Internet monitoring, copyright monopolism, and other methods of stopping filesharing aren’t an industry defending itself from economic damage. They’re a concerted effort to deny access to culture, tools, and information to working-class people in industrialized nations, and everyone else in the rest of the world. And the worst part is, it reinforces itself by turning struggling artists against struggling fans.
The attitude that looks down on people who “just want free stuff” and “don’t want to pay for things” is one coming from great economic privilege. If you’re able to afford expensive software, or you have no problem accessing culture through hundreds of 99 cent downloads and multiple $8 per month subscription services, good for you. If you have access to the financial services needed to pay for these things, that’s fantastic. But billions of people around the world don’t. Billions of people who have access to the Internet — but not much else — can only get their culture, their information, or their tools from The Pirate Bay.
It is socioeconomic bigotry to look down on these people, and to decry what they do as evil piracy when they couldn’t do the so-called “right” thing if they tried.
It’s equally supremacist to look down on working-class and non-Western filesharers for not sucking it up and abstaining from downloading anything. Privileged people have this idea that because access to the latest Foo Fighters album isn’t something essential like food or water, you’re a deplorable, petty little thief if you go and “steal” it anyway. These “luxuries” of entertainment and joy are only for the rich, for the people fortunate enough to have access to credit cards, for people who live in a country deemed economically “important” enough for culture to be approved for distribution in their region.
It’s very easy to tell other people that they don’t need things when you’re fortunate enough to be able to have them.
If you think it’s so easy to survive without access to all the culture you want, when you want, try giving it up. Call your bank and have them freeze all of your accounts for a while, and don’t use anything you that you can’t buy with the amount of cash available to someone living on poverty wages. See what it’s like to live without your Netflix like that, even with the added privilege of knowing that you can terminate the experiment whenever you want.
The problem is even starker when you look at operating systems and creative software. These are tools of production, and under the copyright industry’s system of oppression, people who can afford these tools have a direct socioeconomic advantage over the people who can’t. The reason filesharing is branded as “piracy” is because it pokes a hole in that domination. It takes away the upper class’s stranglehold on producing culture, whether for the purpose of making money or simply having a voice.
Some economically disadvantaged people also consciously declare themselves pirates as a form of political protest — against intellectual property, a company’s business practices, or what have you. There are absolutely a minority of people in a position of economic privilege who also do this, who are able to afford the asking price of the things they download for free and fileshare purely for political reasons. If this political act offends your sensibilities — because it’s not “real” civil disobedience if you avoid consequences, and not a “real” boycott if you still get the product — that’s barely any less pearl-clutchingly pompous than spitting on people who fileshare out of necessity. But I want to reiterate, people who are both able to afford the copyright industry’s asking prices, and who also choose piracy as a form of protest, are a very small minority. The pirate who can pay and chooses not to is largely a strawman.
Perhaps there are people in a “gray area” — the ones who can’t afford Photoshop and certainly not Maya, but maybe it wouldn’t kill them to spend a few dollars on iTunes. I’d like to remind you that nobody has any right to judge how poor people handle their money. Nobody has any right to say somebody doesn’t qualify as “poor” because they own such luxuries as a refrigerator and an Xbox, or because they’re dependent on upper- or middle-class family members for a slightly more comfortable lifestyle than eating roach-infested ramen. By extension, nobody has any right to tell people that their filesharing is out of necessity or out of a political crusade. It can be one, or the other, or both. And it’s absolutely elitist to say that it’s illegitimate.
Nobody gets to decide who’s being poor correctly. Not rich people, not poor people. And the latter is equally a problem, when poor people moralize at other poor people for not respecting property rights enough. Just like how people of color can internalize racist narratives, LGBT people can internalize homophobia, and women can internalize patriarchy, you don’t have to be upper class to be classist. Anyone can buy into the bullshit of classism and perpetuate it, even though it’s against their own interests. And nobody internalizes copyright classism like starving artists.
In case it’s not clear, the definition of “classism,” “sexism,” “racism,” etc. we’re using here is from social justice theory, i.e. a culture-wide system of domination by one group of people over another. It’s not a synonym for one individual having a prejudice. A poor person who hates rich people is not “reverse classist.” That’s a prejudiced poor person. But there’s no culturally-pervasive system that gives their prejudice any power.
Maybe you’re a struggling artist, writer, coder, or other creative person who has a hard time feeling sympathy for all the people who enjoy the fruits of your hard work and don’t give you anything in return. You know what? I am too. I published a book that nobody bought when I was 16, I had a failed Kickstarter when I was 21, and by 24 I’ve had empty donation boxes at more film screenings and presentations than I can count. This is not because people are mean, cruel, and callous. This is because everybody else is just as broke as I am.
When there’s not enough money to go around, only about 1% of artists ever get any of it. It doesn’t go to the best 1% of artists (and if you think it does, please read all three books in the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy and then get back to me). It goes to the luckiest 1%. That’s just the way this screwed up world works.
We need to stop internalizing classism and believing that it is a crime to be poor, and that people without money don’t deserve nice things. It starts with refusing to believe that you, yourself, are financially struggling because it’s your own fault, that you’re not good enough, or that your situation is the result of anything besides an accident of what family you were born into. That’s what happens when we internalize bigotry: we hate ourselves just as much as the people like us.
So if we really care about the injustice towards struggling artists who can’t make any money from their hard work, let’s direct our rage at the people and institutions that are reinforcing economic inequality. Don’t take it out on the people who just want to distract themselves from how broke we all are with some free Game of Thrones.