the hi-tech gift economy

The Legacy of the New Left

“... when ... [Ben Slivka] suggested that Microsoft consider giving away its browser, à la Netscape, Gates exploded and called him a ‘communist’ ...” [1]

The Net is haunted by the disappointed hopes of the Sixties. Because this new technology symbolises another period of rapid change, many contemporary commentators look back to the stalled revolution of thirty years ago to explain what is happening now. Most famously, the editors of Wired continually pay homage to the New Left values of individual freedom and cultural dissent in their coverage of the Net. However, in their Californian ideology, these ideals of their youth are now going to be realised through technological determinism and free markets. The politics of ecstasy have been replaced by the economics of greed [2].

Ironically, the New Left emerged in response to the 'sell-out' of an earlier generation. By the end of the Fifties, the heroes of the anti-fascist struggle had become the guardians of Cold War orthodoxies. Even within the arts, avant-garde experimentation had been transformed into fashionable styles of consumer society. The adoption of innovative styles and new techniques was no longer subversive. Frustrated with the recuperation of their parents' generation, young people started looking for new methods of cultural and social activism. Above all, the Situationists proclaimed that the epoch of the political vanguard and the artistic avant-garde had passed. Instead of following the intellectual elite, everyone should instead determine their own destinies.

"The situation is...made to be lived by its constructors. The role played by a passive...'public' must constantly diminish, while that played by those who cannot be called actors but rather... 'livers' must steadily increase.' [3]

These New Left activists wanted to create opportunities for everyone to express their own hopes, dreams and desires. The Hegelian 'grand narrative' would culminate in the supersession of all mediations separating people from each other. Yet, despite their Hegelian modernism, the Situationists believed that the utopian future had been prefigured in the tribal past. For example, tribes in Polynesia organised themselves around the potlatch: the circulation of gifts. Within these societies, this gift economy bound people together into tribes and encouraged cooperation between different tribes. In contrast with the atomisation and alienation of bourgeois society, potlatches required intimate contacts and emotional authenticity [4]. According to the Situationists, the tribal gift economy demonstrated that individuals could successfully live together without needing either the state or the market. After the New Left revolution, people would recreate this idyllic condition: anarcho-communism [5].

However, the Situationists could not escape from the elitist tradition of the avant-garde. Despite their invocation of Hegel and Marx, the Situationists remained haunted by Nietzsche and Lenin. As in earlier generations, the rhetoric of mass participation simultaneously justified the leadership of the intellectual elite. Anarcho-communism was therefore transformed into the 'mark of distinction' for the New Left vanguard. As a consequence, the giving of gifts was seen as the absolute antithesis of market competition. There could be no compromise between tribal authenticity and bourgeois alienation. After the social revolution, the potlatch would completely supplant the commodity [6].

In the two decades following the May 1968 revolution, this purist vision of anarcho-communism inspired community media activists. For instance, the radical 'free radio' stations created by New Left militants in France and Italy refused all funding from state and commercial sources. Instead, these projects tried to survive through donations of time and money from their supporters. Emancipatory media supposedly could only be produced within the gift economy [7]. During the late-Seventies, pro-situ attitudes were further popularised by the punk movement. Although rapidly commercialised, this sub-culture did encourage its members to form their own bands, make their own fashions and publish their own fanzines. This participatory ethic still shapes innovatory music and radical politics today. From raves to environmental protests, the spirit of May '68 lives on within the DIY culture of the Nineties. The gift is supposedly about to replace the commodity [8].


Epaminondas Cambanis Keith Whittle Andry Ratovondrahona Umaporn Richardson-Saema Mark Gatehouse
Javier Onate Zamiha Manji Irene Florou Umaporn Richardson-Saema Umaporn Richardson-Saema
Mark Smith Yami Trequesser Ricardo Amaral Svetislav Bankerovic Larisa Blazic
Arthi Amaran Chris Kakatsakis Samantha McKellar Christopher Aylott
Edward Cookson Joanna Griffin Matt Knight Julie Roebuck
Haro Lee Mayudia Mothar Sacha Davidson Tony Momoh Tony Momoh
Lizzie O'Grady Andrew Purdy Joan Smith Graham Fudger Tony Momoh