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Californian Ideology
 
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Richard Barbrook
Californian Ideology
Rewired
David Hudson
Mark Dery


The Californian Demonology
a yankee bites back

I haven't read David Hudson's Rewired book but, as with most of us, that won't stop me from rushing in, vorpal sword drawn, where angels fear to tread.

Richard Barbrook often amuses, sometimes enlightens, and rarely fails to provoke. In his review of Rewired, he manages to do all three. Since I haven't read the book under dissection, I won't comment on Barbrook's overarching points. Rather, I'm writing to urge him to consign his creeping xenophobia to the dustbin of history. The by now drearily predictable digs at Ugly Americans in general and "Californians" in specific that mar even his best polemics play to a pinched parochialism, a small-minded mistrust of anything not Made in the U.K. that isn't worthy of him.

I'm reminded (as long as we're trading in nationalist jabs, here) of J.G. Ballard's chagrin, in The Kindness of Women, at returning to England after the war: "I was marooned in a small, grey country where the sun rarely rose above the rooftops, a labyrinth of class and caste forever enlarging itself from within."

Worse by far, Barbrook's demonology of all that's "Californian" (I have the horrible suspicion that he no longer means the adjective metaphorically) mistakes geography for ideology. It's as if the Mark of the Beast, in this conspiracy theory, were 90210. The "Californian" Ideology didn't spring, full-blown, from Louis Rossetto's brow as he languidly caressed his robot owl in the penthouse of the Tyrell Pyramid. Wired's Bedtime Stories for Young Extropians have found fertile intellectual soil in the Bay Area for complex historical reasons I detail at some length in Escape Velocity, in my chapter on the confluence of '60s counterculture and '90s computer culture.

Barbrook's emphasis on the *Californian* zip code of this ideology is a tactical error the Left can ill afford at a time when global capitalism flows effortlessly around trade unions, regulatory frameworks, and other artifacts of the Age of the Nation-state. This, unfortunately, is an ideology with legs, and understanding its *global* nature---while conceding its uniquely American hybridization, in the Wired gospel, of laissez-faire economics, Social Darwinism, and "born-again" eschatology---is crucial.

More trivially, conspiracy theories about the "Californian" roots of our evils give rise to conspiracy theories about the "English" roots of those same evils, Mark Stahlman's hilariously Lyndon LaRouche-ian vision of a cabal of degenerate Anglophiles bent on world domination, wider bandwidth, and free love with barnyard animals being a case in point.

A few last cavils:

1. "Because so few people within the USA challenge the conservative politics of Wired, the publication of 'Rewired' is an important event over there."

The presumption that we in the colonies are little better than forelock-touching yokels, apolitical and historically amnesiac, is an article of faith in Barbrook critiques. Unfortunately, like so many religious convictions, it's unfounded flapdoodle. The undeniable significance of Barbrook and Cameron's Californian Ideologynotwithstanding, the most vociferous, pointed critiques of Wired's politics have come from bumptious, benighted souls in the States, from The Bay Guardian (a constant thorn in Rossetto's side) to freelance critics such as Paulina Borsook ("The Memoirs of a Token: An Aging Berkeley Feminist Examines Wired," in Wired Women), Keith White ("The Killer App," in The Baffleranthology Commodify Your Dissent), Critical Art Ensemble (in innumerable interviews, performances, and panel discussions), Gary Chapman ("Barbed Wired" in The New Republic, and of course David Hudson, not to mention, immodestly, myself (see my essay on Wired at www.levity.com, as well as the Mute interview I conducted with Geert Lovink). De Tocqueville, Baudrillard, Christopher Hitchens, and other Europeans have come, seen, and sat in witty judgement, but *no one* pillories the American booboisie with greater relish or ferocity than Americans themselves, as Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, and Noam Chomsky amply evidence.

2. "For instance, Hudson's historical approach is useful for reminding Americans that the Net was invented using their tax dollars rather than through market competition."

Being beaten with this shopworn stick begins to bore. Few of us, save the Digerati themselves, require such reminders at this point, certainly not the cultural elite which is the target demographic, presumably, for Hudson's book. As thunderclap revelations go, this is a bit of soggy fizzle, at this point.

3. "Despite ending 'Rewired' with a look at the potential of community networks, Hudson accepts that cyberspace will inevitably be swallowed up by commercial interests."

Breathes there a soul so naive that he or she believes this irrevocable process isn't well underway, if not complete? Can I have a show of hands, here, that the Internet, as the Temporary Autonomous Zone of all our subcultural hopes and dreams, is *over*. Obviously, there are, and hopefully always will be, cells of Foucault-ian micropolitical resistance lurking in the cracks, and as the author of one of the best-known manifestos in the subject (Culture Jamming), I remain heartened by the virulence of such infestations. But if there's one thing consumer capitalism excels at, it's the commodification of dissent, and one needn't be a card-carrying member of the Horkheimer-Adorno Memorial Society to believe that.

4. "Even the political terms used to describe people's opinions will disorientate many non-American readers. In this book, libertarians are not anarchists, but loopy neo-liberals; liberals are not Thatcherites, but confused leftists; and communitarians are certainly not communists!"

Again, a petit-bourgeois narrow-mindedness rears its unfortunate head, here in the author's incredulity over the fact that those wacky, slaphappy Americans "have a different word for *everything*" (to paraphrase our answer to Baudrillard, the comedian Steve Martin). The confusion in terms, here, arises from trivial cultural conventions, on the order of the fact that those who speak American use the verb "disorient" rather than the British "disorientate."

A handy pocket key for future reference: in the States, the term "Libertarian" (with a capital "L") is associated with Jeffersonian notions of least government = best government, the near- (or outright) abolition of taxation, robust civil liberties, and radical laissez-faire capitalism. It shades, as it moves rightward, into a shrill, Ayn Rand-ian anti-statism and, on the far fringes, the paranoid anti-government eschatology of the militia movement. Americans don't use the European term "neo-liberal," in an economic context, since the term "liberal" is already used politically, applied to the sort of centrist progressivism associated with, say, Naomi Wolf among feminists (as opposed to the manifest Leftism of The Village Voice's Barbara Ehrenreich) or The Utne Reader as opposed to unabashedly Left-wing magazines such as Z or In These Times. When Europeans say "neo-liberal," Americans (at least, *this* American) always translate it into "Reaganite" or "laissez-faire."

5. "Beneath the *peculiarity* (MY ITALICS) of American political descriptions lies a deeper confusion which disables the radical aspirations of this book. How can anyone take a Left seriously which erroneously calls itself liberal because it doesn't dare even to be rhetorically socialist?"

*This* from the man who jubilantly sports a campaign button for *Tony Blair*, a memetically engineered product of the Clinton Genome Project who would rather eat Margaret Thatcher's memoirs than utter the word "socialist?" Passing strange. But I take Barbrook's valuable, dead-on point that the American Left, whatever it calls itself, hasn't articulated any grandiose, utopian alternative to Wired's fever-dream vision of better living through Darwinian cybercapitalism.

Hari Kunzru called me to account on this point at the 1996 Ars Electronica, and I felt then, as I do now, hoisted on the horns of a dilemma. I suspect many on the postmodern Left feel, as I do, that command-and-control utopias, founded on technocratic rationalism and imposed from on high, are an artifact of a receding Modernism. For that reason, we're hard put to cobble together grand, political unified field theories of any sort---which *isn't* to say that we aren't passionately committed to political engagement on an issue-by-issue basis, outside and even within the current, deeply flawed system. But given the ongoing undermining of our little experiment in participatory democracy by multinational corporate capital, perhaps Barbrook will forgive the American Left its acid-drip cynicism about the bright promises of social democracy.

On the other hand, I---and, I suspect, many like me---am *no less* cynical about what's currently being offered, contra "neo-liberalism," as our last, best alternative to the centralized, top-down utopias of recent memory: the growingly popular post-politics of nonlinearity, hitched to a supposedly "out-of-control," "autonomous" technosphere and legitimated in the languages of chaos, complexity, Deleuzean schizo-analysis, and neo-Darwinian bio-babble.

This, obviously, is a matter to be taken up, at greater length, elsewhere, but a useful critique of "rhizomatic" politics would begin by interrogating its essentialist appeals to Nature; its science-fiction faith in a technosphere that has supposedly torn loose from corporate, even human, agency, and its unhappy bedfellow-ism with "neo-liberal" calls---whether ingenuous or not---for the dismantling of social programs and the decentralization of government (Deleuzeans: read "destratification"). Most of all, such a critique would cast a wary eye on the seductive charms, to Leftists who've lost their collective faith in engineered solutions, of a chaos politics that urges us to hitch a ride on the zeitgeist. Why worry, its apologists seem to ask, about the gritty, everyday details of social justice, economic equity, and other antiquated Second Wave issues when the "emergent" revolution of nonlinearity, "hive" mentality, fuzzy logic, and parallel processing will do all the dirty work for us? It is, as an early MTV tagline so memorably put it, Revolution Without All the Mess.

In conclusion, let me say, then, that we need Barbrook's unabashed utopianism and his spirited critiques too much to let him succumb to an obsolete xenophobia.

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This article first appeared on nettime 5/2/98

 
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