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Californian Ideology
 
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Richard Barbrook
Andy Cameron
Wired
Californian Ideology
neo-liberalism
John Perry Barlow
Louis Rossetto


Freedom is Slavery
part 6

If its holy precepts are refuted by profane history, why have the myths of the 'free market' so influenced the proponents of the Californian Ideology? Living within a contract culture, the hi-tech artisans lead a schizophrenic existence. On the one hand, they cannot challenge the primacy of the marketplace over their lives. On the other hand, they resent attempts by those in authority to encroach on their individual autonomy. By mixing New Left and New Right, the Californian Ideology provides a mystical resolution of the contradictory attitudes held by members of the 'virtual class'. Crucially, anti-statism provides the means to reconcile radical and reactionary ideas about technological progress. While the New Left resents the government for funding the military-industrial complex, the New Right attacks the state for interfering with the spontaneous dissemination of new technologies by market competition. Despite the central role played by public intervention in developing hypermedia, the Californian ideologues preach an anti-statist gospel of hi-tech libertarianism: a bizarre mish-mash of hippie anarchism and economic liberalism beefed up with lots of technological determinism. Rather than comprehend really existing capitalism, gurus from both New Left and New Right much prefer to advocate rival versions of a digital 'Jeffersonian democracy'. For instance, Howard Rheingold on the New Left believes that the electronic agora will allow individuals to exercise the sort of media freedom advocated by the Founding Fathers. Similarly, the New Right claim that the removal of all regulatory curbs on the private enterprise will create media freedom worthy of a 'Jeffersonian democracy' [30].

The triumph of this retro-futurism is a result of the failure of renewal in the USA during the late '60s and early '70s. Following the confrontation at People's Park, the struggle between the American establishment and the counter-culture entered into a spiral of violent confrontation. While the Vietnamese - at the cost of enormous human suffering - were able to expel the American invaders from their country, the hippies and their allies in the black civil rights movement were eventually crushed by a combination of state repression and cultural co-option.

The Californian Ideology perfectly encapsulates the consequences of this defeat for members of the 'virtual class'. Although they enjoy cultural freedoms won by the hippies, most of them are no longer actively involved in the struggle to build 'ecotopia'. Instead of openly rebelling against the system, these hi-tech artisans now accept that individual freedom can only be achieved by working within the constraints of technological progress and the 'free market'. In many cyberpunk novels, this asocial libertarianism is personified by the central character of the hacker, who is a lone individual fighting for survival within the virtual world of information [31].

The drift towards the right by the Californian ideologues is the helped by their unquestioning acceptance of the liberal ideal of the self-sufficient individual. In American folklore, the nation was built out of a wilderness by free-booting individuals - the trappers, cowboys, preachers, and settlers of the frontier. The American revolution itself was fought to protect the freedoms and property of individuals against oppressive laws and unjust taxes imposed by a foreign monarch. For both the New Left and the New Right, the early years of the American republic provide a potent model for their rival versions of individual freedom. Yet there is a profound contradiction at the centre of this primordial American dream: individuals in this period only prospered through the suffering of others. Nowhere is this clearer than in the life of Thomas Jefferson - the chief icon of the Californian Ideology. Thomas Jefferson was the man who wrote the inspiring call for democracy and liberty in the American Declaration of Independence and - at the same time - owned nearly 200 human beings as slaves. As a politician, he championed the right of American farmers and artisans to determine their own destinies without being subject to the restrictions of feudal Europe. Like other liberals of the period, he thought that political liberties could be protected from authoritarian governments only by the widespread ownership of individual private property. The rights of citizens were derived from this fundamental natural right. In order to encourage self- sufficiency, he proposed that every American should be given at least 50 acres of land to guarantee their economic independence. Yet, while idealising the small farmers and businessmen of the frontier, Jefferson was actually a Virginian plantation-owner living off the labour of his slaves. Although the South's 'peculiar institution' troubled his conscience, he still believed that the natural rights of man included the right to own human beings as private property. In 'Jeffersonian democracy', freedom for white folks was based upon slavery for black people [32].

 
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