As the US contends with issues of populism and de-democratization, this timely study considers the impacts of digital technologies on the country’s politics and society.
Timcke provides a Marxist analysis of the rise of digital media, social networks and technology giants like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft. He looks at the impact of these new platforms and technologies on their users who have made them among the most valuable firms in the world.
Offering bold new thinking across data politics and digital and economic sociology, this is a powerful demonstration of how algorithms have come to shape everyday life and political legitimacy in the US and beyond.
Despite the volumes written on digital politics, and notwithstanding their depth and scope, quality and clarity of arguments and insights from digital scholarship, there do seem to be some matters that require attention. In this spirit Evelyn Ruppert, Engin Isin and Didlier Bigo propose a more subtle, nuanced appraisal of ‘data politics’. They propose that digital networks, or more precisely the data they produce, reconfigures ‘relationships between states and citizens’, thereby generating ‘new forms of power relations and politics at different and interconnected scales’ (2017, 1, 2). They contrast this to the similar, albeit different, forms of calculation that feature in and facilitate modern European state formation. This comparison is apt given that Andrew Feenberg notes that ‘technology is one of the major sources of public power in modern societies’ (2010, 10). The key difference between these sets of literatures, Ruppert, Isin and Bigo argue, is that the digital one has yet to pin down its ‘subjects’. They suggest that this identification effort can best be achieved by employing the post-structuralist tools bequeathed by Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. Ruppert, Isin and Bigo summarize their approach by stating that ‘Data does not happen through unstructured social practices but through structured and structuring fields in and through which various agents and their interests generate forms of expertise, interpretation, concepts, and methods that collectively function as fields of power and knowledge’ (Ruppert et al, 2017, 3).
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson are among the leading figures in contemporary American political economics. Their book Why Nations Fail (2012) was shortlisted for the 2012 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year and included in the Washington Post’s ‘ten best books’ for the same year. Their previous book, Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (2005), was similarly well received, being awarded the 2007 American Political Science Association’s Woodrow Wilson Award. Allan Drazen called their book ‘truly path-breaking’ (2007, 163) and William Easterly described it as ‘one of the most important contributions to the literature on the economies of democracy in a very long time’ (2007, 173). With this acclaim, it is fair to say that Acemoglu and Robinson represent a predominant and prizewinning branch of political economic analysis conducted in the United States, a kind of political economy especially concerned with macroeconomic growth.
One of their core beliefs is that the US has a high degree of democratization because of its inclusive economic institutions (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012a, 74). In my view this assessment is hard to sustain when considering the differences between the 99 per cent and the 1 per cent. The threshold for household membership to the 1 per cent is a net worth of nearly $4 million. Together this group owns roughly 36 per cent of all private wealth. For financial wealth, their share is over 40 per cent.
The Trump administration resembles Gramsci’s description of a Caesarian response to an ‘organic crisis’, a protracted event which comes about when ‘the forces in conflict balance each other in a catastrophic manner’, leaving space for a third party to intervene (Gramsci, 1971, 219). As this chapter and Chapter 4 demonstrate, certainty there is an intense class war in the United States. Still, the prospect of a ‘winner-takes-all’ economy has created the conditions for the escalation of intra-elite class competition in the American ruling class. By this I mean an internal Gramscian ‘war of position’ as factions are slowly, but viciously, competing to attain or retain command of the US political economy; these factions are testing and trying to restore or reconstruct a world that better caters to their particular capital accumulation strategies, seeking to gain hegemony. Again, this slow violence of intra-class struggle should not be surprising. As Marx outlined, capitalists must accumulate or be accumulated.
Concepts like hegemony and the integral state are particularly useful aids in the analysis of the current organic crisis. By hegemony – in other words, the ways in which a class or faction comes to gain the power to lead a social structure and how this power is expanded then reproduced – Gramsci proposed that cultural practices and institutions generate and induce the consent of subordinate classes.
Thomas Piketty (2020) argues that the nature of the current conjecture is shaped by a clash between an educated cosmopolitan professional class and shareholders committed to maximizing capital accumulation. He calls these respective groups ‘the Brahmin Left’ and ‘the Merchant Right’. As for workers, they are adjunctive to politics. Like Lind’s analysis in Chapter 3, there are certain elements of this analysis that hold up, especially when one considers intra-class struggle where one must accumulate or be accumulated. Indeed, some of the sections in this chapter examine cases where different capitalists pursue different strategies, form different alliances and viciously compete against one another.
However, like Lind, Piketty has oversights. In his case it is discounting the role of the working class as well as the development of the terrain in which contemporary class struggle occurs. For example, consider how at precisely the moment when conditions are so favourable for capitalism, in a country where for a century it was said to be impossible (see Foner, 1984), there was a country-wide organized socialist movement that credibly contended for the American presidency. And while it is not yet the case for national politics, in many American cities democratic socialists are within the ‘margin of manoeuvre’, meaning that determinants of success and failure include the moves campaigns make rather than the power of neoliberal politics automatically carrying the day.
Despite Adolph Reed’s accurate remarks that ‘the race/class debate has vexed American intellectual life […] for more than a century’ (2002, 265), the relationship between race, class and modernity tends to be relatively neglected in American communication theory. This neglect persists despite the consolidation of critical race theory in the 1980s and its subsequent impact in the wider academy. Race does not emerge as a topic in James Carey’s Communication as Culture. In Speaking Into the Air, John Durham Peters includes a chapter about communication with animals, but nothing on race. Nor does it appear in Robert Craig’s well-cited disciplinary-defining essay, ‘Communication Theory As a Field’.
From the critical wing of the discipline, in One Dimensional Man Herbert Marcuse puts considerable emphasis on the emerging New Left as an agent of social change. But in retrospect he misses the significance of the civil rights movement, the most powerful postwar American social movement. It would be a mistake to attribute this oversight to the movement’s pragmatic reformist tendencies eclipsing its more radical elements, a compromise that saw Malcolm X and the black Panthers break cause, but this revisionist concession masks a broader politics intending to domesticate the radical impulse found within the movement.
The general orthodox explanation for misinformation in American politics stalls because it fails to fully appreciate history and ideology. The prime example is ‘Russia-gate’, a state-sponsored event where Russian ‘active measures’ sought to interfere in the 2016 US elections through seeking to limit Hillary Clinton’s campaign, boost Donald Trump’s campaign, and otherwise enflame existing social discord in that country. Russia-gate subsequently became a prolonged media event with several looping effects that reveal many of the deep cleavages in American society. While considerable attention is given to online protocols to safeguard against misinformation (e.g. Claesson, 2019), as the foundations for these cleavages do not lie in the event itself it is doubtful whether these protocols will be successful, even on their own terms.
My goal in this chapter is to argue that misinformation practices are products of modernity. By this I mean that American modernity is characterized by contradictions between its basic social forms. By forms I have in mind some of the entities Marx refers to, like the money form, the commodity form, and so on. The contradictions create a bind for rulers. On the one hand, these contradictions mean that their rule is never stable. On the other hand, acknowledging the contradictions risks courting redress that also threatens their minority rule. Due to the imperative to mystify these contradictions, social problems are subsequently treated as anomalies or otherwise externalized; they can never be features of the capitalist political economy itself. Misinformation is a common by-product of this externalization as the capitalist ruling class uses it to weld together pacts and alliances that preserve the social hierarchy.
The drive to weaponize software has seen Russia and China invest in AI, anticipating that it may be an equalizer where they are otherwise grossly outspent by the United States. As part of the larger investment into the research and deployment of cyber-weapons, supposedly the prospect of using AI to add automated rapid decision-making self-defence and response capabilities to a defence grid can act as a deterrent as well as help states advance their interests. When it comes to security concerns, former US Defense Secretary James Mattis (2018) said that AI is ‘fundamentally different’. The most obvious way is the extent to which American hegemony is being challenged by the Chinese state (and to a lesser extent the Russian state too) as these entities each seek to maintain or secure the commanding heights of the international political economy – so much so that ‘geopolitical rivalries have stormed back to centre stage’ (Mead, 2014, 69). For this reason, Jeremy Straub (2018) calls AI ‘the weapon of the next Cold War’.
Other researchers echo Mead and Straub, suggesting that efforts to weaponize AI herald the return of great power conflicts as each of these states offers a different template for economic success and capital accumulation.
Platforms have distributed propaganda that cultivated bigotry, all the while being prone to security breaches. When coupled with the looting of economic sectors like journalism, plus the installation of mass surveillance infrastructure which collaborates with state and corporate entities, the emerging image is of firms whose routine operations are wholly adjacent to broad-based democratic imperatives. Moreover, the centrality of privately owned platforms to American culture is indicative of the extent to which capital has gained control of public discourse. This algorithmic public sphere presents a general impediment to democratization in the US and elsewhere. But this is only the departure point for an analysis of class rule and unfreedom in American life.
More broadly, conditions for capital accumulation have never been more favourable. But the efficiency of this social logic is necessarily bound together with the dramatic acceleration of global social inequality and thus the beginnings of revolutionary demands from the many who have been excluded and for whom it has come at their expense. One looping effect of this deprivation and the contradictions upon which it rests is that an organic crisis emerged in the US.
American politics has recently passed catastrophic equilibrium. On Twitter, Donald Trump performs his authoritarianism by labelling the news media as ‘the enemy of the American people’ (Trump, 2017a). Views like these are not to be lightly dismissed. As Trump proclaims, ‘more than 90% of Fake News Media coverage of me is negative’, and so, for him, ‘Social Media [is] the only way to get the truth out’ (Trump, 2017b). This manoeuvre is but one in a series of coordinated efforts by the Trump administration to routinely delegitimize media organizations like MSNBC and CNN to assert that he is the only valid source of information.
This technique has been very effective. Consider how the New York Times published a story based upon an 18-month investigation into Trump’s taxes, which include tax fraud and financial losses throughout the 1980s of $1.17 billion (Barstow and Buettner, 2018). But while the reporters were later awarded a Pulitzer Prize for their journalism, the story effectively dropped from the news cycle.