How Capitalism Conquered the Internet

And how we can take it back.

Robert McChesney

In 1787, as the Con­sti­tu­tion was being draft­ed in Philadel­phia, Thomas Jef­fer­son was ensconced in Paris as this young, unde­fined nation’s min­is­ter to France. From afar he cor­re­spond­ed on the mat­ter of what was required for suc­cess­ful demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nance. The for­ma­tion of a free press was a cen­tral con­cern. Jef­fer­son wrote:

Information on the Internet is virtually free, but commercial interests are working to make it scarce. To the extent they succeed, the GDP may grow, but society will be poorer.

The way to pre­vent these irreg­u­lar inter­po­si­tions of the peo­ple is to give them full infor­ma­tion of their affairs thro’ the chan­nel of the pub­lic papers, and to con­trive that those papers should pen­e­trate the whole mass of the peo­ple. The basis of our gov­ern­ments being the opin­ion of the peo­ple, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a gov­ern­ment with­out news­pa­pers, or news­pa­pers with­out a gov­ern­ment, I should not hes­i­tate a moment to pre­fer the lat­ter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capa­ble of read­ing them.

For Jef­fer­son, hav­ing the right to speak with­out gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship is a nec­es­sary but insuf­fi­cient con­di­tion for a free press and there­fore democ­ra­cy, which also demands that there be a lit­er­ate pub­lic, a viable press sys­tem and easy access to this press by the people.

But why, exact­ly, was this such an obses­sion to Jef­fer­son? In the same let­ter, he praised Native Amer­i­can soci­eties for being large­ly class­less and hap­py, and he crit­i­cizes Euro­pean soci­eties — like the France he was wit­ness­ing first­hand on the eve of its rev­o­lu­tion — in no uncer­tain terms for being their oppo­site. Jef­fer­son described the cen­tral role of the press in stark class terms when he described its role in pre­vent­ing exploita­tion and dom­i­na­tion of the poor by the rich:

Among [Euro­pean soci­eties], under pre­tence of gov­ern­ing they have divid­ed their nations into two class­es, wolves and sheep. I do not exag­ger­ate. This is a true pic­ture of Europe. Cher­ish there­fore the spir­it of our peo­ple, and keep alive their atten­tion. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlight­en­ing them. If once they become inat­ten­tive to the pub­lic affairs, you and I, and Con­gress, and Assem­blies, judges and gov­er­nors shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our gen­er­al nature, in spite of indi­vid­ual excep­tions; and expe­ri­ence declares that man is the only ani­mal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the gov­ern­ments of Europe, and to the gen­er­al prey of the rich on the poor.

In short, the press has the oblig­a­tion to under­mine the nat­ur­al ten­den­cy of prop­er­tied class­es to dom­i­nate pol­i­tics, open the doors to cor­rup­tion, reduce the mass­es to pow­er­less­ness and even­tu­al­ly ter­mi­nate self-government.

Jef­fer­son was not alone. In the ear­ly repub­lic, with no con­tro­ver­sy, the gov­ern­ment insti­tut­ed mas­sive postal and print­ing sub­si­dies to found a viable press sys­tem. There was no illu­sion that the pri­vate sec­tor was up to the task with­out these invest­ments. For the first cen­tu­ry of Amer­i­can his­to­ry, most news­pa­pers were dis­trib­uted by mail, and the Post Office’s deliv­ery charge for news­pa­pers was very small. News­pa­pers con­sti­tut­ed 90 to 95 per­cent of its weight­ed traf­fic, yet pro­vid­ed only 10 to 12 per­cent of its revenues.

As Jef­fer­son not­ed in his assess­ment of the sit­u­a­tion in 1787, one group def­i­nite­ly ben­e­fits from a lack of jour­nal­ism and from infor­ma­tion inequal­i­ty: those who dom­i­nate soci­ety. The Wall Street banks, ener­gy cor­po­ra­tions, health insur­ance firms, defense con­trac­tors and agribusi­ness­es are Jefferson’s wolves. None of them desires a jour­nal­ism that will engage the elec­torate and draw the poor and work­ing class into the polit­i­cal sys­tem. They might not say so in pub­lic, but their actions speak loud­er than words. Jour­nal­ism? No, thank you.

Plug­ging WikiLeaks

The extent of the cri­sis in jour­nal­ism is under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed by most Amer­i­cans, includ­ing many seri­ous news and polit­i­cal junkies. The pri­ma­ry rea­son may well be the Inter­net itself. Because many peo­ple envel­op them­selves in their favored news sites and access so much mate­r­i­al online, even surf­ing out onto the long tail,” the extent to which we are liv­ing in what vet­er­an edi­tor Tom Stites terms a news desert” has been obscured. More­over, using dis­si­dent web­sites, social media and smart­phones, activists have some­times bypassed the gate­keep­ers” in what The Nations John Nichols calls the next media sys­tem.” Its val­ue is strik­ing dur­ing peri­ods of pub­lic protest and upheaval, but the illu­sion that this con­sti­tutes sat­is­fac­to­ry jour­nal­ism is grow­ing thin­ner. Noth­ing demon­strates the sit­u­a­tion bet­ter than the release by Wik­iLeaks of an immense num­ber of secret U.S. gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments between 2009 and 2011. To some this was inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism at its best, and Wik­iLeaks had estab­lished how supe­ri­or the Inter­net was as an infor­ma­tion source. It clear­ly threat­ened those in pow­er, so this was exact­ly the sort of Fourth Estate a free peo­ple need­ed. Thanks to the Inter­net, some claimed, we were now tru­ly free and had the pow­er to hold lead­ers accountable.

In fact, the Wik­iLeaks episode demon­strates pre­cise­ly the oppo­site. Wik­iLeaks was not a jour­nal­is­tic orga­ni­za­tion. It released secret doc­u­ments to the pub­lic, but the doc­u­ments lan­guished online and only came to the public’s atten­tion when they were writ­ten up by pro­fes­sion­al jour­nal­ists,” as jour­nal­ist Heather Brooke put it. Raw mate­r­i­al alone wasn’t enough.” Jour­nal­ism had to give the mate­r­i­al cred­i­bil­i­ty, and jour­nal­ists had to do the hard work of vet­ting the mate­r­i­al and ana­lyz­ing it to find out what it meant. That required paid, full-time jour­nal­ists with insti­tu­tion­al sup­port. The Unit­ed States has too few of these, and those it has are too close­ly attached to the pow­er struc­ture, so most of the mate­r­i­al still has not been stud­ied and sum­ma­rized for a pop­u­lar audi­ence — and it may nev­er be in our lifetimes.

More­over, there was no inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism to respond when the U.S. gov­ern­ment launched a suc­cess­ful PR and media blitz to dis­cred­it Wik­iLeaks. Atten­tion large­ly shift­ed from the con­tent of these doc­u­ments to overblown and unsub­stan­ti­at­ed claims that Wik­iLeaks was cost­ing inno­cent lives, and to a per­son­al focus on Wik­iLeaks leader Julian Assange. Colum­nist Glenn Green­wald was only slight­ly exag­ger­at­ing when he stat­ed, There was almost a full and com­plete con­sen­sus that Wik­iLeaks was satan­ic.” The onslaught dis­cred­it­ed and iso­lat­ed Wik­iLeaks, despite the dra­mat­ic con­tent that could be found in the doc­u­ments Wik­iLeaks had pub­lished. The point was to get U.S. edi­tors and reporters to think twice before open­ing the Wik­iLeaks door. It worked.

Abun­dant security

It seems obvi­ous that if the Inter­net is real­ly reviv­ing Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy, as its cel­e­brants claim, it’s tak­ing a round­about route. The hand of cap­i­tal seems heav­ier and heav­ier on the steer­ing wheel, tak­ing us to places way off the demo­c­ra­t­ic grid, and nowhere is the Internet’s fail­ure clear­er or the stakes high­er than in journalism.

The Inter­net and the broad­er dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion are not inex­orably deter­mined by tech­nol­o­gy; they are shaped by how soci­ety elects to devel­op them. Rec­i­p­ro­cal­ly, our cho­sen way of devel­op­ment will shape us and our soci­ety, prob­a­bly dra­mat­i­cal­ly. We ought to be debat­ing a num­ber of pol­i­cy issues and sug­gest­ing the type of reforms that could put the Inter­net and our soci­ety on a very dif­fer­ent tra­jec­to­ry, chang­ing Amer­i­ca for the bet­ter and mak­ing it a much more demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety. Yet none of these pol­i­cy reforms has a chance because of the cor­rup­tion of the pol­i­cy-mak­ing process.

This sit­u­a­tion results not nec­es­sar­i­ly from a con­spir­a­cy, but from the quite vis­i­ble, unabashed log­ic of cap­i­tal­ism itself. Cap­i­tal­ism is a sys­tem based on peo­ple try­ing to make end­less prof­its by any means nec­es­sary. You can nev­er have too much. End­less greed — behav­ior that is derid­ed as insan­i­ty in all non­cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties — is the val­ue sys­tem of those atop the econ­o­my. The ethos explic­it­ly rejects any wor­ries about social com­pli­ca­tions, or exter­nal­i­ties.”

Cap­i­tal­ists are con­stant­ly locat­ing new places to gen­er­ate prof­its, and some­times that entails tak­ing what had been plen­ti­ful and mak­ing it scarce. So it is for the Inter­net. Infor­ma­tion on it is vir­tu­al­ly free, but com­mer­cial inter­ests are work­ing to make it scarce. To the extent they suc­ceed, the GDP may grow, but soci­ety will be poorer.

Pause to con­sid­er how far the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion has trav­eled from the hal­cy­on days of the 1980s and ear­ly 1990s to where it is today. Peo­ple thought that the Inter­net would pro­vide instant free glob­al access to all human knowl­edge. It would be a non­com­mer­cial zone, a gen­uine pub­lic sphere, lead­ing to far greater pub­lic aware­ness, stronger com­mu­ni­ties and greater polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion. It would sound the death knell for wide­spread inequal­i­ty and polit­i­cal tyran­ny, as well as cor­po­rate monop­o­lies. Work would become more effi­cient, engag­ing, coop­er­a­tive and humane. To the con­trary, at what seems like every pos­si­ble turn, the Inter­net has been com­mer­cial­ized, copy­right­ed, patent­ed, pri­va­tized, data-inspect­ed and monop­o­lized; scarci­ty has been cre­at­ed. One 2012 sur­vey con­cludes that dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies, far from reliev­ing work­loads, have made it pos­si­ble for the typ­i­cal Amer­i­can work­er to pro­vide as much as a month and a half of unpaid over­time annu­al­ly, just by using their smart­phones and com­put­ers for work at all hours while out­side the work­place: Almost half feel they have no choice.” The econ­o­my is topped by gazil­lion­aires who have suc­ceed­ed in cre­at­ing dig­i­tal fief­doms and adding to the GDP, but the pub­lic wealth is much less. Our wealth of infor­ma­tion is increas­ing­ly acces­si­ble only by enter­ing walled gar­dens of pro­pri­etary con­trol feed­ing into monop­o­lis­tic pric­ing sys­tems. To make the Inter­net a cap­i­tal­ist gold mine, peo­ple have sac­ri­ficed not just their pri­va­cy — and to skep­tics, their human­i­ty — but much of the great promise that once seemed possible.

To win any of the Inter­net pol­i­cy fights will require a broad­er polit­i­cal move­ment moti­vat­ed by a gen­er­al pro­gres­sive agen­da, not one specif­i­cal­ly focused on the Inter­net or media. Only then will there be the enor­mous num­bers pos­si­ble to defeat the pow­er of big mon­ey. As the leg­endary com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er Saul Alin­sky put it, the only thing that can beat orga­nized mon­ey is orga­nized peo­ple, lots of them.

In nor­mal” times, such move­ments are most­ly hypo­thet­i­cal in the Unit­ed States. The polit­i­cal econ­o­my has been suc­cess­ful enough to pre­vent a groundswell of grass­roots pop­u­lar oppo­si­tion. But these are not nor­mal times, and we are get­ting fur­ther away from nor­mal with every pass­ing day. One need only look at the great protests of 2011 — the likes of which we have not seen for decades — against ram­pant inequal­i­ty, cor­po­rate dom­i­na­tion of the econ­o­my and pol­i­tics, a death­like embrace of aus­ter­i­ty, end­less war mak­ing, and a stag­nant polit­i­cal econ­o­my that has no appar­ent use for young peo­ple, work­ers or nature.

Nobel lau­re­ate econ­o­mist Joseph Stiglitz cap­tured the spir­it of the protest move­ments in the Unit­ed States and world­wide in 2012:

Under­ly­ing most of the protests were old griev­ances that took on new forms and a new urgency. There was a wide­spread feel­ing that some­thing is wrong with our eco­nom­ic sys­tem, and the polit­i­cal sys­tem as well, because rather than cor­rect­ing our eco­nom­ic sys­tem, it rein­forced the fail­ures. The gap between what our eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal sys­tem is sup­posed to do — what we were told that it did do — and what it actu­al­ly does became too large to be ignored. … uni­ver­sal val­ues of free­dom and fair­ness had been sac­ri­ficed to the greed of the few.

Those pri­mar­i­ly con­cerned with Inter­net poli­cies and hes­i­tant to stick their toes into deep­er polit­i­cal waters need to grasp the nature 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.

Can one reform the Inter­net and make it a pub­lic good with cap­i­tal­ism still intact? Infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy accounts for some 40 per­cent of all non­res­i­den­tial pri­vate invest­ment in the U.S., qua­dru­pling the fig­ure from 50 years ago. Inter­net-relat­ed cor­po­ra­tions now com­prise near­ly one half of the 30 largest firms in the U.S. in terms of mar­ket val­ue. If one chal­lenges the pre­rog­a­tives of the Inter­net giants, odes to the cat­e­chism notwith­stand­ing, one is chal­leng­ing the dom­i­nant com­po­nent of real­ly exist­ing capitalism.

This is an impor­tant ques­tion, too, for those who have paid lit­tle atten­tion to Inter­net poli­cies but are deeply con­cerned about injus­tice, pover­ty, inequal­i­ty and cor­rup­tion. At times, one sens­es among such activists the cel­e­brants’ notion that dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies can cre­ate a new cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my that is dra­mat­i­cal­ly supe­ri­or and that the exist­ing Inter­net giants are allies, not adver­saries, in cre­at­ing a new friend­ly cap­i­tal­ism that will deliv­er the goods. The log­ic is sound: In the past, mas­sive invest­ments in rail­roads and auto­mo­biles (and relat­ed spin-off indus­tries) pro­pelled entire eras of cap­i­tal­ism to much high­er growth rates and stan­dards of liv­ing. When see­ing the enor­mous invest­ments in infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy, one won­ders why it can’t be that way again, and this time with­out all the envi­ron­men­tal dam­age? The prob­lem is sim­ple: Despite end­less claims about the great new cap­i­tal­ism just around the bend thanks to dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies, there is lit­tle evi­dence to back them up. In par­tic­u­lar, the Inter­net giants com­prise 13 of the 30 most valu­able U.S. firms, but only make up four of the 30 largest pri­vate employ­ers. There is clear­ly a lot of mon­ey for those at the top — who want to keep it that way — but lit­tle evi­dence that it is pass­ing ben­e­fits down the food chain. Quite the contrary.

Efforts to reform or replace cap­i­tal­ism but leave the Inter­net giants rid­ing high will not reform or replace real­ly exist­ing cap­i­tal­ism. The Inter­net giants are not a pro­gres­sive force. Their mas­sive prof­its are the result of monop­oly priv­i­leges, net­work effects, com­mer­cial­ism, exploit­ed labor, and a num­ber of gov­ern­ment poli­cies and sub­si­dies. The growth mod­el for the Inter­net giants, as one lead­ing busi­ness ana­lyst put it, is har­vest­ing intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty,” i.e., mak­ing scarce what should be abundant.

Inter­net and media issues must be in the cen­ter of any cred­i­ble pop­u­lar demo­c­ra­t­ic upris­ing. Giv­en the extent to which the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion per­me­ates and defines near­ly every aspect of our social lives, any oth­er course would be absurd.

For an increas­ing num­ber of peo­ple, the log­ic sug­gests one thing: It is time to give seri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion to the estab­lish­ment of a new econ­o­my. The cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem was able to thrive, on and off, dur­ing the 18th, 19th, and 20th cen­turies,” Jer­ry Man­der wrote in 2012. But it’s now obso­lete, non­mal­leable, and increas­ing­ly destruc­tive.” Cap­i­tal­ism had its day. If we care about the future well-being of humans and nature, it’s time to move on.”

Mander’s con­clu­sions elic­it incred­i­ble fury in the con­tem­po­rary Unit­ed States. Cap­i­tal­ism has become what Man­der terms a kind of third rail’ of pol­i­tics — for­bid­den to touch.” He acknowl­edges, It remains okay to cri­tique cer­tain aspects of the sys­tem,” but the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem itself occu­pies a vir­tu­al­ly per­ma­nent exis­tence, like a reli­gion, a gift of God, infal­li­ble.” The rea­son is obvi­ous: Those in pow­er do not wish the sys­tem that makes them pow­er­ful to be ques­tioned. Keep­ing cap­i­tal­ism off-lim­its to crit­i­cal review is essen­tial for that sys­tem, because it gen­er­ates demor­al­iza­tion, dis­en­gage­ment and apa­thy. This is not a polit­i­cal econ­o­my that can with­stand much engaged polit­i­cal participation.

Dur­ing the depths of the Great Depres­sion, Keynes wrote an extra­or­di­nary essay acknowl­edg­ing that econ­o­mists, as well as busi­ness and polit­i­cal lead­ers, had been woe­ful­ly wrong about the econ­o­my and how to make it work for the bulk of the pop­u­la­tion. The deca­dent inter­na­tion­al but indi­vid­u­al­is­tic cap­i­tal­ism, in the hands of which we found our­selves after the war,” Keynes wrote in 1933, is not a suc­cess. It is not intel­li­gent, it is not beau­ti­ful, it is not just, it is not vir­tu­ous — and it doesn’t deliv­er the goods.” He argued that what was nec­es­sary was a wide-open peri­od of debate and exper­i­men­ta­tion because the exist­ing the­o­ries and poli­cies had proven so dis­as­trous and bankrupt.

What Keynes pro­posed in the ear­ly 1930s is pre­cise­ly the approach we need today. We need to be open-mind­ed and to exper­i­ment. We have to escape the shack­les of the cur­rent sys­tem and see what can work. We need to imag­ine a dif­fer­ent social order,” Chris Hayes writes, to con­ceive of what more egal­i­tar­i­an insti­tu­tions would look like.” Cer­tain val­ues appear in most writ­ing on the sub­ject, espe­cial­ly from econ­o­mists like Richard Wolff, Juli­et Schor and Gar Alperovitz:

  • The wealth of a com­mu­ni­ty has to be con­trolled by the peo­ple of that community.
  • Decen­tral­ized and local com­mu­ni­ty con­trol should be empha­sized, with the state rein­forc­ing local planning. 
  • There must be a strong com­mit­ment to a vari­ety of coop­er­a­tives and non­prof­it organizations.
  • Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol of enter­pris­es by their work­ers is imperative.
  • Envi­ron­men­tal­ly sound pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion must be emphasized.

In the Amer­i­can con­text, such words can make some­one ques­tion an author’s san­i­ty; they seem so far removed from exist­ing real­i­ty and con­ven­tion­al wis­dom. But beneath the sur­face, there has been a rise in new kinds of eco­nom­ic ven­tures. In dis­tressed com­mu­ni­ties like Cleve­land, they are a source of promise for the future. We are begin­ning to devel­op some expe­ri­ence about what a demo­c­ra­t­ic, post-cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my might look like and how it could func­tion. There will be mar­kets, there will be for-prof­it enter­pris­es, but under the over­ar­ch­ing log­ic of the sys­tem, the sur­plus will be most­ly under non­prof­it com­mu­ni­ty control.

Absolute­ly cen­tral to build­ing this new polit­i­cal econ­o­my will be con­struct­ing non­prof­it and non­com­mer­cial oper­a­tions to do jour­nal­ism, pro­duce cul­ture, pro­vide Inter­net access and serve as bedrock local insti­tu­tions. These can range from com­mu­ni­ty radio and tele­vi­sion sta­tions and Inter­net media cen­ters to cul­tur­al cen­ters, sports leagues and com­mu­ni­ty ISPs.

Left on their cur­rent course and dri­ven by the needs of cap­i­tal, dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies can be deployed in ways that are extra­or­di­nar­i­ly inim­i­cal to free­dom, democ­ra­cy and any­thing remote­ly con­nect­ed to the good life. There­fore, bat­tles over the Inter­net are of cen­tral impor­tance for all those seek­ing to build a bet­ter soci­ety. When the dust clears on this crit­i­cal junc­ture, if our soci­eties have not been fun­da­men­tal­ly trans­formed for the bet­ter, if democ­ra­cy has not tri­umphed over cap­i­tal, the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion may prove to have been a rev­o­lu­tion in name only, an iron­ic, trag­ic reminder of the grow­ing gap between the poten­tial and the real­i­ty of human society.

Excerpt­ed and adapt­ed with per­mis­sion from Dig­i­tal Dis­con­nect: How Cap­i­tal­ism is Turn­ing the Inter­net Against Democ­ra­cy (New Press) by Robert McChesney.

Robert W. McCh­es­ney is a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign and co-edi­tor of Month­ly Review. He is the author, most recent­ly, of Rich Media, Poor Democ­ra­cy: Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Pol­i­tics in Dubi­ous Times.
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