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March 2008

To prevent democracy and to prevent personal freedom is to interfere with the free market

We live in a time of presumed consensus when it comes to economics.  In recent decades, the logic of "free market capitalism" has been accepted without much debate.  Indeed, the basic laws of supply-and-demand are elegant and true.  We ought to allow people to trade freely so that market forces will allocate resources most appropriately.  This will theoretically encourage innovation, create prosperity, and minimize waste.  Besides, to allow people to trade freely agrees with our natural impulses which favor individual liberty.

Those who argue on behalf of the free market have baited us with pure logic.  But there is a gap in their logic when we are told that the market must not be "interfered with" by governments.  Governments, we are told, ought not regulate trade, create labor regulations, set minimum wages, and absolutely must not provide nationalized services such as health care.  We are also told that labor unions are counter-productive because they "interfere with" the market, which will naturally provide the best deal for employees over the long-run.

What these free market economists fail to recognize is that economics cannot be separated from people.  The market works when people trade products and money...not when products and money trade themselves.  In fact, a market cannot exist at all without "interference" by people.  Every transaction that takes place is a human reaction to the market. 

When people organize a company to create a complex product, that product is a reaction to the market.  Similarly, when people organize a trade union in order to fight inhumane working conditions, this too is a human reaction to the market.  Therefore, the union is a product of the market.  It is also true that, when people form a democratic government, then this government is a reaction to, and therefore a product of, the market.  In fact, there would be no need for socialist policies if not for the reality of the market.  So if people vote for nationalized health care, the establishment of trade policies, a minimum wage, or social security, then all of this is a product of the market itself.  There is no conflict or inconsistency between any of this. 

How can it be logically argued that people ought to be free to buy and sell, to hire and fire, but ought not be free to unite?  We ought not be free to establish a democratic government to represent our collective interests?  We ought not be free to decide, out of our own free will, to form a trade union?  We ought not be free to create regulations and then abolish them if they prove ineffective?  On what basis, and from who's perspective, can such an argument be made?  Are those in positions of influence in just a bit of denial when they convince themselves that all things which interfere with what they want are interferences with the market?

The most brilliant economists are baffled when they observe economies which appear to conform more-or-less to their free market ideals, but then fail to deliver the results they logically expect.  They are still baffled by all that which has gone wrong with those countless free market experiments launched in Latin America and the former U.S.S.R. over the past decades.  They blame any and all problems on "market interference".  Yet ironically they, themselves, are the only ones interfering.  Only they -- those who stand in the way of personal freedom and authentic democracy -- are to blame for perceived market failures.  When they handcuff market participants, unfairly favor the powerful, rig elections, and muzzle free speech, then they make it impossible for the market to function fully.

Countless free market economies have been brutally enforced by dictators who have been faithful to the idea of minimizing perceived interference with the market.  When dictators brutally shut down unions, eliminate worker safety standards, remove trade tariffs, abolish minimum wages, and stifle dissent, they do so at least partially under the guise of letting the market function without interference.  What they have failed to recognize is that when you eliminate personal freedom, take away free speech, make it impossible for workers to unite, and make it impossible for the collective voice of people to be heard in the form of a democratic government...well, it is only then that you have interfered with the market.

A free market cannot exist without freedom.  It cannot exist without democracy.  In fact, it is all part of the same thing.

Creative Commons: the new Internet Folk Music movement

What is the history of folk music?  At it's most basic, it was music by and for the common person.  As the product of authentic culture, it was written locally and shared locally to the extent that it eventually became part of, and even helped define, that culture.  Folk music was only performed live because it existed long before recording technology.  So the only way for it to be passed on was from person to person, community to community, from generation to generation.  Only that which was good enough, and meaningful enough, survived.  It typically wasn't published or copyrighted.  Popular songs were performed by anyone who felt inspired to do so.

The ability to record music is what killed what we now call "traditional" folk music.  In more advanced societies, these songs became artifacts.  Once they were recorded a few times, there was a sense that they were preserved...and the shared, communal responsibility to remember and pass along the songs was removed.  Music had changed.  What was once local and alive was replaced by that which was national and recorded.  By the time Rock & Roll came along in the '60's, the music industry had completely shifted the way we conceive of music.  That which was big was what mattered.  The authentic, local community was eventually replaced by celebrity and the global community.  And while folk-like styles of music persisted through the "folk-revival" music of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Woodie Guthrie, and Leonard Cohen, "folk music" in the truer sense of the word was dead.

Then the Internet came along to change music yet again.  Napster and other file-sharing networks were the first clues.  While the industry fought it, music fans sensed at some basic human level that music was meant to be shared freely.  Despite what we are told by the forces of global capitalism, we are humans first and consumers second.  Our human impulse was to let the music play.  So the music of the mega-stars and the 2nd-tier, "minor stars" of the indie world was traded freely and spread virally (though impersonally).

I say "impersonally" because the P2P networks aren't really social.  We don't really interact when using Bearshare or Limewire.  So the next step was for communities like MySpace, iLike, and to reintroduced the social relationship back into music.  These Internet communities put the music fan at the center and encourage fans to interact with each other...with musical taste at the center of those interactions and relationships.

So what am I going on about?  What does any of this have to do with folk music?  Before I explain, let me more accurately define some of the characteristics of folk music:

  • It is evolving, living, breathing
  • It is rooted in authentic culture (ceremonies, events, traditions, interwoven with other art-forms)
  • It is created by ordinary people with instruments available to them
  • It is shared with ordinary people without any institutional intermediaries
  • It is communal / shared freely
  • It is not owned by anybody

Considering these characteristics, I believe that Creative Commons will enable the new folk movement.  The Creative Commons copy-left model provides various options for artists to set their music free.  It is a logical extension of the idea that no new music is truly new or truly original.  Every new song is a mutated version of what the artist has heard before.  But never mind that; every artist wants his or her music to be heard and experienced.  To me it is simply inconceivable to allow the music industry to say who can and can't play a stand in the way of an artist and potential fans. 

So the licensing chosen for the Abscondo and Sungod Abscondo debut albums allows anybody to do anything they want to with the music -- share it, perform it, alter it, sell it, use it in films, podcasts, etc. -- as long as proper credit is given. 

At this point it should be clear how Creative Commons, brought to life with social sites like Jamendo (my favorite), iLike,, and many others, make it possible for a new "Internet Folk Movement" to emerge.  We think of folk music as a style that usually involves acoustic instruments, but that's only because these were the only instruments available to folk musicians historically.  "Internet Folk", as I'm defining it, isn't limited by genre.  Ordinary people have computers and can afford the basic equipment to produce any sound at all.  When that music is shared directly with music fans, without an institutional intermediary, and when that music has been set free to evolve, it is living-and-breathing folk music!  It is a modern strain of something that has been dead for so many years!

While the first wave of this modern folk music movement will remain primarily centered around the Internet, I believe it will eventually become more local.  People will become exhausted by trying to keep up with thousands of talented musicians around the world, and will begin to care more about those who are in their own communities.  There will be small but very loyal followings of musicians who perform in small, local venues.  The music will get better because artists will respond to perceptive fans who actually care.  When this finally happens, the new folk music will be alive and well.

So the time has come for more and more artists and music fans to finally look beyond that which is big, expensive, and marketed.  It will take some time for both fans and artists to change their basic assumptions like, 1) music is expensive to make, 2) musicians are celebrities and aren't like us, 3) talented musicians ought to get rich, 4) being a musician should be a full-time job, and 5) all the good music makes it to the radio anyway.  None of that is true anymore, and in time these beliefs will fade.

This new, Internet Folk Music movement will eventually overtake the music industry as we know it today.  Music will, once again, be claimed as something authentic and part of the local culture and community.  While music was once purchased to be listened to for a while and then remain forever stored away on some dusty record, cassette, or CD...Creative Commons music will live and breath.

I'm proud to be part of this new movement.  Who wouldn't want to take part in such a beautiful thing?

What is

They say that everything happens for a reason.  What in the world is that supposed to mean anyway?  Everything happens for...a reason? 

Taken literally, I agree.  If my wife left me, for example, the reason might be that I didn't treat her well.  If I had a car accident, the reason might be that I wasn't a careful driver.  But this actually isn't how that phrase is meant.  It is usually said by religious or superstitious people to mean the exact opposite of its literal meaning.  What they mean to communicate is that "the thing" has "just happened" and "the reason" will be revealed at some future time.  It is a nod to the notion of fate; that our life has already been plotted out by some higher power and all these things that are happening to us only serve the purpose of preparing us for this fate that already happened but actually didn't. 

I use this as an example of a kind of thinking that defines all religious or superstitions thought (as opposed to rational thought).  We observe the world either with the belief that God or the supernatural is in control, or with the understanding that the supernatural is an invention of our minds to make us feel better about "the natural" -- what actually is.  We either believe in destiny, or we believe in making our own destiny.  We either believe that the preachers, mystics, numerologists, and astrologist have merely come up with ideas and observations to describe reality, or we convince ourselves that reality somehow shapes itself around the mythical power of their ideas.  We either get it right or we get it backwards.

Is reality what is...with religions and superstitions existing in an attempt to describe it? Or is the idea what is...with reality shaping itself around it?  Take a simple example: do numbers exist as a verbal and written expression of the fact that our minds are clearly capable of perceiving 1, 2, and 3 items in front of us?  Or do items split themselves into numbers because the notion of a number was always some kind of universal truth which reality must conform to? 

Such questions may seem obscure or inconsequential, but it is what divides modern, rational thought from ancient, superstitious thought.  Superstitious thinkers believe that their religious or occultist teaches contain truth because, while the ideas may be ancient, they seem to describe the world of today.  A rational thinker would respond that, of course those ideas describe the world of today...those who came up with those ideas shared the human condition just as we do. 

How easy it would be to confuse our minds by cherry-picking facts to support our beliefs.  So many of us do this with the misguided notion that we will feel better and be more at peace when our beliefs are confirmed.  Keep a close eye on the individual who is in the process of explaining things away with the language of the supernatural.  Watch him get worked-up into a frenzy.  It is, in fact, that feeling of euphoria he seeks, not truth.  Drunk with his own illogic, it feels great to escape the rigors of rational thought for a moment.  I lived that way when I was much younger, and I agree that the confirmation of beliefs brings a temporary thrill, or even peace and contentedness if you are able to hold it in your mind.  But this state will always be temporary because it is wrong.  That which is wrong is that which does not conform to what is.  And when there is a gap between what is and what we believe, then reality seems harsh.

Greater and more permanent peace can be found in embracing the following idea: what is just is.  I have learned that what is is not threatening to me or my beliefs.  How could it be?  It just is.  And if reality seems to threaten me or my beliefs, then it is time to change myself or my thinking in order to conform to reality.  When we achieve a state in which our selves conform to what is, only then have we found the highest levels of peace, wisdom, and contentedness.  Only then can we hold opinions which are true and make decisions which are correct.   

To embrace what is is not to accept things as though they cannot be changed or responded to.  Things are the way they are because of cause and effect.  While superstitious thinkers are twisting their minds into knots trying to explain something with metaphor (usually confusing the two), others are simply noticing some of the patterns of cause and effect which quite clearly lead to a given reality or expected reality.  Some might be asking "Why does God let innocent Iraqi children die?"  I'd point out that the American invaders are there killing innocent people because the US government is owned by and run by corporate power...and that corporate power is interested in stealing Iraqi oil...and if that means having to kill those standing in their way, then so be it.  So, by simply looking at what is, my political position would be quite different from that person who asks unknowable, rhetorical questions and never dares to go beyond the question of why.

What is is that way simply because it is.  Language and ideas exist to describe what is, not the other way around.  What value is contained in an idea or belief system that does not respect what is?

Can small be the new big?

When Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova gave their now-famous acceptance speeches for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards, I (like so many others) enjoyed the moment fully with a joyful tear in my eye.  It was a moment of purity and goodness.

Through their humble words of encouragement, they spoke for me and millions of other independent, relatively unknown musicians and artists out here.  Yet days later, I realized that something bothered me about their message.  It might be a bit misguided of me to analyze such a thing too much, but it occurred to me that their message was, essentially, to "keep making art and one day maybe you too can be in a room like this and be rewarded like us."  That bothers me a little because it perpetuates the underlying problem.

My message would have been quite different.  My message would have been to keep making art regardless of whether you ever become recognized or ever entered such a room.  Let me explain.  I became familiar with Glen Hansard's music long before the Oscars.  It was passed on to me from a very good friend, and I passed it on to others since.  But I suspect millions of others were not open to their music in this way and, instead, had to wait until the Oscars before they ever heard of Glen Hansard.  That's the problem.  At some level, most people still believe that the best music, the best films, the best art will eventually "filter up" to gain the recognition it deserves.  But the reality is that for every Glen Hansard, there are literally hundreds or thousands of others just as talented who will never reach much of an audience at all.  And so people give up on making their art because they feel unsuccessful.  And so we live in a world void of so much potential beauty, for the simple reasons that both artists and fans place far too much value on the idea of "making it big".

So can small be the new big?  The technology to completely revolutionize things is now in place, but the collective mindset hasn't changed much over the years.  Most people still aren't paying attention.  Most of us think that if it is on TV, it must be good.  In fact, it is on TV, in the mainstream press, and on the radio simply because somebody put forth the necessary amount of money to get it there.  They create an illusion, and we consumers mostly accept the illusion without much thought.  Worse yet, we shut out that which does not conform to the illusion.

But what if we started appreciating that which is authentic over that which is polished?  What if we took seriously those sparks of inspiration that might be happening right next door or even across the world?  Once we could only choose among that which was offered by a few powerful corporations, but today we can choose amongst that which is created solely by living-and-breathing people and has been left completely unfiltered as it passes into your mind.

I'll leave you with an example.  If you appreciate music, first put on your headphones or turn on your good speakers.  Now go to and spend a few moments listening.  Download something if you like it.  Try to look at it for what it is...not for what it is in relation to that which is currently on MTV.  There are countless other sites like it or even better. 

Forget about what they are telling you to care about so that you can discover what you actually do care about.