Skip to Content

The internet and capitalism (4)

In this concluding article in our series on the impact of the Internet we examine its possible effect on community.

Anyone who comes from a small village knows that one can get too much community. The close and frequently closed communities of feudalism were suffocating, parochial worlds with narrow horizons and narrow minds, a sink of intellectual inertia and ritual. Yet though the club wasn't inspiring, one's membership at least was not in doubt. Alienation from other humans was unknown.

One hundred years ago in Britain, urban workers lived together, worked together, went to school, got drunk, went on holiday or strike together, and were buried together. In such a milieu, an idea could take hold, and then spread. People were influenced by each other, they had common ground, they thought as a group, and they were not afraid to talk.

Today, after fifty years of the Welfare State and worker mobility, nobody seems to know or care who lives next-door. Friends are scattered and remote. Isolation is normal, experience and consciousness are private, discrete and discreet. Life is a claustrophobic micro-universe containing a TV and a closed front door. Unfamiliarity breeds contempt as our greatest desire is for the drunks and the drug addicts, the bores and the Christians to leave us alone. We don't have community because we don't want community.

Contrary to the claims of the Internet fraternity who see something new and exciting about "virtual communities", we in the West have already been living in virtual communities for years. Virtual, because we have been remote workers, remote from our community, remote, one might say, from ourselves, stuck in motorway madness chasing remote jobs, going on ever more remote holidays, or slumped exhausted on the sofa with—you guessed it—the remote control. And when we're at work, in spare moments, we gossip with people we barely know about people who don't even exist.

Soft soap and schadenfreude
Nowhere is the virtual community more realised than in the TV soap, the ultimate cry for help from an alienated society. Now the pundits talk sickeningly about "virtual e-soaps" where the viewer—you— can give these "people" advice. The soap characters are one-dimensional caricatures whose only purpose is to provide a cathartic release for workers after a hard day's slog. It is simply an exercise in schadenfreude, that delight in other people's problems so essential to those whose own problems could scarcely get any worse.

Yet nobody ever stops to consider that, quite apart from the characters, there is an even greater peculiarity about the soaps which is manifestly out of touch with reality. In Marxian terms, it is their economic base. None of the characters works away from the area. In fact, most if not all of them are sole traders, in other words, artisans. You get the publican, the tea-shop owner, the local entrepreneur, the corner-shop owner, the market-stall owner, the garage owner, and so on and so forth. Each works for himself or herself. Each owns his or her own means of production. Comfortingly, each has an income which we can guess is in rough parity with the other characters' incomes. One or two of them employ people as staff, or more correctly as apprentices, but these are always locals too, with ambitions one day to start their own local business or to inherit the present one.

It is obvious that this improbable scenario is devised purely in order to allow the creation of a local community. Clearly it would not be possible for an Eastenders character to work in Brighton or Oxford but still appear regularly in the show. And community is very important in the soaps, because it provides the dynamic for drama but also because it provides vicarious relationships for real people to "relate to".

Back in the 19th century a very popular reformist programme was that of Proudhon, a programme which in essence involved a society of artisans. Proudhon was very concerned at the tendency of employers to exploit employees, and thought that if society was made up of artisans then no such exploitation would take place, each worker would own their own means of production, and would sell their products at the market rate, since the market is an unbiased process of checks and counters, this would tend to balance incomes and prices and provide an equitable system of commodity production and sale, but without the massive problems of class division and exploitation.

There are people today who still believe this, Marx's efforts to debunk it notwithstanding. The soaps encourage this belief. They provide an apparently working and stable model of an artisan economy, upon which is mounted a community-based superstructure which, despite being populated largely by cartoon characters, is fiercely attractive to the community-starved worker. The fact that this economy is fiction is overlooked. The focus of the plots is always kept away from the underlying economy, and while protagonists frequently experience exaggerated personal problems the artisan economy their community relies on remains perpetually in the background, innocuous and unchallenged. Markets do not change. Economic conflicts do not arise. Nobody goes bust. The plot-writers do not wish to present themselves with insoluble dilemmas – if they allow a character to lose their livelihood, they must either drop them from the soap or find them some other plausible occupation within the narrow confines of the community. It is in general easier for the writers not to let this situation arise. One insidious consequence is that people are always the focus of problems, while their economic circumstances are never seen to be the source of any conflict or difficulty.

Artisan production did exist in the late feudal era, when commodity production was in its infancy, but it was very rapidly overtaken by modern capitalism. As a model of commodity production, the artisan society becomes very quickly unstable in reality. To believe in a form of capitalism based on sole traders is to believe a fairy tale or, indeed, a soap opera. It is essentially a step backwards in time, a reversion to an earlier form. People want to believe in an artisan society (many idealistic left-wingers call this "socialism", and it is intrinsic in much of the thinking of Greens) because in reality they want their communities back, and see this as a way to get it.

Doing your homework
And yet, bizarrely, it is just possible, despite this, that history might repeat itself. The real revolution of the Internet isn't online, it's offline, in the world of the "homeworker". If global destruction does not intervene beforehand, a new form of hi-tech artisanal society might indeed appear in the West. As production becomes computerised and the Internet pervades the workplace, more and more people are going to find it feasible to work from home, or from "hot-desks", or from their portable "teledesk". Due to the difficulty of defining "homeworking", estimates for home-workers vary in the US from 10 to 15 million workers, or about 14% of the labour force, up from 4 million in 1990 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, quoted in American Demographics, July 1999: www.demographics.com). In Britain there are about 1 million home or teleworkers, and an estimated “52 percent of the working population will be homeworking by the year 2010” (Teleworking Survey: http://www.si-cbx.com/teleworking/twbody.html). That this has not happened faster or sooner can be ascribed simply to traditional business structures: "The barriers to teleworking tend to be managerial rather than technological. Traditional attitudes need to be chipped away at to make it happen."

 

Community?

In addition, the casualisation of work contracts means that the main working pattern of the future may be freelance. Operating from home, many workers may find themselves doing not one but several different jobs for different companies, not as employees but as sub-contractors. They will in effect become sole traders, online artisans plying their wares and skills in a virtual marketplace. Although surveys show that homeworking is the most desired option by hi-tech workers (Washington Post, February 11, 1999) it is the capitalist class who stand to gain most, by saving on wages, costs and overheads, and by eroding worker's rights:

"Behind the technological part of the information highway is the business community's attempt to use the new information and communications technology to shift power from governments and the nation state to multinational corporations, from the public to the private sector, from small business to big business, from a unionized to non-unionized environment, from citizens to consumers, and from group rights to individual rights" (Unions and the Information Highway: http://www.ofl-fto.on.ca/ftp/ppaper5.txt).

Even though homeworking would save a Londoner on average 10 working weeks per year in travel time (Home Office Partnership: http://www.hop.co.uk/) the chances are the worker won't gain the full benefit:

"the current wisdom is that up to half the commuting hours saved by telecommuting employees may be given directly back to the company as additional work hours. The Gartner Group estimates that telecommuting improves employee productivity by 10 percent to 40 percent" (American Demographics).

Yet the home-working revolution is likely to bring some fundamental advantages which no amount of capitalist exploitation can outweigh:

"The community will benefit in the longer term as larger numbers of home workers abandon the peak-hour rush. There will be fewer cars on the road, less air pollution and traffic congestion, fewer health and work-induced stress problems and more community participation" (International Journal of Career Management Conference, August 1995: http://www.mcb.co.uk/liblink/ijcm)

From the Tudors to telecentres
But then there arises a new social dilemma for which people will have to devise a new solution. The isolation and domestic interruptions which working from home imply and which are cited by many workers as problematic may result in the development of a new kind of working environment, the work or telecentre. Just as the artisans of the Tudor age began to find it convenient and cheaper, as well as more sociable, to band together under one roof in order to share tools, materials and heating, so online workers of the future may find it desirable to band together under one local roof.

The result may be that local people will once again be able to work together locally. That they will all be working for different companies in different parts of the world hardly matters. The implications for the rebirth of local communities are obvious. The car culture evaporates and motorways empty of commuters as workers walk the five minutes to their local telecentre, greet their friends and neighbours, sign on to their individual company, and discuss politics and local affairs in their lunch and tea-breaks. In addition, the non-gender specific nature of teleworking means a sea-change in the realm of sexual politics and childcare, as homelife and working life converge in the local community matrix and gender becomes less significant than at any time since the agricultural revolution.

The social, cultural, political and environmental consequences of such a change in western working patterns are hard to overstate. But the class war won't go away, indeed it may intensify. If unions presently fear the atomisation of an isolated homeworking labour force, the communalisation of working may change for the better the means by which workers organise in defence of their pay and conditions. Unions, previously based first on individual trades and latterly on individual companies, may in the future find individual telecentres the locus of organisation. This would cut across the traditional corporate divisions as workers from various sectors of industry, commerce, finance and other services band together to defend themselves. As capitalism becomes global, workers will need to globalise their strategies of defence, and one way to do this would be to network between these local centres.

Déja vu
But in yet another twist, as capital becomes ever less dependant on geographical considerations, companies may find it expedient to invade these local telecentres and take them over, lock stock and barrel. The way to do this would be to buy into the management of these centres, the capitalist bodies which administer everything from catering to arbitration, and then gradually take over the role of central employer, accountant and contractor.

Nevertheless, even in this worst case scenario, workers would have achieved, or rather re-achieved, the community which they lost in the period after the Second World War. The significance of this should not be underestimated. Community is essential to socialism, indeed community and communism are really the same word. A society with a strong sense of community is a society which can communicate the idea of a socialist revolution, and can bring it about. Far from representing some terminal retreat into virtual reality, the Internet may finally precipitate a wholesale flight out of one. If the future online world leads, not to a society of isolated electronic cave-dwellers, but to a new flowering of community working and activity, and to an explosion of communication, the prospects for social revolution cease to look unlikely, and begin to look possible, and even probable.

PADDY SHANNON