Gavin Mueller is a Ph.D candidate in cultural studies at George Mason University. His dissertation research examines global media piracy from the perspective of labor and labor struggles. He is on the editorial board of Jacobin Magazine, a journal of left political analysis, and Viewpoint Magazine, a journal of Marxist theory. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Pirate Labor: Media Piracy and Restructuring of Digital Capitalism
This paper, delivered in a traditional conference format, will analyze media piracy as an emergent form of labor during a time of capitalist restructuring in digital networks. The goal is to provide a perspective on media piracy that abandons the moralizing discourse surrounding the ethical choice to purchase, and instead theorizes pirate activity as a kind of autonomous worker organization, one that shares features with other ways of organizing so-called post-Fordist labor. It seeks to answer the following questions: How are pirates organized? How do pirates conceive of their self-activity? How do pirates produce and reproduce their online environments economically and socially? Does piracy produce value, and for whom?
To work towards an answer to these questions, I will touch on multiple distinct moments in the piracy struggles on the internet: the Warez scene, in which youth and low-status IT workers — largely white, male, middle class, and living in the Global North — organized insurgent practices against the software industry, and articulated an ethos heavily influenced by anti-corporate and anti-commercial free software ideology. These groups would provide organizational models and ideologies for future pirates, even as they were driven underground by law enforcement.
My analysis amounts to an inquiry into the technical and class composition of piracy online, with the goal of understanding political potentials in the politicized self-organization of productive activity, particularly in light of the ways in which capital restructures the digital environment in order to co-opt these practices and turn them into sources of value. This is a necessary step into thinking about the political organization of digital labor.