The recent FCC hearings around net neutrality remind us, yet again, of our current predicament: that a new era is quickly descending upon us, an era in which the commons, our public spaces and institutions, are being fought over by private enterprise and multinational corporations.
The open spaces, in which information, creativity, and communication have circulated freely, are quickly being diminished, bought up and privatized. Suffice it to recall the incident that occurred back in November of 2013, in which 5 Pointz Aerosol Art Center in Queens, New York, considered to be the world’s premier “graffiti Mecca,” was finally closed off to the public – white washed – to follow through with plans of turning the space into a series of luxury condos and “New Americana” restaurants and wine bars. One of the last, genuine, fully engaged public art spaces in New York City, gone, whitewashed under the protection of the police.
Is not the recent approval by the FCC to consider paid priority on the Internet part of the same universal trend of privatization that seized and destroyed 5 Pointz? Free-market (neo-) liberalism is taking away and eroding our open spaces. And of course, this same ideological Trojan horse has invaded and eroded politics itself by means of campaign financing. Although this observation is nothing new, it remains one of the largest problems we face today, which epitomizes the peril of our times. For, no longer does it behoove federal regulatory commissions to serve the best interests of a civil society. Rather, it’s becoming clear that these governmental bodies and panels are in the business of serving capital. This marks a dangerous trend, one that is progressing toward an era of “post-politics,” whereby the administration of the social domain by expert specialists and technocrats trained and funded under the auspices of Big Capital is fast replacing traditional politics structured around ethics and jurisprudence.
In other words, in these transformative times the capitalist economy itself, along with its ruling ideology of market-based logic and competition, is increasingly imposing itself as the hegemonic ideology, in which the masses are becoming invariably entrenched. That the world’s public spaces and institutions continue to be appropriated by private businesses and multinational corporations, however, is not, by any means, stimulated by something that came onto the world stage without warning. We mustn’t forget that, throughout the better half of the 20th century, and including up to today, the IMF (International Monetary Fund) has been the primary architect of the liberal-democratic capitalist order we know so well as ‘globalization.’
Notorious for including in their lending policies nonnegotiable stipulations that require the cutting of state spending, whereby a drastic decrease in social services, employment, and funding for public institutions and spaces is the outcome, the IMF has provided the very framework by which massive privatization projects have accelerated over the last few decades.
Here, it is crucial to note that, in spite of those who espouse the Fukuyaman belief that today’s liberal-democratic capitalism is the final formula for the best possible society, and that we must simply accept and tolerate its occasional periods of crisis and rupture, many would nonetheless agree with the following assertion: Francis Fukuyama was greatly mistaken by his notion of the end of history (from 1992’s The End of History and the Last Man). We are undeniably witnessing large, “historical” shifts in the socio-economic and political domains, the world over. From the recent crises and upheaval in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, etc., to the rise of a new breed of “authoritarian capitalism with Asian values,” which functions more efficiently without democracy; to today’s diasporas and new forms of apartheid and social exclusions, slums and new emerging walls (between Israel and the West Bank, around the EU, on the US-Mexico border, and so on), it is becoming clear: history is still being written, a forthcoming era is slowly though inexorably supervening upon the present.
The history that is being written, however, is perhaps more akin to the Marxist messianic notion, represented best by philosopher and lit-critic Walter Benjamin, that history is an “open” process that points to an ultimate moment when all past accounts will be settled; which is to say, it is not the case that the future remains open, but rather: It is the past that remains “open”- the historical outcome of the present will retroactively determine the meaning of the past itself.
Are we not, then, in these times, witnessing such a historical process take place? Is the history of liberal-democratic capitalism not up against its defining limit, according to which its entire past will be determined for us? The question is, will we witness its failures give rise to a promising new alternative to capitalism? Or, will the failures of globalized liberal capitalism prove to be a triumph for a more brutal and authoritarian successor, a condition in which civic and political life is to be subordinated to a sort of corporate autocracy?
And it is here where Fukuyama couldn’t have been more correct when he wrote in his book that much of the world’s power elite “believed that a ‘failed society’ like the Soviet Union had nonetheless found the key to power through the invention of Leninist totalitarianism, by which a small band of ‘bureaucrat-dictators’ could bring to bear the power of modern organization and technology and rule over large populations more or less indefinitely.”
Thus, when Marx claimed that as long as industrial society didn’t “relapse into barbarism,” it would end in communism, he was perhaps envisioning an era much like the one in which we find ourselves today. That is to say, if history is to be the stage upon which ideological battles are won or lost, the communist ideal still appears as a viable contender; though, in these times, the rendering of its defining principles are being decided over between a corporate communism for the rich (characterized by the post-political rule of a few whom, with most of the money and power, employ a growing class of specialists and experts to manipulate and restructure the governing rules and regulations, precisely to protect and extend their privileges), and a social communism for the people (characterized by a politics that meets the demands, the needs and the common will of the people).
That all said, the heedless negligence involved in the liberal-democratic project to foster and preserve fair and equal access to free information, to intellectual property, to public spaces and cultural institutions, placing our commons, in their many forms, into the hands of the market, well – this is the failure of liberal-democratic capitalism. And this is why communism is more relevant today than ever. The term, of course, should be wrested from any meaningful connection to Soviet Russia and its associated misuse of centralized power, the gulags, and so on, blah, blah, blah. And it should not be meekly, quietly, handed over to those who are in the service of capital. Rather, the idea of communism, in our present age, should be rehabilitated and fought for once again, for it is relevant today precisely because it stands for the complete opposite of the ongoing trend of privatization.
This notion of communism, which is structured around the basic principles of shared property, the absence of classes, and common ownership of the means of production, should be slightly modified so that it effectively applies to today’s situation: It must be a communism that stands for globalization without new forms of social exclusion, a communism that stands for equal rights and a fair distribution of resources without crippling debt and the seizure of public spaces. If we scoff at this idea, we’re simply laughing at the loss of public spaces like 5 Pointz, at the possible loss of an open Internet, at the imminent loss of fair politics, and thus the failure of enriching and carrying forward the active history of what Etienne Balibar calls égaliberté: freedom-in-equality.