Knowledge as Property: Who Owns What and Why

by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante

Published 5/16/2009

The general revolution that brought into the world reality the capitalist mode of thinking and the concomitant Western triumphalism created, inter alia, a racialist location of almost every institution. Any quick reading of the past five hundred years will demonstrate to the most uninformed reader that the accumulation of wealth by the West and the concomitant commodification of everything from sex to religion has left the world spiritually poorer. Actually the West has also commodified its own color so that whiteness is bought and sold as a property. In Brazil, for a long time the soccer hero Pele was considered white and in the previous regime of South Africa, a person of Japanese background or a visiting African American serving the United States government could also be white. The only reason for this situation was the investing of whiteness with the inauthentic significance of better than or superior to. Of course, this had neither reality in history nor in fact, it was simply a fictionalized version of self glorification.

However, by virtue of operating on the basis of this fiction and the others that accompanied it the White Western World created conditions for controlling not only its own population but the wealth produced in other lands. Native peoples of the Americas, Africa, and Asia were often victims of the single-minded attempt of Europeans to define a world in their own terms. Thus, Macaulay could write in the l9th century that the British ambition in India was to create a race of people who would British in taste, opinions, desires, fashion, and only Indian in color.

The fact that 358 billionaires control 45 % of the world's wealth underlines another aspect of these five hundred years and it is the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few at the expense of the many. Although Japan has assumed its role aside the Western powers in regards to wealth and in some instances more aggressive than the Western nations it has also fallen victim to the Western insistence on knowledge, that is, knowledge gained and understood by the West as power. Thus, Japanese millionaires regularly purchase Western knowledge in all of its forms, art, gadgets, encyclopedias, and first editions of European and American writers. These properties become evidence, in the Japanese mind, of their attainment of first orderness, a sort of racial categorization that places value on the acquisition of Western things. Poorer Asian or African nations with little surplus money are not inclined to spend their surplus on purchasing Western knowledge in the form of first edition books and European art, although they are often forced by virtue of the construction of their economies to purchase Western technology, textbooks, and consequently the creators and makers of those items, consultants, further enriching the West.

But what of knowledge and its commodification? "Knowledge as Property: Who Owns What and Why?" seeks to ferret out the complex relationship between knowledge, communication, ownership, and control. When the Europeans first met Africans they often claimed to have signed contracts that gave them African lands. With the Native Americans it was similar. Europeans using their own cultural barometers and measures often imposed by force their wills on the Native Americans, claiming afterwards that the land was given to them by the Native Americans or was traded for beads and trinkets. Once the land was in the hands of the Europeans, there was a transformation in conception. They began to colonize not just the geography but the information about the land as well. Colonized information became property to them. They owned it and could interpret it, also claiming the right to exclusive interpretation.

A principal model of domination in the Western world is through the accumulation of private property. It rarely matters if the property accumulated is considered a person or a book, the idea is to bring property to the social and political core and to disseminate information about it from the core. Europeans begin with the idea that only information worthwhile to Europe is significant. A number of institutions have been set up in the West to insure the domination of knowledge not just of Europe and America but of other parts of the world as well. This is why there are more significant historical monuments of early Mesopotamia in Europe than there are in Iraq, or why there are more pieces of African art in the French Museum of Man than there are in Abidjan. Thus, the museum, like the library, is a creation of accumulation of knowledge as if it is a commodity.

In Africa the idea of the library or the museum was connected to the memory of the ancestors, that is, to do what they wanted you to do, and to remember them and their deeds by perfecting their works. The idea of the museum was not separate from that of the library. In the West the separation of the library from the museum meant that the commodification of knowledge was going through the same process of specialization that was affecting the rest of the West.

The nature of the museum business is such that only a small cadre of white supremacists can be said to operate the museusms in contemporary Western societies. We know that they are White supremacists in a multiracial society when we see that their exhibits, their spaces, their lectures, their interests, and their promotions are essentially white racial in character. If you walk into the Philadelphia Museum of Art and see its permanent collection you would be seeing the same names as those you would see in any other American and European museum without reference to the dynamic character of this society as a multi racial and multi cultural reality. The aim is to marginalize African, Native American, and Asian people in the context of creative production in the West.

In every sector of the societies of the Western world and in some of the nonWestern world's societies the control of knowledge and the creation of fences to keep others from knowledge is the principal mechanism of the Western world. If you take any one of the knowledge producing institutions or the situations where knowledge is maintained you will discover that the fundamental aims of the institutions is to make information mysterious, to mystify the simple, to keep children away from the advance levelsof information, and to distance some groups of people from access to information. In reality, the idea behind racial and gender discrimination is rooted in the limitations of access to knowledge because knowledge has become property reserved for a few. But this reservation of knowledge is motivated by the quest for domination.

In the fields of astronomy and geology, the special character of this process is seen in the European penchant for naming natural phenomena, whether constellations or rock formations, after white people. It is a method of claiming the earth, much like Mercator claimed the globe or Amerigo Vespucci was given America. At the root of the knowledge as property crisis in the academy is the fact that whites have claimed what is not theirs. In other words, they have grabbed the space that has remained unoccupied as well as have changed the names of spaces that have always been occupied or to put it another way, space that was traditionally named by indigenous people has been renamed and captured as contraband. Anything that is owned by those who are African and Asian and American is up for grabs in this imperial reach of the white world. This means that information about Africa, if it is owned by Africans, is also up for contest in the minds of whites who seek to become the principal interpreters of other people's cultures.

The development of disciplines such as anthropology, ethno musicology, and paleontology were designed to produce knowledge that could be controlled and maintained in the hand of the West. There was no moral character to this development. The fact of the matter is that the character was of acquisition of information. So distorted has the situation become that the University of Syracuse is the center of information about Uganda and Kenya. If you want to find original documents about the Kenyan or Ugandan societies you are most likely to discover this information in Syracuse and not in Kampala and Nairobi.

Methods of Claiming Knowledge as Property

Many whites simply declared that knowledge, particularly African knowledge, belonged to the West, despite the fact that the knowledge was revealed in places other than Europe. There was an arrogance here, it goes without saying, as the European claimants on the knowledge industry in Africa or South America or Asia gathered to themselves the attributes of others. Thus Hegel could claim that Africa was outside of history, that it was no part of human history, and in so claiming make a statement within the context of Western society that dictated a different orientation to the One can impose one's will on land that is owned or claimed by others.

In some cases Africans and Asians have granted Europeans knowledge about their societies. Freely we have given and freely the Europeans have received. A host of African guides, Indian guides, have led Europeans to natural wonders and to historical locations only to have Europeans claim that they are the discoverers of those places. Or in some cases they have changed the names of the African places to European ones. A case in point is how Musiwatunya became Victoria Falls.

There is the situation with Cecil John Rhodes and Lobengula, the claim that Lobengula, the Paramount King of the Ndebeles, gave Zimbabwe to Rhodes' delegation by signing a contract, handing the land over to the whites. This was a fabrication but it was good enough for Europeans to enter with force into Zimbabwe.

Let me put forward a general working hypothesis about the buying and selling process of knowledge. The contemporary society, in Europe and America, has yet to confront the fundamental issue of the payment for knowledge. Yet all around us we see the fallout of this process. Take the issue of the cost of the instruments of retrieving knowledge or storing knowledge to be used later. For the majority of people the cost of a computer is just now moving to an acceptable price for the average family's budget. So if you did not have or do not have now a computer you are outside of the loop of knowledge that is produced in the world. Nor can you actually add your voice to the mix that is defining the state of knowledge. I once visited the presidential offices of an African president only to find that his secretary was still using a typewriter and there was not a computer to be seen. This is not simply a matter of being unfamiliar but rather a matter of the cost of computerizing offices and teaching all of the staff members the various applications for the computers. Let me go further and say that the computer is just one instrument that must be taken into consideration when we examine the cost of knowledge.

The protocols of knowledge acquisition involve financial cost often beyond the scope of the masses of people to afford. A series of fees, reproduction costs, licenses, access payments, and subscription prices for journals or membership fees for book clubs or professional organizations make it impossible for some people to have access to knowledge. Even conferences have become expenses that most people cannot afford and therefore they cannot get the most current information. When a conference fee is $385.00 plus the cost of airline tickets and hotel charges most individuals must leave the knowledge to elites whose bourgeois class conditions give them greater access to information.

What is predictable is that the knowledge necessary to change the conditions of people's lives is mystified by those who control it. This is particularly true in the health area. There is absolutely no reason why it should cost an American person $1000 per day to be in a hospital except for the immoral construction of the capitalist greed.

Knowledge is a commodity to sell and possess in the construction of the West. I own a certain knowledge and can patented it for l9 years or copyright it for 75. New forms of ownership are being explored right now because of the proliferation of computer software programs. But all of this is rooted in the historical encounter with nature and with other people.

Take the protection of fire as an example. In prehistoric times the protection of fire, particularly in Europe, because that is where it was essential for heat in the winter, was tantamount to protection of civilization or society. If you did not protect your fire, you could freeze to death or die of hunger. So the protection of fire was a chief responsibility of the keeper or chief or leader of the clan. Dogs were trained to sit outside of the entrance to caves to protect the fire burning inside from strangers, whose ambition was often to steal fire. In this respect the protecting of and attempting to steal fire worked together to create xenophobia, fear of strangers and also the idea that the dog was European man's best friend. This is myth upon which the protection of knowledge is based. It is a myth based on ignorance and fear that if others possess certain knowledge they would endanger the right of whites. But if we are sharing and there is trust then there is no need for fear and distrust. It is only when you will use your knowledge of fire to raid my village and to set my houses and fields afire that we must be enemies.

Knowledge, like fire, is the literal and concrete result of creative production. Thus, knowledge , not the creative process, is locked behind the door of no-admittance. Knowledge becomes the accumulation of the products of creation, the actual information in a packaged and useful form. So in order to keep knowledge away from others it is necessary to build structures that contain these forms, these packages, and then to put people in charge of protecting access. In fact, one might even conceal the presence of the knowledge, claiming it does not exist when it does, or saying that you do not have it when you actually have it and are using it. These are feats of great magic, sort of now you see it and now you don't kind of operations. It is the logic of the West in regards to almost all kinds of knowledge that affects or could affect the African nations.

The knowledge to do away with poverty over much of the world exists. This is no miracle. This is no great revelation. What does not exist is the will to see to it that those who benefit by impoverishing others will cease to benefit. We know, for example, that you can produce enough medicines to wipe out certain diseases in the African and Asian continents that no longer kill children in the Americas, but doing it takes a lot of stamina and will on the part of the creative and progressive elements of society. We can educate our children. The knowledge is available. We can eradicate illiteracy. This is no great task if it was financially feasible to someone.

Actually the more important the knowledge is to our health, well-being, and stability, the greater the cost. The less helpful it is to us, the easier it is to buy. Put it this way, if it will help you, it is expensive; if it will kill you, it is inexpensive. This is why it is easier to buy a gun than to purchase prozac in America. This is why securing medical assistance will cost you enormous sums but harming people, hurting them, preventing them from expanding their knowledge base is cheap.

We are tied to a system of injustice that makes it possible for rich nations to make knowledge or the access to knowledge difficult for poorer nations. This is one way to keep them poor. It is like it was in the South in this country in the l950s when I was in elementary school. We used the second handed books from the white schools. And the white schools of Georgia were as racist and white supremacist as they wanted to be. But we were forced by the public system of education to use the books they used. Could we be much more than black copies of the white copies? No, we were stuck in a particular place and space and it was important that we understood our own ability to resist, but our resistance was not what we wanted it to be, because we did not know all that we needed to know.

John Locke, one of the great godfathers of the West, had said that all people were entitled to property by nature. But he believed that a person's work made the property his. For Locke, it was a question of work and investment. Nature intended for every person to invest but some will not work to invest. Nature intended everyone to be taken care of but with money some can buy more than their enttitlements. In much the same way, one sixth of the world population is now using more than 50% of the world's resources. But the real deal is that if it were any different, that is, in a positive sense where all shared in the world's resources like the United States, the world would be a worst place pollution wise, education wise, and morally. There is a bankrupt policy about knowledge that parades as if it is substantive and genuine.

Those who own knowledge do so not because they are smarter or more ambitious, but because they are more aggressive and capable of employing more force. Much of the knowledge, as I have said, is not their own knowledge, it is borrowed, rented, stolen, but they have created the mechanisms of access. Thus, you must find the ways to access it for your own use if you are in the game, otherwise you remain outside of the arena of knowledge that affects the world. Right now, African nations and African peoples, are on the verge of being shut off from the storehouses of knowledge. This will happen more and more with the development of more computer technology. We will be able to see the INTERNET, superhighway, but we will not be able to ride it

Sometimes even we African Americans believe in Western cultural power so strongly that our own knowledge becomes only a part of the European's captured knowledge, often captured from ourselvees. Take the fact that Herodotus claimed that the African originals of the Greek deities were even unknown to most Greeks. In fact, medicine, the calendar, mathematics, literature, writing, and architecture had their origins in Africa but as we know today very few people in the West would give Africans the credit for establishing the foundations of Western knowledge even centuries after the Greeks. Imhotep, the father of architecture, was an African. He built the first masonry structure in history. Hatshepsut was the first queen to rule in her own right with authority in the world. Various other kinds of information, becoming knowledge, has been laid out in the works of Latouche, Esteva, and Alvares, and Obenga.

Our aim as intellectual activists must be to reduce the complications of access, to take away exclusive rights to information, and to open the inner sanctuaries to everyone. I hope that we understand that this is a challenge to the racist ideology that permeates our society. White racial supremacy has been the handmaiden of most of the wretchedness confronting African and American peoples. If we are to be serious about the process of decolonizing our minds we must pay attention to the very human and spiritual needs of our world.

African symbol