McKenzie Wark on Fri, 26 Feb 1999 18:43:34 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace

extract 005
Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace, by McKenzie

Here's one more extract. The book is now available from Pluto

Postindustrial Class Struggle
McKenzie Wark

If there is a reason why the left often appears to be struggling to keep
up with the pace of change, it may be that the forces traditionally
identified as 'left' no longer represent the frontline in the class
conflict that, in Marxist thinking, determines the forward movement of
history. Much of the agenda of the left seems either to be about resisting
change completely or accommodating to it in ways that preserve the
interests of certain constituencies, particularly those skilled workers in
manufacturing and in the white collar public sector that belong to left
wing unions.Barry Jones identified an information proletariat, but he did
not claim to have thought through the postindustrial society in terms of
class conflict. ! His prophecy was that "the question of control of, and
access to, information should become one of the major political issues of
the 1990s", but he did not pose this question in class terms. Information
may work as differently in the market economy as capital does to rent, and
might therefore generate quite different kinds of class interest. I want
to conclude this chapter with some highly speculative remarks that try, in
a very abstract way, to advance the conceptualisation of the conjuncture
of the late 90s. This last section is addressed to a certain kind of
culture of the left. Those not so inclined might find the next chapter,
which deals with Labor's culture of the right, more congenial."Rent is
that portion of the produce of the earth that is paid to the landlord for
the use of the original and indestructible powers of the soil. It is
often, however, confounded with the interest and profit of capital...".1
So wrote David Ricardo, one of the original 'economic rationalists', in
what was one of the first, although certainly not the last attempt to
define the difference between rent and profit, the returns respectively on
land and capital.Land is of fixed quantity. There is only so much of it.
Any economic activity based on land behaves in much the same peculiar way.
When demand rises, prices rise, but if there is no more land to meet the
demand for what land produces, then the high price does not encourage new
competitors — by definition there can be no new competitors, as the
quantity of land is fixed. If there were new competitors, they would add
to supply, supply would match the new high level of demand, and prices
would trend down again. But there is no more land, no new competitors, so
as demand rises, prices shoot up, and owners of land collect a rent
derived from possession of this fixed asset. In principle, a mine, an
office block and a prime piece of farm land behave in much the same way in
the marketplace. Most things are not o! f fixed quantity, and don't offer
an opportunity to extract rent. If a factory makes widgets, or a company
offers a service, and demand for those widgets or that service rises,
competitors can come into the market attracted by the high prices. These
new competitors add to supply and drive down the price. This is where the
more strictly capitalist economy thrives, by investing in bringing to
market products or services that can be sold for more than the investment,
and hence return a profit. Unlike rents, profits are not protected by the
fixed quantity of the inputs. Of course, many capitalists would like their
business to accrue rents rather than profits, and governments are often
dragged in to the creation of artificial rent-producing monopolies in
anything from steel to television. People who own land or capital hire
people who have neither to work for them. Owners have an interest in
keeping down the wages they pay, whereas workers have an interest in
driving them up. Thi! s conflict of interest may not be a complete one,
however. In the modern world, workers require security and stability of
employment, and come to have a shared interest with their employer in the
maintenance of those conditions. Higher wages might be good in the short
run, but not if this shuts off profits, sends the company broke, and
tosses the worker out of a job. Owners and workers may have different
interests, but their interests are not simply opposed to each other,
unless you accept the fable that by overthrowing the owners, the workers
will inherit the earth. There is one significant difference between
working for someone who owns land and someone who owns capital. When
demand for land or what land produces is high, it's possible for the wage
earner to make demands for much higher wages without sending the owner of
land broke. The owner of land is much more likely to just pass the
increased cost on to the purchaser. After all, new competitors can't come
in to bankrupt the rentier, and hence the job of the worker is more
secure. This is why mining and building workers were, until recently, more
able to extract wage increases out of owners of land than other workers
were out of owners of capital. Demanding higher wages was unlikely to send
the company broke. Actually, under a high tariff system, the whole economy
can work more like a rent economy than a capital economy. Protectionism
creates quasi-rent conditions for lots of businesses, and lots of workers
can demand wage rises that just get passed on to the purchaser. There are
already two kinds of economy in this classical conceptualisation of how it
all works. But what if we add a third kind of economy — the information
economy? Actually, before Adam Smith or David Richardo got around to
theorising rent and capital, the new information economy was already
becoming a reality. When English law recognises the rights of authors and
engravers to 'own' the content of their works, the conce! pt of property
was in principle extended to information. Before then, any printer could
copy any book — ownership resided in the thing, the book itself, not the
ordering of the information within it. With copyright a reality, a new
kind of property owner arises — the owner of copyright. Not
coincidentally, a new kind of celebrity, and anew kind of urbanity arises
at the same time as the recognition of this new kind of property. Samuel
Johnson was one of the first writers to openly make his living from his
trade, and became famous for it. Johnson claimed that "there seems to be
in authors a stronger right of property than that by occupancy; a
metaphysical right, a right, as it were, of creation...".2 Johnson
realised that this property right had to be balanced against the common
interest in that the knowledge contained in a book be "universally
diffused among mankind." Hence Johnson argued for an exclusive right that
would be limited in duration. As Mark Rose of the Univers! ity of
California argues, "at one level, the literary-property question was a
legal struggle about the nature of property and how the law might adapt
itself to the changed circumstances of an economy based on trade. At
another, it was a contest about how far the ideology of possessive
individualism should be extended into the realm of cultural
production."3As it turned out, it could be extended very far indeed. As
with the ownership of land or capital, the arguments made for it could be
based on the doctrines of natural law. Someone is entitled to own whatever
is the object and product of their own labour. But the creation of
information as a form of private and tradeable property is no more natural
than the creation of land and capital as private property. A fully
market-based economy rests on the convention of property, backed by the
authority of the courts. Information can be an object of a law of
property, just like capital or land, but does not necessarily behave the !
same way. What is distinctive about information is firstly that my
possession of it need not deprive you of it. I cannot possess land that
you at the same time possess, but I can know something that you at the
same time know. The possession of information does not require the
dispossession of another. Secondly, copying information is distinct form
creating it. If I grow wheat or make a shoe, the copying of either of
these things takes as much effort as making them, and is in fact an
identical act to making them. If I write a book or compose a song, the
copying of it requires much less effort. An effort tending, from the
invention of moveable type to the invention of the floppy disc, to
diminish to nothing. In short, information behaves very differently to a
physical thing, and as a form of property it is quite the opposite of
land. Land cannot be copied and is in fixed supply; information can be
endlessly copied, and the copying of it is simple compared to making it in
the fir! st place. The principles of the information economy have existed
for hundreds of years, and were worked out alongside the legal fictions
for other kinds of property according to which a commodity economy would
be regulated. It is late in the 20th century that the information economy
has become conspicuous in size and influence, in part because the
evolution of the technical means of storing and distributing information
have advanced very rapidly. Most information workers, like most
agricultural and industrial workers, have to sell their capacity to work,
and do not, in the end, own what they make. The worker might have the
capacity in their head or hands to produce something, but lack the means
to realise it. Where other workers confront owners of land or capital,
information workers confront owners of what I call vectors. A vector is
the physical and technical means of moving information across space, or
preserving it across time. As with agriculture or industry, the tech!
nical development of information reaches a point where economies of scale
dictate the formation of large enterprises which own and control vast
vectors for the distribution of information, just as other businesses
control vast tracts of land or physical plant and equipment. What is often
conceived as globalisation may just be the growth of the information
economy due to the technical advance of the vector, and the subordination
of the economies of capital and land to it. The reason for this is not
hard to fathom. The functioning of markets presupposes the transmission of
information labour demand, supply and the prices that mediate between from
one place to another. The information economy grows, in part, on its
capacity to expand the opportunities for owners of land and capital. What
is often perceived as a shift in the balance of power from labour to
capital in the 90s may rather be a shift in the centre of gravity of
economic activity, from the economies of capital and ! land, to that of
information. The most conspicuous beneficiaries of such a shift are the
owners of vectors, the Murdochs and Packers. Less noticed are those
beneficiaries who are not owners but merely workers in this expanding
economy, which includes both information-specific businesses, and also the
information component of the business of capital and land, of making
things and growing things.What appears as an information proletariat is a
pool of unemployed or marginally employed people who have not made the
transition from an economy dominated by making things to an economy
dominated by making information. Just as the transition from agriculture
to manufacturing produced an under-employed population, this second
transition also produces such a proletariat, and once again, in its
desperation, it is tempted to embrace populist solutions, involving a
strong state that will maintain an economy to its liking. The left has
always been an unstable and uneasy alliance, and has ! always included the
representatives of industrial labour, the most organised part of the
economy of capital and the making and things. It has also included members
of the information-working class. The difficulty for the left is that the
interests of these different kinds of worker are further apart than ever.
The former are tempted to struggle for the retarding of the shift in the
centre of gravity toward the information economy. The latter have no
interest in such a retrogressive step, and have their own agenda of
conflicts over the conditions under which they sell the information they
produce to the owners of media vectors. The information economy is at the
same time an information culture. As Mark Rose argues, the extension of
"possessive individualism" into culture via the legal fiction that
information can be private property is an old principle. It just became
more obvious, late in the 20th century, what this commodification of
information has all along implied: cultu! re and economy are inseparable.
There was always a market for information upon which the culture of
everyday life depended. What changed is the development of new vectors,
such as radio, television and the internet, which could be accumulated and
co-ordinated, as elements of a powerful kind of market economy. As a
consequence, politics, no less than the economy, became saturated by
vectors. The vectoral becomes the space of political action no less than
of economic gain. The creation of political majorities becomes a matter of
articulating popular desires via media images. This process has been
advancing for some time, overcoming the social and communal basis of
political affiliation. Politics in the information age is about the
formation of majorities that are synchronised around particular
images.Majorities may be articulated on the basis of a shared desire for
something, or against it. Both the left and the right have a history of
the articulation of desire against thin! gs. The right depended on the
articulation of desire in the form of hatred of communism throughout the
cold war — a tactic that contributed to the weakening of the right when
the Berlin wall came down. In this they merely succeeded where the left
failed, in its attempt to turn the difference between the interests of
workers and owners into an opposition that would pit workers against
ownership in general — the class war. Both the left and the right must
share some culpability for the rise of a populism that has no qualms about
identifying the most vulnerable minorities as the object of a majoritarian
hatred. Populism exploits the pleasure machine of desire, as it works in
the vectoral world, and can achieve substantial gains. The irony is that
populism achieves its gains using the cultural machinery of information
precisely because of discontent with the effects of the power of
information to undermine the economic position of what now becomes an
information proletariat.Po! litics as desire for something, rather than
desire which attempts to opposed a majority to a minority, faces the added
difficulty that the articulation of mass desire must occur in public.
Desire compounds desire, but also fragments, dissipates, comes in conflict
with itself. If there is a majoritarian politics to be created, it might
not be the politics of consensus, which presupposes community of interest,
not just between capital and labour, but also between the economies of
cultivating land, manufacturing things and processing information. It
might be a politics of connection rather than consensus, of articulating
connections rather than a corporatism rooted in the old manufacturing
economy. The politics of consensus assume a mass media that works rather
like mass manufacturing. It composes its majority on the basis of blocks
of shared interest that can be articulated in a few broad strokes in a
mass media vector. The politics of connection, on the other hand, might be
m! ore appropriate for a world in which diverse vectors proliferate, and
the interests that have to be composed to form a majority are not based
firmly in a mass manufacturing economy, but span two different kinds of
economy, that of the manufacture of things and the production of
information. In short, a 'political economy' of the age of information has
to take account of what is specific to the information economy. Like land,
information deviates from some key assumptions about the commodity economy
of things. The commodification of culture has always been a part of the
development of the information economy, no matter how much of a recent
phenomena this may appear. It is implied in the original formulation of
the legal fiction of information as property. A certain kind of celebrity,
as someone who in a sense owns an image and story of which they are the
producer, is a byproduct of this commodification. It too is not new, and
in someone like Samuel Johnson there is a prototyp! e for contemporary
celebrity. Celebrity, in turn, is a concept that can hold together the
economic and political aspects of this 'political economy' of information.
The appearance of celebrity is not just an artefact of the commodification
of culture, but also of the immersion of politics within the relations of
the vector. These are not ephemeral additions to the commodity economy,
they are aspects of it that have been developing for some time. The
creation of a form of property for information has just been waiting for
the technical development of the vectors of information relations to
release the potential latent in it. This is just a rough sketch, starting
with Barry Jones' insight into the existence of an information
proletariat, and speculating on what larger picture it may fit into. It is
somewhat removed from rather pragmatic approach of, say, Lindsay Tanner.
But perhaps what Tanner's insights into the changing options for the left
of the Labor Party needs is some!  larger framework within which to plot
the changes, rather than reacting on the basis of out-dated maps of how
the commodity economy functions. In any case, the left no longer have a
monopoly on conceptual thinking in the Labor Party and the labour
movement, and perhaps it never did. As I want to show in the next, and
last, chapter, the light on the hill can also be regenerated in terms
quite outside those of the left. 

***McKenzie Wark's Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace is available
fromPluto Press Australia

1 David Ricardo, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation,
Cambridge University Press, 1952, p. 67

2 James Boswell, Life of Johnson, Oxford University Press, 1964, vol. 2,
p. 259

3 Mark Rose, Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright, Harvard
University Press, Cambridge Mass., 1993, p. 92

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