How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy, and How to Turn It Back


From The Cubies’ A B C, illustrated by Mary Mills Lyall and Earl Harvey Lyall, 1913. Via

by Guy Aitchison

Writing in response to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the first systematic attempt by the US government to police the internet, John Perry Barlow – former lyricist for the Grateful Dead – made a celebrated Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. In resonant tones that echoed those of the Founding Fathers, Barlow addressed the “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel”, declaring “the global space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us”.

For Barlow, and the early pioneers of the internet, they were forming a new and different ‘Social Contract’, a governance that “arises according to the conditions of our world, not yours” informed by egalitarian values and the golden rule. Barlow’s vision captured the giddy optimism of early internet culture. This was a culture deeply hostile to commerce and government regulation that saw in the internet a utopian space that would usher in an age of democracy, open culture and participation. In the years that followed Barlow’s Declaration, far-reaching decisions were made by corporations and government (with little public debate, as is usual with major reforms to communication) that would lay the foundations for the internet’s transformation in a little under a generation into a far more controlled space penetrated by advertising, dominated by corporate monopolists and monitored by government and security agencies.

Robert McChesney’s new book Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy is a sober and incisive account of this process: of how corporations came to dominate the internet, along with a practical assessment of how to fulfil the genuine democratic potential he rightly identifies in the technology within the context of the current economic crisis.

The book is written as an intervention in US public debate, but will be of interest to all those who care about an open media and is of special relevance to political movements struggling to construct and articulate a democratic alternative to austerity against the clatter of neoliberal propaganda.

It is long over-due. Anyone who has dipped into the mainstream scholarship on the internet will be familiar with what is a by-now stale debate between ‘celebrants’ and ‘sceptics’. Celebrants, amongst whom Clay Shirky and Yochai Benkler are the most eloquent, paint a panglossian picture of how the internet has democratised the world of information, unleashing our creative and collaborative spirit, freeing us all to participate in worthy projects such as Wikipedia, Couch-surfer and open-source software coding in forms of “commons-based peer production” (Benkler) that harness the “cognitive surplus” we no longer waste on television. At its most vulgar and deluded, the celebrant narrative, propagated by those like Simon Mainwaring, implies the internet has overcome the problem of power asymmetries and will usher in a cool, green capitalism of ethical entrepreneurs “integrating values into their business strategies and embracing the role as enduring custodians of community and planetary well-being”.

The sceptics strike a contrarian note. They warn that the internet is corroding our culture (Jaron Lanier), empowering authoritarian governments (Egeny Morozov, Rebecca MacKinnon), channeling us into information ghettos at the expense of democracy (Eli Pariser) and undermining our capacity for deep and reflective thought (Nicholas Carr).  In their different ways, each of these authors illuminate the political, cultural and psychological changes encouraged by the internet.

What’s missing is any systematic analysis of how the technology interlaces and reinforces existing relations of power in the economy and society. The terms “democracy” and the “market” are thrown around with little reflection or critical examination. There is a tendency on both sides – most especially the celebrants – towards a kind of reductionism that loses sight of what historian of technology Melvin Kranzberg pointed out over thirty years ago, “Technology is neither good or bad; nor is it neutral.”

To ignore the shaping influence of context is to fundamentally “misunderstand the internet”, a point made forcefully by James Curran, Natalie Fenton and Des Freedman, three British scholars whose work can usefully be read alongside McChesney’s.

Technology is embedded within social relations of hierarchy and control, and its use will tend to be governed in accordance with the interests of those who hold power, amplifying the dynamics of the existing social and economic system. A technology introduced under capitalism will tend to reinforce its tendencies to domination and inequality unless a balance of class power as a whole ensures that there is countervailing force. History provides examples of new technologies that lend themselves to challenges against authority, as with the printing press which enabled Lutherans to disseminate cheap vernacular copies of the Bible and so challenge the spiritual and temporal authority of the papacy.  These anti-authoritarian possibilities can only be realised however if the technology is put to use by organised interest that challenges society’s common sense of who has power in society and for what purposes.

The open architecture of the internet, in which we can all participate and enrich ourselves and our shared culture without permission from some central authority, enables us to create what openDemocracy calls a “digital commons”.

That is to say, it is possible to create an open space for interaction not dominated by the enclosures, ad hominem violence and commercialism of the web as a whole. But while the technology makes this possible, it is by no means inevitable. There are, after all, huge fortunes to be made from preventing it.

In its ideal form, a digital commons is a realm of free access and reciprocal production much like the common pastural fields and forests of England prior to their enclosure by avaricious landowners; a place where we can live, play, create, share and discuss “out of sight or out of slavery”, as the Digger Gerald Winstanley put it.  Just like the physical commons, however, the digital commons has proven vulnerable to capture and exploitation in the process of capital accumulation.

If this commons is to be defended and put to the service of democracy and social justice then it is imperative we understand the nature of the forces trying to control the internet and the broader communications environment. The first step is a thoroughgoing analysis of the internet’s political economy. As McChesney writes, “The profit motive, commercialism, public relations, marketing, and advertising – all defining features of contemporary corporate capitalism – are foundational to any assessment of how the Internet has developed and is likely to develop.”

Digital work

McChesney rejects the sacred American “catechism” of capitalism that would have us believe that free, competitive markets work for the wellbeing of all and ensure a plural dispersion of power across society. McChesney treats Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and the other tech firms as they should be treated: as profit-driven firms with a tendency to drive down the wages and conditions of workers, corrupt the democratic process with money-power and monopolise their sector, manufacturing scarcity and controlling innovation. Despite their geeky figureheads and cuddly PR, these are not NGOs. If they did not act this way, they would not last long as capitalist firms! Currently, 13 of the top 30 US firms are firms grown out of the digital revolution, whilst only 3 are “too big to fail” banks. In 2012, by some accounts, Apple had $110 billion dollars cash, Google $50 billion, Microsoft $51 billion and Amazon $10 billion.

The huge profits of these firms are concentrated in the hands of billionaire founders, CEOs and shareholders. They frequently boast of their role in creating jobs. But what kind? Apple and its contractors employ 700,000 workers outside the US, many of them in the notorious Foxconn plants, whilst the 60,000 in America are mostly minimum wage-type jobs. Financial Times journalist Sarah O’Connor recently visited an Amazon warehouse in Rugeley where she saw workers – known as “pickers” – walking around a vast warehouse loading products onto trolleys with devices that tell them where to go next and monitoring their productivity in real time. An Amazon manager told her, “You’re sort of like a robot, but in human form.” Amazon apparently has plenty of robots but (for the time being!) humans are better at collecting the vast array of products. The company doesn’t allow unionisation and operates a “three strikes and release discipline”.

Cultural workers have fared little better. The major copyright-holders, determined to preserve their revenues, have prevented any meaningful debate about how cultural work can be properly compensated in an era where music, films and books can be copied and distributed for free. The internet has contributed to the culture of a “flexible” and “mobile” workforce, and now the smart phone serves as a kind of remote leash tying workers to the office and leading to a dramatic rise in unpaid overtime.

Beneath all the enchanting talk from politicians and think tanks of a “knowledge” economy and “cognitive” labour, then, lurks the same old beast, degrading men and women to “appendages of a machine”. As long as we remain beings of flesh and blood, there will need to be people who extract the minerals for the computers we use, assemble the parts and distribute the clothes and other goods we order. These are the relations of exclusion capitalism tries to conceal.

Anti-capitalists have detected in the rise of network technology the emergence of a multitudinous global proletariat whose “immaterial labour” gives them a degree of independence from capital from which they can link up to oppose it. Although this captures something important about the identity and commonality of current struggles it shouldn’t obscure the realities faced by those voiceless and invisible workers who carry out manual labour in more familiar industrial conditions; struggle on the “part of those who have no part”, in Jacques Ranciere’s words.

The conquest of the net

So much for the new world of digital work. How about the much-lauded diversity of the internet? Monopolies have arisen at a startling pace over the past few years from companies that had a standing start but the extraordinary advantage of being a prime-mover[7] . Conventional monopolistic practices are accentuated online by the long-observed “network effect” where the benefits of a service like Facebook or Amazon, where users generate value, increases the more people use it. This means a “winner-takes-all” system where the top companies in each field, such as Google, Facebook and Amazon have no serious rivals. Amazon uses competitive pricing to drive its competitors in retail out of business then sets price levels to maximize profit. Clay Shirky likes to give examples of how Web 2.0 endeavours, such as car-pooling services, undermine local monopolies. But this pales against the big picture.

The big picture, as McChesney suggests, can be compared to a 19th century map of imperial rivalries. Each of the tech monopolies occupies a continental base camp, with mini-monopolies like Ebay as Japan. Each camp extends their monopoly into new areas and forms temporary alliances with the ultimate aim of conquering the world and controlling the internet. Their current method for achieving this is “locking-in”. Through a combination of carrots and sticks users are ushered into closed, proprietorial systems where the same corporation design the hardware, sell you the software to go with it and then uses your information to sell advertising, producing what economists call an “enhanced surplus extraction” effect.

These new forms of extraction, where the collective intelligence of internet users is exploited on a mass scale, has been termed a “social factory” by Tiziana Terranova, part of the way in which capital exploits not only our working hours, but our friendships, communication, creativity and intelligence. Even the open software movement, whose co-operative spirit Shirky and Benkler wax lyrical about, has proven remarkably susceptible to co-optation by capital.

When systems are locked-in, the corporations control the terms of the relationship. This has much more in common with the hierarchical one-to-many broadcasting systems of the 20th century than the distributed many-to-many system that gives the internet its democratic potential. Like TV and film, there are already signs that the internet as broadcaster will serve to pacify and depoliticize through a diet of light entertainment, celebrity and distraction. The process of locking-in is greatly enabled by cloud computing and with more and more people accessing the internet via “tethered” devices, in the form of smart phones, the control these companies have becomes even more important (wireless devices don’t have the same neutrality protections as wired ones). The information in your inbox, calendar, notes and photo album, along with the document you copy into the cloud is stored on gigantic – and extremely capital intensive – server farms dotted around the globe, where it will be mined and sold onto advertisers.

The recent launch of Facebook Home for mobile devices and Google New suggest that the networks companies are planning to use this vast mountain of data to mediate how we experience our day-to-day reality, telling us who we have to meet next, when, why and how to get there. The next big expansion is into the huge markets of the developing world with Google and Facebook persuading internet carriers to offer free or cheap broadband to users limited to their own sites. This means that, for millions of people now getting online, the internet will be what Facebook and Google want them to think it is. Internet scholar Jonathan Zittrain predicted this development as early as 2006 when he warned of a future internet of “information appliances”. But Zittrain thought in terms of a technological explanation for this closure: the fear of viruses rather than the monopolistic pursuit of economic gain (protection from viruses was indeed the explanation Steve Jobs chose to give at the IPhone’s launch in 2007).

In reality, the lock-in strategy mirrors the way in which corporations have monopolised other media systems. The advent of radio, film and television were accompanied by utopian proclamations about an exciting new world of diversity and cultural participation. Initially, these mediums were anarchic and plural, and largely free of adverts and commercialism, but as Tim Wu has shown, eventually ambitious entrepreneurs enter the scene to offer a functional, uniform product and crowd out competitors. As Wu writes, information technologies exhibit a typical progression:

from somebody’s hobby to somebody’s industry; from jury-rigged contraption to slick production marvel; from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled by a single corporation or cartel — from open to closed system.

This monopoly is used to stifle any innovation believed to harm profit margins, as with AT&T’s decision to suppress the invention of the answer phone in the 1930s, which they feared would put people off chatting over the phone. In a similar light, Google’s recent decision to retire the eminently practical Google Reader has been interpreted as a move to direct eyeballs away from RSS feeds and onto company homepages where they can be shown adverts. We can imagine what the response of Apple might be to an app that coordinated protests and boycotts in a way that seriously harmed the interests of them or their advertisers.

There is some grounds for hope in the fact that previous attempts to enclose the internet by Microsoft through its browser and the AOL-Time Warner bid have failed. There are powerful features of the technology that mitigate against centralisation. The internet designed by Vint Cerf and Robert E. Kahn was deliberately designed as an open, permissive system that is neutral between the data-packages it carries. The tech-commentator John Naughton – another thoughtful analyst who transcends the sceptic-celebrant debate – has written that the most exciting breakthroughs in the history of the internet, such as Napster’s file-sharing system and the World Wide Web, happened thanks to its system of “permissionless innovation”. Digital currency Bitcoin is another example of the internet’s capacity to spring surprises on us in a manner that upsets the status quo.

With proprietorial systems, only those innovations that contribute to the profits of the tech giants will be permitted. Whilst Berners-Lee thought it “unthinkable” to patent the World Wide Web, making it available to everyone for free, Zuckerberg has behaved like a dictator who wins power via elections, taking advantage of the open architecture of the internet to launch Facebook whilst at college and now pushing a closed system where his company gets the final say on what new software is introduced. Google have a reputation for supporting open standards on the internet, in part because its Search cannot reach information hidden in closed systems. But they have created a proprietorial system in Google-plus and their relentless quest to “organise the world’s information” (which they eventually hope to integrate into our person through artificial intelligence devices) raises profound questions about privacy and the democratic control of knowledge that they choose to ignore. This secrecy and bullying is a far cry from the utopia Silicon Valley chooses to project at the Singularity University where future tech and philanthro-capitalism come together with celebrities to “prepare humanity for accelerating technological change.”

The capitalist catechism would have us believe, following Milton Friedman, that the tech giants’ power constrains big government. Once again, the reality is a little different. The data gathered by the tech giants is routinely made available to government security agencies upon request without court requirements. In return, far from tackling the power of these giants, the US government, which provided the huge initial investment for the internet before handing it over to the private sector, turns a blind eye to their monopoly practices, their extensive use of tax havens and their abuse of privacy. It throws its weight behind laws and regulations that keep them profitable and champions their cause abroad. The tech giants spend millions lobbying each year, have cosy relationships with legislators and enjoy an invite to Davos as much as the next business mogul.

We are seeing a sinister alliance of business and the state to promote corporate expansion, security and militarism. The enthusiastic collaboration by Apple, PayPal and the like in the crackdown on Wikileaks exposed the true nature of the tech-state nexus. The internet has proven an extremely useful tool for mobilising oppositional groups for collective action without the need for top-down organisations. But by operating through hierarchical domain structures oppositional activists will always be vulnerable to having their activities shut down. The case for migration to non-hierarchical distributed networks, as recommended by the likes of Joss Hands, is difficult to resist.

No news is bad news

In the second part of the book, McChesney turns to discussing the news media. He paints a grim picture of job cuts, local papers being shut down and original reportage all but disappearing. Again, McChesney focuses on the US but the picture here in the UK is broadly the same. Attempts to monetise journalism on the web have not been successful so far. Whilst a few specialist business organs, such as the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, have been successful with paywalls, they have not worked for others, whilst advertising makes nowhere near enough to make up the shortfall. A third of 25 large dailies in the US were purchased by hedge funds, who bought cheap but are still trying to sell them. In the UK, even the Guardian is in crisis despite its relatively privileged position funded by the Scott Trust. The final picture is far from clear. ‘Brand leaders’ like the Mail using voyeur- porn prurience to generate a world following may gain significant advertising. Others may follow the FT having established their reputation, or do so for parts of their offering. Those unable to adapt are likely to close.

The celebrants recommend a “wait and see” approach to this crisis, hoping that new networked forms of media will step in to fill the void. They underestimate the need for a wage structure and institutional support to provide reporting. There are plenty of excellent blogs and websites, many of which cover issues the mainstream media ignore, as with Kate Belgrave’s coverage of the impact of local council cuts for False Economy in the UK. But this is the exception. Who will regularly sit in on council budget meetings, or follow a story of local corruption over several months? Without a small pot of NGO funding, it is a hobby only the privileged could afford. The new Bureau for Investigative Journalism has done important work, but trusts raise their own issues of independence and cannot be relied on to produce sufficient sustainable funding.

Radicals may be tempted to cheer the collapse of corporate media, but there is an urgent need to imagine and create alternative models or the future looks grim. Activist outlets, such as Indy Media, provide indispensable coverage of protests, and sites like LibCom and New Left Project offer a level of critical analysis far superior to the mainstream, but they are no substitute for the daily work of investigation and reportage.

We are constantly bombarded with ‘news” but most of it is recycled tattle from press releases pumped out by the major media conglomerates – “churnalism”, in Nick Davies’s phrase. The advertising revenue of these large conglomerates is the primary determinant of the content. In the past, a newspaper would sell their audience to advertisers. Now, audiences are purchased by advertisers in real-time and so we see the rise of “content farmers” who produce content on demand that ranks high on Google search and social media to deliver target audiences to advertisers. McChesney introduces us to Journatic, an extraordinary company that produces local news for US media by outsourcing writing to workers in the Philippines who are expected to produce 250 stories a week minimum for between 35 to 40 cents a piece. As financial pressures mount, this trend is likely to continue.

To suggest this is a viable model for critical journalism is insane. As McChesney notes, it produces the very opposite of an informed and empowered citizenry able to debate political issues and make informed decisions.

He is not the first to raise concerns about the threat of internet advertising to democracy. Most notably, Eli Pariser’s Filter Bubble describes how the integrated complex of behavioural monitoring systems that tracks behaviour online to sell us stuff is driving us into information ghettoes or “filter bubbles”. These bubbles give us much of what we “like” but little of what we need, reinforcing our prejudices and counteracting the possibility of a deliberative public.

Pariser, however, lacks a broader analysis of the economic forces at work. Trapped by the logic of the celebrant-sceptic debate, he is inclined to portray the pre-internet public sphere as lively, vigorous and reflective of popular concerns. The conclusions he recommends (essentially, asking the tech companies to be more transparent about privacy and algorithms) seems thoroughly inadequate to the scale of the challenge. We may, as he suggests, ask “companies that hold great curatorial power” to do more to “cultivate public space and citizenship”, but given everything we know about the history of capitalist firms, they’re unlikely to listen.

The merit of McChesney’s approach is to see the internet’s impact within the context of the long-term commercialisation of journalism accelerated by the emergence of large media conglomerates in the 1970s and 80s selling stories of celebs and sex scandals. Throughout much of the 20th century, an ethic of “professional journalism” in the United States had held sway with a separation between editors and owners and an aspiration to objectivity.  This was no golden age by any means. Journalists were far too close to official sources (witness their cheerleading for the Vietnam war) and they could only stray so far from the ideological constraints imposed by advertisers and their wealthy owners.

Nonetheless, within the mainstream, there was at least lip service to the ideal of journalism as a “public good”. Quite rightly, McChesney does not think a return to that system is either possible or desirable. We need to bite the bullet, he says, and face up to the fact that neither the market nor amateur enthusiasts can provide the kind of critical effective journalism appropriate to an empowered democratic culture. There needs to be “professional, dedicated journalistic institutions funded as a public good”.

McChesney proposes a “citizenship news voucher” system in which each citizen receives $200 to be allocated to the nonprofit media outlet of their choice each year, with all content available for free online and not copy-righted and no commercials. This is a promising proposal. Crucially, it separates public funding from the state. It would be superior to the public funding system we have in the UK, which takes the form of a mandatory transfer to a single monolithic institution in the form of the BBC.

The BBC’s coverage of the banking crisis, of the rise of the database state and of the Coalition’s policies of welfare cuts and NHS marketisation has confirmed that it functions as a regime broadcaster embedded within the political class when it comes to core issues (if a functioning, independent media had provided the full story behind the NHS “reforms”, you can guarantee there would have been a much bigger uproar). With a few exceptions, its journalists socialise with, and defer to the views of, the bankers and politicians who call the shots. The BBC has utterly failed to provide the public with an informed understanding of the current economic crisis and how it came about, reinforcing the Tory narrative of over-zealous public spending and necessary cuts. Its decision to censor the “Ding dong!” song, celebrating Thatcher’s death, is just the latest in a long line of capitulations to power following the Hutton inquiry.

Arguably, the BBC has been a collaborator from its very beginnings. The 80’s were probably a high point for disobedience to the state – part of the awkward transition from social democratic pluralism to neoliberalism. Tony Hall, the new Director General, played an important role alongside John Birt in bringing the institution to heel.

It may be tempting to “cling to nurse, for fear of worse” in the shape of Murdoch, but this record of failures, rooted in the elitist structure and make-up of the BBC, calls for a much more imaginative approach. So long as we restrict our imagination to a choice between regime broadcaster and corporate oligarchs, that’s all we’ll be offered. Far better to argue for a plural democratisation of the licence fee to fund critical, independent media. These funds could be allocated annually by citizens, as McChesney recommends. The approach would be given an added layer of democratic input if citizens controlled not only the financing but also had a say into which editorial projects are funded, drawing on Dan Hind’s proposal for a system of “public commissioning”. This would promote a new form of journalism responsive to active citizens not pacified consumers. As Hind describes it:

In a system of public commissioning citizens would, collectively and equally, make decisions about the allocation of resources to journalists and researchers. Each of us would be able to provide a certain amount of material support for projects that we wanted to see funded.

With each citizen empowered to give away a voucher of, say, £100 each year to whichever nonprofit they choose, and able to shape the direction of editorial projects, we would quickly see a much more plural and democratic media. Existing outlets like openDemocracy and Novara could apply for funds, whilst new media outlets would spring up on the back of promised funding.

There would be more space for criticism. As it stands, critical outlets that fundamentally challenge the logic of social and economic arrangements have always been tolerated (until they become a threat). This allows supporters of the system to trumpet its pluralism. But they always have fewer resources and much lower production values than their corporate rivals and so struggle to make themselves heard. The production values of a Democracy Now or Reel News make it that little less slick and authoritative than a CNN or Fox News.  Equipped with their own independent infrastructure for the quality production and distribution of their content nonprofit media outlets could start to popularise radical ideas that puncture the bankrupt consensus of our political elites.

At our current historical juncture there is huge chasm between the utopian hopes raised by technology and automation and the miserable future of grinding insecure work and debt or unemployment and debt our political masters have prepared for us. The mutation of the internet into an exploitative medium is simply one manifestation of this grim gulf between the possible and the actual. It’s hard to think of any belief system that has been so swiftly and comprehensively discredited in theory and practice as neoliberalism. We are at a pivotal moment. The crisis opens up a space for imagining economic alternatives, but unlike the crises of the 1930s and 1970s none has so far gained any traction and so neoliberalism staggers on zombie-like. What the billionaires and tech-utopians of the Singularity University fail to grasp – because it is not in their interests to do so – is that no amount of 3D printers or nano-techonology can deliver liberation so long as human flourishing is subordinate to profit.

A critical media would provide a space to imagine how we maximize free time, reduce inequality, and create an empowered democracy, at school, in the workplace, in our communities. Why not have a documentary on intellectual property rights, a panel discussion on the merits of worker-directed firms, a play about the social wage, an explanation of what “quantitative easing” actually means, a discussion of how to fight climate change? We’re constantly led to believe that a philistine “public” is only interested in tittle-tattle, but when ideas are given space and a decent billing, they often prove popular (as with Stephanie Flanders’ recent BBC series on Marx, Keynes and Hayek). To argue against the idea of an informed and empowered citizenry taking the lead in shaping debate is to argue against democracy itself.

The battle for the commons

We should consider the models of McChesney, Hind and other theorists of critical media as proposals to be reflected on and tested in wider struggles of democratic contestation. New proposals will emerge alongside them. Yet none of them will gain traction without a political movement to support them. The idea of the commons provides the moral and political resources for the collective re-articulation of diverse struggles around a shared idea.

The online tendency of libertarian hackers and activists, from Open Rights Group to Anonymous, to Peer-to-Peer networks are increasingly coming to recognise that their enemy is not only the state but private concentrations of power and the tech-state nexus.

The defeat of the most draconian provisions of the Digital Economy Bill showed a glimpse of the alliances that are possible. Radical political movements, meanwhile, can’t hope to replace capitalism without an understanding of the media as not only an instrument for their message but as a distinct terrain of struggle. If groups concerned with net neutrality, privacy and limiting copyright could move beyond defensive campaigns and link up with movements fighting corporate power and austerity through a broader articulation of the commons, this opens up exciting possibilities.

For the idea of the commons is both a protective, prefigurative shared space and also a claim that a different kind of future is possible starting from it. The commons is a space free from the rule of private property and the state. It is part reality, part aspiration. It provides a realm of cultural freedom but also the public goods of education, health and social security that allow us to participate in that realm as free and equal citizens. It extends to the warehouses and factories that keep the network society running where the most profound relations of domination are experienced. Those who make communication possible can’t be left voiceless. A say over the commons means a say over how work-time is managed and what happens to the surplus workers produce. Effective solidarity will extend to these workers and not speak for them.

Inserting one world into another, the commons brings to light the contradictions between the ideal of a shared communal space of equals and the reality of closed divided spaces of exploitation. As Winstanley reminds us, it is a realm where no one is dominated by the arbitrary will of another. The rights of free association and speech, won in political struggle, are only ever effective when the more general right to the commons is defended and expanded.

The digital commons, with its vast potential for democratic communication and co-operation, has an important part to play. At its best, it furnishes us with a compelling vision of co-operative, non-market values and behaviours. McChesney is, I think, too strong in his dismissal of the celebrants’ vision here. The pleasurable application of skills and intellect, the joy of creative activity in association with others, these recall Marx’s conception of “species-being” in a society where “the free development of each is the free development of all”. A properly articulated vision of emancipation will need to draw on these glimpses, which hint at an altogether more friendly and co-operative social ontology than the archetypal competitive consumer propagated in the broadcasting of war-like soaps and reality shows. We delight in communal life. Even Facebook – corporate “hamster-cage” though it is – reveals a basic social urge to bond and create with others.

Grass-roots movements, such as Occupy and the Indignados, have proven time and again that the tools of the internet lend themselves to successful experiments in democratic media and organisation. The principles that inform these practices can fruitfully be turned towards a critique of the current media-power nexus and the formation of concrete demands for a media that fosters genuine social and political empowerment. Co-operative relations forged through online media can only be understood within the over-riding logic of an exploitative economic system in which they are always vulnerable. They cannot be expected to organically evolve and out-compete hierarchical relations without a conscious effort. Without an outward facing political dimension, the spaces that celebrants admire are no better than the more impotent versions of the encampments; cosy pre-figurative enclaves with no clout when the powers-that-be come knocking. Difficult political choices and meeting the challenges of organisation are required to defend and realise the culture and media we want. The alternative of a private internet of business interests is too bleak to entertain.

Piece originally published at Open Democracy | Creative Commons License