Does the internet transcend capitalism?

This article is part of Fightback’s “What is Capitalism” series, to be collected in an upcoming magazine issue. To support our work, consider subscribing to our e-publication ($20 annually) or magazine ($60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

In 2015, a breathless, widely circulated Guardian article by somebody called Paul Mason declared that the internet is fostering ‘postcapitalism.’1 Mason argued that the old forms, such as the political party, have been transcended (ironically, not long after, Mason endorsed Syriza,2 a political party).

In theory, Mason’s argument for online ‘postcapitalism’ is understandable: the internet suggests post-scarcity. However, this is a case of the “forces of production” (new technology which enables new possibilities) clashing with the “relations of production” (who has the power and resources, and why they might prevent change). The possibility of post-scarcity – endless free copies of the same content – is prevented by corporate dominance.

Potentially infinite newspaper articles or academic pdfs are held behind paywalls; music and television are restricted to paid streaming services, or regionally restricted; cash-poor media addicts end up on piracy websites riddled with sleazy spambots (perhaps not the greatest injustice of capitalism). In a particularly ironic example, publisher Lawrence and Wishart demanded that the free-to-all website Marxists.org take down the largest English language collection of Marx & Engels’ writing available: two writers who are both long dead, and dedicated their lives to eradicating private property.

Although technically nobody ‘owns the internet’, most users’ experiences are shaped by corporate domination. Most of our time online is spent on corporate-owned websites like Twitter and Facebook, who have the right to censor any content they consider unsavoury (note: this is not necessarily such a terrible thing, as with the censorship of fascist accounts, but giving corporations the right to determine who speaks publicly sets a dangerous precedent). Controversy about Facebook’s data mining shows how corporations continue to surveil our lives, albeit in innovative new ways. Returning to Paul Mason, he advocates breaking up Facebook and other monopolies, whereas fellow ‘postcapitalism’ theorist Nick Srnicek advocates nationalisation of Facebook and similar platforms.

Communist Jodi Dean argues that the internet is a new ‘zero level’ of social life,3 a fundamental background that frames our whole existence. While some treat interactions on the internet as irrelevant to ‘real life’, they in fact frame everyday social life. Ordinary conversations often refer to the latest online controversy, in the same way ‘water cooler conversations’ used to refer to the latest on television. Dean further argues that the internet favours contestation over consensus. The spread of ‘Fake News’ propagated by the crypto-fascist alt-right may have helped swing an election in the most powerful nation on earth. We cannot be too complacent about similar movements in Aotearoa or Australia, even if they are currently marginal. It’s equally self-defeating to either confine our radical practice to the internet, or dismiss ‘internet politics’ as irrelevant.

The internet is the real world, integral to everyday life. However, rather than the internet transcending power struggles, power struggles transcend the internet. Communication technologies mediate a wider social world. The old war continues, but the terrain has changed.

3Jodi Dean, Why the Net is not a Public Sphere, University of Oregon website http://pages.uoregon.edu/koopman/courses_readings/phil123-net/intro/dean_net_publicsphere.pdf

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