From Phantom Tollbooths By Peter Frase:
Though the internet and the digitization of the economy did not create the struggle over the property form, they have reopened the issue by problematizing exactly what property is and why we ought to respect it. Beneath its frontier rhetoric of individualism and autonomy, capitalism is founded on the exercise of state power to defend the institution of private property. Its model of generalized commodity exchange presupposes a novel world in which everything is parceled into discrete chunks and tagged with the name of its owner. This way of seeing things does not come automatically to human societies; constructing a world of private property entails both state violence and ideological propagandizing.
Respect for private property undergirds the atomized ethos of capitalism, what political scientist C.B. Macpherson called “possessive individualism.” This ethos insists that a person’s talents and achievements are due to their efforts alone and that their property is a just and natural consequence of those achievements. Yet the institution of property, and the individualism it licenses, has always been deeply contested. Most famously, the English enclosure acts passed mainly in the 18th and 19th centuries uprooted a long tradition of shared and common lands and turned them into the fenced-off domains of individual landlords. Such processes of turning a social commons into a private possession are more than just capitalism’s original sin; they recur again and again over the system’s history. That’s why David Harvey proposed that Marx’s term “primitive accumulation” be traded in for “accumulation by dispossession,” a strategy that the capitalist can return to again and again.Today, critics of intellectual property speak about copyright law by making an analogy with the enclosure of the commons, regarding it as an unjust appropriation of our shared culture. Defenders of copyright, meanwhile, denounce file sharers and downloaders as parasites and pirates, depriving hard-working creators of their belongings and their livelihood. This fight recapitulates capitalism’s endemic struggle over property, but gives it a new form, as the property in question is an immaterial rather than a material good. Copyright holders and their advocates like to speak of unauthorized copying as “theft” of “intellectual property,” but both theft and property are concepts that apply to information in a metaphorical way at best. To take a physical object out of someone’s possession is clearly not equivalent to making a copy for oneself while leaving all other copies untouched. If the right of physical property grants the right to control a particular copy of an object — a particular pair of Nike shoes, for example — the right of intellectual property instantiates the far broader power to control all copies of an idea or a software program or a work of art. Whether this extension is valid and justified, and whether it should fall within the same legal and rhetorical purview that addresses physical property, is ultimately a matter of cultural norms and political struggle.