Analysis of the Netflix phenomenon from the Marxist point of view of the JRCF
THIBAUD, JRCF MILITANT 29.Sep.21 El Machete Magazine
The market for video on demand, or streaming, is dominated by a few monopolies that, as is the rule, compete fiercely with each other. In Mexico, Netflix is in the lead, followed far behind by different conglomerates and in the midst of a readjustment between capitalist forces carried out through mergers and the intervention of the so-called technology giants. Netflix is not only a monopoly of culture and entertainment, but a source that powerfully inoculates among the population various manifestations of bourgeois ideology, as well as a model of life and social support. The author of this text delves into the Netflix phenomenon
Analysis of the Netflix phenomenon from the Marxist point of view of the JRCF *
JRCF (Youth Section of the Pôle de renaissance communiste en France , PRCF)
The Netflix phenomenon has taken over the planet, it is a fact. Today the video-on-demand streaming service is an unavoidable player in the world of culture. Concentration of capital and cultural means of production, economic model and technical peculiarities. This article aims to explore the issues raised by the Netflix case to form the basis of a communist point of view.
To speak of Netflix, and more generally of all technical innovation located within a peculiar socio-historical context, implies first objectively considering the very object of the innovation itself: a tool. Netflix as a streaming video platform , together with an innovative business model (the monthly payment that gives unlimited access to certain content), is a technical medium, an “infrastructure”. If we want to analyze Netflix by the use that society makes of it - in its cultural and anthropological function - we are not only talking about the tool itself, but about the way the tool works or rather the way it works.
The Netflix tool (the streaming platform , with its servers, its programs, its business model) conditions use, it is a certainty. There cannot be individuals - or social groups - that take advantage of streaming if the streaming platform does not exist. But it would be a mistake to consider usage (the frequency with which Netflix is used, the type of content viewed, the recognized or unconscious goals of this practice, etc.) as strictly determined by the tool itself.
Our analysis will have to critique both the use (practice and social function) and the structure (the material conditions of use) that make up the set that make up the entirety of our case study.
But using the category of totality we have to go to the end of the logic, considering that the totality that constitutes Netflix as an object of study is inserted in a totality of a greater order, namely, capitalist society, the same in which Netflix has been thought out and is experienced.
A communist point of view on the Netflix question must, therefore, start first from our equation: the material reality of Netflix. The main innovation of the streaming site does not come from its operation from a strictly technological point of view. Computing made streaming possible long before the appearance of the platform. Its greatest innovation is its commercial model based on monthly payments, giving access to immense content for its quantity. Kinnari Naik, from the University of Leicester, estimated that it would take 3,274 hours in a lifetime to look at all the content hosted on the site.
Our first criticism would therefore be a question of the commercial model: is it allowed to remunerate fairly all the workers who participate in the production process, going from the writing of the scripts, to the online exchange of audiovisual content? Without needing to answer the negative in an argued way, we can already say that as long as there is a capitalist hierarchy that exploits the workers concerned, the problem of the business model is preceded by that of surplus value.
Suppressing the explanation of the workers handing over the productive tool into the hands of those who use it is the condition in which the problem of surplus value can be considered from a "purely" technical and not political aspect - in the sense of the struggle of lessons. In a socialist society an equivalent of Netflix would be collectively owned and its use would be subject to democratic debate. Given this condition, the policies for the distribution of the economic value emanating from an innovative business model could be debated without hindrance. Without treating the problem from the root (the question of surplus value), we condemn ourselves to impotence, since the right of a capitalist minority to decide for all is not challenged.
In addition to the business model, what constitutes the strength of Netflix (as well as numerous other online services, such as Facebook, YouTube, etc.) is the platform effect. Hosting content on the Internet benefits this effect from the moment the amount of data hosted reaches a critical mass. While the mass of data is greater, the user is more likely to find what they are looking for on a single platform and it becomes less interesting to host content elsewhere. In economic language we can say that the transaction costs of the passage from one accommodation to another increase depending on the fact that the transition is made from a large accommodation to a small one. It is simply more interesting to pay 10 euros a month to access 5 million films than to pay the same amount to access 500,000 films,
This platform effect pushes the concentration of content in an almost unavoidable way. Only a major innovation can break the pre-existing platform effect, look for example how Facebook replaced MySpace in the middle of the 2000s thanks to its radically new functionalities and interface.
Such disruption is much less likely to occur today because the online services market is increasingly dominated by a fraction of capital that concentrated as content was concentrated and expanded. Today Facebook has warned itself of all competition by buying the services that one day they could hunt on their land (Instagram, WhatsApp).
The double movement of concentration of content and concentration of capital is taken by the communists from a technical perspective (the objective advantage of benefiting from platform effects, the advantage of concentrating the means of production to make access to the mass consumption of cultural products), but also from a political perspective. In the field of class struggle, we fight so that the socially useful innovations, contributed by Netflix, are placed in the hands of all those who benefit from them and contribute to them: the workers and, ultimately, society as a whole. . In a socialist society it is possible to think of a public service of culture that would guarantee everyone equal access to audiovisual content; In this context of information technology infrastructure and a monthly business model, it can become a formidable support for an equal dissemination of culture. In a capitalist society the prevailing usage is very different, which we are going to demonstrate here.
Regarding the use made of the platform, we must first see what is the catalog that Netflix proposes. It must be seen that from a simple platform the American company rose to the rank of powerful producer with 80 films in 2018, with a result of 1.2 billion dollars in 2018. It is a giant whose decisive weight in the world of cultural business is getting bigger and bigger. And in the same way that Marvel Studios (owned by Disney) can be criticized for accumulating turnips  with superhero sauce, we must criticize Netflix for the type of content proposed on the platform.
In order to grow, Netflix opted for eclecticism: being not picky, society gives a chance to screenwriters, filmmakers and actors little known to the public. This strategy, which consists of constituting a broader repertoire, the most diverse (but above all the most profitable) possible, allows the acquisition of rare and unsuspected pearls and the constitution of a band with exclusive content, allowing to counteract dependence on big producers like Warner Bros, Disney and others (because it is the producers who give Netflix the broadcast licenses for the works they own).
While it can be recognized that Netflix gives the possibility of showing off little-known artists, we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that it is about love for cultural diversity. Netflix faces fierce competition for the video-on-demand market, and only uses eclecticism for economic interest. A public culture service, using certain methods of the Los Gatos company (the city in California where Netflix is headquartered) would have the mission of financing the most diversified artistic creation possible, but without having as its objective the profitability criterion that prevails among large companies in the sector. In this perspective, a monthly payment paid each month by users would only finance a defined group of large productions aimed at the mass public,
Now it is a question of seeing what the emergence of giants in the culture sector leads us to. Here criticism embraces numerous actors, from Universal to Netflix, through Warner, Disney and the set of large companies that form the cultural hegemony of capital in the sphere of film and music production.
The risk is already a reality. The vast majority of recorded products make the public participate in the diffusion of ideologies that increase the spiritual domination by capital. Take for example the last season of the House of Cards series, produced by Netflix. After the scandals of the main actor, Kevin Spacey, due to accusations of sexual harassment, the last season took a turn in the line of a certain liberal feminism. The #MeToo movement appears throughout the season through the figure of Claire Underwood (the wife of President Frank Underwood, played by Spacey). The bourgeois feminist struggle becomes the central theme of a series in which political cynicism is an intangible thread. This raises numerous questions as to the sincerity of that militancy. What about the emancipation of proletarian women? What happened to feminism embodied from Clara Zetkin to Angela Davis? What sincerity can be given to the implicit political line that the series defends in the last season? Let's be clear:
The ordinary comedy of the bourgeoisie is projected on the screen without stopping. The moral slogans calling for the politically correct play their role of crushing class consciousness more than ever. They say: “look at the reactionary yellow vests, look at the masses starving for Jewish, homosexual or female blood. How to agree for these savages the slightest increase in their payment chip? They wouldn't do anything with it. " This comedy in which the worst reactionaries, which are the bourgeoisie, become the great defenders of virtue is a game of big capital. This game imposes the rules of debate on the majority, via the influence of the monopolies of culture. Against this, we communists maintain that big capital will continue to impose its antisocial ideologies as long as it has the means to do so:
Despite this, by betting on eclecticism and the law of the market, Netflix must satisfy a certain demand that comes from the answering fringes of the population. For example, this is the case of the Brazilian series 3% , in which a dystopian society is depicted in which precisely 3% of the privileged people keep the rest of society under their tutelage and which beautifully embodies the emergence of a discourse increasingly disillusioned with capitalist society. We can think that Netflix would have done better not to subsidize such productions that may arouse certain political aspirations contrary to its interests. However, one can recall what Lenin said: "the capitalists will even come to us with the rope with which we will hang them."
But communists should not have any illusions as to the subversive potential of such productions, first because they participate in a cultural complex within which the alternative to capitalism, which is socialism-communism, is never presented in a favorable way. If dystopian series and films flourish, we will soon see certain artists propose in their works an unviable future to which they dedicate a political struggle. It is even advantageous to capital for people to become depressed in a dystopian mental universe: hope does not exist; there is nothing more to do than lament over one's own fate, real or phantom, claiming a supposed subversion.
In conclusion, we can speak from a partisan opinion about Netflix. As a concentrated fraction of the world's great capital, as a tool of a restive but very alive cultural hegemony, Netflix counts as a political enemy of communism. As an innovative economic and technical model, Netflix brings interesting elements to anyone who wants to build a democratized culture in a socialist world.
 In French the word turnips is used to refer to something of poor quality. Note from the translator of the text .
* Published in El Machete , magazine of theory, politics and culture of the Communist Party of Mexico, number 13-14, 2019.
Texto completo en: http://elcomunista.nuevaradio.org/anali ... -desde-el/
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