Brian Holmes (by way of Andreas Broeckmann) on Tue, 5 May 1998 16:45:08 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> On the trans-national civil society

[the following is the closing statement that Brian Holmes posted to the
<eyebeam><blast> forum at the weekend;  he is talking about the TNCS that
is, trans-national civil society, as opposed to the TNCs, the
trans-national corporations; the 'we' he is referring to is the
<eyebeam><blast> forum community that has been discussing the use of the
networks for critical artistic practice, and lots of related issues, over
the past three months - ref. cf. below; Brian Holmes is a writer,
originally from the US, who has been living in Paris for many years; as one
of his projects, he recently co-edited the Documenta X Book. -abroeck]

Brian Holmes: On TNCS

It became apparent in the sixties that multinational corporations were
taking over the technological capacities developed initially in World
War II, then in the Cold War - I mean, the coordinated industrial
production, transportation, communication, information analysis, and
propaganda required for multi-theater warfare. Under the pressure of
capital interests, the governments of the developed countries have done
a tremendous amount to establish the technological and juridical norms
that now permit industrial and financial commerce on a world scale,
relatively uninhibited by national borders. In this way monopoly capital
has escaped a lot of the social regulations imposed since the 1930s, by
moving out of the sphere of national democratic institutions and into
the new and differently regulated international arena. Transnational
capitalism is, of course, a monopoly player's game, because the
quasi-military investments required to compete in the global ballpark
can only be made by the very big corporations - witness the current
rounds of mergers and acquisitions. The functioning of the new
transnational military-economic order became crystal clear after the
fall of the USSR, with the broad international consensus on the Gulf War
and the handling of the Mexican financial crisis. Those deals were cut
at the level of raw domination. But around the same time, beneath the
skyscrapers of the global cities and in the very circuits of
international information exchange, an intermediate stratum emerged all
across the planet - a class of people attached to the dominant order,
serving it in some ways, but not entirely identified with it. People
with at least some access to the transportation and
information-processing technologies, a kind of "middle-manager" class,
directing the economic behavior and to some degree shaping the
mentalities of those farther down on the power ladder. In short, people
like us, who have at last found our characteristic form of articulation
in the technology of the internet. Here on this list, I would say we are
mainly the aesthetic technicians of a larger transnational civil

Gramsci, from whom I take my general framework here, analyzed civil
society as primarily functioning to legitimate the dominant power
structure, to clothe that power in appropriate cultural forms in order
to make its application to the subaltern classes tolerable. This is the
kind of thing that that some of us do when we sing the praises of
strategic new information technologies, and insist that their
application in their current forms is inevitable, according to so-called
"market laws." In that way one contributes to making the new order
tolerable. Stable thresholds of tolerability, even when they have to be
maintained by all kinds of brutal but organized violence, make up what
Gramsci calls a hegemony, i.e., an identity of interests between the
dominant military-economic power and the middle-managers of civil
society. I think it could be interesting for us all to think about where
we fit into the now-consolidating global hegemony of neoliberalism, with
its very original combination of tremendous cultural and behavioral
permissivity and extreme economic regimentation, backed up by tight
police control that basically serves to protect the rich information
managers from the poor people stuck with only their physical bodies
(watch the police on the edges of an American ghetto, a French banlieue,
or at any international border in the developed world to see what I
mean). Unfortunately, the classic functioning of monopoly capital in the
absence of strong socially oriented regulations seems to guarantee that
there will be more and more poor people, therefore more and more
police-type violence.

It's important to realize that hegemonies are inherently unstable and
always have to be recomposed, rearticulated. It is obviously in such
moments of rearticulation that one's cultural input can be important.
And they will come, in one way or another. The current hegemony only
works because it has integrated so many of the demands for individual
emancipation made in the sixties. When I look, for instance, at the
recent dissolution of the right in France, combined with the shaky
legitimacy of a moderate left, I'm tempted to say that here the hegemony
works precisely as a fusion of interests between the people who made
those demands for individual emancipation and the people who can
substantially gain from globalized capitalism. Which is not a bad
description of the constituencies of Clinton, Blair, Jospin, and now
perhaps Schroder in Germany. The new hegemony combines a kind of moral
or "stylistic" flexibility, good for stimulating consumption, with a
tremendously competitive, fast-paced managerial discipline. If you can't
identify at least partially with both those trends, then you start to
feel you don't fit into the dominant society - and one of your options
in Europe is to adhere to the neo-fascist right (an increasingly common
option in France, but also in Austria, Italy, Belgium, and Norway). If,
under the pressure of structural unemployment, extreme left movements
reemerge in Europe, then the center-left hegemony could fall apart on
both sides, somewhat as it did in Germany in the thirties, and things
could become very uneasy here. It's a possibility that we now have to at
least imagine, along with its variant - a tough neoliberal state that
uses the threat of populist fascism to break all the subaltern movements
through police repression.

In another, more terrifying situation of hegemonic dissolution, that of
Algeria, we see the steadily increasing inability of a recently
urbanized and relatively educated population to identify with a
government that no longer even remotely represents a possibility to
share the benefits of industrial growth (because there isn't any), but
instead represents the constitution of an oligarchy drawing its revenues
from transnational interests in the fields of resource-extraction and
consumer-product distribution. For many Algerians who have left their
former village environment but can no longer get a job or use their
education, the only cultural solution that can render a regression to
pre-industrial living conditions tolerable is Islamic fundamentalism.
I'm afraid that if monopoly capital continues to exploit the new
international space which it has regulated for its convenience, without
any consideration for the daily lives of huge numbers of people, such
violent reactions of rejection are inevitable and will spread. Let's
see, or instance, what happens in Indonesia, Thailand, and possibly even
Korea as a result of the current financial crisis

Fortunately, the growth of the Zapatista movement in Mexico after their
financial crisis gives some reasons for optimism. The Zapatistas are
hardly fanatics. And they are obviously the great example of a reformist
group that has profited from the existence of new communications
technologies and a transnational civil society. Plenty of people here
have already told us to pay attention to and support the Zapatistas, and
they are right, we should. I think it is also very important to pay
attention to and support the movements of unemployed workers emerging in
Europe, not just in the West but also in the former East. The way to
support these people, for Americans in particular, is not to barge in
and explain the heaven-sent wisdom of the international
information-and-service economy, which is very unlikely to ever provide
them with a living. Nor do I think it really necessary to promote the
latest computer-based art the way some other people promote cigarette
brands, as a seductive sign of mental and economic flexibility. In this
current cultural frenzy of deterritorialization, e-mail and
airport-hopping, I think it would be very interesting if people once
again started looking at the countries they're traveling to, and
listening to what a broad range of people have to say in those
countries. Just because there is Coke and MTV everywhere does not mean
that everywhere is now the same. It would be equally useful if
network-based discussions payed more attention to local specificities.
Geography still counts for a lot, and the way the levels of tolerability
are negotiated in each place has a tremendous amount to do with the
particular histories of the people living there. There are as yet no
democratic transnational institutions, only economic and military ones,
so unless one is fool enough to believe that those kinds of institutions
can guarantee progress toward greater equality and thereby keep the
world out of serious conflict in the decade to come, it is really
important to start thinking again about the fragile political balances
all over this planet. With enough pressure, for example, and enough
attention to the complex political-cultural articulations in each of the
member countries, it may realistically be possible to force some social
regulation onto the economic regulation of the European community - and
that would help a lot, as it could serve as a model all over the world.
Such transnational institution-building is no doubt the only way that
TNCS can gain some agency over the tremendous powers of the TNCs.

Brian Holmes

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