The Communication Commons: resisting the recuperation of the internet by capital

Is the 'information revolution' truly revolutionary? The internet presents us with a choice. Either we permit the recuperation of the web by capital – or we resist, and insist on the values of the commons

"A community will evolve only when a people control their own communication" - Frantz Fanon

Why is it that most of those keen to praise the democratic and participatory potential of digital technologies have tended to come from the ranks of techno-scientific workers as opposed to the usual centres of the left? Combining rhetorics of liberalism, libertarianism, anarchism and undeniably, communism – it has historically been groups such as the ‘Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility’ (CPSR) that have not only possessed a superior technical understanding of online platforms but have also had a greater belief in the ability of the internet and digital technologies to challenge authority and existing relations of power. The radical left has sometimes appeared truculent in comparison.

To some extent political contention and possibilities have always been mediated by technological change with the printing press, photography, film, radio and television playing crucial roles in politics and all realms of social life, as McLuhan, Innis, Mumford, and others have long argued and documented.

As far back as 1967, Frantz Fanon saw the progressive potential of advanced communication technologies in revolutionary struggle and described the central role of the radio in the Algerian Revolution. In 1917, Lenin stressed the importance of film in spreading communist ideology after the Bolshevik revolution. Audiotapes were used to advance the insurrection in Iran and to disseminate alternative information by political movements throughout the world.

A ‘radical’ critique of technological change?

At a recent debate hosted by the Education Activist Network I briefly spoke alongside Richard Seymour and Laurie Penny. While I am an admirer of much of Seymour’s work, his critique of online organising, digital technologies and the nature of political contention in the changing dynamics of the ‘network society’ while we spoke appeared limited and overly pessimistic. Frequently I have witnessed a similar disposition by radical activists and theorists who opine how ‘just because it's new, that doesn’t make it radical’. Such sentiments are perhaps most eloquently put by ‘Escalate Collective’ in a recent communique,

“...the praise Twitter and Facebook have received is matched only by the compliments showered on a mythical young generation who have supposedly expropriated the potentials within this technology for radical means. We are made to believe that new technology is somehow linked to new life, despite clear signposts in the other direction....associating the student movement with social media is the same as associating the 1968-1974 movement with tie-dye t-shirts: the only victory can be further consumption, this time of web-based goods. For the press, an ambivalent success – for the movement: resounding failure.”

While I agree with critical voices such as Escalate and Richard Seymour that there is not neccessarily a link between new technology and radical political change, my assumption is that the internet does present the possibility of challenging the existing communications ecology and undermines how discourse is set and arguments framed. 

With the internet our choice is to permit its recuperation by capital or instead resist such recuperation and insist that its values are those of the commons. It is only with such resistance that the ‘information revolution’ will have truly revolutionary possibilities for our social, political and economic relations.

The Problem: Corporate social media and the ‘recuperation’ of the Internet by capital

Under the logics of capitalism, successive waves of communicative technology – from radio to television to telecommunications and computer networks which span the globe – have been at the heart of vast and vertically integrated commmercial media empires. This is a phenomenon whose consequences require little iteration here and are broadly known – the persistent recuperation of counter-culture and dissent, an envelopment of society by corporate semantics, market censorship of news and artistic expression to name just a few. The erosion of publicly owned media, specifically in developed countries during the last several decades, has exacerbated these tendencies. The consequence has been a persistent deepening of social communication into the subsumption of capital.

The status quo of the contemporary corporate mainstream media is a ‘communicative ecology’ that permits the perpetuation of what some have called ‘capitalist realism’. Capitalist realism  is a state of collective consciousness where ‘the end of the world is seen as more conceivable than the end of capitalism’. A state where the mantra of TINA (There Is No Alternative) is not only applied to national economic policy but even to the inevitability of a Tesco being present on every British high street. This gives rise to the cultural logic of ‘Late Capitalism’ according to Jameson – a logic where all sincerity is rendered irony, where any belief in a better world is kitsch or utopian.

Within capitalist realism the media’s presentation of the ‘possible’ means that collective ambitions for social progress remain within the confines of reproducing existing relations of power. This being in spite of the fact that the ambitions of capitalist realism are perhaps the most ‘utopian’ project of all (in the sense of inviting incredulity).

The corporatized communications ecology has permitted a very small number of persons the ability to not only exercise a monopoly over what and what is not told, but even over what is considered possible. Thus capitalist realism should be viewed as entirely dependent on the existing communicative ecology, with the erosion of publicly owned media strengthening the hand of an increasingly small and powerful media oligarchy. All that has essentially changed with the rise of corporate ‘social media’ is that the likes of Zuckerberg have joined the ranks of Murdoch and Berlusconi.

Facebook, in spite of what the T-shirts in Tahrir Square might say, is not a force for truly radical change. Instead it represents a recuperation by existing power of a frontier where capital has not yet gained hegemony, the broadly non-hierarchical and voluntarist ‘network of networks’ – the internet.

What critics fail to understand is that a faith in the ability of the internet to challenge the existing communications ecology does not mean adhering to the growing orthodoxy that corporate social media is a challenge to existing power. In one passage Escalate commented how,

“...associating the student movement with social media is the same as associating the 1968-1974 movement with tie-dye t-shirts: the only victory can be further consumption”.

This is factually incorrect. Just as capital’s introduction of new technologies, by potentially freeing huge surpluses of time, has opened up prospects of liberation from work – so its expansion of new communications technologies inadvertently opens up a world of counter-usage. As computerization makes possible either intensified exploitation of labour or subversion of the wage form – so too electronic communication by reducing the neccessary circulation time for information goods, bifurcates into diametrically opposed and antagonistic options.

Either it can intensify the process of the commodification of everything, including social relations – through ‘pay-per’ services and consumer surveillance (as with Facebook and Google) – or alternatively it can lead to a fundamental negation of the commodity form, through the generalised transgression of property rights (as with Wikipedia, Aaaaarg, Vuze and the Pirate Bay). 

Social media simply denotes the idea of a media that is socially constituted and co-created without a clear distinction between producers and consumers of content. What the technology naysayers fail to distinguish is the difference between ‘corporate’ social media and the possibility of a commons-based social media, created by the people for the people.

The Solution: Establishing a ‘communications commons’

Any radical possibilities within the internet must find themselves mobilized in the name of a ‘communications commons’ – a counterproject against the attempts of capital to enclose the immaterial territory of the internet and social networks in the same way it once enclosed the collective lands of the rural commons.

Karl Polanyi spoke of the various ‘Acts of Enclosure’ throughout the 18th and 19th centuries as marking the advent of modern capitalism with the enclosure of previously common land – this adhering to Marxian notions of accumulation by dispossesion or primitive accumulation. The same process is now being enacted with regards to the ‘commons’ of our social relations and much of our immaterial labour – this being the case with Facebook, Google, Amazon and eBay to name just a few. Character, preference, networks of friends, psychological disposition and social values are translated to being of exchange value between Facebook and third parties such as Microsoft that purchase the data. Yet another field of possible returns for capital has been opened up.

What the radical left should be advocating with regards to how we proceed online is not a question of opting out of corporate social media – we must instead build a ‘communications commons’ that permits similar platforms as Facebook and Twitter (such as Thimbl and Diaspora) which crucially undermines the mainstream media and with it grotesque concentrations of power to frame debate and discourse.

The task is to ensure that the same concentrations of power found within the corporate media are not reproduced in the realm of networked media. 

Conclusion: Making the ‘information revolution’ revolutionary

For the critically minded the term ‘information revolution’ itself represents a rather problematic recuperation of the semantics of the revolutionary. Thus we see in the deployment of the term a shift from the idea of a decisive ‘event’ of social transformation to one of sustained investment and returns, in a particular emerging technology that has permitted a new frontier for a host of multinational corporations such as Microsoft, Apple and Google. This recuperation in no way constitutes a ‘revolution’ nor endows us with revolutionary possibilities that were previously unavailable. Despite this, however, it is clear that the internet and digital technologies possess a huge potential in undermining existing power relations.

There are many, be they liberals, libertarians, communists, anarchists or otherwise, who regard the concentration of power – be it in the market or the state – as something to be opposed at every turn. If we are to act on such sentiments then we must move beyond the rhetoric of groups such as Escalate and begin to create a communications commons that can well and truly undermine both the state and the market in informing and framing the debate. The other world that we believe is possible will require another media – one that MUST be commons-based. This is not the time for cynicism but for counterprojects.

About the author

Aaron Bastani is a Ph.D candidate at the  New Political Communications Unit (Royal Holloway University) and is also a participant with Novara Media. He is interested in technology, politics and social change and how these three areas intersect in the contemporary context, from political economy to social movements.