Can Capitalism Tolerate a Democratic Internet? An Interview With Media Expert Robert McChesney

Digital Disconnect(Image: New Press)The thing you forget about the man with 23 books to his name, books that have been translated into 30 languages, the man who cofounded the Free Press – one of the most important media reform organizations in the country – is that he has kind of crazy hair. Despite that, he’s also one of the most respected scholars of the history and political economy of communication in the United States. Robert W. McChesney got started in the same way I did in media – in the punk-rock trenches of independent print publishing. As founding publisher of The Rocket, the underground cultural rag in Seattle that fostered an enduring music scene that still helps define American culture, McChesney has thoroughly tested the enduring impact of independent media.

Yet the Internet has scant room for non-corporate voices, a concern that drives McChesney’s latest New Press title, Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy. It’s an important extension of his to-date oeuvre, tracking the privatization of communication in the digital age, as well as a vital stand-alone resource. (Full disclosure: McChesney and the Free Press have been very supportive of my work in the past, but I’m sure you’ll agree I haven’t let that keep me from a close interrogation of his ideas in the interest of expanding his audience.)

I am grateful to have spent an hour with McChesney discussing his latest for Truthout – a site he had plenty of great things to say about.

Support Truthout’s mission. “Digital Disconnect” is yours with a minimum donation to Truthout of $32.50 (which includes shipping and handling) or a monthly donation of $15. Click here.

Anne Elizabeth Moore for Truthout: Why tackle this subject now?

Robert McChesney: In 1992, I was putting the final touches on my very first book, Telecommunications, Mass Media and Democracy, which was about the battle in the 1930s to set up a nonprofit noncommercial sector of broadcasting, to not just let the networks and the commercial guys control it. The day before I was supposed to send in my final corrections, there was a review of a book by George Gilder called Life After Television. In the book, Gilder said we’re in the process of having this digital revolution with the Internet, and it’s going to eliminate traditional understanding of media, and no longer will we have television and radio people with their propaganda, people will control their own environment, blah blah blah. It was obvious to me when I read that that, no matter what might I have thought of Gilder, or his argument, that something important was happening.

All that talk we heard in the 1970s and 80s about computers – which had always been abstracted and really irrelevant to media – with the World Wide Web coming up, changed in 1992, 93. So at that point, I knew that for the rest of my career, the Internet was going to be a part of everything I did, that it would be unavoidable. It was going to be the central issue for critical communications scholars, or any sort of media scholars.

I’ve written in the last two decades probably five or six long articles every few years – or book chapters – trying to assess where we were at the time. And in each case, I’ve always thought, It’s still too amorphous, there’s still too much in flux. We can see some patterns but there’s still a lot that’s unknown.

The last of these pieces that I wrote was in 2011, for the journal Monthly Review with my friend John Foster. When we wrote that piece, it seemed like things had crystallized enough that we could figure out where we had come from and assess where we were going, and what the issues are if we want to change the path. We’re finally at a base camp where we can look behind us and look ahead and not fall off the mountainside.

Sure. And that sense of ease hasn’t just been felt by scholars – it’s been felt on the corporate side, too.

I’ll give you an example. Today, 13 of the 30 largest publicly traded corporations in the US are Internet-related companies. To get a sense of what a big deal that is: only two of the top 30 are banks. We always talk about how banks run the world, but they’re chicken crap compared to these guys. These guys are almost half of the 30 largest companies in the United States. Most of them are what economists would call monopolies. So they’re not going anywhere. Their power is so immense that they’re here for a long time.

Their economic practices have crystallized and we can now see where the profits are coming from to make them so powerful. That wasn’t true ten years ago.

What response would you give folks who argue that social media is inherently democratic, or that the Internet is?

My quick answer is that it has that potential but technology does not trump the social order. The social order, more often than not, trumps the technology. The best way to understand them is that they work together. Technology does have a great deal of influence in its own right on a society, but the way society is structured, the political economy of the society, has every bit as much influence as – I think generally more influence than – the technology. It shapes the technology. And that’s the great battle we have.

The benefits of technology are, I think, obvious. But what’s less easy to see and understand are the drawbacks: the price we pay, what’s being lost. And what some of the at-times frightening prospects are of the current path we’re on. There’s very little discussion of these.

I want to push you on that a little, because I hear this from young people all around the world: that Internet access is equivalent to democracy because everyone has a Facebook account, and the proof that social media is free expression is that no one has ever censored their Tumblr accounts.

The problem with Facebook as a substitute for the Internet – and it is to an increasing extent: I believe close to 25 percent of all Internet time now is spent on Facebook – is that Facebook is a walled garden. You have to be a member to participate. Facebook sets it up as a walled garden, because they want you in there and they want you to stay there. Twenty-five percent of all Internet time is pretty extraordinary. Over a billion people have accounts. That’s an enormous number, and it invites some very serious questions. How does Facebook make its money? The same thing could be asked of Google. You don’t pay for it; you basically get services for free, but why do investors invest in it? Where is the profit coming from?

There’s an old saying that applies to the Internet: If you get something for free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product. So what Facebook gets and what Google gets – they’re very similar – is that they know everything you do [while using their services]. It’s their private property; they can do with it as they please, and that is an enormous amount of information, and their primary interest in doing this is commercial. They’re going to take that information and sell it to other firms so they can use it to sell other stuff, or to politicians to sell ideas, or whatever. That’s where they make their money. And since they have so much information, an unbelievable amount, they will make a lot of money.

For some people, that alone will cause pause. It should be disconcerting, I think, that everything you do, they know. And this is true for lots of other companies, too. There’s really no protection for you, because these firms are so powerful. The government protection amounts to mild wrist-slap fines, or a call for self-regulation by these firms. Which is absurd on its face. But the lack of privacy should concern people.

Yet I haven’t seen that it does. I’ve seen, in my own college classrooms, and in response to my own writing in this area, that young people assume a lack of privacy across all Internet platforms and don’t care, or claim not to care.

They care when they know about it. It’s not in Facebook or Google’s interest to advertise the fact that this is how they make their money. That’s the last thing they want you to know.

And what comes with that are a couple of real problems. The genius of the Internet in the 1990s, and what really attracted people – still does attract people – to it, was that everyone would have access to material that once only a select few, or rich people could get, or elites could get. People who are fortunate enough to live in a particular neighborhood, for example. We could all go to a web site and share it; it would create a global community. But what’s happening in this new era of collecting all this information on people is that we’re given an Internet that’s shaped to us by what we buy and what we click on. So we’re getting different web sites, at ESPN or CNN, based on what they think we’re interested in seeing! That’s the future of the Internet.

That really undermines a lot of what was beautiful about the Internet, which was this exposure to a world you had no chance to see otherwise. Now, instead, there’s a strong pressure to keep you in a bubble of like-minded people. That’s fueled entirely by advertising. And it’s changing the whole logic of the Internet – fundamentally. That’s one problem.

The second problem is that, in liberal democracy, the theory most students have is that you have business on one side. They’re out to make money. And then you have the government here, and its job is to represent people, and it has an antagonistic relationship with business because they regulate business and tax business, so there’s big tension between business and government and then the citizens sort of get the benefits of that tension, so there’s not too much power in anyone’s hands. Well, what’s happening online now, with the businesses like Facebook and Google and Verizon and AT&T and Comcast and Amazon, is that these companies are enormous, and they’re monopolies, so they’re not competing in the traditional sense. They’ve all got monopoly empires and they use those to branch out and take over more and more. And they do not have an antagonistic relationship with the government. It’s not like you have the mean government regulating these guys. It’s far more realistic to say that you see them working very much hand in hand.

This is a real problem for our society because the whole definition of a liberal democracy is that there’s a separation between those who control the economy and those who control the government. And when you have them merged together so the interests, basically, are synonymous, and the private sector is not thousands or tens of thousands of firms all competing, but it’s really ossified into the hands of a relatively small number of gigantic corporations that have annual incomes the size of a mid-sized country, then you’ve got something that’s antithetical to democratic theory. Because then the notion of self-government becomes a joke.

The political economy of this is moving in that direction quite quickly. Where we see this most frighteningly, and where the evidence is already in, is in the huge effort by the US military to convert the Internet into a spying mechanism. Which they’ve done. So everything you do online, they know, basically. The willingness of these companies to do that – I don’t fault the companies per se; I don’t think that they’re evil; it’s just logical business. It would be insane for them not to do it. They get all sorts of benefits by working with the government, and they get nothing but negative repercussions if they say, We’re not going to assist you in this.

So, we’re in a situation where we have huge corporations with monopolistic power, hand in hand with the government, [which itself] is set on having a national security state with a trillion-dollar-a-year budget and has declared cyberspace as one of the great battlefronts of the world and said that they plan to conquer it. That’s a recipe for disaster for our civil liberties and self-government and our constitution.

Certainly, but this still rests on a desire to protect privacy that I’m not sure is there. My concern is that galvanizing a discussion about civil liberties around privacy issues might miss the mark for folks who really just want to be seen, but need to be made aware of what’s at stake.

Let’s put it this way. If you were to go to one of your students and say, you can have everything you’ve got right now online that you treasure and you could also have complete privacy, or you can have a situation where everything you do online is in the hands of all sorts of other people who can do with it as they please to shape your world without your awareness, which option would you prefer? Some people might choose the latter. It’s possible, but I suspect it would be an extraordinarily small percentage.

But that’s the basic question: why do we have one company have a monopoly, an effective monopoly, and what’s the cost of that? Well, the cost is the loss of privacy. So what benefit is that, to us? It’s none. It’s strictly a benefit to them. And are they providing a service that we can get otherwise? What exactly are they doing to justify it?

Is this a rational way to set up the Internet? To allow one private company, largely unregulated, to do as it pleases? I think that’s the discussion we’ve got to have.

So just assuming, sure, that makes perfect sense, they can do whatever they want; they’ve got a monopoly; that’s what America’s all about: getting rich and screwing people over and buying off politicians. Well, if that’s our definition of democracy, then we need to have a really broad discussion. Maybe that’s not a very good definition.

I agree – that is the broad discussion we need to have. Speaking of which, you use the term “really existing capitalism” in this book. What do you mean by it?

It comes from the term “really existing socialism.” I grew up in the cold war era, and for someone like me who was attracted to the left, but repelled by communism, that was a very common term that we used in the new left. There was this idea of socialism, which was quite beautiful: people living and sharing, collectively managing an egalitarian society. Which I think is very attractive to people worldwide to this day. But then there was the really existing socialism, in places like the Soviet Union or North Korea or Eastern Germany, which were these sort of police states that were extraordinarily unattractive. I think conservatives and socialists said, very accurately, You’ve got a problem here. You’ve got a great theory, but your practice isn’t looking very good.

For those of us who were honest, and I think most of us were, that was an issue we wrestled with. We didn’t want to live in one-party police states. But we wanted an alternative to what was gong on in capitalist societies. We wanted a democratic socialist alternative. So we developed a critique of really existing socialism. We had to study it; why was it so bad? We came to understand there was a chasm between the theory and the practice.

Well, we have a similar situation with capitalism in the United States. We have a mythology of capitalism, what I call the catechism. You know, “Capitalism is the natural system of humanity, it’s all these small businesses and people coming together to compete. Everyone gets the amount of money they deserve because they’ve earned it, or if you’re poor it’s because you’re lazy and if you’re rich it’s because you’ve earned it. The system works perfectly. It grows as long as the government stays out of the way; technology is just going to make the system better. And it’s the only way to organize a society that’s not going to be living in caves and rubbing two sticks together.” That’s the catechism.

What I call really existing capitalism is actually the real world, which has nothing to do with the one I just described, which is dominated by a small number of enormous corporations that own the politicians, and the policymaking is significantly corrupt, [and that has] immense amounts of inequality that can’t be justified by any rational calculation. That has sort of a bankrupt, hyper-commercial culture, that degrades people, and that is riddled with all sort of problems of actually efficiently producing those things that people need to have a sustainable, healthy life.

Oftentimes defenders of this system are invoking this ideal, this catechism. And then people are living the reality of capitalism, of a monopolistic world that is incredibly hostile to their values. So I think we’ve got to calibrate our vision of capitalism away from the mythology and towards the reality.

Yet, you don’t use the term “neoliberalism” very much in the book – I don’t think it shows up until page 105 – which is a pretty common word at play in discussions of the Internet and capitalism. Why not?

That’s a good question. I’ve written about neoliberalism a lot. But why don’t I use it very much? Partially I think it’s that, the way the term has evolved to describe a stage of capitalism that starts in the 1980s and moves into the present, it suggests that all we really need to do is go back to that early stage in the 1960s and 1970s and we’ll all live happily ever after. Not that people who do that research make that argument, but I think implicit in that is that we took a wrong turn in 1980 and all we need to do is steer it back on that road we were on during the 60s and 70s and capitalism will be just fine. I just don’t think that’s very convincing.

I think you can have a better capitalism. I think you can improve it dramatically through reforms. But I don’t think it can be improved just by trying to reverse to what we had in the 1960s and 70s.

What would you argue is the single greatest upcoming communications policy initiative that folks should know more about?

One of the things about the Internet – one of the reasons it was so easily commercialized and privatized, without any struggle or fight – is that there’s never been one single button you could push, one issue that would really determine which way the Internet would go. Unlike broadcasting. Once you decide to give all the signals to a few companies to make money selling ads, that was the one fight. Everything else followed from there. It was clear at the time that that [decision] settled it, for all time.

But all the people that were really ecstatic about the Internet in the 1990s, they weren’t that concerned about Rupert Murdoch or General Electric because no matter what those guys did, they figured: We can still do our thing online. No one’s going to stop us from whatever we’re going to do, we’re still going to have access to technology and we will trump the corporate crowd.

So there was never a great concern with policy. There was some. The Communications Decency Act was a scary thing. People were concerned about the digital divide and that poor people ought to have access to the Internet. But there was never one central concern that Rupert Murdoch was going to take the Internet and make it his private property. That’s one of the reasons why the commercialism’s gone on unabated for the most part – because there hasn’t been that one central policy.

But there have been – and there are going forward – four, five six, seven, eight major policies that in combination steer where the Internet’s going to go, and they reinforce each other. I’ll just mention a few of those, although I also write about them in the book.

First of all, in the 1990s, before we went to broadband, our Internet service provision was highly competitive. But what’s happened since we’ve gone to broadband is that the phone and cable companies corruptly, secretively, won the right to privatize their wires, even though they only exist because they’re government monopolies. So we’ve gone from a competitive market to a market that is not even monopolistic. That doesn’t capture what we have today. It’s a cartel. We have Verizon and AT&T that dominate cell phones. Those are really the big two. Then you have Comcast and a couple others that dominate wireline broadband cable line Internet access. And between them, they’ve divided up the market.

The result of that is that in America, in terms of the amount we pay for the quality of the service we get, we rate, by every international measure, 15th, or sometimes as low as 25, 30, 35 or 40 – and we’re falling. Fifteen years ago, we were number one or number two in every measure, or in the top two or three. And this is the direct result of the corrupt policymaking that has allowed these companies to rewrite the rules so they could have a cartel.

In a rational society, what you would have is that you would either find a way to make that a competitive industry – and that might not be possible, because of the nature of the technology – or you make it like the post office, a public utility. Everyone in the country gets it for free; there’s no barbed wire anywhere; broadband’s just a right; it’s in every device you get and then it’s paid for by the state and the cost plummets because everyone’s on it and you don’t have to meter anyone, it’s just there.

But the post office hasn’t functioned like a public utility for communications in a long time. The folks that should be pushing for these policy reforms don’t understand what that model was about. They grew up with a different kind of post office.

But it isn’t hard to say a company is charging you $60 to $80 per month for something it is costing them a dollar to do.

Communities all across the country, frustrated by the crappy service they’re getting from the cartel, have set up their own community-based wi-fi broadband system. They’re fantastically popular, wherever they are, because they’re better service, cheaper, based in the community: it’s terrific. Once people get community broadband, once people realize they don’t have to pay the cartel a fortune for crappy service, they don’t want to give it up.

Other upcoming policy debates to keep in view?

You’ve got copyright and intellectual property; you’ve got privacy, which we’ve already talked about. And the final thing is: how are people going to pay for content online? How can we have music and art and culture and film? How can we have journalism? How can we cover neighborhoods, cover politics, so we can have anything remotely close to an effective self-government?

There’s nothing going on with the Internet right now that answers that question. Not a thing.

To me, it’s the really great outstanding issue. In my view, and the argument I make in the book and have made in my earlier work, is that journalism is a public good. Culture more broadly, but particularly journalism, is a public good. It’s something that society desperately needs that the market can’t produce in sufficient quality or quantity.

For the last 125 years, that was hidden by the fact that advertising provided the majority of revenues that paid for journalism. Viewers and readers have never paid for popular journalism, ever, in the United States. Before we had advertising, we had huge government subsidies, postal and printing subsidies, that bankrolled our journalism. Then advertising did it.

But now with the Internet, the advertising is gone. It’s not coming back. Advertising online, increasingly, not only doesn’t go to news media web sites to support them, it doesn’t go to any content whatsoever. The media companies don’t get any money for advertising on the web, or very little, as a result. So the crisis is aggravated online.

I think we’re going to have to come up with a way to subsidize journalism online. To have independent, non-censored, competing, nonprofit, noncommercial newsrooms across the country. We need ways people can support themselves to do journalism.

I think it’s depressing to glorify citizen journalists. Citizen journalists are just unpaid journalists. And unpaid journalism means you’re only going to cover the stuff you enjoy covering because, hey, no one’s paying you. Some stories aren’t fun to cover, but we need to have them covered. Someone’s got to go sit at that city council meeting. Someone we can trust, and ideally more than one person, so we have competition. We have a public interest in that. That’s a public good.

That’s the great issue before us. How we’re going to get funding to have independent nonprofit, non-commercial public media.

Which sounds great, of course. But if we’re going to advocate for a vested public interest in any media, I have to ask how you would respond to the suggestion that the media reform movement could be more inclusive?

I think there’s a lot of truth to that.

Part of it is that the media reform movement is not a homogenous movement, it’s a heterogeneous movement, and one of the most successful groups has probably been the Free Press, the group that I helped form, in terms of institutional success. It’s one of the few groups that’s got a lot of people doing stuff. It’s had the resources to do that. And it’s found itself in a difficult spot. I can speak specifically about Free Press, but I think it applies to the extent there’s a movement beyond it – the theory when we started it was that we would have one foot outside of Washington and in the grassroots, working with labor and popular organizations to get people involved in the issue and expand the debates so we can have progressive reform. And then we’d have another foot in Washington to effectively represent those interests, because they weren’t being very well represented before. And I think what happened with the Free Press and the media reform movement was that we had much more success in Washington during the Bush years than anyone thought possible. And I think that meant that that footprint became the dominant one, and that’s where the energy went.

That’s taken us as far as it could. And it wasn’t very far.

Well thanks, Bob. Again, it’s an excellent book, but I know our time is short today. Anything you want to add?

Truthout is exactly the sort of medium we need to be supporting. It provides a fantastic service online and it’s exactly the kind of thing I write about in the book. They rely on donations, and we don’t have an intelligent way to give resources to support such an extraordinary web site. People need to understand that and support it to the best of their ability. But ultimately, we have to fight for a world where we don’t have to make individual donations to have the building blocks of a free society. That should be something that we pay for as a society.

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