Center for a Stateless Society
A Left Market Anarchist Think Tank & Media Center
Advertising and Big Data: A Government Scourge

Advertising and big data act as two elements with the capacity to end corporate dominance if the necessary steps can be taken. They act as the quasi-independent creations of the government scourge of mass production, born of the system of the factory, emplaced in the wider social factory of commercial neoliberalism that surrounds the modern world. The fundamental need to push products into the hands of more consumers necessitates the creation of allure, of spectacle. An iPhone would be generic without its characteristic apple. Yet such constructs have a fatalistic quality, that being the genericism inherent that leads to lower quality, higher production and more genericism.

Mass production as a system leads to large-scale waste, and a continual reliance on surrounding economic structures. Highly regulated financial markets with fortress-like entry barriers, government creation of massive transport infrastructure (highways and transnational rail networks) and authoritarian regimes in the East and Global South who can eliminate any whisper of trade unionism or worker solidarity. These are all children of the state, built from its core ideology of centralising managerialism. Advertising and big data are the children of the children, nominally independent of direct subsidy, yet all the same creations of it.

Advertising exists as a means to push production costs onto consumers. It is not directly state-based, but created by wider systemic interventions that further the original subsidies’ effects. Monopoly production itself relies on social investment via military Keynesianism and massive R&D spending[1]. Mass production needs such investment to soak up the waste inherent in the system. This system “tends to generate ever more surplus, yet it fails to provide the consumption and investment outlets required for the absorption of a rising surplus and hence for the smooth working of the system. Since surplus which cannot be absorbed will not be produced, it follows that the normal state of the monopoly capitalist economy is stagnation”[2]. However, with state investment and capital socialisation, the system is able function. But this does not entail a productive existence.

Their exists the artificial separation of production from consumption. Necessitated is “the imperative of guaranteeing consumption of its output by managing the customer”[3]. This is done mainly through built-in obsolescence and the creation of the desire for the new in the continual production of uniform commodities. Mass advertising accomplishes the creation of this desire through the manipulation of the consumer, making them believe that there exists a competitive market of consumable products when in fact through mechanisms like intellectual property the actualities of choice are limited. Looking at one of the newer markets of consumable products, electronic tablets, we see a large variety of producers that offer extremely similar products with similar features and similar apps.

Mass advertising hones in Bernays’ idea of propaganda, that of “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses”[4] conceived and perpetrated by an invisible elite, the deep state. In the monopoly markets of consumer products, particularly those in electronics, we see a similar process of elite companies acting under the guise of market competition. This then leads to what Borsodi terms “the aggrandizement of the individual manufacturer”[5], or in other terms the protected position of a monopoly producer. Such a position requires high pressure forms of marketing. It’s the push-based production and distribution that Kevin Carson has described.

All this high-pressure marketing and advertising inevitably adds to costs for the consumer[6], suggesting a significant competitive inefficiency that further relies on both state subsidy and the ability to access multiple forms of media that allow for such advertising. As Borsodi notes, “manufacturers engaged in mass production and mass selling have been the active factors in the development of extravagant marketing and unnecessary transportation” which has led to monopolisation and the breaking down of consumer scepticism when it comes to particular products and services[7].

This is particularly noticeable within the modern world of ‘low-price’ retail, where the advertisement of paltry price decreases or endless offers demonstrates a reliance on pushed consumption, rather than natural consumer demand. Almost all established supermarkets in the UK now have some form of brand guarantee, which effectively means generic pricing in all supermarkets, with the lowest price being the marker. This is nonsense, but has been given the veneer of price competition through good advertising which suggests cheapness. The monopoly power of such firms allows for this to occur, with advertising acting as a by-product of the state privilege these behemoth firms receive. Without such a cartelised system, direct economy production and small, pull-based distribution chains would allow for significant cost and price reductions.

Producers, who rely on fixed-price agreements with large retailers which have become subject to change with only the power of protest preventing it[8], wouldn’t need such agreements and could rely on confederated market consortiums in local areas, moving toward direct economy production and eliminating the middleman. This reduces costs and raises quality for consumers, as producer-retailer fixed price agreements (themselves not subject to competition) become untenable in clustered, extremely competitive producer-consumer markets which would have higher quality, variability and degree of pricing.

Keeping the consumer dissatisfied with the current product, and mystified by supposedly better alternatives, is what mass advertising is all about. It’s the move from “fulfilling basic human needs to creating new ones”[9], ending the direct economy in favour of the faceless market. Of course it may be said (by most libertarians in fact) that advertising is just the presentation of choice, and that consumers are not forced to buy products. The suggestion that they are is simply conspiratorial. However, no one’s claiming conspiracy here. Instead, the monopoly power of firms who overproduce goods and overaccumulate capital need an outlet for this excess and waste. State soaking of mass production is one method, and the use of mass advertising is another. They are simply creations of the monopolistic economy that wouldn’t exist if not for the myriad state privileges such firms receive.

“The state capitalist system makes mass‐production industry for the national market artificially prevalent, and makes its need to dispose of surplus output artificially urgent, thus subjecting the consumer to a barrage of pro‐consumption propaganda far greater in volume than would be experienced in a decentralized, free market society of small‐scale local commodity production”[10].

Big data is another product of the corporate economy that, like advertising, has degrees of independence from direct government intervention. It moves from monopoly positions held by companies who have IP rights over certain technologies. This is particularly prevalent when it’s been noted by an Oxfam report that 74% of billionaire wealth is accrued from economic rent i.e. money from unproductive activity such as IP monopoly power and financial speculation[11]. In terms of big data, this means its controlled mostly by rentier investors or corporations, with the dissemination of knowledge that would develop naturally in a freed market unable to occur due to this monopoly power. “Winner-take-most markets” become the norm as there is zero-cost replication of much of this data and knowledge[12], which to the authors of The Great Decoupling suggests a natural monopoly taking hold of key sectors of technological development.

However, such simplistic arguments ignore state privilege, particularly in IP and corporate law structures which allow for the voluntary transfer of data toward advertisers but not its contractual return. This is where the link between big data and advertising exists, with monopoly companies in areas like social media using their users’ data for advertising purposes. What seems most galling about this is that customers are voluntarily giving over such data and not reading the contracts that are related to its use. However, in taking a macro view, this idea of voluntariness doesn’t hold. Firstly, big data is used in the advertising-mass production nexus which itself is a state-privileged monopoly as I’ve already pointed out. Secondly, the modern structure of law allows for the use of big data and legalese-based contracts which limit the capacity of a user/consumer to access or change the use terms of their data. Limited liability laws limit the capacity of torts to be taken against these behemoth firms, which goes against historical common law and is instead the creation of corporate charters and state legislation. Further, the increasing costs of bringing cases to court (a direct result of the state’s legal monopoly) means that common law injunctions become very difficult to use against companies relying on big data. A common law injunction would allow for the limitation of big data’s use where desired by consumers, and its opening up to public access and use if wanted.

If such a method were allowed to occur, we could see an opening up of big data which large retailers and internet-based firms rely on. This would end monopoly structures and allow for the dissemination of knowledge to more productive outlets, in this case smaller retail outfits and demand-pull production systems nested in decentralised, direct economy arrangements. As Paul Mason has noted, unlocking big data in its corporate form means unlocking the capacity for general knowledge ownership, the collective general intellect, which means voluntary rather than monopoly control[13].

Big data, like the consumer position within advertising, holds something of a key toward decentralisation. With government spending and sovereign debt becoming more unsustainable, the systemic distortions of state intervention seem more and more untenable as the state is hollowed out by the logics of vested interests. Like many different elements of modern economies and polities, the issue then becomes whether such decentralisation is allowed to develop and flourish in this ‘second machine age’[14], or are the elites and monopolies that rely on centralised structures the ones who will win out.

The rise in new forms of technology that are defining this ‘second machine age’ are showing signs of a development toward decentralisation. They apply more to competitive free markets rather than monopolistic antimarkets[15]. Computers are more fitting toward guild production and artisanal techniques[16], particularly when combined with 3D printing and the rise of internet-based governance networks. Such production fits into local market constructions, instead of international mass markets. This then eliminates the need for the levels of advertising seen today. New technologies such as shopping apps and comparison sites mean that consumers take back that scepticism lost to high-pressure marketing. “The issues of complexity to such datatrawling and analysis leans to the favor of consumers because there’s simply far more of us than there are sellers”[17] thus empowering consumers to become more savvy and lead them away from the cheap blandness of modern mass produced goods towards niche artisanal goods.

In the area of big data there are new internet governance platforms which radically decentralise power to individuals and voluntary communities. Blockchain based contracts, which could further simplicity and limit legalese, means more control of our own data. Social media platforms become more decentralised as the advertising industry as an existential reality of a corporate economy dies with the removal of state privilege.

Returning to the use of common law and ending the limited liability subsidy opens up particular data platforms and controllers to injunctions by individuals in a competitive law system. Chris Cook has noted the capacity of using existed LLP law in the UK to develop decentralised systems that take control over areas of the economy like intellectual property[18], forcing large corporates to pay for the cost of controlling certain technologies against commons ownership. Similar systems could be used for big data, treating it as a commons not open to free use by rentiers.

The lower-skilled get little benefit from the monopolised systems of information of the modern world. Income stagnation and an increasing reliance on debt instruments mean their prospects are thinner and thinner, yet with technology developing as it is in consumer data-set control and the need for niche, artisanal production for the heterogeneous needs of consumers, this natural decentralisation inherent here means a return of control back to the lower-skilled, particularly when coupled with the diffusion of general information in P2P platforms which allows for new animal spirits to develop among a wider group of individuals. An increase in the importance of big data relative to labour-based technologies (“technologies such as payroll-processing and inventory-control software, factory automation, computer-controlled machining centers, and scheduling tools”) means an increase in “engineering, creative, and design”[19] skills needed. In this, there’s an entrepreneurial bent toward independent working, leading to contractual, equal market relations between economic actors rather than the simple role of wage labour that defines low-skilled employment.

“Humans are still far superior in three skill areas. One is high-end creativity that generates things like great new business ideas, scientific breakthroughs, novels that grip you, and so on. Technology will only amplify the abilities of people who are good at these things.

The second category is emotion, interpersonal relations, caring, nurturing, coaching, motivating, leading, and so on. Through millions of years of evolution, we’ve gotten good at deciphering other people’s body language”[20]

This quote shows how even with the evolution of machines in big data systems, the capacity for human control of the economy is still great. It shows two areas that need to develop in decentralised economies: local market structures that encourage clustered ownership and high levels of entrepreneurship, and mutual aid systems with a general safety net that ends economic hierarchies of control.

Big data analytics and consumer power through new advertising technologies mean a move toward general control through voluntary contractors in clustered economies, where such data can be utilised most efficiently, ending waste in production and developing a direct economy rather than a mass market. Or it can continue along its normal trend, where the elites of large corporations continue to rely on IP and wage labour monopolies and a centralised economy with key information kept under lock and key. They may be government scourges, but the technological movements and advance in big data and advertising do show a way of moving beyond capitalism.

Notes:

[1] Carson, K. The Homebrew Industrial Revolution, 2010, 43

[2] Baran, P. & Sweezy, P. Monopoly Capitalism, 1966, 108

[3] Carson, K. The Homebrew Industrial Revolution, 2010, 44

[4] Bernays, E. Propaganda, 1928, 9

[5] Borsodi, R. The Distribution Age, 1927, 45

[6] Borsodi, R. The Distribution Age, 1927, 81

[7] Borsodi, R. The Distribution Age, 1927, 81

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/nov/04/tesco-deal-dairy-farmers-milk-price-protests

[9] Kaplan, J. The Gospel of Consumption, 2008

[10] Carson, K. The Homebrew Industrial Revolution, 2010, 45

[11] https://shadowproof.com/2016/03/27/report-74-of-billionaire-wealth-from-rent-seeking/

[12] Bernstein, A. & Raman, A. The Great Decoupling, 2015

[13] Mason, P. PostCapitalism, 2015

[14] Bernstein, A. & Raman, A. The Great Decoupling, 2015

[15] DeLanda, M. Markets and Antimarkets in the World Economy, 1998

[16] Sparkes, R. The Recovery of the Guilds, 2016

[17] Gillis, W. Let’s Just Kill the Advertising Industry

[18] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2016/04/09/chris-cooks-p2p-foundation-email-collection/

[19] Bernstein, A. & Raman, A. The Great Decoupling, 2015

[20] Bernstein, A. & Raman, A. The Great Decoupling, 2015

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