The global political economy of knowledge: A reading list

…time to reactivate the blog…

For the past several years I’ve been teaching a 4th year/graduate seminar on the global political economy. In previous years I’ve taught it as a survey course, an advanced introduction to the various facets of the global economy: production, finance, knowledge/IP.

This year, however, I decided to repurpose it to focus on the global political economy of knowledge. As a political scientist/International Political Economy scholar, I’ve been very conscious that almost all of the action in this area is occurring in other disciplines: law, communication, STS and so on. As a result, not only have IPE and political science students been underexposed to what is arguably the dominant part of the global political economy, but the comparative advantages of Poli and IPE scholars have not been brought to bear fully on the knowledge economy/society/whatever. Most particularly, this includes a sensitivity to how issues like intellectual property, data governance and internet governance fit into the larger global political economy, and a particular sensitivity to the exercise of power of both state and non-state actors.

IPE scholars have an important role to play in the ongoing debate over issues such as the global role of knowledge-based companies and state surveillance. We’re trained to think about how it all fits together, on the links between politics and economics. But first we need to develop (or rediscover) theories that apply to a global political economy increasingly dominated by the control of knowledge.

Because there are so few courses on the global political economy of knowledge for students of IPE and political science, I thought it might be useful to share the syllabus, along with some thoughts on why I set it up the way I did.

Course design: Target audience

The course was an upper-year seminar course that includes 4th-year and Masters students. Only one out of 11 students (a Geography Masters student focusing on digital spaces) had any academic background in the issues covered in the course, although one student came from a prominent family of trademark lawyers, and another, a Brazilian MA student, had previously worked in branding.  That said, it’s safe to say that none of them had ever thought deeply about the control of knowledge, or even what knowledge was. To give you a better idea of where they stood at the beginning of the year, none of them could define what an algorithm was.

My goal for the course was to provide them with a theoretical framework for thinking through the economic and (especially) the political aspects of knowledge governance in its main forms. I wanted to highlight the role of human agency, contingency, and power underlying the technologies and rules they interact with every day.

The syllabus

In order to introduce them to the concept of knowledge governance, I structured the 12-week course to cover five issues: theory (weeks 1 and 2); intellectual property (weeks 3-5); internet governance and state surveillance (weeks 6-8); platform capitalism (week 9); and non-state internet governance (weeks 10-11). Week 12 was a wrap-up class in which students presented their papers in an academic-panel setting (I provided the coffee and doughnuts in order to make the simulation as real as possible).

With the exception of the theory weeks, each topic focused primarily on a key book that highlighted a specific part of what we referred to as the “knowledge structure.” While I didn’t exactly intend it, these books also exposed the students to a diverse set of ideological frameworks, from liberalism to Marxism. I’d never taught a books-only seminar before, and one of my worries had been that I wouldn’t expose students to enough conflicting approaches. I may have strong opinions on all of these topics, I’m not interested in preaching to my students, beyond the idea that these issues are really, really important and worthy of study.

Some notes on pedagogy

Pedagogically, we turned the third week of the IP and data/surveillance sections into class debates, which was helped by the small size of the classes. It was a useful way to see if they had understood the key points covered by the books. Also, even though all of the books (obviously) have very distinct points of view, the students had no trouble arguing both sides of the questions.

Our Week 9 seminar, on Nick Srnicek’s Platform Capitalism, was originally scheduled to be a joint class with a graduate class on theory and technology taught by a political theory colleague. The idea was that we would both assign the books to our respective classes, and then merge them to see how a political theorist and an IPE scholar might approach the same material. We couldn’t make the timing work, so she made a guest appearance in my class, and I returned the favour later that day. Overall, I think the students in both classes found the change in perspective illuminating, with me highlighting the more mundane issues of power and economy, and she linking it back to how forms of economic and political organization affect the human condition. Fun stuff.

Finally, because all of the books built on each other, presented within a (more or less) unified theoretical framework, the class proved perfect for a two-question take-home exam: Describe the “knowledge structure” referring to all of the texts covered in class; and identify and discuss two policy issues raised by the readings and/or in class.

Results

I haven’t seen the actual course evaluations yet, but based on an hour-plus discussion in Week 11, the students seemed to find the class a very useful and engaging introduction to a part of the world they’d never thought of before. So that was nice.

The books and readings

Part 1: Theory

Week 1: Newspaper articles; Handout “What is knowledge? The seven ground rules” 

Week 2: Theorizing the knowledge structure (articles)

Blayne Haggart, “Incorporating the study of knowledge into the IPE mainstream, or, when does a trade agreement stop being a trade agreement?” Journal of Information Policy 7 (2017): 176-203. (open access) 

Blayne Haggart, “New economic models, new forms of state: The emergence of the “info-imperium” state,” Kritika, forthcoming.

Christopher May, “Strange fruit: Susan Strange’s theory of structural power in the international political economy,” Global Society 10, no. 2 (1996): 167-189.

My goal in the first week was to get them used to the idea that the regulation of knowledge – be it data, intellectual property, internet governance, or even cultural production – is inherently political, and that no matter how you structure the rules, you’re going to create winners and losers. The first week we discussed the question of cultural appropriation, centred around some newspaper articles that raised the questions of who should be allowed to use Indigenous symbols in art, and who should be able to view sacred art. I’d hoped to make a strong link to our own taken-for-granted notions about copyright and plagiarism, but overall I think I left the students more confused than enlightened. That said, in our review they mentioned that subsequent class discussions made clear the points I was trying to make. Overall verdict: good idea, execution and explanation needed work.

More successful in the first week was a handout setting out seven ground rules for understanding what knowledge is. This really helped set out the politics and economics of knowledge governance. You can read it here, but in short they are:

  1. “Knowledge” and “information” refer to two different things.
  2. Deciding that some piece of information count as knowledge is a conscious, political act.
  3. Knowledge is intangible.
  4. There are always rules governing knowledge. They always benefit some groups and practices, and impede others.
  5. New knowledge builds on existing knowledge.
  6. Those who control the definition, creation, and use of knowledge also control the future direction and development of knowledge.
  7. A society based on the exploitation of knowledge requires constant surveillance in order to function properly and efficiently.

In this class, we defined knowledge as including both data and intellectual property, partial, mediated representations of reality (which we referred to as “information”). Perhaps not the terminology used by everyone, but it worked for us.

In Week 2, I presented the theoretical framework we used in the class. The framework, which I have developed over a series of conference presentations and journal articles, melds the work of Susan Strange on structural power with Robert W. Cox’s emphasis on state-society complexes and historic blocs. I complemented it with Christopher May’s critique of Strange’s “knowledge structure,” pointing out several issues which I have attempted to fix via my own work (the article also suggests that a Cox-Strange melding could produce useful results; I wholeheartedly agree).

In a nutshell, Strange provides the ontology for thinking about the relationship of knowledge to other parts of the political economy, while Cox offers a mechanism for understanding how change happens. You can read the articles (I’ll link to the Kritika one when it’s released shortly), but the key points are:

  • The underlying rules and norms governing production, finance, security, and knowledge are key power resources in the global political economy.
  • None of these “structures” is a priori more important than the others, although the logic of one structure tends to dominate the others at a given time, and will shape how they operate.
  • We’re currently witnessing the ascension of the knowledge structure.
  • Control over these areas is a contest between state and non-state actors. The state is not necessarily always the main or dominant actor, so we also have to pay attention to private regulation and norm-setting.
  • The “knowledge structure” covers the legitimation of what is considered to be useful knowledge, as well regulations over its creation, dissemination/transmission and use. This means that data, intellectual property, internet governance, and state/commercial surveillance are not separate issues, but parts of a larger, coherent whole (i.e., a “knowledge structure”).
  • The main unit of analysis in global politics is the “state-society complex,” mutually reinforcing relationships between state actors (the state in this view is not a unitary entity) and groups in civil society (e.g., industries). They will tend to pass legislation and promote norms that favour their specific interests over others.

For the purposes of this class, this framework allows for us to cast a wide net, both in terms of substantive theory (it can fit with liberal or Marxist views of the world), as well as in terms of issue focus. It highlights the importance of rule-setting as opposed to relational power. Unlike most other approaches, which tend to consider, say, IP in terms of itself, it highlights its wider effects on everything from production to state security.

Weeks 3-5: Intellectual Property

Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite. Information Feudalism. Sterling: Earthscan, 2002. Available free as a pdf download.

This is, by far, the oldest book on the list, but it is incredibly useful in setting the stage for the rest of the class. Sixteen years later, it’s amazing how current it remains. It provides a very readable introduction to students about the political nature and effects of intellectual property rights, including its effects on access to drugs and access to knowledge in the developing and developed worlds. Drahos and Braithwaite’s framing of strong IP rights as creating a new form of feudalism clearly highlights the winner-take-all dynamics of an strong-IP-based economy. There is also a strong social-justice element to the book, which fits nicely with Strange’s famous research question, cui bono (who benefits)? Their democratic framework for assessing whether a particular IP law or treaty is just is also particularly useful.

The book also traces the emergence of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) as the most consequential development in global IP law in the past half-century. We live in a TRIPS world, and this volume is an excellent introduction to it.

The book’s one drawback is that it assumes a basic knowledge of the different types of intellectual property. This can be a problem given that IP law tends to intimidate even non-IP lawyers. To compensate, I gave a brief lecture on the mechanics of the main IP types, which seemed to do the trick.

Weeks 6-8: Shawn M. Powers and Michael Jablonski, The Real Cyber War: The Political Economy of Internet Freedom. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015.

This is an excellent book that I cannot recommend too highly. Powers and Jablonski inventively use a Realist (in the International Relations sense) framework – here called a geopolitical approach – to analyze the US conception of “Internet freedom.” In doing so, they highlight the extent to which seemingly neutral/positive ideas around online free speech, promoted by everyone from the US State Department to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, also tend to reinforce the global economic strength of US telecoms and internet companies. They further note that this is nothing new: the US has been doing this in one form or another since the invention of the radio.

Their discussion of why internet freedom-internet censorship/balkanization is a false dichotomy is particularly important. They point out that all states always, including today, have always controlled and limited communications that they perceive not to be in their interest. By bringing the state into the picture, and highlighting the tight relationship between Silicon Valley and the US state, they offer a useful corrective to analyses which are either state- or industry-focused. Their section on the influential CIA VC fund In-Q-Tel should be required reading for anyone who still thinks that corporate and state surveillance aren’t linked, and their analysis on multistakeholder governance is a convincing argument that MSG isn’t neutral, its politics and power are just more subtle.

They also develop the concept of the Information-Industrial Complex, arguing that Silicon Valley and its associated internet companies arose out of state programs related to the Cold War (the internet) and a post-9/11 security-based obsession with total surveillance.

They also have a great chapter on exactly what Google is and the life cycle of data that should be required reading for anyone wanting to understand what might otherwise be a daunting topic.

Oh, and their solution to dealing with the issue of privacy online, modelled on the international treaties governing privacy in regular mail, is genius. As the Facebook debacle continues, every day that this idea doesn’t gain traction is disappointing.

Of course, by emphasizing the state to the degree they do, they almost necessarily understate the society/business side of things. But given that pretty much everyone else is focused on that part of the equation, that’s as much a feature as a bug.

Week 9: Nick Srnicek. Platform Capitalism. New York: Polity, 2017.

When I came across this short, masterful book a couple of weeks before I had to finalize my syllabus, I knew I had to cram it in here somehow. Srnicek, better and more compactly than anyone I’ve yet read, illustrates how the ascension of the knowledge structure affects the other structures. He clearly walks the reader through the various types of platforms, showing what happens when companies rely on the production and use of data, and what the troubling consequences are, for income inequality, privacy and economic stability to name only a few issues.

In many ways, Platform Capitalism is the mirror opposite of The Real Cyber War. Where Powers and Jablonski see the state as the ultimate mover in constructing our current online world, the state is almost completely absent from Platform Capitalism. Instead, Srnicek credits the rise of platform capitalism to the inner workings of capitalism itself and the ongoing search for profit in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. Each book undoubtedly contains elements of the truth, and the benefit from being read in rapid succession.

One other notable thing about Platform Capitalism is that Srnicek is very light on proposed answers to dealing with the myriad issues caused by this new form of economic organization. He canvasses the alternatives – status quo, regulation, non-profit competitors, public ownership – without sounding too enthusiastic about any of them. I have some thoughts about the issue, but in a classroom setting Srnicek’s open-endedness is a virtue, an invitation to discussion.

Weeks 10-11: Natasha Tusikov, Chokepoints: Global Private Regulation on the Internet. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.

If The Real Cyber War is too state-centric, and Platform Capitalism too society-centric, Chokepoints hits the midpoint. That it deals with the very hot topic of whether and how large internet companies should regulate, or be forced to regulate, their users’ activities made it the perfect capstone for this course.

The book (disclosure: written by my partner, which meant I was able to convince her to guest lecture on the first week) highlights the tight, and often hidden, relationship between the state and what she calls “macrointermediaries” – your Googles, your PayPals, your GoDaddys, and so on – when it comes to regulating online behaviour. Her case study, regulation of online trademark infringement, highlighted the centralization that has emerged online: if you can convince the few key players controlling search, online payments, advertising, domain name registration and online marketplaces that they should regulate in your interest, then you can basically control what happens on the internet.

Most importantly, Tusikov reveals that the so-called “voluntary” agreements between rightsholders and these macrointermediaries are not at all voluntary: they are agreed to with a large degree of state coercion, in the form of threatened regulation, lawsuits under existing ambiguous laws, and the implicit threat of the withdrawal of government contracts. It names the United States as the key actor in this area, although the United Kingdom, European Union and China are also very active in the same way. She argues convincingly that these agreements have been used to subvert open policy and legislative debates (those of us who remember the very public SOPA fight will be dismayed to learn that companies have enacted much of SOPA through these informal agreements), while raising serious concerns related to due process.

Like Srnicek, Tusikov has no easy answers for dealing with this state of affairs beyond raising awareness that these agreements are actually happening. Judging from the shocked, surprised and angry reactions her book talks have received in many different settings, it’s a necessary first step.

That’s it

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading! As I wrote above, I found this mix of readings offered a nice, coherent and comprehensive introduction to the topic of the global knowledge politics. I’m looking forward to running the course again.

If you have any questions or comments, including other reading suggestions, please leave them below. Be nice.

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