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The Place of Politics

A Response to Reclaiming the Commons

Robert W. McChesney

8 David Bollier's work is of singular importance in its emphasis on the important economic function of commons, and that of economic and social activity not regulated by markets and the pursuit of profit. It directly refutes the mindlessness and opportunism of neo-liberal theology. Bollier's work, along with that of Thomas Frank, C. Edwin Baker, Lawrence Lessig, and Joseph Stiglitz, is part of a renaissance of critical (and sometimes popular) writing about political economy, from a wide range of perspectives.

Bollier advances a powerful critique of the market über alles nonsense that is driving our nation and our prospects for genuine democracy into the ground. He argues, convincingly, that the privatization of the commons is disastrous even for those generally enthralled with markets and the profit-motive. I could not help but notice that three of Bollier's four examples of stolen commons or corporate colonization deal with media: the corporate takeover of the broadcast spectrum, the corporate takeover and commercialization of the Internet, and the commercialization of childhood. Bollier underscores the media's fundamental significance for the operations of modern societies, and demonstrates how the content and social function of media systems are determined by their economic structures. Bollier's case studies highlight distinct and massive negative externalities for society, and he shows how in each case there were and are alternatives that would provide far superior social outcomes.

Bollier does not explain why this state of affairs exists, which is understandable given the extensive ground he does cover. But the question begs for an answer. Bollier's case studies describe instances in which government policy explicitly determined the level and nature of commercial exploitation. There is nothing "natural" about it. So what does explain the patterns he describes?

My own research indicates that the major force behind corporate expropriations of the commons is the corrupt nature of government policymaking in the United States, especially with regard to media and communication. Every day the federal government generates communication policies, regulations, and subsidies that determine the nature of our media system, our journalism, and our culture. The politicians on the relevant congressional committees are swimming in contributions from these corporate lobbies, and know that if they antagonize too many of them, their political careers could suffer. That is why the airwaves were handed over to corporate interests, why copyright has been transformed into protective legislation for powerful media firms, why advertising and commercial ballyhoo permeate our lives. But these policies have not been the topic of much public debate. They get little press attention, except for the occasional "business" story, of interest to investors and managers, not citizens in a democracy. And the overwhelming majority of Americans, not to mention most members of Congress, are largely oblivious to them.

Understood this way, Bollier's arguments lead rapidly to questions of politics. How can we democratize these policy-making processes? Bollier's discussion of solutions is much weaker than his diagnosis of the problems. Vague calls to have a public discussion about the importance of commons will not cut much ice. The Marquis of Queensbury's playbook will only get us so far; what we need are the strategies of Saul Alinsky, Ralph Nader, and Cesar Chavez. Perhaps it is only coincidental, but after dwelling upon media in three of his four case studies, Bollier has little to say about media in his concluding list of five recommendations—which is unfortunate, not least because the issue of how to best protect the media and communications commons is the focus of much current work.

Ed Baker's thoughtful new book, Media, Markets, and Democracy, written from a perspective sympathetic to that of Bollier, suggests many such policies. But one of my favorite proposals has been developed by the economist Dean Baker. Dean Baker proposes that all taxpaying Americans be entitled to divert $200 from their federal income taxes to any IRS-recognized nonprofit medium. This would constitute a multi-billion-dollar subsidy for the nonprofit media sector, without any government official determining the flow of funds. Crucially, recipients of these funds would be required to place their work in the public domain; it would not be covered by copyright laws. This is a brilliant way to think of media in the Internet age: provide for payment at the beginning and then have open access. This approach seems vastly superior to putting up electronic barbed wire all over the Internet, and converting our computers and television sets into vending machines.

But all the great policy ideas in the world won't amount to a hill of beans unless we organize popular support for them. To defeat organized money we need organized people. In the area of media reform this work has begun in earnest. Members of Congress like Bernie Sanders are willing to sponsor progressive legislation directed at these issues. Sanders has already held two "congressional town meetings" on corporate control of the media. Sanders also co-sponsored, with Rep. Sherrod Brown, a congressional summit on this topic in July. What we need to do now is use these proposals just as the feminist movement used the Equal Rights Amendment: as popular organizing tools.

The most exciting aspect of the emerging media reform movement—and this also applies to the broader campaign to reclaim and protect our commons—is that it raises issues that reach across the political spectrum. Conservatives, just like liberals and radicals, don't like corrupt policy-making and they don't like their children's brains marinated in advertising. And most Americans don't relate to these political labels much in the first place. The soil is fertile for organizing. What we need to do now is plant some seeds and get as many people as possible to do a rain dance. David Bollier's work is helping to till the soil. <


Robert W. McChesney teaches communication at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is co-editor of Monthly Review.

Click here to return to the new deomocracy forum, Ruled by the Market? with David Bollier and respondents.

Originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Boston Review



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