Date: Thu, 30 Nov 2000 07:55:53 -0500 (EST)
(re-released for the anniversary of that thing that happened in seattle)
The Battle of the Three Letter Acronyms
By Jesse Hirsh email@example.com
Delivered at Tulipomania Conference
At De Balie June 2nd Amsterdam Netherlands
This was a talk I gave to a conference organized by Eric Kluitenberg, Geert Lovink and the Nettime networks focused on deconstructing the hype and generating a critique around the new economy and all of its trappings. My presentation was part of a panel moderated by my colleague and friend Felix Stalder that examined alternative (political and cultural) strategies to the dominant forms of network organizing.
The Better Built Mouse Trap
The Shell Game
The Work is Fast but the Organizing is Slow
We Are The Internet
We're here at this conference to discuss and critique the "New Economy", which has best been described as the virtualization of material reality, making immaterial the basis for social and economic life. The panel that I have been asked to participate in seeks to explore alternative strategies to this regime, explicitly in my case, the manifestation of anti-capitalist movements in North America.
I work with an organization called TAO Communications, which arose out of Toronto in the early stages of this so-called "New Economy" and due to the fetishization of the "new" we quickly embraced something very old: the anti-authoritarian revolutionary holism of Taoist politics. We found it an appropriate cultural body from which to understand the emerging network society.
The New Economy is about Glocalization, the more global our perceptions and relations become, the more localized our conditions and sensations remain. In this regard it is a mutually reinforcing effect. The Internet does not exist. Instead it is the shift to a Network Society that is driving the changes our world is experiencing. The displacements and reconfigurations we're experiencing are a result of what can be termed Informational Capitalism, as the basis of our political economy shifts from Industrial to Informational means of production. What is "old" exists within a mutually contracting and expanding shell of the "new". Co-existence marks our time in history, as new modalities emerge alongside the preservation and reinforcement of the old. New network cultures flourish as fundamentalism marks and in many cases protects existing and in some cases ancient cultures.
In a society where the culture is trying to make the material immaterial TAO Communications seeks to make the immaterial material. In this we mobilized the virtuality of the Networks to serve the material reality of our locality, and in time, replicated this model of local media (collective) organizing. My own perspective comes from Toronto, as a North American communications center. On the one hand we're fighting local and provincial tyranny, and on the other hand we're involved in broader continental struggles against neo-liberalism and transnational capital.
However as I speak to you here, the resources and energy of the North American movement have been mobilized for the Battle of the Three Letter Acronyms. There are so many it is hard to keep track of them all. On one side we have the WTO, IMF, OAS, USA, CIA, and the FBI, and on the other the AFL-CIO, DAN, PGA, IMC to name some of the more notorious.
The Better Built Mouse Trap
What we find in this Battle is a jihad, a clash of faiths, rather than a genuine political economic struggle. The focus is on media (and movement) spin and tactics, rather than long-term strategy and structure (for a better society and economic relations).
The body of this movement is mythology, and the core of the mythology is the Internet itself. The primary myth that unites both sides of this conflict is the belief in consensus over the Internet. Email organizing is central to the organizing of either body, whether it is the bureaucracy of the WTO and IMF or the email lists of the DAN, PGA, or similar group.
The Battle of the 3 Letter Acronyms, whether in Seattle, DC, or any of the many spin-offs, has been more of a carnival, marked by mass attempts of direct action, met with massive mobilizations of state security forces, covered on both sides by excessive media spin and propaganda. In the end what becomes clear is that the name of the game is containment, with either side trying to surround their opponent with the myths and messages of their respective movements or institutions.
In returning to the myth of the Internet, one can see that in fact it is the super-structure of the containment mechanism that frames these phenomena. If anything, the message of the new economy, and the purpose of the Internet myth itself are to contain and hold everything and anything within itself.
Imagine it as the "better built mousetrap" if you will. Except that in this instance, the trap is immateriality, with the myth encompassing the material reality and the networks themselves transcending the actual actions or institutional meetings.
An example that articulates this dynamic was an action that took place in late January 1998 in Toronto. Nearing the end of a one-day student strike, radical (anarchist and socialist) members of the protest decided to spontaneously occupy the foyer of the headquarters of one of Canada's largest Banking institutions (http://toronto.tao.ca/cibc/). While this action caught nearly everyone by surprise, including the organizers of the student strike, the police or the Bank itself did not respond with any violence or immediate move to eject the occupiers. In fact, the Bank, ending up paying $40/hr for each Police Officer who stayed overnight, when otherwise the Police would have most likely ended the protest with arrests and beatings.
The next day the Bank issued a statement saying they supported the students struggle against the Government, and similarly, the Government issued a statement saying they supported the students campaign against the Banks. It seemed that both sides were playing the spin so as to make it seem they were with the students.
Yet here were the students occupying the supposed centre of Canadian capital? Unfortunately the capital was not there, and in its place, was an empty foyer, that could easily accommodate a bunch of anarchists and students willing to stay the night. Indeed the immateriality of money had created a hollow shell of a Bank, where power could easily spin itself out of harm╣s way, and leave the material world for those willing to spend a night in a glass box, guarded by $40/hr offices.
The focus is on the immaterial. Institutions like the WTO and the IMF implement policies with impacts well removed from either their intent or authors. Similarly groups like DAN and PGA focus on pragmatic and broad campaigns that appeal to many, but over the long term achieve relatively little in the face of the power and mobility of transnational capital flows which dominante the nanoseconds of each and everyday.
One of the primary consequences of this, in the case of DAN in North America, is the ethno-socio-economic makeup of their members. While people of colour tend to be by far those who experience the most devastating aspects of globalized capitalism, most members of groups like DAN tend to be fairly well educated middle class "white" kids. Is this a new kind of "noblesse oblige"? What kind of mechanisms do groups like DAN employ in terms of conducting outreach or identifying and selecting the targets for their actions and campaigns?
Compare this with the notorious unresponsiveness of the large multilateral institutions, which have historically been criticized for only representing the narrow interests of a global elite. How does the IMF and World Bank set its policies and choose its priorities?
Part of the problem is being able to see the bigger picture. Corporate media may be concentrating and homogenizing a vision of globalization that excludes genuine narratives and stories, but alternative and independent media are themselves guilty of similar mistakes in depicting what is actually transpiring and what is relevant to our struggles.
The problem is white noise. Information overload is actually an easy thing to avoid, but it seems nobody is willing to take the necessary measures to effectively cut through the crap and draw out the context necessary for political and economic cognition and strategizing.
We need to focus on the editorial and contextual flows that describe our struggles because the open flows of the computer networks that currently govern our communications are just too overwhelming for effective organizing. Context and relevance are extraordinarily important characteristics that need to be developed, in order to contrast to the romantic American notions of free speech as lack of editorial control. While the corporate media takes great care to protect and contain that which they allow to flow, the rest of us drown in the vast openness and cacophony of Internet euphoria.
The Shell Game
The Battle of the 3 Letter Acronyms is part of the larger shell game that is the volatile and hyperactive global capital markets. From the likes of billion-dollar capital institutions to the whims of manic day-traders everyone ponders, "Where's the Money?" Its become an accepted fact that with the fluidity and mobility of capital, companies, industries, and even countries, can rise and fall in a matter of hours, as valuations and resources travel based on the perception of power and potential. However behind this manic logic lies a genuine and material reality that is disguised, if not obscured by the dominance of the culture of immateriality.
The Internet may be a myth, but the material reality behind it, the nut under the shell if you will, is indeed the telecommunications industry, and its rapid conglomeration. While the Internet is offered as the magical utopia of all promise and peril, telecommunications infrastructure actually provides the means by which these dreams and domains actually exist.
Given the recent configuration of the American telecommunications industry, and its manic merger activity, it would be safe to actually call the Internet: America OnLine. I mean what is the Internet but a hyper-projected image of the American Dream (Nigphpare). Everyone wants to get to the Internet, just as people from all over the world want to get to America. The supposed land of freedom, the mythical free market economy, the world of riches and excess. Whether Roman Empire resurrected or New World reinvented, the vision of America OnLine is not only an Imperial nigphpare, but more importantly an immaterial depiction of a very real (material) military prison industrial complex driven by a religion of technology and obsession with entertainment.
The Work is Fast but the Organizing is Slow
TAO Communications, and the world of tao.ca has arisen as a counter power to this Empire, organizing labor and social networks while building alternative network infrastructure for genuine political, social, and economic change. Our activities revolve around making the immaterial, material.
We sought to actualize the Internet (Network Society) via access and literacy, not of technology but of social and political networks: the real (material) Internet.
We plunged directly into the "Gift Economy" starting with labour, hardware, bandwidth, and code (open source free software), and focused these resources on political and social activism.
We found it relatively easy to drop GNU/Linux systems into the networks, and as a result, a considerable amount of North American organizing happens over the tao.ca networks, in addition to groups from all over the world. This primarily manifests as email lists, but we offer all types of network facilities that we can, including web, email, chat, databases, other network-based media. With that said our primary resource that people come to us for our own political and social networks. We provide the infrastructure that brings movements and groups together across time and space.
In this regard it is important to strongly note, that we are not an Internet Service Provider (ISP) and never were. We do not charge for access, and have always upheld article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, taking it one step further to say that all communications facilities should always be free:
"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
Personally I see network communications as an aspect of cognition, and the sheer idea of paying for access to me is an equation of paying to use the cognitive abilities of one's mind. I've always regarded computer networks as externalized cognitive facilities, which to pay for, would be in my opinion, the ultimate in bondage and slavery. Paying for the labour behind it however is something completely different.
As regard to tao.ca, we have regulated access to our communications facilities and political networks via a membership system that is essentially based on solidarity, which asks that each new member adopt rights and responsibilities that contribute to the larger whole. As an anarcho-syndicalist international network formation, we practice revolutionary holism.
We use as our statement of unity a modified version of the Black Panther 10-point program that has been changed so as to be anti-authoritarian and international. With the 10pp we occupy space and make revolutionary demands. We use the immaterial Internet to bring together material political and social networks.
Power in our organization is localized, focused on solidarity and diversity, working with groups like the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), ARA (Anti-Racist Action), and the BRC (Black Radical Congress). While we initially got started supporting alternative media movements such as micropower (pirate) radio broadcasting, we're involved in supporting and working with different cultural movements such as KEEP (Korean Diaspora), and ANALAI (Tamil Diaspora), and LACAR (Latinos Against Racism). We've also been instrumental in establishing successful alternative news services such as A-Infos the International Anarchist News Service.
While after five years of organizing it may seem like we have become a large and infectious organization, the only way to learn about us is via face-to-face exchange. The only way to catch our virus is to be infected by an existing member. We are constantly flooded by requests for help and access to our networks, as we are one of the only worker-run member controlled network facilities in the world, and hence the demands and stress placed upon our organization are substantial. While we have been able to inspire and in some cases literally help establish similar organizations and structures elsewhere in the world, we do not represent established organizations like big-labour or large NGOs. In this regard, the resources are scarce, and the available channels of support limited. We are the rank-and-file of the movement against capital.
We are the Internet
If the Internet does indeed exist, we are it, and the various 3 letter acronyms are trying to capture us for purposes of integration and neutralization.
We are half of the power behind the scenes, the forces outside of the spectacle that manifests as the Battle of the 3 Letter Acronyms. The other half however is the emerging glocalized state held up by transnational capital, which is distributed, volatile, brutally violent, and contrary to what is depicted in the mythology: materialist if not fundamentalist.
While most people pay attention to and try to play the Carnival of the Shell Game, we're involved in the real struggle. The struggle to defend against the attack on the poor, the rising tides of xenophobia, and the fear that comes with the displacement of rapid technological change (induced by expansive Informational Capitalism).
It is time to stand and defend our selves by any means necessary. While this may not always be on the streets, it is always in social networks.