Internet Movement and Cybernetic Subversion

[Part 5 of 5 of the essay »Anti-economics and Anti-politics« by Robert Kurz, published under CC by-nc-sa]

One would have to be pretty naïve to assume that a new social movement, under the impact of the crisis, would immediately commence with a radical critique of the commodity production system. It is, rather, more likely that such a perspective can only be mediated by a public debate and by conceptual discussions in the midst of the social struggles and conflicts themselves. One does not start from zero, however. In societies in crisis, there are diverse initiatives for a “cheap economy” which, however, are still in the infant stage. These hardly do justice to a kind of reproduction “that transcends the market and the State”, since in most cases they rely on State (municipal) subsidies or else are restricted to creating enterprises based on the most basic developmental forms of the market and the State.

Taken as a whole, it is noteworthy that such clusters of cooperatives, which can be seen throughout the world, have already become the subject of sociological literature and are known by the term of “third sector” (cf. the short article by Volker Hildebrandt in the latest issue of Krisis, “The Third Sector. Ways Out of the Society of Labor”). What is interesting about this is that it has unwittingly given birth to a concept opposed to that of the “tertiary sector”, until now an attribute of the market. If the “tertiary sector” in economic theory encompasses all the service spheres which are not part of either Section I or Section II, although they are components of capitalist reproduction, then the “third sector”, for its part, indicates the activity of initiatives which are neither commercial nor State-sponsored, and which go by the name of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) or NPOs (Non-Profit Organizations).

It would be totally wrong to consider this “third sector”, in its current configuration, as the embryonic form of an emancipatory and non-commercial reproduction. Generally, the current forms of organization and consciousness within this sphere are very distant from such a conception, apart from the fact that they have not adopted, in most cases, the character of a great social movement. Nevertheless, it is very odd that the representatives of “orthodox” Marxism or Critical Theory, as well as the postmodern Leftists, do not actively but defensively and passively criticize the initiative of the “third sector”: they do not want to compromise themselves with an active critique, as if it were a matter of some kind of theoretical monstrosity. Behind such an illegitimate posture is the unelaborated and repressive Marxism of the workers movement, whose categories they proclaim to uphold. And, in such conditions, they prefer to persevere in the arrogant and Olympian attitude of the detached sage, and avoid getting their hands dirty avoiding any contact with the concepts of a changed reality.

For a new emancipatory theory, however, it is necessary to intervene critically in the debate concerning the “third sector”, radicalize it and unite it with the perspective of a supersession of the system of commodity production. This consists of not only the debate with neo-petit bourgeois or neo-reformist conceptions and their mediation with crisis theory, but also the historical reflection upon and critical supersession of the Marxism of the workers movement, together with its antiquated categories concerning the transformation. Instead of insisting on the unreflective and ignorant use of the blind and imprecise concepts of “socialism”, “world revolution”, “abolition of private property in the means of production”, etc., as if nothing had happened in the meantime, using them to box the ears of the activists (who were generally not socialized under the sign of Marxism) of the new, although yet un-crystallized, initiatives, it would be better, in the redefinition of a “transitional society” with fundamentally altered forms and contents, to provide answers to that which the workers movement, within a historically reduced conceptual horizon, was incapable of responding to in its way.

We cannot forget how difficult the mediation of “Marxism”, as a critical theory, was with respect to all the other forms of the radical social movement of the wage workers in the old historical (today defunct) constellation that took shape after the middle of the 19th century. Nor, in this context, can we forget the fruitful debate concerning “the transition” and the “process of getting closer” to the social revolution. It is not by accident that what remains of “orthodoxy” and the postmodern Left have not raised the issue of the mediation between radical critique and these at first sight hardly radical socioeconomic initiatives, nor have they even considered the question of a “transition” under the new historical conditions. None of them can seriously argue on behalf of the old concretions, but neither do they want to develop new ones, since it would then be necessary to break with their theoretical paradigm. For this reason, they can only work with the empty toolbox of the words of the past, which are employed with a certain timidity and only on rare occasions, like the long-unfashionable family silver which is extracted from the peace of the china cabinet.

The debate concerning a new theory of social transformation, on the other hand, a debate that elaborates the paradigm of a disconnection from commodity production, must find its own social mediations. This also includes a new relation to the social conflicts immanent to the system that, during the period of crisis and transition, will continue for a long time. It is clear that the social State and minimum wage demands, which everywhere exhibit a defensive character in epochs of crisis, will no longer be able, unlike the old constellation of the workers movement, to be the decisive motor of transformation, precisely because the transcendence of the system no longer leads to a new stage of development of the commodity producing system, but to a break with the commodity form itself. The struggles for demands based on “abstract labor” can therefore only be models for a certain “starting point”. This does not mean, however, that they would not be important. One of the weaknesses of the current alternative movement and the initiatives of the “third sector” is that they are incapable of linking up with the struggles within wage labor; generally, this context is simply “set aside”, neglecting the social problems of the majority, and they wall themselves up in their own microeconomic stupidity.

A social movement that really wants to bring about a disconnection from commodity production would perceive the matter from a completely different perspective. In fact, disconnection means that, on the one hand, in a period of transition, the majority of the participants in this movement will still operate in some manner on the terrain of wage labor and the social State but that, in addition, they will escape the capitalist relation in partial spheres, by way of autonomous forms of reproduction. Unlike the conceptions of a dual economy, this is not a static but a dynamic relation, which is oriented towards the full supersession of commodity production. This could exercise a totally unexpected effect upon the social struggles immanent to the system, that is, it could result in their radicalization—and this precisely because they are less developed historical models in the process of “exhaustion”.

The old left radicalism, incapable of thinking beyond the value form, imagined that it could inflame struggles for wages and working conditions by means of their mere quantitative increase, until they resulted in the “revolution”. This calculation, however, was made without the knowledge of the interested parties. In reality, wage workers, who remained captives of the forms of fetishism (commodity fetish, money fetish, wage fetish) and sought their well being only within these forms, were fully conscious, of course, of the fact that they were obliged to respect the forms and limits of the system of which they were a part and from which they obtained their gratifications in the only form which seemed possible to them. For this reason, after their early days, trade unions did not base their demands on their desirability or their necessity for life, but on what was immanent to the system and compatible with the laws of the value form. Under crisis conditions and amidst the exasperating competition of the world market, this necessarily led to the compromise of the wage workers and their trade unions with their “situation” and with the system’s survival.

On the high seas, when one has only one ship, everyone would be willing, even under the most adverse conditions, to subject themselves to destiny and to do whatever is necessary to keep that ship afloat. But if one discovers that another ship is available, and everyone wants to transfer to it one way or another, then it is possible, with all peace of mind, to set fire to the old one and to hang the mad captain Ahab from the highest yardarm. Insofar as the other form of reproduction only exists in the imagination and furthermore has to exist within the normal conditions proper to the old form, a radicality within that form would be impossible. Ironically, the social struggle based on wage labor and the social State can only be rejuvenated when the goal is no longer money wages. Only when sectors of an autonomous reproduction become palpable realities would it be possible to instigate a social battle immanent to the system in a totally unconditional and nihilistic fashion with regard to the destiny of the celebrated market economy.

The relation between a socioeconomic disconnection from commodity production and the social conflicts immanent to the system is not completely defined, however, by this mere negative aggravation, but also contains a positive moment in the disconnection itself. In this sense, there is a certain point of contact within this new paradigm between immanence and transcendence of the system, although with a modified objective. This applies, above all, to the creation of a reserve of time for activity in disconnected and autonomous sectors of reproduction. Here the old saying holds true: time is not money, but emancipation from money. The old struggle of the workers movement for the reduction of the working day can only be taken up once again in the interest of a new and different goal; in the context of today’s trade union sensibilities, under the pressure of the crisis and the “situationist” debate, it will be a long time before those sensibilities will be superseded and it will be very hard to seriously engage in propaganda for that goal.

If the aim is no longer getting “jobs” in the market economy, but the creation of a time fund for autonomous forms of reproduction, then, in accordance with this aim, totally distinct perspectives on the conflicts can be united, like the problem of the universal reduction of the working day and the abolition of overtime, on the one hand, and the demand for convenient and decently remunerated part-time work or the struggle against cuts in unemployment benefits and social security, on the other hand. Wage workers, part time and contract labor, the unemployed and the recipients of social assistance could join together in the common struggle for an autonomous and alternative time fund, which would put an end to their relative contradiction of interests within the value form. For this to be possible, of course, the new paradigm must be socially elaborated and must be present in both the trade union debate as well as in the movements of self-defense and of the unemployed.

The struggle for an autonomous social time fund corresponds to a demand for “natural” and material resources. One aspect of disconnection is certainly the collective and self-financed acquisition of means of production, in the widest sense of the term: before the old Marxist groans, he should recall that his patriarch Karl Marx considered the “total buy-out” of English capital by the associated English “working class” possible. What is thinkable on a grand scale is also possible on a reduced scale. This procedure, however, is obviously not enough for our purposes. It is, in addition, necessary to demand actual resources like land, buildings and means of production from the State and capital for free and autonomous utilization, especially now when, in the midst of the crisis, resources of all kinds remain idle. The movement of the youth centers and squats in West Germany, as well as the land occupation movement in many parts of the Third World, has already affirmed such demands in an embryonic form, from completely different motives. It is not surprising that, until now, such movements have not acted in accordance with the perspective of a supersession of the system of commodity production. But this could change, to the degree that this perspective is elaborated and the options within the market economy are simultaneously revealed to be illusions.

With this, we see that there could be a way to link into a network—whether for information purposes or for organizing—the demands or conflicts immanent to the system and a movement of disconnection or of supersession. This would be, corresponding to the stage of development of the microelectronic productive forces, the future form of organization of the radical critique of society: instead of the duality of “party and trade union”, with the corresponding principle of static, hierarchical and authoritarian organization, in the image of their relation with the State and the market, a flexible form will arise (and one which would be hard to subjugate or “intimidate”) of a movement linked into a network of diverse initiatives, on diverse planes.

This applies equally to the content as well as the “multidimensional” character of the base organizations. What is essential is that the initiatives of a movement of disconnection do not allow themselves to be unilaterally restricted. To a broadly anti-economic orientation one must add the respective anti-political orientation. The conceptual definition of politics, on the left, leaves much to be desired. As it is generally understood, it includes the general activity of criticism of society, from the dissemination of theoretical contributions to anti-fascist action. In the strictly conceptual sense, however, “politics” is nothing but activity carried out positively in relation to the State, analogous to “economics” as an activity carried out positively in relation to capital’s system of commodity production. Thus, anti-politics would be an activity of autonomous criticism of society, which no longer has the State, as a structural form, as a positive goal, in the sense of “seizing power”, just as anti-economics, as a rudimentary form of a socially distinct kind of reproduction, no longer acts positively within the categories of the commodity form.

Towards this end, all categories of critique must be addressed, although with other objectives and contents. A movement of disconnection cannot limit itself to the anti-economic problematic of reproduction (which would have been the “economic struggle” in the old terminology). Anti-politics means the observation and incorporation, in practical terms, of all social phenomena: from cultural development to racism, from bourgeois production to the crisis of the nation State and international institutions. And, on a more fundamental plane, the relation between the sexes is an “anti-political” fact. The objective in these interventions no longer consists of “translating” commercial and monetary interests into the political system, but in showing, with respect to every domain, that the system of commodity production of modernity as well as its political institutions have reached their historic end and that they are capable of permanently crippling the life of humanity, and must therefore be replaced.

An important aspect is “practical research”, or the critical overturning of the whole material and physical reproduction of society (even where an autonomous sector has not yet been able to develop), with the goal of proving the senselessness and unhealthiness of the system. It is thus a question of following the ironic saying: “the citizens look after their own reproduction”, of deciphering the whole nexus of globally communicating vessels on the material plane and of radically criticizing it, of uncovering the “business secrets” of corporations and irresponsible bodies, of researching the terrain of the still unknown flow of resources throughout society (along the same lines as the exposé on the grotesque world tour of a cup of yogurt, for example), of focusing on the transport, energy, information, canal, drainage, etc., networks, and critically presenting the findings—in a word: of carrying out anti-politics as a type of “sociological politics of unmasking”, without any half-measures.

To achieve this, one can draw upon the already existing material from social and economic initiatives. Taken as a whole, it must be made clear that the procedure outlined here has yet to be applied extensively or systematically—and this simply because material reproduction and its irrational interconnections through the system of commodity production cannot logically be an object for either economics or politics in bourgeois society. And as long as the social and environmentalist movements continue to act within economic and political terms, in the old sense of the words (or even from the illusory and regressive perspective of a “sociological market economy” and an “ecological reconstruction” of capitalist industrial society), they will be incapable of arriving at a systematic and inclusive politics of socio-ecological supersession and unmasking, nor will they be able to develop a correlative concept. Despite the fact that the material gathered by these movements and initiatives are opposed, by their very content, to the categories of economics and politics, its character can only be systematically understood and absorbed to the extent that the paradigm of the critique of value and disconnection becomes an “anti-political” fact.

In the wake of this new procedure, it may be possible to take advantage of certain ideas of the workerists and above all of the situationists, in an altered form. The workerist concept of “research” is restricted, sociologically, to a kind of “practical sociology” (like the term of “class composition” and its mutations), and it must therefore be reformulated as a “practical critique of value”. The situationist theme of research on the socioeconomic terrain of cities, regions and “fields” of socio-cultural reproduction can be understood in this sense. One could imagine “fields” like that of food production and its capitalist history, the transportation system (“production of automobiles”), architecture, the construction of houses and of cities, etc. It would be stimulating and maybe even entertaining to systematically investigate the material structure of reproduction and of use value within capitalist relations, and to subject it to critical exposure. This procedure could be accompanied by campaigns against the ideology and the culture of “labor”, which have been predominant in western societies since the Reformation and which today are spreading throughout the world. The critique and theoretical analysis of the value form, of “abstract labor” and the crisis could therefore include a vast field of anti-political activities, which will accompany and prepare the socioeconomic process of disconnection.

From these contents the other organizing structures of a “network movement” arise. Linking into a network could mean that diverse initiatives of the theoretical and analytic sphere, of practical and socioeconomic disconnection, of the struggle for demands immanent to the system, of antipolitical action and research, etc., create a common structure of communication and logistics. Linking into a network could also consist, however, in the fact that certain initiatives or grassroots organizations would not limit themselves to a one-dimensional project, but would instead always have something different in view. In this respect we possess a noteworthy structural example. In many Third World countries it is common for military or police units to also carry out economic activities, sometimes for lack of money for maintenance, or as part of a business oriented to the market. One could also deduce from this structure something similar for an anti-economic and anti-political movement of supersession: the employees of a commodity producing business could also organize a sector of autonomous reproduction (from nurseries to food production); a construction cooperative or a consumers association could promote an anti-racist campaign; a theoretical initiative could outline a project of disconnection; an autonomous food production cooperative could show a film against “labor” or collaborate on an anti-political research project; and the organizers of an autonomous nursery could even start a subversive delivery service.

Such a multidimensional movement network would also give rise, at a certain point in its development, to concentrated institutions, from the local to the transnational plane, in the form of “councils”, for example. These councils would be organized on the territorial plane, but no longer as a political and abstract expression of will, but as organs of representation and comprehensions of a practical counter-society, which at the same time do not represent a superficial and delimited terrain of “exclusion”, but, in its flexible condition as a counter-system, will be a real obstacle to capitalism. Such a network movement, as an embryonic and developmental form of a society, will be identified and symbolized by capitalist institutions, and it will itself, in its position of negation of the system of commodity production, identify itself as such. This “negative identity”, however, does not install a new fetishistic “principle”, and, is in that respect capable of extinguishing itself and becoming historical, only becoming “society” when capitalism is superseded.

As a movement of negation, it is also a social network which, in its intentions, must above all be transnational. One could compare such a structure, for example, with the (informal) overseas network of Chinese emigrants or the transnational networks of religious sects, except that the content would be completely different and emancipatory. Any member of this network movement would also be able to relocate anywhere in the world, benefiting from this wave of negation, and would always “feel at home” wherever this network has a branch. The managerial theorist John Naisbitt (Hong Kong) considers networks analogous to those of the overseas Chinese as the organizational model of the 21st century, which will come to replace the nation state. Within the context of the system of commodity production, which Naisbitt would not want to abandon even in his wildest dreams, this form of organization nevertheless would fail or assume barbarous features. In the sense of a movement of disconnection and supersession, however, one can effectively speak of a similar model of organization for the future.

And the question of power? The Marxism of the workers movement was, naturally, obsessed with this question, since in its view, it came to replace the supersession of commodity production. If there is one thing that a movement critical of value could appropriate from postmodernist ideas, this could only be the rejection of the question of power in the old, positive sense—as a strategy of the so-called seizure of power. Power is a phenomenal form of fetishism. In this sense, one must criticize Hannah Arendt herself, who ontologized the concept of power and presented it as a simple moment of social life, since she never subjected the fetish form to an in-depth analysis and critique. It is not surprising that liberal and Marxist theoreticians, without distinction, come to grief on this question.

Power obviously exists, because fetishism still exists and structures the historical crisis. The emancipatory goal, however, can no longer conquer power, but only delegitimize it, which coincides with the supersession of the commodity form. It would, of course, be naïve to suppose that power will be delegitimized without conflicts. Capitalism will not suddenly exit the stage unexpectedly, like its derivative, State socialism. Thus, a negative relation to power does not mean a refusal to use pressure to attain goals. An abstract pacifism is as preposterous as the threat of military intervention. Violence is always lurking in the fetishist constitution, and in the crisis more so than ever. I am not only referring to State violence, but also to the violence of criminal gangs and of the products of the State’s fragmentation, such as, for example, the rogue “security” apparatuses which no longer respect even the honest citizens and demand a kind of pillage tax. But it would be a mistake to concentrate the problem of the delegitimization of power under the aegis of the question of violence.

A social movement’s attack (and this is just what it is) against the dominant institutions begins and unfolds, generally, beneath the threshold of violence. This attack will therefore begin in a quite premature stage and on a local scale. Although the crisis can lead to all kinds of possible agreements with the apparatus of power, agreements that were once considered unthinkable, none of them should be considered to be a gift. The contrary is usually the case. When I was invited some time ago to give a presentation concerning the theme of the “crisis of the society of labor” for a group of party members critical of the SPD, I noticed that they all shook their heads negatively when I mentioned the idea of disconnection and autonomous reproduction as possible consequences of the crisis. But, surprisingly, this was not because these good subjects considered this perspective utopian and unrealizable in practical terms. Their argument almost unanimously consisted in the fact that this would never be permitted by the municipal administration! The latter’s principle interest, in fact, is to allow only activities which could pay and be taxed, which would bring more “jobs” in the market economy, etc. And it could be sure that one local association of SPD members knows the issue like the backs of their hands. A movement of disconnection and supersession will instigate, from the start, a struggle for survival against the “spontaneous” tendency of capitalist bureaucracy (against, precisely, the bloody social democratic “gondolier-mafia” and its retinue in the administrative apparatus), which is incapable of voluntarily opening any “extraterritorial” social space.

It is consequently necessary to bring social pressure to bear and to bring power to its knees. In the old workers movement, the principle means of pressure was not the “armed struggle” but, as everyone knows, the strike. Originally illegal, the “strike weapon” in a short time became a legal and ultimately ritualized expedient in the social debate immanent to the system. Nor will the strike disappear in the context of a new period of transformation, although today it has lost its former importance. The microelectronic productive forces contributed to cushioning the impact and effectiveness of the strike weapon. “If your strong arm wants it so/All the gears will have to stop”—this old saying of the workers movement is no longer valid. In strikes, in many cases, rationalized production is maintained almost without any problems by using emergency teams; sometimes, during these strikes new potentials for rationalization are even discovered.

Since a movement which is critical of value, a movement of disconnection and supersession, can no longer, for the reasons cited above, be centered on the workplace or simply emulate the capitalist structure of reproduction, it will have to invent another means of pressure for social struggle. This arises, almost automatically, from the network structure and contact with the microelectronic productive forces which, in fact, together with ecology, were the first to define the concept of network. A social movement of emancipation will not move within cybernetic structures, since the context of a social network can only be based on conscious communication and free decision, not on an unconscious code. With the new idea of the new productive forces, however, capitalism itself, especially in its microelectronic configuration, can be conceived of and attacked as a fetishistic cybernetic code. The means of social struggle of the future will therefore be cybernetic subversion, which can impose legitimate demands even without the support of official legality (in a certain fashion, analogously to the history of the strike).

Cybernetic subversion means, simply, the paralyzing of the nervous system of capitalist reproduction (transport and traffic, energy, information) by means of “interruptions”. Instead of the strike, the interruption, which is possible anywhere. The blockade of highway entrance ramps by French trade union activists and truck drivers, the blockade of Castor rail transport routes by opponents of nuclear energy or the paralysis of traffic in Belgrade, purposefully staged by the opponents of the government, show that this kind of interruption is going to school. This is even more applicable to energy distribution and, above all, information access networks. A movement which would research and uncover the material interconnections of the capitalist structure of reproduction could quickly acquire and universalize the relevant know-how with the goal of intentionally paralyzing the capitalist nervous system.

It is, of course, impossible to theoretically anticipate a social movement of emancipation. But it is possible and necessary to theoretically and analytically concretize the question of supersession of the value form and to extend public debate on this issue. The theoretical focus of the value critique must develop the theory that is critical of fetishism and the value form, but this focus, in relation to the question of supersession, is not obliged to assume an irreducible silence in pure abstraction, nor does it have to await the social movement of the masses, like the eschatological Christians, awaiting the Last Judgment. The question of mediation is imposed from the beginning, and a theoretical initiative of the critique of value can generate its own “theoretical praxis” in accordance with the criteria of disconnection, unlike the bourgeois academic enterprise. The still-unexplored possibilities must be reflected on and promoted in practice.

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