Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> all that is solid melts into airwaves
McKenzie Wark on Wed, 29 Nov 2006 07:32:07 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> all that is solid melts into airwaves

All That is Solid Melts into Airwaves
Theory and Event Vol. 9 No. 2 2006

Deborah Halbert


McKenzie Wark. A Hacker Manifesto. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 2004. pp.196. $21.95 (hc).
ISBN 0674015436.

Wark begins his reformat of The Communist
Manifesto by suggesting that "a double spooks the
world, the double of abstraction (1)."  Unlike the
specter of communism, which powerful forces
aligned against to destroy, the double of abstraction
is both feared and revered by those in charge (1).
It is the hacker, a class that isn't a class so much as an
abstraction (6), at the heart of the conflict.
However, the class conflict involving the hacker will
not be the product of collective action as understood
in the past.  Instead, mass politics will become a
"politics of multiplicity" where "all the productive
classes can express their virtuality." (43) If this
sounds a bit, well, abstract, that is because A Hacker
Manifesto reads like a Baudrillardian simulation of
Marx.  Wark's manifesto, a manifesto of abstraction,
virtuality, and third nature, melts into the (virtual)

The Hacker Manifesto is a trip ? intellectually and
conceptually.  The book is organized by paragraph,
not by page number and is fractal in its organization
? non-linear often spiraling back to points made
earlier where meaning can be derived not only from
the text as a whole, but from each paragraph and
each sentence.  This is a much-needed book that
recognizes the importance of intellectual property to
contemporary capitalism and situates it within the
ongoing tension created by the productive class of
the information age (the hacker class) and the
controlling class (the vectoral class).

A Hacker Manifesto enlighteningly describes class
struggle in the information age more than it states
principles; the primary focus is to make manifest the
dimensions of class struggle in the globalized
information age. Wark takes the concept of the
hacker far beyond computer programming and
applies it (writ large) to any individual working in
the economy of information and creating under the
rubric of modern capitalism.  The hacker class is the
new productive class (36).

It is difficult to know what course of action would
work for a 'class' that coalesces under the banner of
"workers of the world untied (6)," or what a
manifesto would say to this 'class.' Wark doesn't
seem concerned with providing answers.  "Even this
manifesto, which invokes a collective name, does so
without claiming or seeking authorization, and offers
for agreement only the gift of its own possibility (213)."
Wark's gift is to hack the present and open
the possibilities for a future where domination and
exploitation can be resisted, not, necessarily, to show
us the way to that future.

While the book is a trip, this review only offers a
dull guide ? I can tell the story of the book, outline
its argument and provide an assessment; however, I
cannot capture the essence and poetry of the
writing.  The book does not set out to make a linear
point but instead introduces you to a new world ? a
world whirling with the concepts necessary to find
meaning in the flows that make up the current global
political economy.  While Marxists may criticize Wark
for postmodernizing Marx and postmodernists may
criticize him for recovering categories such as class,
and while it is not entirely clear that walking the line
between the two always works, reading this book is
a trip worth taking, even if you don't like the

Here is at least part of the story told by Wark:
History is a series of class struggles with each
struggle focusing on an increasingly abstract form of
property.  The most recent permutation of the
struggle over property is between the hacker and
the vectoral class who seeks to control flows and
vectors of information (100?110).  With each
further abstraction of property ? from land to
information ? ownership needs to rely even more
deeply upon the law to enforce what is clearly a
'legal fiction (108).'  When the vectoral class
controls the economy, culture itself is colonized and
sold back to the workers as a commodity (110).
Intellectual property becomes the key to a vectoral
economy and hackers play a crucial role in the
construction of intellectual property and in the
resistance to the rapidly growing control of the
vecotoral class (197).

To the hacker, "information wants to be free but is
everywhere in chains (126)."  Through previous
stages of ownership, information remained socialized
as a commons because past controlling classes
focused upon monopolizing land and industry.  As
information becomes a commodity, what was once a
commons is forcibly privatized (117).  As
information becomes intellectual property, the
vectoral class creates the chains that further enslave
humanity (132).

The hacker as a producer of information plays a
dual role in contemporary capitalism.  First, the
vectoral class is dependent upon the hacker to create
intellectual property for commodification.  However,
the process of producing ever more abstract
property creates the seeds for the undoing of the
vectoral class.  "[T]he uncanny capacity of the hacker
class to mint new properties for commodification,
threatens to hack into existence new forms of
production beyond commodification, beyond class
rule (163)."  However, while Wark suggests the
conditions for true freedom are on the horizon
(footnote, 165), the hacker class must gain class
consciousness. To do so, there must be some sort of
alignment with the farming and working classes
which, while not ascendant, continue to exist
throughout the underdeveloped and overdeveloped
world (173).  It is the hacker, unlike the farmer or
the worker, that designs the tools of production
used to enslave us and the hacker that can also
design tools "more amenable to autonomy and
cooperation than monopoly and competition (120)."
While Wark provides no concrete examples in
the text (and only some in the footnotes), it is clear
that the free software movement is an example of
the hacker class hacking the concept of intellectual

The tension between the vectoral class and the
hacker class is global.  As the vectoral class comes to
dominate, the overdeveloped world's state structure
is subsumed under the emerging global power (360)
and comes to serve the interest of this global
vectoral power.  The vectoral class is not located
only in the overdeveloped world, but has nodes
throughout the underdeveloped world as well.
Vectoralists in the underdeveloped world
appropriate traditional cultures and feed then into
the commodity cycle.  At this point, "global vectoral
interests learn to duplicate this appearance of
authenticity (372)."  While the overdeveloped
world's vectoral class aggressively protects their
intellectual property, they freely appropriate the
intellectual property of the underdeveloped world to
feed the engines of production necessary to keep the
global economy running.

The dark side to globalization, at least for the
overdeveloped economies, is that due to the
pervasive "military entertainment complex" (118),
"the productive classes have seen what the world
has to offer, and they want it all.  There is no
stopping them . . . the good life of consumption and
equivocal liberty that everyone now sees courtesy of
telesthesia, the rest of the world is coming to get it,
ready or not (240)."  The coming revolution is a
global revolution and according to Wark, the biggest
hack of them all is breaching the envelope of the
state (88).

So what is to be done?  The struggle for freedom
continues along all lines ? farmers against
pastoralists, workers against industrialists, and
(hopefully) hackers against vectoralists.  There is
reason to believe that resistance will be centered in
the underdeveloped world where struggles by
farmers and workers are more closely aligned with
hackers (footnote 170).  Commodifiying
information is a form of enslavement and class rule
imposing scarcity on knowledge must be abolished
(137).  Wark draws upon the revolts of 1989 as
"the seed stock for future movements (243)."  The
politics of the future can take one of two forms:  to
retreat into the envelope, meaning the imagined past
of the sovereign state, or to move forward into the
unknown (246).  It is clear Wark approves of
moving forward into what he calls "third nature," or
nature as information (153).  The future is one for
expressive politics, which seek to undermine the
concept of property, in both its market and
bureaucratic state forms (253, 256).  For Wark,
there is no violent overthrow ? there is simply "an
alternative practice of everyday life (257)."

If only it were so easy.  It is possible to envision a
world where information is free and where the
vectoralist class discovers a "scarcity of scarcity
(312)."  However, the ever-present power of
property control could equally lead to a future
where the vectoral class "struggles to find new
'business models' for information, but ends up
settling for its only reliable means of extracting a
surplus from its artificial scarcity, through the
formation of monopolies over every branch of its
production (312)." The movement towards ever
wider monopolies in the music, movie, computer
software and pharmaceutical industries suggest that
a world where information is free remains far away.

One is left wondering: where are the bodies of
people who are exploited, who work and die in a
world of such abstraction? As we all float into
increasingly abstract identities, virtual worlds, and
multiple perspectives, do we become free?  When
information is free are we free as well?  When the
envelopes of past sovereign states are finally shed,
when information scarcity is eliminated and surplus
can be utilized to provide culture free to all have we
become liberated?  Wark does not forget the
struggles of the farming and working classes and
constructs his analysis in light of the struggles of the
developing world, but his crypto-Marxist structure
by default focuses more on information than on land
and the productive forces of industrial capital.  While
one can hope that these classes can unite (or untie)
to form a critique of property as a whole, it may be
only information that is liberated in the end.

Wark identifies property as the key unit of analysis
important to transforming the future.  He claims
there are two errors made by past Marxist analysis.
First, placing theory in the hand of a worker's
movement and "fetishizing the economic
infrastructure of the social formation (387)."
Second, placing theory in the hand of a leftist
academic elite who "fetishized the superstructures of
culture and ideology (387)."  Wark correctly points
to the importance of "new kinds of class struggle
now emerging under the sign of the domination of
information as property (387), something ignored
by earlier interpretations of class struggle.  Focus on
property is key, and in the information age a focus
on intellectual property and resistance to the
formation of this newly abstract form of intellectual
property is necessary.

I could not agree more that intellectual property
should be resisted and if possible eliminated.  Wark
has crystallized in this short text an essential message
for critical intellectual property scholars interested in
understanding the class dimensions of intellectual
property.  While he primarily relies upon Boyle,
Lessig and Stallman, it is clear that he is taking on not
only contemporary Marxist analysis, but intellectual
property scholars who have not gone far enough in
their critique of the system.

To that end, it is necessary to point out an
important performative contradiction that is deeply
disturbing and to some degree undermines the
entire thrust of the text.  Wark offers a compelling
critique of our current educational structure and the
commodification of knowledge.  Within this critique
he quotes Alexander Bard and Jan Soderqvist, "the
very moment philosophers proclaim ownership of
their ideas, they are allying themselves to the powers
they are criticizing (069)."  To Wark this means, "to
hack is to express knowledge in any of its forms.
Hacker knowledge implies, in its practice, a politics of
free information, free learning, the gift of the result
in a peer-to-peer network (070)."  So why does
Wark publish through Harvard University Press and
assign them the copyright?  How is the information
in this book free?  The answer should be obvious ? it
is not.  As the property of Harvard University, only
they can give permission to distribute the book.

Earlier versions of A Hacker Manifesto have appeared
in other venues (Critical Secret, Feelergauge,
Fibreculture Reader, Sarai Reader, and Subsol are listed
on the copyright page), but a book of this power
should not be copyrighted.  A colleague reminded
me that Marx faced the same dilemma ? his livelihood
was made possible in a time of industrial production
where the exploitation of the working class helped
support his work.  It is also important to admit that I
fall into the same trap ? my recent book Resisting
Intellectual Property is copyrighted and I have no
legal control over its circulation (though resistance is
still possible).  However, there are options available
to modern hackers (remember, hackers help produce
the vectoral system) that may not have been open to
scholars in the industrial world.

First, one can stop worrying about property and let
work freely circulate in the public domain.
However, public domain works are easily
appropriated and commodified by the vectoral class
because permission is not necessary.  A second
strategy might be to use the creative commons
(www.creativecommons.org) ? a licensing scheme
that allows authors to circulate their works and
retain control without entering the centralizing
system of intellectual property.  However, creative
commons doesn't destroy copyright, but simply
changes who owns intellectual work.  There is also a
growing open access movement where on-line
journals utilize the power of the Internet to provide
access without barriers.  Ultimately, resistance of the
vectoral class begins when those of us who make
intellectual property eschew ownership in favor of
the free circulation of ideas.  However, resisting
intellectual property is the easy part.  If we are to
follow the argument of this book, undoing other
types of property relations will be a much more
difficult task.


Debora Halbert is an Associate Professor of Political
Science at Otterbein College. She is the author of two
books on intellectual property law. The first,
Intellectual Property in the Information Age: The Politics
of Expanding Property Rights (Quorum, 1999) traces
the expansion of copyright in the information age.
Her second book, Resisting Intellectual Property
(Routledge, 2005), maps the growing resistance to
the expanding nature of copyright and patent law.
She can be reached at dhalbert <at> otterbein.edu.

Copyright © 2006, Deborah Halbert and The Johns
Hopkins University Press

McKenzie Wark     http://www.ludiccrew.org

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} bbs.thing.net