Alienation by Internet

In the essay The Internet’s Unholy Marriage to Capitalism that appears in this month’s edition of the Monthly Review, John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney explain what they see as a monopolistic domination over the Internet incompatible even with traditional economics. The essay frequently cites Chris Anderson of Wired magazine but also goes into the historical debate of public vs private wealth in academic political economy, traces the demise of the journalism industry in the United States, and acknowledges that the future of the Internet is not set in stone, even if the present is pretty bleak. Here is a brief summary of some of the salient points and excerpts from the article that I hope may motivate you to take a look at the full article.


Once an anti-market space, the Internet has developed beyond free market competition and into the realm of monopoly. Between six and ten oligopolistic telecommunications companies control virtually the entire information infrastructure in the United States. A full 18% of US households have access to only one broadband provider while a whopping 78% have access to only two providers.

The top ten websites constituted 75% of all Internet traffic last year. Despite the low cost of starting an Internet business, established websites accrue an exponentially larger portion of traffic and profits that allows them to buy up competitors and stifle truly competitive markets.

Civil liberties are put at risk by the communications oligopolies. For much of the last decade, AT&T illegally monitored the communications of its customers for the National Security Agency. Information is now controlled by a state-oligopoly alliance that commodifies and controls the information we produce and consume. As Foster and McChesney put it:

“In the realm of the Internet, a state-corporate alliance has developed that is matched perhaps only in finance and militarism. It makes a mockery of traditional economics […]. It also makes a mockery of the traditional liberal notion that capitalist democracy works because economic power and political power are in two distinct sets of hands, and that these interests have strong conflicts that protect the public from tyranny.”

The Internet is not immune to control and censorship. It is not necessarily a free market utopia.

Paradox of Information Technology

The principle contradiction in information technology is the direct and inverse correlation between public wealth and private riches known as the Lauderdale Paradox. Private value is conjured out of public wealth (such as air, water, or information) only by creating artificial scarcity and diminishing the benefit to the larger society:

“Scarcity, in other words, is a necessary requirement for something to have value in exchange, and to augment private riches. But this is not the case for public wealth, which encompasses all value in use, and thus includes not only what is scarce but also what is abundant. This paradox led Lauderdale to argue that increases in scarcity in such formerly abundant but necessary elements of life as air, water, and food would, if exchange values were then attached to them, enhance individual private riches, and indeed the riches of the country—conceived of as “the sum-total of individual riches”—but only at the expense of the common wealth. For example, if one could monopolize water that had previously been freely available by placing a fee on wells, the measured riches of the nation would be increased at the expense of the growing thirst of the population.”

Foster and McChesney argue that information, like water, is a public good which ought to be managed collectively by, at the very least, making the Internet a public utility. In their conclusion, Foster and McChesney make perhaps one the most insightful remarks heard anywhere on the nature of the Internet:

“Communication is more than an ordinary market. Indeed, it is properly not a market at all. It is more like air or water—a form of public wealth, a commons. When Aristotle said that human beings were “social animals,” he might just as well have said that we are communicative animals. We know that the human brain coevolved with language (a social characteristic).63 The development of social relations and democratic forms, as well as science, culture, etc., are all communicative. The rise of the Internet as a form of free communication, seemingly without limits, thus raises the prospect of vast new realms of human sociability and enhanced democratic possibilities. Yet, rather than a means of expanding human sociability, the Internet is being turned into the opposite: a new means of alienation. There is nothing natural in this process; at bottom it remains a social choice.”

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