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Capitalism: “We hit ya and we give ya some[1]

One of the core contradictions of capitalism since its earliest phase of ‘primitive accumulation’ has been the need to bring together disparate individuals and populations while maintaining their atomisation and isolation from each other. For example, in the 19th century industrial cities of Britain, this entailed dispossession of the indigenous rural poor by means of land enclosure etc, and the importation of overseas labour, specifically from Ireland, while bringing together unprecedented numbers of hungry people in one place, namely the early modern city. In these circumstances, the potential for proletarian cohesion was undermined by conditions of grinding deprivation on the one hand, which made individuals’ and families’ physical survival an absolute priority, and on the other, the promotion of racism and sectarianism among the English and directed towards the Irish.[2]

Such aggregation gave industrial enterprises ready access to high volumes of ‘living labour’, ie, workers, but also generated an anxiety and a genuine risk in relation to the power of large, insurrectionary populations. Hence the promotion of conditions that prioritised individualism and the creation of sub-group identities based on ethnicity, culture, and religious persuasion.

This early tendency of capitalism to ‘bring the world together’ was presciently noted by Marx, and what is now labelled ‘globalisation’ has continued to develop as both symptom of and catalyst for the wider advancement and sophistication of the capitalist project. In particular, we note it as a feature of cyber-communication, which eliminates space far more effectively than the telephone or air travel, and enables instant communication among groups and individuals across the globe.

As a telling aside, we should note the sense of palpable unfairness evident in complaints by the British police following the summer 2011 riot wave that, for the first time on this scale, the communication technology available to rioters was more sophisticated than that of the State.

It could be argued that, when weighed in the overall balance of profit and loss to capital, such local defeats are worth conceding when compared with the opportunities for profit maximisation supplied by the increased mobility that cyber-technology offers corporations across the planet. However, there is some schadenfreude to be had by watching the contortions of the Chinese state in its attempts to stop the air escaping from the punctures to the balloon of communication caused by internet access.

Leaving aside such ham-fisted attempts to suppress free(r) communication, how does capital otherwise ensure that the ‘gift’ of cyber-communication carries out the functions of a Trojan horse? The short answer is that cyber-technology refines the capitalist process of atomisation by promoting the role of the image over the object to a degree unimaginable, say, in 1945. Even Guy Debord, master theoretician of the Situationist International, would have been likely to raise a wry toast of “touché” to these recent developments.

People travel in order to bring back footage of their destinations rather than to experience what they are filming. Friends meet up in order to spend an evening texting absent third parties to tell them about what they are [not] doing. Individualism is further advanced by the trivialisation evident in much cyber-communication.

When all that people spend their spare time doing is communicating, there is nothing to communicate. For example, my teenage daughter watches a US blog site called “What is in my purse?”, whose content is also symptomatic of the fact that when there is nothing else to recount about one’s life, all one can talk about is the nature of one’s commodities.

This is not an argument either in favour of stodgy localism or against technology. Instead, it advocates a judicious use of the latter in the service of the human project, where communication will be unmediated in order to deserve the designation of the term.

[1] From lyrics to Rebel without a Pause, Public Enemy.

[2] It is believed that the first Orange Lodge in England was established in Manchester, followed by Liverpool.