Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Internet: A Marxist view

The Internet’s Unholy Marriage to Capitalism

John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney


From the end:

The Paradox of the Internet

What we have referred to as the “paradox of the Internet” in a
capitalist society is to be viewed as a corollary to the Lauderdale
Paradox.58 In a world in which private riches grow at the expense of
public wealth, it should not surprise us that what seemed at first as
the enormous potential of the Internet—representing a whole new realm
of public wealth, analogous to the discovery of a whole new continent,
and pointing to the possibility of a vast new democratic sphere of
unrestricted communication—has vaporized in a couple of decades.
Competitive strategy in this sphere revolves around the concept of the
lock-in of customers and the leveraging of demand-side economies of
scale, which allow for the creation of massive concentrations of
capital in individual firms.

Like the elimination of free land in the United States, the Internet
is being transformed into a few dominant spaces that are thereby able
to exploit their scarcity value. The effective “closure” (or
displacement) of much of the free public space on the Internet, which
now seems to be occurring, means that what was once clearly a form of
public wealth in new communicative possibilities, as measured by use
values—that is, in the new, universal human capacities it seemed to
promise—is giving way to a very different type of system. Here
exchange value dominates, and the disappearance of those use values
associated with relatively free communication comes to be registered
as a gain in wealth, since it produces massive private riches

From a capitalist standpoint, it is the very abundance represented by
the Internet that has thwarted profit-making. “There is no Commodity,”
Lauderdale wrote, “that would not loose [sic] the attribute of value
if it existed in as great abundance as Air or Water. Abundance
therefore will not only necessarily degrade the value of any
Commodity, but a sufficient abundance will inevitably destroy it.”59

Since scarcity in the case of the Internet has to be created, and
hence is artificial—indeed “artificial scarcity is the natural goal of
the profit-seeking,” writes Wired’s Anderson60—it requires the full
panoply of what Joseph Schumpeter called “monopolistic practices” (or
“the editing of competition”) to bring it about. The result is the
domination of the firms that are at best “co-respecters” (as opposed
to full competitors), with considerable monopoly/oligopoly power, thus
able to obtain surplus profits or monopolistic rents.61 An innovation
is commercially developed, and a market created, only by finding a way
to “wall” off a sector of public wealth and effectively privatize and
monopolize it, leading to huge returns. Information, which is a public
good—by nature available to all and, if consumed by one person, still
available to others—is, in this way, turned into a scarce private
commodity through the exercise of sheer market power.

All of this is possible, however, only with the cooperation of the
public sector. The privatization and monopolization of the Internet
requires a state, which, in partnership with capital, neither provides
the population with the alternatives necessary to develop access to
this public domain, nor protects it against Internet robber barons.
The state, in effect, looks the other way when it sees new realms of
economic wealth being made out of “nothing” (the value attributed to,
say, the electromagnetic spectrum outside market exchange) and fails
to move against rapid concentration of capital, even facilitating the

The FCC’s approval of the 2011 merger of Comcast and NBC Universal is
a case in point. As FCC Commissioner Michael Copps stated, in his lone
dissenting vote: the merger “opens the door to cable-ization of the
Internet.” According to Copps, this creates “the potential for walled
gardens, toll booths, content prioritization, access fees to reach end
users, and a stake in the heart of independent content production.”62
Public wealth, free access, net neutrality, and a democratic
communicative sphere are all losers. In this way, the real wealth of
the Internet, like a newly discovered land that has not yet been
explored, is given away to private interests—before the population has
been able to realize or even to imagine the full material use value of
such a realm, if managed in the public interest.

Communication is more than an ordinary market. Indeed, it is properly
not a market at all. It is more like air or water—a form of public
wealth, a commons. When Aristotle said that human beings were “social
animals,” he might just as well have said that we are communicative
animals. We know that the human brain coevolved with language (a
social characteristic).63 The development of social relations and
democratic forms, as well as science, culture, etc., are all
communicative. The rise of the Internet as a form of free
communication, seemingly without limits, thus raises the prospect of
vast new realms of human sociability and enhanced democratic
possibilities. Yet, rather than a means of expanding human
sociability, the Internet is being turned into the opposite: a new
means of alienation. There is nothing natural in this process; at
bottom it remains a social choice.

The moral of the story is clear. People in the United States and
worldwide must redouble their efforts to address the paradox of the
Internet at all levels of the analysis presented herein. The outcome
is far from certain, and the issues are still very much in play. A
global network of resistance is both necessary and feasible. Indeed,
in view of the nature of the Internet and the stakes involved, it
seems fair to say that these issues will only become more encompassing
in coming years. How this battle plays out will go a long way toward
determining our future as social animals.

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