’...is the impact of the ...information revolution on capitalism not the ultimate exemplification of... Marx’s thesis that : "at a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces come into conflict with the existing relations of production..." ? ...does the prospect of the... "global village" not signal the end of market relations... at least in the sphere of digitalised information ?’ (Zizek 1998 : 33-4)
A spectre is haunting the Net : the spectre of communism. Reflecting the extravagance of the new media, this spectre takes two distinct forms : the theoretical appropriation of Stalinist communism and the everyday practice of cyber-communism. Whatever their professed political beliefs, all users of the Net enthusiastically participate in this left-wing revival. Whether in theory or practice, each of them desires the digital transcendence of capitalism. Yet, at the same time, even the most dedicated leftist can no longer truly believe in communism. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union, this ideology is completely discredited. The promises of social emancipation turned into the horrors of totalitarianism. The dreams of industrial modernity culminated in economic stagnation. Far from representing the future, communism seems like a relic from the past
Above all, the Soviet Union was incapable of leading the information revolution. The political and economic structures of Stalinist communism were far too inflexible and secretive for the emergence of the new technological paradigm. How could the totalitarian party allow everyone to produce media without its supervision ? How could the central planning agency permit producers to form collaborative networks without its authorisation ? A much more open and spontaneous society was needed to develop the Net. Excited by the libertarian potential of further digital convergence, the proponents of almost every radical ideology have recently updated their positions. Yet, among the cyber-feminists, communication guerrillas, techno-nomads and digital anarchists, there is no new version of the once dominant current of Stalinist communism. Even its former acolytes admit that the Soviet Union exemplified the worst failures of Fordism : authoritarianism, conformity and environmental degradation. (Hall and Jacques : 1989)
The ideologues of American neo-liberalism have seized this opportunity to lay claim to the future. For almost thirty years, they have been predicting that new technologies were about to create a utopian civilisation : the information society. For instance, the Tofflers have long been convinced that the convergence of computing, telecommunications and the media would free individuals from the clutches of both big business and big government. (Toffler 1980) Similarly, Ithiel de Sola Pool prophesied that interactive television would allow everyone to make their own media and participate in political decision-making. (de Sola Pool 1983) Despite their radical rhetoric, these conservative pundits were primarily interested in proving that information technologies would force the privatisation and deregulation of all economic activity. Their post-Fordist future was the return to the liberal past. When the Net became popular, this free market fundamentalism was quickly adapted to fit the new situation. Most famously, Wired argues that the ’New Paradigm’ of unregulated competition between cyber-entrepreneurs is extending individual freedom and encouraging technological innovation in the USA. (Barbrook and Cameron 1996) As the Net spreads across the world, the material and spiritual values of American neo-liberalism will eventually be imposed on the whole of humanity. As Louis Rossetto - the founding editor of Wired - explains :
’This new world [of the Net] is characterised by a new global economy that is inherently anti-hierarchical and decentralist, and that disrespects national boundaries or the control of politicians and bureaucrats... and by a global, networked consciousness... that is turning... bankrupt electoral politics... into a dead end.’ (Hudson 1996 : 30)
The narcissism of the Californian ideology reflects the self-confidence of a triumphant nation. With the Cold War won, the USA no longer has any serious military or ideological competitors. Even its economic rivals in the EU and East Asia have been surpassed. According to most commentators, the renaissance of American hegemony is founded upon its lead in new information technologies. No country can match the ’smart weapons’ of the US military. Few companies can compete against the ’smart machines’ used by American corporations. Above all, the USA dominates the cutting-edge of technological innovation : the Net. Realising the American dream, a lucky few are making huge fortunes from floating their hi-tech companies on Wall Street. (Greenwald 1998) Mesmerised by the commercial potential of e-commerce, many others are speculating their savings on new media share issues.
’Internet stocks... may be the hottest things since the Dutch tulip-bulb craze in the 1600s’. (Kadlec 1999 : 1)
Despite all the wealth being generated by technological innovation, the division between rich and poor continues to widen in the USA. (Elliott 1999) In contrast with the European and East Asian forms of capitalism, American neo-liberalism can successfully combine economic progress with social immobility. Ever since the 1789 French revolution, conservatives have searched for this union of opposites : reactionary modernism. (Herf 1984) Although necessary for the survival of capitalism, the social implications of economic growth have always frightened the Right. Over the long-run, continual industrialisation slowly erodes class privileges. As their incomes rise, ordinary people can increasingly determine the political concerns and cultural attitudes of society. As a result, successive generations of conservatives have faced the dilemma of reconciling economic expansion with social stasis. Despite deep ideological differences, they have always proposed the same solution : the formation of a hi-tech aristocracy. (Nietzsche 1961 ; Ortega y Gasset 1932)
The earliest versions of this reactionary fantasy emphasised the hierarchical division of labour under Fordism. Although many skills were destroyed by the industrial system, new specialisms were simultaneously created. Within Fordism, engineers, bureaucrats, teachers and other professionals formed an intermediate layer between management and the shopfloor. (Elger 1979) Unlike most employees, this section of the working class received high incomes and escaped subordination to the assembly-line. Fearful of losing their limited privileges, some professionals became enthusiastic supporters of reactionary modernism. Instead of fighting for social equality, they dreamt of founding a new aristocracy : the technocracy.
’Reason, science, and technology are not inert processes by which men [and women] discover, communicate, and apply facts disinterestedly and without passion, but means by which, through systems, some men [and women] organise and control the lives of other men [and women] according to their conceptions as to what is preferable.’ (Israel 1972 : 2-3)
During the boom years of Fordism, the new ruling class was supposedly being formed by the managers and other professionals from large corporations and government departments. (Burnham 1945) However, when the economy went into crisis in the early-1970s, right-wing intellectuals were forced to look for supporters amongst other sections of the intermediate layer. Inspired by Marshall McLuhan, they soon discovered the growing number of people developing new information technologies. (McLuhan 1964) For almost three decades, conservative gurus have been predicting that the new ruling class would be composed of venture capitalists, innovative scientists, hacker geniuses, media stars and neo-liberal ideologues : the digerati. (Bell 1973 ; Toffler 1980 ; Kelly 1994) Seeking to popularise their prophecies, they always claim that every hi-tech professional has the opportunity to become a member of this new aristocracy. Within the convergent industries, skilled workers are essential for the development of original products, such as software programs and website designs. In common with many of their peers, most digital artisans suffer from the insecurity of contract employment. However, they also are better paid and have greater autonomy over their work. As in the past, this ambiguous social position can encourage gullibility towards reactionary modernism. Chasing the American dream, many hi-tech workers hope to make millions from founding their own company. Instead of identifying with their fellow employees, they aspire to join the digerati : the new technocracy of the Net. (Kroker and Weinstein 1994)
Unlike in earlier forms of conservatism, this desire for domination over others is no longer openly expressed in the Californian ideology. Instead, its gurus claim that the rule of the digerati will benefit everyone. For they are the inventors of sophisticated machines and the improvers of production methods. They are pioneering the hi-tech services which will eventually be enjoyed by the whole population. Over time, the digerati will transform the restrictions of Fordism into the freedoms of the information society. The compromises of representative democracy will be replaced by personal participation within the ’electronic town hall’. The limits on personal creativity in the existing media will be overcome by interactive forms of aesthetic expression. Even the physical confines of the body will be transcended within cyberspace. In the Californian ideology, the autocracy of the few in the short-term is necessary for the liberation of the many in the long-term. (Toffler 1980 ; Kelly 1994 ; Hudson 1996 ; Dyson 1997)
’Not haves and have-nots - [but haves-nows and] have-laters.’ (Rossetto 1996)
What is now expected from the digerati in the age of the Net was once predicted about other heroic elites in the times of steel and electricity. Ever since the late-nineteenth century, science fiction novelists have fantasised about a small group of scientists and philosophers inventing the technological fix for the problems of society. (Bellamy 1982 ; Wells 1913) Among political activists, this faith in the leading role of the enlightened minority has an even older pedigree. At the peak of the French revolution in the 1790s, the Jacobins decided that the democratic republic could only be created by a revolutionary dictatorship. Although their regime was fighting for political and cultural freedom, substantial sections of the population violently resisted the modernisation of French society. According to the Jacobins, the minds of these traditionalists had been corrupted by the aristocracy and the clergy. The revolutionary dictatorship was needed not only to crush armed rebellions, but also to popularise the principles of republican democracy. For only once everyone had been educated could all citizens participate in political decision-making. The tyranny of the minority in the short-term would lead to democracy for the majority in the long-term. (Brinton 1961 ; Barbrook 1995 : 19-37)
Although the Jacobins only held power for a few years, their example has inspired revolutionary movements for generations. In many countries, radical groups have faced the identical problem of transforming traditional communities into industrial societies. Whatever their ideological differences, every revolutionary minority had the same mission : leading the masses towards modernity. By the mid-nineteenth century, the European Left had realised that this goal of political and cultural emancipation could only be achieved through economic progress. Henri de Saint-Simon had explained that the power of the aristocracy and clergy was founded upon agriculture. If the economy could be modernised, wealth and power would inevitably transfer to members of the new industrial professions : entrepreneurs, workers, politicians, artists and scientists. Like the Jacobins, Saint-Simon argued that this new elite shouldn’t just look after its own interests. For these modernisers also had the historical task of liberating their less-fortunate fellow citizens from poverty and ignorance. By creating economic abundance, the enlightened minority would enable everyone to enjoy happy and productive lives.
’Politics should now be nothing more than the science of providing people with as many material goods and as much moral satisfaction as possible.’ (Saint-Simon and Halévy 1975 : 280)
Inspired by Saint-Simon, early socialists believed that economic growth would inevitably lead to political and cultural emancipation. Under capitalism, there had to be continual improvements in the methods and machinery used to make goods and services : the forces of production. Over time, these advances were slowly undermining the private ownership of business : the relations of production. According to this version of Saint-Simon, the increasing interdependence of the modern economy would eventually force the adoption of more collective forms of social organisation. Whatever their current difficulties, the parliamentary parties of the European Left were confident of eventual victory. Sooner or later, the development of the forces of production would democratise the relations of production. (Marx. 1970 : 20-21 ; Engels 1975 : 74-101)
By the mid-twentieth century, this Marxist remix of Saint-Simon had also been appropriated by apologists of totalitarianism. Even before seizing power, V.I. Lenin had argued that revolutionary intellectuals should form a prototype of the Jacobin dictatorship : the vanguard party. (Lenin 1975) Under the old order, the minds of most people were filled with incorrect ideologies from right-wing newspapers, churches and other cultural institutions. The enlightened minority had the historical duty of leading these ignorant masses towards the utopian future. After the 1917 Russian revolution, Lenin and his followers were able to create a modernising dictatorship. Like its predecessor in 1790s France, this new regime was committed to fighting against reactionary forces and to educating the whole population. (Lenin 1975a) In addition, the revolutionary dictatorship had acquired an even more important task : the industrialisation of the Russian economy. Appropriating the analysis of Saint-Simon and his Marxist interpreters, Lenin claimed that economic modernisation would eventually lead to political and cultural liberation. By imposing authoritarian rule in the short-term, the Russian revolutionaries hoped to construct participatory democracy in the long-run. (Lenin 1932 ; Bukharin 1971)
This determination to modernise the economy soon led to the removal of all political and cultural freedoms. The promise of eventual emancipation justified the murder and imprisonment of millions. The creativity of artists was reduced to making propaganda for the totalitarian party. The modernising dictatorship had even lost interest in improving the living conditions of the masses. (Ciliga 1979 : 261-291) Instead, the Soviet leadership became obsessed with the introduction of new technologies : the mechanical proof of increasing productive forces. By the early-1930s, Josef Stalin - the successor of Lenin - was measuring progress towards the utopian future by rises in the output of industrial goods : steel, cars, tractors and machine-tools. (Stalin 1954 : 512-520) Economic development had become an end in itself.
’The results of the Five-Year Plan [of industrialisation] have shown that the capitalist system... has become obsolete and must give way to another, higher, Soviet, socialist system...’ (Stalin 1954 : 541-542)
Back in the nineteenth century, there had been no clear definition of communism. While Mikhail Bakunin had found its antecedents within peasant communities, Karl Marx believed that the new system was prefigured by industrial co-operatives. (Bakunin 1973 : 182-194 ; Marx 1959 : 435-441) But, after the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in 1945, there could no longer be any doubt about the correct interpretation of communism. Across the world, almost every revolutionary movement embraced some variant of the Stalinist creed. The radical intellectuals must form a vanguard party to overthrow the existing order. Once in power, this revolutionary minority had to set up the modernising dictatorship. As well as providing security and education, the totalitarian state would organise the rapid development of the economy. (Djilas 1966) Almost all radicals believed that this Stalinist version of communism had been proved both in the factory and on the battlefield. Once the Cold War started, any other interpretations were marginalised. For nearly fifty years, the imperial rivalry between the two superpowers was expressed as a fierce ideological conflict : Russian communism versus American capitalism.
During the Cold War, each side claimed that its particular socio-economic structures represented the future of all humanity. Despite championing rival systems, the apologists of both superpowers still shared a common - and unacknowledged - theoretical source : Saint-Simon. Ever since the 1917 revolution, the Russian state had been using his futurist prophecies to justify its actions. Learning from its Cold War opponent, the US government began making similar claims about its policies. Although promoting liberal capitalism, American propagandists enthusiastically mimicked the theoretical rhetoric of Stalinist communism. The power of the minority of capitalists was in the long-term interests of the majority of the population. Any flaws in American society would be soon solved by further economic growth. Above all, the utopian potential of the USA was proved by continual introduction of new technologies : the symbol of increasing productive forces. (Rostow 1971) Alongside their military-political contest over ’spheres of influence’, the two superpowers also competed over who represented the future.
The collapse of the Soviet Union didn’t end the theoretical influence of Stalinist communism over right-wing American intellectuals. On the contrary, the global mission of the USA had been confirmed by victory over its totalitarian rival. According to one apologist, American neo-liberalism is now the realisation of the Hegelian ’end of history’. Although wars and conflicts will continue, there is no longer any alternative form of socio-economic system. (Fukuyama 1992) For the proponents of the Californian ideology, this narcissistic assumption is proved by American dominance over the cutting-edge of economic modernity : the Net. If other countries also want to enter the information age, they will have to imitate the peculiar social system of the USA. Like its Cold War predecessors, this contemporary celebration of American neo-liberalism appropriates many theoretical assumptions from Stalinist communism. Once again, the enlightened minority is leading the ignorant masses towards a utopian civilisation. Any suffering caused by the introduction of information technologies is justified by the promise of future liberation. (Hudson 1996 : 33) Echoing the Russian tyrant, the digerati even measure progress towards utopia by increasing ownership of modern artefacts : home computers, beepers, mobile phones and laptops. (Katz 1997 : 71-72) Although the Soviet Union has long disappeared, the proponents of the Californian ideology are still appropriating the theoretical legacy of Stalinist communism :
|The Five-Year Plan||The New Paradigm|
|Third International||Third Wave|
|party line||unique thought|
|Soviet democracy||electronic town halls|
|New Soviet Man||post-humans|
|Stakhanovite norm-busting||overworked contract labour|
|Russian nationalism||Californian chauvinism|
Across the industrialised world, this conservative appropriation of Stalinism now dominates discussions about the Net. Every guru celebrates the emergence of the new technocracy : the digerati. Every pundit claims that these pioneers of the Net are building a new utopia : the information society. Yet, like their Soviet predecessors, contemporary right-wing intellectuals can only produce corrupted versions of Saint-Simon’s prophecy. While this socialist philosopher wanted economic progress to liberate everyone, these proponents of reactionary modernism exclude the majority of the population from their hi-tech future. For the privileges of the digerati depend upon the subordination of the unenlightened masses. In the Californian ideology, permanent technological revolution is always identified with unchanging social hierarchy. However, without the promise of eventual redemption, economic modernisation becomes an end in itself. Once again, conservative philosophers are promising an imaginary future to dissuade people from improving their lived present.
Although always imminent, the arrival of the information society must be perpetually postponed. As in the former Soviet Union, the prophecy of Saint-Simon is never supposed to be actually realised within the USA. On the contrary, the development of the forces of production is designed to reinforce the existing relations of production. For both public and private institutions only introduce new information technologies to advance their own interests. Back in the 1960s, the US military funded the invention of the Net to fight nuclear wars. Ever since the 1970s, financial markets have used computer networks to impose their hegemony over the entire world. During the last few years, both capitalist companies and government departments have adopted the Net to improve communications with their employees, contractors and clients. At the moment, every speculator on Wall Street is looking for the cyber-entrepreneur who is building the next Microsoft. Despite all the utopian predictions of the digerati, there appears to be nothing inherently emancipatory in the convergence of computing, telecommunications and the media. Like earlier forms of capitalism, the information society remains dominated by the hierarchies of the market and the state. (Schiller 1995 ; Winston 1998 : 321-336)
At the beginning of the new millennium, American neo-liberalism seems to have successfully achieved the contradictory aims of reactionary modernism : economic progress and social immobility. Because the long-term goal of liberating everyone will never be reached, the short-term rule of the digerati can last forever. Yet, as in the former Soviet Union, this dialectic of development and stasis is inherently unstable. By modernising agricultural societies, the ruling parties of Stalinist communism slowly destroyed the foundations of their own power. Over time, the relations of production formed by totalitarianism became incompatible with the continual expansion of the forces of production. At this historical moment, Saint-Simon finally had his revenge on his false disciples.
’The [Stalinist] communist revolution... has brought about a measure of industrial civilisation to vast areas of Europe and Asia. In this way, material bases have actually been created for a future freer society. Thus, while bringing about the most complete despotism, the [Stalinist] communist revolution has also created the basis for the abolition of despotism.’ (Djilas 1966 : 41-42)
Like its erstwhile opponent, American neo-liberalism is now also being undermined by the development of the forces of production. As predicted by Saint-Simon, the full potential of recent technological and social advances cannot be realised within the traditional hierarchies of capitalism. According to the proponents of the Californian ideology, the Net is founded upon the buying and selling of information goods and services. Only through market competition can individual desires be satisfied. Yet, when they go on-line, Net users are primarily engaged in giving and receiving information as gifts. Quite spontaneous