Aaron Swartz's Non-Martyrdom

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


January 23, 2013

Aaron Swartz's Non-Martyrdom

I didn’t want to say anything about Aaron Swartz’s death because it felt disrespectful to use the occassion of his suicide to point out the flaws of his activism. But then I wondered if this isn’t another version of the injunction to not politicize a tragedy, where politics is a separate arena, merely a game compared with the really fundamental, pre-political world of life and death—as if politics does not already deal in life and death. Swartz life and death was certainly political, so maybe it is not disrespectful to engage with his politics at this time.

There can be no doubt that the movements Swartz was a part of—the free culture movement, copyleft, the open source movement, peer production, information freedom, etc.—confront some of the problems of capitalism. But that is a long way from saying that the movements themselves are ultimately motivated out of anti-capitalist sentiments, or even reformist ones. As their activists are fond of saying, these movements are “beyond” Left and Right, which really means that they are coalitions that cross the traditional political spectrum. They are able to do so because they successfully obscure the antagonisms that cut through the social field, bringing opposite sides of the political spectrum together in a false harmony.

It is hardly necessary to point out that they represent ideology par excellence, as Žižek puts it. The divisions between the pro- and anti-capitalist sides of the movement are systematically concealed in the name of unity and solidarity. Who will win when the tension comes to the fore? If events progress as they have in the free software/open source movements, we already know the answer. Today, Richard Stallman is a laughing stock and a pariah because he took the idea of free software too far. What was “too far”? His agenda began to deviate too much from the commercial interests of technology companies who are really directing the movement.

We should expect the same betrayal to happen with today’s iterations of that movement. Corporate backing will drive the movement forward as long as it serves their purposes. With the job done, they will turn on anyone with even slightly more radical plans. Victory will be declared and those who continue to fight will be denounced as unrealistic, utopian dreamers. What can be done? Expose the antagonism in advance, on your own terms: gain the upper hand by splintering the movement, which would force the pro-capitalist faction to compromise to bring the movement back together for pragmatic reasons of advancing concrete agendas of mutual agreement.

A second lesson to be drawn from Swartz’s death is about political activism. The free software movement of the 1990s (before open source companies really became successful) rarely concerned itself much with politics except for relatively obscure disputes over governments mandating proprietary document formats and advocating for making all taxpayer funded code open source. The post-Napster free culture movement is much more explicitly political, taking aim at policy relating to copyright term extensions and enforcement.

The most recent and successful example is the protests against SOPA, where it seemed as if the movement was starting to take off and achieve broader appeal. With that in the background, Aaron Swartz’s death should galvanize the movement even further, and there have been clear attempts to elevate him as a martyr for the cause. One example is Lawrence Lessig, who tries to draw a comparison between Swartz and Martin Luther King:

Yet here’s the thing to remember on MLK weekend (even though my saying this violates a rule I believe in firmly, a kind of inverse to Godwin’s law, because though I believe these two great souls were motivated by exactly the same kind of justice, King’s cause was greater): How many felonies was Martin Luther King, Jr., convicted of?

(Italics are mine—it would be best for everyone if we excused the unique outrageousness of this claim as the ravings of man driven mad by grief.) What surprised me about this attempt (and others) to frame Swartz’s death as a martyring was how it seems to have failed. In the first few days after an event like this, chaos reigns. Everyone is casting around searching for the meaning of the event before clear narratives take shape. I’d expect something along the lines of “Prosecuting kids and grannies for innocent filesharing isn’t enough for the government, now they’re harrassing us to the point of suicide!”

A meme like that would certainly turn his suicide into a powerful, motivating symbol for the movement, but at least in my reading of the reaction, it has largely been rejected. Some writers have advanced this line, like this Guardian editorial: Aaron Swartz: cannon fodder in the war against internet freedom.

Instead, the dominant meme of prosecutorial misconduct and overreach has emerged, which is a completely new issue that has had no connection with the free culture movement until now. This idea has two variants: the first, that Carmen Ortiz, the prosecutor, was uniquely corrupt - she used extreme methods because she was politically ambitious and wanted another notch on her belt; the second, that Ortiz is not especially brutal, the US criminal justice system as whole lacks proportionality, it regularly bullies and intimidates defendants in an attempt to be “tough on crime.”

The second claim is certainly true, and I don’t know enough about Ortiz to know if those allegations are true. But that’s not important anyway. What matters is that the movement could have had its martyr, but they rejected him. Rather than claiming his death was a consequence of the government’s opposition to an open internet, they insist that the cause was prosecutorial overreach, a problem completely unrelated to the movement’s agenda.

To continue Lessig’s already absurd analogy, it’s as if civil rights leaders reacted to MLK’s death by mobilizing the movement against the availability of sniper rifles like the one used by in his assassination. That’s basically what’s happening as the free culture movement backs Rep. Lofgren’s proposal bearing his name—Aaron’s Law—which would modify the specific law that allowed the prosecutor to charge him with felonies.

Few people seem to accept the Guardian’s line that this is how governments crush hackers who oppose them and their agenda to control the internet. The reaction has been relatively muted, where we should be seeing crazy conspiracy theories claiming that the MPAA orchestrated his suicide as payback for his involvement in SOPA.

But why isn’t Swartz accepted as a martyr? I think it’s because as a martyr, his death could only be avenged by a proportionate political victory won in his name—something like a momentous, historic change in copyright law. But he will not be the movement’s martyr because the leaders of the movement have no plans for a historic change.

Lawrence Lessig is an unrepentant enthusiast of third-wayism, presenting conservative arguments for campaign finance reform apparently under the illusion that significant public problems can be solved by convincing Democrats and Republicans that they secretly agree with each other. Here he is again, advancing the argument that conservatives really do support free culture, oppose the spread of markets in every corner of life and why can’t we just all come together since everyone so obviously agrees with everyone else?

For Lessig, change comes when we realize that we always supported it, we just didn’t know it. Rather than breaking—even modestly—with today’s ideological coordinates to open up space for the new, Lessig proposes to extend them. Under such a view, a death elevated into a martyrdom which demands a historic break has no place.

Lessig’s comparison of Aaron Swartz with MLK is therefore not what it first appears, as a politicization of his death. It is only personal grief over the loss of an idealist friend driven to suicide. But the way that Lessig has taken the lead in reframing the issue as prosecutorial bullying also suggests that he is acting to ensure that the free culture movement remains in his control, strictly to advance his “sensible” technocratic policy proposals.