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Breaking Open the Digital Commons to Fight Corporate Capitalism

Will the virtualization of communication, education and capital indoctrinate the globe in controlled sameness or provide opportunities for collaboration and growth?

(Image: Global Circuit via Shutterstock)

Radical Political Knowledge Economy

In this story, Michael A. Peters discusses the importance of pushing governments and the private sector to invest in public digital infrastructure. This is essential, he argues, to fight corporate capitalism and promote universal access to knowledge and education.

Global circuit(Image: Global Circuit via Shutterstock)Jean-François Lyotard’s (1984) major hypothesis in “The Postmodern Condition” stated that, “the status of knowledge is altered as societies enter what is known as the postindustrial age and cultures enter what is known as the postmodern age.”[1] I focus on the political economy of postindustrialism as a history of the increasing spatialization of time, knowledge and education that takes the global form of integrated world capitalism (IWC), structured through emerging global information systems and new media networks. This is an approach that I first developed in “Poststructuralism, Marxism and Neoliberalism: Between Theory and Politics” (Peters, 2001) which focused on reinterpreting the culture of Western Marxism and contemporary neoliberal capitalism. One of the book’s main arguments is that poststructuralism is not a form of anti-Marxism. Indeed, poststructural philosophers view themselves in some kind of relationship to the legacy of Marx: either they have been Marxist or still view themselves as Marxist. In a post-Marxist (postmodern) era, they have invented new ways of reading and writing Marx in order to contribute to the radical political economy of postindustrialism.

The other major argument of the book concerns a critical engagement with neoliberalism, an ideology that is committed to the revitalization of homo economicus where the social is re-described in terms of the economic, resting on three assumptions: the assumption of individuality (the individual as choice-making entity); the assumption of rationality; and the assumption of self-interest. In the age of information networks, these defining assumptions of homo economicus are no longer valid. If we follow Foucault (2008) in “The Birth of Biopolitics,” homo economicus is what the two forms of liberalism, the “classical” and the “neo,” share: the way in which they both place a particular “anthropology” of man as an economic subject at the basis of politics. The difference between the two forms is the shift from an anthropology of exchange to one of competition.

Where exchange was treated as natural in liberal political economy, neoliberalism considers competition as artificial – which necessitates a constant intervention on the part of the state to protect against the tendency toward monopoly. The shift results in a massive expansion of economics because if economics is a science that defines human behavior as relationship between ends and scarce means (Gary Becker’s definition) then all behavior can be regarded as economic, and labor, or the worker, can be regarded as human capital. As Foucault (2008: 226) puts it, “Homo economicus is an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself” (see Besley & Peters, 2008). Thus, Foucault takes neoliberalism to be a new mode of “governmentality,” in which people are governed and govern themselves (Reed, 2009).

I view liberalism and neoliberalism as essentially modern forms of political economy (governmentalities of the modern era) in contrast to postmodern forms of political economy based on a cybernetic conceptions of global economy and society that focused on networks. This distinction is brought out clearly in the contrast between what Foucault calls disciplinary societies and what Deleuze calls societies of control. Cybernetic forms of (postindustrial) global capitalism, or IWC (Integrated World Capitalism), make problematic notions of multiple or alternate globalizations. Postindustrial capitalism differs from industrial capitalism in terms of five basic features of economic systems – the technological base, the relationship between time and space, the nature of commodities, the organization of business, and the model of development (Liagouras, 2005). The information revolution – by enforcing an amazing compression of the time-space equation – opens up new perspectives of economic integration. As Manuel Castells writes:

The informational economy is global. A global economy is a historically new reality, distinct from a world economy. A world economy, that is an economy in which capital accumulation proceeds throughout the world, has existed in the West at least since the sixteenth [century], as Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein have taught us. A global economy is something different: it is an economy with the capacity to work as a unit in real time on a planetary scale (Castells, 1996: 92).

Lyotard’s Critique of Capitalist Techno-Science

For Lyotard (1984) the history of globalization is above all a history of the way knowledge has become transformed into information, that is, into coded messages within a capitalist techno-scientific system of cybernetic transmission and communication that has dissolved epistemic and narrative coherence. In these terms, the history of IWC as an emerging global techno-scientific system is a history of both the increasing formalization, abstraction, and mathematicization of language and communication where ‘space annihilates time’ (the late modern), and there is a shift from closed to open systems (the postmodern) based on mathematical principles of non-linear and dynamic self-organization.

Kantian (modern liberal) culture was based on the categories of time and space inherited from the best science at the time (e.g., Newtonian physics) that treated them as the permanent and absolute framework of our cognitive schema, shaping the very sense impressions we receive from the world and making them intelligible. Before Kant, space and time were treated separately, although often interdependently. The concept of time as the single notion of spacetime only received its scientific statement in mathematics and physics at the turn of the century with Albert Einstein. In the “natural philosophy” of the modern period, from Descartes to Newton, time and space were posited as absolute entities. Only with Einstein’s theories of relativity in 1905 and 1916 did the understanding that spacetime is relative to the observer begin to impact upon contemporary social theory, aesthetics and the succession of avant-gardes. The relation between the science of linguistics, mathematics and topology is one of the driving logics for the development of structuralism as an aspect of European formalism beginning in pre-revolutionary Russia (Peters, 1996). This spatialized mathematics spreads across the disciplines in physics, mathematics (especially, the Bourbaki group), biology, linguistics, poetics, art, cultural theory, genetic epistemology and education (stages of children’s thinking) (Piaget, 1970). Spatial turns can also be witnessed in phenomenology with its focus on the body (e.g., Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre), in the geography-centered Annales school (Bloch, Febvre, Braudel), and in revitalized traditionally spatial disciplines such as architecture, urban planning and geography (Lefebvre, Harvey, Soja, Massey) (Peters, 2010).

Geographers such as David Harvey (1990) have been to the forefront, in particular, in examining and explaining time-space compression as part of the postmodern condition. The change in the human experience of space and time is for Harvey the most important cultural change in the transformation from Fordism to flexible accumulation – and from modernity to postmodernity. His analysis of time-space compression is linked to an analysis of the structural transformation of the capitalist system, and he argues that with the advent of the speed of faster telecommunications, the production of real commodities ceased to be essential to the system, and that the financial system simultaneously became global at the same time as becoming de-linked to the production of real commodities.

Lyotard (1984) was the first to suggest that for the last 40 years, the “leading” sciences and technologies have had to do with language: phonology and theories of linguistics, problems of communication and cybernetics, modern theories of algebra and informatics, computers and their languages, problems of translation and the search for areas of compatibility among computer languages, problems of information storage and data banks, telematics and the perfection of intelligent terminals, to paradoxology.

Later he uses the mathematicians Thom and Mandlebrot to point to “postmodern science [that] … by concerning itself with such things as undecidables, the limits of precise control, conflicts characterized by incomplete information, “fracta”, catastrophes, and pragmatic paradoxes – is theorizing its own evolution as discontinuous, catastrophic, nonrectifiable, and paradoxical” (p. 60).

Lyotard (1984) combined the analysis of postmodernism with postindustrialism, reviving the sociological theory of (post)industrialism that can be traced back to the first critiques of industrial political economy around alienated labor (Marx), aesthetics of the arts and crafts movements (Morris, Ruskin), modern technology (Heidegger) and global ecology, and at the same time projected it into the future, anticipating discourses of the knowledge and creative economies that make higher education and research central “industries” or leading economic sectors. His account of the postmodern condition provided grounds for the critique of the knowledge/information economies at least in its neoliberal forms in terms of the logic of “performativity.”

It should therefore come as no surprise that scholars have claimed that the philosophical roots of French (poststructuralist) theory and the techno-scientific foundations of cyberspace are born of the one and same cybernetic matrix that was formulated in the aftermath of the Second World War, essentially as an industrial-military project by the likes of Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon and many others in the series of Macy conferences that focus on understanding language and communication as a informational system (Heims, 1991; Lafountaine, 2007).

From Disciplinary Societies to Societies of Control

Both Foucault and Deleuze discuss this spatialization of knowledge, history and education in terms of the global shift from disciplinary societies to societies of control, from spaces of enclosure exemplified by Euclidean geometry to open systems based on complexity theory emphasizing non-linear and dynamical progression. Derrida (1974) also emphasizes that the closure of metaphysics takes place with development of linguistics, mathematics and cybernetics where the written mark or signifier of the traditional logos has become purely technical, that is, a matter of function rather than meaning. Like Heidegger (1998) in “The Question Concerning Technology,” he indicates that the metaphysics of presence dominating 2,500 years of Western philosophy has come to a closure (though not termination) in a kind of hyperreality – a network of images and signs without an external reference – which is the result of the technological mediation of experience (Baudrillard, 1993).

For example, in “Discipline and Punish” (1979) Foucault talks of disciplinary techniques in terms of “the art of distributions.” The monastic model of enclosure became the most perfect educational regime and “partitioning” (every individual had his or her own place). “The rule of functional sites” refers to the ways that architects designed space to correspond to the need to supervise and to prevent “dangerous communication.” Foucault argues “the organization of a serial space was one of the great technical mutations of elementary education” (p. 131) that made it possible to supersede the traditional apprenticeship system where the pupil spends a few minutes with the master while the rest of the group remains idle. He discusses the means of correct training in terms of “hierarchical observation”, as he suggests “the school building was to be a mechanism for training” … a “pedagogical machine” (p. 172). Most famously, Foucault, discusses “panopticism” – a system of surveillance, based on Jeremy Bentham’s architectural figure, that operates by permitting the relentless and continual observation of inmates at the periphery by officials at the center, without them ever being seen. “Discipline and Punish” is concerned with the operation of technologies of power and their relations to the emergence of knowledge in the form of new discourses, based around modes of objectification through which human beings became subjects. Bentham’s “panopticum” became for Foucault that exemplary, utopian, transparent space that permitted the production of new knowledge by the human sciences that developed and enhanced disciplinary technologies of power and the objectification of the human subject in other institutions like schools and other domains outside the penal system. Educational “science” grew up in this historical environment as one such discipline that permitted the creation of a kind of control to be exercised upon children in order to render their bodies both docile and productive.

By contrast, Deleuze (1995: 174 ) suggests, “We’re moving toward control societies that no longer operate by confining people but through continuous control and instant communication.” New open spatial forms – open systems rather than closed systems – interconnected, flexible and networked “architectures” are supplanting the older enclosures. Forms of “lifelong education,” “distance education” and “continuous training” have been conceived as part of a new educational “architecture” designed to support the global “knowledge economy.” We are in a period of generalized crisis in relation to all environments of enclosure. Institutions built on the model of enclosed spaces, that is, the institutions of modernity – school, family, prison, factory, clinic – are finished, despite all efforts to reform them. The closed system, the enclosed space, and institutions built on its processes of concentration and distribution, are being replaced by the open system based on the control model of the network. These networks are both more malleable and more flexible.

At the point when a concept of difference seemingly makes room conceptually for “petit recits” (little histories, that is, mini-narratives), and on a grander scale, alternative and multiple modernities (Gaonkar, 1999; Eisenstadt, 2000), the shift from the industrial logic of one-way broadcast media systems to new global information systems presages a new monopolization and privatization of knowledge by the new info-utilities (Microsoft,, Google). Given an emerging world global communications infrastructure that has strong technically integrative and homogenizing tendencies, to what extent we can legitimately talk about “modernities,” or indeed, “capitalisms” in the plural, and to what extent are there divergent development paths or Oriental and Islamic globalizations? (Keping, 2003; Bennison, 2002)

The Emergence of Global Information Systems

The emergence of global information systems and new media networks thus can be seen as the emergence of a global political economy that takes modernity as a central concept for understanding the development of the world in terms of the premodern, the modern and the postmodern, and projects globalization as a technical integration of the world economy driven increasingly by global informational capitalism (Castells, 2000; Featherstone, 2006; Fuchs, 2008). This is one reading of the history of postmodernism that anchors itself in the concept of the postindustrial and emphasizes the future of a global postindustrial economy in which the creation, distribution, diffusion and use of information is the central defining characteristic.

The history of postindustrialism is a conceptual history of the future, a description based on a recognition of leading “industrial” sectors within the most advanced economies. It is both a prescription for curing the ills of society and a radical political economy of contemporary capitalism. The information society has been seen as a successor to the industrial society and generated a range of terms that signal its deep structural transformation: “postindustrial” (Drucker, Bell, Touraine), “post-Fordism'”(Piore & Sabel), “postmodern” (Toynbee, Lyotard) and, more recently, “information society” (Machlup, Porat), “network society” (Castells, Fuchs), “knowledge economy” (OECD, Stiglitz), “knowledge capitalism” (Peters & Besley) and “cognitive capitalism” (Negri). The history of these terms’ social theory exposes the ideological roots of the concept of globalization as it both describes and prescribes certain development trajectories. There are multiple competing historical narratives here, including those currently in vogue that begin with the decline of the West and the rise of the rest, and chart the shift of the center of economic power away from Euro-America to Asia – China, India and the other three BRICS countries, Brazil, Russia and South Africa.

In a variety of publications over the last couple of decades, I have attempted to chart both the significance of poststructuralism (e.g., Peters, 1996, 2001) as well as to adopt poststructuralist theory as a matrix for entertaining critical histories of postindustrial knowledge economies and the influence they exert on education systems (Peters & Besley, 2006; Peters, 2008; Peters et al, 2009,2010a, 2010b; Peters, 2010; Araya & Peters, 2010; Peters & Bulut, 2011). Significantly, the emerging political economy of education and knowledge under the development of global information and learning systems points to the dominance of a global informational (cybernetic) capitalism that threatens to engulf education by (1) providing the infrastructure and code for global education systems and (2) establishing processes that lead to the monopolization and privatization of both education and knowledge. This has been one of the fundamental facts of educational development in the late 20th and early 21st centuries (Peters, 2009). Postindustrial informational capitalism emerges as the third stage of capitalism – after merchant capitalism (where capital occupied the sphere of exchange) and industrial capitalism (where rationalization of labor becomes the main source of capital) – societal and individual symbolic resources (cognitive, communicative and aesthetic) become subordinated to the movement of capital.

Yet the same cybernetic paradigm that laid the foundations for an informational system of communication and global capitalism based upon it also encourages new forms of openness that simultaneously encourage an interactive participation and ethic of collaboration, creating and reconfiguring global public spaces and forms of open education (Peters & Britez, 2008; Peters & Roberts, 2011). As I have argued recently:

What I call “open knowledge production,” certainly, is based upon an incremental, decentralized (and asynchronous), collaborative development process, but whether it transcends the traditional proprietary market model, as Benkler and others claim, is yet to be determined. While it is true that commons-based peer production is based on free cooperation and not on the selling of one’s labour in exchange for a wage; and that it is not motivated primarily by profit or for the exchange value of the resulting product; still, it is not yet clear whether this constitutes an entirely new mode of social production, or the extent to which it exists independently or parasitically on existing capitalist modes of production. While it is the case that commons-based production is managed through new modes of peer governance rather than traditional organizational hierarchies, and that it is an innovative application of copyright that creates an information commons, it is still not clear to me that it transcends the limitations attached to both the private (for-profit) and public (state-based) property forms (Peters, 2009: 55).

In a time of crisis that follows the financialization of the world economy, its deregulation, new levels of corporate fraud and financial criminalization at the core of the system, [2] one of the most constructive responses is the openness movement that seeks to encourage governments and the private sector to invest in public digital infrastructures to protect knowledge diversity and promote universal access to knowledge and education.


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Bennison, Amira K. (2002) Muslim universalism and western globalization, in A.G. Hopkins, ed. Globalization in world history. New York, Norton, 73-98.

Besley, Tina & Peters, M. A. (2008) Subjectivity and Truth: Foucault, Education and the Culture of the Self. New York, Peter Lang.

Castells, Manuel (2000) The Rise of the Network Society. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. Volume 1. Malden: Blackwell. Second Edition.

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Massumi (trans.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Marginson, S., Murphy, P. & Peters, M.A. (2010) Global Creation: Space, Connection and Synchrony in the Age of the Knowledge Economy. New York, Peter Lang.

Murphy, P., Peters, M.A. & Marginson, S. (2010) Imagination: Three Models of Imagination in the Age of the Knowledge Economy. New York, Peter Lang.

Peters, M. A., Murphy, P. & Marginson, S. (2009) Creativity and the Global Knowledge Economy. New York, Peter Lang.

Peters, M.A. & Besley, Tina (A.C.) (2006) Building Knowledge Cultures: Education and Development in the Age of Knowledge Capitalism. Lanham, Boulder, NY, Oxford, Rowman & Littlefield.

Peters, M.A. (2001) Poststructuralism, Marxism and Neoliberalism; Between Theory and Politics. Lanham, Boulder, NY, Oxford, Rowman & Littlefield.

Peters, M.A. (2009) Education, Creativity and the Economy of Passions: New Forms of Educational Capitalism, Thesis Eleven, 96 no. 1: 40-63

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Read, Jason (2009) A Genealogy of Homo-Economicus: Neoliberalism and the Production of Subjectivity, Foucault Studies, No 6, pp. 25-36.

1. A version of this essay appeared in Policy Futures in Education at

2. See Charles Ferguson’s Academy Award winning documentary “Inside Job” (2011), his pointed criticism of Wall Street and the financial industry, and his criticisms of those in the universities who profited from their association with Wall Street.

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