whose pride in their product has already been dented by a previous round of restructuring and the consequent declining standards. They must have known the IRC would ban the strike as soon as Fairfax took them there, and I suppose the goal was to send a short, sharp message. Even so, there was some discussion of defying the Commission, but the personal consequences would have been big.

Still, it seems inevitable that sooner or later a strike will happen somewhere that runs up against these new laws, where the anger will be sufficiently deep to provoke a defiance of the IRC. Labor’s new industrial relations plan does not roll back anti-strike law. We are stuck with it until conditions are ripe for a new Clarrie O’Shea.

Published in: on 11 May, 2007 at 11:48 am  Comments (1)