Another outcome of Saskia Sassen‘s late-February visit to my campus was the realization that lefty internet-is-freedom types, including proponents of the “fans are liberated now” model, are actually using the same logic as righty small-government-is-freedom types.
Bear with me—this requires some backing up, some reframing, a deployment of one of my favorite theorists, and a disclaimer that I’m taking Sassen out of context. It also requires some sympathy for the ways in which graduate school is a nonstop exercise in finding the links between disparate things while thinking on one’s feet, and it’s hard to shut that off.
Okay, so, I think it’s relatively uncontroversial to say that the right-wing, Tea-Party-style position is that less state centralization is more freedom.
It is, I believe, also relatively uncontroversial to contend that lefty folks who identify the Internet as freedom point to its decentralization as the enabling feature.
What I’d like to contend is that this identification of less centralization as more freedom by both groups shows that they’re operating by the same logic.
N.B.: This post is going to be a little under-cited because, though I realized this while doing the reading for a seminar with Sassen, the key piece that inspired it seems to have been available only to seminar participants as an email attachment. Accordingly, I’m doing my best to respect that it isn’t public by paraphrasing rather than direct quotation.
Sassen pointed out that, though digital media are technologically suited to being “distributive” (that being the point of the military research that ultimately produced the ‘Net, after all), they still get used in cultural contexts, and this means that contextual social logics have bearing on how they get used.
Thus, to pay attention only to the properties of the technology is to fail to recognize those other factors, just as to say that only government control matters is to fail to recognize other factors. In both cases, institutions like capital are just as constraining.
Importantly, this isn’t to engage in some grand Marxist reductionism of all power to capital, but to pay attention to the ways in which, as a result of the given-ness of capitalism, especially in the US, this type of control is perhaps worse because more insidious. That is, sheer lack of awareness makes this form of constraint far less transparent than even the relatively opaque world of legislation, because people aren’t even looking.
Related to this, both the internet-is-freedom left and the small-government right are operating with a set of false opposites. As Sassen pointed out in her 2008 piece Neither Global nor National: Novel Assemblages of Territory, Authority and Rights, there’s a tendency to think that as things de-nationalize they are inevitably global, which is a false dichotomy (p. 75); correspondingly, people are misidentifying de-restriction or the diminishment of certain kinds of restriction as freedom.
This, of course, is where I break out the Foucault and point out that just because an institution stops saying “no” to certain things doesn’t mean that those things begin to operate freely. Both the pro-Internet left and the anti-government right, that is, are operating with a sense of power only as repressive, only as that which prevents you from doing certain things, which prevents recognition of the ways in which one might be equally constrained (and, again, more insidiously so) by being encouraged to do certain things.
Sassen’s “critique of the notion of the common notion that if something good happens to the powerless it signals empowerment” in her 2011 piece, The Global Street: Making the Political (p. 574) is in line with this kind of calling out of false opposites. I also appreciate its snarky quippiness.
Thus, when we think about Internet-enabled freedom or political activism, we need a lot more subtlety and complexity, and a broader view. As Sassen points out in terms of the contemporary articulation of territory, authority, and rights, “proliferation does not represent the end of national states, but it does begin to disassemble the national” (2008, p. 62), and I find this really productive.
To understand state power, or Internet power, or, indeed, capital’s power, that is, we have to think in terms of disassembly, fissure, and change rather than a binary determination of the continuing existence or end of certain forms of repression.