In the 1990s, high tech firms and their mainstream media boosters proclaimed that the Internet and digital technology would unleash a new era that would destroy monopolies, liberate democratic impulses, and usher in what Bill Gates called “frictionless capitalism.” From the first, Monthly Review’s assessment was different. We foresaw instead the ways that the communications revolution would generate monopoly power on a scale never seen before.
In 2014, we published a special issue on “Surveillance Capitalism,” showing how individual privacy has been invaded and personal data “harvested.” To understand the current role of Google or Facebook—or the regime of state surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden—it is necessary to go back to the 1950s, when Madison Avenue and the Pentagon joined forces in a vast project of social management—primarily for commercial purposes, but also for political control.
With the advent of the Internet in the 1990s, and now with the rise of social media, the new communications system has allowed monopoly-finance capital, often in alliance with the state, to harvest and exploit detailed information on the entire population, selling and reselling this data to commercial outlets. The idea that corporations such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, or Microsoft could be trusted with this data—and would have no interest in its manipulation for political purposes—was always hopelessly naive.
Fast forward to March 2018, when, thanks to revelations about Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and the Trump campaign, the specter of surveillance capitalism is everywhere. As marketing executive Mitch Joel recently wrote in Maclean’s magazine, citing MR, “Facebook’s business model is not based on content, marketing or advertising. You—the consumer—are the product. Everyone is vulnerable.”
What does all this tell us? First, that Monthly Review has helped name and understand what is now universally recognized as the problem of surveillance capitalism. Second, that contemporary capitalism is out of control, prying into everyone’s lives and auctioning off our data, as a hyper-personalized means of manipulation. And finally, that Monthly Review, like every other publication, must nonetheless exist within—even while opposing—this deeply irrational system.
Indeed, the same young people whose lives have been transformed by technology are also seeking radical alternatives—and, ironically, the Internet is often the first place they look. They know that these new means of communications cannot be simply deplored or abandoned. The Women’s March, the recent teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona, and spontaneous actions against police brutality are only a few examples of social media’s radical potential. As Marx wrote, people “make their own history, but they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”
At Monthly Review, we must relate to our new material circumstances, even while seeking to transform them. We have no illusions about social media under capitalism, but our future, like that of all opposition movements, depends on our making use of these new tools for social transformation, and even for sheer defense.
With your support, we can make Monthly Review’s analysis accessible to a wider audience than ever before. Last year we wrote seeking your help to expand our online and social media presence by transforming the old MRZine into a new platform, MR Online. Since then, your generous donations have allowed us to do all this and more. Since launching MR Online in mid-2017, our Facebook followers have increased by 40 percent, and our Twitter audience has nearly doubled. Page views on MR Online have soared by 75 percent in the last six months alone. But the greatest gains have been in user engagement: our online posts prompt lively discussion and debate among people around the world. All this has drawn greater attention to the core analyses in Monthly Review and MR Press.
For the second stage of our online expansion, we are publishing more web-only, original material on MR Online and launching a podcast featuring exclusive interviews with MR authors. As always, Monthly Review runs on a shoestring, with limited staff and resources. To move ahead in an increasingly challenging environment, we again need your help.
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John Bellamy Foster