When the bourgeoisie sees that power is slipping out of its hands, it brings up fascism to hold onto their privileges. —Buenaventura Durruti
This battle has been fought before. This battle will be fought again. The haves versus the have-nots. The rich versus the poor. The bourgeoisie versus the commoner. Wars have been fought along these very same lines, and yet, despite whatever changes may take place, we still find ourselves back at this very same division where the few who control the money and power not only dominate society, but institute means by which they can keep information, money, and opportunity out of the hands of everyone else. This time, however, the weapons on both sides are somewhat different, and the lines are a bit more muddied.
First, let’s be very clear of how we’re defining bourgeoisie. The term originates in the middle ages and under those conditions, through the 19th century and as a catalyst for the French revolution, the bourgeoisie were those who controlled the capital, what eventually became banking, and access to money in any form. There was a shift, though, in the 20th century as both Lenin and Marx used the term to describe anyone of privilege. Not only would they have considered the one percent that controls today’s money bourgeoisie, they would likely extend that definition to many of us as well. In contemporary terms, bourgeoisie isn’t simply a matter of having money and power, but actively working to keep those at the lower end of the scale from having access to the same.
Let me give you some examples. You might be bourgeoisie if:
- You own a home in a neighborhood that regulates how tall your grass grows
- You own a car that cost as much or more than many people’s houses
- Your children attend a school that requires uniform dressing
- You own clothes so expensive that a standard ensemble cost more than a semester’s college tuition
- You pay over $100 for name-brand athletic shoes and you’re not an athlete
- You believe that your ability to pay more for goods and services makes you better than those who pay less
- You collect “art”
Matching just one of those statements probably doesn’t fully qualify you as bourgeoisie but, if you match two you might want to question your values, and if you match three or more you might seriously want to take a look at your motivation.
One of the things which the bourgeoisie has traditionally controlled is the flow of information. The concept present at the inception of the United States revolution that there might be such a thing as a “free” press was popular for its potential to inform, educate, and enlighten the masses, not just the college-educated elite. A free press was supposed to be the great equalizer that prevented the bourgeoise from taking control of the government. Obviously, that didn’t work as major media is now controlled entirely by oligarchs.
One of the founding reasons for creating the Internet was to break the hold of universities (generally considered a holding of the bourgeoisie) over research information. When Leonard Kleinrock and his staff first developed ARPANET in the 1960s, their purpose was to share information between universities in hopes of accelerating progress through discovery and innovation. When Tim Berners-Lee first posited his thesis for the World Wide Web in 1989, he, too, was looking at the ability of this new technology to “level the playing field” so that everyone could have equal opportunity and access. The goal was to never charge for anything, but to have everything free and open to the public.
Yeah, that was the goal. Look around you. Want online access to your local newspaper? Paywall. Want to stream unlimited movies and television shows? Subscription required. Want enticing discounts that save money and shipping on almost everything you buy? Membership required, $99 a year.
While many of those prices might be justified due to the cost of producing materials, that’s not true across the board. There are many cases where access and information is withheld, placed behind a paywall or requiring a subscription, simply because they can. One of the worst offenders, in that case, is research information, the very thing that the Internet was supposed to make available to everyone. For free.
That system, however, is being challenged in a very strong way. Alexandra Elbakyan, a 27-year-old graduate student from Kazakhstan who, in the spirit of Napster and Wikileaks, built a database and published 50 million scholarly research articles. For free.
I won’t repeat the full story, which you can read in The Washington Post but her reasoning is sound. Most research, especially in the United States, is conducted under some form of government grant, meaning that taxpayer money is going into the research. However, when a research paper is completed, researchers aren’t allowed to just toss it out there and let everyone have a look. Instead, they’re required to publish their papers through a peer-reviewed journal. Research fellows and professors at every level of academia are judged based largely on how many papers they’ve had published. And it gets worse.
Researchers are not paid by the journals who publish their research and in most cases are required to sign over the copyright to their paper. So, the journal is getting their content for free. They then charge universities and libraries for subscriptions to those journals, subscriptions that can easily top $5,000 a year. Access to a single article runs, on average, $35 per person. The total accumulation is something in the neighborhood of $10 billion a year. All for access to something that, arguably, shouldn’t cost anything in the first place because, as taxpayers, we’ve already paid for it.
This is the new war with the bourgeoisie. Access to information is the new line in the sand along which battle lines are being drawn. The bourgeoisie see information as a way to increase their wealth and keep the bulk of information limited to those who can afford to access it. They not only put information behind paywalls and limit access to members, they also control the very access points for “free” information. While smartphones may seem ubiquitous, they’re not. Even in the United States, there is still as much as 40% of the population without regular access to the Internet in any form. Data prices via cell phone have consistently risen over the past ten years and even home access providers, such as AT&T, are beginning to add data caps in an attempt to extort more money from customers. As they do so, they limit access to information and, by extension, opportunity.
Those who are membres of the bourgeoisie attempt, of course, to justify their actions. An economic system dependent upon ever-growing profit margins supports continued abuse by the bourgeoisie. Creating a genuinely flat playing field that is open to everyone requires an economic model quite different to the no-holds-barred capitalism to which we’ve become accustomed.
Yet, there will be, there must be change. Every time the two sides meet, where those who are “common” take on the bourgeoisie, there is change. More players such as Ms. Elbakyan will enter the fray. Those determined to upset the status quo of Internet access will force changes.
But be aware that there is a battle here. Pick your side carefully.