McKenzie Wark on Sun, 29 Dec 96 06:07 MET

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nettime: on social democracy

'Social democracy' is a term that turns up more than once
in the various nettime readers. Its a word that Americans
seem not quite to understand, and Europeans no longer to
quite believe. While there is a consensus around a vague
unease with the libertarian beliefs of the 'california
ideology', there seems to be a clearer idea of what kind
of net politics one ought not to subscribe to than a
positive notion of net politics, or the net as a politics.

Perhaps one way to clarify things somewhat might be to return
to this term social democracy.

As the political expression of the labour movmement, social
democracy heads in at least two directions -- one towards the
pragmatic search for power through legal means, the other
through belief in the necessity of revolution. These two
tendencies were never neatly divided between the parties of
the second and third internationals -- there was always a
curious mix within both. The social democratic parties 
always had their true believers. The communist parties always
had their pragmatists. 

Michael Oakeshott suggests that the distinction between what
he calls a politics of belief and a politics of scepticism is
a central one in the evolution of western political thought.
He sees both these strands mixed right across the political
spectrum. Oakeshott had a clear preference for the politics
of scepticism, for Montaigne and Hume, over the true believers
of either the left or the right -- marxian and smithian
economic fundamentalists, in particular. 

The collapse of the stalinist alternative is widely seen as a
body blow to the left, in either its sceptical and pragmatic,
or faithful and revolutionary, options. Its been taken on
the right as clearing the field for the real battle in late
20th century politics -- between neo-liberalism inspired by
Adam Smith and a true Burkean conservatism - or at least those
are the terms English speaking commentators would use.

Its interesting to look at the kinds of media and cultural
policy inspired by neo-liberal and conservative thinking.
The neo-liberals have drifted so far from their original
inspiration in Adam Smith that they think *everything* can
be viewed in terms of the 'invisible hand', the invisible
principle that governs the first two books of his master 
work, _The Wealth of Nations. No longer even aware of what
Smtih wrote in the rest of it, they lose sight of the
kinds of institutional structures Smith thought necessary
to ensure the honest working of the market and the 
health of the state. And so, to neo-liberals, media and
culture can be left to market forces, like anything else.

The conservative response dwells upon the dangers of too
ready a belief in the efficacy of the market. It is
sceptical of such abstract designs of reason, and trusts
in the political unconscious of inherited institutions.
It defends cultural traditions precisely because it
*doesn't* know their value. 

Its curious how much of what passes for 'left' thinking
ends up supporting conservative options in cultural
and media policy, out of a shared antipathy to the
market rather than any really original line of thought.
'Culture' becomes a key signifier that means all things
to all parties opposed to the unfettered market. It can
mean both 'tradition' and 'minority' at once, provided
one does not put it under too close a scrutiny. In both
cases, the romantic thread that runs through conservatism 
and some forms of leftist thought see culture as 
something authentic, pre existing, as the natural expression
of a true past or a true subjectivity. 'Culture' and its
defense is what is set against the expansion of media

What i think is lost in all of this is a certain kind of
social democracy. By that i don't mean the pervasive
apparatus of the welfare state that social democrats,
christian democrats and in some cases even the western
communist parties collaborated in creating in western
europe. What i mean is the grass roots tradition of
social democracy. Take as an example the german social
democrats. In their early, illegal days, the party
oranised itself less through party cells than through
the spontaneous creation of cultural affinity groups.
For example: workers' bicycle clubs and singing clubs
-- forms of cultural self organisation that were also
effective media, for transmiting the cultural 'meme'
of social democracy across space and time, respectively.
Social democracy was the self organising culture and
media, the time and the space, of the self conscious
working class.

In its legal phase, the german social democrats made
great use of the press. They were eary adopters of
the connection between telegraphy and the newspaper.
They formed news agencies, they organised the distribution
and ordering of news according to what we would now
recognise as modern journalistic practices. They were,
as a political movement, ahead of their time. These
techniques are often assumed to orginate in the military,
but that is to take too narrow a focus. The techniques
of modern communication originate in the struggle for
power, both political and military -- and social democracy
was an early and effective adopter of such techniques.
Indeed, its not going too far to see the turning of
various european ruling classes to far right alternatives
as a reaction to the spontaneous self organising of the
working class and the successful alliances it often
forged with peasant interests in the countryside. 

Even as late as the eary 30s, german social democrats
expanded the range of media vectors along which they
competed to radio and cinema. The best known examples
include Brecht's film work and Benjamin's radio programs
for children. That this media politics was defeated is
in itself no reason to dismiss it -- or forget it. 
Social democracy became a simulacrum of itself, as Guy
Debord argues --but this was not a bad thing. It was
an inevitable outcome of the struggle for power along the
new vectors of the media. The 20s and 30s were the time
when power *became* vectoral. It has become so again.

What is perhaps distinctive about social democratic media
politics is that it does not see 'culture' as some
pre existing, authentic source of identity. It sees it
as process and practice, as the sponaneous creation of
forms of accumulation and dispersal of images and stories.
This may take a state sanctioned form or not. It may
use market based or state based forms -- and perhaps
survives best in a mixed economy that supports both. 
Its a pragmatic politics, not based in a belief in either
the market or even in the media itself. This i think is
a key point at the moment: while many people can now
adopt a sceptical stance in relation to the Smithian
faith of George Gilder and others in the natural affinity
of the net with the market, there is still a lingering
faith in the net as a liberatory media in and of itself. 
I think the lesson from the prehistory of mdia politics
is that such a faith is always misplaced. Whatever the
*potential* of the form, it always has other potentials
as well. The net is neither essentially and necessarily
democratic nor militaristic -- it has all kinds of
potentials. Some as yet unknown. There is no need to
enquire as to its essence, but every reason to experiment
with its possibilities. A social democratic practice
parts company with criticism -- be it conservative or
allegedly radical. 

Social democracy was *always* a politics of the media, 
perhaps before it was anything else. This at least is what
I argued in _Virtual Geography. AS a democratic politics,
it organises consciousness and the capacity to act across
space, so that it can be deployed effectively in the unfolding
of political time. 

McKenzie Wark
netletter #3

"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
 -- McKenzie Wark 

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