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Hegemony in Contemporary Culture and Media and the Need for a Counter Initiative

Gramscian hegemony, more than overt imperialism, characterises contemporary mass culture and media. A paradigm shift in the way we understand, represent and experience the world subserves a new and aggressive corporate teleology. Technological convergence and digitisation, which held an initial promise of and potential for democratisation, collapse into vertical integration and monopolisation. In the process, cultural sovereignty is abstracted into a homogenised, make-believe, global marketplace, which reduces every individual to a consumer and excludes the real and abiding concerns of vast swathes of humanity. An intellectual resurgence must counter the counterfeit revolution of the information era.

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Hegemony in Contemporary Culture and Media and the Need for a Counter Initiative

Sashi Kumar

taking over both the production and – with satellite simulcasts – the exhibition of cinema, rendering film raw stock, processing and printing obsolete. “Digital surround sound” in the modern cinema, or home theatre, disperses the myriad components of the audio track across the room, so that they come to us from different directions, spatially matching the visual source of the

Gramscian hegemony, more than overt imperialism, characterises contemporary mass culture and media. A paradigm shift in the way we understand, represent and experience the world subserves a new and aggressive corporate teleology. Technological convergence and digitisation, which held an initial promise of and potential for democratisation, collapse into vertical integration and monopolisation. In the process, cultural sovereignty is abstracted into a homogenised, make-believe, global marketplace, which reduces every individual to a consumer and excludes the real and abiding concerns of vast swathes of humanity. An intellectual resurgence must counter the counterfeit revolution of the information era.

This essay is based on the presentation made at the Sahmat symposium “Awaz Do” at New Delhi on 13 October 2011.

Sashi Kumar (sashi.acj@gmail.com) is at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.

F
redric Jameson in his 1984 article on the cultural logic of late capitalism captures three critical historical junctures of capitalism and their respective cultural tempers: the market capitalism of the 1840s whose cultural logic was realism; the monopoly capitalism of the 1890s whose expression was modernism; and the latest and current phase of multinational capitalism of the 1940s which brings us into what for many of us may be the uncomfortable realm of postmodernism. Scholars like Vivian Sobchack (1994) have extrapolated on this schema to propose the dominant cultural instrumentality of each of these phases: the photographic exemplifying the mood of realism under market capitalism; the cinematic dominating the sensibility of moder nism under monopoly capitalism; and the electronic pervading the contemporary, postmodern phase.

The shift from the cinematic to the electronic is subsumed in the larger transition from the analogue to the digital, which is perhaps the definitive technological change of our times and marks the essential dynamics of the information revolution which, we are told, has succeeded or superseded the industrial revolution. It is a change with the potential to subvert the hierarchic ordering of the world as we know it. The non-linear takes over from the linear; the margins move into the centre; the tyranny of the written text is challenged by visual and acoustic modes of knowledge furtherance and sense perception. To put it another way, digital technology draws us to see, hear and experience our context first-hand, rather than read about it at one remove. The new technology is weaving a sens orium around us, which approximates our natural cognitive experience.

The electronic, on the rebound, alters the terms of the cinematic. Digitisation is

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voice or sound on the screen. The visual, meanwhile, strives to be expressed in 3D and HD, although, with variations in the aspect ratio, it continues to be confined to the rectangular screen. The change, perhaps, will be complete when the visual breaks out of its rectangularity and simulates the panoptic ken of the human eye.

The churning that accompanies the transition into the digital realm has thrown up a mix of new perceptual and conceptual elements which seek to challenge the perspectives and values which are the given at this point. They constitute a cultural newspeak, which requires us to press the reset button and reconfigure the world.

Flatism is perhaps the more tendentious of these concepts. In the post-Nietschean tradition, as Susan Sontag (1966) tells us, there are no heights or depths, only various kinds of surface and spectacles. Roland Barthes (1972) goes further and rubbishes the idea of depth as a repository of any concealed meaning. Jean Baudrillard’s (1989) mirror metaphor holds up the idiosyncratic end of the proposition. Regis Debray (1996) calls the contemporary realm a mediasphere, which privileges “the letter against the spirit, extension in space against comprehension, space against duration, surface against content”. The medio logical sensibility, he says, is not given to going to the bottom of things, keeping, instead, to “faces, surfaces and interfaces”. The operative jargon of the new media seems to prop up this new surfaceism: after all we “surf”, rather than delve into, TV channels and the internet. The setting, thus, was ripe for Thomas Friedman (2005) to script his anecdotal adventure of flattening the world into a continuum of IT enclaves – a level playing field, as he saw it, with easy enough entrance and exit options.

Before Friedman had declared the world flat, Francis Fukuyama (1993, 1999),

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with more scholarly effort, had both declared history dead and announced a new order on a clean slate. Endism, however, did not get as much play as flatism and Fukuyama’s The End of History and The Great Disruption turned out to be flashes in the pan at the turn of the new century. But it was unsettling enough that he could grab intellectual and media attention, and seize popular imagination, even if fleetingly, for propositions which were outlandishly sui generis.

Another set of ideas privileged by the information age is a version of the futurism propounded by Marinetti1 as far back as 1909, with its celebration of speed: “We declare that the splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed”. Speed in the media morphs, in Todd Gitlin’s (2003) gaze, into a “torrent”, which, combined with the digital parsing of sensibility, leads to the rhetoric of sound bytes and a regime of sparse attention spans. Speed introduces an aesthetics of blur to photo, video and typography and incentivises techniques like stop framing, shutter motion and out of focus shots. The trend, for Gitlin, is reminiscent of the spirit of impressionism in painting:

The visual style introduced by the French impressionists in the 1870s to convey the instant of motion, the instant in motion, recorded as if the artist’s hand were in motion, has now reached typography, the representation of language itself.

The known iconising impulse of the mass media breaks up, in this digital future, into a realm of flitting attention and fleeting reputations where, as Andy Warhol mocked, “every one will be worldfamous for fifteen minutes”. Speed and futurism combine also to pace up the rate of technological obsolescence in the digitised media. The state of the art is in constant renewal and the new yields quickly to the newer in gadgetry; more up to the moment, versatile and affordable than what went just before.

The explosion of information that marks the age and the compression of this vast data through digitisation place a huge demand on the human capacity for assimilation, making it necessary to resort to what the French biologist and futurist, Joel de Rosney,2 calls a “dietetics of communication”. The need to pick and choose

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optimally, nutritionally, from the surfeit fare on offer out there for our consumption leads to the ratings mindset that rules mass media and culture. Ratings become not only the rationale for allocation of advertising budgets, but also the filter by which the popularity of cultural products are hierarchised. The “bestseller” and “countdown” lists in books and music, for instance, determine the universe of our reading and the repertoire of our “heard melodies”. Work outside these shortlists does not make it to our notice and, for all practical purposes, does not exist. The tyranny of the ratings, Pierre Bourdieu (1998) points out, takes a toll on our intellectual potential because it is so subservient to popular demand. It circumscribes our intellectual horizons. Contrast this, he says, with the fact that well until recently the greatest accomplishments in literature, science or mathematics actually went against the grain of the popular.

Posthumous Rediscovery

It is also a phase when thinkers or clairvoyants who lived in advance of their times are being posthumously rediscovered for their prescience about the information age that is suddenly upon us. The oracular aphorisms of Marshall McLuhan (1994) and Guy Debord (1967) seem to come into their own in this era. In particular, Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, written in the 1970s, bears an uncanny resemblance to what obtains today. “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail”, wrote Debord, “all of life presents itself as a immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation”.

The process of reality being abstracted by its representation has dogged literature and philosophy down the ages, even if it acquires a kind of criticality in the information age. A K Ramanujan (2005) cites the plight of Dushyanta in Kalidasa’s Shakuntala as his memory plays tricks on him – “like one who doubts the existence of an elephant who walks in front of him, but feels convinced by seeing footprints…” The elephant in the room goes unrecognised; it takes its footprints, after it has left, to re-member, to reconstruct, its presence. Cognition, in the traditional Indian definition, integrates the pratyaksha (that which

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is manifest) with what is arrived at through anumana (or inference), what is remembered through smriti (memory) and what is reported as aptavakya (eyewitness account of the one who was present). Representative reality takes over lived reality when direct, unmediated perception, or the capacity to see the obvious, the manifest – i e, pratyaksha – is supplanted by the secondary constructs of smriti, anumana or aptavakya.

In 19th century Europe, we have Feuerbach (1989 trans), in a similar vein, lamenting in his Essence of Christianity, that his era prefers “the image to the thing, the copy to the original, the representation to reality, appearance to being”. The representative ritual of the eucharist, where the faithful partake of the body and the blood of Christ, acquires a larger than real dimension as it becomes a coded expression of the hierarchy of the church. In fact, Regis Debray3 argues that representative values are often ascribed post facto. The French Revolution, he observes, “invented the Enlightenment as a meaningful rallying round a cause; and the Catholic magesterium invented (one century after Jesus) the New Testament. The womb comes after the child, who shapes it in his own measure. The words of the Prophet are put in his mouth posthumously, all this according to the law of the precursor, the one of whom one knows afterward that he came before”.

In his reflective study Media Manifestos, Debray arrives at a pervasive videosphere as the latest revelation in a palimpsest where a print-and-publishing centric graphosphere and scripture-dominated logo sphere are the preceding layers, in that order. Moreover, he recognises that this sphere is as determined as the biosphere, noting that “a good politics can no more prevent a mass medium from functioning according to its own economy than it can prevent a severe drought”. There may be consensus about the purpose of the sciences of life, viz, to prevent illness, increase longevity, mitigate suffering and better the quality of life; the manipulation of embryos and “in vitro” fertilisation have to do with the genetic legacy of the species. There may not be a similar agreement about the objective of the sciences of culture because they are not subject to the equivalent of a bioethics. But they should be, suggests Debray, because like the genetic legacy of

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the species, they are the cultural legacy of communities. (He even raises, inter alia, the question whether mediology can become to semiology what ecology is to biosphere.) But the new visual, sound and sign technologies are geared, instead, to “globalise one sole political economy of videospheric consciousness which risks fostering harsh conditions for those who deviate from or disturb its status quo”. These are technologies of standardisation rather than difference and divergence. Their product, says Debray, is of uniform value, just like power output whether from sun, water, wind or atom is all expressed as kilowatt-hour.

If Fordism typifies the industrial revolution at its height, its counterpart in the information revolution is Murdochism. Both systems ply standardisation and homo genisation. Ford intruded into the family, home and even the body of the workers to ensure that they were physically and mentally fit to give their best. Their sexual lives were monitored, their alcohol intake reined in by prohibition, and their morality was under constant scrutiny. As Gramsci (1996 reprint) observes in his Prison Notebooks, “American industrialists are concerned to maintain the continuity of the physical and muscular-nervous efficiency of the worker. It is in their interest to have a stable, skilled, labour force, a permanently well adjusted complex , because the human complex (the collective worker) of an enterprise is also a machine which cannot, without considerable loss, be taken to pieces too often and renewed with single new parts”. Gramsci astutely forecasts both the surveillance state and the intrusive information age when he observes:

The attempts made by Ford with the aid of a body of inspectors to intervene in the private lives of his employees and to control how they spend their wages and how they lived is an indication of these tendencies...these tendencies are yet private, but they could become, at a certain point, state ideology.

And they did, so much so that the citizen, even in liberal democracies, has been deconstructed, classified and archived in data bases which serve both the profit agenda of the market and the security alarmism of the state. They are, moreover, insinuated into the practice of contemporary media and pop culture. The genre of reality TV which is a rage today is, for the most part, a showcasing, for the entertainment and vicarious participation of the viewers, the private phobias, maladjustments or mismatches in the relationships between members of a social group or a family. All that happens behind closed doors and would normally be considered private is displayed under the intense unrelenting scrutiny of cameras for all the public to behold. This is a modern spectacle, a psychological-thriller equi valent of the lion and the gladiator in the stadium. Pulp psychology rules the roost. The candid camera – both its jocular and sting variety – does not respect any limits of privacy. Even the internet, although purportedly a realm of anonymity, seems to end up constructing the self as a commodity by showcasing it as a cyber shop window or web page, and publicising the personal through what seems a process of compulsive social networking.

The Hollywood blockbuster, Independence Day4 of 1996 is a pointer to how technology in the garb and gizmo-hood of science fiction sublimates an implicit hegemonic intent into a noble and altruistic theme – in this case a future unification of humankind occasioned by the threat from an extraterrestrial enemy. The plot is about an alien invasion of the earth. No less than the president of the United States (US), who happens to be a fighter pilot, leads the counter offensive. The forces he commands are drawn from across all nations of the world – a unanimous international fighting force. After much spatial blitzkrieg the world is saved from being colonised, or destroyed, or whatever it was those weird aliens set out to do. The rub comes at the end. In a state of the world address just before this historic victory, the president of the US announces, as if fulfilling a long nourished aspiration of peoples across the world, that henceforth the fourth of July would be celebrated not as American independence day, but as world independence day. The telling-ness of the title kicks in. The film was one of the highest grossers ever until 1996, and significantly, collected more overseas than within the US. Its success, like its theme, was emphatically global.

The hegemony operative here is what the scholar on media and cultural studies, Aida Hozic calls “neo-Gramscian”. It is persuasive rather than coercive. The hegemon presents its “own interests as universal and objective and thereby create(s) willing

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followers of its own vision”. Hozic contrasts this with the “neo-realist” hegemony model of Pax Americana, where the dominant state calls the shots and determines the shape of interstate relations.

Curious Intersection

Aida Hozic’s (1999) study of the curious intersection of Hollywood, Silicon Valley and the Pentagon (“Uncle Sam Goes to Siliwood: of Landscapes, Spielberg and Hegemony”)5 offers useful insights into how technology, and its fetishisation, bring these unlikely partners on the same page and subserve a hegemonic agenda. Computer companies, like Silcon Graphics in the California belt, which earlier depended on the US military establishment for its funding and R&D work, began to turn, in the 1990s, to Hollywood for work. Even by the late 1970s, Hollywood was in the process of a makeover, having stepped out of the producer and director driven studio system into the more difficult turf of distributors and merchandisers. The star system and the exorbitant fees stars commanded pro mpted a rebel group including George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to seek low budget alternatives, to substitute the star with his virtual-digital equivalent. Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) and Spielberg’s ET (1982) were the first expressions of this dissidence. Stars were replaced with technology and special effects. Lucas’ Industrial Lights and Magic (ILM) and Spielberg’s Dreamworks SKG also initiated changes in the mode of production and distribution, restoring, on the one hand, the producer as key functionary, and adopting, on the other, a union-friendly approach. Spielberg, observes Hozic, was able to get the best animators to work for him because he allowed them authorial entitlements and a share of the profits.

From these independent beginnings, the digital technology driven cinema has now become a cultural assertion of the US military-industrial complex. The technology of simulation and image generation were similar for Pentagon and Hollywood. The line between video gaming and electronic warfare blurred to such an extent that the theatre of war became a virtual theatre of the absurd for Baudrillard (1995)6 when he declared that the Gulf war never took place – so unilateral, simulated and hyper real was its conduct.

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The Hollywood-Pentagon mix proved volatile hits on the screen, unleashing sci-fi monoliths single-handedly redeeming American humaneness from dystopias. These digital, special-effects-suffused, filmic products, with their techno-icons also lent themselves better to licensing rights and branding and to a corollary retail chain of merchandising.

Aida Hozic points out that the dual-use technology regime under the Clinton administration intended to promote a civilian-military industrial base gave a fillip to this nexus and further diffused the difference between entertainment, surveillance and warfare. “Systems for monitoring ozone data are used in digital imaging for special effects…submarine sound detection technology is used in music recording, image generation technology, which served in missile rehearsal, has been turned into a part of computer game software.” The civilian aspect of dual-use technology by no means extended to the freewheeling public sphere as we know it; it was showcased in flight simulators or submarines or virtual reality war games installed in theme parks and malls or such other ostensibly public spaces which were enclaves of private profit. This “Disneyfication” and its variation of game/theme parks were essentially a process of private property masquerading as public space.

Hozic explains how a digital alliance of academic institutions in the Silicon Valley belt, R&D establishments like the Media Lab of the MIT, and corporate sponsors including Disney, Sony, Philips, Nintendo, Lego, Sega, Nike, Microsoft, Intel and Viacom has built on the Silicon Valley-Hollywood-Pentagon nexus to create diverse cultural products delivered online and offline.

Globally, Hollywoodisation not only sealed the wellspring of the French new wave of the late 1950s to the early 1970s, but also systematically infiltrated and deracinated the mainstream national cinemas of the world – so much so that today the dubbed Hollywood film sits pretty, like a strange but familiar cultural squatter, on prime-time television cutting across national and local languages and cultures, whether in Europe, Asia or Africa. It is no longer quaint, let alone anachronistic, to see and hear American characters on the screen spout Tamil, or Telugu, or Hindi, as

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the Hollywood meta-narrative unspools in such disparate ethnic settings.

Hollywood adversely affects the local cinema industry both in terms of the market and creative expression. Voices of concern have already been raised in Kerala against Hollywood products further ero ding an already precarious industry ravaged by high star-system-driven costs. Given the expatriate extent of this, even if narrow, Malayalam market, it may not get to the situation in neighbouring Karnataka where the industry has imposed a blanket ban on films dubbed into Kannada from any language. The Tamil cinema, with its wider film-friendly mass market base, has shown greater resilience and added dubbed Hollywood to its indiscriminate, if robust, mix which spans the countryside with idealised feudal katta panchayats (or kangaroo courts), middle and upper class city-centric milieus and the hybridisation that globalisation brings to different segments of society.

Tailing Hollywood

Bollywood, while continuing to leverage its unique selling proposition of the songand-dance “item” number (as it is called), has tailed Hollywood into the metropolitan mindset of consumerism and conspicuous consumption and readjusted its sights to make the upper middle class and its NRI counterpart its principal constituency. Whereas the original inspiration, in Hollywood, for the hi-tech sci-fi special effects movie was as a counter to the bane of the star system, in both Bollywood’s and Kollywood’s (as Tamil filmdom is called) imitative version, the star undergoes a prosthetic transmogri fication and becomes a technological extension of himself. The robotised Rajnikanth of the Tamil film Enthiran7 and cyborgised Shahrukh Khan of Ra One8 in Hindi mark a self-transcendence from superstardom to supra-stardom.

There is hardly any rural-ness in the mainstream Hindi cinema today. The riteof-passage leitmotif of the 1970s and 1980s, where the village rustic, as he moves into the city, at once sheds his innocence and becomes socially mobile, is no longer a thematic concern precisely when by all statistical accounts, urbanisation is at its acutest in India.

Satellite delivery makes it no longer necessary to replicate hundreds of release

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prints of a film and cart the reels in cans to the theatres. Digital dissemination should, ideally, make for a de-massification of the medium and enable devolved distribution and reach. What has happened, instead, is that the traditional multi-tiered exhibition system – with the A class circuit of theatres in cities, B class in townships and semiurban areas and C class temporary touring sheds in the villages – has collapsed and is being rapidly replaced by a bundling of screens in the expensive and exclusive one-stop-shop facility of the multiplex.

The market, including in print and television, has become segmented and stratified so that it is less and less one of “mass” media. The media themselves have become more and more class self conscious, with little going for those below a set purchasing power threshold. The lower you are in the social and economic scale, seems the moral and the model, the less relevant you are to the media, either as subject or consumer.

The absence of cross media restrictions in India has paved the way for monopolies straddling the different sectors like print, television, radio and cyber media. Profit maximisation, rather than any commitment to the citizen’s right to be informed, drives the news media. Real and imagined threats to freedom of the press are conjured up to keep the media market protected and yielding huge returns.

Lobbies for both maintaining and dismantling foreign direct investment norms in the Indian news media are essentially driven by the profit mantra – the one to keep their empires protected and competition at bay, and the other to make fresh market forays with powerful foreign alliances. Both, though, are quick to cite the principle of the freedom of the press, or danger thereto, to press their claims. The ludicrous extent to which the bogey of press freedom can be invoked strikes home when the big media houses editorially deplore the latest wage board recommendations on the salary structure for working journalists as a threat to the free press. What takes the cake, however, is the disingenuous attempt by the media baronage, a few years back, to make heredity and family the insurance against foreign invasion. Setting themselves up as the Indian Media Group, the members of this cartel actually had the gall to suggest to the government

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that, to prevent foreign infiltration in the print and broadcast sectors, a mandatory 51% rights “should be vested in one Indian family or one Indian group”.

This is not to suggest that there is no threat to the Indian media from outside. With the US and European markets saturated, the transnational heavyweights have been eyeing the Indian market as the new frontier. The big ticket acquisitions and mergers, which marked the US media scene in the late 1990s, are now happening here. An investigative audit on Murdoch’s diverse holdings in India, both direct and through Indian proxies, across sectors of the media, may well present an alarming picture of information and cultural control. (Indeed, a timely exercise for a concerned neutral body, say, like the Press Council of India, would be to map the media in the country to ascertain who owns what, and how.) But the indigenous big media have been fatuous and self-serving in their response to the foreign investor at the door.

Skewed TV Growth

The growth of the television industry in India is peculiarly skewed and distorted by entry barriers, not in terms of access to satellite transponder or facility to uplink, but at the market-ruled distribution end. The distribution fees charged by the mega cable TV and Direct to Home (DTH) operators are exorbitant and vary whimsically, in the absence of any set tariff card, from channel to channel. As a result small, even medium sized, ventures do not have a fighting chance of making it to the charmed circle of a national DTH or digital cable served viewership, or even of being carried in the prime or adjacent bands in the analogue cable networks.

The situation makes a mockery of the 1995 Supreme Court ruling9 that airwaves are public property. They seem, for all practical purposes, more like private property. This, in effect, defeats the purpose of licensing, for what does it benefit a channel to have the right to telecast without the means to be seen? In a context where hundreds of channels – over 700 at last count

– are jostling for popular notice, the state should be building the infrastructure network, the information super highway, to handle this traffic equitably and efficiently. Instead, a few big DTH and cable TV players have set up their own carriageways with their own tollbooths charging rates that are prohibitive for the bulk of the traffic.

The government, if anything, has compounded the problem by making the financial profile required of applicants for new TV channels more demanding. The net worth qualification of the applicant for a news channel has been raised steeply from Rs 3 crore to Rs 20 crore, and for non-news channels from Rs 1.5 crore to Rs 5 crore. The new norms, ostensibly to keep nonserious applicants away, weigh heavily in favour of moneybags and high net worth entities, rather than professionals in the field. Not unsurprisingly, the extant industry takes no objection to these changes, its only quarrel being with the penal clause of a possible revocation of a channel’s licence if it violates, five times over the 10-year contractual period, the prescribed programming and advertising codes.

With much of the turf taken, the hope for independent democratic media turns to the internet, with its promise of liberated bandwidths and devices like audio pod casts and Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) to provide cross-media versatility. India, with less than 10% of its population having access to the net, may yet be on the wrong side of the digital divide. But the rate of growth in connectivity here is among the fastest in the world. According to a recent industry estimate (KPCB),10 the year on year growth during the period 2007 to 2010 was of the order of 43%. It may not be far-fetched to imagine a not too distant future where the plural energy of Indian culture unleashed on the net blazes a different and unique trail. But that hope needs to be tempered by what we see happening to the net in a country like the US with near 80% penetration and a longer experience with the medium.

In a very recent joint study (“The Internet’s Unholy Marriage to Capitalism”), John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney (2011) take stock of the role and implications of internet 20 years after it was made available to the public. Their finding, alarmingly, is that what once held the promise of an open public sphere is slowly being taken over by giant monopolies. In fact digital capitalism, it turns out, is more vicious than other forms of capitalism because it creates greater and more acute

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market concentration. The KPCB study cited earlier and released in October 2011, confirms this trend. The US mega quartet – Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook – predominate the internet. Apple’s revenue in 2010 was $76,283 million and its market value in 2011 stood at $373 billion. Through iTunes, it has 87% of the market share in digital music downloads and some 70% of the MP3 player market.

Google is a not so close a second with revenue in 2010 of $29,321 million and market value in 2011 of $177 billion. But it controls 70% of the search engine market and has a far greater global spread, with at least 80% of its over 1,000 million monthly unique visitors in August 2011 coming from outside the US. The corresponding figures for Amazon are $34,204 (revenue in 2010) and $108 billion (market value in 2011). Face book’s market value in 2011 was $77 billion (the revenue figure is not available) whereas eBay has a market value of $42 billion the same year and revenue of $9,156 in 2010. Microsoft, Intel and Cisco are among the other big players with monopoly clout.

The big players create the most visible and repeat-hit hot properties on the net and erect barriers to prevent others eroding their business concentration. What they have redeemed and fenced off and developed is where consumers aggregate and transact business most – the rest of the net seems relative terra incognita. Michael Wolff of Wired magazine shows how the concentration grows and accretes and does not disburse or diffuse over the so-called long tail that Chris Anderson (the founder of Wired) enthused about: the top 10 websites accounted for 31% of US page views in 2001, 40% in 2006 and close to 75% in 2010.

Threatening the Net

This array of organised monopolistic power is contesting the liberative power and potential of internet as a space which enables and empowers peer to peer activities, the open source movement, a user driven knowledge domain like Wikipedia, a browser like Mozilla Firefox, a site with a nose for anything under wraps like WikiLeaks (which took the corridors of power across the world by storm and is struggling to outmanoeuvre a concerted financial blockade), or the viral power of social sites for mass mobilisation.

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Foster and McChesney call this the paradox of the internet akin to, they elaborate, the Lauderdale Paradox in economics which deals with the conflict of interest between public wealth and private riches – public wealth understood as “all that man desires as useful or delightful for him”, and private riches as “all that man desires as useful or delightful for him which exists in a degree of scarcity”. Thus it is scarcity that makes the difference, and helps make private riches out of public wealth. If what is naturally and plentifully available – like air, water or food – were rendered scarce, they would acquire an exchange value as against their user value. The paradox went through many hands and filters including Ricardo and John Stuart Mill, and Marx adapted it to argue – and this became a key element of his Capital – that the conflict between user value and exchange value was germane to capitalistic production.

Marx, further, drew on Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s take on the political economy of colonisation. Wakefield found that the free availability of land in the new colonies like America, Canada and New Zealand created a shortage of wage labour because workers could set themselves up independently as subsistence farmers. The solution to the problem was to artificially inflate the price of land and encourage absentee landlordism, thus keeping land out of the reach of potential wage labour, or the mass of the people. Similarly, by creating and developing select enclaves of heavy traffic and commerce in the internet space, the digital capitalist seeks to create artificial scarcity and high exchange value for them. Against this, the use value of the vast freewheeling realm of the net has to be redeemed and reinstated.

At another level, these virtual walled gardens in cyberspace are a throwback to the enclosure movements in England and Wales where “open” land that belonged to the community at large was systematically taken over and, even without physical fencing, began to be owned in “severalty”

– a euphemism for the many who cornered it in what E P Thomson called a “plain enough case of class robbery”. The striking difference, of course, is that the appropriators on the net today are fewer in number, far more concentrated and far more totalising in their control.

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On the other hand, the net has, with the Seattle protests against the WTO in 1999 and up until the current Occupy Wall Street movement, become the agency par excellence for popular mobilisations against the big and the powerful. Its viral, virtual energy can be harnessed to topple absolutist regimes, as the Egyptian and Tunisian experi ences have shown. The natural champions of such a net-scape should be those in the vanguard of the knowledge economy – the organic intellectuals, in the Gramscian sense, of this era. Not coincidentally, we find the intellectual as a potential counterhegemon being invoked repeatedly in a succession of works by the intellectuals themselves; almost like a self-awareness of their manifest responsibility. Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu, Said and Chomsky have all dwelt on the role of the intellectual in reframing contemporary society. Where they succumb to the laws of the market (and become, as Bourdieu puts it, heteronomous), or where they capitulate to the temptation of the media, they legitimise and subserve the prevailing hegemonic forces. But when they do not lend themselves to be co-opted by the market and position themselves, consciously and concertedly, against the current, they may well trigger the force to reverse it.

Notes

1 Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published his “Futurist Manifesto” in the French paper La Figaro in February 1909. Primarily a movement in the arts, it was breathlessly excited about technology and the future and impatient with intellectuals, museums, libraries, feminism and “all utilitarian cowardice”. Futurism dovetailed into fascism as Marinetti himself became an acolyte of Mussolini.

2 French biologist and cyber analyst, Joel de Rosney revels in neologisms like cybionte, conceived as a global super organism of which we are all neurons. The internauts themselves organise the global meta computer realm and its denizens constitute a pronetaire who, like Marx’s proletariat, unite as a productive force of change.

3 Debray’s (1967) Revolution in the Revolution? was an iconic work, inspired by Che, on guerrilla warfare in Latin America. When he was taken into custody in Bolivia, Jean Paul Sartre, expressing solidarity before a mass audience in Paris on 30 May 1967, said, as reported by Le Monde: “Regis Debray has been arrested by the Bolivian authorities, not for having participated in guerrilla activities but for having written a book”. He turned to contemplation of a different kind in later life, creating the discipline of “mediology”, which sought, in his words, to “view history by hybridising technology and culture” (interview to Wired magazine).

4 The film was directed by Roland Emmerich. The cast included Will Smith as a fighter pilot and Bill Pullman as President Thomas Whitmore. The combined gross collection at the box office in the US and outside was $816,969,000. It won the Oscar for visual effects in 1996.

5 “Siliwood” conveys the mix of Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

vol xlvi no 51

6 Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 1995. It is a collection of three essays: “The Gulf War Will Not Take Place”, “The Gulf War Is Not Really Taking Place”, and “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place”, all originally published in the French paper Liberation and Guardian between January and March 1991.

7 Enthiran, which cost $36 million and was directed by S Shankar, was released on 1 October 2010, along with its dubbed versions, Robot in Hindi and Robo in Telugu.

8 Ra One, budgeted at $30.5 million and scripted and directed by Anubhav Sinha, was released on 26 October 2011.

9 The Supreme Court ruling given on 5 February 1995 by justice P B Sawant and justice S Mohan in the case between Union of India vs Cricket Association of Bengal, said that airwaves or frequencies are a public property; their use has to be controlled by a public authority in the interests of the public and to prevent the invasion of their rights; since the electronic media involves the use of the airwaves, this factor creates an inbuilt restriction on its use as in the case of any other public property.

10 The study, “Internet Trends 2011” by the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers (KPCB) was released at the Web 2.0 summit in San Francisco, CA, in October.

References

Barthes, Roland (1972 print): “Myth Today” in Roland Barthes (ed.), Mythologies (New York: Noonday Press).

Baudrillard, Jean (1989 print): “The Ecstasy of Communication” in Mark Poster (ed.), Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Bourdieu, Pierre (1998): On Television and Journalism (Pluto Press).

Debray, Regis (1967): Revolution in the Revolution? (Penguin).

– (1996): Media Manifestos, (trans) Eric Rauth (London/New York: Verso).

Debord, Guy Ernest (1967): “La Societie du Spectacle” (Paris: Buchet Chastel (trans)) in Donald Nicholson-Smith, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books).

Feuerbach, Ludwig (1989): The Essence of Christianity (trans) (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books).

Foster, John Bellamy and Robert W McChesney (2011): “The Internet’s Unholy Marriage to Capitalism”, Monthly Review, Vol 62, Issue 10, March.

Friedman, Thomas (2005): The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Globalised World in the 21st Century (London: Penguin/Allen Lane).

Fukuyama, Francis (1993): The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Avon Books).

– (1999): The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstruction of Social Order (New York: The Free Press (a division of Simon & Schuster Inc)).

Gitlin, Todd (2003): Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives (New York: A Metropolitan/Owl Book (Henry Holt & Co)).

Gramsci, Antonio (1996): Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Orient Longman.

Hozic, Aida A (1999): “Uncle Sam Goes to Siliwood: Of Landscapes, Spielberg and Hegemony” in Review of International Political Economy, Vol 6, No 3, Autumn.

Jameson, Fredric (1984): “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, New Left Review, 146.

McLuhan, Marshal (1994): Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, first MIT Press edition.

Ramanujan, A K (2005): Uncollected Poems and Prose (USA: Oxford University Press).

Sobchack, Vivian (1994): “The Scene of the Screen: Envisioning Cinematic and Electronic Presence” in Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K Pfeiffer (ed.), Materialities of Communication (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Sontag, Susan (1966): “On Roland Barthes” in Susan Sontag (ed.), Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux).

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