Harris Breslow – Civil Society, Political Economy and the Internet

Breslow attempts to reconceptualize social interaction and communal identity on the Internet through a detailed discussion of the role of civil society online. And, while the Internet facilitates a sense of sociability, Breslow questions whether this will translate into solidarity, resulting in meaningful political and social transformation.

Building on a classic model of civil society, Breslow examines the role of it plays in determining the social, political and economic life of society. Since civil society is realized as a space where political interaction can take place in as a peaceful form of discourse between competing private interests. It is a place where both private and public interests can meet. But, it must also have a particular “density” of individuals for it to work. Communication is also key, as participants must have a certain level of rational-critical discourse to function. Inevitably, this discourse leads to forms of class struggle as the various interests come into play. All this is raises questions about the Internet’s ability to accommodate these aspects.

From here, Breslow outlines the development of civil society in the context of 20th century political economic history describing the transitions from a Fordist model through to a modern one. Here is examines the cultural aspects of this evolution discussing some theories surrounding the development of education and language as tools for developing communities that evolve into civil society. In the postmodern era, civil society declines, according to Breslow as it becomes hard to find the necessary social space to formulate a secure environment for individuals to gather. Without this ability, the necessary social density is unachievable. He argues the need to respatialize labour and economic processes in light of the globalize economy and the inherent difficulties this creates. Inside this context, the Internet plays a critical role. In particular, it alienates individuals leaving no space for civil society to gain enough special density to formulate sufficient socio-material structures.

This is a chapter from a book printed in 1997, a time in the early development of the Internet that understandably leads Breslow to draw his conclusions. This is prior to many of the exciting development as the WTO protests, the development of Indy Media, the open source movement, and other forms of global activism that may have caused him to reconsider his overall point. He admits at the end of the article that he is “a child of the Fordist era holding ideals such as solidarity and community quiet dear”. From his modernist perspective, it may be harder to grasp the complicated social interactions associated with the Internet that can be so fragmented and diverse that it is overwhelming at times. But, he is also not all wrong. The promise of the Internet as a forum for social interaction has not fully realized all it democratic aspirations. Certainly, there are sufficient tools, in particular the rising number of social networking web sites burgeoning the web such as You Tube and Facebook. However, measured by the standards set out by Breslow, this does not come close to defining civil society as he would have it. Yet, it may be the civil society of the future, a notion that may deserve his analysis another time.

First posted: 7/16/07

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