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Beyond the Avant-Garde
part 8

The New Left anticipated the emergence of the hi-tech gift economy. People could collaborate with each other without needing either markets or states. However, the New Left had a purist vision of DIY culture. There could be no compromise between the authenticity of the potlatch and the alienation of the market. Fréquence Libre preserved its principles to the point of bankruptcy. Bored with the emotional emptiness of post-modernism, the techno-nomads are entranced by the uncompromising fervour of Deleuze and Guattari. However, as shown by Fréquence Libre, the rhetoric of mass participation often hides the rule of the enlightened few. The ethical-aesthetic committment of anarcho-communism can only be lived by the artistic aristocracy. Yet, the antinomies of the avant-garde can no longer be avoided. The ideological passion of anarcho-communism is dulled by the banality of giving gifts within cyberspace. The theory of the artistic aristocracy cannot be based on the everyday activities of ‘herd animals’.

Above all, anarcho-communism exists in a compromised form on the Net. Contrary to the ethical-aesthetic vision of the New Left, the boundaries between the different methods of working are not morally precise. Within the mixed economy of the Net, the gift economy and the commercial sector can only expand through mutual collaboration within cyberspace. The free circulation of information between users relies upon the capitalist production of computers, software and telecommunications. The profits of commercial Net companies depend upon increasing numbers of people participating within the hi-tech gift economy. Under threat from Microsoft, Netscape is now trying to realise the opportunities opened up by such interdependence. Lacking the resources to beat its monopolistic rival, the development of products for the shareware Linux operating system has become a top priority. Anarcho-communism is now sponsored by corporate capital. [33]

The purity of the digital DIY culture is also compromised by the political system. Because the dogmatic communism of Deleuze and Guattari has dated badly, their disciples instead emphasise their uncompromising anarchism. However, the state isn’t just the potential censor and regulator of the Net. Many people use the Net for political purposes, including lobbying their political representatives. State intervention will be needed to ensure everyone can access the Net. The cult of Deleuze and Guattari is threatened by the miscegenation of the hi-tech gift economy with the private and public sectors. Anarcho-communism symbolised moral integrity: the romance of artistic ‘delirium’ undermining the ‘machinic assemblages’ of bourgeois conformity. However, as Net access grows, more and more ordinary people are circulating free information across the Net. Far from having any belief in the revolutionary ideals of May ‘68, the overwhelming majority of people participate within the hi-tech gift economy for entirely pragmatic reasons. In the late-Nineties, digital anarcho-communism is being built by hackers like Eric Raymond: ‘a self-described neo-pagan [right-wing] libertarian who enjoys shooting semi-automatic weapons...’ [34]

Threatened by the banalisation of the hi-tech gift economy, the European avant-garde is surreptiously embracing the capitalist fundamentalism of the Californian ideology. For this convergence to take place, Deleuze and Guattari’s anathema against market competition must be skillfully abandoned. First, their adepts deny the wealth-creating powers of human labour. Then the work of living beings is subsumed within the mobility of dead matter. Finally, far from being condemned as a ‘machinic assemblage’ imposed from above, market competition is sanctified as the apotheosis of self-organising systems. As in the Californian ideology, this Deleuzoguattarian heresy believes that the market is a chaotic force of nature which cannot be controlled by state intervention. Abandoning any residual connections with the Left, these TJs instead celebrate the new aristocracy of nomadic artists and entrepreneurs who surf the ‘schiz-flows’ of the information society. In this bizarre remix, anarcho-communism becomes identical with neo-liberalism.

As a consequence, the techno-nomads have to ignore the major social transformation catalysed by the new information technologies: the widespread adoption of a new method of working. Rejecting the ‘economism’ of the Left, many TJs have replaced the creativity of human labour on the Net with a digital vitalism inspired by Deleuze and Guattari’s theory-art. Denying the ability of people to determine their own destinies, these techno-nomads believe that information technologies are the semiotic forces determining culture, consciousness and even the conception of existence. However, there is nothing inherently emancipatory in computer-mediated communications. These technologies can also serve the state and the market. The Net was originally invented for the transmission of orders from the military hierarchy. In the future, electronic commerce will play a significant economic role and public services will increasingly be made available on-line.

At the same time, millions of people are spontaneously working together on the Net without needing coordination by either the state or the market. Instead of exchanging their labour for money, they give away their creations in return for free access to information produced by others. This circulation of gifts coexists with the exchange of commodities and funding from taxation. When they’re on-line, people constantly pass from one form of social activity to another. For instance, in one session, a Net user could first shop on an e-commerce catalogue, then look for information aon the local council’s site and then contribute some thoughts to a listserver for fiction-writers. Without even consciously having to think about it, this person would have successively been a consumer in a market, a citizen of a state and an anarcho-communist within a gift economy. The ‘New Economy’ of the Net is an advanced form of social democracy. [35]

The techno-nomads cannot comprehend the subversive impact of these everyday activities of Net users. As members of the avant-garde, they’re looking for the intensity of ethical-aesthetic ‘delirium’ within the flows of vitalist matter. For them, there can be nothing particularly special about the mundane activities of Net users who aren’t producing fashionable theory-art. Yet, at this particular historical moment, market competition is disappearing for entirely pragmatic reasons. While commodified information is closed and fixed, digital gifts are open and changeable. Instead of fixed divisions between producers and consumers, users are simultaneously creators on the Net. Obsessed with immanence of semiotic flows, the Deleuzoguattarians cannot appreciate the deep irony of this contingent moment in human history. This is the point in time when the old faith in the inevitable triumph of communism has completely lost all credibility. Yet, at this very moment, market competition is quietly ‘withering away’ within cyberspace.

Over the past few centuries, people within the industrialised countries have slowly improved their incomes and reduced their hours of work. Although still having little autonomy in their money-earning jobs, workers can now experience non-alienated labour within the hi-tech gift economy. From writing emails through making web sites to developing software, people do things for themselves without the direct mediation of the market and the state. As Net access spreads, the majority of the population are beginning to participate within cultural production. Unlike Fréquence Libre, the avant-garde can no longer decide who can - and cannot - join the hi-tech gift economy. The Net is too large for Microsoft to monopolise let alone a small elite of radical intellectuals. Art can therefore cease being the symbol of moral superiority. When working people finally have enough time and resources, they can then concentrate upon “...art, love, play, etc., etc.; in short, everything which makes Man [and Woman] happy. “ [36]

At such a historical moment, the European avant-garde is being made obsolete through the realisation of its own supposed principles. The techno-nomads celebrate digital DIY culture to distinguish themselves from the rest of society. Yet, far from being confined to a revolutionary minority, increasing numbers of ordinary people are now participating within the hi-tech gift economy. Rather than symbolising ethical-aesthetic purity, the circulation of gifts is a pragmatic way of working within cyberspace. Although it is impossible to predict the future of the hi-tech gift economy, one thing is almost certain. The intellectual elitism of Deleuzoguattarian discourse is being superseded by the emancipatory ‘grand narrative’ of modernity. As more and more ‘herd animals’ go on-line, radical intellectuals can no longer fantasise about becoming cyborg Supermen. As digital anarcho-communism becomes an everyday activity, there is no longer any need for the leadership of the cultural avant-garde. The time for the revolution of holy fools has passed. As has already happened within popular music, the most innovative and experimental culture will be created by people doing things for themselves. By participating within the hi-tech gift-economy, everyone can potentially become a wise citizen and a creative worker.

“...the word ‘creation’ will no longer be restricted to works of art but will signify a self-conscious activity, self-conceiving, reproducing for its own terms...and its own reality (body, desire, time, space), being its own creation.” [37]

 
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