Geert Lovink on Thu, 3 Oct 96 10:02 MET

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nettime: barbrook/dery interview by willem van weelden


An Interview with Richard Barbrook and Mary Dery
By Willem van Weelden
Conducted at Ars Electronica, september 4, 1996
For the Web Journal of the Ars Electronica Festival 1996


Being the most politically outspoken and controversial speakers of the first 
day of the symposium, the idea of doing an interview with both Mark Dery
and Richard Barbrook at the same occasion seemed as maybe not an
altogether  original still yet a very sane thing to pursue. Moreover,
Barbrook for a large part determined the 'nature' of the discussion in the
'Future of  Evolution' net symposium (, by
criticising the biologisation of the social sciences, and the paralysing
effect it may have on critical thought. Both, Dery and Barbrook share that
same critical stance towards the primarilly Californian 'ideology' but
given that affliation with eachother's ideas it seemed an interesting
thing to give them for the journal the opportunity to speak the
differences of their convictions. Thus focussing in on the off-centered,
shadowy American quality of Dery's approach and the more historical
Arbeiteristic (workerist) European approach of Richard Barbrook.


Mark Dery: 'I've done precisely what you suggest Richard Barbrook has done
which is: restore a sense of historical context to the whole of the
discussion on  Memetix or Memesis. In fact I've taking us not to the
Meta-Meme but to the Ur-Meme: nature. Which is precisely what Richard
argued in a different way. He refered to the creeping biologisation of the
social sciences or what  might also loosely and rather inaccurately be
called the humanities but specifically, critical exegesis of cultural
dynamics. That was precisely the point of my paper. That appeals to nature
as mute inscrutable legitimator of human agency in the social sphere with real
delitarious, measurable, profound corrossive impact on the whorp and
whoof of peoples everyday lives is a profoundly pernishes gesture nor is
it recently arrived. I'm absolutely the historian when I talk in my paper
about previous appeals to the beginning of the 20th century: the Eugenics
movement in America leaps immediately to mind but we can even go further
back to the17th century where as I said in my paper the compressed crania of
women, non-whites and other lesser ethers in the lower most wrongs of the
great chain of being were adduced as incontrovertable, scientific,
biological evidence of their inferiority. 

WvW: If dialectics is still a usefull tool in structuring the various
viewpoints and subleties in the debate then it was this remark that
roughly synthesized the core of the one, skeptical camp versus the Meme
suggestion, against the camp of scientists and artists who are the
defenders and afficionado's of the Meme. This journal has chosen to 
concentrate its investigations on the former side of the discussion. Still
it is remarkable that simple, unelaborated historical facts without a
context and random remembrances can be of such a convincing 'nature' that
they actually close off, reduce and belittle entire discussions. For, at
least in this talk, the whole 'biological' part of the discussion was
after the Dery statement more or less left behind, the attention shifting 
more towards the role the advocates of the Memetic rhetoric play in the
media and public sphere, propagating the adoption of 'biological'
metaphors and references in social analysis. Thus making way for the
political discussion of how to adress the issue of (net-) democracy at the
era of the 'end of organized capitalism'. Let this review be of any help
in the choosing of positions in the debate. 

Richard Barbrook: The key point is what Kevin Kelly, Wired Magazine and
the Extropians and other leaders of this Memes cult are doing which is
basically recycling Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism. Which comes, as
you know, out of Victorian England. It's a defense of liberal economics
against the need for state regulation and state intervention.


MD: I would simply add as a kind of hypertext link to that statement, the 
term 'liberal' in America  means something very different [from the European 
use of the term. wvw] and I think the boilerplate  phrase 'liberal 
economics' is more usefully phrased for Americans as a 'laissez-faire'
Ayn Randian deregulated economics. Not liberalism in the sense of social 
policies but 'liberal' meaning the least regulated, the least statist 

RB: Simon Martin Lips says in his book 'American exceptionism' : 'all 
Americans are liberals' it is just that they are either conservative
liberals or social liberals. And that is part of the problem in the
American debate ; it is completly narrow. And he says quit rightly that 
there's never been really a conservative party. You know pro church, pro
aristocracy party since the revolution and similarly there's never been a
real socialist party, not even in the social democratic sense.  


MD: When Richard suggested they recapitulate Spencerian social theory it 
is intresting to know that the Spencerian theory was every bit as popular
with the monopoly capitalists of his days as the neo-biological
downsized demassified decentralized theories of Kevin Kelly are with
corporate managerial theorists as Peter Drucker and Tom Peters, the last
one being the author of the book 'Thriving on Chaos' which is a bizarre
carnival mirror, kind of funhouse distortion of Deleuze in a very strange
way. The disillusion of the body politics in sort of a flesheating viral
fashion into a poddle of anomic atomized cellular units protoplasmicly
going their own seperate ways on the one hand echoes delirious excesses
of Deleuzian theory at its most outermost bounds, and on the other hand
the American millitia movement at this moment, which also embraces very
much the notion of micro-political resistance. Where have we ever heard
that phrase before? Foucault sits upright in his grave and coughs a

RB: That's the interesting thing there is this link between the new left 
and the new right which is : anti-statism which actually anti-democracy. 
Both are against representative democracy. They see the political process as 
inherently corrupt because it involves compromise, the articulation of 
interests. The both have the common fantasy of direct democracy. Pure speech 
actions between people. This is interesting in classical republicanism media 
freedom was seen as part of participation in the democratic process, it was 
not the substitute for it. But both the new left and the new right saw the 
media as a substitute for representative political institutions. Guatarri 
talks about the community radio stations as the immense permanent meeting of 
the airways where people engage in direct democracy, bypassing the Italian 
state. As we know it is a very deeply reactionary idea. Because politics 
involves being a citizen and that's the reason why I'm an social democrate 
and not an ultra leftist? You have to accept that we are not we're not 
just members of supersociety. Both deny this dialectic between membership
of civil society and political citizenship.


MD: Since you are looking for differences between us one difference that 
should absolutely be ilyted but should be tripple underscored italiced and 
said in fluorescent wired dayglo orange: I'm not a social democrate!!! nor 
am I an academic neo-marxist!!! I'm deeply, deeply disenchanted with the 
notion of the nation state and profoundly saddened about the paralist state 
of constitutional participatory democracy in America at this point which is 
not to say that I don't think that it is a remarkably robust line of 
political code and that I don't think it is inherently one of the more 
liberatory political systems but where Richard and I part company is that in 
America the federalist paradigm, the government has been effectively brought 
to heel and hollowed out and turned essentialy into a sickafennic lapdog by 
corporate power that is evermore global in scope that flows with the 
frightening liquidity over national borders from whence springs all of this 
utopian rhetoric in the Wired camp about the end of the nation state, the 
end of geography in a sort of dizzy vertiginous hyperreal way that almost 
sounds post-modern. And again the discorporation from the immediate fysical 
body. But in their hands, in the hands of what a New Yorker essayist called 
the 'Tofflerist/Gingrichist alliance' all this rhetoric of returning power 
to the individual and ultimately to the local level is really a very 
transparant threadbear blind for on the one hand utterly unravelling of the 
social safety net and laying the full burden of responsibility for the sort 
of social concerns at the doorstep of the individual, and simultanisously as 
I said in my paper dismantling the rickety framework of the nation state 
that even now only just constraints corporate power to clear the way for 
transnational media monoliths whose power is utterly unconstraint and 
answerable to noone. So the pernicious, corrosive enzyms of corporate power 
have effectively hollowed out constitutional democracy in America. And we 
need look no further than the recent capitualisation to all of Rupert 
Murdochs attempts to roll back anti-monopoly legislation where essentially 
all of the inside the beltway powerbrokers basically melt and kissed his 
ring. This is the moment to my mind where the state is in serious peril.

RB: This libertarian rhetoric is of a limited section of the economy and
is an ideology in the classic sense of the word: it is a false description of 
reality. What's intresting is that it is not a really succesful economic 
strategy compared to the post-war period or the New Deal. State regulations 
and taxes are like excercises, nobody really wants to do them or have it 
imposed on them. A good example is universal access. One of the big 
campaigns of these freemarketeers is to remove universal access from the 
provision of this new fiberoptic grid. It is literally going to be the 
virtual class that will be half-wired into the fiberoptic grid and the rest 
of the population will be left the decaying copper infrastructure. But if 
you create a massmarket you need the masses to be on-line. So it needs the 
state to pro-actively built the turn-and-see value in order to ellectrify 
to.... If I were Time Warner I would want the state to organise the 
infrastructure and be able sell your commodities.

MD: But how do you respond to my critique, my  misgivings, profound 
weariness, my trepadation about rallying around the banner of the state. As 
a social democrat you sound much more sanguin about participatory 
democracy's abbility to disentangle itself from the tentacles of corporate 
power and I would like you to address the way in which corporate power 
profoundly undermined the fundamental tennents of participatory democracy.

RB: Political democracy is centered around state structures. If you are 
against the state in a very fundamental sense you are against political 
democracy. It is about participating in political decision-making at a 
region a national and now at a continental level in Europe. That you have to 
state first and formost. We are living within a mixed economy and each of 
these actors play a different role. But we have to be weary of saying that 
the state is disappearing, because in a sense it is accepting the
propaganda but still the state plays an enormous role, in America as 
everywhere else. You have to be aware not to over exagerate globalisation we are still not at the stage we were in 1914. 
International trade is less important than it was then. After that we
entered a period in which nations became radically autonomous, especially
in the Depression era. Eastern Europe as the prime example. Everybody did
this, everybody retreated behind the protectionst walls and yes they have 
been broken down in the last fifty years we reassembled a global trading 
system, but even now we are still not at the point we were at the
beginning of this century.

MD: My question hangs in the air unanswered; your response to my question 
about the extent in which corporate intervention and influence peddling and 
the enormously long dark shadow of transnational corporate power pass inside 
the beltway which effectively to my mind parries participatorydemocracy. 
There is a growing feeling in America which gives rise to the Millitia 
Movement throwing a lever in a ballotbooth is essentially a sob for the 
masses and that the real decisions made in the corridors of power have 
everything to do with pacts and corporate influence peddling and that that 
acts as a profilactic, a firewall against the real wills and desires 
expressed by the people. Your response to that is that we first have to 
concede that we are committed to the state, and the state is a really 
profound influential entity; I would not deny that the state has a profound 
influence and still exercices an enourmous impact on the everydays lives of 
citizenray e.g. in America. The point is that the state is evermore 
ventriloquised by transnational corporate power. Let me give you a material 
example; the recent telecommunication legislation in America. A statist, 
highly interventionist radically deregulatory act. It is the issue that 
draws all the heat and light from the Wired people because as libertarians 
they are very concerned with individual rights; it is the Hide-amendment, 
the so-called Communication Decency Act, which is a hairball! A fleetingly 
brief mirage, a distraction! The real profound issue in there are the 
evisceration of common carriage, the roll back of the regulation that would 
prevent monopolies and given media markets. So this is statist intervention 
but it is essentially the hamburgler handpuppet given out at McDonald 
playlands, you know, so, it is operated by corporate power. The pincers of 
the state close on our lives, but the people manipulating those indefectors 
are in fact a sort of Deakyanesque captains of consciousness of global 
corporate power. It seems that you have to take that into account when you 
sort of robustly singing the athem of statism.


RB: There is a very specific problem in American because fifty percent of 
the population don't vote, it has to do with the very bizarre constitution 
that you have that, as you can read in the Federalist papers, was designed 
to obstruct popular will. Hamilton makes it absolutely clear if you read 
what he says about it. So it is partly due to the American constitution, so 
you need constitution reform, the end of the division between legislator and 
executive , proportionate representation, there is rather a number of 
measures, and even on a more profound level since Roosevelt there has 
not been a political project in America wich is of a very consciously 
articulated social democratic value.  

MD: That is a distant geographically removed, I think academically aloof 
analysis of Why Americans aren't voting. If you descend to the ragtag and 
bobtail and ask them why they don't vote they don't say: We don't vote 
because we think the democratic project has been brought to its knees by too 
much seperation between legislative and executive branches. They say : I 
don't vote because I feel it doesn't make a difference! I feel that there is 
a profound disjunct, a disconnect, a rupture, a bifurcation between this 
impotent, again, sob for the masses that I'm adoop a sort of a monkey on a 
unicycle performance kind of trained act that I play into the illusion of 
democratic participation when I doodively margin to the polling booth throw 
the lever and think that that has a profound impact when in fact that impact 
has largely been subverted by the real powers who have kind of woven their 
tendrils inside the beltway to the point where they have fenced out real 
democratic participation. It seems to me that the profilactics alternatives 
pragmatics progressive solutions you propose don't address the real 
gut-level visceral embodied quotidian reasons that Americans en masse are 
saying Don't Vote! They don't vote because it does not make a difference. To 
me it's a no-brainer that it doesn't make a difference because corporate 
power has unplugged participatory democracy by vast amounts of liquid 
capital with which they flooded the halls of representative legislation. If 
you're going to make the case for the nation state you've got to look who at 
the end of th ecentury in terminal culture is evermore ventriloquising th 
enation state My position, my half-hearted animic endorsement of the nation 
state has entirely to do, following that analysis with the notion that is 
the last threadbear shopworn, flimsy profilactic evermore rickety firewall 
between us and the raging fireball of totally unconstraint corporate power 
that will run rough-shot over individual liberty.

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