oesthe Internet mainly harm or advance socialist emancipation? Does itmainly destabilize or stabilize capitalism and exploitation? In myview, these questions are incorrectly asked and imply one-sided answers.Thetask for a critical analysis of the role of media and technology incapitalism is to conceive these phenomena as dialectical andantagonistic.
Neither neo-Luddism nor techno-utopianism areadequate left-wing reactions to the fact that digital media to acertain extent shape the ways we work, live, communicate, act, andthink.
The Marxian notion of the antagonism between theproductive forces and the relations of production is helpful foranalyzing the role of knowledge and the media in contemporarycapitalism in a more complex manner.
Marx formulated thisantagonism in the following words: “The contradiction between thegeneral social power into which capital develops, on the one hand, andthe private power of the individual capitalists over these socialconditions of production, on the other, becomes ever moreirreconcilable, and yet contains the solution of the problem, becauseit implies at the same time the transformation of the conditions ofproduction into general, common, social, conditions”.
In one ofthe most well-known passages of his works, Marx says that the “materialconditions 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 thematerial conditions for a solution of this antagonism”.
Informationsystems and knowledge in production are economic factors that influenceand enable the creation of knowledge goods and services that are soldas commodities.
On the Internet, knowledge is commodified inseveral ways: it is either directly sold as commodity (you for examplepay for downloading music on iTunes) or is provided for free bycompanies in order to attract a large number of users to platforms sothat the users can be commodified and sold as a user/prosumer commodityto advertising clients.
This shows that within capitalistsociety, knowledge and information systems are subsumed under thecapitalist relations of production. But this fact does not allow theconclusion that technologies and media in general are only means ofexploitation and means for the production of relative surplus value. Itis due to three specific characteristics of information networks thatnetworked productive forces come in contradiction with the capitalistrelations of:
- Information as a strategiceconomic resource is globally produced and diffused by networks. It isa good that is hard to control in single places or by single owners.
- Informationis intangible. It can easily be copied, which results in multipleownerships and hence undermines individual private property.
- Theessence of networks is that they strive for establishing connections.Networks are in essence a negation of individual ownership and theatomism of capitalism.
The specific antagonism of networkedinformation systems (such as the Internet) is that they at the sametime have the potential to threaten and reproduce private property andcapitalist class relations. The openness, connectivity,communicability, co-operation, and sociality supported by the Interneton the one hand makes information a good that can easily be madeavailable without payment.
The Internet in capitalist society istherefore highly antagonistic. It is an expression of networkedproductive forces that anticipate the idea of a co-operativeparticipatory economy, in which the means of production orco-operatively controlled by the immediate producers. The Internet istherefore also, but not only, a Keimform (germ cell) of communism.
Butthe very principles of networking, openness, decentralization that areat the heart of the Internet are also principles that enable newaccumulation strategies. The Internet opens up and closes downpossibilities for communism at the same time.
This analysis castdoubts on the assumption that political action can operate outside ofantagonisms. It implies that progressive politics are, at least as longas we live in a capitalist society, in most instances antagonisticthemselves. Given the antagonistic Internet, what can socialist netpolitics look like?
Communism most likely will not arrivetomorrow, it is not knocking on our doors in the current time of globalcrisis. This is at least what can be observed by the reactions of mostcitizens to the fact that capital has once again shipwrecked and hasbeen saved by states with the help of taxpayers’ money.
Thereaction has not been a wave of mass protests, but a shift towards thepolitical right in many countries and a wait-see-hope-attitude inothers (let’s wait until the crisis is over, let’s see if I will beaffected, let’s hope that not I, but others will be damaged).
Thisshows that dreaming of revolution is today rather utopian - it is onlyan idea that has no mass support. A politics of radical reformism isneeded that aims at changing the institutions in such a way thatcritical action can become more likely.
For net politics thismeans that the likelihood that the antagonism between the networkedproductive forces and the relations of production will havepredominantly socialist and not capitalist effects can only beincreased by left wing political actions, both in parliament, civilsociety, and as a combination of both. Elements of socialist netpolitics 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
- theintroduction of the legal requirement that commercial Internet platformproviders operate based on opt-in advertising mechanisms
- the introduction of an Internet tax on online advertising revenues
- affirmativeaction mechanisms that increase the visibility of alternative onlinemedia on the Internet, make the existence of these platforms known tothe people, and make the usage of alternative Internet platforms funand attractive
Many more potential elements of socialistnet politics are imaginable. My argument is that progressive netpolitics require the connection to a movement for the renewal of a truesocial democracy. Such a social democracy cannot be a form of Bliarismor a kind of politics that is brown instead of red. It must recover andrenew its own socialist roots.
The British elections 2010 willunfortunately not improve the possibilities or realities of socialistpolitics and socialist net politics, it will instead bring more of thesame uniform neoliberal one-dimensionality, disguised and media-hypedas being young, fresh, and dynamic.
From a socialist perspective,the difference between Cameron, Glegg, and Brown is marginal. Britishneoliberalism will continue after just like before the elections. Andthis does not promise good times for net politics either.
ChristianFuchs is associate professor at the University of Salzburg and memberof the executive board of the Unified Theory of Information ResearchGroup. His fields of interest are: social theory, critical theory,media and society, information society studies, ICTs and society. He isauthor of more than 120 publications, including “Internet &Society” (Routledge 2008) and “Foundations of Critical Media andInformation Studies” (Routledge 2010). Website:http://fuchs.uti.at,