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Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy by Robert McChesney

The book under review offers persuasive political economic analysis of the Internet, and its complex (and ongoing) inter-relationship with capitalism and democracy in the United States. Placing his work under the rubric of political economy, McChesney charts a detailed analysis of the alliances and interplay between private/public institutions, policy and legislative debates, government, and media conglomerates that have shaped the evolving Internet architecture. In fact, McChesney’s main task in the book is to show the workings of the complex relationship of the Internet to actually existing capitalism, and how this relationship has far-reaching consequences for democracy.

The seven chapters in the book are detailed and tightly argued, and draw upon a range of policy as well as internal memos and documents from governmental, journalistic, and corporate sources to illustrate the intricate web of relations between and across the Internet, capitalism, and democracy. The writing draws upon several theoretical and popular publications on the Internet, capitalism, and democracy, and presents the arguments in simple and lucid language. The first chapter provides an overview of a range of writings on the Internet that can be grouped under two camps: celebrants and skeptics. According to McChesney, while both camps offer interesting perspectives on the Internet—the celebrants point to the emergence of the wired society a revolutionary development, the skeptics offer a contra view that suggests that digital media and the Internet is leading to increase in loneliness and social anomie—they ignore how really existing capitalism has come to define the horizon of social life. In short, McChesney indicates that both camps lack a political economy context that would help illuminate how the structures of the Internet are shaped by capitalism. What is needed, McChesney notes, is a critical examination of the notions like “free” markets that have become a sort of quasi-mythical metaphors in journalistic writing as well as scholarly literature. To this end, McChesney provides compelling arguments that urge that we consider capitalism as the third rail of Internet scholarship. 

The second and third chapters provide a powerful account of workings of political economy. McChesney presents substantial data to debunk the dominant argument that “free” markets as a panacea for the socio-economic inequities. The political economic analysis reveals how capitalism in the name of economic growth perpetuates economic inequality and social instability among the poor and lower middle class Americans, and that the digital revolution being shaped by capitalist interests does not reinvigorate democracy, rather usurped by corporations who seek to privatize social life. The sections on labor and inequality, monopoly, advertising, technology and growth, government and markets make persuasive arguments about commonsense assumptions that equating capitalism with democracy.

In chapter three, McChesney employs the political economy of communication (PEC) framework to examine how corporations dominate media, Internet, journalism, and commercial entertainment industries. It is here that McChesney offers a basic exposition of the PEC that enables a reader not familiar with the theoretical background to understand several key conceptual ideas that underpin the analytic framework. There is an interesting discussion on the foundation of journalism and broadcasting (partisan press, a public good, commercial endeavor) in United States that traces significant developments later appropriated by “markets” and commercial interests. Both chapters present key analytic arguments backed up by substantial data and history to illustrate the overarching argument of the book.

Chapters four and five explicate the relationship between capitalism and the Internet, and how the noncommercial beginning of the Internet and web was turned into commercial and privatized enterprise. McChesney maintains that his argument is against the capitalist development of the Internet, and not capitalism per se. Chapter four is a historical discussion of the origins of the Internet, the subsequent policy changes, rise of the Internet Service Providers from monopoly to cartels, rise of digital piracy, threats to free speech and privacy, etc. In chapter five, McChesney examines the monopoly of several Internet and telecommunication firms, their relationships with the military, U.S. government, and national security agencies, and the threats posed to individual liberty and democracy vis-à-vis discussions of Homeland Security, the Patriot Act, and the 2010 WikiLeaks.

In chapter six, McChesney discusses how the Internet and digital media has impacted the field of journalism by placing his overall arguments beyond the positive and negative binaries that seem to inform assessments of journalism. The PEC perspective is employed to examine the role of traditional and digital journalism (as a public good) in United States. Through a persuasive discussion of the digital forms of journalism spawned by the Internet, the encroachment of market and private interests on traditional journalism, McChesney notes that much of journalism on the Internet lacks original reporting; rather previously published information is repackaged as news. A few old media firms (New York Times) utilize the practices of digital journalism to produce original news reporting and analysis. According to McChesney, the capitalism-Internet nexus is a key feature that is driving online journalism business model. The online digital journalism models (Huffington Post) focus on entertainment, celebrities, and sex, even though their main task is to generate news content. These sites rely on volunteer labor, and aggregate content from other media. The author indicates that nonprofit activist groups like NGOs have become involved in online reporting that raises troubling questions about the boundaries of journalism. McChesney notes that although the recent initiatives by foundations to reinvigorate online journalism are commendable, they run the risk of diluting the integrity of journalism. McChesney argues that journalism is a public good and needs to be shielded from private and government interests. The author discusses some nonprofit forms of journalism in the United States (MinnPostVoices of San DiegoProPublica) that are producing original reporting and analyses. In closing, McChesney argues for a heterogeneous system of democratic journalism—public, community, and student media—that are based on nonprofit competition, and driven by a government subsidy system. The author proposes the concept of citizen news voucher, where “every American adult gets a $200 voucher she can use to donate money to any nonprofit news medium of her choice. She will indicate her choice on her tax return. If she does not file a tax return, a simple form will be available to use. She can split her $200 among several different qualifying nonprofit media. This program would be purely voluntary, like the tax reform check-offs for funding elections or protecting wildlife” (p. 212). The concluding chapter draws upon McChesney’s involvement in media reform, and situates his overall arguments of the book in terms of some concrete proposals for the policymaker as well as the general audience. He discusses his proposals at length and offers some compelling arguments (need for large public investments, net neutrality, and online privacy) for reinvigorating journalism as a public good in the age of the Internet.


Sanjay Asthana

Middle Tennessee State University

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