The internet in the epoch of decline
Extravagant revolutionary claims are made for new digital media and the technological avant-garde. The truth, argues Paul Demarty, is more complicated
At the end of 2011, The Guardian published a short interactive quiz - entitled ‘How revolutionary were you in 2011?’1 It was, after all, a good year to be a revolutionary, with the overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak, the student protests and the Occupy movement. Time magazine named “the protestor” its person of the year; the BBC’s in-house leftie and sometime-Trot, Paul Mason, published, to wide acclaim, Why it’s kicking off everywhere.
Answering the quiz is odd, however, because, according to The Guardian, invariably the most ‘revolutionary’ response in 2011 was to … follow the Twitter feeds of various protestors and their chosen hashtags. We had inklings of this political approach previously, when mass protests erupted after the Iranian presidential election, and were promptly credited to the revolutionary power of the same microblogging platform; not three years later, the Twitter Ideology was well rooted, and animated in this country small protest movements such as UK Uncut.
According to this view, Twitter allowed a message - a ‘call to action’ - to spread like wildfire without the apparent mediation of traditional activist institutions, such as political parties, trade unions or ideologically defined small groups. Techno-utopianism is hardly new, but older versions had proposed technology as a way to overcome resource scarcity and eliminate human labour, leaving us free to live in peace and luxury. The claim of the Twitterites is different - technology allows disruption. As Finley Peter Dunne said of the press, technology comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. It erodes oppressive hierarchies, allowing not the stifling quiet of the techno-utopias past, but a carnival of creative chaos. Anarchism has finally come true.
This ideology persists to this day. It persists perhaps most strongly in inverted form, among enraged authoritarians, great and small. Alex Callinicos infamously called the Facebook social network “the dark side of the internet”,2 as the Socialist Workers Party crisis spilled into the public eye and was raked over, point by point, by an audience largely on social media. Martin Thomas of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty wrote an article linking social media to shortening attention spans among comrades, shortly after the AWL had its own Facebook-driven scandal.3 Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has recently blocked Twitter in Turkey, blaming its users for “all kinds of immorality, all kinds of espionage and spying”.4
On the face of it, however, the notion that social media is that transformative is absurd. The student movement was utterly defeated, and the remnants of its key organisations are in tatters. The SWP has basically lost its entire student cohort, many of whom were players in 2010-11, and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts is quietly drowning in mutual recrimination between the AWL and identity politics fanatics.
Occupy is, by all reasonable measures, dead as a doornail; it has dissolved into various liberal campaigning groups. The ‘Arab spring’ is very definitely over. The Tunisians and Egyptians replaced their military dictators not with techno-literate liberals or leftwingers, but with Islamists, and in the case of Egypt, supported in large numbers what amounts to a counterrevolution by the old regime. UK Uncut got a brief wave of press attention for its anti-tax avoidance protests; but in the years since it has become easier for corporations to avoid tax. All of the supposed social media-enabled protest movements have failed, abjectly.
And yet, the idea persists. Understanding why requires placing social media in its broader historical context: firstly, of the ‘web apparatus’, the technical-social structure of production in information technology; and, secondly, of the underlying political and ideological dynamics of our period.
Web and decline
To understand the web apparatus, we must first reverse a commonplace concerning the significance of the internet.
It is commonly thought that the ‘information age’ confirms the continuing vitality of capitalism as a system. The productive forces have advanced, in this sphere, with extraordinary rapidity in the 25 years since the first web pages were created. Moore’s Law - a statistical hypothesis that computing power doubles every 18 months or so - has held up remarkably well, despite the manufacture of microprocessors hitting certain limits of the laws of physics along the way. Stock trading is considerably automated; markets are almost instantaneously responsive to information; Marshall McLuhan’s ‘global village’ gets more real every day. All that is solid melts - not so much into air, but the light that traverses the world’s fibre-optic pipelines.
The truth is the opposite. The advent of this brave new world is a sharp expression of capitalism’s decline as a social formation. We say ‘decline’, here, in the sense used by Hillel Ticktin: the immanent laws of capital, and the operations of the market, decreasingly determine productive activity. Socialisation and concentration of production, the hypertrophy of the state and other factors begin to take over from the laws of capital, though capitalist exploitation persists.5
As a simple matter of history, the internet is the product of what you could call the military-academic complex. It speaks, first of all, to the needs of the US department of defence, and also those of various departments of computer science - and from thence came the funds and resources needed to get it off the ground. The same is quite true of the web, which was invented at Cern by Tim Berners Lee - Cern being the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. It is, in short, a product of the state.
Indeed, the links are deeper. The first functioning computers were created to aid code-breaking during World War II; throughout the subsequent half-decade, the primary drivers of advances in computing were state actors.
The private sector has, at particular times and places, had a serious role in breakthrough innovations in computer infrastructure. Much pioneering work was done at Bell Labs and Xerox PARC, for example; but the most important inventions have ended up, one way or another, in the public domain. The Unix operating system and C programming language were products of Bell Labs; but the former was eventually superseded by free clones such as GNU, FreeBSD and Linux, and the latter published as an open standard.
As a result of that tendency, the second - more recent - major driver of innovation arrived: free and open-source software (FOSS). Free: software is ‘free as in free beer’ (ie, it costs nothing), and ‘free as in free speech’ (there are no juridical obstacles to using or modifying the software). Open source: the source code (ie, the program written by the programmer, as opposed to the series of zeroes and ones actually executed by the computer) is published, so anyone can read and learn from the code, or write modifications to improve it.
FOSS is a most peculiar phenomenon - it amounts to an enormous gift economy, sponsored and sustained both by the capitalist state and large capitalist enterprises. Institutions from the government to Google, to The Guardian maintain open-source software. Development is crowdsourced on an enormous scale: a programmer in Japan can fix a bug in a text editor written by people at a British newspaper, and the resulting code can be obtained by a government agency in Brazil - where, perhaps, the editor will be developed further as new requirements emerge, and those new features make it back ‘upstream’ to the main code repository …
From a communist perspective, clearly, there is much to like about FOSS - but its greatest virtue is that it works, and it works better than proprietary products. It is not just a ‘nice idea’, but the solution of first resort for entire classes of technical problems.
The vast majority of web servers - computers whose purpose is to deliver web pages to computer users - run variants of Linux, or other free Unix derivatives, for example. It is not altogether surprising. Servers are critical infrastructure, exposed to everyone who wants to make a connection - and thus various malicious hackers (‘black hats’); without access to the code, you are left guessing as to whether the developers have properly secured their software. Should your server come crashing to a halt due to a software bug, a solution can be rapidly crowdsourced - rather than waiting, as one often has to, months for some trivial fault to be corrected by an overworked team at a private company, guarding their code like a stash of bullion.
Meet the new rentiers
Of course, it is hardly atypical for the state to take on the function of maintaining basic infrastructure, which is then used by capitalist enterprises to turn a profit. Indeed, it is the norm: even when, as in this country, such infrastructure has nominally been privatised, it is usually propped up by state largesse in a basically corrupt arrangement. (FOSS is more remarkable here.)
Yet what is striking about the web apparatus is how resistant it is to profitable productive activity. Let us imagine an old-fashioned circuit of capital. A Bolton factory produces so many yards of cotton. These are transferred via rail to London, where the material is worked up into garments. Here, the infrastructure (rail) enables the realisation of surplus value embodied in the cotton through its purchase and incorporation into further production (the sweatshop).
Now, let us take one of the most profitable web companies on earth - Google. What does Google produce? Sure, there are subsidiaries (Motorola and so on) knocking out commodities in, as the tech argot calls the material world, ‘meatspace’. But that is not the point. Google ‘produces’ you.
Google makes money traditionally through the entrapment of millions - perhaps billions - of users with free services (many of which, admittedly, are better than any of the competition). These users are valuable to advertisers: Google sells this enormous base, coupled with some highly ingenious data-crunching code to target advertisements at relevant users. It then rents that code to others, who can use the sophisticated algorithms to gather advertising revenue from their own sites. Google became a multi-billion dollar company essentially through a colossal, unending act of product placement.
Of course, there is the matter of their phone business; but it is an illusion to suppose that Google, or Apple, are making the real money out of the admittedly nice hardware; or even the software as such. The more time goes on, the more Google’s Android phone operating system traps consumers into the Google brand. (On my Google-branded phone, even text messages are sent through Google’s own Hangouts app.) You are increasingly locked in to the Google app store. I say ‘increasingly’, as Android was initially pitched as an open-source alternative to Apple’s iOS - which has been based on this model from the beginning. What is interesting here is that all players, whatever their origins (including, nowadays, Microsoft), are being objectively pushed towards this ‘walled garden’ service model.
The app stores, naturally, are nothing without apps. But it is clear where the power lies. The relationship between independent app developers and Google, Apple and the rest resembles not the relationship between Lancashire cotton mills and London sweatshops, but rather that between landlord and peasant, or between Tesco and the farms who produce its food. It is an exploitative rent relationship - the major consumer-tech and web corporations are rentiers.
A similar situation obtains in other matters. Take music. Whether or not the rate of profit across capitalism is declining, it is perfectly clear that the rate of profit in the music industry has completely collapsed in the past decade - thanks to the internet, and the ease with which recordings can be copied. And so now money is made not by record labels or stores (it never really was made by musicians), but by companies - Apple again with iTunes, Spotify and similar streaming services - who can act as gatekeepers and artificially restrict supply. Such companies play the same role in the music industry today as Opec does in oil production.
In order to sustain their privileged and profitable positions, Google, Apple and co call on the traditional agency - the capitalist state. Recent years have seen enormous, absurd, multi-billion-dollar patent lawsuits dragged through the courts. Every major player in the mobile space has sued and been sued at least once in such litigation. The point is not, of course, to drive each other out of business - success and failure more or less balances out, and the only caste that reliably gains from these things is the lawyers. The point is that, given the staggering costs involved, no other serious competitors can emerge unless they already have billions in cash reserves and an army of lawyers.
This obscurely exploitative relationship permeates modern tech. We have mentioned open source; and repeat that, to those capitalist ideologues who believe that only the cold compulsion of hunger can stir a feckless human into productive activity, its success is a standing rebuke. By the same token, however, open-source development amounts to unpaid labour. The profit on this labour is realised by the established players, who are in the best position to benefit financially from improvement in the robustness and usefulness of the web as a platform - the rentiers.
The hacker ideology
We need now to consider the effects of this ambiguous relationship of exploitation on developers themselves, and the rise to supremacy of a particular ideological structure among those who build the web.
This is necessary for assessing the political significance of the web for numerous reasons. First of all, the hacker ideology is now a matter of big politics.6 Wikileaks, the Snowden files, Anonymous and other ‘hacktivists’ - all are very public, very visible expressions of this ideology at work.
Secondly, social networks are built predominantly by tech start-ups based on what some talented group of coders think would be a popular idea; those roots are visible in the final product. This is nowhere more true than with Twitter, whose use of ampersands, hash signs and text commands resembles nothing in natural language, but very much resembles code. Early adopters were universally geeks, who fell (as they often do) for the elegant simplicity of the idea; only later did it become the horror show it is today. Thirdly, and consequently, the hacker mindset might tell us something about why people’s behaviour on the social web is so frequently irrational and bizarre.
Programming is, by its nature, skilled labour. It may be more or less skilled; there is a world of difference between writing a few lines of code to make a drop-down menu on a website, say, and writing an operating system kernel. All, however, require at least a level of mathematical literacy, logical thinking and (last, but not least) typing accuracy. The most able hackers will have a grasp of how code is translated into instructions a computer can understand, the workings of computer hardware, computational algorithms, and even highly abstract formal mathematical logic (for example, Alonzo Church’s lambda calculus is the basis for a whole family of programming languages).
Skilled labour is traditionally a problematic category for Marxist political economy. My comrade, Mike Macnair, has argued - and I agree - that skills possess value as means of production, and thus represent the interpenetration of classes: the more skills one possesses (provided they can be rented in the market), the more a skilled worker becomes, in practical terms, a petty proprietor. As Mike points out, this is particularly clear in tech, where a salaried programmer can often transfer with ease to a start-up or an independent consultancy.7
In hacker consciousness, this appears as power. There is something intoxicating about issuing instructions - however rudimentary - to a machine, and seeing that machine obey. It is not necessary, even, to be in material comfort to experience this power. You can hack in a day job, as a self-employed professional, or on the dole queue: until your privations grow sufficiently severe that you are forced to pawn your laptop, there is always the ability to program.
So far, so classically petty bourgeois. For this ability to be exercised beyond merely playing around, however, there is the additional necessity that one must be connected to the broader ecosystem of code. Whereas the traditional petty proprietor exists primarily in some particular corner of ‘meatspace’ (it is generally implausible for a plumber in Croydon to be called out on a job in Cheltenham; a small shop can only ever be on one street; etc), the hacker’s line of work is immanently and necessarily global.
Hackerdom is thus a particular caste of the enlightened petty bourgeoisie; the ideology specific to it reflects its conditions of existence. The apparently flat hierarchies of the hacker world engender a fierce, small-L libertarianism. Hackers resent the domination of corporate employers, which will turn them into mindless programming drones - ‘code churners’ or ‘code monkeys’ (hence the peculiar phenomenon of companies like Google claiming to remain ‘start-ups’ for years after their graduation into the financial elite).
Yet the supposedly flat hierarchies are belied by the enormous influence and prestige that accumulates both to the rentier tech corporations and to the individuals who lead the most important open-source projects. (Guido van Rossum, who created the Python programming language, was jokily declared “benevolent dictator for life” - a term which has entered into general use to describe such individuals.) The cult of the nimble start-up company - for whom profit is an irritating distraction from ‘changing the world’ and ‘disrupting’ established markets - leads to the quasi-religious veneration of Silicon Valley gurus like Paul Graham, who founded Y-Combinator, an influential ‘start-up accelerator’.
The common elements across hacker libertarianism consist in a distrust of formal authoritarian hierarchy - both in the corporate world and in government (it is no accident that both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden have hacker backgrounds). Inevitably, however, this contradictory ideology divides. On the right, there is ultra-capitalist ideology - the sub- Nietzschean free-market doctrines half-digested from Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek. Its clearest present expression is bitcoin, a digital currency based on the fantasy economics of a strictly limited and privately minted money supply (software hard money, so to speak), by which Valley libertarians hope to ‘disrupt’ fractional reserve banking (so far, with extremely limited success).
On the opposite end, there grows - ever more rapidly - the form of aggressive liberalism we on the left imperfectly call ‘intersectionality’ (in the tech world, such people are pejoratively called ‘social justice warriors’). It is as likely that someone will criticise bitcoin for being overly male as for being based on fatuous economic absurdities and conspiracy theories about ‘big government’.
As it happens, this critique is more on the mark in the tech world than on the left. There is a macho undercurrent to the overwhelmingly male hacker culture, which is particularly obvious among the Ayn Rand worshippers. We may mention a recent scandal at Github, the most important hosting service for open-source code. Github prides itself on a flat, managerless company structure: everyone works in teams of formal equals. It used to have a rug at the door with a spoof of the US seal, welcoming visitors to the “meritocracy of Github”. But this was removed after the social-justice warriors complained it whitewashed the informal hierarchies that characterise society.8
Quite so. Julie Ann Horvath, a developer at the company, resigned recently amid allegations of sexual harassment and bullying; on her account, she was effectively hounded out of the company by the wife of one of the founders (who was not an employee) and a spurned suitor, with senior management and human resources laughably unable to deal with the disputes.9 Github claims to be investigating; in the meantime, contributors to discussion forums such as Hacker News took a break from arguing about which programming language was ‘the best’, and spent a few days quoting Jo Freeman’s The tyranny of structurelessness at each other.
For any leftwinger involved in the tech industry or open source, it is difficult to stifle a bitter smile of recognition when such flame wars break out between the rival factions of the Silicon Valley International. Freeman’s pamphlet seems to acquire ‘new’ relevance every year or so, as leftwing movements decide - again - to forget about all the problems Freeman identified, none too originally herself, in the 1970s women’s movement.
We face frequently, in organisations such as Left Unity and the Labour Representation Committee, the claim that gender and other quotas are necessary to make ourselves more ‘inclusive’ to oppressed groups. The same arguments are raised in the tech world - more women in positions of influence means more tractions with a female audience, and thus more money.
The obvious failure with the tech version is somewhat different to that on the left: put simply, Hollywood runs at a considerable profit by putting the biggest budget behind films targeted at males between 16 and 30; if anything, this skew is greater in video games … to even greater profits. The paradoxical end result is the same, however: year after year, leftwing organisations get older, whiter and more male, despite strenuous efforts in the contrary direction. The tech world is about as skewed as it can possibly get in that direction, to be sure, but there have been no demographic improvements. Over 90% of maintainers of open-source projects are male, as are all notable ‘benevolent dictators for life’.
It would appear, then, that there is an underlying affinity between the ‘social justice’ libertarianism in the tech world and the contemporary left. One aspect of this is coincidental. The left seeks a liberated society, which is surely incompatible with the informal domination of traditional gender and other hierarchies; so the persistence of those hierarchies appears intolerable. They are just as intolerable from the perspective of tech libertarianism, however; they reveal the myth of ‘meritocracy’ for what it is.
The deeper affinity has to do with the fetishism of novelty. The left seeks to escape the dead weight of historical failures; the hacker is inevitably drawn to the latest technology, the uncharted frontiers of the web. In both cases, it is a matter of plus ça change … This week’s hot new programming language is inevitably a variant on another language with a history stretching back decades; this week’s new mass movement hits the same buffers as the last one.
The common root to both is the ceaseless motion of capitalist society, in which old hierarchies are overcome, only to be supplanted by newer ones; old unfreedoms are overturned by the masses, only to turn to poison in their hands. (We think of the fight for equal rights for women at work, which in spite of its importance, intensified the ‘double burden’ of domestic and employed labour.) The latest consumer articles are already passé before the warranty runs out (and generally break soon after). On a grander scale, every political promise is ditched as soon as it is made; every crisis is forgotten at the start of the next trivial upturn, because this time, ‘things will be different’.
The tech world has no capability to act as a counterweight to capitalism’s inherent long-term memory loss - indeed, it is an economic driver of it. The political left traditionally identifies as such a force (the ‘memory of the class’ and all that), but its forces are brutalised, demoralised and scattered. Moreover, the fragments of the far left are forever paralysed by the hope that that things will change, and change very rapidly - the next breakthrough is always just over the horizon.
If you designed a medium of social intercourse ideally suited to this ideological structure, you could not do better than Twitter. The 140-character limit simply defines as a technical limit what is, for all intents and purposes, a social limit obtaining with considerable force anyway. The broader structure of the social network ensures that, in spite of global reach, communication follows the ‘line of least resistance’: perhaps more, even, than medieval serfs in a remote village, users of Twitter (and other social media) tend to communicate only with people with whom they fundamentally already agree, creating a feedback loop of mutual reinforcement resistant to external correction.
If this reminds us of anything, it is surely those who call social media “the dark side of the internet”. The SWP has operated through bureaucratic force a regime in which only good news is allowed; the comrades gee each other up to believe that they are responsible, for example, for every setback faced by the British National Party (but not, of course, for its near-decade of constant growth up to 2009).
The current crop of digitally enabled ‘new social movements’ fancy themselves to have overcome the deficiencies of the ‘old’ Trotskyist and other groups, but in fact reproduce - via horizontalism rather than bureaucracy - their most debilitating features. We may refer to a pretty dire book by Symon Hill, Digital revolutions, which purports to investigate the significance of social media for contemporary radical politics. In truth, his focus is overwhelmingly on the narrow matter of the ways in which social media help and hinder activism (on the one hand, actions are easier to organise; on the other, state forces find it easier to trace activists).
This is, first of all, an odd vision of the web, which - despite its perpetual transformation - is fundamentally a medium for transmitting documents. The huge amount of theoretical, historical, satirical and other material which is now freely available to billions of people do not get a look-in from Hill.
Put another way, the biographical material identifies Hill as an observant Quaker and co-founder of something called ‘Christianity Uncut’. Yet in this book, he barely finds time for a single mention of our saviour, Jesus Christ. We might naively expect that something of Hill’s religious faith informs his activism, that the life and teachings of Christ might hold some significance - as might their availability the world over in innumerable translations on the internet. Actually, no - there appears to be no connection between Hill’s faith and his activism; the former serves as an excuse for things we suspect he would be doing anyway.
And so, by identifying as somehow historically novel - in short, by their lack of long-term memory - the doyens of Twitter politics are even more reliant on banal denunciations of a given malign state of affairs than Socialist Worker journalists. Ironically, they are even more obsessed with the next ‘meatspace’ demonstration. Because, while the SWP still has a developed theoretical tradition to cling to, however implausibly, the ‘new movements’ have only an echo chamber of their own prejudices.
Strategy collapses into tactics; but, in doing so, all sense of perspective is lost. In the first place, the ‘news values’ of capitalist popular culture sneak in unannounced; witness the fierce arguments over allegedly misogynistic music videos, which consume easily as much energy on the Twitter left as the coalition government’s latest assault on civilisation. This tendency is reinforced by the increasingly barren content of the mainstream bourgeois media; liberal outlets like The Guardian, as convinced as the techno-utopians of their own doom and irrelevance, increasingly clog their comment pages with drivel that merely recycles the latest Twitter celebrity controversy.
As the stakes get lower, Twitter groupthink becomes its opposite, the ‘narcissism of small differences’ - trivial disagreements are cast as though one’s opponent was a paid-up member of the Klan (the absurd, mob-handed hounding of Laurie Penny over her supposed insensitivity to - wait for it - “women of colour hair issues” is a nice recent example).
The philistinism of contemporary radical politics is not, of course, something produced by Twitter, Facebook and the like. Discussing the politics of social media and the modern web, however, means understanding what has not changed - indeed, what technology cannot change. The global, near-instantaneous communication enabled by the internet is one of the most extraordinary transformations in the means of communication - perhaps the most significant of them all since the Gutenberg press. While Gutenberg undermined the material basis for the Catholic church’s control over written material, however, it could hardly destroy it alone.
Likewise, though the web routinely makes a mockery of a D-notice or a super-injunction; while it undermines a petty Bonaparte like Callinicos or a greater one such as Erdoğan; we cannot expect it to alter the relation of forces in society as a whole, nor the underlying political-economic dynamics at work.
As capitalism declines as a system, and US global power declines with it, the world becomes a more dangerous place. We have, at present, a stand-off between Russian and Ukrainian nationalism, with the great powers tinkering in a confused way at the edges of the conflict; the disintegration of the Middle East; the rise of irrationalist rightwing movements from Iraq to Texas. These are problems that demand social solutions: indeed, revolutionary solutions.
The internet, however, is indifferent as to whether it communicates communist literature or anti-Semitic ravings, Tolstoy or cat pictures, terrorist plots or the efforts of spooks to prevent them. The increasing scale of irrationality in political discourse on the web - from the birthers to the intersectionalists - reminds us that the techno-utopians are wrong, and the historic failure of leftwing politics hangs over us in the online world quite as much as it does in meatspace l
2. Socialist Review January 2013.
3. ‘Socialism, CPA and Facebook’ Solidarity November 6 2013.
4. The Guardian March 21.
5. See, for instance, ‘Declining forms, failing system’ Weekly Worker August 8 2013.
6. ‘Hacker’, here, is used in the sense of programmers in general, particularly those leaning towards open-source and newer technology, rather than the common usage which refers to criminals.
7. ‘Driven by ideas’ Weekly Worker February 14 2008.