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Microsoft Jungle: Bytes and Beef

The Internet and electronics industries claim exemptions from all previous known forms of economic structure.

Joe Lockard

Sunday, November 7 1999, 10:37 PM

Right-wing critics of the Microsoft case have been invoking Adam Smith furiously and denouncing antitrust legislation as a nineteenth-century artifact inappropriate for the twenty-first century. Such arguments should be read in reverse.

Their citations of social thought stretching over two and a half centuries bring home the point that the divide between modern and postmodern economies is a matter of technologies and aesthetics; there is no real difference in the political basics at stake. The fundamental questions about a just social and economic order remain the same.

Yet the Internet and electronics industries nontheless continue to claim exemptions from all previous known forms of economic structure. E-Commerce columnist Rob Spiegel writes " seems almost peculiar that Microsoft could be viewed as a monopoly. The whole concept of antitrust laws applying to Internet companies seems almost silly..." Monopolism is precisely the correct language to describe Microsoft's business plans. Bill Gates spoke in 1995 about adapting the Internet to suit Windows (rather than adapting Windows to suit the Internet), and Microsoft attempted in 1997 and 1998 to transform Java into a programming language for Windows (rather than a rival operating system). Nineteenth-century railroad gauge wars used the same monopolistic strategy of proprietary equipment standards. The strategy is an old one.

The particular form of industrialization under capitalism does not substantially alter the ethical relations of capital to labor. Electronic production does not make the labor theory of value disappear, nor has the assembly of capital through appropriation of surplus value changed in any basic sense since the Industrial Revolution began. The 'discipline of the market' remains the discipline of capitalists. To 'grow an economy' means to grow the Gini index towards ever-greater income inequalities.

Where Forbes-style triumphalism does not prevail, a sense of social inevitability too commonly does. The Socialist International, a living-dead remnant of its history and now opening in Paris its twenty-first congress, is led by prime ministers like Jospin and Blair who have embraced the culture of global finance. The privileged classes of Eastern bloc communism have converted themselves into a new capitalist elite. Rather than sharp resistance to the injustices of class structures that keep poor people poor and rich people rich, we witness the acceptance of a globalized system of anti-egalitarianism based on a belief that we all have an inalienable right to consume as much as we can afford.

With the prevalance of this accomodational ethos, there is a distinct pleasure in returning to Upton Sinclair's 1906 reform novel, The Jungle. Sinclair's story of struggle for survival within Chicago's immigrant-jammed Packingtown is one that continues in contemporary form throughout the workingclass world. Miserable, sweat-filled and minimally-paid labor has not disappeared in this 'postindustrial' society, even if workingclass consciousness largely has evaporated within middle-class America.

Upton Sinclair's worldview, which recognized the aggregation of capital into trusts and the symbiosis between corporate monies and political power, remains as relevant today as on the day it was written. Tellingly, the novel is remembered today as a parable of the wronged consumer and for its scenes of unsanitary meat production, rather than for its vision of socialist conversion. If Sinclair has his faults, lack of clarity concerning the conflicting interests of capitalism and the working classes is not one of them. The explicitness that Upton Sinclair brought to portraits of social power emerged from the lengthy nineteenth-century conflict between private capital and the public interest.

The ideological capacity of Sinclair's progressive thought to identify this distinction between private and public benefit, so often rationalized in contemporary politics as identical twins, achieved re-expression in Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's findings in the Microsoft case. While the Microsoft monopoly has altered technological, postmodern and globalistic aspects from the Meat Trust killing floors of turn-of-the-century Packingtown, it still bears the instantly recognizable form of amassed capital stifling the public good.

As the court decision reads, "Microsoft has demonstrated that it will use its prodigious market power and immense profits to harm any firm that insists on pursuing initiatives that could intensify competition against one of Microsoft's core products." Even if the antitrust legislation on which the case is being decided remains inadequate insofar as its purposes lie in creating a well-functioning capitalism and meager consumer protection, rather than in contributing towards a redistribution of power between labor and capital, this judicial finding of facts exposes the fraudulence of Microsoft's claims that its business practices represent a public benefit. Microsoft's assertion of a 'right to innovate' has proven only a threadbare defense for old-fashioned greed.

The goal at Microsoft has been to create a Browser Trust, little different than the Beef Trust that Upton Sinclair described. We'll have to wait for the still-pending Parts II and III of the current antitrust case to see whether this one small but nicely-lofted brick does find its way through the front Windows of the Gates palace.

Joe Lockard is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.

Copyright © 1999 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.