The Communication Commons

"A community will evolve only when a people control their own communication" - Frantz Fanon. Aaron John Peters on social media and the communication commons.

Image: CC-AT Flickr: Jonathan Rashad

Facebook, in spite of what the T-shirts in Tahrir Square might say, is not a force for truly radical change. Instead it represents a recuperation by existing power of a frontier where capital has not yet gained hegemony, the broadly non-hierarchical and voluntarist ‘network of networks’ – the internet.

The status quo of the contemporary corporate mainstream media is a ‘communicative ecology’ that permits the perpetuation of what some have called ‘capitalist realism’. Capitalist realism is a state of collective consciousness where ‘the end of the world is seen as more conceivable than the end of capitalism’. A state where the mantra of TINA (There Is No Alternative) is not only applied to national economic policy but even to the inevitability of a Tesco being present on every British high street. This gives rise to the cultural logic of ‘Late Capitalism’ according to Jameson – a logic where all sincerity is rendered irony, where any belief in a better world is kitsch or utopian.

Within capitalist realism the media’s presentation of the ‘possible’ means that collective ambitions for social progress remain within the confines of reproducing existing relations of power. This being in spite of the fact that the ambitions of capitalist realism are perhaps the most ‘utopian’ project of all (in the sense of inviting incredulity).

The corporatized communications ecology has permitted a very small number of persons the ability to not only exercise a monopoly over what and what is not told, but even over what is considered possible. Thus capitalist realism should be viewed as entirely dependent on the existing communicative ecology, with the erosion of publicly owned media strengthening the hand of an increasingly small and powerful media oligarchy. All that has essentially changed with the rise of corporate ‘social media’ is that the likes of Zuckerberg have joined the ranks of Murdoch and Berlusconi.

A faith in the ability of the internet to challenge the existing communications ecology does not mean adhering to the growing orthodoxy that corporate social media is a challenge to existing power. Just as capital’s introduction of new technologies, by potentially freeing huge surpluses of time, has opened up prospects of liberation from work – so its expansion of new communications technologies inadvertently opens up a world of counter-usage. As computerization makes possible either intensified exploitation of labour or subversion of the wage form – so too electronic communication by reducing the neccessary circulation time for information goods, bifurcates into diametrically opposed and antagonistic options.

Either it can intensify the process of the commodification of everything, including social relations – through ‘pay-per’ services and consumer surveillance (as with Facebook and Google) – or alternatively it can lead to a fundamental negation of the commodity form, through the generalised transgression of property rights (as with Wikipedia, Aaaaarg, Vuze and the Pirate Bay).

Social media simply denotes the idea of a media that is socially constituted and co-created without a clear distinction between producers and consumers of content. What the technology naysayers fail to distinguish is the difference between ‘corporate’ social media and the possibility of a commons-based social media, created by the people for the people.

Any radical possibilities within the internet must find themselves mobilized in the name of a ‘communications commons’ – a counterproject against the attempts of capital to enclose the immaterial territory of the internet and social networks in the same way it once enclosed the collective lands of the rural commons.

Karl Polanyi spoke of the various ‘Acts of Enclosure’ throughout the 18th and 19th centuries as marking the advent of modern capitalism with the enclosure of previously common land – this adhering to Marxian notions of accumulation by dispossesion or primitive accumulation. The same process is now being enacted with regards to the ‘commons’ of our social relations and much of our immaterial labour – this being the case with Facebook, Google, Amazon and eBay to name just a few. Character, preference, networks of friends, psychological disposition and social values are translated to being of exchange value between Facebook and third parties such as Microsoft that purchase the data. Yet another field of possible returns for capital has been opened up.

What the radical left should be advocating with regards to how we proceed online is not a question of opting out of corporate social media – we must instead build a ‘communications commons’ that permits similar platforms as Facebook and Twitter (such as Thimbl and Diaspora) which crucially undermines the mainstream media and with it grotesque concentrations of power to frame debate and discourse.

The task is to ensure that the same concentrations of power found within the corporate media are not reproduced in the realm of networked media. There are many, be they liberals, libertarians, communists, anarchists or otherwise, who regard the concentration of power – be it in the market or the state – as something to be opposed at every turn.

If we are to act on such sentiments then we must begin to create a communications commons that can well and truly undermine both the state and the market in informing and framing the debate. The other world that we believe is possible will require another media – one that MUST be commons-based. This is not the time for cynicism but for counterprojects.


(This is an edited version of a longer original article that you can view here, by Aaron John Peters published under a CC AT-NC. )

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By Aaron John Peters on Jun 10, 2011

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