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Peer 2 Peer Production as the Alternative to Capitalism: A New Communist Horizon

Jakob Rigi | 02.08.2012 09:15 | Analysis | Culture | Technology | Sheffield

The current crisis of capitalism has provoked protests, revolts and revolutions in major parts of the planet that include 3 billions of inhabitants. Even the mainstream Time Magazine made “The Protester” the person of the year. The caption on Time’s cover reads: From the Arab Spring To Athens, from Occupy Wall Street to Moscow. China, Chile, Spain, England, Italy, India, Israel, Iran and France, among many other places, can be added to Time’s hotbeds of recent social protests.

The protest movements have put alternatives to capitalism on the historical agenda (Hardt and Negri, 2011). This article argues that a section of knowledge workers have already created a new mode of production termed Peer to Peer Production (P2P) which is a viable alternative to capitalism. Although still in its emerging phase and dominated by capitalism, P2P clearly displays the main contours of an egalitarian society. The very fact that sections of P2P activists and ICT workers are also actively involved in the current protests may work as a good catalyst in connecting P2P to these movements.

In P2P production, producers collectively produce goods through voluntary participation in a de-centered, network-based production system. Volunteers choose the tasks they perform; the amount of time they spend on collective production; the place and time of their productive activity. In term of distribution, anyone in the world can use the products for free according to their own needs, regardless of their contribution (Benkler, 2006). This mode of production is very similar to what Marx (1978 a, 1978b) described as advanced communism. Therefore, it has also been called cyber communism (Kleiner, 2010; Barbrook, 2007; Moglen, 2003).

P2P and Marx’s advanced phase of communism

As the history of the contemporary P2P mode of production has already been written (Söderberg, 2008; Raymond, 200; Weber, 2004) I pause here only briefly on two defining moments of this history, namely the invention of the GPL (General Public License) and Free Software (FS) by Richard Stallman in 1984 and the invention of the system of online voluntary collective cooperation by Linus Torvalds in 1991.

Stallman created the Free Software Foundation by releasing a code under a license he termed the General Public License (GPL). The GPL guaranteed four freedoms: running the program for any purpose; studying and customizing the program; redistributing copies either for free or for a reasonable price; and changing and improving the program. Stallman included the so called “copyleft” clause in the GPL. According to this clause any code that would include a component that was derived from a GPL licensed code must be also released entirely under a GPL license. Copyleft is a dialectical negation of copyright, because it simultaneously preserves and abolishes copyright (Stallman, 2002).

The significance of the GPL lies in the fact that it formulated for the first time in the history of humanity an all-inclusive global property right. Commons have existed since the inception of humanity in various forms and among various civilizations (Marx, 1965; Polanyi, 1992; Ostrom, 1990). But all of them, except commons of knowledge, have always been territorialized, belonging to particular communities, tribes, or states. Hence, as a rule, outsiders were excluded. The GPL created a globally de-territorialized, almost all-inclusive commons. It only excluded those users who would refuse to release their own products under the GPL license. The GPL has been modified in the formof Open Source Software (OSS) in order to accommodate commercial interests. This new protocol only obliges users to release under a GPL license those components of their products which are derived from GPL-licensed products. The owner can keep other components as a private property. Whether OSS is a corruption of GPL or facilitates the expansion of P2P is a matter of debate between Stallman and his followers, on the one side, and the proponents of OSS, on the other (Raymond, 2001, Weber, 2004).

For the purpose of this article I concentrate only on GPL, because it represents the gist of the new global and universal commons of knowledge. Most forms of knowledge have been universal commons. Merton (1979) argued that science requires a communist form of production and distribution. Although there had been exceptions to this rule (shamans, magician, priests and artisans, among others, tried to keep their knowledge secret or transfer it only to select individuals), it was capitalism and its concomitant regimes of copyrights and patents that systematically fenced forms of knowledge that could yield profit (Boyle, 1996). As knowledge became a major factor of informational capitalism a draconian copyright regime grew dramatically (Lessig, 2005 ). The GPL/GNU pioneered a juridical-productive strategy for producing global commons of knowledge and protecting them against the invasion by capitalism. In this sense, Stallman’s initiative was a major milestone in the struggle of knowledge workers against informational capitalism (Söderberg, 2008).

It was, however, Linus Torvalds who took this local development to the global level by making full use of the distributive potential of the Internet. The production of Linux was truly a revolution in the organization of cooperation among a large number of producers. Marx argued that any scientific knowledge was a product of collective work (Marx, 1981: 199 ), as each scientist built upon the achievements of previous ones. But this collective aspect of science was not a result of conscious and simultaneous cooperation among scientists but of contingent transfer of knowledge along a time and space axis. Torvald’s invention, by using the Internet, transcended barriers of time and space. Therefore, it made simultaneous, conscious, voluntary, coordinated and global cooperation among a large number of producers possible. The combination of GPL license with the Linux mode of cooperation represents the gist of the P2P mode of production, which coincides with the general principles of advanced form of communism, described by Marx.

1) There will be no equivalence, between each individual’s contribution to social production and their share from the total social products. They will contribute according to their ability and will use products according to their needs. Money as the quantitative measure of value will disappear (Marx, 1978b). Money does not play any role in internal P2P system, though it still constitutes its external context and inserts pressure on it.

2) In Marx’s advanced communism the division of labor, and with it the state and market vanish (Marx, 1978 a, b). In P2P the division of labor is replaced by the distribution of labor (Weber, 2004) and the logics of state and market are questioned (see below).

3) Advanced communism, Marx (1978a) envisaged, would transcend alienation not only by abolishing the logic of quantitative equivalence in the realm of exchange between individual and society, and among individuals, and the division of labor, but also by allowing and enabling individuals to use socially produced means of production to materialize their own creative powers. My ethnographic findings show that creativity and peer recognition are among the strongest motivations of P2P producers (see also Weber, 2004). Söderberg (2008) shows how P2P creativity transcend alienation.

At this point we can raise the following questions:

1-Is P2P really a new historical mode of production, or just an appendage to the capitalist mode of production?

2-What is its relation to the capitalist mode of production?

3-To what extent can P2P be applied to material production?

4-What are the possibilities that it will replace or displace the capitalist mode of production altogether?
P2P as a new historical mode of production

Let us sketch briefly Marx’s concept of mode of production (Marx, 1978c). Production is a process in which humans produce pre-designed goods. These goods can be material, such as bread; services such as care and education; or information and knowledge, such as software. The forces of production consist of humans, their knowledge and skills, the instruments they use, the material they act upon, and other material conditions of the production, such as energy, buildings, etc. Relations of production are “definite” and “indispensable” relations among humans which correspond to the material stage of productive forces. Property relations are legal expressions of the relations of production. A mode of production is the totality of forces of production and relations of production together.

The P2P production productive forces correspond to what Manuel Castells (2010/1996:70-72) defines as the Information Technological Paradigm (ITP). The all-encompassing ITP emphasises informal networking, flexibility, and is characterised by the fact that technology acts on information, information acts on technology, as well as by the integration of various technologies such as micro-electronics, telecommunications, opto-electronics and computers in a larger system. It is important to emphasise that knowledge workers themselves are an important component, or the most important components, of ITP productive forces.

The centrality of information / knowledge and the network structure contradict, inherently, capitalist relations of production. The network logic requires that knowledge produced in each node of a globally integrated network should flow freely and horizontally in all directions to all other nodes. Knowledge is a non-rival good, it can be reproduced at no extra cost. It is also universal in that the same item of knowledge can, simultaneously, be used by everyone on this planet.

Yet capitalism prevents the free flow of knowledge in all directions in the net. It is true that the capitalist mode of production, adapting itself to ITP, has become global, and has increasingly adopted a network form. However, the sum of all potential links in the net exceeds dramatically the sum of links of the global networks of capital. Hence, the potential of the net, as a paradigmatic productive force of our time, exceeds the capitalist mode of production (Hardt and Negri, 2000).

The same is true of knowledge-information, another paradigmatic productive force of our era. Knowledge is universal and non-rival. Capital carves for itself a selected subnet of the total net: the global network of accumulation of capital. The flow of knowledge-capital is fenced within this selected subnet. Even within this subnet the flow of knowledge is not free. First, in the competition between different multinationals, significant forms of knowledge have become increasingly secret and are kept jealously only within the reach of a small number of designers and engineers of particular enterprises. Second, commoditized knowledge can move from one node to another node only if exchanged for money. In other words the commodity form itself is a form of fencing.

The ITP also contradicts profoundly the capitalist organization of production. The net is an open-ended network in which every node can connect to any other node immediately and horizontally.

This implies that units of production can become de-territorialized global open-ended associated networks of direct producers where they cooperate with each other horizontally – though the mediation of a coordinating authority might be necessary – and produce various goods. This is nothing but social organization of cognitive P2P. Linux which has been the inaugurating model for P2P is indeed a practical instance of such a cooperative network. Wikipedia is another example. This model can be applied to any form of cognitive production and to a great extent to material production through automation (see also Bauwens, 2011).
Radical Break with Capitalism

While practically and empirically the P2P mode of production is still under the sway of capitalism and to a great extent dependent on it (buying computers and other materials and services from it and using its infrastructure), its logic radically contradicts that of capital. I described briefly above major aspects of P2P that accord to Marx’s understanding of communism. All these aspects contradict the logic of capital. Here I will show how the logic of P2P profoundly contradicts the capitalist division of labour, because division of labour is the key component of any mode of production. Let me emphasize that in P2P we have a distribution of labour and not a division of labour (Weber, 2004). The P2P modes of cooperation and the distribution of products make micro (within separate production units) and macro (among different units) capitalist divisions of labor superfluous.
P2P and the Micro Capitalist Division of Labor

On the level of the enterprise, capitalist management imposes the technical division of labor on workers. Capitalists (or their managers) bring the workers together under the same roof and place them in particular positions on the line of the division of labor and manage them. Cooperation among workers is a product of capital (Marx, 1976). The invention of machines perfected the technical division of labor, leading to Taylorism in which capital, using scientific methods, established a full despotism over labor (Braverman, 1974). The scholars of post-Fordism argue that post-Fordism has transcended Taylorism by enhancing workers’ skills and involving them in decision making (Amin, 1994). Similar claims have also been made about so-called Japanization (Kaplinsky, 1988). Such claims are at best controversial (Castells, 2010/1996). Many argue that Taylorism is still the dominant form of the organization of the labor process (Tomaney, 1994; Huws, 2003). Regardless of the validity of the Post-Fordist hypothesis, we can safely say that labour is still compartmentalized in closed spaces and is managed despotically by representatives of capital. While small select group of workers may enjoy partial autonomy the total labor processes is centralized by managers who integrate the work of separate workers into a total cooperative work process. Andre Gorz (1999: chapter 2), a proponent of the Post-Fordist hypothesis, says that Post-Fordism has replaced the Taylorist impersonal and mechanized despotism with new forms of personal enslavement. Individual producers do not choose their tasks, or the pace, time and place of their work. In other words the work process is micro-territorialized both spatially and temporally. In this sense the contrast with P2P cooperation cannot be stronger. In P2P cooperation the work processes are globally de-territorialized, in terms of both time and space.

The increasingly complex growth of hierarchical micro-divisions of labor which had been a major factor behind the growth of the productivity of industrial labor has become a barrier to the productivity of cognitive labor. Brook (1975) showed that in a centralized organization the increase of the number of engineers who work on a particular software problem decreases the efficiency by creating unnecessary complexities at an exponential rate. Raymond (2001) demonstrated that this was not true of de-centered networked cooperation of P2P. Here, the increase in the number of workers increases efficiency and improves the product. This hypothesis can be true of all forms of cognitive production.

The network-based online voluntary cooperation subverts the top-down logic of the capitalist management which is also the logic of the capitalist state. However, there is one form of “centralized” control in P2P. The development of each project is ultimately controlled by the individual(s) who launch it on the net. At crossroads, they have the final say, though there is a space for extensive discussions. However, if others are not happy with decisions taken by leadership, they have the right to take the entire project and develop it in the direction they please. Whether this form of “centralization” is an impact of the external capitalist environment, or inherent to P2P production, needs to be examined critically (O’Neil, 2009).
P2P and Macro capitalist Division of Labor

In the macro capitalist division different units of production are not connected with each other immediately but through the mediation market. Workers exchange their labor for wages and the products of their labor become commodities owned by capitalists and sold in the market. It is only in this way that the labors of immediate producers of various units and branches of production are connected to each other, becoming parts of the total social labor of society. Each unit of production becomes a component of the total capitalist macro division of labor to the extent it produces commodities which are sold (Marx 1978). P2P’s products are principally universal commons.

Although the GPL allows the sale of products, as a matter of common sense, no one pays for a product which is available for free. The commercial use of P2P’s products does not make them commodities because the user does not pay for them and therefore they do not enter the costs of his own commodity. From this follows that the total labor which is globally spent today on different forms of P2P is outside the capitalist social division of labor and circumscribes it. In the current stage the P2P is also circumscribed by the commodity form as major parts of the means of production are commodities and the contributors to P2P must earn money. A fully fledged P2P society is not compatible with money and commodity. The commodity form inherently circumscribes the freedoms that are guaranteed in the GPL (this point can also be reached by using Marx`s theory of value; however, it requires a lengthy argument that I have no space to develop here).

To sum up, the ITP productive forces combined with the de-centered network-based form of cooperation, the absence of wage labor, voluntary contribution, and the commons form of products constitute the main features of the P2P mode of production. Although the P2P mode of production is still an emerging phenomenon, its logic is clearly different from that of capitalism and has been created as a response to the requirements of the new productive forces. Therefore, its historical significance, urgency and novelty can hardly be exaggerated. The capitalist mode of production is a barrier to the realization of the potentialities of knowledge in the era of Internet. It limits human creativity and the development of knowledge workers in general. Therefore, it is no coincidence that a section of knowledge workers have rebelled against capitalist relations of production by lunching P2P. As Söderberg (2008) argues this is a form of class struggle.

The relation of the P2P mode of production to capitalism

The new social production consists of islands in the sea of the capitalist mode of production. The relation between the two, as pointed to above, is one of mutual dependence and antagonism. The social production depends on capitalism for acquiring some of the means of production and wages of its contributors, whilst capitalism on the other hand uses the commons of social production for free.

Marxists distinguish between the mode of production and the social formation. The social formation is an integrated socio-economic-ideological/cultural system. It may consist of more than one modes of production. However, one mode of production dominates the others and its imperatives define the overall characteristics of the social formation. In this sense we can speak of feudal and capitalist social formations as distinct from feudal and capitalist modes of production. Although the dominant mode of production dominates other modes of production, it cannot erase their specific logics. The continuous tension and dependency between the dominant mode of production and subordinated ones make social formations dynamic, uneven, and complex phenomena.

The capitalist social formation has gone through three partially overlapping phases: the emerging, the dominant and the declining ones. In the emerging phase (1850-1950) the capitalist mode of production dominated the feudal, domestic and other pre- capitalist modes of production worldwide, extracting labor and value from them (Mandel, 1972: chapter 2 ). In the second phase (1950-1980) the capitalist mode of production eroded the pre-capitalist mode of productions profoundly, and replaced them with the capitalist mode of production. Capitalism expanded both intensively, penetrating new domains of productive activity such as services, and extensively, conquering the whole globe. The third phase (1980- onwards) is characterized by the emergence of the ITP paradigm and the social mode of production within the capitalist social formation. This period has been described in terms such as “Network Society” (Castells, 2010/1997 ), “Empire” (Hardt and Negri, 2000), etc.

Although the P2P mode of production is still under the sway of the capitalist mode of production, its standing vis-à-vis capitalism is different from that of pre-capitalist modes of productions. While in the two first phases capitalism represented the new productive forces, in the third phase P2P is the new and emerging mode of production and capitalism is the declining one. If P2P dominates capitalism we will have the emerging phase of P2P social formation. I do not want to give the impression that the victory of P2P over capitalism is either a smooth evolutionary process or inevitable. It is fully contingent upon the orientations and consequences of the current social struggle, particularly the struggle of P2P communities. As I will deal with this issue in the final section, the following section explores whether the current social production can be generalized to material production.

Can material production and distribution be organized through the P2P mode of production?

Today the social mode of production (P2P) has been extended beyond software, covering other spheres of the production of symbols and signs (see P2P Foundation website). Bauwens (2011) shows that P2P is gaining grounds in design and manufacturing. Adrian Bowyer (2006) and his collaborators launched an open source project for the production of a three-dimensional printer in 2005 which now reproduces itself. Indeed, the P2P mode of production can be extended to most branches of material production. Automation will be a pillar of this transformation, though automation is not a necessary pre-condition for material P2P. In a fully automated production, the P2P production of cognitive factor (research and development, design and software) will bring material production under the sway of P2P. Capitalistic automation leads to loss of jobs and the degradation of work. Automation will not need to have these impacts in P2P social formation. Employment has no meaning and the automation will offer a lot of free time to humanity. This time can be devoted to the collective production of knowledge, education and care.

As strategic material resources are limited and unevenly scattered around the globe, a fair global distribution of such resources will become a major challenge for a global P2P society. The natural limit to raw material will also place a limit on material wealth and will require rules of distribution. But the criterion for distribution in the global community and within each local community cannot be the contribution of labor by individuals and communities, because cognitive work is globally collective, has no exchange value and does not produce exchange value. Only the needs of communities and individuals defined democratically among and within communities can be the criterion for distribution. I cannot speculate about rules of a P2P global distribution of raw material but it seems reasonable to assume that if the knowledge factor of production will become the free commons of all humanity, then strategic natural resources must follow suit. The ecological movement has already conceived the earth and the atmosphere as global commons (Rabinowitz, 2010 ). The common ownership and use of nature, particularly land, by the whole of humanity will be the ultimate challenge for the P2P society and by same token for humanity as a whole. Hence, the protection of nature will become the major priority of a global P2P society.

What are the possibilities for establishing a P2P Society: The role of struggle

Capitalism is in a deep crisis and there is a global anti-capitalist movement. Moreover, the technological base for establishing a fully fledged P2P society already exists and a considerable number of savvy knowledge workers enthusiastically try to expand P2P. Yet, there is no guarantee that P2P will automatically prevail over capitalism. Tim Wu (2010) argues that the state and corporate empires will fight tooth and nail to bring IT technologies under their own control, as they did with radio technology. But the success of state and capital in preventing P2P from becoming the dominant mode of production is not guaranteed beforehand. Things can go either way depending on the consequence of social struggles. The P2P movement, if supported by all other social movements of the multitude, may prevail. Social struggle will also determine what type of P2P society we will have.

What then are the possible scenarios for P2P production to become the dominant mode of production? Will it grow parallel with capitalism until it overtakes it? Or, will its path of development be much more complicated, marked by ebbs and flows, and temporary setbacks? Will a social revolution that expropriates strategic means of production from capitalists be a prerequisite for P2P production to become the dominant mode of production? What will be the role of social struggle and human consciousness in advancing P2P production? The answer to these questions needs a collective effort of many. Here, suffice to mention that “the idea of communism” is becoming appealing again. However it is not enough, though really necessary, to say that “another communism is possible” (Harvey, 2010:259) but to imagine the general contours of communist production. Herein lies the historical and political significance of P2P production. It represents, though in embryonic form, a model for communist production and distribution. The success of this mode of production will definitely depend on the attendant social struggle. What then are the strengths and weaknesses of the P2P production social movement? Its strength is that it is a productive practice.

Its weakness, as Söderberg (2008) argues, is that most of the participants in the P2P production lack an explicit anti-capitalist consciousness, let alone a communist consciousness. As already mentioned, there are some, such as Moglen (2003), Barbrook (2007) and Kleiner (2010) who define the movement as a communist one. However, the majority’s involvement in production is motivated by personal reasons, such as doing something exciting and creative, and improving their own skills. However participants are aware of, and value the fact, that they are producing commons. In spite of the lack of an outright communist vision, my ethnographic observations show that participants have developed and cherish progressive beliefs, such as valuing cooperation, preference for creativity and happiness to money and careerism, concerns for ecology, preference for public interests to egoistic interests, antipathy towards consumerism, and care for poor people and the third world. For instance technological activists have helped Iranian, Tunisian, Egyptian and Syrian activists to organize net-based public spheres.

P2P communities also develop progressive and humanistic moral attitudes. The members of communities do not appreciate bragging, self-promotion, dishonesty and calculative manipulation. On the whole while recognizing individuals and crediting their contributions the common interest in maintaining and developing productive P2P communities were strong. No doubt the formation of a solid collectivist and progressive culture which grows organically around P2P production and other social movements will be essential for the formation of a communist society. Despite the significance of this progressive culture-in-making, it cannot remedy the lack of a clear programmatic communist vision and sustained theoretical critique of capitalism among the participants.

The lack of a clear collectivist vision combined with the dominant capitalist environment makes P2P production vulnerable to invasion by capitalism. Many projects that had been started as P2P production were diverted into capitalist enterprises. Under this condition the propagation of a clear communist vision among the participants of P2P production will be indispensable for the advancement of the new mode of production. No doubt there is a self-conscious communist section among the producers in P2P production. This communist section must carry out an uncompromising theoretical and critical theoretical struggle within the P2P production movement. However, this struggle should be conducted in friendly terms and avoid sectarianism. Communists should not position themselves against non-communist participants in the P2P movement. Actually, as Barbrook (2007) argues, all contributors to P2P production are involved in a communist material practice, regardless of their attitudes to communism. The task of communists is to describe and theorize this practice and critique capitalism from the vantage of this practice. P2P production itself has already developed an outstanding procedure for the advancement of a critical debate among its participants. Everyone’s contribution to production is reviewed, evaluated and credited by others openly and publicly on the net. This procedure can also be used (and is used to some extent) in political, theoretical and ideological debates within P2P communities.

In addition to the lack of class consciousness among P2P producers, and perhaps as a result of this, the absence of sustained connections/alliances between P2P producers and other progressive social movements is another weakness of the P2P movement. This is also a weakness of other social movements. The alliance between a self-conscious P2P movement and other social movements, with anti-systemic potentials and goals, will strengthen both sides. P2P production will receive support in its struggle against the increasingly draconian copyright regime which has been imposed in the last 30 years. P2P production, on the other hand, supplies other social movement with models for a more just, democratic and ecological alternative of cooperation in production, public sphere, and self-governance; and the realization of individual freedom and creativity. The very fact the Occupy Wall Street was initiated by Adbusters and Anonymous, and that its de-centered/network form of organization, alongside that of Indignados, is very similar to that of P2P, is indeed very promising.

There is at least a section among P2P producers who clearly relate their practice to the broader issues of justice, freedom, common goods and democracy. They also participate in other social movements. The academic and the activist left, on the other hand, have not yet grasped the historical novelty and significance of P2P production. They usually downplay the significance of P2P production as the hobby of some yuppies, or as an epiphenomenon on the fringes of the capitalist mode of production. Others downplay its significance by suggesting that tomatoes or cucumbers cannot be produced through P2P production. They ignore the fact that technology and life sciences, particularly micro-biology, including DNA sequencing, which are becoming increasingly important for agriculture, can be produced through P2P cooperation. Yet another argument, making a post-colonial gesture, suggests that computers, IT and 3DPs are the exclusive luxury of the privileged. Although this is true to some extent, it should not be treated as a static fact. Subaltern groups fight to appropriate IT technology for their own purposes. The Zapatistas used the Internet to mobilize global support for their movement. Recently, Chinese migrant workers, Green movement activists in Iran, and activists in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria have used the Internet to circulate the news of their protests. Laptops and mobile phones, acquiring the functions of computers, are becoming cheaper, and hence affordable for many, though not for everyone, in the Global South. The same is true of 3D printers. The left needs to recognize the struggle over knowledge as the new major terrain of social struggle and give its due significance to P2P production in this context.

A major protest movement has swept the globe in 2011. What if these protest movements put the appropriation of major means of production and their re-organization in a P2P cooperation system on their agenda?

Jakob Rigi is based at the Central European University, Budapest.

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Journal of Peer Production - 2012
All the contents of this journal are in the public domain.

Jakob Rigi
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Hide the following 4 comments


02.08.2012 11:08

Odds on you own property or your parents do if you lived in council property you would buy it. How many wannabe commies live on working class estates answer none. Ive met commies some memebers of the com party of gb none rent none live on estates says it all.



02.08.2012 13:24

I live on a council estate. I rent. I don't want to buy. Now toddle off back where you came from and don't come back as you are wasting everyones time. While yr at it you might consider why you post to this site without getting paid for it (unless you do, that is.)


Paper tigers prosecute their limbic centres.

03.08.2012 06:09

"While yr at it you might consider why you post to this site without getting paid for it (unless you do, that is.) "

Nice point. Many capitalist corporations rely on communistic behaviour within their workforce to get things done. If every employee behaved like a mini capitalist corporation then production would grind to a halt as they generated stacks of interpersonal contracts for consultation.

Think about it if you like, this is not an order though, so please don't bill me.



29.07.2013 00:11

from the Winter 1995 edition of Here and Now magazine

Cyber theory: The Most Radical Gesture or even more post-modernism? Mike Peters dissects the current vogue in technological utopianism.

Mundane 2000
It was bound to happen sooner or later: a precise inversion of the Society of the Spectacle. But only from California could the news have come saying that sitting in front of a VDU could be a kind of revolutionary action. Like the return of the repressed, that great hit show is repeated: Counterculture II: the Sequel, but this time the Revolution not only will be televised, it will only be happening on the screen. The streets and shopping malls, the city tower blocks, the cops, the armies, the banks, the cars, the forests and the seas and the wastelands of the ghetto, indeed the entire human and animal population will vanish at a keystroke into the ether as mind meets mind in the epiphany of cyberspace. The mystical metaphysics brought to you by new SciFi metaphors-taken-literally will achieve lift-off into a transubstantiated world of pure spirit.
Cyberculture has all the makings of the perfect religion for the current stage of capitalism. The dogma comes in handy-sized sound bytes, not occupying too much brain space. You don't even have to 'believe' the phrases, as long as you know how to use the right words. You don't even (in fact this is the whole .point) have to think about their implications, whether they 'refer' to anything actually happening, or whether they are (snigger here) 'true'.
It offers its members the smug self-satisfaction of being an elite at the cutting-edge, ahead of the pack, while mouthing ostensibly anti-elitist statements. It contains the distilled essence of classical modernist progressivism: a single formula positing a past/present/future according to which a technologically-determined super-reality is evolving itself, and us, into something wholly new, wholly amazing and wholly irresistible: something just too unpredictable, (except of course, that the self-appointed cybergurus have had a privileged peek at it).
It can even offer 'subversive' pretensions too (as optional extras) for those who want to shock with (they hope) blood-curdling declarations of the abolition of Humanity, Identity, Life as we know it etc. and a (safely abstracted) aura of radicality - purporting to transgress, deconstruct, supersede, a supposedly traditional / hierarchical / centralised / patriarchal / western (but, NB, not a capital¬ist) order of things, whilst being exactly identical to where capital is driving to at the moment; nobody is going to ask you to specify the difference between capitalism's programme and what cyberprophets are saying.
As a religion in every sense, the tone is all-important. Incantations uttered in entranced voices with uplifted hearts, and that cloyingly sanctimonious combination of in-group fellowship and pity bordering on contempt for gross heathens who haven't seen the light.
One of the social conditions making possible the diffusion of this religion is the disappearance of practical intelligence from social life. Because so many people no longer have any control over language or any means of autonomous communication, they are unable to resist the force of rhetoric or to hold their own in those few remaining farcical pockets of "discussion" in modem society. But there is a deeper contradiction at work it isn't just that cybertheorists have become seduced, addicted or corrupted by language: driven to keep spinning slick catchphrases to keep up with what they need to believe is an irresistible imperative. There is a real fear of language at the heart of this whole spurious 'counterculture'; this fear of language unites those who speak with those who can only gawp in silence.
This is paradoxical because cybertheory is so blatantly an entirely linguistic phenomenon essentially a way of writing and speaking.

Sadie's Turn
For the last few years the academic music-halls have been entertained by the double-act of Sa die Plant and Nick Land. Like a kind of Beavis and Butthead of the radical milieu, they gaze at the screen muttering their cool infatuation with what is being shown. Student clones easily replicate the style; not everyone gets the chance to be taught by TV gurus, after all. Situating themselves, mouse in hand, as expert pontificators on the very latest media fads, they deserve to be challenged by people who know something about where they are coming from and who don't like where they are headed. If this polemic is impolite, that's because I think what they are saying is abysmal and that it needs to be contested as sharply as necessary rather than treated with the mindless adulation of fans or the skeptical condescension of ignoramuses. As it happens, I like Sadie very much and readers will know that she's been part of the Here and Now matrix for some time, but that doesn't stop me feeling it's about time she was asked to respond publicly to criticisms of the positions she's taken up. There's no tabloidist urge to kick people off their fifteen-minute fame-pedestals (even if they've shown a disturbing lack of reluctance to being used as talking heads), but there is a desire to know what they think they are up to and an impatience with the evasive assertions and refusals to accept the validity of questioning of their assumptions. As for Nick Land, I've never met him in the "flesh" (obviously an irrelevant consideration in this instance) but my view of his "thought" is explicit below.
The following commentary is not, of course, a critique of Cybertheory as ideology, even less is it a critical analysis of the 'information-communication-technologies' on which this ideol¬ogy has erected itself It's an attack on the language (and the dubious 'ideas') of cybertheory, on what this language inadvertently tells us about the people who (re)produce it, and on what it does.
Historically. the relationship of technofetishist intellectuals to¬wards their images of the "future" has always been essentially masochistic. As part of the very fixation with 'power' (what technology will supposedly enable "us" - the first person plural is always a lie) - there IS at the same time a kind of yearning for some source larger than themselves to which they can exult in abject submission - what Vaneigem would describe as self-sacrifice- the elementary lam I of substitutionism; here what is evident in cybertheory (the addiction to 'intellectual' technologies) is a kind of voluntary sacrifice of the intelligence as well as the familiar self-abasement of intellectuals beneath the wave of 'Power / Progress' which Orwell already diagnosed so acutely in the 30s.

Nick Land's Body
Nick Land is a fanatic for the most extreme forms of this submission. Behind his revulsion at the infuriating materiality of the everyday world is a desperate desire to escape his ordinariness. Going one beyond his role model the famous shit-eating librarian Bataille, Land extrudes from himself textual shit, and wallows ecstatically in his exteriorized abjection, working himself into a frenzy of surrender to the force that propels forth his own verbiage.
Some samples for those not familiar with the riffs:
A cybernegative circuit is a loop in time, whereas cyberpositive circuitry loops time 'itself', integrating the actual and the virtual in a semi-closed collapse upon the future. Descendent influence is a consequence of ascendently emerging sophistication, a massive speed-up into apocalyptic phase-change. The circuits get hotter and denser as economics, scientific methodology, neo-evolutionary theory, and AI come together: terrestrial matter programming its own intelligence at impact upon the body without organs = O. Futural infiltration is subtilizing itself as capital opens onto schizo¬technics, with time accelerating into the cybernetic back-wash from its flip-over, a racing non-linear countdown to planetary switch.
('Circuitries', Deleuze & the Transcendental Unconscious, 1992)
In the final phase of human history, markets and technics cross into interactive runaway, triggering chaos culture as a rapid response unit and converging on designer drugs with increasing speed and sophistication. Sampling, remixing, anonymous and inhuman sound, woman become cyborg and taken into insanity: wetware splices with techno... Sudden transition from ice to water, phase change, punctual anastrophe of the system, is impact on convergent rather than metric zero. The earth is becoming cyberpositive"
('Cyberpositive', Unnatural: Techno-theory for a contaminated culture, 1994)
OK, it may sound better than it looks, and yes, Burroughs and Gibson did this too (but better), but contrary to those who say you don't need to try to read it word by word, just let it wash over you, it does -unfortunately - mean something; the message is only too clear.
It's the voice of the Media, made up of commanding barks, techno-noises (it needs the soundtrack to work), journalistic juxtapositions (how many trendy terms can you get into a single sentence?), and above all, and perfectly audible: the ever-authoritative sound of Science. This is a peculiarly anti-biotic poetry, redolent of 1920s style constructivist machinespeak, with the singular difference that it now endorses an existing unconscious system logic rather than artistically metaphorising a possible one.
Like some latter-day eschatoholic he can't wait to be dissolved into the coming chaos. Everything is underpinned by an emphatic inevitability: "it can't be stopped"... "we haven't seen anything yet". ..etc.
Life is being phased out into something new, and if we think this can be stopped we are even more stupid than we seem.
But such inevitabilities are secretly wilful. Every "historical necessity" discloses an unacknowledged volition: Land's impatience with the messy business of being alive.
His linguistic style arouses the same revulsion I have always felt for the fascist mentality, as expressed in its futurist thrill at the sheer destructiveness of technology and its glamourization of move¬ment and speed as such. It's now exactly 60 years since Benjamin grasped how humanity's self-alienation had "reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order".
Land's barely-concealed death wish makes me feel more than a little queasy. For such people 'liberation' always means dissolution, the form taken by aggression among males who, through physical weakness or infirmity, have had to displace their drives into cerebral channels. Normally such cod-psychoanalysis is hardly relevant but some people are so obviously acting-out their fantasies that these things seem inescapable. The clues are all there in Land's vocabulary, sentence-structures, even the stress-patterns in his speech and the physical gestures while speaking. (You see something similar among callow Trots whose hectoring speeches and power-fantasies are so blatantly phallic.) Land's impatience to be rid of his shameful body is typical of the ressentiment of the academic whose violent language and theoretical rigour are proportionate to their physical (and moral) cowardice. Radical politics has always had more than its fair supply of people whose blood-curdling 'radicality' (in words) goes hand in hand with the most abject conformity and craven submissiveness (in personal behaviour). Current academic fashion for "discourse on the body" is noticeable for this inability to deal with the most obviously bodily things: sensuality and pain. Land's heart cries against the strangulated anti-humanism of his own rhetoric, but he can't even hear his own meaning. And all the impatience. the hatred and bitterness condensed in the word "human" goes beyond anything explicable in terms of mere critique of the accumulated ideological heritage of "humanism". The more he ferociously closes off the possibility of return from this avant-gardist supranormality the higher the penalty his mundanely human body must pay.
And Land is not so postpolitical: good old "market dynamics" are a big part of the wonderful fluidifying turbularity, and he swallows current management baloney about "competition compelled institutional flattening and fluidification". There's no sucker like a trendy sucker.
Nor, when it comes down to it, is the Land/Plant message quite so different as it would claim from American soggy hippy cyberpie-in-the-sky techno-utopianism. The mysticism (ever the B-side of scientism) is unashamedly evangelical: in these end times only the new edge elect will undergo the rapture. They really think they are picking up signals from the future. That's all right then, fellow-believers. Amazing grace is at hand. The old slanders against religion were never quite fair: no actually-existing religion ever so literally deferred salvation to an after-life or so blatantly refused to address the here and now so much as this breathtakingly smug digital death-wish doctrine. Those who babble about cyber revelation in a language designed explicitly to abstract away everyday life obviously find the taste of the corpse in their own mouths preferable to the thought of the suffering bodies whose absence from their discourse indicates their irrelevance in their grand scheme of things.
The "subversive" pretentions of this pseudo-anarchist technofascism lie only in the by-now-hackneyed rhetorical glamourization of supposedly negatively-loaded words like "viruses", 'jungle", "chaos", "schizophrenia" etc. It's pathetic that they think they are being dangerous to celebrate gibberish as revolt. You have to be deeply academic to get turned on by deviant syntax. But the semantics are utterly conventional, and even the ontology is binary. 'Positive' is a "good" term (just as it is in management psychobabble), along with "integration", "convergence", "warm", "liquid" etc.
The "bad" terms are the usual suspects. Chief among them the "stable security structures" (turn in your grave, Reich) which stupidly conflates the State and the Self at such a safe level of abstraction that to fight against oppression is identical to the state defending itself Resistance is itself a "paranoid" category, obviously.
Yet they can't hide the glaring contradiction between the chaos theory they invoke and their mechanical, modernist use of it: the 'anarchist' message they are claiming to read into all this comes down to nothing less than the old depressingly crass equation of 'chaos' with 'disorder'. (wilfully overlooking the very theory of chaos). Even after those nasty "stable security structures" have dissolved, there will still be zones of Order. The 'control' they declare to be impossible can still. and most likely will, be intolerably oppressive. With chaoticians like this one hardly needs cybernetics.
The difference between Sadie Plant and Nick Land is that the former confuses philosophy with technology, treating ideas as if they were the same as the things they are about, while the latter confuses writing with biology, imagining that his own literary assemblages are evidence of something new and wonderful happening in nature. She may be trying to convince herself that cybertechnology will bring a new life. He doesn't seem to consider that all his verbiage might just decode into a recognition that it will bring about his own disappearance. For their own sakes they'd better both be wrong.

Posthumanism - the new consensus
Donna Haraway's now-classic provocation "I'd rather he a cyborg than a goddess" posed the typical false alternatives on which all this trendoid pseudo-radicalism depends. For a start. the cyborg option is just as phoney as the goddess one and is, from the point of view of desire, indistinguishable from it. And secondly, the suppressed choice really being refused is that despicable third option of being human, the objections to which are the most interesting to disentangle. All the ideological blather accumulated over two centuries by the word human has been fixed fast by the hardening spray of academicism, so that 'human' is the one thing all intellectuals are united in despising, even though most of them have forgotten which particular reason led them to the refusal in the first place.
"Human" is, surprisingly, one of the few demonstrably nonproblematic intellectual categories. It takes an extremely academicized mind to be able to train oneself to not understand what everyone else cannot fail to know, and what academics themselves, with breathtaking hypocrisy, know full well in their everyday practice. But "academic" practices, by definition, exclude the very possibilities of correction by "common sense" ... so, for example, one can blithely get away increasingly with shit like this, since you don't have to prove it on equal terms. And handpicked cronies can surround you in the bar to echo back your self-inflated ego. Step outside into the night for just a moment, and it all collapses.
The negative connotations associated with the vocabulary of "humanism" derive ultimately from the structuralist ideology which captured academic theory in the seventies and was retained intact in the post-structuralist turn of the eighties. These connotations have now passed, by a familiar idiotic recursivity, onto the word "human" itself which (again contrary to the precepts of the ideology itself) has nevertheless been accepted as "referring" to "real" humans. The upshot is that human beings are now understood by those who think of themselves as the most radical, subversive thinkers around, in all seriousness, to be defunct.
One begins to understand why these cybertheorists refuse, on point of principle, to engage in debate and discussion: these inept fallacies might get spotted. No problem: the disappearance of education and knowledge in the postmodern corporate university will protect them from exposure: if the publications continue to fill the CV nobody will ask to read them.
So, the human body is just too boring for words. So desperate is this vanguard for something new that it is forced to recycle the shopworn cliches of modernism:
Deitch, in a typical, if only moderate, instance of this, says:

Our transition to the post-human world of cyberspace. . . is occurring gradually. Many of the new attitudes towards the body and the new modes of social behaviour ... demonstrate a decided trend towards a radically new model of the self and of social behaviour. . that is likely to make society ... ready ... for the truly radical technologies that are soon to come.
('Post Human' in Fetherstone & Burrows (eds)
Cyberpunk / Cyberspace / Cyberbodies. 1995)

Rucker, more pompously, says:

Genetic engineering and nanotechnology offer us the possibility of literally being able to change our bodies into new and different forms ... a form of postbiological humanity can be achieved within the next fifty years.
(Mondo 2000: User's Guide to the New Edge, 1993)

This statement, while more 'extreme' than the preceding (and more reified -in positing changes in 'real' bodies, rather than changing ideas about the body), is typically American in its touchingly naive and unrd1ectivc faith that change is always 'progress' (i.e. always more of the same old triumphal frontierism, in other words no change at all) and in its imprisonment within the very 'humanist' conception that technology is simply about enhancing, extending and empowering the human subject. So he refers to 'post-biological humanity' while others talk of a 'posthuman' world, Unlike the great utopian Fourier who declared that people in the future could grow tails (the notorious archibras for which he was ridiculed by his literal-minded critics), today's bio-futurists only demonstrate the atrophy of their own organs of imagination - they want different bodies but assume the same kind of society.

Brave New Flesh
The human body is evidently unbearable, especially to intellectuals and artists, whose social ambitions, now that "society" has been deemed out of bounds, are directed to restructuring it. How physiology might be re-engineered has exercised utopians for centuries. Biotechnology may soon be able to give our descendants wings, horns and tentacles, or as yet unimaginable organs and capabilities, but there are no such proposals forthcoming from cybertheory, which, true to its radical pedigree, can only envisage abstraction, reduction, simplification, and clearly think the body has too many organs already. They may talk about new possibilities but all they can come up with is even further impoverishment.
The much-sought-after complete abolition of the body as we know it is going to be much harder to achieve than many cultural theorists have acknowledged. Technology has hardly yet begun to tackle it. Fusion of biochemical and electronic processes with no other aim than to explore what it is possible to do with enough financial investment and scientific ambition will not be inhibited by embarrassment over past follies or ethical prejudices about whose interests are served by progress.
Current prospects go tar beyond the crudities of yesterday's science fiction. Earlier collectivist visions of surgically-interconnected organisms -socialised respiratory, circulatory and nervous systems, centralising the limbs and other organs, belong to the Fordist epoch. Soviet scientists 'working along these lines, were, however, the first to graft an extra head on a dog. It is issues like this surgical joining of bodies that really separates the social forces today: the nay-saying sheep all cry halt, while the progressivist goats, seeing further, can only scorn their timidity. And yet it's the same old story. Modernism yearning to go beyond modernity forever.
No doubt present-day cyborgs will in their turn be ridiculed in the future, but who really cares about the future? Certainly not futurism.

The wireless body? That is the floating body, drifting around in the debris of technotopia: encrypted flesh in a sea of data. The perfect evolutionary successor to twentieth century flesh, the wireless body fuses the speed of virtualized exchange into its cellular structure. DNA-coated data is inserted directly through spinal taps into dedicated flesh for better navigation through the treacherous shoals of the electronic galaxy.
(Arthur Kroker/Michael Weinstein 'The Hyper-texted Body, or Nietzsche Gets a Modem', in: Data Trash, St. Martin's Press,1994)

Creating the body without organs requires abolishing that most recalcitrant organ: the mind. If, as critics of Artificial Intelligence insist, minds need bodies, then the reverse is true too.

Human brains are to thinking what medieval villages were to engineering: antechambers to experimentation, cramped and parochial places to be.
(Land, 'Circuitries' op. cit.)

Flickering in the background of this post-human cybernetic millennialism we can hear the echoes of a familiar optimism of "forces of production" evolving themselves behind our backs, like the old providence working in mysterious ways. What this tired old technolatry forgets, however, is that exterminism requires effort. If you want to annihilate yourself you have to work at it, and there, I'm afraid, is where I must part company with cybertheory. The zeal of the "expert", the "manager" is only too clearly discernable behind the vanguardist, countercultural gloss, and yet another silicon cage beckons ... if I wanted to top myself I would never be short of pre-electronic means already, so if you really want this way to go, what's to stop you switching your own fucking machinery off?

Prof. Mike Peters (ret.)