April 16, 2013

The internet, capitalism, and "holding back"

I'm currently reading Bob McChesney's most recent book "Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy". I'm lucky to have gotten an advance copy of the book, and I have interviewed Professor McChesney many times on my radio program, with another interview forthcoming. Moreover, I own and have read nearly all of Professor McChesney's books, which I count as invaluable and inspiring in my own work on activism, particularly on media and media policy. A speech Professor McChesney gave in 1998 (which I have an audio copy of) proved influential in my own evolution from observer to activist. So, it surprises me that I read something in a recent adaptation of "Digital Disconnect" (published in In These Times, and reposted on ZNet) which I disagreed with. In particular, this passage:

[B]eneath 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.

In particular still, four words:

"There will be markets".

Now I can understand the apprehension many people feel with regards to non- capitalist economies, and the fear of thinking that, as bad as things are, yes they can get much worse. And I can understand further why Professor McChesney didn't go as far as market abolition and/or market replacement in this article, though I think he certainly can. He was arguably pushing the envelope plenty in his article and in his assessment, he also didn't want to push his luck and perhaps lose what ground he gained with potential readers.

It happens in everyday conversation too. You sometimes have LOTS to say, but you reasonably hold off because it's not appropriate to say everything you want to say. Because the audience might not be ready yet. Because the audience has a lot to digest already and you don't want to overwhelm them. But I have to admit I'm a tad disappointed that Professor McChesney didn't go the full monty at challenging the primacy of markets, particularly since markets -- I would argue -- is critical to spawning the powerful corporations who threaten the democratic potential of the internet that Professor McChesney has made the central focus of his book, "Digital Disconnect".

The negative consequences of markets -- the effects of the "invisible foot" as some call it -- are well known. Markets weaken the social ties that bind us all through its incessant focus on competition. Markets don't consider things like love and honor and respect and justice that can't be bought and sold, but which are still mightily important (this is called "commodity fetishism"). Markets lead to unaccountable destruction of the environment by its misjudging and ignoring of external effects (what are termed "externalities"). Markets spawn the most destructive creation ever wrought on the face of the Earth -- the limited-liability corporation -- which is threatening our planet via its escalation of the climate crisis (burning fossil fuels, escalating greenhouse gases, threatening superheated feedback loops that would change Earth into a scorching planet like Venus). And corporations also threatening those media outlets and resources -- the internet key among them -- that through its democratic potential and ability to connect our disparately divided societies, grant us some hope for a better future (or any future).

McChesney somehow glosses over these concerns over markets by saying "the surplus will be mostly under nonprofit community control." I don't know that such handwaving is reassuring. Markets under local control still leaves out the potential for markets under the control of massive unaccountble corporations. This concern regarding the potential of rollback, when it was raised to me during a media-democracy tabling I was at, is one big reason why I don't buy the hype about markets, and so I am calling for something deeper.

I can understand, finally, that there's simply not enough room within the confines of a 1500-word magazine article to squeeze out all the words to express what you want to say. Take what you can get, I suppose. I've been there myself. But at the same time, time is short, and we don't have time to mince words. It's why I've taken to blogging on a daily basis, and why we need to push our luck before our collective luck runs out.