How capitalism thwarts 
technology’s real potential

Digital Disconnect:

How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy

If you’ve read about technology, you’ve likely heard of Moore’s Law. Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore predicted that over the history of computing, the number of transistors on integrated circuits would double approximately every two years. It is popular to mention among technology pundits because, besides being fairly accurate, it conjures an exciting and triumphant feeling. It also fits with the portrayal of technology as something that develops outside politics and economics. 

If any critical dialog about technology takes place, it’s usually framed as a debate between the pace of progress and the almost comical Frankenstein’s monster scenarios of technology run wild. Even when the nightmare scenarios turn out to be true (the warming of the planet by man-made greenhouse gas emissions or nuclear reactor meltdowns), the media sensationalizes them to drum up ratings, not to inform the viewer. Technology expands and evolves, for better and worse, but we’re told that people are powerless to do anything about it.

In Digital Disconnect, media scholar Robert McChesney takes aim at this problem. McChesney’s starting point is that technology and the high-tech industries have enhanced the divide between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. He challenges the notion that a society “drenched in commercial information is a democratic one.”

McChesney starts by examining what he calls the “official catechism” of the United States:

Capitalism is a society where individuals freely come together in the marketplace to buy and sell products, including their labor. . . . Those who become rich deserve it because they have earned their fortune in the marketplace; those who are poor have incentive to produce more for the market so they too can become wealthy. The economic fat is in their hands, because it is a free society.

According to McChesney: “This catechism has elements that ring true . . . but it is mostly useless as a way to understand real-world capitalism.”

In the chapter “Does Capitalism Equal Democracy?” McChesney separates capitalism from the classical notions of “democracy” which are “quite distinct from and often antagonistic to that of capitalism.” He presents a compelling case that rather than promoting democracy, capitalism promotes economic inequality. Connect this with the obvious fact that money buys you access to power, and one can’t help but arrive at McChesney’s conclusion that as inequality has increased over the past forty years, we have become a less free and less democratic society. 

McChesney’s retelling of the birth of the Internet, with the role of existing mega-corporations in mind, is a welcome corrective to the prevailing mythology. A central piece of his argument is that we must look to the really existing media system, not the idealized one, and examine how it works, and most importantly, its consequences for society. McChesney calls for an examination of the political economy of communication, or PEC. Essentially, the PEC is a detailed description of the economic foundations and power relationships that exist within the modern media industry. The most novel piece of the PEC is its detailed history of how corporations have quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) written US communications policy to their exclusive benefit for the past twenty years. 

In the chapter “Journalism is Dead! Long Live Journalism?” McChesney’s real passion becomes apparent: journalism and the media. He directly challenges contemporary boosters of the Internet’s democratizing potential.

McChesney agrees that the free press is fast disappearing, but strongly disagrees this is a good thing. He believes a free press is actually a crucial element of any democratic society worthy of the description. However, what if the need for more democracy clashes with the need to make more profits?

McChesney thinks that the “free market” is incapable of producing anything resembling a media system capable of being an effective watchdog of the rich and powerful: “[T]he celebrants have either greatly undervalued the importance of having independent competing institutions and resources to do journalism . . . or they have overestimated the capacity of the market to produce such a system or both.”

The market has always been incapable of this task, but the new technologies have only recently exposed the issue. He writes, “Advertising disguised the public-good nature of journalism for the past 125 years, but now that it has found superior options, the truth is plain to see.”

Given that McChesney believes a robust, well-funded media is necessary for real democracy, but that capitalism and the free market are incapable of achieving that, he spends the rest of the book on how to resolve this contradiction. Some of the policy solutions he offers, like the “citizenship news voucher” (a publicly funded, annual $200 voucher for each citizen to allocate to nonprofit media of their choice), seem impractical given the magnitude of the problems he outlines earlier. However, such proposals are better thought of as exercises in contrast between a rational system that values a free press and the corporate media system we have now. Pointing out that we currently have a media system organized consciously for specific ends (profit and maintenance of the powerful) is perhaps the most important point of all.

But when he considers why people put up with such a system, McChesney offers the weakest argument in the book. At the end of chapter 3 in a section called “Corporate Capitalism and Weak Democracy,” McChesney asks a familiar question, “Why, despite seeming to have the numbers on their side, haven’t popular forces been more successful in the United States historically, and why are they an abject failure in recent times?”

He points to the rise of “public relations” as a possible explanation, “The truth is whatever you can get people to believe. It is a toxic environment for democracy, and it fans the flames of cynicism.”

This is where McChesney, unfortunately, buys into the “red state” narrative espoused by writers like George Lakoff and Thomas Frank, who explained the Right’s electoral triumphs in the early 2000s by claiming they simply had better PR strategies. There is no doubt that PR is a huge industry and that political apathy is a real phenomenon. McChesney’s point is also entirely consistent with Karl Marx’s notion that “the prevailing ideas of every society are the ideas of the ruling class.” However, it is a one-sided picture and a rather shallow analysis of the reality. Marx also pointed out that capitalism produces its own “grave diggers” and that people’s lived experience of exploitation and oppression changes their ideas and compels them to fight, albeit in uneven and unexpected ways. 

A view that chalks up mass consciousness to the will of a handful of PR masters is a profoundly pessimistic view of whether change is possible. If the masses can be duped in and out of passivity, then our struggle is reduced to a competition with the PR resources of big business. 

“Corporate Capitalism and Weak Democracy” is a small passage to be sure, but for a book aimed at activists, it has outsized importance. Thankfully, McChesney seems to distance himself from this formulation later in the book.

In the final chapter, “Revolution in the Digital Revolution?” McChesney argues, “To win any of the Internet policy fights . . . will require coalitions of people to form a common front and generate strength in numbers.” Along with various demands and policy ideas, he points to various strains of resistance like the Occupy Movement, brief protests around the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protecting Intellectual Property Act) bills in Congress, and various local initiatives around free, independent media as great starting points.

However, having identified the central, systemic nature of the problems, McChesney suggests more is needed. 

Those primarily concerned with Internet policies and hesitant to stick their toes into deeper political waters need to grasp the nature of our times. . . . The system is failing, conventional policies and institutions are increasingly discredited, and fundamental changes of one form or another are likely to come, for better or worse.

Rather than an evaluation of the consequences of technology for some abstract “humanity,” Digital Disconnect is a book that illuminates the consequences for our particular society, with all its day-to-day inequality and practical problems. It demonstrates that technology is not an independent force in history; it is a means to specific ends for the forces of global capitalism. 

But for all its depressing detail, Digital Disconnect is hopeful. Like the cyber-utopians, McChesney enthusiastically believes in the potential of technology and the Internet. Unlike them, he also believes we need to free this technology from the grasp of the rich and powerful.

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

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