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 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

Information workers: Workers’ power in the “age of the geek”

Network cableby Daphne Lawless

As Alec Hardison says on the hit TV show Leverage: “it’s the age of the geek, baby”. Information technology workers are increasingly important and increasingly recognizing their own importance. Here’s why.

What makes Marxism different from other schools of thought which seek to understand and to change the world is that it precisely identifies who the agent of that change will be. The working class – to use the old-fashioned term, the “proletariat” – are the section of society who must work for wages and salaries to survive, who are the most exploited part of society, but at the same time potentially the most powerful.

This is because, in the words of the old union song: “Without their brains and muscle, not a single wheel would turn”. Profit, the life-blood of the system, is made by their work. If they withdraw that work, if they seize the means of production and turn them to production for use instead of profit, then the whole basis of the world system could be turned upside down. [Read more…]

Anonymous: “Self-organisation of the computer nerds”

Guy Fawkes mask, associated with Anonymous, worn at a Wellington demo in solidarity with Palestine

Guy Fawkes mask, associated with Anonymous, worn at a Wellington demo in solidarity with Palestine

Daphne Lawless.

For those who’ve been watching Internet culture for a while, it’s still a bit of a culture shock to see Anonymous being discussed in the mainstream media. As this article is being written, Anonymous has been credited with bringing down the website of a large private university in India whose boss had been censoring Internet articles criticising him. Also in the news, Anonymous claims to have hacked some 600,000 Israeli email accounts as part of an ongoing campaign.

The media generally describe Anonymous as a “hacktivist” group. But the most important thing to understand is that Anonymous is not a group of any sort, or an ideology. It’s an idea, and a culture.

The birthplace of Anonymous as we know it was the infamous webforum 4chan, whose “random” board (/b/) is known (among much less polite things) as “the cesspool of the internet”. Contributions to 4chan are all credited to “Anonymous”– there is no way to trace any image or message to any individual.  Under the Anonymous moniker – except a permanent ban for anyone posting child pornography – posters to /b/ (known as “/b/tards”) are free to act out the darkest impulses of their psyche and of the cultural environment.

The board has become notorious as the place to go for the most sexist, racist, homophobic, gory and otherwise transgressive content imaginable. However, the no-limits creativity of this environment also has also given birth to so many of the Internet injokes we can now take for granted. “LOLcats”, for example, began as a 4chan custom known as “Caturday”. You can now buy T-shirts, calendars, badges and other items featuring images  and concepts which had their origin on 4chan. Of course, the anonymous originators of this content don’t get a slice of the profits.

In this culture, harrassment and “trolling” are not only tolerated, but considered high entertainment. Those who get on Anonymous’ wrong side can expect to have their personal details broadcast, their websites and email addresses hacked, and to be harrassed with prank phone calls and bogus pizza deliveries – and worse.

But – perhaps surprisingly – the power of Anonymous began to be used for pro-social causes. One famous target of Anonymous was an American teenager who posted a YouTube video of himself abusing his pet cat. Another was neo-Nazi talk radio host Hal Turner, who was driven off air and unmasked as an FBI provocateur. [Read more…]

Activist’s death puts internet freedom on the agenda


Byron Clark

Internet commons activist Aaron Swartz has died by suicide several weeks out from a trial that could have seen him facing 35 years in prison and over a million dollars in fines. Despite being only 26 years old when he died, Tim Burners-Lee, inventor of the hypertext technology that makes the World Wide Web possible, commented that “we have lost a mentor, a wise elder”. Like Burners-Lee, Swartz had made important contributions to the sharing of information though modern technology, helping to develop the Real Simple Syndication (RSS) standard which allows users to subscribe to ‘feeds’ from websites, making the consumption of news and other information easier and facilitating ‘podcasts’ as a new form of distribution of audio content to subscribers.  [Read more…]

Paperback books will be the death of us, or how “industry” always finds new technology threatening

If a book is any good, the cheaper the better

-George Bernard Shaw

E-books are a new thing, the idea of a “digital book” is something that has been scoffed at, but within the past few years, the e-book has steadily gained ground on the more traditional form. Barnes and Noble claim they sell three times as many e-books compared to all forms of physical books and Amazon claim that since the start of the year they are selling 114 e-books for every 100 physical books. It was George Santayana who said “Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it” and so for any discussion of the latest developments in technology and social relations, we need to start with an understanding of what has gone before.

George Orwell is quoted as saying “If other publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them” in relation to paperback books, specifically Penguin books. Orwell was writing in response to the potential lowering of royalties that writers could expect to receive in the paperback form as opposed to hardback.

It was Allen Lane who saw the huge gap in the market in which he could exploit and profit hugely from. Inexpensive paperbacks had existed from the 19th century onwards, whether as pamphlets, airport/train novels or the wider genre of pulp fiction. Lane didn’t invent the paperback, but he upped the quality in both production and design alongside the low cost, revolutionising the format (much like Apple with the iPhone and iPad) suddenly making literature available on a mass-scale, moving away from its earlier perception as a sophisticated and expensive commodity to a mass-based medium, available to all. Like the printing press before it and digitial technology after it, paperback publishing revolutionised the way the book was seen and consumed. [Read more…]