We Are the Children of Marx and Google

Will Bradley

Reviews / 08.04.2010

Mute has mutated many times since its initial incarnation as a net.art-focused broadsheet cheekily printed on the same paper and presses as the Financial Times, and Proud to Be Flesh is a diverse but substantial and carefully-assembled collection that traces these developments over fifteen years. The book cannot replicate the journal's shifts in presentation, production and distribution - from newsprint, via coffee-table high-gloss, through a print-on-demand experiment, to a relatively recent and well-functioning web-centred operation - but it acknowledges the changing situation and editorial context in which the texts it contains were produced, and offers itself as a specific history of the passage of a few key themes through a brief moment in time.

In their foreword to the anthology, Pauline van Mourik Broekman and Simon Worthington summarise the development of the journal's editorial interests, beginning with 'the utopian claims made for digital technologies in general and the internet in particular, [then] subjecting them to a deepening critique, which ever more explicitly considered the socio-economic context created by capitalism'.1 'Proud to Be Flesh' was Mute's original masthead slogan and, though it has now been replaced by the more prosaic 'Culture and Politics after the Net', the sceptical, materialist approach to technology that it signals serves to link, for example, early essays on net.art politics to recent wrangles over the character of post-Fordist labour. Past articles are presented under nine chapter headings, and each chapter then reconstructs a chronological development of Mute's treatment of its particular theme, which often does indeed follow the direction of the 'deepening critique' that the co-editors describe. These themes are not exact, but are given lyrical titles and work well as a method for organising the depth of material on offer. Often - most overtly in the first chapter, 'Direct Democracy and its Demons: Web 1.0 to Web 2.0', but throughout the book as a whole - the texts represent part of a particular dialogue, or occasionally antagonistic exchange, that was sustained over several issues of the journal. At other points, the unique connection of essays to thematic headings can seem less obvious, but this is most often a result of the cross-connections which the texts themselves produce and emphasise.

One of the things that makes Proud to Be Flesh more than interesting is this multiplication of both connections and contradictory positions, as the provisional but often passionate mode of much of the argument rubs up against empirical research, philosophising both academic and homespun, documents of practice and utopian proposals in a sometimes dizzying proliferation of paradigms. Several of the essays reproduced here have become widely cited contributions to a larger debate, but you would need to have paid very close attention to Mute over a decade and a half not to find something new, or overlooked, in the propositions on offer.

If there are grounds to request yet more material to close odd gaps in the total structure - Mute's contribution to the recent revival of interest in the critique of cybernetics perhaps came too late for inclusion, while feminist theory, with one brief but notable exception, appears only in its cyber guise - still most of the themes treated here reach out to one another far enough to give a sense of overall coherence. If they don't all join hands, exactly, there is a strong sense of interconnection via both 'the socio-economic context created by capitalism' and the related contexts of critique and resistance.

This drive towards a continually deferred, or redefined, unity of voices, characters and positions gives the book something of the character of an epic experimental novel, a fragmented story of almost-everything but above all of life during wartime, in which the protagonists, or antagonists, are labour and capital and their myriad avatars, and which can be approached as a work-in-itself. In this admittedly idiosyncratic reading, we open with what must function as the anthology's closest approach to domestic harmony, no static idyll but the dynamic promise of a coming alter-capitalist techno-utopia that is glimpsed in the first chapter. This is 'the digital revolution's crucial left-right fusion of free minds and free markets […] democratic, meritocratic, decentralised, libertarian',2 the possibility to use the language of cyberspace to form a new ideology, 'a global community consciousness that we can all work together to create'.3 If 'the potentiality of hypermedia can never be solely realised by market forces', still 'we need an economy which can unleash the creative powers of high-tech artisans. Only then can we fully grasp the Promethean opportunities as humanity moves into the next stage of modernity'.4 Even the dissenting voices function as counterpoint to the theme of the chorus, agreeing that 'the strategic defeat of industrial labour has already happened […] The industrial world is fading, the industrial composition of labour is dissolving and a new composition of social activity is emerging, but the capitalist code is still pervading it.'5 As the chapter closes, however, what seems like one last attempt to capture the technological novelty of the net and its protocols for utopian ends, through the agency of peer-to-peer networking, opens onto something radically further-reaching, starting the motor that will drive the involutions of the plot for the next five hundred pages. What begins as a clarification of the externalities of file-sharing develops into a universal communist programme in the course of a single sentence, as we read that 'in order to really address the unjust capture of alienated labour value, access to the commons and membership in the peer group must be extended as far as possible towards the inclusion of a total system of goods and services'.6

With the scene set, the second chapter permits itself the luxury of a digression, a reflection on artistic production and technology. But if art, like labour, threatens to dissolve into the online continuum;7 if the Linux operating system is the pre-eminent artwork of the digital 1990s;8 if Thomas Pynchon's novels of paranoid interconnection document the victory of the system as a creative force, rather than its critique;9 and if, as Gustav Metzger has it, 'in terms of computer art at least, "the real avant garde was the army"',10 then it seems that the problems raised by the conflation of technological development and cultural production are, after all, echoes of a familiar conflict of powers, underpinned by questions of ownership, control and resistance.

Chapter Three, 'I, Cyborg: Reinventing the Human', serves to complicate the genealogy of the protagonists in unorthodox ways, as well as the very notion of genealogy itself as a natural fact. It closes in on the relationship between the management of subjectivity and the management of its material, biological substrate, the body considered as a form extended both in biology and culture. Metzger's assertion conjures the thought of a corpse with a bullet in its head as the terminal image of the man/machine hybrid, but the narrative here contends with more subtle and also more extreme interpenetrations of nature and nurture, and introduces the ultimate destabilising possibility that 'if the individual vertebrate organism came to be, it can of course come not to be'.11

The more orthodox political themes re-emerge almost unscathed by their post-human workout in the next section, 'Of Commoners and Criminals'. The technological exceptions of the first chapter here find the new form of the digital commons, home to the 'nonrivalrous resource' that is infinitely copyable digital information, and a post-scarcity economy where 'you can have your cake, eat it, and distribute a round for all your friends at the same time; a nonrivalrous resource is undepletable'.12 But the hidden dependencies of this model have already been revealed, and what begins as a quick tour of its gaps and contradictions turns into an unexpectedly accelerated journey towards apocalyptic social collapse. The extent of the punitive control necessary to make the mass consumption of digital Intellectual Property fully secure for its ultimate owners is shown to mirror the physical policing of real estate,13 and the battles over the physical commons - air, water and energy, land and livelihood - are then traced from somewhat esoteric points of early English law to a contemporary global struggle between the dispossessed Many and the exploitative Few.14 It seems there's hope to be taken here, or if not here perhaps instead in the political consciousness emerging around the buccaneer transgressions of the world's file-sharers,15 but this shrinks to insignificance in the vertiginous wide-angle view-from-space that follows. The commons at stake is now nothing less than the interconnected ecological system that sustains all life on earth. A bleak ending prophesies that 'capital cannot stem the ecological collapse which its very movement is engendering',16 and concludes with a choice between the management, and exploitation, of this collapse by existing structures 'at unimaginable human cost', or an effectively revolutionary seizure of whatever machinery may be capable of producing a more humane response. What might be at stake in this revolution, or its failure, is spelt out more fully in a modest-looking footnote to this same bleak prediction, a small block of phone book-sized type that offers an optional ending - both for the narrative of the book, and for human civilisation as we know it - in catastrophic conflict and 'a reversion of humanity to a level below that at the origins of agriculture, stratified societies and the state ten to twelve thousand years ago.'

If the apocalypse seems to have come early, at least in terms of the story arc divined here, it's worth remembering that the best dramatic structures leave space for the tale to twist. Chapter Four left us on a cliffhanger, considering the possibility that a global revolutionary remaking of social relations was not only the best hope of the vast majority for emancipation from capitalist injustice, but mankind's only hope of civilised survival. Five, accordingly, asks what in our contemporary moment might offer a new, or revitalised, possibility of revolutionary organisation. But, despite the Deleuzian flavour of the title, 'Organising Horizontally', new activist geometries, both potential and actual, get somewhat worked over here. Since 'belief in the overthrow of capitalism is no longer credible, contemporary European intellectuals have turned social transformation into theoretical poetry: a revolutionary dreamtime for the imagination'.17 At the same time, the energising realisation of the continuity of actual conflict, spelt out in the slogan of the J18 protests in London in 1999, 'Resistance is as transnational as capital',18 finds only a fragmented expression that leaves activists adrift of proletarian identities, and too easily 'cast as alien to people's everyday experience of contradiction within their living conditions, inhibiting any broader social identification'.19

We are made to wait through Chapter Six for the next move in the drama. Filled as it is with sharp comment on the rise of the culture industry, the inevitable recuperation of radical artistic strategies and the inexorable surrender of vestigially social democratic cultural institutions to the state-mandated embrace of the market, in terms of the symphonic progression of the book overall it's a slow movement, most enlivened by the intrusion of voices and concerns from far outside the core.

Beneath an epigraph from Giorgio Agamben, and the guiding subterranean metaphor of 'Under the Net', Chapter Seven paradoxically unfolds the full sweep of the book's scope. If 'today it is not the city but the camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm',20 this collection of closely-related texts also offers physical theories of capital's distortion of space and time that owe an equal debt to geographical approaches, tracing the divisions that shape and enable profoundly unequal urban development across the planet, from accounts of riots in Oldham and Bradford21 to demolition and enforced resettlement in Delhi22 and cancerous opportunism in the gentrification of a post-Katrina New Orleans.23 The proliferating corporate skyscrapers of Beijing and Gurgaon testify to an unprecedented accumulation of capital in new financial centres, while 'there is a need for cheap labour in the First World, within its own frontiers'.24 'In June of 2000, 58 Chinese people died of suffocation in the container of a lorry that arrived on a ferry at Dover […] In early February 2004, 19 Chinese workers who had entered the UK illegally died by drowning on the dangerous shoreline of Morecombe Bay, Lancashire.'25 If 'the city still needs the poor; it needs their labour, enterprise and ingenuity',26 it seems that new structures, formal and informal, continually arise to supply that useful poverty and exploit both labour and ingenuity. Still, we are left with both a working map of the distribution of the indefensible, and the counter-proposal that a 'A genuinely radical politics can only be built around an explicit, thought-out commitment to community, constructed around a political and material commons.'27

This last proposal brings us back to the difficult imperatives of the wider struggle, and everything is in place for the showdown that comes in Chapter Eight - but it's not quite the showdown we expected. The protagonists are unmasked, but in the confusion we find that our arch-enemy has slipped away. Perhaps this is because 'the very notion of capitalism has already mutated, not really into technology but into virtuality', and we have failed to grasp the shadowy, non-dialectical shape of a new virtual class 'because it does not operate in the traditional logic of the political economy'.28 Perhaps it is because the emerging counter-form, the 'poetics of resistance, virtual class relations, alongside the embodied ones that never disappeared',29 stalls while 'millions of the world's "flexible" workers remain largely gagged - mute - with no voice and no hope of escaping'.30

Or, possibly, the reason is neither of the above. In some sense, it turns out that the form of the book is that of an enquiry into the development of its own structure and the concepts that support it, and the denouement refers us to the beginning in an effort to discover how and why it is that we are not who we thought we were. Somewhere between describing the recomposition of capital and recomposing the description of labour, the question of action seems to have become profoundly entangled with the question of definition. 'A renewed focus on changing forms of class composition, or new subjectivities, may have brought with it an irreversible and overdue shift in perspective and vocabulary. But that shift has not in all cases disturbed the structural assumptions of an orthodox Marxism in the assertion of a newer, and therefore more adequate, vanguard.'31 How are the ranks of non-unionised, flexible 'precarious' workers, and their brethren the immaterial labourers, the hewers of code and drawers of conclusions, to be joined to the last cycle of the proletarian struggle? Have deeper problems been exposed that show the Marxist analysis as not only redundant now, but wrongly founded from the start? Or, to put it another way, 'to what extent can an identity which is immanent to capitalism (whether "working class" or "multitude") be expected to abolish capitalism and, therefore, its own existence and identity?'32 And from here, of course, 'it is not all that clear what the benefits might be of insisting that precarity can function as this device for recomposing what was, in any case, the fictitious and highly-contested unity of "the working class"'.33

This is not, however, the last word, and soon another kind of description presents itself, one that is neither in open conflict with older ideas of unity, nor with 'the traditional logic of the political economy'. In an acknowledgement of the work done by twentieth-century feminists to theorise an expanded idea of labour, it is noted that 'affective labour' was 'fundamental to social reproduction in the past, even if it did go unnoticed - because of its largely gendered composition, perhaps - in many social analyses.'34 And shortly afterwards comes a quotation that might function as the climactic, or at least pivotal, declaration of the book as a whole, a direct invocation of Marx that shifts from economic theory to polemic without sacrificing the underlying argument:

'In order for there to be an average rate of profit throughout the capitalist system, branches of industry that employ very little labour but a lot of machinery must be able to have the right call on the pool of value that high-labour, low-tech branches create. If there were no such branches or no such right, then the average rate of profit would be so low in the high-tech, low-labour industries that all investment would stop and the system would terminate. Consequently, "new enclosures" in the countryside must accompany the rise of "automatic processes" in industry, the computer requires the sweat shop, and the cyborg's existence is premised on the slave.'35

Before the section ends, there is time for a practical prescription for action aimed squarely at those most likely to be reading it. 'The intellectuals have got to stop creating hierarchies of labour, the mass worker and the social worker, the immaterial worker and the proletariat. They would be better employed getting a proper idea of how the supply chain - some capitalists call it the virtual enterprise - now works […] By going global with its supply chains, capital is creating the opportunity for global working class struggle'.36

The last chapter, 'The Open Work', functions as a postscript. A short collection of essays in post-digital aesthetics, it's an injunction to cultivate our gardens with due attention to the power structures that make their existence possible. We are reminded that the cultural superstructure is not only a realm where individual freedom might out-manouevre the economic base but where, equally, the seductive and instrumentalised illusion of that freedom may be produced.

So we're left without closure, but set up for a sequel which - as this is not, of course, fiction - is currently being shaped by those same forces whose description is productively at issue here. For those engaged readers who can't wait another fifteen years, parts of the follow-up are currently being serialised at metamute.org and in many other places, some of which are also usefully signposted in this volume. For anyone interested in the story so far, this book is a highly recommended guide.

  1. Pauline van Mourik Broekman and Simon Worthington, 'Foreword', Proud to Be Flesh: A Mute Anthology of Culture and Politics after the Net (ed. Josephine Berry Slater, P. van Mourik Broekman, Michael Corris, Benedict Seymour, Anthony Iles and S. Worthington), London: Mute Publishing in association with Autonomedia, p.11.

  2. Louis Rossetto, '19th Century Nostrums are not Solutions to 21st Century Problems', ibid., p.43.

  3. Celia Pearce, 'The Californian Ideology: An Insider's View', ibid., p.39.

  4. Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, 'The Californian Ideology', ibid., p.34.

  5. Franco Berardi (Bifo), 'Proliferating Futures', ibid., pp.41-42.

  6. Dmytri Kleiner and Brian Wyrick, 'Info-Enclosure 2.0', ibid., p.71.

  7. Matthew Fuller, 'Ten Reasons Why the Art World Loves Digital Art', ibid., p.87.

  8. Saul Albert, 'Artware', ibid., p.92.

  9. Michael Corris, 'Systems Upgrade: Conceptual Art and the Recoding of Information, Knowledge and Technology', ibid., p.111.

  10. Simon Ford, 'Technological Kindergarten: Gustav Metzger and Early Computer Art', ibid., p.120.

  11. Andrew Goffey, 'Mens Sana in Corpore Sano (or Keep Taking the Tablets)', ibid., p.149.

  12. Gregor Claude, 'Goatherds in Pinstripes', ibid., p.175.

  13. Peter Linebaugh, 'Charters of Liberty in Black Face and White Face: Race, Slavery and the Commons',ibid., pp.187-196.

  14. 'Copy that Floppy!', Palle Torsson interviewed by Anthony Iles, ibid., pp.197-200.

  15. Will Barnes, 'Climate Change and Capital', ibid., p.219.

  16. Richard Barbrook, 'The Holy Fools', ibid., p.224.

  17. Anthony Davies, 'J18 and All That', ibid., p.239.

  18. Hydrarchist, 'Disobbedienti, Ciao', ibid., p.270.

  19. Giorgio Agamben, quoted in the introduction to Chapter Seven, ibid., p.347.

  20. Matthew Hyland, 'History Has Failed and Will Continue to Fail', ibid., pp.350-57.

  21. Amita Baviskar, 'Demolishing Delhi: World-Class City in the Making', ibid., pp.399-403.

  22. Benedict Seymour, 'Drowning by Numbers: the Non-Reproduction of New Orleans', ibid., pp.415-425.

  23. John Barker, 'Cheap Chinese', ibid., p.379.

  24. Ibid., p.371.

  25. Amita Baviskar, 'Demolishing Delhi: World-Class City in the Making', ibid., p.403.

  26. Richard Pithouse, 'Thinking Resistance in the Shanty Town', ibid., p.411.

  27. Arthur Kroker quoted in Geert Lovink, 'Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class', ibid., p.432.

  28. Brian Holmes, 'Unleashing the Collective Phantoms: Resistance to Networked Individualism', ibid., p.444.

  29. Ibid., p.446.

  30. Angela Mitropoulos, 'Precari-Us?', ibid., p.466.

  31. Ibid.

  32. Ibid., p.469

  33. Steve Wright, 'Reality Check: Are We Living in an Immaterial World?', ibid., p.474.

  34. George Caffentzis quoted in Steve Wright, 'Reality Check: Are We Living in an Immaterial World?',ibid., p.477.

  35. Brian Ashton, 'The Factory Without Walls', ibid., p.493.