I don’t often highlight passage after passage in any of my Kindle books – and I rarely buy one after reading most of a print copy – but I bought Robert W. McChesney’s Digital Disconnect after reading most of it, and my copied highlights in 11 point are 21 pages long.
Why? Because I’ve been making one or another form of McChesney’s argument – which is also Michael Moore’s and Chris Hayes’ argument and that of numerous others – all of my adult life – except I never focused on digital technology, my arguments are less polite, and I go farther left in my conclusions. I wouldn’t spend time assuring readers/listeners that I only want to reform capitalism and protect those things, such as education and journalism, which exist for the public good. I’m a socialist, strongly in favor of emulating Denmark’s “lopping off the top.” Like Moore, I would replace capitalism with democracy.
I certainly agree that capitalism undermines democracy, that capitalism in the U.S. and internationally is now monopolistic corporatism, that the U.S. economy is built to sustain the institutions and people at the top, and that the internet and digital technologies can be potent weapons in the hands of either the 1% or the rest of us. I’m probably less optimistic about the future than McChesney, even though he concludes:
Left on their current course and driven by the needs of capital, digital technologies can be deployed in ways that are extraordinarily inimical to freedom, democracy, and anything remotely connected to the good life. Therefore battles over the Internet are of central importance for all those seeking to build a better society. When the dust clears on this critical juncture, if our societies have not been fundamentally transformed for the better, if democracy has not triumphed over capital, the digital revolution may prove to have been a revolution in name only, an ironic, tragic reminder of the growing gap between the potential and the reality of human society. (Kindle Locations 4936-4941).
Throughout the book, McChesney emphasizes the need to resist both the “ritualized chant to the genius of the free market” and the idea that “the internet will necessarily lead to democratic political revolutions worldwide.”
Acknowledging that publicness does threaten “institutions whose power is invested in the control of information and audience,” McChesney cites studies which show that “garbage in, garbage out” remains true. The internet promotes ignorance as much as knowledge; creates a false sense of community and increased loneliness and unhappiness; “routinely generates bogus information, violates people’s privacy and civil rights, and facilitates various forms of harassment.”
Internet searching has become less a tool for discovery and more a way to be locked in a “bubble” which prevents discovery and innovation. Using the internet/digital devices may be decreasing our linear thought process so that we cannot think deeply or creatively, and corroding our ability to remember, which is dangerous because “the art of remembering is the art of thinking.” As Arianna Huffington wrote, “All these new social tools can help us bear witness more powerfully or they can help us be distracted more obsessively.”
To combat the “ritualized chant to the genius of the free market,” McChesney begins by describing the development of capitalism in terms of society’s economic evolution from hunter gatherer, to agricultural society, to mercantile society, to industrial society and the concomitant increase in surplus, which became not just the amount produced above that needed for survival, but capital to invest in order to generate more capital: profit. This makes surplus something not to be consumed, even by the wealthy. “How the surplus is generated and distributed becomes the portfolio of political economy,” he writes.
Capitalism thus tends to increase income inequality exponentially. It also “tends to evolve into monopolistic competition, or oligopoly” and “as a rule the digital era has seen a continued, arguably accelerating, rate of monopoly in the economy.” Capitalism also tends toward an “endless drive to develop new technologies,” whether or not that is rational for the system as a whole, and much of this technology is funded by and for the military and the growing military-digital complex. As McChesney notes, “in addition to inequality, founders saw militarism as contributor to inequality and enemy of democracy.….. ‘No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’—Madison.”
McChesney also discusses the roles of advertising and public relations in expanding contemporary capitalism’s monopolistic, oligarchical power over and through the media and into the government, at the expense of both privacy and a free press which supports robust investigative journalism. Tax structures and numerous rules and regulations increase and cement corporate power. Copyright law and patent law are especially insidious; instead of protecting the rights of creators for a reasonable amount of time, they protect the ability of corporations to keep information locked away or used only for corporate profit. And the internet giants are now among the most powerful of all corporations.
McChesney concludes that “efforts to reform or replace capitalism but leave the Internet giants riding high will not reform or replace really existing capitalism” because “the Internet giants are not a progressive force. Their massive profits are the result of monopoly privileges, network effects, commercialism, exploited labor, and a number of government policies and subsidies.” He proposes a long list of policies and reforms (Kindle Locations 4609-4622) that “would put the Internet and our society on a very different trajectory” but says that “none of these reforms has a chance” because of political corruption. It’s going to take a political movement, he says, designed to replace capitalism.