Reclaiming the Commons

The cultural and natural resources that humanity requires to maintain its existence have come to be known as ‘the commons’. A fundamental characteristic immediately deducible from the name – inherited from the traditional term ‘common land’ – is that all that comprises ‘the commons’ belongs to commoners: or the common man or woman. It includes such basic necessities as air, water, and land; but the term has evolved to include the modern-living amenities central to a functioning society. Such essentials as electricity, gas, and in cultural terms education, healthcare, and the communications industries, have come to be commoditised in the name of neo-liberalisation. Klein elaborates on this process of privatisation when she says…

I call this package ‘McGovernment’. This happy meal of cutting taxes, privatising services, liberalising regulations, busting unions – what is this diet in aid of? To remove anything standing in the way of the market. Let the free market roll, and every other problem will apparently be solved in the trickle down. This isn’t about trade. It’s about using trade to enforce the McGovernment recipe”, (2001: 87).

Klein further elaborates on how this ‘McGovernment’ has caused society’s wealth and democratic rights at a national level, to be diluted in favour of foreign capital investment. This view is upheld by Callinicos, who quotes a comparative study conducted by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in establishing society’s economic downturn.

These comparisons do not provide much support for the idea of trickle-down – that is, for the thought that faster economic growth would necessarily improve the plight of the poor”, (2003: 22).

Furthermore, we can turn to Hardt (2002) for an unequivocal assertion that our democratic rights are at stake if neo-liberalism is allowed to run unabated. The world Social Forum, held in Porto Alegre against globalisation and a subsequent world economy, was host to two alternative approaches to the problem. Hardt explains that the first of these approaches, the anti-globalisation position – although itself a globalised phenomenon – aspires to liberate nations from capitalism through regulation. The second approach, he continues, is less concerned with the preservation of national identity, but still pursues democratic freedom, albeit within a globalised economy. Regardless of which argument one might favour, it is a core characteristic of both these approaches that there is an inherent dilution of society’s democratic power within globalisation.

It is precisely due to this significantly debilitating effect on society’s claim to ‘the commons’ that organisations such as the ‘World Trade Organisation’ (WTO) or the ‘International Monetary Fund’ (IMF), can no longer ignore the subsequent proliferation of oppositional movements that share a common objective – to retaliate against the neo-liberal policies that protect globalisation and its capitalist interests.

For increasing numbers of people, this is a crazy way to run the world. They see neo-liberalism not as the cure, but as the disease”, (Callinicos, 2003: 26).

However, the forces that will be encountered in such a struggle are significantly oppositional. Those that protect the ‘vested’ interests of capitalist imperialists possess the upper hand: the globalised ownership of the media and communications industries is but one such example of global investors holding the ‘higher ground’, and one that is considered central to any movement or organisation in this – the information age.

Developing a Global Network

Globalisation, as we have seen, has been made possible by neo-liberal policies adopted at an international level. It has seen the expansion of a once-national capitalist economy, enabled by the eradication of physical and ideological barriers, and the subsequent transnationalisation of trade and commerce: it has created an economic empire that commoditises everything in its path. Furthermore, due to the high levels of investment involved in such expansion, the proprietors in this monopolistic hierarchy are well postured to demand a favourable regulatory environment from nations that compete in attracting such investment.

“…they are in a position to play off countries or individual locations against one another, in a process of ‘global horse-trading’ to find the cheapest fiscal conditions and the most favourable infrastructure. They can also ‘punish’ particular countries if they seem too ‘expensive’ or ‘investment-unfriendly’”, (Ulrich, 2000: 4).

It is not unimaginable to then place this fact as one of the many reasons why important public amenities are being commoditised in this process of globalisation. When considering the role that the media and communications industry plays in this, there are two points that require attention. In the first instance, we could consider the industry as itself having been commoditised from the public into the private domain. Such was the case in England when the Thatcher administration’s neo-liberal policies deregulated broadcasting and thus, brought the BBC’s monopoly to an abrupt end. Large sections of its infrastructure were subsequently privatised, and production was outsourced to private ventures that now had to endure fierce competition from foreign investors.

“…communications firms seek out new markets for products, low-cost labour, and areas with minimal government oversight and regulation”, (Mosco, 2009: P161).

 From this perspective, one can simply assume the industry as part of ‘the commons’ already privatised, in order to lure foreign investment. The second consideration as to the industry’s role in this globalisation is more important insofar as Klein’s call for a ‘reclaiming of the commons’, and one that will be looked at in greater depth.

Globalism itself, and therefore its transnationalised components, for the most part remains decentralised. Media corporations integrate both horizontally and vertically with subsidiary companies that are themselves the product of countless mergers and acquisitions, and that are spread across the world as dictated by capitalist logic. This fact remains core to its inherent ability to protect and grow the interests of its proprietors and investors. Hardt and Negri define this economic imperialism as ‘Empire’, and they describe this innate capacity to defend its interests when they suggest that a globalised hierarchy removes “a common enemy against which the struggles are directed”, (2002). However, and as much as for any empire that preceded: when stretched beyond capacity, the potential for revolt appears feasible. Whereas revolt in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries all shared similar characteristics and thus communicated a common objective – hence Marx’s mole – revolts in this information age “do not link horizontally but each leap vertically, directly to the virtual centre of Empire”, (Hardt & Negri, 2002). These attacks are mostly regarded as spontaneous, confined within their own decentralised space and time, and likened to a high-energy coil that unloads its power in a serpentine-like reaction. As such, due to the decentralised hierarchy that is being opposed, they do not communicate a shared global objective. The question as to how a sustainable revolt against a globalised economy could take place, then becomes a pressing concern in the fight to regain ‘the commons’. The answer might lie within the very framework on which the globalised economy is built.   

“…while the effect of globalisation has often been to divide workers more strictly within a given city, region, or nation, it has paradoxically, also created the possibility of building alliances across city, regional, and national boundaries”, (Dyer-Witheford, 1999: 146).

This is particularly true of the media and communications industry, and as Klein suggests, it offers a glimmer of hope to the many resistance movements and social organisations, in that a globalised infrastructure already exists: one that could serve as a viable platform for the organised pursuit of its goals. This is a view shared amongst many such organisations, minority groups, and political thinkers alike.

“…workers and non-natives, ecological movement militants, women’s groups, and human rights activists have been attracted into complex support actions, helping and monitoring from various parts of the world”, (Dalla Costa, 1995: 11).      

However, there are opposing views by important theorists of new media. Sparks considers the viability of a global public sphere and concludes that although technological development in the communications industry constitutes a step in the right direction, there is still much to be desired. Building a globalised network is often constrained by the fact that although the ownership of media corporations is globalised, it is a practical necessity that they operate at a national level. This is particularly the case for satellite television and internet services, and as such, has been a determining factor in preventing the formation of a viable public sphere on the back of the globalised media and communications industry.

The highly desirable aim of all citizens being able to contribute to the formation of public opinion remains the object of aspiration and struggle at the level of the state. It is little more than a distant dream at the global level”, (Sparks, 2005: 47).

Even as projected in Shirky’s long-term ‘environmental view’ of the internet and other digital communications platforms: the formation of a public sphere – albeit a necessary step in the pursuit of democracy – seems for now, to naturally reside within the domain of a national discourse.

“…positive changes in the life of a country, including pro-democratic regime change, follow, rather than precede, the development of a strong public sphere”, (Shirky, 2011: 3).

Perhaps the reason why a global revolution, for some, does not seem possible at this moment in time – regardless of the availability of global communications networks – might lie in the fundamental requirement that for any revolution to take place, there ultimately remains a need for the manifestation of a localised physical presence in close proximity to its intended target.

Recent successful revolutions have indeed successfully applied internet-based technologies to gather momentum and constitution, and although they have been widely reported in the international mainstream media, their objectives might never have aspired to surpass a national level. Such was the case of the Egyptian revolution in 2011, when a young female student sowed the seeds of revolt on her Facebook page. Her vlog – one that has come to be known as “The Vlog that Helped Spark the Revolution” (Castells, 2012: 55) – came to be disseminated online, as well as through traditional social networks.

“…internet networks, mobile networks, pre-existing social networks, street demonstrations, occupation of public squares, and Friday gatherings around the mosques, all contributed to the spontaneous, largely leaderless, multimodal networks that enacted the Egyptian revolution”, (Castells, 2012: 56).

This example provides clarity as to the important role that networks provided by the communications industries play in organising a revolt of this magnitude and success. However, it also calls attention to the fact that such digital networks alone cannot be depended upon since they are – and in this case particularly were – subject to national and/or capitalist interests. The approach taken was unintentionally multimodal, and this was key to their success. When the government reacted by shutting down internet communications and Al Jazeera’s satellite connection, the revolution continued unabated.

“…other Arab satellite television networks offered Al Jazeera the use of their own frequencies. Furthermore, other traditional communications channels like fax machines, ham radio and dial-up modems helped to overcome the blocking of the internet”, (Castells, 2012: 63).

Many would argue that the success of this revolution was significantly attributable to the sizable international audience that had congregated through the use of global communications networks. This is certainly highlighted by Cleaver, in his analysis of such communications tools as indirectly adopted by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN). Similiarly, Cleaver also calls attention to their need for more traditional forms of networking since the EZLN, in their poverty, remain disconnected from any form of digital communications.

Under these conditions, EZLN materials were initially prepared as written communiques for the mass media and were handed to reporters or to friends to give to reporters. Such material then had to be typed or scanned into electronic format for distribution on the Internet”, (2005).

Both cases demonstrate, in different ways, that the ability to network succesfully need not rest solely on the technological development of any society. Furthermore, they acknowledge that information is quickly disseminated internationally by the media and communications networks, irrelevantly as to how it reached such networks in the first place. This seems reminiscent of the global networks of communication sought after by the many resistance movements and social organisations that Klein addressed at the World Social Forum. Therefore, regarding our second consideration as to the industry’s role in this globalisation, one can safely ascertain that although it would not be wise for any movement to depend solely on its prevalence, such networks could be made to work against the very industry that built them, and the globalised capitalism that extends their reach. However, the problem of organisation at a global level, and the communication breakdown posed by decentralisation, remains a key consideration.

Conclusion

There are two oppositional views in this debate; one that regards the global media and communications industry as a ready-made platform on which to form an international alliance against globalisation, with ‘reclaiming the commons’ as a potential objective; and another that dismisses this possibility altogether by highlighting that regardless of a globalised ownership, these industries need to operate practically at a national level, therefore curtailing much of its global outreach. Furthermore, the importance of dismantling globalisation’s protective mechanisms and successfully establishing a common international goal, also remains. The applied examples support these viewpoints to some extent. Whereas in Egypt and Mexico, these networks were deployed in pursuit of objectives at a national level, it was their propagation at an international level through these ready-made international communications networks, that brought their revolutions to a successful conclusion. These global networks exist: social media and satellite television in particular, can be made to work in favour of minority and resistance groups on a world stage – regardless of how other mainstream media organises its output within the confines of the national. Insofar as the objectives themselves not communicating a common enemy of global proportions: this is something that requires attention.

A wider overview of this situation might infer that perhaps, this is simply a process of development: that society is on the cusp of possibly achieving a real globalised revolution. Certainly Klein would hope that this is the case, and her optimism might not be considered inappropriate if based on the already well-documented successes. In any eventuality, that a globalised network of resistance movements is difficult to manifest itself at this point does not necessarily negate their objectives. Since what Klein advocates is a return to a socialist ethos of public politics, holding cultural, ecological, agricultural, and political diversity at its core, then it is socialism itself that could be interpreted as the required connection. 

If that connexion isn’t made, people will continue to be demoralized. What we need is to formulate a political framework that can both take on corporate power and control, and empower local organising and self-determination”, (Klein, 2001: 89).

It is therefore, not unimaginable, that a modernised international version of trade unionism might provide constitution. If it is socialism that is being sought, then perhaps a return to Marx might be appropriate.

Christian Gadd (2476 words).

Semester 5 (September – December 2015) : Theorising the Global Information Age.

Bibliography

Beck, Ulrich, (2000), ‘What is Globalisation?’, Cambridge: Polity.

Callinicos, Alex, (2003), ‘An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto’, Cambridge: Polity.

Cleaver, Harry, (2005), ‘The Zapatista Effect: The Internet and the Rise of an Alternative Political Fabric’, in Libcom.org. [Accessed 06/12/2015].

https://libcom.org/library/zapatista-effect-cleaver

Dalla Costa, Mariarosa, (1995), ‘Development and Reproduction’, in Common Sense, Issue 17, 1995: p11.

Dyer-Witheford, Nick, (1999), ‘Cyber Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High-Technology Capitalism’, Illinois, University of Illinois.

Hardt, Michael, (2002), ‘Porto Alegre: Today’s Bandung?’, in New Left Review, Issue 14, March/April 2002.

Hardt, M., Negri A., ‘Marx’s Mole is Dead!’, in Eurozine, 13th February 2002.

Klein, Naomi, (2001), ‘Reclaiming the Commons’, in New Left Review, Issue 9,

May/June 2001.

Mosco, Vincent, (2009), ‘Spatialisation: Space, Time and Communications’, in ‘The Political Economy of Communication’, SE, Chapter 8. London: Sage.

Shirky, Clay, (2011), ‘The Political Power of Social Media’, in Foreign Affairs, January/February 2011, [Accessed 06/12/2015].

https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2010-12-20/political-power-social-media

Sparks, Colin, (2005), ‘Media and the Global Public Sphere: an Evaluative

Approach’ in De Jong et al, ‘Global Activism, Global Media’, pp 34-49, London: Pluto.

About Christian Gadd

Christian Gadd
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