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The trap of Communicative Capitalism

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
5th July 2009


Communicative capitalism is a concept put forward by Jodi Dean in a to be published book of the same title.

It is also a previously published essay, Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics, in the book, Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times (2008)

According to Dean, the Web 2.0 is a political trap that disempowers political action.

Discussion by Brian Holmes:

“Jodi and I both participated in an edited volume called Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times (2008). Her text is really challenging: “Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics.” In it she asks: “Why has the expansion and intensification of communication networks, the proliferation of the very tools of democracy, coincided with the collapse of democratic deliberation and, indeed, struggle?” Since I’d done a lot of work with activist artists using networked communications in the counter-globalization protests, editor Megan Boler naturally thought I’d be on the other side of the fence. She asked me straight out: “Brian, how do you respond to Jodi Dean’s argument and pessimism?”

It was hard to answer that, because as a protester involved in large but usually losing struggles even before 9-11, I had my own questions about how democratic social movements could be cut off at their height and then fade away so easily. I acknowledged a lot of Dean’s concerns, but I did want to point out that a broad, multilayered, highly articulated international movement had existed in reality, not just fantasy, and that its activities both on the streets and in the public spheres where policies are debated and opposed had been brought to a stop, not by dynamics inherent to networked communications, but by a combination of carefully orchestrated media campaigns and violent police repression. In the wake of that and other experiences I think it is important to go on organizing and maintaining even relatively small social movements and groups devoted to alternative ideas and practices. I think it important not to deny their existence and possibility. Still the mere existence of resistance movements in no way precludes the idea that there are belief structures and everyday practices in our societies that stifle and repress both raw dissent and long-term political alternatives among the majority of the citizens. And the fact that people who are socialized to believe very strongly in democratic ideals and sometimes even in subversion nonetheless take part in the sustaining rituals of an objectively exploitative and repressive social order is exactly why our majority belief systems need to be critiqued! Why don’t we DO what we SAY we are doing?

Here is one of Jodi’s key concepts: “Communicative capitalism designates that form of late capitalism in which values heralded as central to democracy take material form in networked communications technologies. Ideals of access, inclusion, discussion and participation come to be realized in and through expansions, intensifications and interconnections of global telecommunications” [these and the following quotes are from the text referenced above, “Communicative Capitalism,” p. 104]. The problem from her viewpoint is, not only does this infrastructure fail to deliver a deliberative democracy that can address the problems of inequality, environmental decay and war, but worse, it becomes the object of a fetishization that exalts the technology as proof of a democratic progress that manifestly is not happening.

A number of observations are given in support. The first is the fantasy of an abundance of messages which should enrich the public sphere. But are these messages in the strict sense of the word? “One of the most basic formulations of the idea of communication is in terms of a message and the response to a message. Under communicative capitalism, this changes. Messages are contributions to circulating content — not actions to elicit responses. Differently put, the exchange value of messages overtakes their use value. … Uncoupled from contexts of action and application — as on the Web or in print and broadcast media — the message is simply part of a circulating data stream. … The value of a particular contribution is likewise inversely proportionate to the openness, inclusivity, or extent of a circulating data stream — the more opinions or comments that are out there, the less of an impact that any given one might make (and the more shock, spectacle or newness that is necesary for a contribution to register or have an impact). In sum, communication functions symptomatically to produce its own negation” [107].

Zero comments, the extremely familiar phrase used as the title of Geert Lovink’s book on blogging, seems to point in exactly that direction. Dean goes on: “Even when we know that our specific contributions (our messages, posting, books, articles, films, letters to the editor) simply circulate in a rapidly moving and changing flow of content, in contributing, in participating, we act as if we do not know this. This action manifests ideology as the belief underlying action, the belief reproducing communicative capitalism” [108].

In addition to (or in compensation for) this basic meaninglessness of the message — its inability to elicit either a collaborative response or a friend-enemy confrontation — Dean describes a technology fetishism that applies to the machinery and processes of communication. She details three modes of fetishism: condensation, displacement, foreclosure.

CONDENSATION: “The complexities of problems — of organization, struggle, duration, decisiveness, division, representation, etc. — are condensed into one thing, one problem to be solved and one technological solution” [112]. Example: the problem of people in democracies is supposedly that they aren’t informed: so give them information technology! “Additional examples of condensation appear when cybertheorists and activists emphasize singular Web sites, blogs, and events… so small that [they don’t even] show up on blog ranking sites like daypop or Technorati” [113]. She goes further with a study apparently showing that in the US, increasing disclosure in chemical emissions, food labeling and medical error came exactly at a time when attempts to impose binding legislation were being defeated…

DISPLACEMENT: “Politics is displaced upon the activities of everyday or ordinary people… What the everyday people do in their everyday lives is supposed to overflow with poliical activity: conflicts, negotiations, resistances, collusions, cabals, transgressions, and resignifications. … To put up a Web site, to deface a Web site, to redirect hits to other sites, to deny access to a Web site, to link to a Web site — this is construed as real political action. In my view, this sort of emphasis displaces political energy from the hard work of organizing and struggle” [113].

FORECLOSURE: “The political purchase of the technological fetish is given in advance; it is immediate, presumed, understood. … Saying that ‘revolution means the wikification’ of the world [as done by Schneider and Lovink in some manifesto] … relies on an ontologization such that the political nature of the world is produced by the particular technological practices. Struggle, conflict and context vanish, immediately and magically. Or, put somewhat differently, they are foreclosed, eliminated in advance so as to create a space for the uopian celebration of open source.” “To ontologize the political [that is, to give it the character of an immediate, primary and necessary reality] is to collapse the very symbolic space necessary for politicization, a space between the object and its representation, its ability to stand for something beyond itself. The power of the technological fetish stems from this foreclosure of the political. … Technologies can and should be politicized. They should be made to represent something beyond themselves in the service of something beyond themselves. Only such a treatment will avoid fetishization” [114-115].

All of the above does happen quite a lot, in my experience. For example, in Europe we have seen the initially politicized “tactical media” mostly decline into gadgets displayed at festivals sponsored by corporations and consensus-hungry governments, with some theoretical discourse (such as my own) included in order to make sure the stuff looks serious and the academic public has something to chew on. In the US, someone like Kevin Kelly can still produce a piece of obscene techno-corporate boosterism like his recent text, totally distorting any specific historical meaning of the word “socialism” — a move quite close to those of net-cooperation theorist Yann Moulier Boutang, the editor-in-chief of the supposedly post-hierarchical journal Multitudes which I used to be part of, who continues to talk about “the communism of capital” as though we were still beneath the spell of the dot-communist nineties. Since there is (or was) money in the digital realm, and also unlimited space for writing, why not let your leftist fantasies expand there, and pick up 500 euro at the door?

I do not mean to disavow all the artistic and activist projects I have collaborated on and written about over the last fifteen years, particularly not because quite a lot of them were overtly antagonistic and unfolded outside official spaces — but nonetheless the effects of technological fetishism and its linkage to corporate profit are still very clear to me, and I have very often seen governments using the idealism of open source and DIY activism to cover over the pursuit of business as usual. Already a couple years ago I wrote a text called “The Absent Rival: Radical Art in a Political Vacuum,” to describe exactly the lack of meaningful confrontation that had been encountered by activist groups like the Yes Men. Especially now I am puzzled by the passivity of the American citizenry who have just been royally ripped off by the corporate-financial class and yet since Obama’s election, no one has taken to the streets, even while Geithner, Bernanke and Summers do everything to reinstate the power of the bankers. It’s obviously not just the fault of social media, far from it, but why are people in the overdeveloped countries no longer able to use the tremendous communicative possibilities offered by the Internet to organize themselves politically, as they (we) were seemingly able to do around the turn of the century? That they are doing it in Iran right now is of course fantastic, and it recalls some of the potential (see for example the very enthusiastic text by Henry Giroux on Counterpunch — you wonder, did he somehow miss Seattle and Genoa?). But Iran is a totally different situation from here, it is a closed society, ours is a liberal society, founded precisely on the legitimacy granted by open communication. Openness is a tough nut to crack, precisely because there is no shell, no outside.

Let’s consider what I think is Jodi’s most challenging idea. The question is stated in the text from which I have been quoting: “If Freud is correct in saying that a fetish not only covers over a trauma but that in so doing it helps one through a trauma, what might serve as an analogous sociopolitical trauma today?” [110]. The answer is most fully stated, fittingly enough, in a short “Reply” she made to Wendy Brown and a number of other critics of neoliberalism in the journal Theory & Event, 11/4 (2008). Now I will offer a long and sustained quote from that reply:

“The idea of communicative capitalism highlights the way participation and the freedom to express oneself are essential to the economic success of neoliberalism — telecommunications networks are inseparable from production, consumption, political expression, and state surveillance. The more people participate — blog, email, register their opinions — the stronger the telecommunications infrastructure necessary for financial flows and markets and the greater the opportunities for surveillance. Under communicative capitalism, then, communication functions fetishistically as a disavowal of a more fundamental political disempowerment or castration.

“If Freud is correct in saying a fetish not only covers over a trauma but in so doing helps one through a trauma, what might serve as the analogous socio-political trauma today? A likely answer can be found in the left’s role in the collapse of the welfare state: its betrayal of fundamental commitments to social solidarity. I want to flag three aspects of left failure in order to mark some of the political aspects of the open site of trauma…: the left’s abandonment of workers and the poor, its retreat from the state and repudiation of collective action, and its acceptance of the neoliberal economy as the “only game in town.”

“The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed a set of profound changes in the world economy, changes associated with declines in economic growth and increases in inflation and unemployment. Powerful figures in the corporate and finance sectors took this opportunity to dismantle the welfare state (by privatizing public holdings, cutting back on public services, and rewriting laws for the benefit of corporations). For the most part, the American left seemed relatively unaware of the ways business was acting as a class to consolidate political power — a fundamental component of which was the passage of a set of campaign finance laws establishing the rights of corporations to contribute unlimited amounts of money to political parties and political action committees. Instead, coming out of the movements associated with 1968, increasingly prominent voices on the left emphasized and fought for personal freedoms, freedoms from parental and state constraints as well as freedoms for the expression of differences of race, sex, and sexuality. While these ideals were situated within movements for social justice, their coexistence was precarious, as tensions at the time between workers and students made clear….

“Identity politics proved a boon for the right, enabling the alliance between social conservatives and neoliberals. The former opposed the welfare state for the way it allegedly undermined morality and family values, encouraged criminality, abortion, and sex outside of marriage, and benefited the drug-addicted and lazy more than the sober and diligent. Engaged in struggles against social conservatives on all these fronts, many leftists embraced the emphasis on freedom and attack on the state prominent among neoliberals. The state seemed but another repressive authority, its provisions tied to the sexism of the traditional family and the racism of the white mainstream. Unions appeared corrupt, already part of a status quo limiting opportunities to the white and the male. Likewise, in the wake of more than a quarter century of anti-communism, ever fewer leftists found in Marxism a viable language for expressing political aspirations. They argued that oppression occurs along multiple axes; a focus on class obscures the diversity of political struggles. The economic problems plaguing the welfare state, moreover, suggested to some the limits of political attempts at regulation and redistribution. Given the imperatives of complex systems, some form of capitalism, it seemed, would and should persist; what was needed were guarantees for the rights and differences of all within capitalist societies, a more radical or participatory approach to democracy.

“Yet, as they echoed the criticisms of the state prominent among on the right, leftists failed to envision a new form of social solidarity. Instead, they continued to emphasize the plurality of struggles on a variety of social and cultural terrains and affirm different modes of living. Such an emphasis and affirmation enabled an easy coexistence with consumer capitalism insofar as choices of fashion and entertainment could be quickly read as political significant. Anti-racist? Wear a Malcolm X t-shirt. Gay-friendly? Fly a rainbow flag. The ease of political expression, the quick availability of the affective thrill of radicality, could let more people feel like they were politically engaged, even as the shift in political parties from person-intensive to finance-intensive organization strategies reduced the political opportunities open to most Americans to voting or giving money.

“In short, many on the American left responded to the attack on the welfare state, collapse of Keynesianism, and emergence of a neoliberal consensus by forfeiting their historical solidarity with workers and the poor, retreating from the state, and losing the sense that collective solutions to large scale systemic inequalities are possible and necessary. The failure of solidarity was manifest perhaps most acutely in President Bill Clinton’s destruction of welfare guarantees (aid to families with dependent children) in favor of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (capped at five years) in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Republicans didn’t eliminate welfare; Democrats, the party associated with the interests of the poor and the working class since the Depression, did. This failure of solidarity is closely linked to the left’s withdrawal from the state—even as various elements on the right developed strategies for funding and winning electoral campaigns, interpreting the constitution, and rewriting laws, even as corporate and business interests steadily increased their political investments, the left failed adequately to defend what had long ago been won, namely, the notion that the most fundamental role of the state is insuring a minimal social and economic standard below which no one is allowed to fall.

“Finally, as it overlapped with a reluctance to offend any particular desires for freedom, backing away from the state resonated with a sense that there is no alternative to the market. And, more than simply an approach to the distribution of goods and services, this sense is more profoundly a sense political inefficacy: we can’t do anything about anything. In part, the loss of agency results from the prior acceptance of the inevitability of capitalism. But, it results as well from an underlying skepticism toward uttering the word “we,” toward speaking for others and in so doing failing to recognize their difference and specificity. Indeed, to this extent to speak of the left in the U.S under communicative capitalism makes no sense—there is no such collectivity.”

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So — the fondness of the left-leaning middle classes for the subversive proliferation of individualized messages made possible by networked communications actually helped us get through a trauma, which was the realization that we were and continue to be complicit in breaking the pact of social solidarity that fomerly allowed for a redistribution of the wealth between the professional and the working classes after the Second World War. The EXPRESSSION of “dot-communism” or any other belief in networked social cooperation was a compensation for the FACT of neoliberal rollback of collective welfare provision, with the consent of the middle classes who could save on taxes and profit from the new investment opportunities and new professional activities that appeared with the “monetary turn” of the 1980s. This interpretation is all the more striking when you realize that the expansion of civilian telecommunications technology was initially driven by the corporate sectors that made financialization into their class strategy in the 1970s; then the massification of the Internet in 1990s, while socially much more complex, was again financed by speculative investments. So that the middle-class adoption of communications technology as a utopian object of desire clearly represents an identification with the power and prestige of finance — even if anyone who knows the history of the Internet could never reduce its fabrication and technological form to this kind of simple ideological formula…

There are more things to be drawn out of Jodi’s texts on exactly how people manage to distract their attention from the difficult truths of contemporary society, and I hope in a later post to tease out some of them. The point here, I should be clear, is not just to be melancholically critical, but instead to use the opportunity of our virtual assembly to do some work and to ask how that work could become practical — how a group or rather, a network of artists and technologists and intellectuals could better understand the sort of collective predicaments in which we are all caught, so as to start devising strategies to get out of them.”\

(IDC mailing list June 2009)

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