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nettime: Virtual Marxism - John Horvath
Pit Schultz on Wed, 25 Sep 96 03:26 METDST


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nettime: Virtual Marxism - John Horvath


>Date: Mon, 23 Sep 1996 21:59:19 +0200 (METDST)
>From: John Horvath <jgy {AT} caesar.elte.hu>

Virtual Marxism
by John Horvath


In retrospect, it may seem that the the telematic revolution could only
have successfully come about through a capitalist, not to mention
democratic, society. After all, wasn't the Internet -- the basis of this
revolution -- a by-product of the American military-industrial complex,
one that contained the godless communist threat to western (and world)
civilization?

As ironic as it may seem, the so-called "revolution" that is now
unfolding before us, via the mass and new media, undoubtedly bears much
semblance to that of the communist revolution of 1917. Indeed, one can
go far enough as to say that the kind of society that is now taking
shape bears all the trappings of that which fell to pieces when the
walls came tumbling down in eastern Europe in 1989. In other words, to
what extent are we moving toward a state of virtual communism?

Communism as we know it differs in many ways from the theories espoused
by the person regarded as its founding father, Karl Marx. Nevertheless,
in this paper classical Marxist thought is acknowledged as the
philosophical basis of communism, for the process by which the latter
veered away from the former can help us understand why theory doesn't
always translate into practice.

Having said thus, the foremost and obvious comparison that can be made
between the world we live in and the time at which Marx was writing has
to do with the the influence of major, revolutionary changes based, for
the most part, on rapid advances in technology. In Marx's time, it was
the industrial revolution; at present, it's the telematic revolution.

Both revolutions held (and hold) promises for the future. These promises
are mainly in the area of work and economic production. The past saw a
rapid increase in productivity, along with a proliferation of new goods
and services; the future is expected to hold much the same.(*1)

In conjunction with this, there has been a rapid expansion in scientific
thought in all fields. Again, technology plays a major role, for in both
instances it opened the door to new inventions and discoveries. While in
Marx's time we were gaining a better understanding of the physical world
around us, at present telematics is unfolding a map of uncharted
territories in terms of ideas (by which we deal with an expanded
interpretation of reality), as well as transcending some of the physical
constraints of space (better known as "the death of distance").

In short, it can be clearly seen, from a historiographical perspective
at least, that Marxist thought and suppositions of our telematic future
share comparable traits. The fact that they are both based on rapid
technological change and an explosion in scientific knowledge is a clear
indication that much of what had been said and done in the past has
relevance to what is now unfolding in the name of the future.


Economic Determinism

Besides sharing a comparable historical basis, the communist past and
the telematic future converge on two main points attributable to
classical Marxism: economic determinism and liberation.

One of the major contributions made by Marx to historiography, as well
as sociology and futurology, was the way in which past, present, and
future events were judged. Economics was seen as the basis of all human
activity; thus, by controlling this activity for the common good of
mankind, a state of utopia can be achieved.

Such an outlook has now been adopted under the notion of the global
economy. Telematics within the global economy paradigm is regarded as
the new means of production. Apart from facilitating worldwide economic
activity, it is believed that individuals will have access and the power
to harness this means of production.

Unfortunately, this will not be so. The global economy is just as
restrictive to individuals and small enterprises, and shall become even
more so. Global trade is merely a synonym for global delivery.(*2)
Powerful multinationals have subsidiaries along the entire spectrum of
economic production, so that they merely export and import goods and
services among itself, thereby controlling the means of production and,
in turn, market forces. In the past, companies used to compete with each
other in order to do business within a country; now, countries are
competing with each other in order to attract the business of
multinationals.

The dominance of economic activity by multinationals through the global
economy is not that far removed from the command economy of the former
Soviet Union and COMECON. For the individual, the outcome is the same.
Under the Soviet model, goods were scarce for the majority, who were
non-Party members; under the global economy, goods are likewise scarce
for the majority, who are Third World citizens.

Furthermore, the way in which the future is being planned is strikingly
similar. The Five Year Plan of the past is now referred to by many in
the corporate world as a "strategic plan". The strategic plan of the
European Commission, for instance, is simply called the "Telematics
Programme", which is divided not into "plans" but "frameworks". Although
this plan of the EC uses a different name and runs every four years
instead of five, the basic premise is the same: in the past, it was used
to prepare for communism; in the present it is used to prepare for the
information society.

The reason why such planning is ultimately doomed to fail is because the
future of a society can't be regulated as with a company; there are too
many independent factors to take into consideration. The only way in
which such planning can succeed is if these factors are controlled,
which is tantamount to controlling the individual. This is where the
danger of the global economy lies.

In addition to facilitating the needs of multinationals within the
global economy, telematics is also seen as a step toward the
implementation of a cashless society. Although business that is
conducted on the Internet directly is still somewhat modest, it is
nevertheless expected to mushroom within the next few years. According
to the Information Society Forum of the EC, business transactions via
the Internet will rise from a present level of $400 million to $1,000
billion by the year 2000.(*3)

What may come as a surprise to most is that the idea of a cashless
society was already worked out, and to some extent implemented
(subsequently with disastrous results), by none other than Josef
Stalin.(*4) In fact, much of what we regard as corporate management has
a lot in common with Stalinism. For instance, the fear that "if you are
not satisfied with your job then there are hosts of people ready and
willing to take your place," a technique commonly referred to as
"management by terror", is a classic example.

As unemployment continues to plague the western world, coupled with the
fact that jobs can be easily relocated to other regions, there exists
now, more than ever before, a perpetual threat of job loss. In essence,
the labor market has evolved into one of conditional tenure. As a
result, most people live under the continuing threat of dismissal with
no or little warning, while job loss appears to occur on a random basis.
Meanwhile, various schemes have been implemented, such as
pay-for-performance (which is seen as a way to increase productivity),
further compounding the problem.(*5)

Hence, in this world of the nontenured, administered by fear, the firing
squad has been replaced by instant dismissal. Furthermore, as technology
increasingly isolates management from the rest of the workforce, they
have become less accountable to those under their authority. Even
management itself is not safe from this quandary. As Gordon (1993)
points out, in the US "most of the unemployed are white-collar workers
than blue-collar."(*6) Thus, no-one (or at least, very few) enjoys the
security of tenure; however, huge rewards are open to those prepared to
operate without safety nets.

This uncertainty within society will only increase with the wide-scale
use of teleworking. By altering working norms, teleworking will lead to
an increase in worker isolation and, in turn, will reduce solidarity
among workers. With the added pressure to become more productive,
workers will be just as disfranchised as in the Stalinist model.

Although the disfranchisement of workers and other such social
conditions have already been recognized to a certain extent,(*7)
advocates of the global economy and information society assert that its
positive aspects will still outweigh such negative aspects. As with
Marx, this optimism is based on the assumption of unlimited growth.

Like many thinkers, Marx was a prisoner of his time. The 19th century
has been frequently referred to as the "age of optimism".(*8) As
mentioned earlier, the industrial revolution was in full swing;
"civilization" was extending to the remotest corners of the globe and
there was a rapid expansion of knowledge in all branches of the
sciences. Accordingly, the feeling of inevitable progress, coupled with
view of controlling nature, became the foundation for this optimism and
the assumption of unlimited growth.

At the end of the 20th century, telematics is now ushering in a new age
of optimism. In fact, telematics is considered to be the very key to
this renewed feeling of inevitable progress. The economic benefits
envisaged are higher levels of productivity, faster rates of innovation
and discovery, and the creation of new products. In essence, there will
be more economic goods, more employment, and a better standard of
living.(*9) This is the same "golden" future that generations living
under communist rule were expected to sacrifice their lives for so that
their children would reap the benefits. To borrow a phrase from the
Stalinist dictator of Hungary, Matyas Rakosi: we mustn't eat the hen
that lays the golden egg.


Liberation

While there are those who see economic opportunities afforded by the new
media, others look to its positive social implications. Many recognize
that as the Internet continues to expand, it will increasingly fall prey
to commercial influences. Indeed, this fear of "info-capitalism" has
prompted some to the conclusion that telematics and certain Marxist
concepts are not mutually exclusive. For instance, in an online
interview by Pitt Shultz of Nettime with R. U. Sirius, author of the
book "How to Mutate and Take Over the World", the question of Marxism
"coming back through cyberspace" was pondered. Although rejecting
classical Marxism outright, the author nevertheless sees, as many others
do (albeit expressed in different ways), the potential for liberation:
"I believe that capitalism ultimately dissolves in the net because of
infinite replicability and immateriality. It's an extraordinarily
dissipative medium."(*10) Thus, while the author and many like him may
reject classical Marxism, the idea that the Internet provides a degree
of personal liberation is one which is nonetheless parallel to that of
Marx.

Writing at a time when the industrial revolution was replacing cottage
industries, Marx and others of his generation felt that eventually
machines would do all the work, sparing mankind from repetitive, daily
toil.(*11) In much the same way, telematic applications are now
advertised as labor-saving devices, to the point that we shall be able
to consume more and work less.

Interestingly enough, this same prediction was already made before in
this century, during the post-war boom of the fifties and sixties. Yet
instead of more time on their hands, people have been working just as
hard as before due to an increasingly competitive labor market.
Subsequently, telematics will only worsen the situation by making an
already competitive labor market even more so.

Similarly, Marx and Engels predicted that the growth of modern industry
would eventually reduce the working class to poverty, since it would
drive wages down to the same low level. In the US, there is every
indication that a like process is already underway as more companies
adopt what has been termed "the high performance system".(*12) Under
such a system, technology aids in redesigning jobs and cross-training
workers so that they become highly skilled, thus increasing productivity
by allowing fewer people to produce more.

As a result of this, the labor market will shrink. Although advocates of
the high performance organization contend that other jobs will be
created to fill the vacuum, at present it is destroying more than it
creates. Furthermore, there is a major disparity between jobs that are
being destroyed and those that are created: the jobs that are being
destroyed are for the most part long-term, high-wage ones; the ones that
are being created, meanwhile, are low-pay, temporary ones.(*13)

In addition to this, Coulson-Thomas (1996) observes that high
performance systems have thus far failed to deliver any of the benefits
promised: "Much hyped and promoted with evangelical fervor, their
propagandists use the rhetoric of revolution and promise of radical
improvements in performance and productivity. Yet all around us what is
happening appears as more of the same. Costs are cut and people seem to
be working ever harder than more effectively."(*14)

To make matters worse, as these new patterns of work have begun
displacing workers, governments in the western world are now cutting
back -- and seeking to abolish -- the welfare state after spending
decades trying to implement it. Therefore, while it is true that
technology will free people from their daily toil, there is nothing in
its place with which to support them. Furthermore, since the global
economy will be based on consumption, the loss of high-paying, secure
jobs will mean less consumers, making the whole concept unworkable.

Some, like Peter F. Drucker in his book "Post-Capitalist Society", sees
this enigma of increased productivity vs more jobs sorting itself out
with the advent of the information society. This is because society will
be transformed into a "learning society", or as  Drucker calls it, a
"knowledge-based society". Whatever the term used, the main point is
that knowledge will replace capital, land, and labor as the prime
determinant of economic success.

Although the EC and other like bodies keep concerning themselves with
the "building" and "implementation" of the information society, in
actual fact the information society has been in existence for well over
half a century. Indeed, it can be argued that the information society
has its roots with the political regime of Lenin et al. The Soviet Union
(and later on Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany) were de facto information
societies, using and manipulating information for propaganda purposes.
Although telematic devices were not available at the time, radio, film,
posters, and mass rallies were all used for the same purpose. In
addition to this, the "learning society", which is founded upon the
concept of life-long learning, appears to be nothing more than a fancy
expression for re-tooling workers, as if they themselves were just mere
machines.

Compared with the Soviet model, then, there appears to be not much of a
difference between the information societies of the past and future. In
both cases education was and is valued for purposes other than the
pursuit of knowledge. Under the Soviet system, education was utilized
for political purposes; in the global economy, education is chiefly
harnessed for economic ones.