Christian Fuchs analyses the complexities of the relationship between the internet, revolutionary theory and the struggle for socialism.

Internet mapDoes the Internet mainly harm or advance socialist emancipation? Does it mainly destabilize or stabilize capitalism and exploitation? In my view, these questions are incorrectly asked and imply one-sided answers.

The task for a critical analysis of the role of media and technology in capitalism is to conceive these phenomena as dialectical and antagonistic.

Neither neo-Luddism nor techno-utopianism are adequate left-wing reactions to the fact that digital media to a certain extent shape the ways we work, live, communicate, act, and think.

The Marxian notion of the antagonism between the productive forces and the relations of production is helpful for analyzing the role of knowledge and the media in contemporary capitalism in a more complex manner.

Marx formulated this antagonism in the following words: “The contradiction between the general social power into which capital develops, on the one hand, and the private power of the individual capitalists over these social conditions of production, on the other, becomes ever more irreconcilable, and yet contains the solution of the problem, because it implies at the same time the transformation of the conditions of production into general, common, social, conditions”.

In one of the most well-known passages of his works, Marx says that the “material conditions for the existence” of “new superior relations of production” mature “within the framework of the old society” and that the “productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism”.

Information systems and knowledge in production are economic factors that influence and enable the creation of knowledge goods and services that are sold as commodities.

On the Internet, knowledge is commodified in several ways: it is either directly sold as commodity (you for example pay for downloading music on iTunes) or is provided for free by companies in order to attract a large number of users to platforms so that the users can be commodified and sold as a user/prosumer commodity to advertising clients.

This shows that within capitalist society, knowledge and information systems are subsumed under the capitalist relations of production. But this fact does not allow the conclusion that technologies and media in general are only means of exploitation and means for the production of relative surplus value. It is due to three specific characteristics of information networks that networked productive forces come in contradiction with the capitalist relations of:

  1. Information as a strategic economic resource is globally produced and diffused by networks. It is a good that is hard to control in single places or by single owners.
  2. Information is intangible. It can easily be copied, which results in multiple ownerships and hence undermines individual private property.
  3. The essence of networks is that they strive for establishing connections. Networks are in essence a negation of individual ownership and the atomism of capitalism.

The specific antagonism of networked information systems (such as the Internet) is that they at the same time have the potential to threaten and reproduce private property and capitalist class relations. The openness, connectivity, communicability, co-operation, and sociality supported by the Internet on the one hand makes information a good that can easily be made available without payment.

Legal mechanisms (intellectual property rights, privacy statements, terms of use) and online advertising strategies on the other hand enable companies to criminalize information sharing and to accumulate capital by opening up platforms without payment to users, setting advertising rates according to the attracted amount of users, storing, analyzing, assessing, and selling user data and usage behaviour data to advertising clients (economic surveillance).

The Internet in capitalist society is therefore highly antagonistic. It is an expression of networked productive forces that anticipate the idea of a co-operative participatory economy, in which the means of production or co-operatively controlled by the immediate producers. The Internet is therefore also, but not only, a Keimform (germ cell) of communism.

But the very principles of networking, openness, decentralization that are at the heart of the Internet are also principles that enable new accumulation strategies. The Internet opens up and closes down possibilities for communism at the same time.

This analysis cast doubts on the assumption that political action can operate outside of antagonisms. It implies that progressive politics are, at least as long as we live in a capitalist society, in most instances antagonistic themselves. Given the antagonistic Internet, what can socialist net politics look like?

Communism most likely will not arrive tomorrow, it is not knocking on our doors in the current time of global crisis. This is at least what can be observed by the reactions of most citizens to the fact that capital has once again shipwrecked and has been saved by states with the help of taxpayers’ money.

The reaction has not been a wave of mass protests, but a shift towards the political right in many countries and a wait-see-hope-attitude in others (let’s wait until the crisis is over, let’s see if I will be affected, let’s hope that not I, but others will be damaged).

This shows that dreaming of revolution is today rather utopian – it is only an idea that has no mass support. A politics of radical reformism is needed that aims at changing the institutions in such a way that critical action can become more likely.

For net politics this means that the likelihood that the antagonism between the networked productive forces and the relations of production will have predominantly socialist and not capitalist effects can only be increased by left wing political actions, both in parliament, civil society, and as a combination of both. Elements of socialist net politics could for example include:

  • the legalization of file sharing
  • the introduction of a guaranteed basic income for cultural producers, financed by increasing capital taxation
  • state subsidies for non-commercial, advertising-free, non-profit Internet projects
  • the introduction of the legal requirement that commercial Internet platform providers operate based on opt-in advertising mechanisms
  • the introduction of an Internet tax on online advertising revenues
  • affirmative action mechanisms that increase the visibility of alternative online media on the Internet, make the existence of these platforms known to the people, and make the usage of alternative Internet platforms fun and attractive

Many more potential elements of socialist net politics are imaginable. My argument is that progressive net politics require the connection to a movement for the renewal of a true social democracy. Such a social democracy cannot be a form of Bliarism or a kind of politics that is brown instead of red. It must recover and renew its own socialist roots.

The British elections 2010 will unfortunately not improve the possibilities or realities of socialist politics and socialist net politics, it will instead bring more of the same uniform neoliberal one-dimensionality, disguised and media-hyped as being young, fresh, and dynamic.

From a socialist perspective, the difference between Cameron, Glegg, and Brown is marginal. British neoliberalism will continue after just like before the elections. And this does not promise good times for net politics either.

Christian Fuchs is associate professor at the University of Salzburg and member of the executive board of the Unified Theory of Information Research Group. His fields of interest are: social theory, critical theory, media and society, information society studies, ICTs and society. He is author of more than 120 publications, including “Internet & Society” (Routledge 2008) and “Foundations of Critical Media and Information Studies” (Routledge 2010). Website:,

counterforum - the crisis, the movement and the leftThere will be a session on The internet – serving the revolution? at the Counterforum event on May 3.