Capitalism and the Death of Writing

by Jason Stotts

Writing is hard.  Not only is it hard to string words together into sentences that people want to read, it’s hard to express your thoughts clearly in writing.  You can think you have a great grasp of an idea until the moment you go to write about it, only to find that you don’t understand it at all.  The only thing better, to understand your own ideas, is trying to teach something you “know” to someone else.  That’ll show you if you really understand it or not.

But writing is also hard as a profession: it’s hard to get people to pay you for your ideas.  Even when they like the ideas.  Even when they agree with the ideas.  Even when you make their lives better with your ideas.  It’s hard to get people to pay you for your ideas.

This is hardly a new complaint among writers.  In fact, many a writer has seen the death of their career, not due to a lack of talent, but due to a lack of being able to make it profitable.  Thus, it came as no surprise to me to see a writer bemoaning this in an opinion piece for the New York Times called “Slaves of the Internet Unite!” by Tim Kreider.

People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it. “Unfortunately we don’t have the budget to offer compensation to our contributors…” is how the pertinent line usually starts. But just as often, they simply omit any mention of payment.

A familiar figure in one’s 20s is the club owner or event promoter who explains to your band that they won’t be paying you in money, man, because you’re getting paid in the far more valuable currency of exposure. This same figure reappears over the years, like the devil, in different guises — with shorter hair, a better suit — as the editor of a Web site or magazine, dismissing the issue of payment as an irrelevant quibble and impressing upon you how many hits they get per day, how many eyeballs, what great exposure it’ll offer. “Artist Dies of Exposure” goes the rueful joke.

I couldn’t agree more.  I would never ask you to come fix my plumbing for free, or repair my car, or fix my roof.  But no one thinks twice about asking a writer to write for free.  Or reading a blogger’s works and never donating.

Things, however, start to take a weird twist here as, immediately after bemoaning the fact that no one pays writers, he attacks capitalism:

Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge. I now contribute to some of the most prestigious online publications in the English-speaking world, for which I am paid the same amount as, if not less than, I was paid by my local alternative weekly when I sold my first piece of writing for print in 1989. More recently, I had the essay equivalent of a hit single — endlessly linked to, forwarded and reposted. A friend of mine joked, wistfully, “If you had a dime for every time someone posted that…” Calculating the theoretical sum of those dimes, it didn’t seem all that funny.

It’s weird to attribute people demanding things for free to capitalism, which is usually identified with…well, the opposite of that, with being “greedy” and interested in making money wherever it can.  On the other hand, people having a right to your work and no obligation to pay you is socialism, not capitalism.

I definitely agree with him that writer’s should be paid, but that’s a very capitalistic idea: that we should always trade value for value and never sacrifice ourselves for others.  Thus, it’s completely contradictory for this writer to hold these two strong beliefs: that he should be paid for his writing and that no one should be paid for their work and should do it for the collective.

Ultimately, you have the choice of self-sacrifice, altruism, collectivism, and socialism or self-interest, egoism, individualism, and capitalism.  If you want people to pay your for your writing, it’s capitalism you want.  Capitalism upholds the trader principle, where people trade value for value.  Socialism upholds the slavery principle, where all are obligated to work for all.

I know, for one, this writer would like paid for his work and capitalism is the way to make that happen.

  1. No Comments