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<nettime> the class traitors of 'netocracy'
McKenzie Wark on Thu, 19 Dec 2002 10:42:35 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> the class traitors of 'netocracy'


Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist,
Netocracy: The New Power Elite and Life After Capitalism,
Reuters, London, 2002

reviewed by McKenzie Wark <mw35 {AT} nyu.edu>


I wouldn't usually give a second look to yet
another book plopping off the business press
about the 'new economy' -- but this one is a bit
different. I don't know if it is because the authors
are Swedish, or have a strange taste for Deleuzian
philosophy, but this book stands out in dissenting
from the usually hyper-liberal rhetoric of liberation
through technology mixed with markets. While it
has some of the rhetorical excesses of the business
book genre -- 'trends and counter-trends' -- it has
a synthetic power not usually found among the
suit and Powerpoint crowd.

Bard and Söderqvist (hereafter BS) argue that the
communication vector is making society less
transparent, not more; less equal , not more. In the
world of competing fictions in which they claim we
live, theirs is bracing in its candor about power
and class, if not always immune to a bad 'meme' or
two, as we shall see.

The historical understanding sketched in the book
stresses the role of memory in the rise of modern
forms of power. Writing, they say, is a tool for
power. The Spanish 'conquests' in the new world
were instances of the infowar. Capitalism is a
matter of clockwork and telegraphy.

Particularly interesting is their account of two
transitions, from feudalism to capitalism, and from
capitalism to what BS call "informationalism." On an
ideological level, their focus is on "the demon of
the assumed constant." (33) In the feudal order,
this is God, under capitalism -- Man. In the
emerging informationalist order, the new assumed
constant is the Network.

As this is a transitional time, there is a great deal of
ideological turbulence, as the Humanist constant
collapses and a new constant struggles to emerge.
There is the deconstruction of the old constant, its
displacement as Language or the Subject, and
there are desperate attempts to shore it up, as
what BS call hyperegoism, hypercapitalism,
hypernationalism.

In the BS worldview, the ruling class of an era
tends to cling to the assumed constant that
legitimizes its power, while a new power arises,
quietly, to replace it. And yet frontal revolutionary
assaults on the old regime are the exception rather
than the rule. More usual is a unholy alliance
between new and old dominant class to "secure a
monopoly on public space." (46)

Each successive ruling class, after all, has similar
interests in the legitimation of their seizure of
property. Where the aristocracy seized control of
land, the capitalist class plundered the countryside
and colonies for raw materials and labor. As BS
add, "there is little reason to believe that the new
dominant class of informationalism, the netocracy,
will behave any differently." (48)

"The dominant class will use every available means
to assert its right to total control over the assumed
constant." (49) But what is perhaps a more
significant constant that the ideological master-
signifiers BS identity is property. As they note, this
is an era of the enclosure of the commons, in the
form of patents and copyrights, and the
criminalization of free information.

Under feudal, capitalist and informationalist
regimes, there is a buffer zone between the ruling
class and its subjects, which is in possession of the
mediating assumed constant of the era. First this
was the church, then the university, which is in
turn losing its authority as the social order
changes.  "Universities will come to be regarded as
protected workshops for intellectual therapy."
(237) Which is not entirely a bad thing, if as BS
propose, "the academic left will have a successor in
the eternalistic netocracy that regards certain of
the ruling elite's actions as immortal and offensive."
(255)

With the collapse of feudalism and its assumed
constant, "God's absence from the earth creates a
vacuum that must be filled by a representative to
combat unease in society." (55) The priest is
replaced by the politician, the church by the state,
monarchy by democracy. But perhaps these
institutions are passing in turn. One might add that
the fall from grace of the politician seems to
correspond the rise of celebrity.

Humanism was more than just an ideology, it was
an institutional program for schools, hospitals and
prisons, all designed to correct the failings of
particular bodies and restore them to the image of
Man. This is an era of the collapse of faith in both
medicine and schools (if not in prisons) which
corresponds to an erosion of the constant which
legitimates them. Interestingly, politics, which limps
along as a residual institution for BS, does so now
more often than not with hysteria about crime.

The decline of capitalist era social institutions is the
sign for BS of a rise of informationalism and of a
'netocratic' ruling class. The media, released from
their dependence on the state, devalue politics. In
its place, is a "hyperreal media dictatorship." (65)
Media become a separate sphere, no longer
standing in a relation of representation to a
bourgeois public sphere. (This is an argument that
parallels that of Adilkno in their book Media
Archive.)

For BS, Francis Fukuyama stands as a last
ideologue of capitalism and liberal democracy --
which are indeed a perfect match of political form
and economic content -- but which is rapidly
passing from the scene. They argue that "the new
ruling class whose birth we are witnessing are not
interested in democracy except as a nostalgic
curiosity." (72)

Far from being a terminus where reality and
reason meet, the historical moment is one in which
a new assumed constant emerges, no less fictional
than the last. This is a time in which information
has become a new kind of religious cult. The fields
of economics, infonomics and biology are merging
around the concept of information as pure
quantity. Quality has been extinguished as a value.

But information is not the same as knowledge.
Information becomes a cheap and plentiful
commodity, but what has value is exclusive
knowledge, the effective overview, the timely
synthesis. Like all ruling classes, the netocracy aims
for a monopoly of knowledge, but for them it is
also the case that monopoly *is* knowledge.

As something of a warning against attempts to
construct a radical position which does not look
closely enough at the power of the vector and the
vector as power, BS argue that "multiplicity and
pluralism are the highest honors of the new
paradigm, obvious lodestars for the information
cult." (82) An endless proliferation of information,
viewpoints, interests might work just as well as
censorship and repression in maintaining ruling
class prerogatives. "The frequent showers of
contradictory information have one single
coherent message: don't trust your experiences
and perceptions." (84)

And in what could be read as a warning to an
uncritical net.art, they suggest that "it is no longer
possible to achieve anything creative with
information." (88) The aesthetic task is not to
proliferate or to aggregate but to qualify.

In a particularly quirky move, BS suggest that the
transition from capitalism to informationalism may
finally overturn the old hierarchy in philosophy
between what they call totalistic and mobilistic
thought. There are two kinds of philosopher:
those who believe there are two kinds and those
who don't. BS believe there are two kinds, but
take sides with the kind who don't think there are
two kinds -- a paradox they do not quite succeed
in resolving.

Totalistic philosophy is systematic, subjective and
dualistic. "The fundamental questions revolve
around Man's identity: who is he, and what is his
place in the world?" (96) The totality is transparent
to the one equipped with the right method, which
can be used to make categorical judgments -- good
and bad, good and evil -- on a more or less firm
foundation.

Totalism sees thought as instrumental. Thought is
just a tool on the way to law, morality or utopia.
It's judgments are mimetic: "what is interesting
about an object or an event or another creature is
its similarities or usefulness to humans." (99) It uses
thought to construct hierarchies outside of time.
As there are many competing totalist schools,
constructing images of hierarchy for different
clients, bloody conflicts are not only inevitable but
legitimate. "Two and a half millennia of totalistic
thought have created an almost incomprehensible
spider's web of laws, rules, prejudices and
collective obsessions." (97)

During feudalism and capitalism, social forces took
their positions within totalistic structures of
thinking: Catholics and Protestants, Liberals and
Socialists. But in the emerging informationalist age,
the 'platform' of totalistic thought is itself under
attack, and from many different sides at once.

Enter the rival school -- mobilists:  Heraclitus,
Hume, Leibnitz, Spinoza. As Heraclitus says, you
never step into the same river twice. There is no
natural basis for order or hierarchy. All is
difference, all is flux. This, BS argue, is the
philosophy best fitted for the net. Mobilism is
characterized by a universal openness. The subject
is dispersed into the conditions of existence.
"Thought is here positioned out in existence, and
looks at people from the outside." (104) One thinks
of Spinoza's amazing Ethics, which does not
attempt to think *about* God but to become God
thinking.

Mobilism is the enemy of all the alibis that totalism
draws up for power: self, existence, dualism,
hierarchy, law, guilt, sacrifice, angst, memory,
revenge, sympathy, progress. From mobilist
point(s) of view: "All of these 'truths' come
together at the point where the reward is located,
a reward for the self assumed slavery that Man is
fooled... into suffering." (105)

The "primary task of mobilistic philosophy is that
of janitor." (105) It uncovers objectified hierarchies.
It denounces the instrumentalizing of thought for
power. If "philosophy under capitalism was
controlled by a totalistic priesthood" then its
supercession by informationalism opens space for
thought to think itself again, in the name of its
untimely mobilist counter-tradition. (103)

This is a big claim and a big challenge. BS realize
that "the very moment philosophers proclaim
ownership of their ideas, they are allying
themselves to the power that they are criticizing."
(107) But then what would philosophy be if it
accepted the death of the author it so freely
announced for literature but did not think to apply
to its own practices of creation? "It is not the ego
that produces thought but rather thought that
produces the ego" then what is the value of a
philosopher's proper name? (111)

The two key figures for the mobilist tradition for
BS are Nietzsche and Deleuze. In Nietzsche "all
talk of morals was really about giving those in
power an instrument with which to hold the
masses in check." (109) Not to mention giving the
masses an ineffective means of resenting power.
Deleuze "concentrated on the center of the
mobilistic temporal axis -- on the event" (111 )

BS call these mobilist thinkers eternalists, after
Nietzsche's eternal return. What returns eternally
is difference, the event itself, a history without a
history. They suggest, as De Landa and others
suggest, a convergence of this strand of
philosophy and the natural sciences, which have
(mostly) outgrown the need for the legitimating
cover of positivism to escape sanction from
religious moralizing.

For BS, the eternalists form a triad with 'nexialists'
and 'curators' as the avatars of the new
informationalist society. Nexialists are
entrepreneurs, while curators are gatekeepers.
Between them they build networks and define
their qualities. The eternalists -- presumably --
have an intuitive grasp of network ontology.
These three groups together form the netocracy. I
say presumably, for this is where the book loses its
effectiveness as a quick n dirty synthesis and
indulges in its own fantasies of power -- BS clearly
propose themselves as poster boys for the new
regime. Theirs' at least have the merit of being
fantasies phrased in a revealing language.

What counts in netocracy is exclusivity.
Membership in its networks cannot be bought
with any quantity of money. The criteria of
judgment are qualitative. This emergent order is
aesthetic -- not moral, not utilitarian. Hereditary
and money are replaced by networking as an art
form.

The subordinated class in this narrative is no
longer the proletariat but the consumetariat. Its
role is to absorb the surplus product of a remnant
capitalist regime. Their carefully supervised
existence is the last holdout of "the philosophical
utopia of rationalism: all human needs, which are
assumed to be constant, will be fulfilled by steady,
constant growth." (123)

The last part of the book spells out the
consequences of netocracy with all the wampum of
semiotic gameplay. In place of hierarchies of rank
or money is a new 'genocracy', which arises out of
the convergence of informatics, biology and
economics. Slipping back into a totalist frame of
mind, BS seem to think biology really is destiny.
"The wall between nature and culture is being torn
down and humanism is going to its grave." (158)
To be replaced by scenes from the movie
GATTACA. "Netocratic ethics are therefore a
hyperbiological pragmatism." (162) Discrimination
based on genotype replaces the racism of the
phenotype.

In place of the feudal community or the capitalist
nation arise the virtual tribes, and "a total
relativization of the concept of the individual."
(171) Only the rural hinterland and the capital
cities it hold captive will plump for the old racist
nation state. The commercial metropolis will
become the city of the future, in contact with other
metropoles, creating networks contrary to the
interests of their former host nation-states.

In place of the citizen-subject, there will be a
switching between identities, a "permanent
becoming" (185) Ironically enough, "anxious
tinkering with one's own ego, outdated
individualism, is instead characteristic of the new
underclass." (118) Netiquette will replace manners,
and therapy will no longer seek to mend divided
selves, but encourage them to unspool into the
multiple.

"Ethics will become more and more a question of
aesthetics." (191) "Money will follow attention, and
not vice versa." (199) We are now deep in the
heart of the rhetoric of trend spotting, which
works as a semiotics of the displacement of one
series of terms by another -- as if history left no
trace. We've probably all seen Powerpoint shows
that do exactly this.

When BS rejoin their historical schema, things get a
bit more interesting. For those who make it to the
end of the book, a surprise is in store. It must be
curious news to the business clients BS cultivate
that "capitalists will become an underclass that has
to content itself with haggling over old, second-
hand information from the scrap heap, while the
netocracy -- the networking elite -- carries off the
prize of power and status." (201)

The netocratic ruling class will diffuse dissent by
absorbing its most talented critics. One thinks of
the Italian Situationists who went to work for
Berlusconi. Deprived of leadership, the
consumetariat will be prone to express its dissent
through violence -- more like the peasant revolts
than the labor movement. Resistance becomes
reactionary, looking to the past for its themes
rather than claiming the future. "The underclass's
only real chance to express discontent with its
subordinate position will be to refuse to take part
in the role play of informational society." (249)

"A genuine informationalist class war will only be
possible when consumetarian rebels gain support
from outside their own ranks, which will only
happen when the semi-apparent unity within the
netocracy splits at the seams." (249) What will
divide it is the "infernally thorny question of
immaterial rights." (250) Not just copyrights and
patents, but encryption and firewalls will be the
tools through which a new exclusionary regime of
property is completed.

Most curious of all, BS expect "netocratic class
traitors" (250) These will be drawn from the ranks
of  "the increasingly dominant mobilistic ways of
thinking are opposed to the very idea that a
certain combination of ones and zeroes could
belong to any particular person or organization."
(253) Or in other words, Deleuze plus copyleft
equals the post-Marxist praxis of theory and
action.

As BS acknowledge, "ideological and economic
conflict between different netocratic groups, in
more or less loose alliances with consumetarian
rebel movements, is developing." (254) And within
this movement one finds "netocratic class traitors,
who regard every form of hindrance to the
spread of information as immoral and instead see
the maximal expansion of the organic non-zero-
sum game as the core value of the new age." (254)

While I don't subscribe to much of the BS analysis -
- which seems to leave out three quarters of the
planet -- Netocracy is still a useful book for
thinking with. And it is a book for thinking, not
for moralizing or name-calling. The paradox is
why, if networks have value by being exclusive,
BS would choose to release their ideas in book
form to the 'public'. The book itself is a
counterfactual to their argument. My interest --as
a 'class traitor' -- in sampling from their more
provocative sentences and releasing them into the
public domain ought, on the other hand, to be
clear enough from the very analysis the book itself
offers.

http;//www.netocracy.biz
http://reuters.com

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