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Capitalism in the Offline and Online Worlds: the Domination of Tesco, Facebook and Google

29 Sep

Nothing particularly ground-breaking here. Just some thoughts that’ve come to me in over the last few days on the similarities between the development of the domination of supermarkets in the modern retail industry and that of Facebook and Google in online social media and services. (I’m trying to take away the pressure to write something particularly insightful when I post and accept that it’s ok to make mistakes in public.)

Facebook announced this week that users of online music streaming services like Spotify will soon be share or every song they listen to to Facebook automatically, so-called frictionless sharing. I’ve used a similar service for years called Last.fm which is owned by CBS. Every song I listen in Spotify or my desktop music player foobar2000 to is sent to Last.fm, who then build a picture of my listening habits and recommend music I’d probably like. I’ve found countless new bands this way and it’s only been possible because lots of other people with similar listening habits use the service too. It’s one of my favourite web services.

Facebook has about 750 million users while Last.fm has about 40 million. Facebook is in a very strong position to become dominant in yet another aspect of online life. Facebook already offers many services within one website. which other  websites and mobile apps focus entirely on: location sharing (Foursquare and Gowalla), instant messaging (countless services), surveys and questions (Ask MetaFilter etc, Survey Monkey) and so on. A similar observation could be made of Google who have a huge array of products and services.

What strikes me about this is how similar this is to the relationship between supermarkets and independent traders. Supermarkets like Tesco offer everything from fruit and vegetables to laptops. Independent traders sell either fruit and vegetables or laptops. Speaking recently on the ‘Tesco-isation’ of Britain, the Labour leader Ed Miliband commented

I think it is a problem that people think the character of their local high street is being changed and they have no power against big corporations in this country.

In its report The Guardian made the point that

Labour…has to make a judgment on whether the big four [Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Morrisons] dominate simply because they are popular and more efficient, or because they can stifle competition and choice.

The same questions need to be asked about the domination of large internet companies like Facebook and Google. Is it in the interests of the online public for small companies offering specific services to be dominated by much larger companies who can offer a myriad of services?

I haven’t completely made up my mind on that yet. The concentration of shopping and online activity on companies who offer lots of services within the same site or building do seem to be the effect of the same phenomena though. I made a similar point a while ago here where I said

In the same way that small, independent shops are going out of business because customers find it easier and more efficient to go to large shopping centres to do their shopping, internet users have turned from complicated HTML sites, to slightly less complicated Myspace pages and finally to the easy-to-use Facebook to create their online identity. What both of these phenomena have in common is a societal shift towards a more market-friendly behaviour.

Supermarkets are more similar to Facebook and Google than shopping centres but my general point is the same. The effects of capitalism of companies driving towards making efficiencies by reducing costs and of increasing profits by expanding into different markets apply to the online world just as they do in the offline world. This is having effects on small internet companies just as it does to small traders on the high street.

Labour Has to Be Ready to Work with the Liberal Democrats

9 May

The news that Labour has started productively engaging with the Lib Dems is a promising development for centre-left politics. The parties simply have to work together now if they are to be in any way prepared for formal or informal collaboration against the common enemies of conservatism and neo-liberalism after the next General Election.

That the Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham is sending letters to Lib Dem MPs asking them to support his calls for “1. fair admissions 2. qualified teachers in schools 3. ‘face-to-face’ careers advice” at the third reading of the Education Bill on Wednesday is encouraging. Reaching out to the Coalition’s junior partners like this is significant on a couple of levels. It points to Burnham’s trust that the Lib Dems are not a lost cause for those interested in pluralist, centre-left politics. It is also a sign that some within Labour want to start building a working relationship with the Lib Dems as soon as possible, whether they are working (or conspiring as some would have it) with the Tories or not.

As Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy rightly points out, Labour’s and many others’ obsession with wanting Clegg, Cable, Huhne and Alexander to resign, fail or apologise has distracted attention from the real drivers of the government’s regressive proposals and policies, the Tories. Just as important though is that the Lib Dems need to be aware that they do have a viable choice in who they work with. Labour, the Greens and the broader left must be prepared to continue to build a working relationship with the Lib Dems to be ready to fight conservative and neo-liberal ideologies and politics both now and in the future.

Against the backdrop of NHS reforms unpopular with the Lib Dems, an article in yesterday’s Observer claims that Ed Miliband is openly calling for defections from the Lib Dems to Labour. The caption to the picture to the article states that Miliband would “welcome defectors” from the Lib Dems. I’m not convinced Miliband has actually said any such thing though. I can’t find any direct quotes in the article from Miliband clearly saying that nor am I able to find the original text by Miliband which the quotations in the article came from. [If anyone reading this finds such a text could you let me know?] The only quotations in the article which might be interpreted as encouraging defection are “They can come and work with us. My door is always open” and “Lib Dems have to work out which side they are on. Do they want to be on the Conservative side, backing the Conservative-led government, or on the progressive side? It really is time for them to make up their minds.” Miliband’s comments appear to me to respect Lib Dem cabinet ministers’ and MPs’ continuing membership of a Liberal Democrat party which could and should be able to work with Labour, the Greens and others. Again, these are promising signs from the Labour leadership. 

To publicly suggest that Lib Dems ought to leave their party would surely appear patronising, cynical and tribalistic. It assumes that there is no possibility for the Liberal Democrats to ever do good work with the Labour party in the future and that the Labour party has a monopoly on centre-left thought and action. Neither assumption would lead to a productive engagement with a party who should be an ally in the fight against the common enemy of those informed by conservative and neo-liberal traditions. There is a constructive and positive way forward without requiring Lib Dems to switch tribe. Co-operation between the two parties, the Greens and others outside of party politics allows for the broadest possible consensus against regressive, conservative and neo-liberal politics. The rest of the Labour party should follow Miliband and Burnham’s pluralist lead and treat the Lib Dems’ members and traditions with respect despite the current Lib Dem leadership’s disregard for those same members and traditions.

A caveat to all of this talk of co-operation is that it doesn’t seem possible for the most prominent Lib Dem adopters of neo-liberal economics – Clegg, Alexander and Laws – to continue to lead the party while in any formal collaboration with the Green party or a Labour party led by Ed Miliband. Clegg is electorally toxic and the light-touch economic policy espoused by him – but crucially not huge swathes of social liberals in his party – seems in direct opposition to Miliband’s and the Greens’ politics of democratic resistance to the negative effects of capital. There would surely have to be changes at the top of the Lib Dems before co-operation between the parties was formalised.

For their part, Labour needs to develop economic policies which resonate with the electorate, counter the ‘no alternative to cuts’ narrative and are convincing to other parties within the centre-left. Just saying “we’ll cut less than the Tories” doesn’t seem to do that. Building up a broader narrative based on stimulating not cutting an economy into growth is my preferred approach but I’m sure not the only way to encourage the centre-left unity necessary to oppose the Tories.

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