An Intentionally Bad Capitalist’s Take on the Internet: An Absorption of Robert W. McChesney’s book Digital Disconnect, 2013

Jun 18, 2013

This article was published in Razorcake #74. Since it deals heavily with the internet, we decided… to put it on the internet also.
Is It Called a Conspiracy Theory If the Conspiracy Factually Exists?

I’ve been paranoid pretty much since junior high school. Over the years, I’d like to think I’ve developed operational paranoia, a self-inoculated distrust of large institutions—both private and governmental. I take many active steps to defend my right to privacy. I don’t own a cell phone, haven’t visited an ATM machine in fifteen years, run active script blockers on my computer browsers, and have never personally engaged in social media: Friendster, Myspace, Facebook, or Twitter. I also understand that any email I’ve ever written and every website I’ve ever visited is accessible by a third party. These are modern times. Things are written in an ink that can’t be erased.

One large reason for my active opting out of the digital arms race is because I realize that I’m merely data in those environments. I’m a consumable. I’m what’s being sold. I prefer to control who and what’s consuming me as much as I can. I’m fine with being a barnacle on this ship of life. I’m not fine with being an exploited barnacle.

If you are at all concerned, confused, or feel ill-at-ease at the direction of online life, Robert W. McChesney’s three-hundred page book Digital Disconnect contextualizes the changing Internet and describes how it took its current shape. He mortars a helpful bridge of information with verifiable detail. At play in this book are real-life democracy, real-life capitalism, and—well—real-life life.

As an act of full disclosure, Razorcake/Gorsky Press, Inc.—the name of the 501(c)3 non-profit we run—uses many, if not all, of the social media and services mentioned in this piece. Our thought is that these are tools to reach out to a new (and often younger) worldwide audience. However, we use these tools in an effort to direct people back to, a domain we wholly own and operate. Much of the exclusive content we generate debuts on and ends up on social media. It’s not the other way around.

As one of Razorcake’s non-profit directors, I struggle with the day-to-day duality of promoting Razorcake and Gorsky Press online in non-shitty/non-exploitive ways while not compromising our mission. (Two quick examples: We refuse to monetize any of the 1,200+ videos we’ve posted of DIY bands’ labor on YouTube, and all Razorcake Records artists retain one-hundred percent of their digital rights.)

We’re a real-life, modestly-scaled non-profit enterprise trying to survive as a cooperative public service. Sometimes, it’s difficult not to feel we exist merely in the shadows cast by the giants of the corporate, digital industry. It also feels like we’re constantly being pickpocketed.

Digital Disconnect sheds light on that eerie, indeterminate darkness. It describes the complex, depressing, Orwellian wires-and-guts narrative of the collusion between big government and big industry. This book tackles essential, fundamental building blocks of corporate digital giants, the federal government, and the Internet.

The Internet and capitalism have become entwined as a result of the Internet’s resting spot at the top of the economic pyramid of corporate American life. Two wires twist together to run this ever-voracious engine called progress. “Capitalism is in the hot seat and the Internet is directly involved in the struggles,” McChesney writes. “The Internet’s development is intricately connected to the political economy’s development. That is the point of this book.”

In America today, capitalism is treated largely like a religion, a matter of blind faith and unquestioned belief. To question its “rightness” is often heresy. It is defended in platitudes. Questioners of capitalism are quickly dismissed as kooks, commies, and “idealist punks” (read: naïve and stupid). Capitalism’s top adherents are its high priests and gods of industry and economics (like Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve board chairman who failed to see the financial crisis coming, but who remains an “expert.”). And, like any large organized religion, capitalism isn’t designed to occupy a single compartmentalized realm of its adherents’ lives. Its goal is to take the pole position. McChesney posits that, “…capitalism defines our times and sets the terms for understanding not only the Internet, but most everything else of a social nature, including politics, in our society,” and that the Internet’s “celebrants and skeptics lack a political economic context.”

McChesney describes that political economic context in a nutshell:

“By capitalism I mean really existing capitalism of large corporations, monopolistic markets, advertising, public relations, and close, collegial, important, necessary, and often corrupt relationships with the government and military. I do not mean the fairy-tale catechism of American politics and pundits: heroic upstart little-guy entrepreneurs battling competitive free markets while the deadbeat government is on the sidelines screwing up the job-creating private sector with a lot of birdbrain liberal regulations.”

Capitalism and the Internet act as reflections of one another in their current incarnations. Not only that, they bleed and eat in much the same manner:

“Technology is central to growth, and growth is central to capitalism. It is one economic system that delivers serious increases in output over time, to some extent because the system requires economic growth to survive.”

McChesney’s right. It’s an old saw, but its teeth are still sharp. If capitalism isn’t constantly growing, it’s receding or depressing. Capitalism abhors sustainability. Being still signals quickly approaching death. There is no, “Oh, dude, we’re big enough. Let’s keep it this size,” at corporate board meetings.

Growth without end is capitalism’s design, which brings us to another bitter pill.

“…[C]lass and inequality are built into the system’s DNA…. the system of making profits is predicated upon paying labor as little as possible.”

McChesney suggests—by deciphering the wiring diagram and deconstructing the shorter history of the Internet and its attendant technologies—there is a way to re-wire and reprogram the mentality that capitalism is the only workable system available in America for the exchange of goods and ideas. If the Internet returns to its initial state as a level playing field, a critical foothold can be made. McChesney asserts that, “The democratization of the Internet is integrally related to the democratization of the political economy. They rise and fall together.”

Oh yeah, the quaint “d” word. Where has democracy been hiding all this time? America’s Constitution was founded on (flawed, limited, but forward-thinking) democracy, not capitalism. Capitalism’s not a right and, McChesney concludes that, “American economic inequality is the direst threat to effective democracy…. It is difficult to reconcile such extreme inequality with anything but a superficial democracy.”

I’m no card-carrying Marxist, anarchist, leftist, or progressive. Although I admire many of their principles and tenets, I’m just not a good “ism” ist. I like to think I engage in the flexibility of a constantly critical lifestyle, so it was a moment of clarity when McChesney offered a raft of non-capitalist institutions that many dyed-in-the-wool capitalists engage in on a regular basis (italics mine): “…[L]arge portions of capitalist societies have historically been and remain largely outside the capital accumulation process. One could think of religion, education, romance, elections, research, and national defense as examples…. Few, if any, religious conservatives have considered the implications of the family possibly being the most anticapitalist institution in history….”

Let’s crank the contrast on that. Family is anti-capitalist. Moms, dads, aunts, uncles, grandmas, grandpas—the interactions of this unit of real flesh is anti-capitalist by its very nature. The family shares burden and reward. Family can be the seed of democracy. Family doesn’t necessarily have to be blood. It can be made between people with longtime shared values, morals, and ethics.

It’s Like the Interstate Highway System… Only Teeny-Tiny

Here’s a simple question: “Who invented the Internet we know today?” Bill Gates? AOL? The Google dudes? The dead Apple guy? Cute cats jumping into boxes? It was the United States government, dating back to the 1960s. It was a top priority for the feds. Expenditures for the Internet—allowing for inflation—were over ten times greater than the cost of development of nuclear weaponry in the Manhattan Project. In the 1980s, federal funding continued to flow through the National Science Foundation. The Internet developed into the network that connected all other computer networks. Each tax-paying American paid for it, three decades before most of them had home computers, or had even heard of email. The Internet’s backbone and central nervous system was made with public funds. (It was much like the interstate highway system, signed to action in 1956 by President Eisenhower and finished thirty-five years later, eventually totaling 47,182 miles. But, you know, invisible.) Thirty years after the Internet’s massive foundation was built, in the 1990s, commercial industries slipped between the digital sheets in a big way.

So why does it feel , as a culture and on the Internet in 2013, we’re on a slippery slope downward to what looks like an open sewer of crass hyper-consumerism and ultra-capitalism? It’s because we are. Spend ten seconds on ninety-nine percent of the Internet, and McChesney’s following contention is obviously valid. “The combination of public relations and advertising has made our time the golden age of insincere communication,” he writes. “It promotes the view that one says what needs to be said to get what one wants. The truth is whatever you can get people to believe. It is a toxic environment for democracy.”

Reinforcing the point, McChesney quotes former CBS news host, Dan Rather.

“To put it bluntly, very big business is in bed with very big government in Washington, and has more to do with what the average person sees, hears, and reads than most people know.”

I really can’t tell at the moment if I sound like a raving lunatic or a raging hypocrite. Google seems really helpful on the surface. It fulfills much of the Internet’s initial promise. I use it almost daily as a search engine, to translate languages, and track hits on Part of me still wants to believe in the company’s 1998 mission statement “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”I remember its unofficial slogan: “Don’t be evil.” Today, Google’s search algorithms are proprietary trade secrets. Google’s power—online and offline—is undeniable. If your website doesn’t show up in its search engine, your website is in massive trouble. The result? Over the past decade—much like in the minimum-wage and underwater-mortgage world of middle America—the “middle-class” of medium-sized websites on the Internet has been decimated, either bought out wholesale and gobbled by gigantic companies or abandoned like much of Flint, Michigan after GM bailed. The average readership of a blog—counting the handfuls that have millions? Two.

This inequity is by design. This is the opposite of democracy. Let me be clear. I’m talking about real nuts and bolts practices. I’m not talking about the constantly repeated, shiny claims that the best companies always rise to the top and they deserve the billions they’re raking in. “That’s the free market, dude. Deal with it.”

In the analog world, it comes as no surprise that the closer a politician is to the top of the government pyramid of power, the greater the distance she is from “for and by the people” and the closer she is to “power.” It’s big vs. big. Small isn’t even in the equation, isn’t invited to the table (sure, there are token examples to the contrary). It’s big government vs. big corporations. Correction. It’s big government plus big corporations. It’s Congress and billionaires (and their effective lobbyist proxies).

“If actions speak louder than words,” McChesney posits—that current Internet giants such as Google and Facebook—“know full well that their existence depends upon favorable regulation and taxation policies. Their existence is predicated upon a government that not only accepts but expedites and facilitates their economic power.” Google offshores much of its taxable profit to Ireland, which has a lower tax rate than the United States. Google is currently lobbying for a “repatriation tax holiday.” That is, they don’t want to pay taxes on the dazzling profits they’re hoping to “re-invest” back into America from where they hid it in Ireland. Their plea is veiled in the sheepskin of “job creation.” The tax holiday was a sham when it was tried in 2004. Corporations simply repurchased their own stock and paid dividends to their shareholders. Then they cut jobs. Long memories are not capitalism’s friend. It pays handsomely to keep consumers ignorant.

Beyond the silos of money, what else do the titans of the commercial Internet gain? Almost every conceivable metric about your online life, often without your knowledge, but often with your “consent.” (Ever read those super-long, super-lawyer user agreements on software or social media? Me neither.)A New York Times reporter quoted in Digital Disconnect put it succinctly: “Personal data is the oil of the information age.” You pay them to harvest you so they can sell to you in new, ingenious, clandestine, and often subversive, ways. Ninety-seven percent of Google’s income is from the dawn of a new form of advertising, tailored to every search you’ve ever entered, your IP address, everything you’ve ever clicked on, “liked,” or whatever. Little text ads next to search results that you clicked on your  device of choice made Google 33.2 billion dollars in 2011.

Whoah. That’s ingenious. Horrible and shitty, but ingenious.

Citizens United Is Neither

Where is the government—the supposed defenders of democracy—in all of this? It is actively awarding corporations even more rights over American citizens. “Facebook,” McChesney mentions, could not exist unless there were laws preventing it from being, “sued for invasion of privacy, defamation, or criminal acts based on people’s postings…. All rights run in one direction. Facebook holds the cards, and its citizens have little recourse—other than to leave the service entirely.” It would probably be impolite for Facebook’s (who owns Instagram and YouTube) terms of service to read: “We own all content posted on our site. You’ve effectively lost all rights to it. ‘Like’ it.” (By the way, Instagram can use any photo posted on it for its own advertising, free of payment or credit to the person or organization that originally posted it.)

Let’s take a moment. The relationship between an Internet giant like Facebook and the United States government is a conspiracy, by the classic definition of the law. It is, “An agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime or accomplish a legal purpose through illegal action.” They effectively made the illegal legal. For them. For profit. The price? You. This isn’t a theory. This is happening on an enormous, accelerating worldwide scale.

I can’t be the only one unnerved by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the 2010 Citizens United case, which struck down limits on political campaign expenditures. The court held that corporations’ political spending is a form of “free speech.”

“Thanks, Todd,” I hear a voice in the back of my head. “That’s a big, bouncy ball of fuck. Great.” So, what’s left besides drinking ourselves into oblivion, becoming Internet trolls, and investing heavily in the dead-end of irony? Clay tablets? Fire on a stick? Fax machines, beepers, and rotary phones? McChesney provides an exit strategy, and it is again important to look at history: capitalism wasn’t inevitable, isn’t invincible (my bet is on its downfall as its own worst enemy). The Internet, for a long time, wasn’t controlled by gigantic, private corporations. It was public domain. It can be again, with a knowledgeable fight.

I agree with McChesney’s two-part answer that the future doesn’t have to be an infinite digital shit sandwich. The United States needs both a nationally supported free press and expanded nonprofits.

It may sound initially counterintuitive that journalism should be put in the same non-capitalist category as national defense. Yet, “[t]here is probably no better evidence that journalism is a public good,” McChesney reasons, “than the fact that none of America’s financial geniuses can figure out how to make money off it.” Journalism is something, that if done really, really well and everything lines up financially, it breaks even, maybe makes ten percent profit. In its current state it can no longer make infinitely expanding profits. Real journalism is bad capitalism. But the upside is enormous—even exponential over time—like our other non-capitalist investment in the education of every American kid. “…[N]ations with the freest press systems,” McChesney argues, “are also the nations that make the greatest public investment in journalism and therefore provide the basis for being strong democracies.”

Strong democracies are dependant on an educated public. Democracies die when only the wealthy are educated. Journalism educates and empowers those without class privilege.

It’s not an accident that Razorcake is a non-profit. It’s by design. We are the only non-profit music magazine in all of America. We intentionally made a marked distinction between the self-production of music and “the music industry.” It was a brutal process—where we were denied twice—and one that has yet to be replicated by another music publication since we were granted our status in 2005. Being so, it’s obvious that I wholeheartedly agree with McChesney on the importance of opening up the classification for non-profits and making the application process reflect the public good. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky, feel-good stuff either. It’s a diverse, wide range of human need. For non-profit money handling, we already have credit unions. We, as a nation, have non-commercial enjoyment of nature, via four hundred national parks.

“Absolutely central to building this new political economy,” McChesney continues, “will be constructing nonprofit and noncommercial operations to do journalism, produce culture, provide Internet access, and serve as bedrock local institutions.” To me in Los Angeles, that means not having community radio stations hounded by the FCC and given huge fines (RIP, KSSR). All-ages art and culture spaces. Newspapers. Independent web hosting and server farms. Skateparks. Libraries. Gardens. Soccer fields. Bike and auto repair. Recycling and language centers. Fiscal literacy classes. Hackerspaces. All the wires, power, water, plumbing infrastructure that comes along with those activities. If these could be offered and run as a matrix of non-profits, the change would be immediate, tangible. I firmly believe this. If people see working examples right in their own communities, it becomes real. Although it may sound a little corny, I take Razorcake’s motto of “We do our part” seriously. We’re not everything to everyone, but we are a real-world, working example of a sustainable alternative. It can happen. It does work.

Hard, Working Examples

“Capitalists are constantly locating new places to generate profits, and sometimes that entails taking what had been plentiful and making it scarce,” McChesney asserts. “So it is for the Internet. Information on it is virtually free, but commercial interests are working to make it scarce.” “The information superhighway”—remember that? That was part of Internet’s promise: a massive exchange of data equaling a more educated public. Instead of roads, this highway was constructed with cables and antennae. Instead of internal combustion engines rumbling along asphalt, it’s packets of 0s and 1s moving at ever-increasing speeds. Maybe it’s because we only see the end product of the Internet—an email or text from a friend on a phone, a website from a search engine—and not the massive superstructure that powers it daily, the colossal industry that is attempting to privatize the whole enchilada and to permanently wrest it from the public domain that it remains largely in the shadows, away from activism.

Paved roads improve the quality of life. In America, most roads are a shared responsibility of everyone who uses them. The roads are paid for and maintained through the taxes on every gallon of gas, licensing fees, and city, county, state, and federal funds. Citizens who use these roads—whether they’re aware of it or not—assume their portion of the shared burden by using these roads as either drivers or passengers. They see these roads. They’re tactile. We all know what a pothole is and when a road is in disrepair. We also know when a jutting freeway off ramp remains half-finished for extended periods of time. It takes foolhardy politicians and contractors to claim that it’s in working order, finished. Their lies are laughable. We all know that cars can’t fly. We can’t drive over incomplete, dangling sections of concrete.

What’s happening with the Internet today? Private companies are actively attempting to take it completely over. They want to hijack the entire system that we built and paid for. Think of the reaction if they did that to the interstate that runs through your town—either restricted its use to only company cars or those who could afford ever-increasing tolls. All hell would break loose.

I’m convinced it’s this one level of abstraction that’s the problem when dealing with the Internet. We can’t see the Internet as a tactile thing. It’s more difficult for the average citizen to “see” if there’s “a rough patch of Internet” out in front of where they live. They either get a connection or don’t. It’s either faster or slower. We believe what large companies and large government tell us if we’re really riding the digital equivalent of a wooden wagon on a series of dirt trails or a state-of-the-art, high-speed bullet train when we connect to the Internet.

A visible, public Internet—one that is out in the open, not hidden behind a proprietary set of codes on privatized servers—is a fight worth understanding and waging.

I’ll end with McChesney. “The crisis of our times is that capitalism undermines democracy…. It is the defining issue of our times, the basis for the critical juncture in which we live.”

Thanks for reading.

(The New Press,