Californian Ideology
Edit History
Search Keywords
McKenzie Wark
Californian Ideology

The Virtual Empire
a view from Oz

Being equally ignorant about Europe *and* America is my only qualification for writing on this 'California ideology' theme. That and the fact that I just watched a mindfuck of an episode of the X-Files. The latter was basically a thinly disguised critique of the military-industrial complex, and a document available free to air on a major network. Which got me thinking: America is just a hell of a lot stranger and weirder than us foreigners ever credit.

Having grown up in the era of the Vietnam war, followed by the stationing of first-strike nuclear weapons in Europe, America always figured as a virtual empire, something that stalked the dreams of anyone who read the papers and watched enough TV to get some vague, X-File-ish inkling of the way its power worked in the world. Its power was both repellent and seductive. It was both the Pentagon and Hollywood. We were naive enough to assume that these were always one and the same thing.

It was kinda convenient that this virtual empire existed, both in reality but also in our dreams. As something one defined oneself against. But then i started spending time in America. In some ways, it was *exactly* as I imagined. After all, I grew up on the Beach Boys and I Dream of Jeannie. I can remember someone saying to me, in all seriousness: "its amazing -- Americans really talk in real life like they do on TV!" But the funny thing is, it's true.

But what is inconvenient for some of us non-Americans is that America is not reductible to the phantom empire of itself that animated our dreams. The coincidence of America as the Pentagon, America as Hollywood, America as Coca-Cola with the actual geographic place of America is quite illusory. And I think, in time, its coincidence with the 'Californian idelogy' will also prove to be illusory.

The whole thing about power, in the way it is organised in its current phase, whether it be strategic power, communicational power or commerical power, is that it tends more and more to be purely vectoral. It colonises a site only for as long as it is useful node in a matrix, then it moves on. The irony is that 'America' was the image for this placeless, rootless, power, in all its forms. But now we see more and more that this kind of power doesn't even need America any more. It has not necessary connection with it. What we mistakenly thought of as *American* power is just strategic power, commercial power, communication power, in opposition or alliance, inhabiting sites or bypassing them.

We know now that it didn't work out, but I think it was a turning point, when Japanese technology companies bought Hollywood studios. Or, more successfully, some upstart Australian built a TV network. Or Congress debates whether Japanese companies can bid for hi-tech military contracts. These forms of power are no longer synonymous with 'America'. Perhaps they never were.

In any case, there is more than one America. You only see certain faces of it from abroad. I always imagined it was a more 'right wing' country than Australia. We have a real snob mentality about this. America as a lost cause, run by the lunatic far right. Or America as a place that has lost its roots, gone over to the pure power of the vectors of commerce and communication at home, and dominated by imperial interests.

But the more I go there the more i see other things. I start to see it, not as the 'new', but as something very old indeed -- the world's oldest democracy. A place that has struggled with the ageing of its democratic institutions in a way that has become a tradition in itself -- something Europe is still too young to understand. Europe, where most of the democratic states have no more that 40 years of continuous history.

I see also the strength and innovative quality of grass roots activism. Act-Up could not have started anywhere else, to give just one example. Just one of the offshoots of a whole history of activism going back to the civil rights movement. The confidence with which 'right' is used as a political concept -- this just doesn't exist anywhere else I've ever been.

Of course, the people who sell the place short the most are often American 'liberals'. But what isn't grasped within America is how internal bitching and moaning about the place feeds a demonology that foreigners nurture. One that, while it contains elements of truth, is not always a good guide.

I was speaking to a friend just today about the alarmingly high incidences of police harassment in Harlem. We were revisiting the 'plunger' incident. I mention this so as not to be taken as an apologist for the American status quo. But it seems to me to do a disservice to activists, critical intellectuals and other curmugeons to pretend that these struggles don't go on. You don't hear much about grassroots American media in the mainstream media in Australia, and I bet you don't in Europe, either. You hear about Wired and silicon alley, but you don't hear about the freenets and community network people. You don't get the sense that the struggle is as a live and well there as anywhere, but happening in a different language.

So in short, I think that a discussion in a trans-national community like nettime has to focus on the trans-national forms of power that define the space we live and work in. I've called that power vectoral, and stressed its increasing independence from locality. Its no longer appropriate to think of it as a distinctively American phenomenon. Nor is it accurate to think of America as somehow an examplar of a pure space of vectoral power, whereas more enlightened cultures have resisted this. America seems as mixed an economy as any other, full of the most bizzare political and social subventions. And frankly, I find ot refreshing that in American culture, the welfare state is clearly identified as connected to the warfare state. In Australia, and I suspect in some parts of western europe, social democrats are not terribly honest about this connection.

Surprisingly, there is a lot social democrats can learn from America. Not least about the concept of liberty, and of right. And not least about the market side of the mixed economy. If social democracy is to be a genuinely syncretic political practice, it has to do more than pay lip-service to those values. If its just good old bureaucratic centrism with a bit of window dressing, it ain't gonna work.


This article first appeared on nettime 7/2/98

About the site