‘Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is turning the internet against democracy’ charts out the growth of the internet, its evolution and the new debates and crises it opens up for discourses on democracy, freedom and the state. Its author, Professor Robert W McChesney in conversation with Pritha Kejriwal.
Professor, to start with, the caption that follows the title of your recent book, Digital Disconnect is – ‘How capitalism is turning the internet against democracy’ – by a certain perspective, the caption itself might seem like an oxymoron, since the internet and the digital world itself is a product of global capitalism…the origins and the premise of the virtual universe – somewhere deep-seated in the virtual, spectral domain of the capital – liberal democracy is the political form of capitalism.
That’s not true… what my book demonstrates, is that capitalism is not responsible for the Internet. In fact, had it been left purely to the commercial interests of investors or corporations, we would have never had the Internet. It wouldn’t exist today. No one would be even thinking about the Internet. The Internet is purely a creation of public sector investment, largely military, but not exclusively. In fact, in 1972, when the US Military approached AT&T and said, “Will you take over the (predecessor to the) Internet?” AT&T said, we can’t make any money with it… you keep it. So the capitalists had no interest in the Internet. They were willing to take contracts for parts of it, but it wasn’t until deep into the history of the Internet, decades of massive spending by the federal government, massive research work by our leading public universities and non-profit institutions on the Internet, before the commercial interests set in. Capitalism has benefited and colonized the Internet and taken it over but it did not create it. In fact, it never could have – because it’s one of the weaknesses of capitalism: it is very good when it generates applied technology, when you can make money off it, but it is very bad at basic research when it doesn’t lend itself to immediate profitability. So the public sector does basic research and gets you to a point when it can be applied later. That’s the starting point to understand that.
The second point is, even if capitalism gets credit for inventing the Internet, even if someone wants to make that idiotic and unfounded claim, it doesn’t mean it’s conducive to democracy. Democracy is entirely a different phenomenon from capitalism. They have an important relationship everywhere in the world, but they are anything but synonymous. When we look at the history of the development of capitalism and the history of the development of democracy, in every country, including India, they are two different histories. Invariably, the people who were benefiting most from capitalism were never enthusiastic about participatory democracy – they were more likely brought kicking and screaming to it, as they found it generally against their interests, because they feared a country in which the mass of people had actual, real political power. Why? Because the masses in every country did not have a lot of property and were not regarded by those at the top as being sufficiently sympathetic to the needs of those with property to be allowed to run their country. So, my argument in the book is that once we split capitalism from democracy and look at the Internet from that vantage point, the relationship of both capitalism to democracy and the Internet to both capitalism and democracy comes into a different light.
But there is this overriding perspective which looks at liberal democracy as the political form of capitalism – that it is complicit in the phenomena it officially condemns – the way it sustains capitalistic power relations is by giving rise to a notion that every kind of freedom is allowed, so, what is the need for any structural change?
That’s a common perception, especially in the United States that they are synonymous and that capitalism’s logical result is a liberal democracy, where you have elected governments, the rule of law, individual liberties – the things we associate with modern western democracies and that this is also the high point of democracy, this is the be all and end all, it doesn’t get any better than this, this is as good as it gets. In anything except this mirage of modern, corporate, monopoly capitalism with democratic rule is not the real thing for either capitalism or for democracy – so this is a marriage made in heaven, it’s the end of history, a perfect world etc etc. That’s the argument. But I think, when you look closely, those claims, they are ideological, they aren’t really backed up by evidence. Again, my point isn’t that there is not an important relationship between capitalism and democracy. There obviously is – but it’s a relationship that is a very antagonistic one at key points. The needs of the great bulk of people – if you talk of genuine political equality, ‘the rule of the many’ – as democracy means, or as Aristotle put it, ‘the rule of the poor’ and the need of capitalism, are, at crucial times diametrically opposed – they always have been.
And I think that if we look at what passes for liberal democracy today through that lens, it shows pretty clearly how the system works. What we call a liberal democracy, is what political scientists call a very weak democracy – it’s one with formal rights and freedom combined with only a marginal exercise of self-government by the bulk of the people. The United States is probably the perfect test-tube example of what we would call a weak democracy. The majority of the people don’t vote, except in the Presidential elections when roughly half of the population votes, and most people have little idea what’s going on because what remains of the news media are of dubious value. Most people who don’t vote and a lot of people who do vote think no matter who wins the election, there is no appreciable change in the quality of their life. Politics appears irrelevant to their actual condition.
That’s not the text-book definition of democracy. That’s the text-book definition of something else, that has nothing to do with democracy. That’s the sort of democracy that lives comfortably aside an economy dominated by a very small number of enormous corporations and a very small number of spectacularly wealthy individuals with degrees of inequality that might have embarrassed the ancient Egyptians. That’s the real world we face in United States and there’s an important point here and this is what comes up in Digital Disconnect: In the United States and the other so called “liberal democracies”, people sort of accept that the power is in the hands of the rich, they really run everything, but the consolation we get is that we still have civil liberties, we still have the right to have the conversation that we are having right now without the fear of being arrested and put in jail, without getting shot at. So even though, we don’t have that much power over the governance of the country, even though the news media stink and we really have no idea about what the heck is going on in the exercise of power in our country, we can still say whatever we want without the fear of being arrested, we can move to whatever part of the country we want to live in, do whatever job we want to, have a hair-do like we want, have tattoos – we have freedom. That’s precious.
But I think what we are learning now and what I talk about in Digital Disconnect, is that, the freedom we have, in a situation like today, it really has very little meaning in terms of exercising real political power, and those freedoms are really disappearing too. We are seeing a surveillance of people, that until quite recently would have been considered the sort of thing that, you would have seen only in a totalitarian society. Now, it’s taken for granted that the government and corporate interests can know everything we do and we have no effective right to protest. We can yell at a street corner—or on our Facebook page— about it but it won’t change. That’s just a given now, in the new digital era – entirely antithetical to the notions of “liberal democracy”. So when something gets thrown overboard in the complex marriage of liberal democracy, it’s always the democracy part, never the capitalism part, and ultimately our freedoms are lost too because freedoms without democracy are ultimately meaningless, trivial or shortlived. I am sure Pinochet’s Chilean people had the right to have a tattoo on their rear end if that was their goal in life. But if they dared to participate in the politics of their country, they were shot or they were imprisoned or worse. So when we talk about political freedom, we need to tangibly, forcefully address the politics of a country without the fear of reprisal, and that’s what we are losing all over the world.
Now the other point I want to make is, just because capitalism and democracy are alive, it doesn’t mean that corruption is such that capitalism always wins. It doesn’t always win. We have democracy because of powerful popular forces that put it in place. In every country democratic rights of the citizens were rarely if ever given by people at the top to the people below them who would say, “Thank you kind Master for letting me have these rights”. It was generally taken by people at the bottom who demanded it, who organised politically and people at the top had no choice.
There’s a test actually, of the quality of democracy in liberal democracies. The test is very simple. In all pre-capitalist societies, the economy and the politics were controlled by the exact same people, usually some sort of feudal lord. The richest person of the country tended to always be the king or the emperor and the next tier of rich people right below the kings were the lords, who had the wealth, generally based on agriculture – so you knew that the government of a country was always going to represent the interests of the richest people and the most powerful people in the country – the two would act together, they were inseparable. And that was also ironically in the communist dictatorships of Eastern Asia or Eastern Europe – the people who owned the economy also ran the government. In that environment, political freedom is a very difficult thing to have as we know it. Now the defense of capitalist democracy made by no less than Milton Freidman, the conservative economist, was that the genius of capitalism is that it split political power away from the owners of society, the economy was separate from politics, so you had diffusion of power, you had elected governments who were answerable to voters, you had a market system around the economy and in that diffusion of power, freedom could prosper, because not one person could run the government and the economy.
If you think about it, it’s a very elegant model that makes a lot of sense. And that’s the ground for democracy. That’s the classic model. But it never really worked that way. In capitalist societies, for one thing, it’s never a free market. It’s generally dominated by a handful of very powerful and rich monopolies with enormous influence over the government. So, my point is, the measure of a capitalist democracy, the democracy portion of it, is how far the government of the country veers away from favouring the interests of the richest people. In other words, the more the governing of a country is contrary to the interests of the richest people and in the interests of the great bulk of population, the more democratic it is, by the classic democratic theory. And if we use that model and look at the United States, it is not a democracy. The US government invariably does exactly what the richest people want, all the research shows us that. That’s not even a debated point anymore. Every shred of research demonstrates that in all issues of the economy and foreign policy of the state, the US federal government, the state governments strictly do what the richest 1% in their domain want.
But in some countries, including the United States, there have been times historically when in capitalist democracy, the government has veered away from just the interests of the rich. Probably, the most extreme example in world history has been the Scandinavian social democracies, especially in Sweden under Olof Palme in the 1960s and 70s when you actually had a government that was at times rather hostile to the rich people doing things they didn’t like at all. And why were they able to pull it off in Sweden? What were they able to do there that Americans couldn’t do? Primary reason is they had a spectacularly well-organized working class. The labour movement, most of the workers were organised in free trade unions and they used that power politically to win elections. But it was still never a level playing field. It was always sloped towards the people who owned the economy and ultimately the Swedish owners figured it out from their American brothers and sisters how to use your wealth to switch the balance and return to dominant control in a society. Sweden still looks like Nirvana to most Americans on the left, but when I visit Sweden I am struck by how far most Swedes see their country as having regressed since the 1970s.
Today we’re seeing the tension between the many and the few playing out in South America in a number of countries and it’s a great tension going on right there. You know there was an American journalist named Edgar Snow, 70 years ago. He traveled with the Chinese Communists in the 1930s, when they were battling the Japanese. He was on the long march with Mao Tse-Tung and he talked to the peasants who were the communist soldiers and he would explain he was from America and he would explain what democracy is. Snow said that the peasants were dumbfounded that in a country where you had universal adult suffrage, you wouldn’t have a communist government! They couldn’t believe the great bulk of the population wouldn’t instantly get rid of capitalism, why would you allow a handful of people to own your country, like feudal lords! And that’s the great test. We see today in South America that what those peasants saw, is finally beginning to take place, in countries like Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela. These are by no means communist countries nor are they installing communist economies we associate with Eastern Europe. But their governments are saying, basically, the capitalist economy works against the interests of the great bulk of people who got us elected and we have to take steps to reign in capitalism and ultimately replace it. And this is the real test-tube battle of liberal democracy, how it will play out – the frontlines right now are Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia and a few other countries – we will see how that tension plays out.
On the Internet, the model is, if you get something for free on the Internet, you are not the customer, you are the product. So the price you pay for getting something for free, from Google or Facebook or Twitter or Skype, is that they collect everything about us.
You have written in your book, how these big Internet monopolies are changing our very environments around us, in ways which we are not even aware of… Could you explain how?
I would be glad to… when the Internet came along, probably the greatest benefit to its proponents – and I think, widely accepted by everyone—was that the Internet was going to blow up capitalism as we know it – revolutionize the market and make capitalism a more efficient, more competitive system. It was going to provide consumers all possible and necessary information so no longer could large corporations take advantage of consumers with higher prices and shoddy products. Consumers could go online and get the best deal. It would empower small business and entrepreneurs to enter markets and offer a better product, because the cost of reaching consumers would be so low compared to traditional non-digital markets. Those were the claims that it was going to be the golden age of competitive capitalism.
Instead what we see is that the Internet is the greatest creator of economic monopolies in history. There’s never been anything like it. It’s a hurricane of monopoly! Everywhere you turn online, you see a handful of companies that entirely dominate the Internet, and they have what economists call monopolies. When you look at 10 or 12 companies making most of the profits online – Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon, eBay, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, – what you see that each of them in their core areas has what economists call monopoly. Now monopoly doesn’t mean you sell 100% of the product, what it means that you have at least 50% or 60% of the market share, maybe not even that much, but you have enough market share that you can control the price, you can control who can get in or out of the market by the price you set. What we see is that all these companies have that sort of market power, many of them, like Google or Amazon or Apple have a greater share of their core markets online than John D. Rockefeller had with Standard Oil in the 19th century. So these are monopolies.
Now why does the Internet create monopolies? Well, there are a number of reasons and I go through them in the book, but the most important one – is not that these people who started these companies were smarter than all other capitalists, its not that Bill Gates or Steve Jobs have IQs triple the size of any other business leaders of the past. The reason is that the Internet produces what are called network effects, which means the leader in a particular area has great advantages for all potential customers, so everyone flocks to the no.1 company not letting the other ones survive. If you want to buy a book online, you can go to Amazon, which has every book under the sun and can get it to you in two days and takes all the bestsellers and marks them down to cost; or you can go to the no. 2 company—I don’t know who that is—that has maybe 1/100th of the number of books and marks nothing down – it can’t afford to. Everyone goes to Amazon and no.2 doesn’t have a chance. If you want to search anything online, you can go to some of the other companies, or you can go to Google. Google has so much more traffic, so you could probably get a better search. If you do social media online, you could go to My Space and connect with 3 people on it, but if you go to Facebook, where there are a billion people, you would stay there. Network economics produce monopolies and what we have created then are these gigantic monopolies that dominate our economy.
In the US economy, for example – 12 of the 30 largest companies, in terms of market value are Internet monopolies. Think about it and you would get a sense of how extraordinary this is. In the case of big banks, and everyone accepts that these huge banks run the US government – there are only two or three banks among the 30 largest companies of America, and there are 12 Internet monopolies. So who do you think is going to dominate anything to do with policies pertaining to the Internet or digital policies? What we know is that these companies basically own the board, they write all the rules and politicians eat out of their hands.
Is that why you think Bill Gates spoke of cyberspace as providing a framework for what he calls ‘frictionless capitalism’?
Bill Gates said this back in the 1990s, almost 20 years ago; it was basically this mythological idea that consumers would have access to all the information – breaking down the traditional limitations, even deep flaws, of the market, which is what Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz studied. This is the idea that consumers often don’t get accurate information and the cost of getting information is so high that it’s not worth it and markets consequently can be inefficient and irrational – there’s a lot of friction. Gates’ argument was that with the Internet providing enormous amounts of information to consumers and entrepreneurs that the information cost would disappear and markets would work very efficiently and very effectively in a frictionless environment and that would lead to a massive wave of economic growth. But it hasn’t happened like that as a rule. Certainly, the notion that frictionless capitalism would spawn an era of robust growth is preposterous.
If you want broadband Internet access in the US or cell phone access, you go through one of these three companies or a few other smaller companies that take their cues from the cartel. The problem for the US is that American broadband quality is much lower than most other countries and prices are much higher. Because what these companies have done, rationally for their businesses, is that they haven’t upgraded their networks, they don’t need to, because there is no competitive pressure and no regulations and they charge a lot because they have a monopoly.
Professor, another extremely debated issue, is the idea of privacy and its breach – one side is the enormous surveillance of the state and the big data mongering of these big corporations which we are all wary of, and the other side is our increasing loneliness, this desperate need to connect, and this brazen enthusiasm to record every moment of our private lives and put it out there… So, where do you locate the psychoanalytical contours of this debate?
Those are two very interesting phenomena and they aren’t necessarily connected, believe it or not, because when we talk about privacy, what we are really talking about is the relationship people have to large corporations and to the governments – especially the military and the national security police forces – and that’s where there is actually a lot of law. Traditionally in Western liberal democracies, it’s a crucial component of democratic theory that people have a right to privacy. Government and large corporations do not have a right to invade the privacy or have access to information people want to keep private and the Internet has blown that to smithereens. And it’s not done because if I want to go online and tell people about what I eat for breakfast, or share my friend’s bad relationship problem – the issue really comes down to the fact that very often commercial forces make their money by basically vacuuming in all information that is available online about people. On the Internet, the model is, if you get something for free on the Internet, you are not the customer, you are the product. So the price you pay for getting something for free, from Google or Facebook or Twitter or Skype, is that they collect everything about us. They know everything we do and they use that information to sell us other stuff, either they sell something themselves or sell it to other advertisers and other commercial interests.
The security agencies obviously want that information because it makes their job easier if they know everything. So, my book talks about the very close relationship between the national security agencies of the US and these big corporations, how they have joined hands, they get along so well, they are important to each other, and they both benefit from invading our privacy and that’s why there is no privacy left in America. Now we can solve that problem and people can have the same privacy online that we had pre-line. We have a law in the United States and I think in most countries too, that if we write a letter and seal it, no one in the world has the right to open that letter except the person that it’s sent to, no one else is allowed to know its contents. And we can have that sort of privacy online. We could. But these commercial interests and the National Security guys are opposed to that, they want to be able to spy on us, that’s their business model for their commercial interests and that’s always the desire for every National Security agency. So, that’s a political fight. That’s the fight we’re having now.
Now the fact that there’s a culture of people, primarily younger people who go on the net to talk more freely about who their sex partners are, show pictures of themselves, partying, that’s a cultural issue. That really doesn’t have anything to do with the National Police wanting to monitor everything you do. What you want to do is share something you want with people you want to share it with, but that’s a different issue really. If I so desire, I can write a letter, send it to a thousand people, even anonymous people, saying these are my preferred sex practices or these are the drugs that I take or all kinds of personal stuff – that doesn’t mean, by doing so I give the right to Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, the CIA, the NSA and police departments around the world to know everything about me online.
The whole scenario gives rise to another kind of concern and that is, how does one fight the infinite adaptability of capitalism, which in case of an acute crisis like situation of privacy breaches, can easily turn into a field of more capitalistic investments and competition, with more companies offering us services to protect our privacy, opening up another new market where the entire logic of capitalism again plays itself out…
That’s an interesting idea that people are ultimately going to buy privacy, buy the rights they should have, to begin with, from those very powerful forces that are taking it away from them. I would say for it to be effective, it would have to be so powerful so that it undermines Apple, Microsoft, National Security Agency, Google – it’s going to have an extensive price and it will really not work. Even if it’s going to work, it will cost a lot, which very few people could afford…But it won’t really surprise me, if in a society like the United States or India which is very unequal, where people don’t like the prospect of the govt. staring at them and there would be people who would be ready to pay a premium to someone who would actually be able to do it effectively. But, I think the great bulk of people would be able to circumvent the knowledge that Amazon or Google and Facebook or security agencies have collected from us. Really, I don’t see it right now that the market would actually solve the problem…I might be wrong…I have been surprised by many things, but right now it seems quite irrational and hypothetical, because what we’re talking about right now will really blow up the business model of these big companies.
You have often stressed on meeting specific goals, even through short term alliances… the one you suggested with the big internet giants against the cable and the telephone companies… doesn’t it have the danger of being an unfounded dream… like that of dreaming of capitalism without any of its symptoms?
This is a very interesting issue in the United States. In the US, the access to the Internet is controlled by a cartel – there are basically these 3 companies, which own all the broadband access – AT&T, Verizon and Comcast. AT&T and Verizon have divided up the cell phone market and Comcast is the dominant broadband player. If you want broadband Internet access in the US or cell phone access, you go through one of these three companies or a few other smaller companies that take their cues from the cartel. The problem for the US is that American broadband quality is much lower than most other countries and prices are much higher. Because what these companies have done, rationally for their businesses, is that they haven’t upgraded their networks, they don’t need to, because there is no competitive pressure and no regulations and they charge a lot because they have a monopoly. It is effectively a cartel, where they have divided the market between themselves. So, the US, in 1999-2000, by all measures – in terms of broadband speed, market penetration and all kinds of related services, we were among the best in the world. But over the intervening years our quality has dropped relative to anyone else’s, and we paid much more than anyone else. It’s truly an outrageous situation.
This is where the politics of capitalism gets interesting. If you’re Google or Apple or Amazon, anyone in the business that operates digitally, this actually has a very negative effect upon you that the customers have to pay so much to get access to the Internet. It is also bad business when you have to use the Internet like these companies do themselves, so if there could be a split in the business community between this cartel of AT&T, Verizon and Comcast—who use their political control over Internet access to squeeze what economists call rents, out of everyone, because they have the monopoly power—and the rest of the business community who do not like being shaken down by the cartel. So for public interest advocates, an alliance possibly could be struck on some issues with companies like Google or even Amazon.
But what we’ve seen in the last few years, which is striking, is that these companies have seemingly decided to make love with each other and they have really pretty much decided not to fight in the public arena, not to debate in Washington. Instead, they make side deals which they work out pretty much among themselves and then they present it to the government and the government embraces the corporate deal as the new law or regulation. That’s what happened with Net Neutrality, where Google hammered out an agreement with the cartel that was the basis for the eventual FCC policy. Likewise, the corporate giants hammered out a deal for the enforcement of copyright online. When I think of all these companies, they are 13 of the 30 largest companies in the US economy, they are enormous companies and they have a lot more points in common than they do apart. They share too many interests together to get into a fight that might drag them down or call for undesired public attention to their power and control over the government.
Since the late 1990s and our secrecy has increased exponentially and absurdly. We are a much more secretive society and we have a much larger national security-intelligence complex that collects data which are working together with these large corporations, outside the boundaries of law, outside the boundaries of the constitution. So what happened with Manning or Snowden, among other things, is that they basically drew back the curtains and said, this is what is going on!
Speaking of intellectual property, how do you explain the paradoxes surrounding it – how does capitalism get around the key antagonism of the so-called new (digital) industries to maintain the form of (private) property, within which only the logic of profit can be maintained (the issue of Napster and free circulation of music)?
I have dealt with this issue in Digital Disconnect historically and right through to the present – Capitalism has never really worked well for information or what we call media or cultural content industries from the very beginning. The problem was always this that – in capitalist markets, the theory is that the price of the product is supposed to represent the marginal cost of producing the product and that works well for automobiles and shirts and shoes but it doesn’t work with intellectual property or books or content. The problem is the marginal cost of producing a digital copy of a book is very low. The first copy is where all the costs go in. So if I buy a copy of a book and I make copies of it and sell it to people, the price is very low because the cost to produce it is very low, so the author wouldn’t make any money. That’s why the copyright law was put in the US constitution, so that the authors could get a return on their books and could continue writing; that’s the core principle.
In the 20th century, that principle got turned around completely, when newly formed media corporations used their immense political power to increase wildly the length and scope of copyright protection, to the point where the public domain –once a crucial aspect of a free society much cherished in liberal thought—has all but disappeared as a living construct. Now the Internet blows everything up because the marginal cost of producing additional copies on the Internet is zero and by traditional economics the price to the consumer should also be zero, they should get it for free. So the Internet posed an existential threat to the very existence of all commercial media and that’s why they push so hard to institute onerous penalties to any violation of copyright law. I think, in a democratic society, the rational solution is to say, ok, we’ve got this extraordinary technology, but now how can we find a way to fund content producers – journalists, musicians, authors, filmmakers so that they could make their money without having to set up barbed wires and a police state all over the Internet. Why don’t we come out with some public policy better than the copyright, a better way to fund content. The problem is we can’t have this debate in the United States, because these companies know their whole existence depends upon having permanent monopoly over this content and a public discussion of alternatives might bring their death knell. These media giants really serve no justifiable function, or at least they do nothing that justifies their current enormous size and profitability. They depend in toto on government created and enforced monopoly rents through copyright law.
The full weight of the US government has become the private police force for these companies – in India, China, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, wherever they have their commercial interests. The US government forces these corporate-friendly copyright regimes into trade deals and online. We need to have a serious discussion to get past this really useless antiquated model of the copyright, but the problem is, if we get past this system all these companies will really go out of business. They are going to go down swinging and they know it and they have tremendous control over the government and the politicians and they are using it to their best interests. And, an important side point: there is virtually no news media coverage of copyright in the US news media, so most Americans have no idea about the nature of the issue. All they hear or see are endless PR campaigns against intellectual property “theft.”
Your views on these whistleblowers like Manning, or Snowden or Assange…what turned them into these heroes, whereas a lot of history of better instances of investigative and radical journalism has been continuously ignored?
Two things have happened simultaneously – on one hand the Internet and technology have developed so much and have offered us a capacity to do surveillance and collect information that is mind-boggling and it’s only going to get worse, and secondly, in the US the military-national security-intelligence complex has grown much larger since 9/11. Since the late 1990s and our secrecy has increased exponentially and absurdly. We are a much more secretive society and we have a much larger national security-intelligence complex that collects data which are working together with these large corporations, outside the boundaries of law, outside the boundaries of the constitution. So what happened with Manning or Snowden, among other things, is that they basically drew back the curtains and said, this is what is going on! And that was a shocking picture; it was a stunning revelation, a moment of truth for the society and threw some light on where we were going as a country, and that explains why they have got such an overwhelming response.
Lastly, Žižek says – “Today, actual freedom of thought means the freedom to question the predominant, liberal-democratic, “post-ideological” consensus-or it means nothing”. Where do you locate the real battlefields of thought and debate?
I think Žižek is correct, though I would frame the matter somewhat differently. The fundamental issue is both the quality of human life and the possibility of human survival. From here on and until it’s solved, I think where the discussion should go is – Can we create an economy, a political democracy and can we create an environment that can sustain life, including human? I think that evidence is in, that capitalism can’t create that system. What the Internet does is that it draws to our attention to the regressive nature of capitalism – because here is a magnificent technology that would allow us to lower costs radically, and democratize our societies, and yet capitalism doesn’t let that happen. What we need to do basically is say that enough is enough, you guys have had a couple of centuries and you have made your big fortunes, but we can’t take it any longer. We have got to come up with a democratic form of economy that puts human and socials needs over the mindless and endless pursuit of maximum profit. That’s the great issue we should be discussing urgently, and I don’t think that the ecological crisis that we are facing, the social crises that we are facing, give us the luxury of time. It is not an abstract issue.
Žižek is correct that those in power understand this intuitively, which is why efforts to raise this discussion even in the most sober of tones, elicits hysterical outrage and name calling in the United States. It is simply “off-limits” and a key to admission to respectable society is that one internalizes the notion that capitalism is exempt from fundamental criticism, and all legitimate debates must countenance the continued rule of billionaires and large corporations over the economy for the visible future, effectively forever. American liberals are scared to death of broaching the issue, although if we were assessing an ancient society with a similarly flawed political economy, it would be the only thing historians would focus on when they assessed its decline and fall. The immediate challenge for intellectuals is to put capitalism in the centre of social analysis and debate, and open up the study and exercise of alternatives. Everything rides on that.