Can the same technologies of information that Neoliberalism creates and utilizes to commodify all facets of human existence be used to effectively revolt against itself?
Fantasies of Participation: Communicative Capitalism, Activism
& Politics in the Social Media Semioblitz
Author ..... Tony P.
Published .... July 10, 2020
Pepsi ad starring Kendall Jenner (2017)
The global response to the 2020 murder of George Floyd under the crushing knee of a white Minneapolis Police officer quickly reached degrees of magnitude, ferocity and expanse scarcely seen in the history of the public Internet. That the murder of an unarmed black man under the knee of a white police officer should act as a catalyst for a movement of such massive scale is no coincidence; the conversion of the state into an authoritarian mechanism of protection and enforcement of private property and the redistribution of wealth into the hands of the very few has been a prominent trope in the ongoing saga of neoliberalism: the same set of circumstances, policies and ideas that have, over the past 40 years, hollowed out the welfare state, outsourced major chunks of the American economy and cast a grossly invasive network of technological surveillance over the entirety of modern existence. What is happening in the streets right now is the fallout of 40 years of austerity, domination under this system; the façade of contemporary capitalism has cracked, laying bare an exposé that has the masses questioning the legitimacy of the system it’s various mechanisms.
Worldwide protests in the streets quickly reached a fever pitch in the weeks following the murder. Concurrently, people took to their smartphones and computers to join in on the action from afar, finding themselves both inundated with and contributing to the circulation of a blizzard of images within the digital communication ecosphere: looping clips of Black death; phantasmagorical video cut-ups showcasing mass authoritarian performances of brute violence by police and military forces; digital information pamphlets and slideshows showcasing a didactic bouquet of flowery typefaces; blank black squares; and a never-ending stream of unity, apology and solidarity plastered across the walls and feeds of various platforms by White users, and White-owned corporations and brands alike: a postmodern pornography of atonement and white guilt.
But what does any of this techno-activism mean in a world where all interaction is converted into raw material for capital? What does the incessant circulation of images and opinions on social media amount to other than the reduction of politics into mere communicative acts? Can the same technologies of information that Neoliberalism creates and utilizes to commodify all facets of human existence be used to effectively revolt against itself?
Protesters at Amazon HQ in Seattle call for ending Amazon’s sales of their technology to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). (Benjamin Romano / The Seattle Times)
The developmental vectors of information technologies and neoliberalism follow a similar trajectory; one could even argue that the two are dependent on each other, two ports in the same hub. Since its conversion from military counterinsurgency weapon into the privatized telecommunications system we use today, the internet has been spoken about largely in rhetorics of freedom, deregulation and liberty - terms and concepts which are also key components of the right-wing, neoliberal lexicon.
One phenomenon referred to by scholars and theorists is cyberlibertarianism, which can be summarized in its most basic form as the idea that governments should not regulate the internet. At its most expansive, cyberlibertarianism can be thought of as something like a belief according to which freedom will emerge inherently from the increasing development of digital technology, and therefore entails that efforts to interfere with or regulate that development must be antithetical to freedom . But what drives the increasing development of digital technology? In David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism, he argues that neoliberalism “seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market,” requiring “technologies of information creation and capacities to accumulate, store, transfer, analyze, and use massive databases to guide decisions in the global marketplace.” This, he argues, is the reason behind neoliberalism’s intense interest in and pursuit of information technologies.
Narratives of progress, success and independence have surrounded the rise of information technology since its inception. With people like Stewart Brand, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs acting as an approachable interface between brand and big business, societies have been converted en masse, placing their privacy, trust and faith in elite trans-national firms under promises of democratic emancipation, convenience and personal liberty, often without knowing or considering the machinations of power and capital that have developed and implemented, for often very nefarious purposes, these technologies of information. The value of information is often concealed: big data is for capital, not for the people from whom it is expropriated. Consider the Amazon, IBM, Microsoft, Google, and the vastly expensive contracts they have with various law enforcement agencies and bodies like the the F.B.I. and the C.I.A.: these technologies of information are more often than not the result of long standing relationships between Big Tech firms and various factions of the military and police that work in tandem to develop and implement systems of surveillance that further enhance and intensify the networks of tyranny and oppression that guide and protect order under a neoliberal regime. That they should be utilized a means of guiding and predicting markets, connecting old friends, and streaming music and movies on demand is besides the overarching point: that the development of neoliberalism and information technologies go hand in hand; they exist inside of one another, and have pulled all aspects of our lives inside with them. So what has this meant for political activism? Can effective political acts against repressive regimes of power under neoliberal capitalism truly take place inside the very machinery that develops, funds, and implements profits off of them?
REVOLTING WITH HIGHLIGHTERS: COMMUNICATIVE CAPITALISM AND THE BOOK CLUB AS PROTEST
Amongst the mass confusion, rampant racism and sensory overload of opinion, thought and information in the wake of Floyd’s murder, the internet has seen seemingly large swathes of people uniting behind the semblance of a global message of solidarity against racism, police brutality and the oppressive systems and ideologies that create an environment in which they thrive. Political memes; tweeted opinions; violent video clips; crass apologies; sheets of statistics; screenshots of donation receipts; loud demands for change; confessions of ignorance; manifestos; notes of solidarity;, argumentative discussion chains; links to .PDF files, spreadsheets and booklets; remembrance posts; condemnations of police brutality; images and photos of obliterated property; questions and theories of elite conspiracy; religious quotes; solemn memorials; racist diatribes; presidential sputter; worries of an ensuing race war; book and film recommendations; screenshots of old newspapers; edits of old movies; promotional materials: the list goes on.
Though it is true that there exists a direct connection between activism and communication networks, a question begs to be asked: What does this all amount to? Is the posting of a political meme, offering of a condemning public opinion or recirculation of video footage tantamount to political activism? Is clicking ‘follow’ on a trending account a gesture that builds team morale in the fight against systemic racism? Does publicly denouncing as insincere a popular clothing brand’s message of solidarity online, vowing to spend your hard earned money elsewhere, an effective means of addressing, confronting and attacking the pillars of despotic capitalism? In a social media environment where attention and screen time are commodified by the Big Tech firms who own them, and in turn, package, supply and sell user information to the same law enforcement agencies and behemoth corporate entities that users are denouncing on their platforms, can spending hours of time scrolling, posting, and replying really amount to anything other than the reinforcement of those very oppressive structures supposedly being protested against?
The idea that capitalism has subsumed all of the facets and machinations of communication and as such, communication can no longer provide a critical outside is referred to by Jodi Dean as communicative capitalism. Also often referred to as the knowledge economy, or information society, communicative capitalism refers to the form of late capitalism in which values heralded as central to democracy materialize in networked communications technologies. Ideals of access, inclusion, discussion and participation are realized through expansions, intensifications and interconnections of global telecommunications, which in turn, strengthen and support globalized neoliberalism. Dean argues that the commodification of communication has reformatted the domains of life in terms of the market, allowing for the further compartmentalization and monetization of the various facets of the human experience: moods, emotions, feelings etc. The result of this conversion of communication into commodity is the flattening of all communicatory exchanges into mere data; to contributions to a circulating current of mass information, rendering content irrelevant. The only thing relevant is circulation. Dean refers to Metacalfe’s law as a clear expression of communicative capitalism’s direct exploitation of social substance: “the value of a communications network is proportional to the square of the number of its’ users.”.
Analyzing the post-Floyd murder social media semioblitz through the lens of Dean’s notion of communicative capitalism, we can observe the ways in which neoliberal capitalism and its information technologies capture political energies and investments and reformat them as commodifiable contributions to the circulation of content, reinforcing their dominance. By reducing politics to communicative acts, to speaking, exposing, explaining, sharing information, sending emails, signing petitions and posting pictures, people can easily feel political. When communication becomes a valid category for politics, action is flattened into discussion, contributions to a corporate-owned media ecosystem and energy is diverted away from physical action.
Regardless of the possibilities for radicalizing, and mobilizing inherent in these platforms and devices, and no matter how sincere the intentions of users may be, the reduction of politics to communicative acts under communicative capitalism detrimentally harms any prospect of long-term, united and energetic movements of mass insurgency by allowing people to feel political without the time-intensive, dangerous “nuisances” attached to physically mobilizing and attacking in the name of political change: why risk your life protesting in the street when you’ve already done your part by donating money to bail funds? Why risk important relationships fighting for systemic change at the office when your book club has already worked through those hot-selling books on anti-racism? You’ve made it known publicly that you no longer support a certain brand that’s been accused of racism, so you have now absolved yourself of all guilt and can walk around feeling as though you have done your part, right? Jodi Dean might disagree: “to know of a problem, be aware of it, have an opinion on it, and make your opinion known does not mean you have developed the infrastructure necessary to write a new legislation, garner support for it and get it passed, much less carry out a revolution”.
Systemic racism, institutionalized violence, and accountability-free, militarized police forces are symptoms of a brutally oppressive system of unfettered neoliberal capitalism run amok. Information technologies and neoliberal capitalism are mutually dependent on each other for their existence, growth and domination over the lives of the masses. When it comes to activism on social media, to transcend is to simultaneously reinforce the very thing being transcended; anyone possessing blind faith in intentions and power of these platforms would be remiss to not acknowledge the ways in which they have reconfigured, flattened, absorbed and commodified all areas of human existence including communication and political activism.
Yasha Levine, Surveillance Valley (New York: PublicAffairs, 2018)
David Columbia, The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism (Minneapolis, The University of Minneapolis Press, 2016), 3.
David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York, Oxford University Press Inc., 2005), 3.
Jodie Dean, Communicative Capitalism and Class Struggle (Spheres, 2014), 15.
Dean, Communicative Capitalism and Class Struggle, 4.
Jodie Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (New York, Duke University Press, 2009), 24.
Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics, 26
Dean, Communicative Capitalism and Class Struggle, 6.
Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics, 32