How Capitalism Is Turning The Internet Against Democracy

… And How To Turn It Back – Published on openDemocracy, by Guy Aitchison, April 22, 2013.

As capitalist corporations have come to dominate the internet, is it possible to fulfil the genuine democratic potential of this technology within the context of the current economic crisis? A review of Robert McChesney’s new book Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy, beyond the stale debate between ‘celebrants’ and ’sceptics’.   

Writing in response to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the first systematic attempt by the US government to police the internet, John Perry Barlow – former lyricist for the Grateful Dead – made a celebrated Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. In resonant tones that echoed those of the Founding Fathers, Barlow addressed the “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel”, declaring “the global space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us” … //

… Digital work: … //

… The conquest of the net: … //

… No news is bad news: … //

… The battle for the commons:

We should consider the models of McChesney, Hind and other theorists of critical media as proposals to be reflected on and tested in wider struggles of democratic contestation. New proposals will emerge alongside them. Yet none of them will gain traction without a political movement to support them. The idea of the commons provides the moral and political resources for the collective re-articulation of diverse struggles around a shared idea.

The online tendency of libertarian hackers and activists, from Open Rights Group to Anonymous, to Peer-to-Peer networks are increasingly coming to recognise that their enemy is not only the state but private concentrations of power and the tech-state nexus.

The defeat of the most draconian provisions of the Digital Economy Bill showed a glimpse of the alliances that are possible. Radical political movements, meanwhile, can’t hope to replace capitalism without an understanding of the media as not only an instrument for their message but as a distinct terrain of struggle. If groups concerned with net neutrality, privacy and limiting copyright could move beyond defensive campaigns and link up with movements fighting corporate power and austerity through a broader articulation of the commons, this opens up exciting possibilities.

For the idea of the commons is both a protective, prefigurative shared space and also a claim that a different kind of future is possible starting from it. The commons is a space free from the rule of private property and the state. It is part reality, part aspiration. It provides a realm of cultural freedom but also the public goods of education, health and social security that allow us to participate in that realm as free and equal citizens. It extends to the warehouses and factories that keep the network society running where the most profound relations of domination are experienced. Those who make communication possible can’t be left voiceless. A say over the commons means a say over how work-time is managed and what happens to the surplus workers produce. Effective solidarity will extend to these workers and not speak for them.

Inserting one world into another, the commons brings to light the contradictions between the ideal of a shared communal space of equals and the reality of closed divided spaces of exploitation. As Winstanley reminds us, it is a realm where no one is dominated by the arbitrary will of another. The rights of free association and speech, won in political struggle, are only ever effective when the more general right to the commons is defended and expanded.

The digital commons, with its vast potential for democratic communication and co-operation, has an important part to play. At its best, it furnishes us with a compelling vision of co-operative, non-market values and behaviours. McChesney is, I think, too strong in his dismissal of the celebrants’ vision here. The pleasurable application of skills and intellect, the joy of creative activity in association with others, these recall Marx’s conception of “species-being” in a society where “the free development of each is the free development of all”. A properly articulated vision of emancipation will need to draw on these glimpses, which hint at an altogether more friendly and co-operative social ontology than the archetypal competitive consumer propagated in the broadcasting of war-like soaps and reality shows. We delight in communal life. Even Facebook – corporate “hamster-cage” though it is – reveals a basic social urge to bond and create with others.

Grass-roots movements, such as Occupy and the Indignados, have proven time and again that the tools of the internet lend themselves to successful experiments in democratic media and organisation. The principles that inform these practices can fruitfully be turned towards a critique of the current media-power nexus and the formation of concrete demands for a media that fosters genuine social and political empowerment. Co-operative relations forged through online media can only be understood within the over-riding logic of an exploitative economic system in which they are always vulnerable. They cannot be expected to organically evolve and out-compete hierarchical relations without a conscious effort. Without an outward facing political dimension, the spaces that celebrants admire are no better than the more impotent versions of the encampments; cosy pre-figurative enclaves with no clout when the powers-that-be come knocking. Difficult political choices and meeting the challenges of organisation are required to defend and realise the culture and media we want. The alternative of a private internet of business interests is too bleak to entertain.
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