In the United States today there is a major disconnect between politics circulating as content and "official" politics. Today, the circulation of content in the dense, intensive networks of global communications relieves top-level actors (corporate, institutional and governmental) from the obligation to respond. Rather than responding to messages sent by activists and critics, they counter with their own contributions to the circulating flow of communications, hoping that sufficient volume (whether in terms of number of contributions or the spectacular nature of a contribution) will give their contributions dominance or stickiness. Instead of engaged debates, instead of contestations employing common terms, points of reference or demarcated frontiers, we confront a multiplication of resistances and assertions so extensive that it hinders the formation of strong counterhegemonies. The proliferation, distribution, acceleration and intensifi cation of communicative access and opportunity, far from enhancing democratic governance or resistance, results in precisely the opposite – the post-political formation of communicative capitalism.
I am not claiming that networked communications never
facilitate political resistance. One of the most visible of the
numerous examples to the contrary is perhaps the experience of B92 in Serbia. Radio B92 used the Internet to circumvent governmental
censorship and disseminate news of massive demonstrations against the
Milosevic regime (Matic and Pantic 1999). My point is that the
political efficacy of networked media depends on its context. Under
conditions of the intensive and extensive proliferation of media,
messages are more likely to get lost as mere contributions to the
circulation of content. What enhances democracy in one context becomes
a new form of hegemony in another. Or, the intense circulation of
content in communicative capitalism forecloses the antagonism necessary
for politics. In relatively closed societies, that antagonism is not
only already there but also apparent at and as the very frontier
between open and closed.
WHAT IS COMMUNICATIVE CAPITALISM?
The notion of communicative capitalism conceptualizes the commonplace idea that the market, today, is the site of democratic aspirations, indeed, the mechanism by which the will of the demos manifests itself. We might think here of the circularity of claims regarding popularity. McDonald’s, Walmart and reality television are depicted as popular because they seem to offer what people want. How do we know they offer what people want? People choose them. So, they must be popular.
The obvious problem with this equation is the way it treats commercial
choices, the paradigmatic form of choice per se. But the market is not
a system for delivering political outcomes-despite the
fact that political campaigns are indistinguishable from advertising or marketing campaigns. Political decisions–to go to war, say, or to establish the perimeters of legitimate relationships–involve more than the mindless reiteration of faith, conviction and unsupported claims (I’m thinking here of the Bush administration’s faith-based foreign policy and the way it pushed a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda).
The concept of communicative capitalism tries to capture this strange merging of democracy and capitalism. It does so by highlighting the way networked communications bring the two together. Communicative capitalism designates that form of late capitalism in which values heralded as central to democracy take material form in networked communications technologies (cf. Dean 2002a; 2002b). Ideals of access, inclusion, discussion and participation come to be realized in and through expansions, intensifi cations and interconnections of global telecommunications. But instead of leading to more equitable distributions of wealth and infl uence, instead of enabling
the emergence of a richer variety in modes of living and practices of freedom, the deluge of screens and spectacles undermines political opportunity and effi cacy for most of the world’s peoples.
Research on the impact of economic globalization makes clear how the speed, simultaneity and interconnectivity of electronic communications produce massive concentrations of wealth (Sassen 1996). Not only does the possibility of superprofits in the finance and services complex lead to hypermobility of capital and the devalorization of manufacturing but fi nancial markets themselves acquire the capacity to discipline national governments. In the US, moreover, the proliferation of media has been accompanied by a shift in political participation. Rather than actively organized in parties and unions, politics has become a domain of fi nancially mediated and professionalized practices centered on advertising, public relations and the means of mass communication. Indeed, with the commodification of communication, more and more domains of life seem to have
been reformatted in terms of market and spectacle. Bluntly put, the standards of a finance- and consumption-driven entertainment culture set the very terms of democratic governance today. Changing the system – organizing against and challenging communicative capitalism – seems to require strengthening the system: how else can one organize and get the message across? Doesn’t it require raising the money, buying the television time, registering the domain name, building the website and making the links?
These paragraphs are from my article, Communicative Capitalism and the Foreclosure of Politics, appearing in Cultural Politics vol 1, issue 1. Here is a rough draft of the article (there might be a few minor differences from the published version):