By Richard Barbrook



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From: [log in to unmask]
Date: July 9, 2007 8:01:54 AM PDT
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Subject: <nettime> Virtual Dreams, Real Politics
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Virtual Dreams, Real Politics

?What are we fighting Communism for? We are the most Communist people  
in world history.?
- Marshall McLuhan, 1969.

In 1961, at its 22nd Congress, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union  
formally adopted the goal of spreading the benefits of computerisation  
across the whole economy. Over the next two decades, the information  
technologies being developed within the Russia?s research laboratories  
were going to create a socialist paradise. Ever since the 1917  
Revolution, totalitarian Communists with a big C had drawn ideological  
sustenance from their self-proclaimed role as the vanguard of  
proletarian communism with a small c. Under Stalin, the horrors of  
forced industrialisation were sold to the Russian population as  
premonitions of the promised land of socialism. Ironically, it was the  
successful completion of this task which posed a potentially fatal  
existential dilemma for the totalitarian system. Having successfully  
identified communism with the factory, the Communist Party was now  
making itself obsolete. According to its reformist faction, the  
vanguard had to move on to tackling the tasks of the next stage of its  
world-historical mission: building the ?Unified Information Network?.  
Computers should be placed in every factory, office, shop and  
educational institution. In this Russian vision of the Net, two-way  
feedback between producers and consumers would calculate the correct  
distribution of labour and resources which most efficiently satisfied  
all of the different needs of society. Even better, this technological  
revolution also promised to democratise an undemocratic society. In  
his leader?s speech at the 22nd Congress, Khrushchev assured his  
audience that - after decades of purges, wars, corruption and  
austerity - the promised land was within sight. By the 1980s at the  
latest, the inhabitants of the Russian empire would be enjoying all  
the wonders of cybernetic communism.

Across the Atlantic, the CIA had watched the rise to power of the  
post-industrial reformers in the East with growing concern. Embracing  
their opponents? analysis, its analysts warned the US government that  
the technological race to develop the Net was becoming the key contest  
which would decide which superpower would lead humanity into the  
future. Back in 1957, America had suffered a major setback in the  
propaganda struggle when its Cold War enemy succeeded in launching the  
first satellite into space. Determined to prevent any repetition of  
this humiliation, the US government had quickly set up ARPA: the  
Advanced Research Projects Agency. Next time, America was going to win  
the hi-tech race. Responding to the CIA?s briefings, the Kennedy  
administration sent ARPA into battle against the cybernetic Communist  
enemy. Bringing together the top scientists in the field, the agency  
coordinated and funded an ambitious programme of research into  
computer-mediated-communications. In 1969, overtaking the Russian  
opposition, its team created the appropriately-named first-ever  
iteration of the Net: ARPANET.

 From the outset, the US government was convinced that this contest  
was much more than a test of scientific virility. The two superpowers  
were competing not only to develop new technologies, but also, more  
importantly, to decide which side had the most advanced social system.  
In 1964, a multi-disciplinary team of intellectuals led by Daniel Bell  
was given a large grant to invent the Anti-Communist vision of the  
non-communist future: The Commission on the Year 2000. Luckily, these  
experts were able to find exactly what they were looking for in  
Marshall McLuhan?s bestselling book Understanding Media. Just like  
Marx, this prophet had also foreseen that the next stage of modernity  
would sweep away the most disagreeable manifestations of capitalism:  
national rivalries, industrial exploitation and social alienation. As  
in proletarian communism with a small c, peace, prosperity and harmony  
would reign in the global village. What made McLuhan so much more  
attractive than Marx was that the knowledge elite ? not the  
proletariat - was the maker of history.

In 1966, three years before its first hosts were connected, the Bell  
commission persuaded itself that the arrival of the Net utopia was  
imminent. Just as McLuhan had foreseen, the limitations of  
industrialism were about to be overcome by the wondrous technologies  
of the information society. Best of all, 1960s America was already  
entering into this post-capitalist future. J.C.R. Licklider ? the  
founder of ARPA?s project to build the Net - had long been arguing  
that the primary purpose of computer-mediated-communications was  
facilitating the idiosyncratic working methods of the scientific  
community. Instead of trading information with each other like the  
overwhelming majority of cultural producers, academics collaborate by  
sharing knowledge. Promotion and prestige depends upon contributing  
articles to journals, presenting papers at conferences and  
distributing findings for peer review. Although deeply enmeshed with  
the state and corporate hierarchies of the USA, this communistic  
method of advancing knowledge had proved its worth in both the natural  
and social sciences. Thanks to the American taxpayer, Licklider now  
had the money to sponsor the emergence of a virtual social space  
emancipated from both the market and the factory. Inside this hi-tech  
gift economy, proprietary hardware and software were technical  
obstacles to the most efficient ways of working. The people who built  
the Net were the ones who ran it. In a bizarre twist, at the height of  
the Cold War, the US military was funding the invention of cybernetic  

Even more ironically, it was the Russian elite which lacked the  
self-confidence to sponsor even ARPA-style small-scale experiments in  
networked socialism. The reformers had offered a rejuvenation of the  
world-historic mission of the vanguard party. However, for their  
conservative opponents, the advantages of owning the imaginary future  
were by far outweighed by the threat which the Net posed to their  
power and authority. When the Czechoslovak reformers? theoretical  
manifesto Civilisation at the Crossroads celebrated the Unified  
Information Network as the demiurge of participatory democracy, the  
subversive image of this cybernetic technology was confirmed for these  
conservative bureaucrats. In 1968, the Russian government sent in its  
tanks to put an end to the Prague Spring. The perpetuation of  
totalitarian Communism depended upon the prevention of cybernetic  

Back in the 1930s, Stalinist state planning had been at the  
cutting-edge of economic modernity. But, by holding on to its  
ideological monopoly, the Communist Party had deprived itself of the  
information which it needed to deliver the goods. In 1980, the Polish  
workers rebelled when they were once again called upon to pay for the  
mistakes of the economic planners. The disintegration of  
totalitarianism in one country started a chain-reaction of events  
which within a decade brought down the entire Russian empire.  
Communism with a big C was the future which had failed. In his 1992  
neo-conservative bestseller The End of History and the Last Man,  
Francis Fukuyama proudly announced that the whole world had become  
American. With all alternatives now discredited, there was only one  
path to modernity.
Back in the mid-1960s, McLuhanism had been invented as a credo of the  
mildly reformist Democratic Party. Over the next four decades, its  
meaning had moved steadily rightwards. In 1983, Ithiel de Sola Pool ?  
a Bell commission member ? codified this neo-liberal appropriation of  
McLuhanism in his masterpiece: Technologies of Freedom. From software  
to soap operas, all forms of information would soon be traded as  
commodities over the Net. For the first time, everybody could be a  
media entrepreneur. By the end of the 1980s, this conservative remix  
had become the dominant form of American McLuhanism. George Gilder ? a  
Republican Party activist ? proclaimed the computer companies of  
northern California as the harbingers of a free market paradise. Not  
only Stalinist central planning, but also Social Democratic welfare  
provision were relics from the Fordist past. Looking at Silicon  
Valley, the neo-liberal prophets were convinced that the factory and  
the campus were synergising into a superior entity: the hi-tech  
entrepreneurial firm.

By the time that the 1990s dotcom boom took off, McLuhanist  
technological determinism had become an unapologetic celebration of  
?out of control? capitalism. In his New Rules for the New Economy,  
Kevin Kelly explained how technologies which were prototyped within  
the hi-tech gift economy could be successfully spun off into  
commercial products. Like the Stalinist elite, the music majors had  
found out to their cost that it was futile trying to resist the onrush  
of the McLuhanist future. In contrast, dotcom companies had shown how  
to transform user generated content and on-line communities into  
profitable enterprises. The phenomenal growth of MySpace, Bebo and  
YouTube demonstrates that successful businesses can be built upon  
Kelly?s dictum of following the free. Clever managers know how to make  
cybernetic communism serve establishment goals.

Like their Stalinist predecessors, these 1990s proponents of  
McLuhanism saw themselves as the vanguard of the hi-tech utopia. As  
the early-adopters and beta-testers of the dotcom future, this  
privileged group was prefiguring today what the general public would  
be doing tomorrow. When everyone had access to the Net, participatory  
democracy and cooperative creativity would be the order of the day.  
But, until this happy moment arrived, humanity required the guidance  
of the cybernetic elite to reach the promised land. Ironically, in the  
2000s, the boosters of the information society - like the Stalinists  
before them - are unexpectedly faced with the problem of living within  
their own future. Confounding the McLuhanist credo, the advent of the  
Net hasn?t marked the birth of a new humanistic and equalitarian  
civilisation. For more than four decades, the knowledge elite have  
asserted its control over space through ownership of time. Now, in the  
early-twenty-first century, the imaginary future of the information  
society is materialising in the present. What the McLuhanists have to  
explain is why utopia has been delayed.

When the users of the Net are both consumers and producers of media,  
the vanguard has lost its ideological monopoly. Yet, at the same time,  
the arrival of the information society hasn?t precipitated a wider  
social transformation. Cybernetic communism is quite compatible with  
dotcom capitalism. Contrary to the tenets of McLuhanism, the  
convergence of media, telecommunications and computing has not ? and  
never will ? liberate humanity. The Net is a useful tool not a  
mechanical saviour. In the 2000s, ordinary people have taken control  
of sophisticated information technologies to improve their everyday  
lives and their social conditions. Freed from the preordained futures  
of McLuhanism, this emancipatory achievement can provide inspiration  
for new anticipations of the shape of things to come. Cooperative  
creativity and participatory democracy need to be extended from the  
virtual world into all areas of life. Rather than disciplining the  
present, our futurist visions should be open-ended and flexible. We  
are the inventors of our own technologies. We can intervene in history  
to realise our own interests. Our utopias provide the direction for  
the path of human progress. Let?s be hopeful and courageous when we  
imagine the better futures of libertarian social democracy.

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