Public Communication and Power: Talking Capitalism, Theory and Critique with John McMurtry

Abstract: This interview with globally distinguished Canadian philosopher and author, John McMurtry, presents dialogue discussing capitalism, asymmetrical power relations, life capital, social theory, common life interest, life value, global problems, market theology, media, values of the market and free market ideology today in relation to public education, academia, intellectual fads and the broader intellectual culture in relation to enabling public understanding of meaning-making and power, totalising market culture, climate, dispossession, health, influence, energy, labour, income, slavery, corporate welfare, neo-liberalism, the global ecosystem, and inequalities of class and power.

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Decoding the Market Destruction of Public Knowledge | Prof John McMurtry

Aeron Davis(ed), THE DEATH OF PUBLIC KNOWLEDGE? How Free Markets Destroy the General Intellect. London: Goldsmiths Press, University of London, 2017 (i-xi, 262 pages with Index)

By John McMurtry

The title and subtitle of this book tell the untold story of the neo-liberal era – a cumulative destruction of foundational institutions of public knowledge. This ‘free markets destruction of the general intellect’ (subtitle) is described in 15 chapters by 20 authors. Its method is empirical and copiously referenced, but with no second order level of theory to join the dots. Yet every chapter provides a significant substantiation for a yes answer to the title’s arresting question.

The degeneration of ‘the general intellect’ of society across borders does not delve into what draws increasing attention concern today and supports the book’s case – the growing incapacitation of the millennial generation to perform operations of thinking through on their own. While research increasingly indicates that the wireless generation are cognitively/affectively locked into their i-phones, facebook, twitter, computer games, and ever more non-stop exchanges and hits from separated life places – oxymoronically called ‘social media’ – this is not an issue of this study. That attention spans measurably decline in substance and length by electronic-screen captivity is certainly relevant to the decline of ‘the general intellect’ of society, but is only a silent background to what is examined case by case in this collection – the destruction of institutional public knowledge. The authors refer to the “privileging of speed, technology and homogeneity – – [in] recycling journalistic content on BBC online services”, for example (p. 55). Yet the electronic revolution itself is only glancingly taken into account. The question is thus not posed of whether the electronic-media revolution itself has propelled the marketizing degradation of public knowledge.

One might argue on the work’s behalf, however, that market totalization has selected forever more velocities and volumes of commodities and commodifications with no limit, and so the electronic media revolution has fitted like a glove to the marketing invasions everywhere in the public sector – which is the book’s main concern. But this underlying line of inquiry does not arise. Nor, relatedly, does the issue that hard copy foundations themselves disappear in the pervasive marketing electrification. Most profoundly, as the commodification of society’s civil commons advances – even of language as commercial property – any common life-ground is eliminated. As social communication becomes more dominated by advertising and corporate sellers invading ever more of society’s policy discussions, information sources, sports, arts and news as marketing sites, citizens are reduced to atomic consumers rather than joint participants in understanding and effecting the common life good. Beneath notice, the very bases of public choice are erased.

The destruction of public knowledge on which this study is focused is not, however, on system-structural abolition of the public world itself. Nor does it conceive of the marketing elimination of any common life ground at all. More specifically, the degraded downstream effects are addressed in regard to instituted public knowledge. The privately-owned communications technology enabling super speeds and volumes of messages and data to spellbind higher public offices themselves is not a causal mechanism that is examined – even as it advances into control of citizens’ every move and decision. For example, my Apple i-phone (just given to me by my children) travels by publicly owned electro-magnetic spectrum and bandwidths, but locks on me again and again demanding it “can only help you if you choose home apps”. One must connect to some marketing repertoire, or the phone turns off – until a fuss is made. The future here shows itself at another level of the ‘market destruction of the general intellect’ – a total market-computerization of citizens in which every life choice and function is reduced to commercial-machine control, changing prices, and one-dimensional options.

While most people may sense that capitalist marketing lies behind the systemic loss of social and planetary life bearings on many levels, this dissolution of shared life coordinates through time is heretical to examine at its base. The ‘general intellect’ is blocked across siloes, expertises and narratives ruling out any comprehensive life frame of reference. The notion of any unifying meaning is has come to be repelled within even the academy as an oppressive thought. Marxism remains essentially stuck inside industrial mechanics with no determining life-ground or life capital base. What this book’s analyses show is the pervasive drivers of total marketing and privatization destroy the public institutional environment so that all reliable public bearings are lost. What is destroyed is the once sovereign state upon whose facts, findings and evolved public-policy parameters were once authoritatively available, reliable and above private-interest selection, slanting and erasure.

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