CYBER-COMMUNISM: how the Americans are superseding capitalism in cyberspace

Richard Barbrook

' the impact of the ...information revolution on capitalism not the
ultimate exemplification of... Marx's thesis that: "at a certain stage of
their development, the material productive forces come into conflict with
the existing relations of production..."? ...does the prospect of the...
"global village" not signal the end of market relations... at least in the
sphere of digitalised information?' (Zizek 1998: 33-4)

Ghosts in the Machine

A spectre is haunting the Net: the spectre of communism. Reflecting the
extravagance of the new media, this spectre takes two distinct forms: the
theoretical appropriation of Stalinist communism and the everyday practice
of cyber-communism. Whatever their professed political beliefs, all users
of the Net enthusiastically participate in this left-wing revival. Whether
in theory or practice, each of them desires the digital transcendence of
capitalism. Yet, at the same time, even the most dedicated leftist can no
longer truly believe in communism. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and
the implosion of the Soviet Union, this ideology is completely
discredited.  The promises of social emancipation turned into the horrors
of totalitarianism. The dreams of industrial modernity culminated in
economic stagnation. Far from representing the future, communism seems
like a relic from the past

Above all, the Soviet Union was incapable of leading the information
revolution. The political and economic structures of Stalinist communism
were far too inflexible and secretive for the emergence of the new
technological paradigm. How could the totalitarian party allow everyone to
produce media without its supervision? How could the central planning
agency permit producers to form collaborative networks without its
authorisation? A much more open and spontaneous society was needed to
develop the Net. Excited by the libertarian potential of further digital
convergence, the proponents of almost every radical ideology have recently
updated their positions. Yet, among the cyber-feminists, communication
guerrillas, techno-nomads and digital anarchists, there is no new version
of the once dominant current of Stalinist communism. Even its former
acolytes admit that the Soviet Union exemplified the worst failures of
Fordism: authoritarianism, conformity and environmental degradation. (Hall
and Jacques: 1989)

The ideologues of American neo-liberalism have seized this opportunity to
lay claim to the future. For almost thirty years, they have been
predicting that new technologies were about to create a utopian
civilisation: the information society. For instance, the Tofflers have
long been convinced that the convergence of computing, telecommunications
and the media would free individuals from the clutches of both big
business and big government.  (Toffler 1980) Similarly, Ithiel de Sola
Pool prophesied that interactive television would allow everyone to make
their own media and participate in political decision-making. (de Sola
Pool 1983) Despite their radical rhetoric, these conservative pundits were
primarily interested in proving that information technologies would force
the privatisation and deregulation of all economic activity. Their
post-Fordist future was the return to the liberal past. When the Net
became popular, this free market fundamentalism was quickly adapted to fit
the new situation. Most famously, Wired argues that the 'New Paradigm' of
unregulated competition between cyber-entrepreneurs is extending
individual freedom and encouraging technological innovation in the USA.
(Barbrook and Cameron 1996) As the Net spreads across the world, the
material and spiritual values of American neo-liberalism will eventually
be imposed on the whole of humanity. As Louis Rossetto - the founding
editor of Wired - explains:

'This new world [of the Net] is characterised by a new global economy that
is inherently anti-hierarchical and decentralist, and that disrespects
national boundaries or the control of politicians and bureaucrats... and
by a global, networked consciousness... that is turning... bankrupt
electoral politics... into a dead end.' (Hudson 1996: 30)

The Cult of the Digerati

The narcissism of the Californian ideology reflects the self-confidence of
a triumphant nation. With the Cold War won, the USA no longer has any
serious military or ideological competitors. Even its economic rivals in
the EU and East Asia have been surpassed. According to most commentators,
the renaissance of American hegemony is founded upon its lead in new
information technologies. No country can match the 'smart weapons' of the
US military. Few companies can compete against the 'smart machines' used
by American corporations. Above all, the USA dominates the cutting-edge of
technological innovation: the Net. Realising the American dream, a lucky
few are making huge fortunes from floating their hi-tech companies on Wall
Street. (Greenwald 1998) Mesmerised by the commercial potential of
e-commerce, many others are speculating their savings on new media share

'Internet stocks... may be the hottest things since the Dutch tulip-bulb
craze in the 1600s'. (Kadlec 1999: 1)

Despite all the wealth being generated by technological innovation, the
division between rich and poor continues to widen in the USA. (Elliott
1999) In contrast with the European and East Asian forms of capitalism,
American neo-liberalism can successfully combine economic progress with
social immobility. Ever since the 1789 French revolution, conservatives
have searched for this union of opposites: reactionary modernism. (Herf
1984) Although necessary for the survival of capitalism, the social
implications of economic growth have always frightened the Right. Over the
long-run, continual industrialisation slowly erodes class privileges. As
their incomes rise, ordinary people can increasingly determine the
political concerns and cultural attitudes of society. As a result,
successive generations of conservatives have faced the dilemma of
reconciling economic expansion with social stasis. Despite deep
ideological differences, they have always proposed the same solution: the
formation of a hi-tech aristocracy. (Nietzsche 1961; Ortega y Gasset 1932)

The earliest versions of this reactionary fantasy emphasised the
hierarchical division of labour under Fordism. Although many skills were
destroyed by the industrial system, new specialisms were simultaneously
created. Within Fordism, engineers, bureaucrats, teachers and other
professionals formed an intermediate layer between management and the
shopfloor. (Elger 1979) Unlike most employees, this section of the working
class received high incomes and escaped subordination to the
assembly-line.  Fearful of losing their limited privileges, some
professionals became enthusiastic supporters of reactionary modernism.
Instead of fighting for social equality, they dreamt of founding a new
aristocracy: the technocracy.

'Reason, science, and technology are not inert processes by which men [and
women] discover, communicate, and apply facts disinterestedly and without
passion, but means by which, through systems, some men [and women]
organise and control the lives of other men [and women] according to their
conceptions as to what is preferable.' (Israel 1972: 2-3)

During the boom years of Fordism, the new ruling class was supposedly
being formed by the managers and other professionals from large
corporations and government departments. (Burnham 1945) However, when the
economy went into crisis in the early-1970s, right-wing intellectuals were
forced to look for supporters amongst other sections of the intermediate
layer. Inspired by Marshall McLuhan, they soon discovered the growing
number of people developing new information technologies. (McLuhan 1964)
For almost three decades, conservative gurus have been predicting that the
new ruling class would be composed of venture capitalists, innovative
scientists, hacker geniuses, media stars and neo-liberal ideologues: the
digerati. (Bell 1973;  Toffler 1980; Kelly 1994) Seeking to popularise
their prophecies, they always claim that every hi-tech professional has
the opportunity to become a member of this new aristocracy. Within the
convergent industries, skilled workers are essential for the development
of original products, such as software programs and website designs. In
common with many of their peers, most digital artisans suffer from the
insecurity of contract employment.  However, they also are better paid and
have greater autonomy over their work. As in the past, this ambiguous
social position can encourage gullibility towards reactionary modernism.
Chasing the American dream, many hi-tech workers hope to make millions
from founding their own company.  Instead of identifying with their fellow
employees, they aspire to join the digerati: the new technocracy of the
Net. (Kroker and Weinstein 1994)

Unlike in earlier forms of conservatism, this desire for domination over
others is no longer openly expressed in the Californian ideology. Instead,
its gurus claim that the rule of the digerati will benefit everyone. For
they are the inventors of sophisticated machines and the improvers of
production methods. They are pioneering the hi-tech services which will
eventually be enjoyed by the whole population. Over time, the digerati
will transform the restrictions of Fordism into the freedoms of the
information society. The compromises of representative democracy will be
replaced by personal participation within the 'electronic town hall'. The
limits on personal creativity in the existing media will be overcome by
interactive forms of aesthetic expression. Even the physical confines of
the body will be transcended within cyberspace. In the Californian
ideology, the autocracy of the few in the short-term is necessary for the
liberation of the many in the long-term. (Toffler 1980; Kelly 1994; Hudson
1996; Dyson 1997)

'Not haves and have-nots - [but haves-nows and] have-laters.' (Rossetto

The Liberating Minority

What is now expected from the digerati in the age of the Net was once
predicted about other heroic elites in the times of steel and electricity.
Ever since the late-nineteenth century, science fiction novelists have
fantasised about a small group of scientists and philosophers inventing
the technological fix for the problems of society. (Bellamy 1982; Wells
1913)  Among political activists, this faith in the leading role of the
enlightened minority has an even older pedigree. At the peak of the French
revolution in the 1790s, the Jacobins decided that the democratic republic
could only be created by a revolutionary dictatorship. Although their
regime was fighting for political and cultural freedom, substantial
sections of the population violently resisted the modernisation of French
society. According to the Jacobins, the minds of these traditionalists had
been corrupted by the aristocracy and the clergy. The revolutionary
dictatorship was needed not only to crush armed rebellions, but also to
popularise the principles of republican democracy. For only once everyone
had been educated could all citizens participate in political
decision-making. The tyranny of the minority in the short-term would lead
to democracy for the majority in the long-term. (Brinton 1961; Barbrook
1995: 19-37)

Although the Jacobins only held power for a few years, their example has
inspired revolutionary movements for generations. In many countries,
radical groups have faced the identical problem of transforming
traditional communities into industrial societies. Whatever their
ideological differences, every revolutionary minority had the same
mission: leading the masses towards modernity. By the mid-nineteenth
century, the European Left had realised that this goal of political and
cultural emancipation could only be achieved through economic progress.
Henri de Saint-Simon had explained that the power of the aristocracy and
clergy was founded upon agriculture. If the economy could be modernised,
wealth and power would inevitably transfer to members of the new
industrial professions:  entrepreneurs, workers, politicians, artists and
scientists. Like the Jacobins, Saint-Simon argued that this new elite
shouldn't just look after its own interests. For these modernisers also
had the historical task of liberating their less-fortunate fellow citizens
from poverty and ignorance.  By creating economic abundance, the
enlightened minority would enable everyone to enjoy happy and productive

'Politics should now be nothing more than the science of providing people
with as many material goods and as much moral satisfaction as possible.'
(Saint-Simon and Halévy 1975: 280)

Inspired by Saint-Simon, early socialists believed that economic growth
would inevitably lead to political and cultural emancipation. Under
capitalism, there had to be continual improvements in the methods and
machinery used to make goods and services: the forces of production. Over
time, these advances were slowly undermining the private ownership of
business: the relations of production. According to this version of
Saint-Simon, the increasing interdependence of the modern economy would
eventually force the adoption of more collective forms of social
organisation. Whatever their current difficulties, the parliamentary
parties of the European Left were confident of eventual victory. Sooner or
later, the development of the forces of production would democratise the
relations of production. (Marx. 1970: 20-21; Engels 1975: 74-101)

By the mid-twentieth century, this Marxist remix of Saint-Simon had also
been appropriated by apologists of totalitarianism. Even before seizing
power, V.I. Lenin had argued that revolutionary intellectuals should form
a prototype of the Jacobin dictatorship: the vanguard party. (Lenin 1975)
Under the old order, the minds of most people were filled with incorrect
ideologies from right-wing newspapers, churches and other cultural
institutions. The enlightened minority had the historical duty of leading
these ignorant masses towards the utopian future. After the 1917 Russian
revolution, Lenin and his followers were able to create a modernising
dictatorship. Like its predecessor in 1790s France, this new regime was
committed to fighting against reactionary forces and to educating the
whole population. (Lenin 1975a) In addition, the revolutionary
dictatorship had acquired an even more important task: the
industrialisation of the Russian economy. Appropriating the analysis of
Saint-Simon and his Marxist interpreters, Lenin claimed that economic
modernisation would eventually lead to political and cultural liberation.
By imposing authoritarian rule in the short-term, the Russian
revolutionaries hoped to construct participatory democracy in the
long-run. (Lenin 1932; Bukharin 1971)

This determination to modernise the economy soon led to the removal of all
political and cultural freedoms. The promise of eventual emancipation
justified the murder and imprisonment of millions. The creativity of
artists was reduced to making propaganda for the totalitarian party. The
modernising dictatorship had even lost interest in improving the living
conditions of the masses. (Ciliga 1979: 261-291) Instead, the Soviet
leadership became obsessed with the introduction of new technologies: the
mechanical proof of increasing productive forces. By the early-1930s,
Josef Stalin - the successor of Lenin - was measuring progress towards the
utopian future by rises in the output of industrial goods: steel, cars,
tractors and machine-tools. (Stalin 1954: 512-520) Economic development
had become an end in itself.

'The results of the Five-Year Plan [of industrialisation] have shown that
the capitalist system... has become obsolete and must give way to another,
higher, Soviet, socialist system...' (Stalin 1954: 541-542)

Back in the nineteenth century, there had been no clear definition of
communism. While Mikhail Bakunin had found its antecedents within peasant
communities, Karl Marx believed that the new system was prefigured by
industrial co-operatives. (Bakunin 1973: 182-194; Marx 1959: 435-441) But,
after the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in 1945, there could no
longer be any doubt about the correct interpretation of communism. Across
the world, almost every revolutionary movement embraced some variant of
the Stalinist creed. The radical intellectuals must form a vanguard party
to overthrow the existing order. Once in power, this revolutionary
minority had to set up the modernising dictatorship. As well as providing
security and education, the totalitarian state would organise the rapid
development of the economy. (Djilas 1966) Almost all radicals believed
that this Stalinist version of communism had been proved both in the
factory and on the battlefield. Once the Cold War started, any other
interpretations were marginalised. For nearly fifty years, the imperial
rivalry between the two superpowers was expressed as a fierce ideological
conflict: Russian communism versus American capitalism.

Stalin in Silicon Valley

During the Cold War, each side claimed that its particular socio-economic
structures represented the future of all humanity. Despite championing
rival systems, the apologists of both superpowers still shared a common -
and unacknowledged - theoretical source: Saint-Simon. Ever since the 1917
revolution, the Russian state had been using his futurist prophecies to
justify its actions. Learning from its Cold War opponent, the US
government began making similar claims about its policies. Although
promoting liberal capitalism, American propagandists enthusiastically
mimicked the theoretical rhetoric of Stalinist communism. The power of the
minority of capitalists was in the long-term interests of the majority of
the population. Any flaws in American society would be soon solved by
further economic growth. Above all, the utopian potential of the USA was
proved by continual introduction of new technologies: the symbol of
increasing productive forces. (Rostow 1971) Alongside their
military-political contest over 'spheres of influence', the two
superpowers also competed over who represented the future.

The collapse of the Soviet Union didn't end the theoretical influence of
Stalinist communism over right-wing American intellectuals. On the
contrary, the global mission of the USA had been confirmed by victory over
its totalitarian rival. According to one apologist, American
neo-liberalism is now the realisation of the Hegelian 'end of history'.
Although wars and conflicts will continue, there is no longer any
alternative form of socio-economic system. (Fukuyama 1992) For the
proponents of the Californian ideology, this narcissistic assumption is
proved by American dominance over the cutting-edge of economic modernity:
the Net. If other countries also want to enter the information age, they
will have to imitate the peculiar social system of the USA. Like its Cold
War predecessors, this contemporary celebration of American neo-liberalism
appropriates many theoretical assumptions from Stalinist communism. Once
again, the enlightened minority is leading the ignorant masses towards a
utopian civilisation. Any suffering caused by the introduction of
information technologies is justified by the promise of future liberation.
(Hudson 1996: 33) Echoing the Russian tyrant, the digerati even measure
progress towards utopia by increasing ownership of modern artefacts: home
computers, beepers, mobile phones and laptops. (Katz 1997: 71-72) Although
the Soviet Union has long disappeared, the proponents of the Californian
ideology are still appropriating the theoretical legacy of Stalinist

                vanguard party                   digerati
                The Five-Year Plan               The New Paradigm
                boy-meets-tractor                nerd-meets-Net
                Third International             Third Wave
                Moscow                               Silicon Valley
                Pravda                                Wired
                party line                            unique thought
                Soviet democracy                electronic town halls
                Lysenkoism                         memetics
                society-as-factory                 society-as-hive
                New Soviet Man                   post-humans
                Stakhanovite norm-busting  overworked contract labour
                purges                                 downsizing
                Russian nationalism             Californian chauvinism

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