Saturday, 20 February 2010

Christian Fuchs and a Marxist analysis of the internet

It gets interesting from about page 10. Email me at revolution @ and i will send you the PDF documentit is much easier to read...
European Journal of
DOI: 10.1177/0267323108098947
2009; 24; 69
European Journal of Communication
Christian Fuchs
Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy of the Internet
Information and Communication Technologies and Society: A
The online version of this article can be found at:
Published by:
can be found at:
European Journal of Communication
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Information and Communication
Technologies and Society
A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy
of the Internet
Christian Fuchs
This article argues for the need of Critical Internet Theory. It outlines
how such a theory operates by the example of the role of gifts and com-
modities in the Internet economy. It is argued that after the crisis of the
‘New Economy’, the emergence of what is termed ‘Web 2.0’ signifies the
increasing importance of the Internet gift commodity strategy. This strat-
egy commodifies the users who produce content and communications
online on free access platforms so that advertisement rates are driven up,
and functions as a legitimizing ideology. In this context, the notion of the
Internet prosumer commodity is introduced.
Key Words capital accumulation, Critical Internet Theory, critique of
the political economy of the Internet, social software, Web 2.0
In summer 2007, The Economist asked on its cover: ‘Who’s afraid of Google?’
and pointed out that Google is an example for an Internet-based business
model that helps ‘people to find information (at no charge) and [lets] adver-
tisers promote their wares to those people in a finely targeted way’ (The
Christian Fuchs is Associate Professor at the ICT&S Centre for Advanced Studies
and Research in Information and Communication Technologies and Society,
University of Salzburg, Sigmund Haffner Gasse 18, 5020 Salzburg, Austria
European Journal of Communication Copyright © 2009 SAGE Publications
(Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore),
Vol 24(1): 69–87. [10.1177/0267323108098947]
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Economist, 1–7 September 2007: 9). Thus far this strategy has been successful,
as Google has, with a five-year sales growth rate of 222 percent in 2006, been
the second-fastest growing technology company worldwide.
This article introduces the concept of Critical Internet Theory and
gives an analysis of the accumulation strategies employed by corporations
like Google in the capitalist Internet economy. It discusses some theoreti-
cal aspects of the political economy of the Internet and deals with the fol-
lowing questions. What theoretical foundation is needed for studying the
Internet and society? What is Critical Internet Theory? How relevant is
the antagonism between productive forces and relations of production in
the Internet age? What is the role and relationships of gifts and com-
modities in the Internet economy?
Critical Theory
The critique advanced by Critical Internet Theory is a Marxian one in the
sense laid out in the Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
that it grasps ‘the root of the matter’ and is based on the ‘categoric impera-
tive to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, aban-
doned, despicable essence’ (Marx, 1844: 385).
Taking Marx’s writings as totality, one can identify three central aspects of
Marxian critique that are ordered according to three philosophical dimensions.
• Ontology – dynamic materialism: Critical theory is materialistic in
the sense that it addresses phenomena and problems not in terms
of absolute ideas and predetermined societal development, but in
terms of resource distribution and social struggles. Reality is seen
in terms that address ownership, private property, resource distri-
bution, social struggles, power, resource control, exploitation and
To make a materialistic analysis also means to conceive society
as negativity; to identify antagonisms means to look at contradic-
tory tendencies that relate to one and the same phenomenon, cre-
ate societal problems and require a fundamental systemic change
in order to be dissolved. To analyse society as contradictory also
means to consider it as dynamic system because contradictions
cause development and movement of matter.
In order to address the negativity of contemporary society and
its potential, research also needs to be oriented on the totality. That
dialectics is a philosophy about totality in this context means that
society is analysed on a macro scale in order to grasp its problems
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and that reasons for the necessity of positive transformations are to
be given.
• Epistemology – dialectical realism: The material world is seen as pri-
mary and is grasped, described, analysed and partly transformed
by humans in academic work. Analyses are conducted that are
looking for the essence of societal existence by identifying contra-
dictions that lie at the heart of development. Critical theory
analyses social phenomena not based on instrumental reason and
one-dimensional logic, i.e. it operates (1) under the assumption
that phenomena do not have linear causes and effects, but are con-
tradictory, open, dynamic, and carry certain development poten-
tials in them and hence should be conceived in complex forms;
and (2) is based on the insight that reality should be conceived so
that there are neither only opportunities nor only risks inherent in
social phenomena, but contradictory tendencies that pose both
positive and negative potentials at the same time that they are
realized or suppressed by human social practice.
Dialectic analysis in this context means complex dynamic
thinking; realism an analysis of real possibilities and a dialectic of
pessimism and optimism. In a dialectical analysis, phenomena are
analysed in terms of the dialectics of agency and structures, dis-
continuity and continuity, the one and the many, potentiality and
actuality, global and local, virtual and real, optimism and pes-
simism, essence and existence, immanence and transcendence, etc.
• Axiology – negating the negative: All critical approaches in one or the
other respect take the standpoint of oppressed or exploited classes
and make the judgement that structures of oppression and
exploitation benefit certain classes at the expense of others and
hence should be radically transformed by social struggles. This
view constitutes a form of objectivity.
Critical theory does not accept existing social structures as they
are, it is not interested in society as it is, but in what it society
could be and could become. It deconstructs ideologies that claim
that something cannot be changed and shows potential counter-
tendencies and alternative modes of development. That the nega-
tive antagonisms are sublated into positive results is not an
automatism, but depends on the realization of practical forces of
change that have a potential to rise from the inside of the systems
in question in order to produce a transcendental outside that
becomes a new whole. The axiological dimension of critique is an
interface between theory and political praxis.
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Critical theory is interested in why there is a difference between
actuality and potentiality, existence and essence, and aims at find-
ing ways of bridging this difference. It aims at the establishment
of a cooperative, participatory society and asks ‘basic moral ques-
tions of justice, equity and the public good’ (Murdock and
Golding, 2005: 61).
The ethical dimension is not unfounded, but grounded in the essence of
society as such; its transcendence is constituted by the immanence of soci-
ety, cooperative human potentials.
Critical theories are dialectical and realistic and axiological. That
critical thinking is still very important and influential today can, for
example, be seen in the prominence that Roy Bhaskar’s Dialectical Critical
Realism has gained in recent years (e.g. Bhaskar, 1993).
In 20th-century Marxism, the critical analysis of media, communica-
tion and culture has emerged as a novel quality due to the transformations
that capitalism has been undergoing (Sandoval, 2008). First, there have
been subjective approaches that primarily stress how humans produce,
reproduce, consume or transform media and culture. Early 20th-century
approaches include the theory of Antonio Gramsci, on the one hand, and
the theories of Bert Brecht or Walter Benjamin, on the other hand. The first
line of thought has since been continued, e.g. by some cultural studies
scholars like Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart or Stuart Hall, the sec-
ond by scholars like Hans Magnus Enzensberger (Marchart, 2006). Second,
there have been objective, more structure-oriented, approaches that prima-
rily stress repressive aspects of media structures (Sandoval, 2008). Many of
these works are grounded either in Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s Frankfurt
School critique or Louis Althusser’s theory of ideological state apparatuses.
The focus on ideology has been challenged by critical political economy
scholars like Dallas Smythe or Nicholas Garnham, who stress the economic
functions of the media, whereas others like Vilém Flusser, Noam Chomsky,
Edward S. Herman or Herbert Schiller have continued to stress the role of
media as producers and diffusion channels of ideologies. Third, there have
been broader approaches that stress that media have different (intercon-
nected) roles in capitalism. These approaches can be understood as trying to
bridge some of the gaps between the other approaches, they focus on at least
some of the following dimensions (and in some cases on the interconnec-
tions): media products as realms of capital accumulation; media as means of
advertising and circulating products; media as ideological legitimatory sys-
tems; media as systems that reproduce human labour power, media pro-
duction, products, circulation and reception as contradictory forces that
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reflect domination and class struggles; alternative media. Such broader
approaches include, for example, those of Oscar Gandy (1997), Robert
McChesney (1998, 2000), Horst Holzer (1994), Graham Murdock and
Peter Golding (1997, 2005), Douglas Kellner (1997, 2002), Manfred
Knoche (2002) and Herbert Marcuse (1969, 1972) (see Sandoval, 2008).
Broader critical approaches can be considered as superior to narrow ones
because they allow the explanation of aspects of reality that are ignored by
the latter. However, although there are differences between certain strands
of Marxist media and cultural theory, they are united by the focus on cri-
tique, i.e. the negation of capitalism and domination.
My own approach addresses media like the Internet not as primary
objects of interest, but as a concretization of the analysis of the develop-
ment dynamics of capitalist society, for which a social theory is needed
(Fuchs, 2008). The focus on media, communication and technology needs
to be embedded into the broader societal context; communication is
‘embedded within the wider structures and processes of a given social for-
mation’ (Garnham, 2000: 4). Hence, first of all, critical social theories are
needed that allow concretizations. I use the term ‘Critical Internet Theory’
in order to stress that a Marxian analysis of the Internet and society is
needed. Critique is an element that bridges approaches like the Critique of
the Political Economy of the Media and Frankfurt School Critique. The
figures and writings that have most influenced my thinking have been
Hegel, Marx’s philosophical works and Herbert Marcuse.
Although my
own approach stresses this line of thinking, Critical Internet Theory could
be used as an umbrella term that covers a broader range of Marxian-
inspired approaches in studying the Internet and society. Critical Internet
Theory is not an autonomous theory. It is part of the larger canon of
Marxist theories of society and communication, to which it is linked.
Towards a critical theory of informational capitalism and
the Internet
In this section, first the notion of Critical Internet Theory is introduced,
then the antagonism between the public and private character of informa-
tion is discussed as an expression of the antagonism between forces and
relations of production.
Critical social theory of the Internet
The study of the Internet and society in particular and ICTs and society in
general has during the last years been labelled under categories like
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Internet research, ICTs and society, social informatics, informatics and
society, new media research, information society theory, information soci-
ety research/studies, Internet studies, Web research, etc. My contention is
that to study the relationship of Internet and society, not just any sort of
Internet research is needed, but a Critical Internet Theory. Critical
Internet Theory (see also Hofkirchner, 2007) is not a separate endeavour or
an independent theory. It is a concretization of a Contemporary Critical
Social Theory (see Fuchs, 2008) that is anchored in Marxian critique.
Applying critical social theory and critique of the political economy
of capitalism to the Internet can be characterized along the three dimen-
sions of critical theory that were identified in the first section.
• Ontology – dynamic materialism: The Internet does not exist in a
vacuum – it is embedded in the antagonisms of capitalist society.
It reflects societal problems in complex ways and social actions
carried out with the help of the Internet have complex effects on
the antagonistic structure of society. Online action shapes and is
shaped by the antagonisms of contemporary society. In order to
find out how the lives of humans are affected and transformed by
the Internet, the Internet needs to be analytically related to the
broader societal context.
Critical Internet research grounds the necessity of a cooperative
and participatory societal totality and the contribution that the
Internet can make in this context. A critical theory of Internet and
society is negative insofar as it relates the Internet to social prob-
lems and what society has failed to become and to tendencies that
question and contradict the dominant and dominative mode of
operation and hence have the potential to become positive forces
of social change for the better. It looks for ways of how the
Internet can support practical forces that aim at transcending cap-
italism as a whole.
Based on the insight that the basic resources are highly
unequally divided in contemporary society, to construct a critical
theory of Internet and society means showing how the Internet is
related to questions concerning ownership, private property,
resource distribution, social struggles, power, resource control,
exploitation and domination. In such an endeavour, a reactualized
notion of class is of central importance (see Fuchs, 2008: Ch. 7.3).
• Epistemology – dialectical realism: A theory of Internet and society
that is dialectical and realistic identifies antagonistic tendencies of
the relationship of Internet and society and their opportunities
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and risks in order to help people and social groups to position
themselves and find practical guidelines for action in the com-
plexity of the contemporary world.
• Axiology – negating the negative: A standpoint theory of Internet and
society shows how the two competing forces of competition and
cooperation result in class formation and produce potentials for the
dissolution of exploitation and oppression. It is based on the judge-
ment that cooperation is more desirable than competition, which
is just another way of saying that structures of exploitation and
oppression need to be questioned, criticized and sublated.
Based on the notion of Marxist critique (see Horkheimer, 1937;
Marcuse, 1937), Critical Internet Theory can be conceived as identifying and
analysing antagonisms in the relationship of Internet and society; it shows
how the Internet is shaped and shapes the colliding forces of competition and
cooperation; it is oriented towards showing how domination and exploitation
are structured and structuring the Internet and on how class formation and
potential class struggles are technologically mediated; it identifies Internet-
supported, not yet realized potentials of societal development and radically
questions structures that restrain human and societal potentials for coopera-
tion, self-determination, participation, happiness and self-management.
Why is a Critical Internet Theory needed, and not just Critical
Internet Research? If a theory is understood as a logically interconnected
set of systematic hypotheses that describe worldly phenomena and the lat-
ter’s foundation, structure, causes, effects and dynamics, and empiricism as
the observation and collection of data for constructing systematic and
reflected knowledge, then one arrives at two levels of science. There is no
theory that is not grounded in empirical observations and no empirical
research that does not make some theoretical assumptions. However, there
can be a different stress of the two factors, and hence one can distinguish
between theoretical research (primarily theoretically informed) and empir-
ical research (primarily empirically informed). Why is social theory so
important for Internet research? The emergence of the Internet has
resulted in a plurality of concepts such as Internet economy, digital
democracy, cyberculture, virtual community, cyberlove, eParticipation,
eGovernment, eGovernance, online journalism, social software, Web 2.0
and so forth. There is no clear meaning of these terms; some of them
remain very vague or contradictory. The task of Critical Internet Theory is
to discuss how the fundamental concepts that characterize modern society
and its negation can be applied to the relationship of Internet and society
so that they function as critical categories.
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My book Internet and Society: Social Theory in the Information Age (Fuchs,
2008) addresses these questions in more depth; it is a critical neo-Marxist
theory of what I have termed transnational informational capitalism. New
media as such do not have clear-cut effects; they are antagonistically struc-
tured and embedded into the antagonisms of capitalist society. The antag-
onism between cooperation and competition that shapes modern society,
limits self-determination and participation, also shapes the technosocial
Internet system. Under current societal conditions, which are characterized
by the colonization of society by the instrumental logic of accumulation,
risks and competitive forces dominate over realized opportunities, coopera-
tion and participation on the Internet. The rest of this article discusses one
specific realm of Critical Internet Theory in order to give an example of
how such an analysis operates. It deals with the antagonistic relationship of
gifts and commodities in the capitalist Internet economy. This antagonism
is based on what Marx termed the antagonism between forces and relations
of production.
The antagonism between productive forces and relations of production
in informational capitalism: information as gift and commodity
Information-based productive forces The dialectical antagonistic character of
social and technical networks as the motor of competition and cooperation
in informational capitalism reflects Marx’s idea that the productive forces of
capitalism are at the same time means of exploitation and domination and
produce potentials that go beyond actuality, point towards a radically trans-
formed society and anticipate a fully cooperative design of the means of pro-
duction. The productive forces of contemporary capitalism are organized
around informational networks (Fuchs, 2008). It is due to three specific
characteristics of such structures that they come in contradiction with the
capitalist relations of production and are a germ form (Keimform) of a soci-
ety that is based on fully cooperative and socialized means of production:
• Information as a strategic economic resource is globally produced
and diffused by networks. It is a good that is hard to control in
single places or by single owners.
• Information is intangible. It can easily be copied, which results in
multiple ownerships and hence undermines individual private
• The essence of networks is that they strive for establishing con-
nections. Networks are in essence a negation of individual owner-
ship and the atomism of capitalism.
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Informational networks both extend and undermine capital accumula-
tion. Informational networks aggravate the capitalist contradiction between
the collective production and the individual appropriation of goods:
The contradiction between the general social power into which capital
develops, on the one hand, and the private power of the individual capital-
ists over these social conditions of production, on the other, becomes ever
more irreconcilable, and yet contains the solution of the problem, because
it implies at the same time the transformation of the conditions of produc-
tion into general, common, social, conditions. (Marx, 1894: 274)
Networks are a material condition of a free association, but the coop-
erative networking of the relations of production is not an automatic result
of networked productive forces; a true network society in the sense of an
association of free and equal producers (Marx, 1869: 62) is something that
people must struggle for and that they can achieve under the given condi-
tions but that could very well also never emerge if the dominant regime is
successful in continuing its reign. Networks are forms of development as
well as fetters of capitalism; paraphrasing Marx one can say that informa-
tional capitalism is a point where the means of production have become
‘incompatible with their capitalist integument’ (Marx, 1867: 791).
The antagonistic economic character of network capitalism has two
opposing sides, the cooperative one of the informational gift economy and
the competitive one of the informational commodity economy.
Knowledge is in global network capitalism a strategic economic
resource; property struggles in the information society take on the form of
conflicts over the public or proprietary character of knowledge. Its pro-
duction is inherently social, cooperative and historical. Knowledge is in
many cases produced by individuals in a joint effort. New knowledge
incorporates earlier forms of knowledge; it is coined by the whole history
of knowledge. Hence, it is in essence a public good and it is difficult to
argue that there is an individual authorship that grounds individual prop-
erty rights and copyrights. Global economic networks and cyberspace
today function as channels of production and diffusion of knowledge com-
modities; the accumulation of profit by selling knowledge is legally guar-
anteed by intellectual property rights.
In society, information can only be produced jointly in cooperative
processes, not individually. Hence, Marx argued that knowledge ‘depends
partly on the cooperation of the living, and partly on the utilisation of the
labours of those who have gone before’ (Marx, 1894: 114). Whenever new
information emerges, it incorporates the whole societal history of infor-
mation: that is, information has a historical character. Hence, information
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in essence is a public good, freely available to all. But in global informa-
tional capitalism, information has become an important productive force
that favours new forms of capital accumulation. Information is today not
treated as a public good, rather as a commodity. There is an antagonism
between information as a public good and as a commodity.
If the grounding feature of information is that it is a social, histori-
cal, dynamic good, then its essence is its public character. According to
Hegel, truth means the correspondence of essence and existence of a thing.
So based on Hegel’s logic of essence, one can argue that an information
society, in which information is a commodity (informational capitalism) is
a false information society because it restricts access and transforms infor-
mation artificially into a private good. A true information society in con-
trast then is an information society in which knowledge is available to all
for free and is coproduced in cooperation processes.
The antagonistic character of information That informational capitalism is
dominated by corporate interests can be visualized by figures like the fol-
lowing: the total GDP of all 53 African states was US$1,000,913 billion
in 2007.
The total assets of the top six knowledge corporations (AT&T,
Vodafone, Verizon, Deutsche Telekom, Nippon, Telefonica)
US$1,132,41 billion in 2007 and hence larger than the total African GDP.
This shows the huge economic power of knowledge corporations.
Knowledge that is produced, transmitted and communicated with the
help of technologies influences human thinking and decisions. Hence, the
existing agglomeration of economic capital by knowledge corporations
gives them a tremendous power for influencing human thinking and deci-
sions. They control definitions of reality and are able to create one-dimen-
sional views of reality that neglect negation and critique of dominant
views that represent dominant interests. Corporate power allows the con-
trol of worldviews, labour and quality standards, markets, political power,
prices, technological standards and consumer behaviour. Proprietary mod-
els that aim at accumulating capital with the help of media like the
Internet form the dominant reality of informational capitalism.
However, an alternative production model has been developed that to
a certain extent challenges capitalism and sees economic goods not as
property that should be individually possessed but as common goods to
which all people should have access and from which all should benefit.
This model stresses open knowledge, open access and cooperative produc-
tion forms; it can, for example, be found in virtual communities like the
open-source community that produces the Linux operating system, which
is freely accessible and to which, due to the free access to the source code
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of its software applications, people can easily contribute. The open access
principle has resulted in global open-source production models where peo-
ple cooperatively and voluntarily produce digital knowledge that under-
mines the proprietary character of knowledge (if knowledge is free and of
good quality, why should one choose other knowledge that is expensive?)
The open-source principle has also been applied to other areas, such as
online encyclopaedias (Wikipedia) and online journalism (Indymedia).
Eric Raymond (1998) has characterized the free software community
as challenging the ‘cathedral-like’ software development methods of cor-
porations by cooperation and self-organization. Rishab Ayer Ghosh (1998)
sees the open-source Internet economy as a ‘digital cooking-pot’ that takes
in whatever is produced, clones its whole contents, and gives them to who-
ever wants it. Open-source principles are not automatically anti-capitalist.
One can distinguish various approaches: first, a neoliberal position of rep-
resentatives who want to subsume and commodify open access and open
content (e.g. Tapscott and Williams, 2006). Second, a social democratic
view aiming at a dual economy that besides informational commodities
also guarantees the existence of information commons (e.g. Benkler, 2006;
Lessig, 2006; Vaidhyanathan, 2004).
Third, a critical position that views
information as essentially common good and argues for a cooperative infor-
mation society that transcends capitalism and the commodity form of
information, and in which information is a commons (e.g. Atton, 2004;
Barbrook, 1998, 1999, 2007; Söderberg, 2002).
Open-source software has been realized mainly within projects such as
the Linux operating system. Special licences (termed copy-left) such as the
GNU public licence have been developed for ensuring that free software has
an open access to its source code. Free software hardly yields economic
profit; it is freely available on the Internet and constitutes an alternative
model of production that questions proprietary production models.
Digitization allows the easy copying of knowledge such as texts,
music, images, software and videos. The Internet enables the fast and
free global distribution of knowledge with the help of technologies such
as peer-to-peer networks (Napster, Audiogalaxy, KaZaA, KaZaA Lite,
LimeWire, Morpheus, Edonkey, WinMX, iMesh, Bearshare, Blubster,
SoulSeek, BitTorrent, Overnet, Toadnode, Grokster, etc.). The informa-
tional content can be stored on different physical carriers; the possession
of digital information by one person does not imply the non-possession
of it by others. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)
has sued operators of such network applications, but whenever one oper-
ator has been forced to quit its services, others have emerged. This shows
that information and informational networks like the Internet are hard
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to control and are embedded in social struggles over the public or pri-
vate character of information.
The two poles of a dialectic are not only separated and different, they
are also entangled and meshed. In the case of gifts and commodities, this
means that the gift form is subsumed under the commodity form and can
even be used directly for achieving profit.
The gift commodity Internet economy: social
networking platforms
There is a commodified Internet economy and a non-commodified Internet
economy. Only those aspects of the Internet economy that are non-profit
gifts, that just have use value and no exchange value and are hence provided
without costs for the users and without selling advertisement space, can be
considered as decommodified or non-commodified. Examples are file-shar-
ing platforms, Wikipedia, Linux and Indymedia. Commodified Internet
spaces are always profit oriented, but the goods they provide are not neces-
sarily exchange values and market oriented; in some cases (such as Google,
Yahoo, MySpace, YouTube, Netscape), free goods or platforms are provided
as gifts in order to drive up the number of users so that high advertisement
rates can be charged in order to achieve profit. In other cases, digital or non-
digital goods are sold with the help of the Internet (e.g. Amazon), or
exchange of goods is mediated and charged for (online marketplaces such as
eBay or the Amazon Marketplace). In any of these cases, the primary orien-
tation of such spaces is instrumental reason: that is, the material interest of
achieving money profit, a surplus to the invested capital.
In the early phase of the World Wide Web, platforms that provided
content were important business models. Many new stock companies in
the areas of Internet content and Internet services had emerged up to the
mid-1990s. By the years 2005 and 2006, accumulation strategies related
to the Internet had shifted from a primary focus on information to a focus
on communication and cooperation (Fuchs, 2008). Some scholars like to
designate this transformation as the emergence of ‘Internet 2.0’ and ‘Web
2.0’, although the main purpose behind using these terms seem to be a
marketing strategy for boosting investment. The most characteristic
example of Web 2.0 are the social networking platforms like MySpace or
Facebook, which allow the online maintenance and establishment of social
relationships by an integrated use of technologies like email, websites,
guest books, forums, digital videos, or digital images. So, for example,
MySpace is a Web platform that allows users to generate personal profiles,
on which they can upload pictures, text, videos, music, and keep their
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personal blogs. It networks users with a friendship system (users can add
others to their friend list and post comments to their friends’ guest books),
discussion forums, interest groups, chat rooms and a mail function. Such
platforms have both a commodity form and ideological character.
The commodity form of social networking platforms
Commercial Web 2.0 applications are typically free to users; they generate
profit by achieving as many users as possible by offering free services and
selling advertisement space to third parties and additional services to
users. The more users, the more profit, that is, the more services are offered
for free, the more profit can be generated. Although the principle of the
gift points towards a postcapitalist society, gifts are today subsumed under
capitalism and used for generating profit in the Internet economy. The
Internet gift economy has a double character: it supports and at the same
time undermines informational capitalism. Applications such as file-shar-
ing software question the logic of commodities, whereas platforms such as
Google and MySpace are characteristic of the capitalist gift economy.
Internet 2.0 is characterized by this antagonism between information
commodities and information gifts.
The Internet gift commodity economy can be read as a specific form
of what Dallas Smythe has termed the audience commodity (Smythe,
2006). He suggests that in the case of media advertisement models the
audience is sold as a commodity. ‘Because audience power is produced, sold,
purchased and consumed, it commands a price and is a commodity. . . . You
audience members contribute your unpaid work time and in exchange you
receive the program material and the explicit advertisements’ (Smythe,
2006: 233, 238). Audiences would work, although unpaid; the consump-
tion of the mass media would be work because it would result in a com-
modity, hence it would produce that commodity. Also the audience’s work
would include ‘learning to buy goods and to spend their income accord-
ingly’, the demand for the consumption of goods and the reproduction of
their own labour power (Smythe, 2006: 243ff.).
With the rise of user-generated content and free access social networking
platforms like MySpace or Facebook and other free access platforms that yield
profit by online advertisement, the Web seems to come close to the accumu-
lation strategies employed by capital on traditional mass media like television
or radio. The users who ‘google’ data, upload or watch videos on YouTube,
upload or browse personal images on Flickr, or accumulate friends with whom
they exchange content or communicate online on social networking platforms
like MySpace or Facebook, constitute an audience commodity that is sold to
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advertisers. The difference between the audience commodity on traditional
mass media and on the Internet is that in the latter the users are also content
producers: there is user-generated content, the users engage in permanent cre-
ative activity, communication, community building and content production.
That the users are more active on the Internet than in the reception of televi-
sion or radio content is due to the decentralized structure of the Internet that
allows many-to-many communication. Due to the permanent activity of the
recipients and their status as prosumers, I would in the case of the Internet
argue that the audience commodity is a prosumer commodity or produser
commodity. The category of the prosumer commodity/produser commodity
does not signify a democratization of the media towards participatory systems,
but the total commodification of human creativity. Much of the time spent
online produces profit for large corporations like Google, NewsCorp (which
owns MySpace) or Yahoo (which owns Flickr). Advertisements on the Internet
are frequently personalized. This is possible by surveilling, storing and assess-
ing user activities with the help of computers and databases. This is another
difference to television and radio, which due to their centralized structure pro-
vide less individualized content and advertisements. But in the area of the tra-
ditional mass media also, one can observe a certain shift as, for instance, in the
case of pay-per-view, televotings, talkshows and call-in TV and radio shows. In
the case of the Internet, the commodification of audience participation is eas-
ier to achieve than on other mass media. The rise of the Internet prosumer
commodity also shows that the visions of critical theorists like Benjamin,
Brecht or Enzensberger of an emancipatory media structure has today been
subsumed under capital. New media do carry a certain potential for advancing
grassroots socialism, but this potential is antagonistically entangled in the
dominant structures and it is unclear if the capitalist integument can be
stripped away. Personalized advertisement on the Internet is an expression of
the tendency towards what Deleuze has termed the ‘society of control’ as an
aspect of contemporary marketing and capitalism, in the sense that individu-
als are activated to continuously participate in and integrate themselves into
the structures of exploitation (see Fuchs 2008: 149ff.), during as well as out-
side wage labour time.
The more users make use of advertisement-based free online plat-
forms and the more time they spend online producing, consuming and
exchanging content, communicating with others, the higher the value of
the prosumer commodity they produce will become, the higher the adver-
tisement prices will rise and the higher the profits of the specific Internet
corporations will be. ‘The price that corporations pay for advertising spots
on particular programmes is determined by the size and social composition
of the audience it attracts’ (Murdock and Golding, 2005: 65).
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In Web 2.0, social relationships are commodified. An alternative are
non-commercial, non-profit open-source platforms that focus on social and
political networking. Social networking poses possibilities for group forma-
tion and cooperation, but the dominant forms are shaped by individualized
communication and corporate interests. However, the social potential that
emerges from these sites could be channelled into collective political projects.
The ideological character of social networking platforms
Contemporary new media discourse frequently argues that Web 2.0 – the
domination of the World Wide Web by applications that support com-
munity building, communication and user-generated content and that is
characterized by technologies such as blogs, social networking platforms
and wikis – means a democratization of society because information con-
sumers could become prosumers and participate in knowledge production
and discourse. So, for example, Tapscott and Williams (2006: 145) argue
that Web 2.0 democratizes the media: ‘If mainstream outlets were to
engage and cocreate with their audiences in a more profound way, surely
this could only accentuate positive attributes such as balance, fairness, and
accuracy, while making the media experience more dynamic.’ This
renewed deterministic techno-optimism argues that the availability of
more tools with which more people can now publish and communicate
information in easier ways on the Internet implies a democratization of the
media. But the degree of participation in the media not only concerns the
availability of production and circulation technologies, but also how visi-
ble information is, how much attention it gains, how much difference it
makes, how much control of actual decision processes is enabled and the
degree to which the structures of ownership, power and discourse are
shaped in participatory and cooperative ways.
If democracy is understood as the production of information by all that
has no significant political effects and leaves dominant power structures
untouched, then an ideological way of legitimating existing modes of domi-
nation is present. Everybody can then voice her or his opinion on the Web,
but nobody will care about it because the real decisions are still taken by the
elite groups. The information produced then constitutes an endless flood of
data, but not significant political voices. Web 2.0 can be and is appropriated
by politicians, parties, corporations and the representative political system to
give voice to the people without listening and to give people a say in politi-
cal decisions. Citizens can communicate political ideas, but in their everyday
life they hardly have transformative institutionalized power. Web 2.0 can
result in the illusionary impression that citizens today can make a difference,
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whereas in reality they cannot influence policies and live in a world that is
dominated by corporate interests and corporate control. Web 2.0 under such
conditions is an ideology and an expression of repressive tolerance (Marcuse,
1969). The repressive tolerance of Web 2.0 is a contemporary expression of
what Marcuse almost 40 years ago termed ‘totalitarian democracy’.
Web 2.0 not only functions as repressive tolerance, but also as mar-
keting ideology for advancing capital accumulation by selling audiences as
commodities. Web 2.0 applications like social networking platforms keep
individuals busy generating personal information that they display online
in social networking profiles, blogs, etc. Most of these applications are built
in such a way that each participant has his or her own space that he or she
creates and maintains. Others are welcome as friends who are accumulated
in friends lists and who comment in guest books or on blog entries, but
inherently social platforms where users co-create are largely missing. Social
networking platforms in their current form further advance individualiza-
tion. (1) They are ideological expressions of individual creativity that cre-
ate the illusion that individual expressions count in capitalism because they
can be publicly displayed on the Internet (the problem is that this individ-
ualized information hardly influences political decisions and power struc-
tures). (2) They are based on instrumental reason because on platforms like
MySpace networking becomes a performance-driven and competitive effort
oriented around accumulating as many friends as possible (Fuchs, 2008).
Another problematic aspect of social networking platforms is that they are
huge collections of personal information that if accessed by corporations or
state apparatuses give a new dimension to surveillance.
Social networking has an ideological character: its networking advances
capitalist individualization, accumulation and legitimization. An alternative
would be platforms that allow group profiles, joint profile creation, group
blogging, and that are explicitly oriented towards collective political and
social goals. I suggest that what are needed primarily today are fundamen-
tal transformations of the political and economic system towards participa-
tory systems that are supported by new media. This today is not the case;
what happens right now is the commodification and colonization of society
and with it, of the media and Web 2.0 by dominant interests.
Social networking platforms are an example of the simultaneity of the
ideological and commodity character of media. The ideology of individu-
alization drives user demand, which allows the commodification of audi-
ences that yields profit. The commodification of audiences allows the
further extension and sophistication of social networking platforms, which
in turn attracts more users and so further advances individualization.
There is a dialectic of commodification and individualization.
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The approach advanced in this article is one that argues for the need of a
critical social theory that is applied to contemporary media like the
Internet. The notion of critique has been understood as a Marxian form of
critique and it has been argued that such an understanding is needed in
order to address the societal problems of transnational information capi-
talism. Critical theory should have as one of its tasks today the analysis of
the antagonisms of contemporary capitalism and how they are related to
the Internet (and other media and technologies); it is dialectical, realistic,
materialistic and a standpoint theory that opposes all forms of domination
and exploitation and argues for the advancement of a cooperative society.
It aims at showing how the relationship of Internet and society is shaped
by and shapes societal antagonisms, and which suppressed development
potentials of society have not yet been realized.
1. Source: Forbes online lists,
2. My focus on Marcuse is based on the insight that he is the most dialectical crit-
ical theorist (see Fuchs, 2005a, 2005b) because he conceived media and cul-
ture simultaneously as ideological and as potentially liberating. Like Adorno,
he stressed the critical role of art, but in contrast to Adorno, he also saw the
possibility for a critique of capitalism by alternative media. Marcuse’s analysis
of Hegel is a reading that stresses a subject–object dialectic that transcends
deterministic interpretations of Hegel and Marx. He was one of the first
authors who (in his book ‘Reason & Revolution’) stressed the importance of the
Hegelian logic of essence and the role of the Marxian philosophical writings
for grounding a humanist Marxism. Such an approach seems to be especially
important today in a situation where a post-Soviet Marxism is needed and
Marxism is struggling to throw off its Stalinist dogmatization. One aspect of
the media that Marcuse (just like Horkheimer and Adorno) did not see is their
direct economic role in the form of media products that are sold as commodi-
ties. In this respect, Marcuse’s theory needs to be enhanced by Critical Political
Economy approaches.
3. Source: World Economic Outlook Online Database, April 2007 (accessed 25
June 2007).
4. Calculation based on capital assets, Forbes 2000, 2007 Listing of Largest
Corporations, 29 March 2007).
5. The social democratic position can, for example, be found in the works of Siva
Vaidhyanathan (2004). He argues that there is a conflict between anarchy and oli-
garchy that has been amplified by the rise of digital network technologies.
Characteristics would be free access values and freedom on the one hand and prop-
erty values and control on the other. As a solution, he suggests a middle-ground,
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a civic republicanism that transcends ‘thick communicationism’ and ‘individual-
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