When the internet began to reshape the lives of ordinary people in the late 1990s, some claimed it was the beginning of a new age of democracy and freedom. This technology, they said, would make it easier for people all over the world to access information and participate.
Dr Gary Selnow told a State Department conference in 2000 that “the real promise of the Net for democracy building is how people use it. Unlike the traditional one-way flow of information…the Internet gives users an active role. It provides a sense of control and its user-driven choices reinforce this medium as a metaphor for self-determination.”
Social media seemed to fulfill this promise, providing mass platforms for users to connect and engage.
Fast forward to 2019 and much of the internet is controlled by corporate interests and devoted to mindless entertainment. The public space is polluted by trolls and alienated keyboard warriors peddling hatred. As a result, many have retreated into a filter bubble where their beliefs are echoed and affirmed. Loss of faith in politics and institutions is endemic and there is no evidence people feel more politically empowered.
Rather than ushering in a new era of peace and tolerance, the rise of the internet has coincided with a polarization of voters in developed countries, resulting in both the election of Donald Trump on one side, and growing interest in socialism on the other, especially among the young.
Technology, no matter how sophisticated or life-changing, is still a reflection of the society that created it. The internet is not responsible for the polarization of political opinions or the disenchantment with the system. To understand how we’ve arrived at this point, it’s necessary to look through a much wider lens.
The End of History
The optimism over the internet and its possibilities can be compared to the hopes expressed in 1989 that the world was experiencing a new dawn. As the Soviet bloc was rocked by protests and the Berlin Wall began to crumble, there was a widespread belief that capitalism had “won,” and peace and democracy would reign supreme.
Francis Fukuyama, a leading proponent of this view, proclaimed in his essay The End of History that “all viable systemic alternative to Western liberalism” had been exhausted, and liberal capitalist democracy had emerged as the highest form of social organization. He claimed that everyone would benefit from the forces of globalization.
“What we are witnessing is not just the end of the cold war, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
In response to Marx’s claim that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” Fukuyama replied that “the class issue has actually been successfully resolved in the west … the egalitarianism of modern America represents the essential achievement of the classless society envisioned by Marx.”
Unfortunately, things haven’t work out quite as Fukuyama predicted. Instead of prosperity and peace, the world has been wracked by wars, economic downturns and terrorism while the gap between rich and poor has widened substantially. A working paper on wealth inequality from the University of California found that the share of the nation’s wealth held by the top 0.00025 per cent of the population has tripled since the early 1980s while the bottom 60 per cent’s share fell from 5.7 per cent to 2.1 per cent between 1987–2014.
Wages have stagnated, life expectancy in the US is in decline, and medical and housing costs have soared. Many cannot afford basic necessities. Instead of looking outwards and embracing globalization, America is hunkering down, bringing back protectionism and engaging in trade wars, all precursors to military conflicts with economic rivals.
Class conflict has not disappeared but increased due to the inherent tensions in the capitalist system. To commemorate the bicentenary of Marx’s birth, the World Socialist Website wrote:
“This new year of 2018…..will be characterized, above all, by an immense intensification of social tensions and an escalation of class conflict around the world For several decades, and especially since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the resistance of the working class to capitalist exploitation has been suppressed. But the essential contradictions of the capitalist system — between a globally interdependent economy and the archaic bourgeois nation-state system; between a worldwide network of social production, involving the labor of billions of human beings, and private ownership of the means of production; and between the essential needs of mass society and the selfish interests of individual capitalist money-making — are now rapidly approaching the point where the further suppression of mass working class opposition to capitalism is impossible.”
Capitalism in Decline
Fukuyama was lauded in the media and academia, and he went on to play an important role in the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. As a prominent “Neo-con” his vision of “the end of history” was based, not on objective reality, but on the need to convince people that restructuring, deregulation and globalization were good for them.
The basic reality of capitalism is that it needs to expand and seize control of resources to survive, hence Fukuyama’s jubilation at the fall of the Iron Curtain. The post-war boom ended in the early 1970s and “the deepening crisis of profitability which brought it to an end was the driving force behind a vast restructuring of world capitalism, based on the globalization of production, to take advantage of cheap sources of labor, reaching a level of exploitation far beyond anything achieved in the era of direct colonialism and the rise of finance capital.”
Under capitalism government policy is dictated by finance capital, which demands cuts to social spending and “the restructuring of the labor market in accordance with the needs of profit.” This means endless wars, diminishing job security, stagnant wages and poor education and health services. Finance capital which brings with it “social deprivation and the ever-mounting danger of world war, is not a policy or preferred option, but the outcome of a definite phase or stage in the development of the capitalist system itself.”
Divide and Conquer
British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke the truth to voters about cuts in public spending in 2010: “This is the sober reality I must set out for the country today. We are not doing this because we want to, driven by theory or ideology … We are doing this because we have to.”
The major parties have no intention of challenging the profit system, so they must find new ways to convince the public that it’s working for them. This gets harder as inequality becomes more entrenched and standards of living decline. When disillusionment and cynicism set in people start to look for alternatives. It was in this vacuum that Trump, a billionaire real estate developer could present himself as “a breath of fresh air,” and someone who would “make America great again.”
The Democrats and many other so-called “left” organizations long ago gave up trying to appeal to the disenfranchised, instead turning their attention to identity politics and its wealthier supporters. This gives them a veneer of being progressive while doing nothing to address core problems. The Democrats know the kind of reforms needed to seriously change the economic system and make it fairer are not possible under capitalism, and so they seek to distract and confuse.
Political leaders are well aware of what will happen if inequality continues to worsen, and with global warming heating things up, this may occur sooner than anticipated. The specter of Communism showed its face in Trump’s 2019 State of the Nation speech, which included the following denunciation: “Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free…. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
Socialism has been used as the bogeyman for decades to convince people that even mild reforms which would benefit them directly represent the first step towards the gulags. The crimes of Stalinism have been attributed to socialism to confuse public opinion, while the United States government has worked tirelessly to squash left-wing movements around the world through wars, coups, assassinations and death squads, creating conditions of chaos and poverty for millions.
On home soil the government has infiltrated left-wing groups, funded sham political organizations, spied on citizens and used the powers of public relations and advertising to convince people that capitalism is the only viable system. The problem is, objective conditions don’t lie.
Fascism vs Socialism
When public discontent and opposition reaches a level where it can no longer be contained, the next step is brute force. Fascism emerged in the 1930s directly in response to the workers movement. Hitler claimed that communism was a Jewish ideology and conspiracy. Socialists, communists and trade unionists in Germany were among the first to oppose Nazism and the first to be sent to concentration camps. Fear over communism was used to bring in the Enabling Act of 1933, giving Hitler plenary powers. At the Nuremberg trials, Hermann Goring testified that the German elite’s decision to co-operate with Nazis was based on their repression of communists.
The nationalist pride and hatred of other races celebrated by fascists are the antithesis of communism, which, like capitalism, also needs to expand, but on the basis of dismantling borders and sharing the world’s resources.
The historical roots of fascism are on display in a social media post from the New Zealand terrorist who murdered 51 people at a Christchurch mosque in March: “Communists will get what communists get, I would love to be there holding one end of the rope when you get yours traitor.”
The internet and social media cannot “fix” the problems behind the resurgence in fascism, but they can slow its development. An authoritarian state can only bloom in a society where citizens are denied free expression, and access to competing points of view. That’s why moves to censor the internet on the pretext of combating “fake news” are so dangerous.
This umbrella term is being used to describes all sites and organizations that are deemed “extremist.” Social media giants are not required to explain how they decide what is extreme or fake. Without much fanfare in 2017, Google changed its algorithms in a way which massively reduced the flow of traffic to leftist, socialist and anti-war sites.
According to the World Socialist Web site, which experienced a drop in traffic of 74 per cent between April — September 2017, “Even as the extreme right receives state support and promotion, the major technology companies have begun censoring far-right organizations as a cover for their aim of shutting down left-wing opposition to capitalism, war and inequality.”
It has long been argued that capitalism is superior to communism because it protects freedom, and this view is expressed by the Heritage Foundation in an article which ponders millennials and their baffling attraction to socialism.
“But would these same millennials choose socialism, if in exchange for “free” education and “free” health care, they would have to give up their personal property, such as their iPhone? Would seven percent of millennials declare their willingness to live under communism if they knew the real costs of communism as practiced in some 40 nations over the past century — the denial of free speech, a free press, and free assembly.”
There is no irony intended in this statement, because the champions of capitalism have already shown that all measures are justified to defend the profit system, including censorship and control of the internet.
Sri Lanka’s decision to block Facebook, WhatsApp, and Google after the recent Easter bombings is an ominous development and one which should be widely condemned. When governments control social media, they have the power to silence dissenting voices, hide evidence and manipulate public opinion to support their interests.
Instead of reacting with outrage over this censorship, Trevor Timm observed that many seemed to accept it was justified:
In what is an emblematic shift in how the public views internet censorship, instead of protesting, many people — including, surprisingly, many journalists — gave this authoritarian decision their tacit or explicit approval.
The issue of government censorship of social media and the internet is a pressing one. Every measure to stem the free circulation of ideas and beliefs, no matter how abhorrent they may be, represents a blow to democracy.
We all need to fight for a free society