How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Away from Democracy

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* Book: Bob McChesney. Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Away from Democracy.


Description

1. Author's description:

"The book is a political economic examination of the digital revolution based upon 15 years of research. The book provides considerable detail but also an overarching analysis and argument, so it is intended for anyone concerned with the Internet. It is the capstone of my career.

Michael Delli Carpini, Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said: “Digital Disconnect makes a convincing case that one can only understand the Internet and related communication technologies through the lens of political economy, and that the capitalist political economy in which they are currently embedded in the United States is anathema to a truly democratic information environment.”


The book includes the following:

  • how the standard dichotomy of views on the Internet as “celebratory” or skeptical” have important and necessary insights, but they almost all fail to factor in or appreciate the importance of capitalism as the driving force, as well as the problems capitalism can create for democratic values and practices
  • a fresh look at the noncommercial origins of the Internet, and the shadowy process whereby it was converted into an engine for commercialism
  • how the dinosaur industries of telecommunication and entertainment media have managed to survive and even prosper in the Internet era by their domination of the corrupt policymaking process
  • how the Internet, once seen as an engine of economic competition, has become arguably the greatest generator of economic monopoly in history, with troubling implications for both the economy and political democracy; the dominant Internet firms now comprise nearly one-half of the 30 largest publicly traded corporations in the United States, based on market value
  • how advertising has been radically transformed online such that traditional notions of privacy have been eliminated, and the traditional support for media content advertising once provided is disappearing
  • how the national security state has surveillance powers over private citizens that were unimaginable a generation ago and are inimical to the foundations of a free society
  • how the Internet has assisted in destroying journalism as it has been practiced for the past century, and offers no hope on its own of rejuvenating journalism as a credible broad-based democratic institution; this chapter updates the research I did with John Nichols in 2010’s multiple-award-winning Death and Life of American Journalism (Nation Books)
  • how a series of crucial policy debates in the next decade will go a long way toward determining the course of the Internet and the course of society.


This book is written with the aim of helping scholars and citizens be informed participants, and to see that the revolutionary democratic potential of the digital revolution be realized."


2. Norman Solomon:

"Blowing away the corporate-fueled smoke, McChesney breaks through with insights like these:


- “The corporate media sector has spent much of the past 15 years doing everything in its immense power to limit the openness and egalitarianism of the Internet. Its survival and prosperity hinge upon making the system as closed and proprietary as possible, encouraging corporate and state surreptitious monitoring of Internet users and opening the floodgates of commercialism.”


- “It is supremely ironic that the Internet, the much-ballyhooed champion of increased consumer power and cutthroat competition, has become one of the greatest generators of monopoly in economic history. Digital market concentration has proceeded far more furiously than in the traditional pattern found in other areas. . . As ‘killer applications’ have emerged, new digital industries have gone from competitive to oligopolistic to monopolistic at breakneck speeds.”


- “Today, the Internet as a social medium and information system is the domain of a handful of colossal firms.”


- “It is true that with the advent of the Internet many of the successful giants -- Apple and Google come to mind -- were begun by idealists who may have been uncertain whether they really wanted to be old-fashioned capitalists. The system in short order has whipped them into shape. Any qualms about privacy, commercialism, avoiding taxes, or paying low wages to Third World factory workers were quickly forgotten. It is not that the managers are particularly bad and greedy people -- indeed their individual moral makeup is mostly irrelevant -- but rather that the system sharply rewards some types of behavior and penalizes other types of behavior so that people either get with the program and internalize the necessary values or they fail.”


- “The tremendous promise of the digital revolution has been compromised by capitalist appropriation and development of the Internet. In the great conflict between openness and a closed system of corporate profitability, the forces of capital have triumphed whenever an issue mattered to them. The Internet has been subjected to the capital-accumulation process, which has a clear logic of its own, inimical to much of the democratic potential of digital communication.”


- “What seemed to be an increasingly open public sphere, removed from the world of commodity exchange, seems to be morphing into a private sphere of increasingly closed, proprietary, even monopolistic markets. The extent of this capitalist colonization of the Internet has not been as obtrusive as it might have been, because the vast reaches of cyberspace have continued to permit noncommercial utilization, although increasingly on the margins.”


- “If the Internet is worth its salt, if it is to achieve the promise of its most euphoric celebrants and assuage the concerns of its most troubled skeptics, it has to be a force for raising the tide of democracy. That means it must help arrest the forces that promote inequality, monopoly, hypercommercialism, corruption, depoliticization, and stagnation.”


- “Digital technologies may bring to a head, once and for all, the discrepancy between what a society could produce and what it actually does produce under capitalism. The Internet is the ultimate public good and is ideally suited for broad social development. It obliterates scarcity and is profoundly disposed toward democracy. And it is more than that. The new technologies are in the process of truly revolutionizing manufacturing, for example, making far less expensive, more efficient, environmentally sound, decentralized production possible. Under really existing capitalism, however, few of the prospective benefits may be developed -- not to mention spread widely. The corporate system will try to limit the technology to what best serves its purposes.” (http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/03/28-1)


Review

Richard Hill:

" the internet has recently been used to erode privacy and to increase the concentration of economic power, leading to increasing income inequalities.

One might have expected that democracies would have harnessed the internet to serve the interests of their citizens, as they largely did with other technologies such as roads, telegraphy, telephony, air transport, pharmaceuticals (even if they used these to serve only the interests of their own citizens and not the general interests of mankind).

But this does not appear to be the case with respect to the internet: it is used largely to serve the interests of a few very wealthy individuals, or certain geo-economic and geo-political interests. As McChesney puts the matter: “It is supremely ironic that the internet, the much-ballyhooed champion of increased consumer power and cutthroat competition, has become one of the greatest generators of monopoly in economic history” (131 in the print edition). This trend to use technology to favor special interests, not the general interest, is not unique to the internet. As Josep Ramoneda puts the matter: “We expected that governments would submit markets to democracy and it turns out that what they do is adapt democracy to markets, that is, empty it little by little.”

McChesney’s book explains why this is the case: despite its great promise and potential to increase democracy, various factors have turned the internet into a force that is actually destructive to democracy, and that favors special interests.

McChesney reminds us what democracy is, citing Aristotle (53): “Democracy [is] when the indigent, and not the men of property are the rulers. If liberty and equality … are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.”

He also cites US President Lincoln’s 1861 warning against despotism (55): “the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government.” According to McChesney, it was imperative for Lincoln that the wealthy not be permitted to have undue influence over the government.

Yet what we see today in the internet is concentrated wealth in the form of large private companies that exert increasing influence over public policy matters, going to so far as to call openly for governance systems in which they have equal decision-making rights with the elected representatives of the people. Current internet governance mechanisms are celebrated as paragons of success, whereas in fact they have not been successful in achieving the social promise of the internet. And it has even been said that such systems need not be democratic.

What sense does it make for the technology that was supposed to facilitate democracy to be governed in ways that are not democratic? It makes business sense, of course, in the sense of maximizing profits for shareholders.

McChesney explains how profit-maximization in the excessively laissez-faire regime that is commonly called neoliberalism has resulted in increasing concentration of power and wealth, social inequality and, worse, erosion of the press, leading to erosion of democracy. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the US, which is the focus of McChesney’s book. Not only has the internet eroded democracy in the US, it is used by the US to further its geo-political goals; and, adding insult to injury, it is promoted as a means of furthering democracy. Of course it could and should do so, but unfortunately it does not, as McChesney explains.

The book starts by noting the importance of the digital revolution and by summarizing the views of those who see it as an engine of good (the celebrants) versus those who point out its limitations and some of its negative effects (the skeptics). McChesney correctly notes that a proper analysis of the digital revolution must be grounded in political economy. Since the digital revolution is occurring in a capitalist system, it is necessarily conditioned by that system, and it necessarily influences that system.

A chapter is devoted to explaining how and why capitalism does not equal democracy: on the contrary, capitalism can well erode democracy, the contemporary United States being a good example. To dig deeper into the issues, McChesney approaches the internet from the perspective of the political economy of communication. He shows how the internet has profoundly disrupted traditional media, and how, contrary to the rhetoric, it has reduced competition and choice – because the economies of scale and network effects of the new technologies inevitably favor concentration, to the point of creating natural monopolies (who is number two after Facebook? Or Twitter?).

The book then documents how the initially non-commercial, publicly-subsidized internet was transformed into an eminently commercial, privately-owned capitalist institution, in the worst sense of “capitalist”: domination by large corporations, monopolistic markets, endless advertising, intense lobbying, and cronyism bordering on corruption.

Having explained what happened in general, McChesney focuses on what happened to journalism and the media in particular. As we all know, it has been a disaster: nobody has yet found a viable business model for respectable online journalism. As McChesney correctly notes, vibrant journalism is a pre-condition for democracy: how can people make informed choices if they do not have access to valid information? The internet was supposed to broaden our sources of information. Sadly, it has not, for the reasons explained in detail in the book. Yet there is hope: McChesney provides concrete suggestions for how to deal with the issue, drawing on actual experiences in well functioning democracies in Europe.

The book goes on to call for specific actions that would create a revolution in the digital revolution, bringing it back to its origins: by the people, for the people. McChesney’s proposed actions are consistent with those of certain civil society organizations, and will no doubt be taken up in the forthcoming Internet Social Forum, an initiative whose intent is precisely to revolutionize the digital revolution along the lines outlined by McChesney." (http://boundary2.org/2015/04/08/the-internet-vs-democracy/)


Discussion

Normal Solomon:

"Corporate power has seized the Internet -- and the anti-democratic grip is tightening every day.

“Most assessments of the Internet fail to ground it in political economy; they fail to understand the importance of capitalism in shaping and, for lack of a better term, domesticating the Internet,” says Robert W. McChesney in his illuminating new book, Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy.

Plenty of commentators loudly celebrate the Internet. Some are vocal skeptics. “Both camps, with a few exceptions, have a single, deep, and often fatal flaw that severely compromises the value of their work,” McChesney writes. “That flaw, simply put, is ignorance about really existing capitalism and an underappreciation of how capitalism dominates social life. . . . Both camps miss the way capitalism defines our times and sets the terms for understanding not only the Internet, but most everything else of a social nature, including politics, in our society.”

And he adds: “The profit motive, commercialism, public relations, marketing, and advertising -- all defining features of contemporary corporate capitalism -- are foundational to any assessment of how the Internet has developed and is likely to develop.”

Concerns about the online world often fixate on cutting-edge digital tech. But, as McChesney points out, “the criticism of out-of-control technology is in large part a critique of out-of-control commercialism. The loneliness, alienation, and unhappiness sometimes ascribed to the Internet are also associated with a marketplace gone wild.”

Discourse about the Internet often proceeds as if digital technology has some kind of mind or will of its own. It does not.

For the most part, what has gone terribly wrong in digital realms is not about the technology. I often think of what Herbert Marcuse wrote in his 1964 book One-Dimensional Man: “The traditional notion of the ‘neutrality’ of technology can no longer be maintained. Technology as such cannot be isolated from the use to which it is put; the technological society is a system of domination which operates already in the concept and construction of techniques.”

Marcuse saw the technological as fully enmeshed with the political in advanced industrial society, “the latest stage in the realization of a specific historical project -- namely, the experience, transformation, and organization of nature as the mere stuff of domination.” He warned that the system’s productivity and growth potential contained “technical progress within the framework of domination.”

Huge corporations are now running roughshod over the Internet.

Fifty years later, McChesney’s book points out: “The Internet and the broader digital revolution are not inexorably determined by technology; they are shaped by how society elects to develop them. . . . In really existing capitalism, the kind Americans actually experience, wealthy individuals and large corporations have immense political power that undermines the principles of democracy. Nowhere is this truer than in communication policy making.”

Huge corporations are now running roughshod over the Internet. At the illusion-shattering core of Digital Disconnect are a pair of chapters on what corporate power has already done to the Internet -- the relentless commercialism that stalks every human online, gathering massive amounts of information to target people with ads; the decimation of privacy; the data mining and surveillance; the direct cooperation of Internet service providers, search engine companies, telecomm firms and other money-driven behemoths with the U.S. military and “national security” state; the ruthless insatiable drive, led by Apple, Google, Microsoft and other digital giants, to maximize profits.

In his new book, McChesney cogently lays out grim Internet realities." (http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/03/28-1)