Review of Geert Lovink's book
For many years, Geert Lovink has carried out his work as net-critic wandering across the territories where the net meets the economy, politics, social action and art. Years of fast writing on mailing lists, analysis, polemics, replies and reports have been collected and elaborated in a way that maintains the rap-style of e-mail debates: short sentences, ironic slogans, cuts and returns, allusions, citations...but what emerges from this mosaic is a coherent overall view on the first decade of digital society.
This book is the first complete investigation of global netculture, an analysis of the evolution and involution of the web during the first decade of its mass expansion. But Lovink goes beyond a sociological, economic and anthropological survey.
Many of the essays in the book outline the theoretical positions of various agents in the cyber-cultural scene: Wired's libertarian ideology, its economistic and neoliberal involution, and the radical pessimism of European philosophers. Outside of such confrontation, Geert's position is that of a radical and pragmatic Northern-European intellectual close to autonomist and cyberpunk movements, who has animated the cybercultural scene for a decade with his polymorphous activity as writer and moderator of connective environments such as nettime.org, and as organiser of international meetings.
This book has been published almost simultaneously in the United States and in Italy, it will soon come out in a Spanish and a Japanese edition. Its publication is exceptionally timely, coinciding with an unprecedented storm in the global economic system. In the middle of the storm, in the eye of the cyclone sits the system of webs that multiplied the energies of mass capitalism in the 90s, and that today finds itself on the threshold of a radical redefinition of perspectives.
The economic crisis can only be fully explained in relation to the ideological crisis of the new economy that supported the mass capitalism of the 90s. Similar to Carlo Formenti's 'Mercanti del futuro', Einaudi, this book helps us analyze the actual interlacement of web and economy, and to get a glimpse of what is to come.
The 1987 Wall Street crash interrupted the booming cycle that had characterized the first affirmation of Reagan's monetarist and neoliberal policies. During the storm that upset the markets for several weeks, (nothing in comparison to the one to come between 2000 and 2002), analysts offered an interesting explanation: part of the international financial system was being modernized and connected to the internet. Long before the internet entered everyday life, some sectors of international finance had started to make their information systems interdependent in real time.
However, since not all of the international financial system was interconnected - so the experts claimed - the gaps and the incompatibility of the systems of communication disturbed the fluidity of exchanges and prevented a fast and coordinated intervention of American banks. In order to avoid a reoccurrence of these delays in coordination, the informatization of finance and the pervasiveness of systems of telecommunication needed to be perfected. This is what happened in the following years. In the 90's the circuit of information and financial exchanges was so spread as to allow a capillary and mass participation to the flux of financial investments.
The web became the principal support of mass capitalism and sustained its long expansive phase in the last decade of the century. Millions of Americans and Europeans started to invest their money, buying and selling shares from their own homes. The whole financial system became tightly interconnected. Today that long expansive phase has entered into a crisis, and we see that, contrary to 1987, in fact the main danger for the global system is the pervasive character of its connections. The Web, this fantastic multiplier of popular participation to the market, risks becoming the multiplier of its crisis, and the point of flight from the mediatic-financial system of control.
But there is another side to the process. Due to mass participation in the cycle of financial investment in the 90s, a vast process of self-organization of cognitive producers got underway. Cognitive workers invested their expertise, their knowledge and their creativity, and found in the stock market the means to create enterprises. For several years, the entrepreneurial form became the point where financial capital and highly productive cognitive labour met.
The libertarian and liberal ideology that dominated the (American) cyberculture of the 90s idealized the market by presenting it as a pure, almost mathematical environment. In this environment, as natural as the struggle for the survival of the fittest that makes evolution possible, labour would find the necessary means to valorise itself and become enterprise. Once left to its own dynamic, the reticular economic system was destined to optimise economic gains for everyone, owners and workers, also because the distinction between owners and workers would become increasingly imperceptible when one enters the virtual productive circuit.
This model, theorised by authors such as Kevin Kelly and transformed by the Wired magazine in a sort of digital-liberal, scornful and triumphalist Weltanschauung, went bankrupt in the first couple of years of the new millennium, together with the new economy and a large part of the army of self-employed cognitive entrepreneurs who had inhabited the dotcom world.
It went bankrupt because the model of a perfectly free market is a practical and theoretical lie. What neoliberalism supported in the long run was not the free market, but monopoly. While the market was idealised as a free space where knowledges, expertise and creativity meet, reality showed that the big groups of command operate in a way that far from being libertarian introduces technological automatisms, imposing itself with the power of the media or money, and finally shamelessly robbing the mass of share holders and cognitive labour.
The free market lie has been exposed by the Bush administration. Its policy is one of explicit favouritism for monopolies (starting with the scandalous absolution of Bill Gates' authority in exchange for a political alliance based on large electoral donations). It is a protectionist policy that imposes the opening of markets to weak states while allowing the United States to impose 40% import taxes on steel. With Bush's victory, the libertarian and liberal ideology has been defeated and reduced to a hypocritical repetition of banalities devoid of content. Geert Lovink does not dwell on American liberal ideology, the defeated enemy. Instead, he invites us to understand what happened at the level of production in the years of dotcom-mania.
We have no reason to cheer over the dotcom crash, he says. The ideology that characterised dotcom mania was a fanatical representation of obligatory optimism and economistic fideism. But the real process that developed in these years contains elements of social as well as technological innovation: elements that we should recuperate and re-actualise.
In the second half of the 90s a real class struggle occurred within the productive circuit of high technologies. The becoming of the web has been characterised by this struggle. The outcome of the struggle, at present, is unclear. Surely the ideology of a free and natural market turned out to be a blunder. The idea that the market functions as a pure environment of equal confrontation for ideas, projects, the productive quality and the utility of services has been wiped out by the sour truth of a war monopolies have waged against the multitude of self-employed cognitive workers and against the slightly pathetic mass of microtraders.
The struggle for survival was not won by the best and most successful, but by the one who drew his gun out. The gun of violence, robbery, systematic theft, of the violation of any legal and ethical norm. The Bush-Gates alliance sanctioned the liquidation of the market, and at that point the phase of the internal struggle of the virtual class ended. One part of the virtual class entered the techno-military complex; another part (the large majority) was expelled from the enterprise and pushed to the margins of explicit proletarianization. On the cultural plane, the conditions for the formation of a social consciousness of the cognitariat are emerging, and this could be the most important phenomenon of the years to come, the only key to offer solutions to the disaster.
Dotcoms were the training laboratory for a productive model, and for a market. In the end the market was conquered and suffocated by monopolies, and the army of self employed entrepreneurs and venture microcapitalists was robbed and dissolved. Thus a new phase began: the groups that became predominant in the cycle of the net-economy forge an alliance with the dominant group of the old-economy (the Bush clan, representative of the oil and military industry), and this phase signals a blocking of the project of globalisation. Neoliberalism produced its own negation, and those who were its most enthusiastic supporters become its marginalized victims.
The main focus of this book is the Internet. What has it been, what has it become and especially what will it be? A discussion, starting in the mid-90's, opened gaps within cyberculture and divided the theoretical and creative paths of its various agents. As soon as the internet became more diffuse and revealed cultural, technical and common synergies, the advertisers and traders arrived with their entourage of profit fanatics.
Naturally, they only had one question: can the Internet become a moneymaking machine? The 'experts' (who then amounted to a multicoloured bunch of artists, hackers and techno-social experimentators) replied in Sibylline ways. The Californian digerati of Wired replied that the Internet was destined to multiply the power of capitalism, to open vast immaterial markets, and to upset the laws of the economy, which predict crisis and delays and decreasing incomes and falls of profit. Nobody really refuted these people. Net-artists and media activists had other things to do, and their criticisms and reservations came across as the lament of the losers, who are incapable of entering the big club.
Digerati, cyberpunk digital visionaries, and net artists let the bubble grow. The money that entered into web circuits was useful to develop any kind of technological, communicative and cultural experimentation. Someone called it the funky business. Creative labour found a way to scrounge money from a whole host of fat, obese and small capitalists. The truth is that nobody (or very few) said that the Internet was not a moneymaking machine. It has never been and it cannot be. Careful: this does not mean that the web has nothing to do with the economy. On the contrary, it has become an indispensable infrastructure for the production and the realization of capital, but this does not mean that its specific culture can be reduced to the economy. The Internet has opened a new chapter in the processes of production. The dematerialization of the commodity, the principle of cooperation, and the unbreakable continuity between production and consumption has made the traditional criteria of definition of the value of commodities redundant. Whoever enters the web does not see him- or herself as a client, but as a collaborator, hence, he/she does not want to pay. AOL, Microsoft and all the other sharks can do what they like, but they won't be able to change this fact that is not just a rather anarchoid cultural trait, but the core of the digital labour relation.
We should not think that the Internet is an extravagant island where the principle of valorisation that dominates the rest of human relations enters a crisis. On the contrary, the web has created a conceptual opening that is destined to grow larger. The principle of freedom is not a marginal exception, it can become the universal principle of access to material and immaterial goods.
With the dotcom crash, cognitive labour has separated itself from capital.
Digital artisans, who during the 90s felt like entrepreneurs of their own labour, will slowly realize that they have been deceived, expropriated, and this will create the conditions for a new consciousness of cognitive workers. The latter will realise that despite having all the productive power, they have been expropriated of its fruits by a minority of ignorant speculators who are only good at handling the legal and financial aspects of the productive process. The unproductive section of the virtual class, the lawyers and the accountants, appropriate the cognitive surplus value of physicists and engineers, of chemists, writers and media operators. But they can detach themselves from the juridical and financial castle of semiocapitalism, and build a direct relation with society, with the users: then maybe the process of autonomous self-organisation of cognitive labour will begin. This process is already underway, as the experiences of media activism and the creation of networks of solidarity from migrant labour show.
Starting from these experiences, we need to rethink the 19c question of the intellectual. In Geert Lovink's book the question re-emerges. His portrait of the virtual intellectual, in the first section of the book, is both a synthetic autobiography and a description of the different intellectual attitudes that characterized the formation of the connective sphere. Between the 'organic' intellectual of corporations, and the radical and nostalgically humanistic pessimist (the dominant intellectual figures of the 90s), Lovink proposes the figure of the net-critic, undogmatic and curious about what happens while resistant to any form of ideological and especially economic hegemony. But more is at stake than a cultural fashion that is counterpoised to another. At stake is the defection from the political scene that characterised the XXth century, and the creation of a totally different scenario.
The XXth century was dominated by the figure of the 'superstructural' intellectual, to use an Engels, Leninist and Gramscian formulation. For the revolutionary communist movement, the intellectual was the pre-industrial figure, whose function was determined on the basis of a choice of organic affiliation with a social class. The Leninist party is the professional formation of intellectuals who chose to serve the proletarian cause. Antonio Gramsci introduced decisive elements of innovation to the Leninist conception, because he introduced the theme of cultural hegemony, of the specificity of a work of ideology to develop in the process of seizing political power. But Gramsci remained fundamentally attached to an idea of the intellectual as an unproductive figure, to an idea of culture as pure consensus with ideological values. The industrialisation of culture that developed during the 1900s modified these figures, and critical thought realised this when it migrated from Frankfurt to Hollywood.
Benjamin and Marcuse, Adorno and Horkheimer, Brecht and Krakauer registered this passage. But it is not until the digital web redefined the whole process of production that intellectual labour assumed the configuration that Marx had, in the Grundrisse, defined with the expression of ‘General Intellect’.
Pierre Levy calls it collective intelligence, Derrick De Kerkhove points out that it actually is a connective intelligence. The infinitely fragmented mosaic of cognitive labour becomes a fluid process within a universal telematic network, and thus the shape of labour and capital are redefined. Capital becomes the generalized semiotic flux that runs through the veins of the global economy, while labour becomes the constant activation of the intelligence of countless semiotic agents linked to one another. Retrieving the concept of 'general intellect' in the 90s, Italian compositionist thought (Paolo Virno, Christian Marazzi, Carlo Formenti) has introduced the concept of mass intellectuality, and emphasized the interaction between labour and language.
We needed to go through the dotcom purgatory, through the illusion of a fusion between labour and capitalist enterprise, and then through the hell of recession and endless war, in order to see the problem emerge in clear terms. On the one hand, the useless and obsessive system of financial accumulation and a privatisation of public knowledge, the heritage of the old industrial economy. On the other hand, productive labour increasingly inscribed in the cognitive functions of society: cognitive labour that starts to see itself as a cognitariat, building autonomous institutions of knowledge, of creation, of care, of invention and of education that are autonomous from capital.
Translated by Arianna Bove