Posts Tagged ‘politics’

On Friday journalist Paul Mason published a fairly long article in the Guardian entitled ‘The End of Capitalism Has Begun.’ It features some interesting thoughts, and will hopefully help disseminate some ideas which have been floating about in academia for quite a while to a broader audience. That said, there are a few things in the piece which I think are somewhat naieve and require a response to.

The main thrust of Mason’s argument is that capitalism is inevitably on the way out because of several social changes being wrought by contemporary networked information processing technologies. Firstly, Mason argues that because of the increased levels of automation brought by digital systems, there will be a dramatic reduction in the volume of work required within a society. Secondly, he argues that the fundamental laws of economics have been broken by an information economy within the contemporary state of informational abundance. Finally, he argues that ‘cognitive capitalism’ is predicated on a mode of collaborative and networked social production which itself is contradictory to the type of individualised wealth production associated with capitalism.

The first of these points is hardly new. The displacement of labour from humans into various forms of machinery is, of course, something which has occurred for at least a couple of hundred years, as was presciently observed and described by Karl Marx (in the Fragment on Machines, a text which Mason cites later in his essay). Alongside the ongoing historical transformation of production processes, there have always been the claim that technology will make everyone’s life better by reducing the need for arduous and boring labour tasks, instead freeing humanity to enjoy increased levels of leisure time accompanied by a higher level of material wealth and comfort. And whilst there are certainly some humans who are in that situation today, we could also point to the increasing precariousness of work, particularly within neoliberal economies where full employment has never been an important goal, as a reminder that decreasing the overall level of manual labour does not necessarily entail benefits for all.

Rather than seeing work and wealth equally being divided amongst citizens, today we instead find millions of unemployed or underemployed humans who are effectively used as an industrial reserve force to reduce any demands for increased wages, reduced working hours and other kinds of benefits which were associated with the collective action of the twentieth century trade union movements. Whilst a relatively small number of humans become more materially wealthy than any of their predecessors, this occurs alongside a growing inequality between the global super rich and everyone else. As research last year found, the richest 85 individuals on the planet now own more than the poorest 50% of the global population, around 3.5 billion people.

Additionally, in a ‘creative’ ‘digital economy where communicative acts are themselves commodified over corporate social networks, what does and does not count as productive work is itself problematised. Theorists ranging from autonomist Marxists such as Franco Berardi through to cyberutopian capitalists such as Clay Shirky have argued that what used to count as leisure time is now a key motor of wealth generation, as your online ‘leisure’ activities are used to tailor personal, location-aware advertising to your behaviour.

Which brings us to Mason’s second point, that economics is predicated upon scarcity, and that the current abundance of information demarcates that we have entered an era where traditional economic theory cannot adequately function. Again, rhetoric surrounding the end of the economics of scarcity is not new, but such thinking fundamentally fails to grasp the dynamics of scarcity surrounding informational systems, and systems is a key word here, because economics is about circulation and flows, not a single thing (be it information, energy or anything else). Information is certainly a crucial component of digital networked ecologies, and the volume of contemporary information – what Mark Andrejevic and Berardi have both described as information overload – is certainly not one of scarcity, but the key is to think in systemic terms as to what type of scarcity is generated as a consequence of the abundance of information. The answer, is that human attention is what become scarce when information is abundant.

Indeed, the notion of the attention economy is not that new, with early versions of the term being deployed by authors such as Michael Goldhaber and Georg Franck around the turn of the century. For an excellent overview of contemporary debates surrounding economies of attention I would suggest reading this article by Patrick Crogan and Sam Kinsley. The key point, is that far from rendering the economics of scarcity redundant, what we instead find is that the abundance of online information means that human attention is increasingly scarce and thus becomes a desirable and lucrative commodity, which is why heavily targeted online advertising is a booming multi-billion business, one which ventures such as Google’s search engine, Facebook, YouTube and other major online players are almost entirely dependent upon for their revenues and astronomical market valuations.

The third point Mason raises, that online networks are predicated upon modes of social cooperation and collectivity which are contradictory to the mode of capitalism they are located within, and thus contain the seeds of a new social system which will eventually replace capitalism itself, is arguably the most complex and interesting point he raises. However, this too is hardly a new statement, as it is one of the central tenets of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s triad of books Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth, as well as being an argument which has been raised in differing forms by theorists such as Bernard Stiegler (via the economy of contribution) and Michel Bauwens (via peer-to-peer production). I wont go into these positions in much detail here, but what I do think is worth highlighting is that many of these claims about biopolitical production, economies of contribution and peer-to-peer production were originally made quite a while ago (Empire was released in 2000), and that since those times, there has been the emergence of the the big corporate social media players whose financial model is entirely predicated on the exploitation of the free cooperative labour of their users.

This isn’t to say that people don’t get anything from Facebook (basically some cost-free server storage, a fairly clean user interface, and access to the billion-plus strong Facebook network), but that Facebook’s market valuation of over 250 billion US dollars is entirely built upon its ability to commodify the social relationships of its users. Far from existing outside of, and in opposition to a capitalism which is wrongly assumed to by monolithic and rigid, we see the way that capitalism (which depends upon finding new areas to provide growth) has found a way of extending what it understood to be a commodity, so that many aspects of our social lives, which were previously thought to be intangible, unquantifiable and thus could not be monetised, are now major players in global financial markets.

Indeed, whereas during the early days of the internet, the underlying technology itself and the modes of cooperation it made possible such as the distributed mode of production that underpins Free and Open Source software were seen as radical new technologically-enabled alternatives to neoliberal capitalism, what we have seen more recently has been the way that capitalism has been able to find novel ways of reintegrating these innovations into financial markets, such as the way that Google utilises open source software outside of search in areas such as Android and Chrome. Indeed, one of the most interesting analyses of contemporary capitalism comes from Jodi Dean, who argues that our current era is marked by a stage of communicative capitalism, whereby far from forming alternatives to global capitalism, participation in networked digital telecommunications has become a central driver of the capitalist economy.

Mason surmises his argument by stating that:

The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information; and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial. Everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy: between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of society that prefigure what comes next

This presents a straightforward binary opposition between network and hierarchy, between the new, good digital ways which point towards a postcapitalism and the bad, old ones which represent our capitalist past and present. However much I might wish this to be the case, and it would be really lovely to think that current technologies will inevitably lead to the replacement of a system of gross global social inequalities and catastrophic climate change with something better, I find the kind of technological determinism present in Mason’s essay to be blinkered at best. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari remind us in the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, it is not a case of opposing hierarchical models with networked and decentralised ones, but a case of understanding how these two tendencies occur in different ways in actual systems which are almost always a combination of the two.

Thinking this way means mapping the new hierarchies and modes of exploitation associated digital technologies whilst also looking for the lines of flight, or positive ways of transforming the situation that the new technological formations present. That doesn’t mean that there can be no hope for change that involves technology, but that positing this situation as a good/bad binary opposition, or suggesting that technology itself holds essential characteristics which will necessarily transform society in a particular direction is a misguided approach. Indeed, some of the most interesting materials coming out of the P2P foundation recently have argued that openess is not enough, that just making things open or collaborative can lead to growing inequalities as the actors with the most attentional, algorithmic and economic resources are ususally those best placed to leverage open data, open culture and open source ventures. Alongside openess, they argue that we need to think about sustainability and solidarity in order to bring about the type of social and ecological transformation that would mark the end of capitalism. That to me sounds like a far more productive call to action than simply gesturing towards the digital technologies whose introduction has not thus far been accompanied by a more egalitarian and sustainable global society.



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This is a draft version of a paper which was published in NYX: Vol 7 Machines in 2012.


Contemporary analyses of the relationships between humans and machines − ways that machines influence the scale, pace, and patterns of socio-technical assemblages − tend to focus upon the effects, impacts, and results of the finished products: the packaged information processing commodities of digital culture. This work is undeniably important in demarcating the multiple and complex ways that human symbiosis with machinic prostheses alters cognitive capacities and presents novel, distributed, peer-to-peer architectures for economic, political, and socio-technical networks. However, existing discourses surrounding machines and digital culture largely fail to explore the wider material ecologies implicated in contemporary technics.


Ecological analysis of machines seeks to go beyond exploring marketable commodities, instead examining the ecological costs involved in the reconfiguration of ores, metals, and minerals into smartphones and servers. This involves considering the systems implicated in each stage of the life-cycle of contemporary information-processing machines: the extraction of materials from the earth; their refinement and processing into pure elements, compounds, and then components; the product-manufacturing process; and finally what happens to these machines when they break or are discarded due to perceived obsolescence. At each stage of this life-cycle, and in the overall structure of the ecology of machines, there are ethical and political costs and problematics. This paper seeks to outline examples of these impacts and consider several ways in which they can be mitigated.


Hardware is not the only ecological scale associated with machines: flows of information and code, of content and software, also comprise complex, dynamic, systems open to flows of matter and energy; however, issues surrounding these two scales are substantially addressed by existing approaches to media and culture. We can understand scale as a way of framing the mode of organisation evident within the specific system being studied. The notion of ecological analysis approaching different scales, stems from the scientific discipline of ecology and is transposed into critical theory through the works of Gregory Bateson and Felix Guattari. Within the science of ecology, scale is a paramount concern, with the discipline approaching several distinct scales, the relationships between: organism and environment, populations (numerous organisms of the same species), communities (organisms of differing species), and ecosystems (comprising living and nonliving elements within a geographical location).i No particular scale is hierarchically privileged, with each nested scale understood as crucial to the functioning of ecosystem dynamics.


The notion of multiple, entangled scales are similarly advanced by Bateson, who presents three ecologies − mind, society and environment.ii Key to understanding their entangled − and thus inseparable – nature, is Bateson’s elaboration of distributed cognition, whereby the pathways of the mind are not reducible to the brain, nervous systems, or confines of the body, but are immanent in broader social and environmental systems. The human is only ever part of a thinking system which includes other humans, technology and an environment. Indeed, Bateson contends that arrogating mental capacity exclusively to individuals or humans constitutes an epistemological error, whose wrongful identification of the individual (life-form or species) as the unit of ecological survival necessarily promotes a perspective whereby the environment is viewed as a resource to be exploited, rather than the source of all systemic value.iii


Guattari advances Bateson’s concepts in The Three Ecologies,iv expounding a mode of political ecology which has little to do with the notion of preserving ‘nature’, instead constructing an ethical paradigm and political mobilisations predicated upon connecting subjective, societal and environmental scales in order to escape globalised capitalism’s focus upon economic growth as the sole measure of wealth. According to Guattari, only by implementing an ethics which works across these three entangled ecologies can socially beneficial and environmentally sustainable models of growth be founded. Ecology then, presents a way of approaching machines which decentres the commonly encountered anthropocentrism that depicts machines (objects) assisting humans (subjects), instead encouraging us to consider ourselves and technologies as nodes within complex networks which extend across individual, social, environmental, and technological dimensions. Correspondingly, ecology requires a shift when considering value and growth; moving from the economic-led anthropocentric approach characteristic of neoliberalism, to valuing the health and resilience of ecosystems and their human and nonhuman, living and nonliving components. Consequently, applying an ecological ethics may prove useful in considering ways to mitigate many of the deleterious material impacts of the contemporaneous ecology of machines.


This paper will proceed by exploring the contemporary ecology of hardware, examining ecological costs which are incurred during each phase of the current industrial production cycle. Additionally,  the overall structure of this process will be analysed, alongside a conclusion which considers whether current iterations of information processing machines presents opportunities for the implementation of a mode of production within which the barriers between producers and consumers are less rigid, allowing alternative ethics and value systems to become viable.


The initial stages in the contemporary industrial production process are resource extraction and processing. A vast array of materials is required for contemporary microelectronics manufacturing, including: iron, copper, tin, tungsten, tantalum, gold, silicon, rare earth elements and various plastics. Considering the ways that these materials are mined connects information processing technologies to the flows of energy and matter that comprise the globalised networks of contemporary markets and trade systems, refuting claims that information processing technologies are part of a virtual, cognitive, or immaterial form of production.


One environmentally damaging practice currently widely employed is open-cast mining, whereby the topmost layers of earth are stripped back to provide access to ores underneath, whilst whatever ecosystem previously occupied the surface is destroyed. Mining also produces ecological costs including erosion and the contamination of local groundwater, for example in Picher, Oklahoma, lead and zinc mines left the area so badly polluted and at risk of structural subsidence, that the Environmental Protection Agency declared the town uninhabitable and ordered an evacuation.v Another series of ecological costs associated with resource extraction surrounds conflict minerals, which is increasingly being acknowledged thanks to the activities of NGOs and activists publicising the links between conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo (particularly coltan, the Congolese tantalum-containing ore) and information technologies (particularly mobile phones). Whilst coltan and other conflict minerals were not a primary factor in the outbreak of civil/regional conflict in the DRC, which has led directly or indirectly to the deaths of over five million people over a dozen years, as the conflict wore on and the various factions required revenue-raising activities to finance their continuing campaigns, conflict minerals ‘became a major reason to continue fighting… the Congo war became a conflict in which economic agendas became just as important as other agendas, and at times more important than other interests.’vi Factions including the Congolese army, various rebel groups and invading armies from numerous neighbouring states fiercely contested mining areas, as controlling mines allowed the various armed groups to procure minerals which were then sold for use in microelectronics, in order to finance munitions, enabling the continuation of military activities.

The role of the global microelectronics industry in financing the most brutal conflict of the last twenty years, reveals the connections between ‘virtual’ technologies and the geopolitics of globalised capitalism.


Engaging with the ecology of machines requires consideration of the ethical and political implications of the consequences wrought by current patterns of consumption upon people and ecosystems geographically far removed from sites of consumption, onto whom the brunt of negative externalities generated by current practices frequently falls. In this case the costs of acquiring cheap tantalum – a crucial substance in the miniaturisation of contemporary microelectronics – are not borne by consumers or corporations, but by people inside an impoverished and war-ravaged central African state.


Once extracted, materials are refined into pure elements and compounds, transformed into components, and then assembled into products during the manufacturing phase of the production process. Since the late 1980s there has been a shift away from the corporations who brand and sell information technology hardware incorporating manufacturing into their operations. Instead, a globalised model now dominates the industry, whereby manufacturing is primarily conducted by subcontractors in vast complexes concentrated in a handful of low cost regions, primarily south-east Asia.[vii] This can be understood within the broader context of changes to the global system of industrial production, whereby manufacturing is increasingly handled by subcontractors in areas where labour costs are low and there does not exist rigorously enforced legislation protecting the rights of workers or local ecosystems. Consequently, this transition has been accompanied by marked decreases in wages and safety conditions, alongside increased environmental damage as companies externalise costs onto local ecosystems.viii


Information technology sweatshops are receiving increasing attention, and have begun to punctuate public consciousness, partially as a consequence of campaigning from NGOs, and partially due to a spate of suicides among young migrant workers at Foxconn’s Longhua Science and Technology plant in Shenzhen, China. Fourteen workers aged 18-25 jumped off factory roofs to end their lives between January and May 2010 to escape an existence spent working 60-80 hours a week and earning around US$1.78 per hour manufacturing information processing devices such as the Apple iPad for consumers elsewhere in the world.


Once information processing technologies have been discarded, they become part of the 20-50 million tonnes of annually produced e-waste,ix much of which contains toxic substances such as lead, mercury, hexavalent chromium and cadmium. Whilst it is illegal for most OECD nations to ship hazardous or toxic materials to non-OECD countries, and illegal for non-OECD nations to receive hazardous wastes,x vast quantities of e-waste are shipped illicitly, with e-waste routinely mislabelled  as working goods for resale, circumventing laws such as the Basel Convention and the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronics Equipment (WEEE) Directive.xi In 2006 estimates suggest that 80% of North American and 60% of the EU’s electronics wastes were being exported to regions such as China, India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Ghana.xii Essentially, wealthy nations externalise the ecological costs of their toxic waste to impoverished peoples in the global south.


Once e-waste arrives in these areas it is ‘recycled’: machines are manually disassembled by workers often earning less than US$1.50 per day,xiii who implement a variety of techniques for recovering materials which can be resold. For example, copper is retrieved from wiring by burning the plastic casings, a process which releases brominated and chlorinated dioxins and furans; highly toxic materials which persist in organic systems, meaning that workers are poisoning themselves and local ecosystems. Investigation by the Basel Action Network reveals that:


Interviews reveal that the workers and the general public are completely unaware of the hazards of the materials that are being processed and the toxins they contain. There is no proper regulatory authority to oversee or control the pollution nor the occupational exposures to the toxins in the waste. Because of the general poverty people are forced to work in these hazardous conditions.xiv


This activity is often subsumed under the rhetoric of ‘recycling’, with associated connotations of environmental concern, however, the reality is that international conventions and regional laws are broken in order to reduce the economic costs of treating the hazardous remains of digital hardware.


The systematic displacement of negative externalities minimises the cost of commodities for consumers and improves profitability for corporations, but in doing so, makes the epistemological error delineated by Bateson and Guattari regarding the wrongful identification of value within systems. Creating systems designed to maximise benefits for the individual consumer − or individual corporation − while externalising costs onto the social and ecological systems which support those individual entities ultimately results in the breakdown of systems which consumers and corporations rely upon. Although such strategies create short term profitability, their neglect for longer term consequences breeds systemic instabilities which will eventually return to haunt these actors:


            If an organism or aggregate of organisms sets to work with a focus on its own survival and thinks that is the way to select its adaptive moves, its ‘progress’ ends up with a destroyed environment. If the organism ends up destroying its environment, it has in fact destroyed itself… The unit of survival is not the breeding organism, or the family line or the society… The unit of survival is a flexible organism-in-its-environment.xv


There have however, been numerous interventions by NGOs, activists, and concerned citizens who have employed the guilty machines at issue to address and alter these deleterious effects. The deployment of social media, for instance, to raise awareness of these issues and pressure corporations and governments to alter practices and laws, highlights what Bernard Stiegler and Ars Industrialis describe as the pharmacological context of contemporary technics:xvi xvii machines are simultaneously poisonous and the remedy to this poison. Thinking in terms of poison and toxicity is particularly cogent with reference to the material impacts of digital technologies, whereby what can otherwise appear to be a metaphorical way of approaching attention and desire amongst consumers, presents an insightful analysis of the material impacts which accompany the shifts in subjectivity, which Stiegler argues arise from changing technological environments.


The actions implied by this approach initially seem entirely inadequate given the scope of the problems: ‘retweeting’ messages and ‘liking’ pages in the face of serious social and ecological problematics that relate to the dynamics of globalised capitalism appears laughable. However, the impacts of collective action made possible by networked telecommunications has effected numerous cases: Wages at Foxconn’s plant in Shenzhen have risen from 900 to over 2000 yuan in less than a year in response to sustained pressure mobilised by assemblages of humans and machines, many of the latter having been assembled within that factory. In the face of widespread networked protests, Apple cancelled a contract with another Chinese subcontractor because of their employment of child labour.xviii Lobbying by NGOs such as Raise Hope For Congo,xix supported by a networked activist community, has convinced the US congress to examine legislating to phase out the use of conflict minerals.


The mobilisation of attention via these socio-technological networks effects change in two primary ways: through raising awareness and altering vectors of subjectivity amongst consumers, and by subsequently mobilising this attention as public opinion to pressurise governmental and corporate actors to alter practices. In the face of this type of networked action, governments are compelled to avoid the appearance of supporting unethical practices. Corporations, as fabrication-free entities which design and market, but do not manufacture products, are faced with the potential toxification of their brand. Corporations such as Apple and Dellxx have demonstrated a willingness to take remedial action, albeit often in a limited way.xxi


There are additional issues raised by the structure of the flows of matter associated with the system in its entirety. The industrial model of production involves a near-linear flow throughout the stages of a machine’s lifespan; resources are extracted, processed, used, and then discarded. Recycling is partial, leading to the steady accumulation of ‘waste’ matter in landfills. By contrast, when examining how ecosystems work, we are confronted with cyclical processes with multiple negative feedback loops. These cycles create sustainable processes: there is no end stage where waste accumulates, as the outputs of processes become inputs for other nodes in the network, allowing systems to run continuously for millions of years. Feedback loops within these systems build resilience, so minor perturbations do not create systemic instability or collapse, only when the system faces major disturbance, a substantial alteration to the speeds or viscosities of ecological flows which exceed adaptive capacity, does collapse occur. In the past, ecological collapse and planetary mass extinction events have been triggered by phenomena such as an asteroid striking the planet, today a mass extinction event and new geological age, the Anthropocenexxii is under way because of anthropogenic industrial activity.


Given the state of play with reference to climate change, loss of biodiversity, and associated impacts upon human civilisations, urgent action is required in reconfiguring the industrial production process along alternatives based on biomimicry: cyclical processes resembling closed-loop systems such as the nitrogen cycle. This methodology has been adopted by the cradle-to-cradle movement, who advocate that the waste from one iteration of processes should become the nutrients, or food for successive iterations. Products are not conceived of as commodities to be sold and discarded, but valuable assets to be leased for a period before the materials are transformed into other, equally valuable products. A cradle-to-cradle methodology also seeks to remove toxic substances from goods during the design process, entailing that there is no subsequent conflict of interest between cheap but damaging and responsible but expensive disposal at a later date. 


Another movement which points towards alternative methods of producing machines are open-source hardware (OSH) communities, which apply an ethic derived from free/open-source software (FOSS) development, and implement homologous processes to designing and producing hardware.  Whereas FOSS involves the distributed collaboration of self-aggregating peers using the hardware/software/social infrastructures of the Internet to create software – a non-rival good which can be directly created and shared by exchanging digital data – OSH communities cannot collectively create the finished products, but share designs for how to make machines and source the requisite parts. Operating in this manner enables a mode of producing rival goods, including information technology hardware, which is led by user innovation and the desires and ethics of the producer/user community, rather than profit-orientated corporations, who have a vested interest in creating products which rapidly become obsolete and require replacement. OSH presents an example of the democratisation of innovation and production,xxiii and a rebuttal of the contention that peer-to-peer systems are only relevant to non-rival, informational ventures, whilst also presenting one way of approaching Stiegler’s concept of an economy of contribution.


Stiegler contends that the particular affordances of contemporary computing technologies enable the construction of a new economy which elides the distinction between producers and consumers. According to Stiegler, free software exemplifies a historically novel methodology predicated on communal labour and which is characterised by the formation of positive externalities.xxiv Whereas the contemporary ecology of machines is dominated by a model based on an econocentricism which advocates the externalisation of any possible costs onto social and environmental systems which are seen as ‘outside’ of economic concern and therefore valueless, Stiegler contends that there exists the potential to construct an alternative ecology of machines based upon broader conceptions of growth, resembling the ecological value systems advocated by Bateson and Guattari.


While the pharmacological context of technology entails that an economy of contribution is by no means certain, or even probable, a reorientation of the ecology of machines is crucial if we are to escape the spectre of ecological collapse. The current system of producing the material infrastructure of digital cultures is ecologically unsustainable and socially unjust, with problems at the scales of the structure of the production process as a whole, and within the specificities of each constituent stage. Only through a sustained engagement with the material consequences of information technologies, involving an eco-ethically inflected application of these machines themselves, may equitable alternatives based around contribution rather than commodities supersede the destructive tendencies of the contemporary ecology of machines.


i Michael Begon, Colin Townsend and John Harper, Ecology: From Individuals to Ecosystems, 4th Edition, Malden MA and Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006

ii Gregory Bateson, Steps To An Ecology of Mind, Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronsen Inc, 1972 p435-445

iii Gregory Bateson, Steps To An Ecology of Mind, Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronsen Inc, 1972 p468

iv Felix Guattari, The Three Ecologies,  trans Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton, London:Athelone Press, 2000

v John D. Sutter Last Man Standing at Wake for Toxic Town, 2009, CNN, available at http://articles.cnn.com/2009-06-30/us/oklahoma.toxic.town_1_tar-creek-superfund-site-picher-mines?_s=PM:US#cnnSTCText last visited 22/03/2012

vi Michael Nest, Coltan, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011 p76

vii Boy Lujthe (2006) The Changing Map of Global Electronics: Networks of Mass Production in the New Economy, in Ted Smith, David Sonnenfeld, David Naguib Pellow, (2006) Challenging the Chip, Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry, Philadelphia:Temple University Press, 2006, p22

viii Rohan Price, WhyNo Choice is a ChoiceDoes Not Absolve the West of Chinese Factory Deaths, Social Science Research Network, 2010, Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1709315   (last visited 15/03/2012)

ix Electronics Takeback Coalition,  Facts and Figures on E-Waste and Recycling, 2011, avaialble at http://www.electronicstakeback.com/wpcontent/uploads/Facts_and_Figures_on_EWaste_and_Recycling.pdf last visited 15/03/2012

Under the Basel Convention which forbids the transfer of toxic substances from OECD nations to non-OECD nations. However, the USA, Canada and Australia refused to sign the convention, and so it remains legal for these states to export hazardous wastes, although it is illegal for the non-OECD countries they send hazardous wastes to, to receive them

xi The WEEE directive, passed into EU law in 2003 and transposed into UK law in 2006 states that all e-waste must be safely disposed of within the EU at an approved facility, and that consumers can return used WEEE products when they purchase new products

xii Jim Puckett, High-Tech’s Dirty Little Secret: Economics and Ethics of the Electronic Waste Trade, in Ted Smith, David Sonnenfeld, David Naguib Pellow, (2006) Challenging the Chip, Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry, Philadelphia:Temple University Press, 2006, p225

xiii Jim Puckett and Lauren Roman, E-Scrap Exportation, Challenges and Considerations, Electronics and the Environment, 2002 Annual IEEE International Symposium, available at http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=1003243 last visited 15/03/2012

xiv Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Exporting Harm, The High-Tech Trashing of Asia, 2002, p26 available at http://www.ban.org/E-waste/technotrashfinalcomp.pdf last visited 15/03/2012

xv Gregory Bateson, Steps To An Ecology of Mind, Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronsen Inc, 1972 p457

xvi Bernard Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy, Cambridge:Polity 2010

xvii Ars Industrialis, Manifesto 2010, 2010, available at http://arsindustrialis.org/manifesto-2010 last visited 17/03/2012

xviii Tania Branigan, Apple Report Reveals Child Labour Increase, The Guardian, 15 February 2011, available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/feb/15/apple-report-reveals-child-labour last visited 18/03/2012

xix http://www.raisehopeforcongo.org/ last visited 15/03/12

xx David Wood and Robin Schneider, Toxicdude.com: The Dell Campaign, in Ted Smith, David Sonnenfeld, David Naguib Pellow, (2006) Challenging the Chip, Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry, Philadelphia:Temple University Press, 2006, p285-297

xxi For example the similarities between the labour rights violations found in reports at Foxconn in Shenzhen in 2006 and 2012 suggest that Apple’s claims in 2006 that they would take action to redress these violations were public relations rhetoric not substantiated by actions

xxii Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, Will Steffen, and Paul Crutzen, The New World of the Anthropocene,  2010, Environment Science & Technology 44 (7): 2228–2231. doi:10.1021/es903118j.

xxiii Eric Von Hippel, Democratising Innovation, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2005

xxiv Bernard Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy, Cambridge:Polity 2010 p129

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Communication Power is the latest book from Manuel Castells, the Spanish sociologist most famous for his trilogy of books on the Information Age, which give a theoretical overview and empirical evidence for the transition from an Industrial society to an Informational one, which Castells describes as ‘the rise of the network society.’

communication Power seeks to build on Castells previous theories pertaining to the Network Society, in formulating a theory of power relevant to the information age, and elucidating the ways in which power relates to media, both in terms of traditional mass media forms and also the exploding forms of user generated Internet based media, which Castells terms mass-self communication.

Castells argues that increasingly in the contemporary world power is not exercised by overly coercive behaviour, or the thinly veiled threat of such direct violence as it has been in previous times, but that power is a relation which exists between subjects, and is largely resultant of the capacity of actors to affect the minds of others. To this end Castells applies research from the fields of cognitive science and neuroscience to argue that people’s minds are affected not by rational and logical discourse as the tenets of post-enlightenment critical thought have traditionally argued, but that a huge amount of our decision making capacity is framed by our affective and emotional responses to information. Castells identifies mass media, the large, interdependent media corporations who own the majority of newspapers, television stations and radio stations as the primary device by which communications flows have been constructed to large audiences throughout the latter half of the 20th century. One of the features of contemporary society identified as having the potential (some of which is now being realized) to change the status of the relationship between media and power is that of the mass-self communication afforded by the Internet’s architecture of a distributed network of peers who are able to communicate between one another in a way which significantly differs from the top down hierarchical structure of the mass media. As with Castells’ Information Age trilogy, Communication Power covers a vast amount of ground, both theoretically and empirically over the course of its 433 pages, and so doing justice to the breadth of material he draws upon to support these central arguments in a short review is no easy task.

The book is structured into five main sections, with a brief opening which gives readers an insight into Castells’ own personal history while introducing the main areas of inquiry taken up in the text and a conclusion which draws together the various strands and hypotheses developed throughout the main body.

The first section, entitled Power in the Network society is largely a brief recapitulation of Castells’ earlier work on the network society, looking at some of the cultural, social, economic, legal and technological changes which have created what Castells argues forcefully to be a qualitatively different kind of society to the industrial paradigm which was dominant for much of the 20th century. Castells contends that describing the contemporary globalised world as a network society is apt as within contemporary contexts

Networks became the most efficient organisational form as a result of three major features of networks which benefited from the new technological environment: flexibility, scalability and survivability. Flexibility is the ability to reconfigure according to changing environments and retain their goals while changing their components, sometimes bypassing blocking points of communication channels to find new connections. Scalability is the ability to expand or shrink in size with little disruption. Survivability is the ability of networks, because they have no single centre and can operate in a wide range of configurations, to withstand attacks on their nodes and codes because the codes of the network are contained in multiple nodes that can reproduce the instructions and find a new way to perform. (p23)

Furthermore, Castells goes on to argue that the new contexts provided by the network society have fundamentally reorganised the spaces and relationships between which power operates

The terrain where power relationships operate has changed in two major ways: it is primarily constructed around the articulation between the global and local; and it is primarily organised around networks not single units. Because networks are multiple, power relationships are specific to each network, but there is a fundamental form of exercising power that is common to all networks: exclusion from the network. (p50)

Having defined the network society as the cultural context in which his investigation of communication and power will take place, the second section, entitled Communication in the Digital Age proceeds to conduct an analysis of both what communication is, and how it largely operates within the network society. Addressing the former point, Castells argues that

Communication is the sharing of meaning through the exchange of information. The process 0f communication is defined by the technology of communication, the characteristics of the senders and receivers of information, their cultural codes of reference and protocols of communication, and the scope of the communication process. Meaning can only be understood in the context of the social relationships in which meaning and information are processed. (p54)

He then proceeds upon a detailed exploration of the complex interlinking of ownership, partnership and other interconnections which exist between the major players in the global media business, providing evidence for the argument that ‘because the media are predominantly a business, the same major trends that have transformed the business world – globalisation, digitisation, networking and deregulation – have radically altered media operations.’ (p71) Indeed using this data Castells argues that the globalisation of media businesses has concentrated ownership while at the same time meaning that ‘media conglomerates are now able to deliver a diversity of products over one platform as well as one product over a diversity of platforms.’ (p74).

This section also provides detailed accounts of crucial roles of advertising in financing media conglomerates, and of legislative policy decisions in creating the social and economic spaces in which media corporations operate.

There is no technological necessity or demand-driven determination in the evolution of communication. While the revolution in information and communication technologies is a fundamental component of the ongoing transformation, its actual consequences in the communication realm depend on policy decisions that result from the debates and conflicts conducted by  business, social and political interest groups seeking to establish the regulatory regime within which corporations and individuals operate. (p99)

Castells goes on to examine the ways in which regulation of the Internet and other communications based commons are constantly under threat under the present climate from enclosure and expropriation by commercial interests which seek to open up communal resources to the logic of the market and profit. The section concludes with a reformation of Umberto Eco’s model of communication, with Castells providing an updated schema for  the information age, in which the creative audience are able to feed back into the process of production utilising methods of mass-self communication which supplement the codes and messages of the mass media, potentially transforming the networks of meaning.

The third section, Networks of Mind and Power begins by arguing that ‘Communication happens by activating minds to share meaning.’ (p137) Castells stresses that the mind is not reducible to the brain however, stating that ‘The mind is a process, not an organ. It is a material process that takes place in the brain in interaction with the body proper.’ (p138) Where I would diverge from Castells’ position here is that his version of the mind is something which is immanent only within the individual human being, as opposed to the conception of distributed cognition proposed by theorists such as Gregory Bateson or Edward Hutchins whereby the process of mind is not restricted to the individual human, but is a process which includes environmental factors (with social factors included in this sense of organism and environment), without which the human mind cannot meaningfully function. However having defined mind as a process at the outset of the chapter, Castells later argues that ‘power is constructed, as all reality, in the neural networks of our brain.’ (p145) which presents a distinctly unecological, reductionist position whereby one organ is isolated from the material networks which support it, both functionally (the other bodily systems which materially sustain the brain) and operationally (the sensory systems both within and outside the body without which the brain cannot operate).

Despite these shaky foundations, this chapter goes on to provide some innovative analysis on the role of emotion and cognition in politics, examining the ways in which emotional states effect and condition our responses to information which precludes the kind of rational critical thinking which most Enlightenment thought presupposes. Instead Castells shows how belief and emotional framing are key to comprehending the ways in which people make political decisions. Mobilising this theoretical framework,  Castells argues that one of the key ways in which media operate is through the creation of frames or images which produce emotional resonances with viewers, which are achieved in several ways.

‘The framing of the public mind is largely performed through processes that take place in the media. Communications research has identified three major processes involved in the relationship between media and people in the sending and receiving of news through which citizens perceive their selves in relation to the world: agenda setting, priming and framing.’ (p157) Of these, agenda setting allows the terms and boundaries of acceptable debate to be delineated, and framing is the way in which providing coverage which emphasises certain features of events promotes particular interpretations, evaluations or solutions. Castells argues here that ‘The critical issue is that frames are not external to the mind. Only those frames that are able to connect the message to pre-existing frames in the mind become activators of conduct… Frames are effective by finding resonance and increasing the magnitude of their repetition.’ (p158)

To provide a concrete example of these hypotheses regarding framing Castells selects information, news and misperceptions regarding the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The case study utilises a wide variety of polls and sources to convincingly argue that ‘It appears that information per se does not alter attitudes unless there is an extraordinary level of cognitive dissonance. This is because people select information according to their cognitive frames.’ (p169) This conclusion presents interesting connotations for the majority of traditional media activist methodologies which have been rooted in the Enlightenment values of truth and accuracy, which according to Castells are not effective conductors for altering people’s beliefs unless they also present emotionally potent affective frames – which many media activists have traditionally condemned as mass media techniques of emotional manipulation.

Section four , Programming Communication Networks: Media Politics, Scandal Politics and the Crisis of Democracy is an empirically led investigation into the ways in which media corporations affect the various social networks which comprise contemporary society. Castells rebuke’s the notion of the media as a conduit for rational argument and debate, contending that

The notion of a deliberative democracy based on in depth exposes and civilised exchanges about substantive issues in the mass media is at odds with the broader cultural trends of our time (Graber 2001). Indeed, it is the mark of a small segment of elite media that caters primarily to decision-makers and to a minority of the highly educated strata of the population. This does not mean that people in general do not care about substantive issues. It means that for these issues (for example, the economy, the war, the housing crisis) to be perceived by a broad audience, they have to be presented in the language of infotainment. (p201)

Along similar lines, Castells analyses the media performance and efficacy of policy think tanks from both the right and left, coming to the conclusion that ‘while liberal and independent think tanks are mainly engaged in policy analysis, following their belief in rational politics, the conservative think tanks are primarily orientated toward shaping minds by the means of media politics.’ (p210) Again the conclusion that rational discourse is not an effective method for garnering support over a range of issues flies in the face of Enlightenment rationality, the traditional logic which left wing groups have engaged in when trying to influence public sphere debates. The conclusion that affecting framing is actually a more efficient strategy is one which should have wide-ranging ramifications for the way that media activists engage in promoting campaigns and issues.

Castells goes on to examine some of the complex ways in which contemporary political campaigns use computerised databases to engage in sophisticated political marketing by combining techniques from polling and social data analysis to specifically target key demographics which can see their candidates/party elected. Also covered are ways in which politicians can their spin doctors can frame and subsequently re-frame issues in the news by aligning them with affects and emotions which mobilise supporters in spite of the rational evidence which often provides an altogether different perspective on affairs.

Castells then provides case studies looking at the relationships between mass media and politics in Spain, Russia and China, illustrating each case study with a broad array of meticulously sourced information. He concludes that ‘State power, in its most traditional manifestation, that is manipulation and control, is pervasive in the media and the Internet throughout the world.’ (p285) This manipulation Castells argues is partly to blame for what he describes as the crisis of democracy, whereby according to empirical studies conducted across the world, as ‘the majority of the citizens in the world do not trust their governments or their parliaments, and an even larger group of citizens despise politicians and political parties, and think that their government does not represent the will of the people. This includes advanced democracies, as numerous surveys show that public trust in government has substantially decreased over the past three decades.’ (p286) Castells that scandal politics, whereby the wrongdoings of politicians and political parties are documented in sensationalist fashion  is partially to blame for the escalation of this crisis of democracy. He concludes this section however by making the argument that

The most important crisis of democracy under the condition of media politics is the confinement of democracy to the institutional realm in society in which meaning is produced in the sphere of media. Democracy can only be reconstructed in the specific conditions of the network society if civil society, in its diversity, can break through the corporate, bureaucratic, and technological barriers of societal image making. Interestingly enough the same pervasive multimodal communications environment that encloses the political mind in the media networks may provide a medium for the diverse expression of alternative messages in the age of mass-self communication (p298)

The final section of the book, entitled Reprogramming Communication Networks: Social Movements, Insurgent Politics, and the New Public Space is an exploration of some of these alternative movements which seek to reprogram communications networks in order to build a different kind of society to that of neoliberal globalisation… and the Obama campaign for the Democrat presidential nomination. Castells introduces this section by making the argument that

The process of social change requires the reprogramming of communications networks in terms of their cultural codes and in terms of their of the implicit social and political values and interests that they convey… The public mind is captured in programmed communications networks, limiting the impact of autonomous expressions outside the networks. But in a world marked by the rise of mass-self communication, social movements and insurgent politics have the chance to enter the public space from multiple sources. By using both horizontal communication networks and mainstream media to convey their images and messages, they increase the chances of enacting social and political change – even if they start from a subordinate position in institutional power. (p302)

The first case study Castells draws upon in this section  looks at the Green movement, with particular reference to global warming. While it is always going to be an impossible task to condense the actions, achievements and failures of a diverse global movement over the course of 35 pages, the way in which Castells presents this study has numerous major flaws. Firstly the teleology he presents in fifty years  of scientific research simply does not exists in reality – studies and papers which presented alternative possibilities, and in fact the vast body of work done in the area before the late 1980’s called for more research due to the huge degree of uncertainty over key areas. Castells ignores all this research to instead present readers with a reductionist history whereby ‘Formal recognition of the gravity of the problem, and the international community’s call to act on it came half a century after scientists had alerted the public to the matter.’ (p304)  Castells in fact continues to make grandiose (and entirely untrue) claims such as that ‘Global warming posed a direct threat to the Earth’ (p309), which in no way reflect the claims of climate science (which does very much stress the dangers to wide sections of humanity alongside those to thousands of diverse forms of life threatened by ACC, however this is quite different from claiming that the planet itself is at threat). Where Castells does present some pertinent analysis is his examination of how the Internet has changed the way that many environmental groups coordinate and campaign,

The versatility of digital communication networks has allowed environmental activists to evolve from their previous focus on attracting attention from mainstream media to using different media channels depending on their messages and the interlocutors they aim to engage. From its original emphasis on reaching a mass audience, the movement has shifted to stimulate mass citizen participation by making use of the interactive capacity offered by the Internet (p327)

Castells also analyses the role of celebrities in some high profile Green events (Al Gore, Leonardo Di Caprio etc) before concluding the case study in a most unsatisfactory way, writing that

After decades of effort by the environmental movement to alert the public to the dangers of climate change by reprogramming the communication networks to convey its message, the world has finally awakened to the threat of self-inflicted destruction that global warming represents, and it seems to be moving, albeit in an uncertain, slow pace, toward adopting policies to reverse the process of our collective demise. (p337)

Firstly this conclusion echoes the inaccurate claims Castells makes earlier regarding the total destruction, or collective demise which ACC threatens. More importantly though, it makes entirely unsupported claims that the actions which created this cataclysmic scenario are now being reversed. Quite which policies Castells is alluding to when he makes this ridiculous claim is unclear – perhaps he means cap-and-trade or offsetting, or maybe he thinks that the US’s proposed reduction of 3% of it’s CO2 emissions will magically reverse atmospheric concentrations. Given the tremendous disparity between the scientific and activist communities’ calls for action however, the miniscule steps thus far, allied with the thoroughgoing failure of the COP15 talks to create a binding international framework for emissions reductions make Castells claims here appear to be ill-conceived and entirely inaccurate .

The second case study in this section, focusing on the alternative globalization movement, and particularly on Indymedia is an improvement, examining why

The movement from the beginning was adamant about producing its own messages, and distributing them via alternative media, either community media or the Internet. The networks of information and communication organised around Indymedia are the most meaningful expression of this counter-programming capacity. Such capacity, while rooted in the creativity and commitment of the activists, is inseparable from the revolution in digital technologies. Hackers and political activists came together in the networks of alternative media. (p344)

However Castells then goes on to characterise the movement as utopian anarchism, which he claims is useful as it opens up new horizons of possibility. The danger with this characterisation is that is ignores the problems which activist groups have had in gaining access to mainstream corporate media networks, due to the various economic mechanisms which see corporate media function as businesses, not a fourth estate devoted to critique of policy and events, and equally ignores the successes of building an international media movement – which in some countries is a major source of political news – based on a completely different set of political and economic principles to the mainstream. By ignoring these crucial issues, Castells only gives a partial and in some ways blinkered perspective on Indymedia.

The other case studies, looking at the ways that mobile telecommunications were key to bringing down the Aznar government in Spain in 2004, and examining the strategy of the successful Obama campaign for the Democratic primary are somewhat stronger, as they operate closer on more politically conventional ground, analysing events and mass media coverage alongside political developments at the party and state level, as opposed to covering the actions of social movements ands activists.

The concluding sections, which draw together themes from across these case studies draws some interesting conclusions, that

Acting on the cultural codes that frame minds, social movements create the possibility of producing another world, in contrast with the reproduction of norms and disciplines embedded in society’s institutions. By bringing new information, new practices, and new actors into the political system, political insurgents challenge the inevitability of politics as usual and regenerate the roots of our fledgling democracy In both instances they alter existing power relationships and introduce new sources of decision-making about who gets what and what is the meaning of what we get.

Enacting change in the network society proceeds by reprogramming the communication networks that constitute the symbolic environment for image manipulation and information processing in our minds, the ultimate determinant of individual and collective practices. Creating new content and new forms in the networks that connect minds and their communicative environment is tantamount to rewiring our minds. (p412)

Interestingly, given that during the case studies he fails to adequately explore the relationships between corporate media+IP vs alternative media+commons, Castells also concludes that

The technologies of freedom are not free. Governments, parties, corporations, interest groups, churches, gangsters and power apparatuses of every possible origin and kind have made it their priority to harness the potential of mass-self communication in the service of their specific interest… As the potential of the industrial revolution was brought to the service of capitalism by enclosing land-commons, thus forcing the peasants to become workers and allowing landowners to become capitalist, the commons of the communication revolution are being expropriated to expand for-profit entertainment and commodify personal freedom. (p414)

Indeed, Castells goes as far as to conclude that

The most important practical conclusion of the analysis presented in this book is that the autonomous construction of meaning can only proceed by preserving the commons of communication networks made possible by the Internet, a free creation of freedom lovers. This will not be an easy task – because the power-holders in the network society must enclose free communication in commercialized and policed networks, in order to close the public mind by programming the connection between communication and power

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Christian Marazzi is one of the group of Italian Post-Fordist theorists along with Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno and France Beradi. Capital and Language first published in Italian in 2002 is the first of Marazzi’s works to be published in English.

The starting point of the economic analysis presented by Marazzi in this text is that

Begining in the second half of the 1980’s, the prevailing analyses of the crisis of Fordism and the transition to post-Fordism were based in socio-economics, with particular attention to modifications in the nature of work and the production of goods, starting in the second half of the 1990’s the explosion of the securities market on a global scale forced everyone to update their analyses by paying more attention to the financial dimension of the paradigmatic shift. p13

The key here according to Marazzi is that whereas previously savings had been concentrated in household economies – property and goods – in the New Economy the collective savings and pension schemes of regular people became bound to the success of the global financial market, whose continuing growth their own financial future was tied to. As such, whereas within the old economy the workers saw Capital as an exterior enemy which they could organise and resist, within the New Economy the masses identify success of the financial markets with their own personal economic success.

With their savings invested in securities, workers are no longer separated from capital as they are, by virtue of its legal definition, in the salary relationship. As shareholders they are tied to the ups and downs of the markets and so they are co-interested in the “good operation” of capital in general. p37

The central thesis Marazzi presents in Capital and Language then, is that

In the Post-Fordist economy the distinction between the real economy, in which material and immaterial goods are produced and sold, and the monetary-financial economy, where the speculative dimension dominates investor decisions, must be totally reconceived… In the New Economy language and communication are structurally and contemporaneously present throughout both the sphere of the production and distribution of goods and the sphere of finance, and it is for this very reason that changes in the world of work and modification in the financial markets must be seen as two sides of the same coin. p14

Marazzi goes on to examine some of the effects of public opinion (through the lens of behavioural psychology) and confidence upon markets, and comes to the conclusion that “The theoretical analysis of financial market operations reveals the centrality of communication, of language, as a creative force.” (p27) As such, the creative and productive work done by language and communication demarcate them as no longer constituting a societal superstructure, distinct and separate from the productive sphere of material production. Key to this is the performative abilities of language, the capacity not merely to utilise language to describe actions or events, but the capacity to actively perform tasks through linguistic utterances.

Another area which Marazzi theorises, which has particular pertinence to media studies, is that of the attention economy. Quoting Davenport and Beck (2001), Marazzi states that

“In the New Economy, ‘What is scarce is human attention, the width of the telecommunications band is not a problem, the problem is the width of the human band.’ The technological revolution has certainly enlarged access to information enormously, but the limitless growth in the supply of information conflicts with a limited human demand, which is all the more limited the more work time reduce the attention time we are able to dedicate to ourselves and the people with whom we work and live.

We are in a situation of information glut, of an excess, an overload of information. The Sunday edition of the New York Times contains more information than all of the written material available to readers in the 15th Century. Back then the problem was not finding the time to read, but finding enough reading material to fill up the time. Information was a sellers’ market and books were thought to be more precious than peasants.'(p64/65)

Marazzi contends that while the growth of networked telecommunications technologies has exploded at an exponential rate since the 1980’s, meaning that for hundreds of millions of people across the world today that access to information is no longer a problem, and the traditional models based on scarcity of information are now null and void, ‘the fact is that on the demand side for goods and services, attention (and its allocation) has taken the place of the physical raw materials of the industrial economy. It is a scarce and extremely perishable good… A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.’ (p66) Furthermore, Marazzi argues that many of the changes to the structure of work which have taken place in the New Economy actively contribute to this attention poverty, as the eight-hour working day is extended through for example ICT technologies which enable workers to be on call 24 hours a day, and as the Fordist notion of a stable job for life is undermined, forcing workers to devote attention time to looking for work instead of concentrating on consuming informational goods and services. This leads Marazzi to contend that

The disproportion between the supply of information and the demand for attention is a capitalistic contradiction, an internal contradiction of the value form, of its being simultaneously commodity and money, a commodity increasingly accompanied by information and money-income, distributed in such as not to increase effective demand. The financialisation of the 1990’s generated additional incomes but, beyond distributing them unequally, it created them by destroying occupational stability and salary regularity, thus helping to exacerbate the attention deficit of worker consumers by forcing them to devote more attention to the search for work than to the consumption of intangible goods and service. p141

As the current economic form of financial capitalism contributes to a poverty of attention, Marazzi contends that it is crucial to experiment with social formations which instead reduce this attention shortage, giving producer/consumers more time to both create and digest information, thereby both creating value in terms of a cultural commons, but also enhancing the general intellect. Such a notion can be understood to resemble the argument made by Hardt and Negri in Empire and Commonwealth and recently pledged on a national level in the UK by the Green Party for a universal citizen’s income.

In conclusion then, Capital and Language presents an interesting and innovative approach to understanding the main changes which society has undergone since the 1980’s from a socio-economic perspective which foregrounds the importance of language in the contemporary form of capitalism. In particular it provides thought-provoking analyses on the changes to 20th century notions of base and superstructure, on the genesis and contradictions of the attention economy, and how the financialisation of savings and pensions involves workers in the wider capitalist system to a far greater extent than previous manifestations of capitalism.

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According to this, living in North-West Bristol my vote is worth just 0.521 of a vote. More shocking than that though, is the fact that this is apparently over twice the average amount of voting power of most UK citizens (the average is 0.253). At first glance this is really useful way of illustrating the obvious deficiencies of the UK’s first past the post system, which last time out elected a majority Labour government despite the fact that they only won around 37% of the votes cast

But how accurate is the voter power index? How is is worked out? And does it actually provide more useful information than simply looking at the numbers and percentages of the votes cast in each constituency alongside the constituency size (both of which are also provided by the VPI page but appear lower down)? And does the fact that no-one in the UK has a vote equal to one vote make the figures look artificially low? Well… from about voter power index

By Nic Marks, fellow, nef (the new economics foundation)

I went to vote at the last general election with a heavy heart as I knew full well that my vote wouldn’t really count towards the result as I live in a safe seat. Straight after voting I felt really angry about the whole system and whilst out walking my dog the idea came to me that I must be able to work out how much my vote didn’t count – you see if you make a statistician angry he tries to fight back with numbers.

So how did I calculate the Voter Power Index? Well I figured there were two main factors that would illustrate how much or little power voters had. The first is how marginal the constituency you happen to live in is (the more marginal the more power) and the second is how many registered voters there are (fewer voters means each individual vote counts more). The problem was how to estimate exactly how much power you have in a particular constituency. I decided that if I looked at as many elections as possible I would be able to figure out what was the probability of a seat changing hands for different levels of marginality. By creating a probabilistic model I could then estimate this probability for every constituency and hence calculate (to three decimal places) the Voter Power Index. The details of all the calculations are available in the original report but much more fun is that web designer Martin Petts has created an interactive web-site so everyone can see how much their vote is actually worth.

I must admit that even I was staggered when I first calculated the VPI just how much most people’s votes don’t count. It is clear that our current system is hugely inefficient at translating the will of the people into the result of a general election. In fact the VPI allows us to put a number on the level of this inefficiency – the current system is only 25% efficient – whereas some sort of proportional representation system would approach 100% efficiency (for example the 2004 European Elections were about 96% efficient). Not only is the system inefficient it is also chronically unjust with Voter Power very unevenly distributed in the UK, with the luckiest 20% of voters having over 33 times more power than the unluckiest 20% – the graph below shows this spread. Note that this is a far more uneven distribution than household income in the UK. Even before the redistribution through taxes and benefits – the richest 20 per cent of households ‘only’ earn 15 times as much as the poorest. After redistribution this inequity factor is reduced to under 4 times.

The Voter Power Index shows that the first past the post system is profoundly undemocratic in that it gives considerably more power to some voters than others and so betrays the fundamental principle of democracy – one person one vote. It is high time we changed the whole rotten system.

The biggest problem I have with their stated methodology is that they think marginality should be calculated by how many times a seat has changed hands in the past going back to the 1954 election and only looking at the top two parties votes. This isn’t what they say on the about page (confusingly) but if you go back to the original report they link to this is what they appear to have done. That this isn’t what their about page suggests does little for clarity.

While frequent changes would suggest a marginal seat, this is a very broad brush stroke approach which doesn’t seem to factor the actual number of votes or percentages involved in the elections into account. The idea of a three way marginal seat is completely alien to this method and I find that lack of complexity concerning. Furthermore they seem to give equal weighting to every electoral change since 1954, meaning that a seat which was very marginal between 55 and 25 years ago changing hands every election, but which has remained in the same hands in every election since then is still counted as fairly marginal, although in practice it may now be a very safe seat.

Essentially despite the pretty pictures on the VPI website this means that in many cases you can get a better idea of how marginal your constituency is by looking at the results from the last two elections and seeing how close they have been. At the last election Bristol NW was 38% labour, 32.5% tory 25% lib dem. Anyone with half a brain can tell that’s a marginal seat. Similarly if you look at somewhere like Henley and see figures for the last election of 53% tory, 26 % Libdem and 15% labour you can easily understand that it’s a safe seat. Trying to put a three figure decimal place number on how much more likely Bristol SW is to change hands than Henley is always going to be a rough and inexact endeavour. Except admitting this would remove the rationale for the VPI existing.

An interesting statistic which isn’t included in the VPI is the percentage of voters who turned out per seat. For example while the VPI site lists Henley as having 72,681 voters it doesn’t tell you that at the last election only 67% of the electorate there voted. It would be interesting to see whether safe seats have similar, lower or higher turnouts than marginals. Do people who live in safe seats feel sufficiently disenfranchised to not bother voting? Or is voter apathy evenly distributed across the country as people turn of from politics as they feel that the three main parties are so similar to one another that there is no point in voting at all?

Another problem I have with the way the VPI’s presentation of the issue is the claim made by Nic Marks that the voting system is more unequal than household income in the UK. In order to justify this he looks only at the top and bottom 20% of each. Firstly both on the website and the original document the income figures are unreferenced. It’s hard to check on the figures someone has used if they decide not to link to where they obtained those figures from. Secondly there’s a question as to why only one figure, for 20% and 80% were used in the report. If he had decided to look at different numbers such as the top and bottom 5% of income and voting power the figures may well be completely different. However that wasn’t what he intended to say so perhaps he used the statistic which suited his argument. Without referencing the data who knows? Does the data actually look at per capita income for everyone in the UK or does it exclude pensioners and people on benefits? If it does (as most government stats which look at income look at those paying income tax only) then this would again distort the data into giving an appearance of economic equality which does not exist in practice among the electorate. This kind of statistical cherry picking does nothing to add to the important point that voting power in the UK is unequal, and in fact casts doubts on the honesty and integrity of the research as a whole.

On the whole while I like the idea of VPI site, the fact that it does present some very useful and easily comprehended information about the differing worth of UK votes dependent on area, there are always likely to be problems with adopting the kind of reductionist quantitative approach they implement. While some of the information displayed there is really interesting and informative, particularly the last election result pie chart, the percentage of votes discarded and the size of the constituency, in general it just produces answers which are extremely obvious: first past the post is a highly undemocratic system in which voters have differing abilities to impact the make up of parliament depending on their constituency, a safe seat is by its very nature undemocratic, and that electoral systems based on proportional representation give far more agency to voters.

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This book, published by Routledge in 2006, is a recent attempt at a sociological analysis of the alternative globalization movement (AGM) using a theoretical framework based on an almagamation of the works of Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri and Gregory Bateson, with complexity theory via D&G deployed to provide qualitative analysis of events such as the May Day 2000 demonstration, the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle and Prague, the actions of the Zapatistas and the emergent forms of global civil society which seek to impact on globalized capitalism such as the World and regional social fora.

In their introduction, Chesters and Welsh describe their work as ‘offering ‘a qualitative sociology of the philosophical postulates of Empire and Multitude advanced by Hardt and Negri, rendering tangible the agency and constitutive processes immanent within their works,’ (p3) although in several key areas Chesters and Welsh go beyond Hardt and Negri’s works, which in places can seem overly centred on finding a revolutionary subject for the network society, by mapping the vectors of contemporary social movements and seeking practical instantiation of how these movements connect and combine to create emergent formations capable of challenging neoliberal capitalism.

The approach pursued by Chesters and Welsh does closely correlate with Hardt and Negi’s theoretical works closely in several important ways however; firstly in contesting that ‘One must look outside the state at networked processes of interaction between state and non-state actors. This does not mean that the state is no longer important, but that we must consider the meshwork of national and extra-national political institutions, corporate and civil society actors that co-produce the effects of the global.’ (p95) That capitalist globalization and the rise of the network society means that activism can no longer be effective if aimed purely at a local level, as the larger scale assemblages of global finances can overcode and render such localism ineffective as an activist strategy.

A second important point of agreement between Hardt and Negri and Chesters and Welsh is that the formal structuring of activist movements plays an integral role in the way that they function, that an organization’s internal structure will effect the way that organization operates, and furthermore that contemporary AGM activism is centred around the form of the decentred network, and that this structure allows for a more inclusive and democratic mode of action than the 20th century models of the people’s army, unions or political parties. Indeed, while Chesters and Welsh stress the diverse array of influences on the AGM, socialism, liberalism, environmentalism and situationism, they emphasise the central role of anarchism in the democratic, reflexive and inclusive structuring of the movments ‘The logic of an anarchist stance is that revolution cannot be led by a vanguard party or sedimented through a revolutionary government or state as these forms lead back to the establishment of old habits of mind. Instead revolution requires the dissipative undermining of established institutional forms, not their re-titling.’ (p145)

Finally, Chesters and Welsh approach Hardt and Negri’s work in the way that they highlight the importance of information communications technologies and their usages to contemporary social movements, briefly examining the Zapatistas use of digital communications, and broaching the role played by Indymedia in the AGM.

‘These processes of physical interaction that characterise the global social movements – the protest actions, encuentros and social fora are further understood to be dynamically interconnected and co-extensive with a digital commons that underpins computer mediated communications and which co-constructs the rhizome of the AGM.’ (p103)

The area of media is frequently touched upon by Chesters and Welsh, both in terms of the mainstream media’s portrayal of the AGM as thugs which prevents communication of their goals and beleifs, and also in terms of Indymedia as an alternative to the mass media which presents a decentralized, less hierarchical and more transparent alternative, however one area where this book is perhaps lacking is an in depth investigation of Indymedia, and how Indymedia alongside other elements of the digital commons underpin the physical movements which are covered in considerably more depth through case studies.

Chester and Welsh describe the AGM as operating as:

‘a strange attractor reconfiguring public opposition to global neoliberalism whilst simultaneously creating ‘spaces’ where Alternatives Globalisation pathways are fused through a multiplicity of engaged actors. This is not an anti-movement, this is not a movement that can be subordinated to national analytical frameworks, this is not a movement that is going to go away.

This is a movement which prefigures social forms, social processes and social forces which will become normalized as mobility and the information age redistribute the affinities historically associated with space and place. (p1)

For Chesters and Welsh then, the AGM presents an embryonic set of processes whose dynamism and flexibility provide socially and environmentally sustainable alternatives to neoliberalism whose properties will become dominant social forms. Such claims are perhaps exaggerated, but nonetheless provide a valuable starting point for thinking about how the nonhierarchical, dynamic forms of direct democracy practised by actors within the AGM can be mobilised into dominant social forms, how activist practices can become mainstream.

Similar to Hardt and Negri, Chesters and Welsh are keen to stress that the AGM is not an anti-movement which seeks to resurrect a romanticized pre-globalized version of the nation state, but instead seeks to create sustainable and ethical alternatives to the inequalities wrought by neoliberal globalization, quoting Z magazine founder Michael Albert, who says

we want social and global ties to advance universal equity, solidarity, diversity and self-management, not to subjugate ever wider populations to an elite minority. We want to globalise equity not poverty, solidarity not anti-solidarity, diversity not conformity, democracy not subordination, and ecological balance not suicidal rapaciousness. (Albert 2001, www.globalpolicy.org) (p94)

Chesters and Welsh introduce the concept of an ‘ecology of action’ in an attempt to formulate how contemporary activist interventions effect social ties and structures.

The key to understanding the AGM is not to be found amongst individual actors be they groups or organisations. Instead we must focus our attention upon the processes of interaction between actors, to the iterative outcomes of reflexive framing and to the emergence of an ecology of action within Global Civil Society that is actualised through the AGM.(p101)

This concept is grounded in Bateson’s ecology of mind, in which pathalogical epistemological constructions had to be erased in order to conceptualize the subject outside of the boundaries created by conscious purpose (the ego). Chesters and Welsh seek to scale this concept upwards through Bateson’s three ecologies, from the ecology of mind to the ecology of society, specifically examining ways in which social forms and actions impact upon the social ecology, with a view to mobilising effective activist campaigns in order to affect change in the world.

In conclusion then, in Complexity and Social Movements Chesters and Welsh provide a sociological investigation into certain aspects of the Alternative Globalization movement, and contextaulise this within a theoretical framework drawing on complexity theory, Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri, Bateson, Melucci and Goffman to provide a map of what they see to be an ecology of action, with the intent of understanding contemporary developments in activism with a view to energizing the ecology of action and creating positive changes in the world.

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