There are serious questions facing social media and especially Facebook. Questions regarding what was in fact central to our struggles during the apartheid era, especially for the so-called independent Marxist Left outside the alliance of the ruling African National Congress with the South African Communist Party. This left has a huge presence on Facebook, not only in South Africa, but around the globe.
Nobody raised more strongly and sharply the destructive consequences apartheid had for the democratic notions of freedom, power and conscious control over our lives than this left. For them apartheid represented not only the denial of democratic freedoms, such as the right to vote and various other civic rights which allowed black people to enjoy freedoms that Europe and the USA took for granted, but they also very strongly fought against capitalism and especially against the power of multinational conglomerates to exploit and oppress people, especially black people in this country and around the globe.
Key to those anti-apartheid struggles for them was the need to simultaneously confront South African corporate power, such as the Anglo-American Corporation, including large companies which controlled the global economy. This anti-capitalist struggle was in fact the heart for them of the anti-apartheid struggle, because so inextricably intertwined was apartheid with capitalism that they virtually had a symbiotic relationship with each other, they argued.
As a result, they very strongly criticised the ANC and the South African Communist Party for not sharing this approach to the South African struggle, but instead followed a two-stage approach, in which the first stage would be restricted to a struggle against apartheid and only in a later, but at an unspecified future stage, will the anti-capitalist struggle, then led by the SACP, take over. I will leave aside for the moment that the SACP has certainly not stepped forward to lead an explicit struggle for socialism after 1994, which it was supposed to do.
However, an essential part of this left’s ideological, political and philosophical repertoire was the utilisation of the Marxist notions of fetishism, alienation, reification and especially how almost everything under capitalism was commercialised and commodified, including knowledge and information, the business of Facebook. In other words, the aim of the anti-capitalist struggle was to combat these systemic consequences for the working class and wider civil society, with which the struggle for socialist emancipation was inseparably linked.
It is precisely for these reasons that I never cared much to join Facebook and only reluctantly did so later, I think in 2015. But what has struck me with incredible force is how these Marxists are for long instead inseparably part of the Facebook frenzy, totally oblivious or uncaring about the major and unpalatable contradictions this practice and its political context represents for their long-held beliefs and views.
All the Marxist notions of fetishism, reification and commodification have silently died. So much uncritical fetishism is there in their orientation to Facebook that it represents for me one of the biggest contradictions and conundrum of this left. Most of them seem quite addicted to Facebook in the most intriguing fashion.
When I mentioned in a post in 2016 that I, together with assistance from the Legal Resources Centre, was taking Facebook to court in order to compel them to release basic information about their presence in South Africa, there was hardly a response from this same left. This was especially baffling since this was not only the very first time Facebook faced a legal challenge in South Africa, but the case was about the basic right of the public to company information about Facebook, like its physical address, contact details, list of directors and so on. I took this step after all my attempts to obtain this information from administrative staff at Melrose Arch, where their South African office is based, failed.
The action against Facebook was successful, in that the information I sought, which they repeatedly and arrogantly refused to provide, was given to me. But not even a post in which I mentioned this important success got much of a response from this left. I was struck by the hypocrisy. I mean, this was Facebook, which enjoyed a virtual global monopoly in its field, operating like all other global capitalist giants and with a fierce determination to rake in ever-bigger profits.
Today, the fact that data is literally money is an oppressive and dizzying reality which poorer subscribers have to contend with daily, whether it be with Facebook, Vodacom and so on. Data is brutally commodified, as those from the working class who are lucky to be on Facebook will tell you. We don’t own or control data. To the contrary, it in fact owns and controls us. How many times have you not heard the refrain: I ran out of data? This simply means you never had money to buy data.
More disturbing is that Facebook is increasingly intervening and actively censoring posts, including banning people when they don’t like the content, according to criteria they impose on subscribers. This is a serious, oppressive and alienating invasion of communication and political rights which Facebook is trampling on with impunity. White men in grey suits or denim these days are still controlling the world.
Yet, you do not even see the left on Facebook raise these key and critical issues in their posts. Instead, they are today happily part and parcel of the Facebook obsession, notwithstanding the fact that is the epitome of global corporate power, whose business, under the alluring rubric of “connecting people around the globe”, has made its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, among the richest people in the world.
I even saw some prominent leftists both informing and urging other friends to follow a particular procedure to bypass Facebook’s arbitrary restrictions last year on how many of one’s friend read one’s posts, apparently the result of some new algorithmic change they imposed. Even for such a basic communication right the old activism they lived and even died for is now itself dead.
Nowhere did I see attempts to mobilise support to confront Facebook on what was very clearly an arbitrary and despotic restriction, especially for a company founded on connecting people. But it only goes to show the mesmerising power of Facebook and its ability to tame, control and even dictate terms to its subscribers, and without any serious resistance.
This is a different, emaciated and I suppose more ‘modernised’ left, some of them might argue. One thing Facebook makes very clear is that they certainly don’t make Marxists like they used to. The world is certainly changing from what we knew and the principles we thought we lived by. It is becoming colder, darker, smaller, harder to understand, more complex and more intriguing.
I even seriously think that if Facebook was to shut down tomorrow many or even most Facebook subscribers, including this left, would be left reeling from such a massive void in their lives that many would fall into serious depression. And in many ways these matters have altered, expanded and complicated I believe the parameters of the traditional meanings of socialist “emancipation” held by the left. The future? Go figure.
Dr. Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer and former Cosatu trade unionist.