The great critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote a review of Samuel Beckett in the form of a Beckett play parody. On a stage a critic strides back and forth between two wastepaper baskets, pulling out failed and crumpled drafts of a review from each and reading them. Each time, he cackles.
There can be no other reaction from the left to the Facebook-Australian government-News Corp stoush.
At last, a global behemoth wielding monopoly power has been brought to heel! Ah ha ha ha! Crumple, pace pace pace. The pathetic Morrison government protecting media monopoly against free circulation! Ah ha ha! Crumple. Back and forth, unable to know who to hate more.
The government’s News Corp tax has turned a rich tangle of contradictions into a political event. The pleasure of watching the Morrison government’s face change as it slowly realises it might have bitten off more than it can chew is only mitigated by the haunting feeling that we will all lose whatever happens.
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At the topmost level is the most obvious political political advantaging of News Corp, by the government, requested or otherwise.
News Corp may have said nothing explicit to Scott Morrison’s government but it didn’t need to; it’s been campaigning against tech/social media on its front pages for years. This global historical moment in tech v old media — the producers of Succession must be furiously rewriting episode nine of the coming season as we speak — has come about in Australia because we’re the “weak link” in the sham idea of a free press and democracy. We’re a Murdochracy, bought and sold, especially, but not only, when the Coalition is in power.
The second level of contradiction is that of capitalism itself. Though it be a grim monopoly at the moment, the tech/media sphere points in the direction of post-capitalism, and the undermining of the legal fiction of intellectual property. Forget the branded nature of “Facebook”. Facebook is simply the corporate form of a capacity of the internet — real time massive peer-to-peer sharing — that became possible at a certain stage of its development.
Had Tim Berners-Lee, rather than Mark Zuckerburg, developed its most efficient version, it would be a free good, non-branded, non-bounded, simply a feature of the internet, linking millions of heterogeneous websites with a set of tools you could opt in or out of. (If Zuckerburg rather than Berners-Lee had invented the web, the whole internet would look like Facebook.)
Though much of it is sequestered in branded forms, the internet is a form that reduces the commodity value of text and image towards zero while offering a faster, more efficient version of knowledge communication than a market based on the exchange of fixed objects (newspapers, in this instance).
The Morrison government stepping in to back up Murdoch — beyond the politics of it — is the state stepping in to guarantee returns for old monopolies that can no longer enforce the exclusivity of their product.
It’s similar in form to the explicit shoring up of brown energy as the entire asset class plummets towards zero, against the ever-greater efficiency and ever-lower costs of renewables. Ironically, Murdoch helped that along when News Corp closed down more than 100 community and regional newspapers in May last year.
People in local communities have been stepping up ever since, using Facebook to create free local news networks — many of which Facebook has now shut down.
Murdoch once argued in an Edinburgh Festival lecture that the rise of the internet meant that there was no need to regulate legacy media ownership. News Corp has been shocked to discover that piece of spin is coming true.
The News Corp war on public broadcasting and social media then began — as it looked to the state to guarantee its capital value — by limiting innovation. This is increasingly the state’s role in a declining capitalism, where money is made from the rents on exclusive rights. Ah ha ha ha. Uncrumple, uncrumple.
The third contradiction is that while digital tech points towards post-capitalism, it does so from within capitalism proper, and the government’s news tax is a bizarre reaching in to private companies to give certain raw materials specific value, essentially doing those suppliers’ bargaining for them.
There is already a law to guarantee the property rights of news suppliers: copyright and fair use. The Morrison government’s law, as m’colleague Keane noted yesterday, imposes an extra cost on the platforms when certain organisations take up the free service-listing or page running that they offer.
It’s as if the old free-listing telephone White Pages was charged a fee every time a cheese manufacturing company was listed because of influence over government of Big Cheese — and the fees gained then went back to the cheese manufacturers.
The incentive would be to start 50 dummy cheese companies and list them all. The incentive for major news corps is surely to pump news through these sites at a huge rate and leverage higher payments.
For the platforms, turning off news then becomes not merely a business decision but possibly a matter of due diligence if the costs can be shown to outweigh the benefits.
As with much state-facilitated corporate capitalism, there is a protection racket at the bottom of it: “Take our product … or else.” Crumple crumple ah ha ha ha.
But that simply indicates the radically asymmetrical character of the two monopoly types under consideration. Murdoch’s monopoly has been achieved by steady consolidation permitted by supine governments, but people do actually have to buy the newspapers.
Facebook, Google and other tech monopolies have become such because of the inherent and massive bias towards any network that establishes early numerical supremacy based on the most infinitely “iterable” internal processes. The Google algorithms are simply “search” got right. Facebook is simply “connection” got right.
They are produced within capitalism as a luxury or pleasure and, like train tracks or electricity, rapidly become an underpinning necessity of the new world they bring into being.
The contradictory nature of the News Corp tech battle is because tech’s radical reach makes its putting into social ownership an urgent and obvious demand. Socialisation either partial — merely through much greater regulation and higher taxation — or wholly, through their taking into part-public ownership, to be supervised by citizens’ and users’ boards, and with a general dividend flowing from their profits to the population.
That is a while away, but it will have to happen eventually, in some global or local form. Its guidance to proximate action is that big tech brings new forms of human connection and communication that — however buried beneath layers of capital, control and surveillance — represent the possibility of organisation other than through the market.
Their capacities, in the hands of capital, may be truly dystopian, but the answer to that can’t be to side with a state that now sees itself as a mere client of old capital — from brown coal to yellow press. The ridiculous spectacle of Murdoch clients across the world wrapping on bandannas to cry freedom should be enough to raise suspicions.
If that doesn’t do it, the prospect of News Corp dictating policy in Australia into a whole new era of communications should. Always bearing in mind that what comes next is possibly worse. Fail more fail better.
Crumple crumple, ah ha ha ha.