Posts Tagged ‘internet’

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I’ll admit, I’m always intrigued by the discussion of utopia, especially in the midst of the current crises of capitalism. Something has to inspire people to engage in a ruthless criticism of the existing order and to imagine that things can be radically different from what they are.

The idea of utopia may be anathema to certain interpretations of Marxism—the more “scientistic” strands that one finds in the Marxian tradition. But for me, the notion of utopia, especially as it is informed by critique, is central to the Marxian intellectual and political project.

That said, I’m averse to various kinds of utopianism—as against a utopian moment or impulse—that characterize a great deal of modern economics. I’m referring, for example, to the utopianism that can be found within neoclassical economics, according to which, in a society based on private property and markets, individual choices can, at least in principle, lead to Pareto efficiency—a situation where no one can be made better off without making someone worse off. That general equilibrium, the perfect balance of limited means and unlimited desires, represents the utopian horizon—in both theory and policy—of neoclassical economics.

You see, the possibility of that perfect balance serves to justify any and all manner of attempts to create the conditions leading to such a utopia. If there are markets, they need to be free of any and all interventions. (Think, for example, of the labor market, which must be shorn of any regulation, such as a minimum wage.) And if there aren’t markets (for example, for financial derivatives), then they need to be created (and kept unregulated) in order to achieve an efficient allocation of resources.

And we know the results of that particular utopianism. Naomi Klein has collected many of the examples—from Pinochet’s Chile to post-Katrina New Orleans—in her Shock Doctrine. And, of course, we’re still living through the devastation of the crash of September 2008. In all those cases, and many more, neoclassical economists and the powers that be outside the discipline of economics have taken as their goal, and sought by whatever means to create the conditions to achieve, the utopia of Pareto efficiency.

Marxism is not such a utopianism. Or better: Marxism as I read it is not based on the kind of utopianism that characterizes neoclassical economics. It does, however, have a utopian moment—a sense that existing forms of capitalism can be and should be criticized and that measures should be taken to move in a radically different, noncapitalist direction.

So, I read with some interest Steven Johnson’s recent discussion of the utopian dimensions of the Bitcoin bubble. His view is that, while Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies “may seem like the very worst of speculative capitalism” (they are, as far as I am concerned, which I have explained to my students and many other people), the underlying technology of those currencies—the blockchain—represents the open-protocol ethos of the original internet (before it was hijacked by corporate behemoths like Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple).

Right now, the only real hope for a revival of the open-protocol ethos lies in the blockchain. Whether it eventually lives up to its egalitarian promise will in large part depend on the people who embrace the platform, who take up the baton, as Juan Benet puts it, from those early online pioneers. If you think the internet is not working in its current incarnation, you can’t change the system through think-pieces and F.C.C. regulations alone. You need new code.

Sounds good. The problem with Johnson’s code-based egalitarian promise is that it looks a lot like the utopianism of neoclassical theory. It’s all about “self-sovereign” individual identities and decentralized transactions, exactly the kind of world envisioned by neoclassical economists, from Carl Menger, William Stanley Jevons, and Léon Walras through Gérard Debreu, Kenneth Arrow, and Paul Samuelson right on down to Olivier Blanchard, Greg Mankiw, and Richard Thaler. The world they all imagine is populated by individuals who have something to sell: time or goods in the case of neoclassicals, attention according to Johnson. And if property rights are secured and voluntary transactions completed, a free-market utopia can be achieved.

But there are no classes—and therefore no class exploitation or class struggles—in those neoclassical and blockchain worlds. There’s lots of freedom but no freedom from the conditions and consequences of one class exploiting another class. There’s even the utopian promise of equality. But equality among individuals in the world of market exchange and blockchain platforms is perfectly compatible with the extraction of a surplus by one class from another.

Criticizing class exploitation and working to finally eliminate it form the utopian dimensions of the kind of project that interests me.

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FellP20171201_low  Can't we all just get along?

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It just so happens this week I’m teaching, in both Topics in Political Economy and Marxian Economic Theory, the consequences of the British enclosure movements. These were the movements, beginning in the thirteenth century and lasting into the nineteenth, whereby communal fields, meadows, pastures, and other arable lands were consolidated into individually owned plots, thereby creating a massive group of landless, impoverished workers. Much the same process of enclosing communal lands occurred across Western Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and continues to take place today across the Global South.

Today, of course, there is little common land left. But other commons, especially in the United States—for example, national monuments and the internet—are now under threat from the various twenty-first century versions of the enclosure movements.

It’s time then to remember an anonymous seventeenth-century folk poem [ht: sm], which is one of the pithiest condemnations of the English enclosure movement:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who takes things that are yours and mine.

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.

Here are a couple of later variations:

They hang the man and flog the woman,
Who steals the goose from off the common,
Yet let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose.

The fault is great in man or woman
Who steals a goose from off a common;
But what can plead that man’s excuse
Who steals a common from a goose?

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There are plenty of reasons to be interested in—and, even more, concerned about—Facebook. Many of them are raised in the recent review of Facebook-related books by John Lanchester [ht: db]: the fragmentation of the polity (via the targeting of posts), the dissemination of “fake news” (which played an important role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election), the undermining of other livelihoods (such as journalism and music), the level of surveillance of users (much more than any national government), the violation of anti-monopoly rules (via individualized pricing), and so on.

All of them are important—and they get at what the Facebook business model is all about:

For all the talk about connecting people, building community, and believing in people, Facebook is an advertising company.

That’s right. That’s how the owners of Facebook make their money: they track users, collect information, and then sell that to advertisers.*

But it still doesn’t get at the issue of who works for Facebook, who creates that value, what the class structure of Facebook (and Google and other such companies) is.

Lanchester’s answer is that we, the two billion or so of us who use Facebook, actually work for the social-media giant.

Access to an audience – that unprecedented two billion people – is a wonderful thing, but Facebook isn’t in any hurry to help you make money from it. If the content providers all eventually go broke, well, that might not be too much of a problem. There are, for now, lots of willing providers: anyone on Facebook is in a sense working for Facebook, adding value to the company.

In one sense, Lanchester is right: if Facebook users don’t create or repost content and click on and respond to one another’s postings, then Facebook’s business model falls apart. In fact, as Lanchester explains,

Perhaps the biggest potential threat to Facebook is that its users might go off it. Two billion monthly active users is a lot of people, and the ‘network effects’ – the scale of the connectivity – are, obviously, extraordinary. But there are other internet companies which connect people on the same scale – Snapchat has 166 million daily users, Twitter 328 million monthly users – and as we’ve seen in the disappearance of Myspace, the onetime leader in social media, when people change their minds about a service, they can go off it hard and fast.

But what I find interesting is the fact that Lanchester can write a longish essay on Facebook and never once mention the word labor—and the only people who seem to be working are Facebook users.

What about Facebook’s employees? As it turns out, Facebook reported a headcount of 18,770 in its first-quarter earnings release (and likely employs more workers, as independent contractors for specific projects). Why don’t we consider them to be the ones who create the value realized by selling space to advertisers and information to others who purchase the data gathered by Facebook? And Facebook employees the ones who are working for and being exploited by Facebook’s board of directors?

When General Motors sells cars, the people who purchase and drive the cars aren’t being exploited; GM workers are. The same is true for other corporations, from Abbott Laboratories to Zoetis (which, along with Facebook, make up the Standard & Poor’s 500, covering about eighty percent of the American equity market by capitalization). They’re employees, not their customers, are the ones who create value and surplus-value.

So, why is Facebook (and, by the same token, other social-media and internet companies) different?

The answer, I think, is our relationship to the commodity being produced and sold is different. We purchase cars—and, if we’re aware of it, we know they’re produced by exploited auto-workers. But in the case of Facebook, we’re not purchasing anything at all, at least directly. We post content to our friends or advertise a business or try to form a community. And then it’s Facebook that collects data about us and sells it—not to us but to others, other corporations. Without our participation, of course, Facebook would not have anything to sell, and therefore no way of making a profit.

And, more generally, we seem to be spending more and more time involved in activities for which we are not remunerated but are essential for the profit-making activities of corporations we don’t work for. We post on social-media sites. We use search engines to navigate the internet. We search for flights. We check-out and bag the commodities we purchase at retail stores. And so on.

But I’m not convinced we’re creating value and subjecting ourselves to class exploitation. We may be performing labor but we’re not working for those corporations. And we are being commodified, and participating in our commodification.

But we’re not working for those corporations. Their employees are—and they’re the ones who are being exploited.

 

*Although, according to a recent report, Facebook may exaggerate the reach of its advertising platform: it claims to reach millions more users among specific age groups in the U.S. than the official census data show reside in the country.

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