|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 <email@example.com> 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.