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Capitalism vs. the Internet – A review of Digital Disconnect by Robert McChesney

For many people the Internet seems to hold nothing but promise. This envisioned promise varies from one bunch to the next, yet across groups there seems to exist a certain belief in the Internet’s ability to deliver on these hopes. From idealists seeing in the Internet the tools for a more equitable society, to businesses seeing in the Internet a way to make more money, to journalists seeing in the Internet a way to revitalize their troubled trade (if only they can figure out how exactly to use the Internet do so) – it is a site for hopes and fears.

The Internet has taken on a somewhat mythical quality, an aspect that turns it into a repository for ideals so bold that concerns can vanish. To many a compelling and complex question the solution on hand seems to be: the Internet, or at least the various types of solutions put forward by the Internet (crowd-sourcing, citizen journalism, bitcoins, kickstarter). Faith in such web-spun solutions seems to only expand in stickiness as the Internet has come to play a larger and larger role in peoples daily lives.

Yet, as the Internet rises in importance in our lives and in society it is all too easy for our trust in the power of the Internet to hide from us the larger societal context in which the Internet exists and in which it continues to develop. Emphasizing this context and demonstrating how it has shaped and how it continues to shape the Internet is the subject of Robert W. McChesney’s new book Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy. As the subtitle of the book should make quite clear it is McChesney’s thesis that the capitalist world in which the Internet has developed portends a pale future for the Internet and by extension for democratic prospects.

Nevertheless, McChesney does not fall neatly into one of the oppositional “Internet Good” vs “Internet Bad” camps, rather his critique suggests that the Internet has potential that can be pushed in either direction depending upon the other societal (cultural/economic) forces doing the shoving.  McChesney begins by quickly giving an overview of some of the ideas advanced by the “skeptics” and the “celebrants” before noting that both views suffer from a shared flaw, which is:

“ignorance about really existing capitalism and an underappreciation of how capitalism dominates social life. Celebrants and skeptics lack a political economic context…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.” (13)

McChesney sets himself the task of providing this much needed “appreciation” and does so by describing the “catechisms” (as he terms them) that prop up faith in capitalism, as well as the beliefs that support the commonly held view of commercial media. While McChesney is critiquing capitalism he avoids the temptation (importantly) to dismiss of the dominant economic system, preferring a critical position as opposed to a simple “anti” attitude. This allows McChesney to demonstrate the many ways in which the realms of capitalism and the media differ in their “really existing” forms from the ways in which people believe they function. What McChesney is therefore able to demonstrate is the extent to which dominant forces in capitalism are bolstered by the peculiarities of really existing capitalism that provide and maintain the infrastructure that preserves much of the economic status quo. Continual extensions of copyright, lackluster enforcement of anti-monopoly regulations, an ever weaker “free press,” along with the continual onslaught of advertising and public relations are all the hallmarks of “really existing capitalism.”

Furthermore, it is within this framework that many technologies and services (including the Internet) find their foundation in governmentally/militarily (and hence publicly) funded moves, that nevertheless see these tools eventually turned over to the private sector. With the case often being such that the publicly funded origins are hidden amidst the required praise for the private sector. What increasingly emerges, in McChesney’s account, is not so much a monopolistic system, but one of oligopoly or:

“monopolistic competition…These are markets where a handful of firms dominate output or sales in the industry and have such market power that they can set the price at which their product sells.” (37)

From defining the functioning of “really existing capitalism” McChesney moves on to discuss the Internet, and as should be predictable from his reading of capitalism, he takes a position that the Internet has been thoroughly shaped by the forces of “really existing capitalism.” Though the Internet’s origins may lurk in public funding and though the Internet has been (and continues to be) the site of great hopes, McChesney describes the numerous ways in which the Internet has consistently failed to live up to the faith invested in it. Digital Disconnect describes the ways in which the old telecoms continue to operate outsized power (monopolies) in providing Internet access, how large online firms with government cooperation have increasingly come to dominate the Internet (consider Yahoo’s recent purchase of Tumblr as an example), how the monopoly in the US has led to US consumers having fewer (and poorer) choices for Internet access than people in some other countries, and how advertising has come to become as synonymous with the Internet as “.com” with advertisers making use of ever more intrusive methods to mine information from Internet users.

Amidst the discussion of the Internet McChesney – who it should be noted is one of the founders of the organization Free Press – also devotes ample argument to discussing the place of journalism in the current context. McChesney makes clear that the decline of journalism began before the breakout of the Internet, and points to rising oligopolies as playing a significant role in the kneecapping of the pres; he argues that some of the same trends that have hampered the democratic potential of the Internet run parallel with situations that have harmed journalism.

While McChesney’s book does not end on an altogether optimistic note (nor should it), nevertheless, Digital Disconnect charts out an interesting argument for the way forward: arguing that the Internet (and journalism as well) need to viewed as “public goods.” Thusly, steps would need to be taken to remove these from the clutches and profit motives of capitalist firms and instead see to it that they receive the public funding that will allow them to flourish along more democratic lines as opposed to more restricted profit-driven avenues. Part of this process in McChesney’s view is reliant upon the recognition that:

“Those primarily concerned with Internet policies and hesitant to stick their toes into deeper political waters need to grasp the natures of our times. This isn’t a business-as-usual period, when the system is ensconced and reformers need the benediction of those in power to win marginal reforms. The system is failing, conventional policies and institutions are increasingly discredited, and fundamental changes of one form or another are likely to come, for better or worse.” (221)

Digital Disconnect is an interesting and compelling read, and it stands apart from many similar works about the Internet (by the “celebrants” and “skeptics”) in its straightforward assessment of the economic factors that need to be assessed before one can purely consider the Internet. By delving into the economic system that has helped the Internet take its current form and which continues to meld it, McChesney is able to show the ways in which the current state of the Internet have less to do with any “inherent nature” of the Internet but has much more to do with the larger society.

Granted, taking on capitalism (as McChesney recognizes) has a certain forbidding element to it, but McChesney notes:

“To question the performance and suitability of really existing capitalism at a time when the world is falling to pieces does not necessarily make one an anticapitalist in some universal sense.” (228)

Indeed, McChesney goes to lengths to insulate his book from criticisms that would dismiss of it as a simple “anticapitalist” book (not that such would be a legitimate cause for dismissal, but it could be used by some as a cause for dismissal). Throughout McChesney’s book the sources upon which he calls to bolster his arguments about the state of capitalism and Internet companies as driven by capitalism are sources that could hardly be described as “anticapitalist,” The Economist and other staunchly pro-capitalist publications are cited, as are the writings of the likes of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. A major strength of McChesney’s analysis is in using capitalism’s own celebrants to depict the ways in which “really existing capitalism” is quite different from the fantasy “capitalism” of the “free market.”

In some respects McChesney’s book suffers from his turn towards a discussion of journalism, not because his discussion is badly reasoned or argued, but because it feels slightly out of place amidst his commentary on capitalism and the Internet. While it may be the case that a revitalized (publicly funded) free press would help illuminate the current “really existing capitalism” and might help strengthen the Internet’s democratic edge, this commentary still seems somewhat discordant in the overall discussion. On a careful read of the book, it seems that the shift towards discussing the state of journalism (couched as it is in a discussion of journalism in the Internet age) still diminishes from the overall coherence of what is otherwise a strong and withering indictment. Instead of focusing the discussion on how capitalism negatively impacts the Internet, the chapter on journalism almost comes across as a “capitalism screws this up too” which may be accurate but seems somewhat out of place. Granted the goal may be to argue that journalism, like the Internet, needs to be treated as a “public good” but the chapter on journalism (occurring as it does near the books end) comes across as a distraction.

One other area where it would have been worthwhile for McChesney to devote more attention would be in further showing the way in which capitalism shapes the very technologies that people use to access the Internet. After all, the same economics that lead to monopolization in the online realm also give rise to computers/smart phones/and tablets being produced in the same oligopoly style state of affairs. By broadening the discussion of the Internet out to the devices used to access the Internet, McChesney would have been able to demonstrate that the monopolistic link is there before one even goes online. This would help with building questions about whether there can truly be such a thing as a democratic Internet without there also being a democratic set of technologies for getting online (insofar as most computers are made by large tech firms [most of which have less than stellar labor records]). After all, an Internet that has been made a “public good” is wonderful, but much less so if it was accessed on a device made in terrible conditions (some other thoughts on this).

All told Digital Disconnect is a fascinating and important work that anchors discussions of the Internet in the larger socio-economic context. It is a work that dares to raise the question as to whether or not one can talk about an “open” net in a “closed” society. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with all of McChesney’s points, his work is nevertheless a well reasoned and argued element of a conversation that we avoid to our own detriment.

The book:

Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy

Robert W. McChesney

The New Press, 2013

Other Book Reviews:

Present Shock, by Douglas Rushkoff

The Riot Grrrl Collection

To Save Everything Click Here by Evgeny Morozov

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

18 comments on “Capitalism vs. the Internet – A review of Digital Disconnect by Robert McChesney

  1. T E Stazyk
    May 28, 2013

    Thanks for telling us about this book–I just ordered it based on your review!

    I’ll read it with an open mind but I’ll be coming to it with the mindset that the big problem with really existing capitalism is that it leads us to monetize everything, and once that happens, the bottom line becomes, well, the bottom line. So quality, fairness, etc. are all engineered out of the system.

    This issue is at the heart of fundamental Marxist theory with his and Engles’s concept of base and superstructure. The economic foundation of a society (e.g., capitalism) forms the base and the superstructure is the forms of state and social consciousness that inevitably derive from the base.

    So according to Marx, the internet, as part of our superstructure, necessarily is formed by capitalism and another interesting question is what conclusions we can draw about the state of capitalism given the state of the internet.

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