Virtual Marxism

In retrospect, it may seem that the the telematic revolution could only have successfully come about through a capitalist, not to mention democratic, society. After all, wasn't the Internet - the basis of this revolution - a by-product of the American military-industrial complex, one that contained the godless communist threat to western (and world) civilization? John Horvath suggests that a virtual communisme is evolving.

As ironic as it may seem, the so-called "revolution" that is now unfolding before us, via the mass and new media, undoubtedly bears much semblance to that of the communist revolution of 1917. Indeed, one can go far enough as to say that the kind of society that is now taking shape bears all the trappings of that which fell to pieces when the walls came tumbling down in eastern Europe in 1989. In other words, to what extent are we moving toward a state of virtual communism?

Communism as we know it differs in many ways from the theories espoused by the person regarded as its founding father, Karl Marx. Nevertheless, in this paper classical Marxist thought is acknowledged as the philosophical basis of communism, for the process by which the latter veered away from the former can help us understand why theory doesn't always translate into practice.

Having said thus, the foremost and obvious comparison that can be made between the world we live in and the time at which Marx was writing has to do with the the influence of major, revolutionary changes based, for the most part, on rapid advances in technology. In Marx's time, it was the industrial revolution; at present, it's the telematic revolution.

Both revolutions held (and hold) promises for the future. These promises are mainly in the area of work and economic production. The past saw a rapid increase in productivity, along with a proliferation of new goods and services; the future is expected to hold much the same.(1 )

In conjunction with this, there has been a rapid expansion in scientific thought in all fields. Again, technology plays a major role, for in both instances it opened the door to new inventions and discoveries. While in Marx's time we were gaining a better understanding of the physical world around us, at present telematics is unfolding a map of uncharted territories in terms of ideas (by which we deal with an expanded interpretation of reality), as well as transcending some of the physical constraints of space (better known as "the death of distance").

In short, it can be clearly seen, from a historiographical perspective at least, that Marxist thought and suppositions of our telematic future share comparable traits. The fact that they are both based on rapid technological change and an explosion in scientific knowledge is a clear indication that much of what had been said and done in the past has relevance to what is now unfolding in the name of the future.

Economic Determinism

Besides sharing a comparable historical basis, the communist past and the telematic future converge on two main points attributable to classical Marxism: economic determinism and liberation.

One of the major contributions made by Marx to historiography, as well as sociology and futurology, was the way in which past, present, and future events were judged. Economics was seen as the basis of all human activity; thus, by controlling this activity for the common good of mankind, a state of utopia can be achieved.

Such an outlook has now been adopted under the notion of the global economy. Telematics within the global economy paradigm is regarded as the new means of production. Apart from facilitating worldwide economic activity, it is believed that individuals will have access and the power to harness this means of production.

Unfortunately, this will not be so. The global economy is just as restrictive to individuals and small enterprises, and shall become even more so. Global trade is merely a synonym for global delivery.(2 ) Powerful multinationals have subsidiaries along the entire spectrum of economic production, so that they merely export and import goods and services among itself, thereby controlling the means of production and, in turn, market forces. In the past, companies used to compete with each other in order to do business within a country; now, countries are competing with each other in order to attract the business of multinationals.

The dominance of economic activity by multinationals through the global economy is not that far removed from the command economy of the former Soviet Union and COMECON. For the individual, the outcome is the same. Under the Soviet model, goods were scarce for the majority, who were non-Party members; under the global economy, goods are likewise scarce for the majority, who are Third World citizens.

Furthermore, the way in which the future is being planned is strikingly similar. The Five Year Plan of the past is now referred to by many in the corporate world as a "strategic plan". The strategic plan of the European Commission, for instance, is simply called the "Telematics Programme", which is divided not into "plans" but "frameworks". Although this plan of the EC uses a different name and runs every four years instead of five, the basic premise is the same: in the past, it was used to prepare for communism; in the present it is used to prepare for the information society.

The reason why such planning is ultimately doomed to fail is because the future of a society can't be regulated as with a company; there are too many independent factors to take into consideration. The only way in which such planning can succeed is if these factors are controlled, which is tantamount to controlling the individual. This is where the danger of the global economy lies.

In addition to facilitating the needs of multinationals within the global economy, telematics is also seen as a step toward the implementation of a cashless society. Although business that is conducted on the Internet directly is still somewhat modest, it is nevertheless expected to mushroom within the next few years. According to the Information Society Forum of the EC, business transactions via the Internet will rise from a present level of $400 million to $1,000 billion by the year 2000.(3 )

What may come as a surprise to most is that the idea of a cashless society was already worked out, and to some extent implemented (subsequently with disastrous results), by none other than Josef Stalin.(4 ) In fact, much of what we regard as corporate management has a lot in common with Stalinism. For instance, the fear that "if you are not satisfied with your job then there are hosts of people ready and willing to take your place," a technique commonly referred to as "management by terror", is a classic example.

As unemployment continues to plague the western world, coupled with the fact that jobs can be easily relocated to other regions, there exists now, more than ever before, a perpetual threat of job loss. In essence, the labor market has evolved into one of conditional tenure. As a result, most people live under the continuing threat of dismissal with no or little warning, while job loss appears to occur on a random basis. Meanwhile, various schemes have been implemented, such as pay-for-performance (which is seen as a way to increase productivity), further compounding the problem.(5 )

Hence, in this world of the nontenured, administered by fear, the firing squad has been replaced by instant dismissal. Furthermore, as technology increasingly isolates management from the rest of the workforce, they have become less accountable to those under their authority. Even management itself is not safe from this quandary. As Gordon (1993) points out, in the US "most of the unemployed are white-collar workers than blue-collar."(6 ) Thus, no-one (or at least, very few) enjoys the security of tenure; however, huge rewards are open to those prepared to operate without safety nets.

This uncertainty within society will only increase with the wide-scale use of teleworking. By altering working norms, teleworking will lead to an increase in worker isolation and, in turn, will reduce solidarity among workers. With the added pressure to become more productive, workers will be just as disfranchised as in the Stalinist model.

Although the disfranchisement of workers and other such social conditions have already been recognized to a certain extent,(7 ) advocates of the global economy and information society assert that its positive aspects will still outweigh such negative aspects. As with Marx, this optimism is based on the assumption of unlimited growth.

Like many thinkers, Marx was a prisoner of his time. The 19th century has been frequently referred to as the "age of optimism".(8 ) As mentioned earlier, the industrial revolution was in full swing; "civilization" was extending to the remotest corners of the globe and there was a rapid expansion of knowledge in all branches of the sciences. Accordingly, the feeling of inevitable progress, coupled with view of controlling nature, became the foundation for this optimism and the assumption of unlimited growth.

At the end of the 20th century, telematics is now ushering in a new age of optimism. In fact, telematics is considered to be the very key to this renewed feeling of inevitable progress. The economic benefits envisaged are higher levels of productivity, faster rates of innovation and discovery, and the creation of new products. In essence, there will be more economic goods, more employment, and a better standard of living.(9 ) This is the same "golden" future that generations living under communist rule were expected to sacrifice their lives for so that their children would reap the benefits. To borrow a phrase from the Stalinist dictator of Hungary, Matyas Rakosi: we mustn't eat the hen that lays the golden egg.

Liberation

While there are those who see economic opportunities afforded by the new media, others look to its positive social implications. Many recognize that as the Internet continues to expand, it will increasingly fall prey to commercial influences. Indeed, this fear of "info-capitalism" has prompted some to the conclusion that telematics and certain Marxist concepts are not mutually exclusive. For instance, in an online interview by Pit Shultz of Nettime with R. U. Sirius, author of the book "How to Mutate and Take Over the World", the question of Marxism "coming back through cyberspace" was pondered. Although rejecting classical Marxism outright, the author nevertheless sees, as many others do (albeit expressed in different ways), the potential for liberation: "I believe that capitalism ultimately dissolves in the net because of infinite replicability and immateriality. It's an extraordinarily dissipative medium." (Shultz, Pitt - "Tactical Toilet Training: Five questions to RU Sirius", Nettime) Thus, while the author and many like him may reject classical Marxism, the idea that the Internet provides a degree of personal liberation is one which is nonetheless parallel to that of Marx.

Writing at a time when the industrial revolution was replacing cottage industries, Marx and others of his generation felt that eventually machines would do all the work, sparing mankind from repetitive, daily toil.(10 ) In much the same way, telematic applications are now advertised as labor-saving devices, to the point that we shall be able to consume more and work less.

Interestingly enough, this same prediction was already made before in this century, during the post-war boom of the fifties and sixties. Yet instead of more time on their hands, people have been working just as hard as before due to an increasingly competitive labor market. Subsequently, telematics will only worsen the situation by making an already competitive labor market even more so.

Similarly, Marx and Engels predicted that the growth of modern industry would eventually reduce the working class to poverty, since it would drive wages down to the same low level. In the US, there is every indication that a like process is already underway as more companies adopt what has been termed "the high performance system".(11 ) Under such a system, technology aids in redesigning jobs and cross-training workers so that they become highly skilled, thus increasing productivity by allowing fewer people to produce more.

As a result of this, the labor market will shrink. Although advocates of the high performance organization contend that other jobs will be created to fill the vacuum, at present it is destroying more than it creates. Furthermore, there is a major disparity between jobs that are being destroyed and those that are created: the jobs that are being destroyed are for the most part long-term, high-wage ones; the ones that are being created, meanwhile, are low-pay, temporary ones.(12 )

In addition to this, Coulson-Thomas (1996) observes that high performance systems have thus far failed to deliver any of the benefits promised: "Much hyped and promoted with evangelical fervor, their propagandists use the rhetoric of revolution and promise of radical improvements in performance and productivity. Yet all around us what is happening appears as more of the same. Costs are cut and people seem to be working ever harder than more effectively."(13 )

To make matters worse, as these new patterns of work have begun displacing workers, governments in the western world are now cutting back - and seeking to abolish - the welfare state after spending decades trying to implement it. Therefore, while it is true that technology will free people from their daily toil, there is nothing in its place with which to support them. Furthermore, since the global economy will be based on consumption, the loss of high-paying, secure jobs will mean less consumers, making the whole concept unworkable.

Some, like Peter F. Drucker in his book "Post-Capitalist Society", sees this enigma of increased productivity vs more jobs sorting itself out with the advent of the information society. This is because society will be transformed into a "learning society", or as Drucker calls it, a "knowledge-based society". Whatever the term used, the main point is that knowledge will replace capital, land, and labor as the prime determinant of economic success.

Although the EC and other like bodies keep concerning themselves with the "building" and "implementation" of the information society, in actual fact the information society has been in existence for well over half a century. Indeed, it can be argued that the information society has its roots with the political regime of Lenin et al. The Soviet Union (and later on Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany) were de facto information societies, using and manipulating information for propaganda purposes. Although telematic devices were not available at the time, radio, film, posters, and mass rallies were all used for the same purpose. In addition to this, the "learning society", which is founded upon the concept of life-long learning, appears to be nothing more than a fancy expression for re-tooling workers, as if they themselves were just mere machines.

Compared with the Soviet model, then, there appears to be not much of a difference between the information societies of the past and future. In both cases education was and is valued for purposes other than the pursuit of knowledge. Under the Soviet system, education was utilized for political purposes; in the global economy, education is chiefly harnessed for economic ones.

Because of the propaganda possibilities available, it was only natural that education would become an important factor in Soviet society. This is why the "People's Democracies" exaggerated the academic achievements of its intelligentsia. In turn, most either became brutalized intellectuals or intellectual prostitutes. In fact, the legacy of this tradition continues to this day throughout eastern Europe and the former USSR; intellectualism ranges from partisan politics (e.g. in Russia) to self-censorship (e.g. in Hungary).

In much the same way, education will play an important role in the future. Edutainment, already fast becoming an alternative educational method in the US, is threatening to become a cornerstone in the "learning" aspect of the information society. A hybrid of education and entertainment, its primary purpose is to subject children to information that teaches them to become good, little consumers. Put more succinctly: "there will be no escape from it, even in places that were once sanctuaries from commercialism, like libraries, schools, and churches."(14 .)

Education, therefore, will undoubtedly play a major role in reinforcing the information society of the future as in the past it was instrumental as an outlet for propaganda, related to the communist interpretation of events. The difference between the two is merely semantic: in the global economy, the word "propaganda" is replaced by "advertising" and "interpretation of events" by "conspicuous consumption".

Apart from the shape of things to come, many value telematics - namely, the Internet - as way of leveling differences.. In the time of Marx, the main difference within society was social class; today, it is income level. Despite the rhetoric, under communism the class system still prevailed; similarly, although today there is talk of putting "people first" and making the information society accessible to all,(15 ) such a notion is bound to run aground since telematics is first and foremost a manufactured, not to mention commercial, product.

Still, for the privileged few who are able to afford a telematic device or live in a part of the world where there is easy access, the Internet represents a certain amount of liberation. In the words of Ms Lori Fena, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (a non-profit civil liberties and advocacy organization), it is "the most democratic mass medium the world has ever seen".(16 ) As the CDA court challenge demonstrated, the Internet was, indeed, a catalyst for democracy, for it made it possible to maintain people in a constant state of mobilization. The entire world became like a whispering gallery, with courtroom triumphs and errors, and their subsequent political ramifications, relayed worldwide as they happened.

Yet democracy doesn't mean only the ability to safeguard one's own rights. As the Information Society Forum (1996) points out, there is a danger that people will become narrow-minded and avoid responsibilities that go beyond their personal interest. "They could immerse themselves totally in their most personal interests and completely ignore information on what is happening in their communities, their countries and the world outside. Indeed, it is precisely this narrow-mindedness which now plagues eastern Europe and the states of the former USSR.

It is without doubt that there does exist a potential for liberation in the use of telematics. But, as the communist states had demonstrated in their application of Marxist principles, misuse or abuse of these potentials can just as well have the opposite effect. In the information society, this danger is quite apparent: if information is regulated, then the new media will be actually no different than any other form of mind-numbing mass media. What is more, it can lead to disaster. Present-day trials by the mass media are the result of the political mobilization of the masses combined with a regulated flow of information. Ironically, it was this same combination that lay the groundwork for the communist show-trials of the Stalinist period.

The Future in the Light of the Past

As with all virtual environments, virtual Marxism (or communism) means that its being exists in effect, though not in name. Moreover, although history teaches us nothing, we can nevertheless draw conclusions based on the lessons of the past. It is our task, therefore, to look to the future in the light of the past by seeking out similarities; in this case, we have the advantage of hindsight which can save us from making mistakes like those already made in the past.

Some negative effects pertaining to the global information society have already been mentioned in passing. However, there are others which need to be highlighted, for they also pose a serious threat to the well-being of human society.

As with Marx, what the "builders" of the information society have not taken into account is human nature. The way in which market or social forces will develop vis-a-vis the telematic revolution will not be according to a rational plan. Societies are made up of individuals, and how these individuals will act among themselves in a certain context or alone when faced with a new situation cannot be predicted no matter how scientific the method may be; to try and do so will only lead to failure.

Furthermore, what is often overlooked is that the real world is not limitless. An economic system that continually requires growth to sustain it will eventually fail, for it will indubitably outstrip the resources available. The environmental devastation in many former communist states shows how the concept of inevitable progress and unlimited growth, coupled with the egocentric attitude of man's dominant position over nature, can lead to disaster.

This is not to say that the environmental record of capitalist countries has been much better. In fact, environmentalism has now been exploited as a marketable commodity. In many countries the green lobby has been fooled into believing that information technology is inherently environmentally-friendly, and that it will consequently protect the environment to some extent by de-materializing goods and services.(17 ) Since the telematic revolution is a mere extension of the industrial revolution, the rift in the relationship between man and nature, began in earnest by the advent of industrial society, will only further isolate us from the natural world as the information society continues to evolve. In turn, the exploitation of natural resources will forge ahead, and the ability for individuals to become self-reliant will be made that much more difficult.

In addition to this, pressures on our physical environment will increase. As a matter of fact, the environmental problems associated with information technology in this respect are already apparent. The cradle of telematic civilization, Silicon Valley, has now become inundated with high priority toxic waste clean-up efforts, known as "Superfund" sites. And it is not only the natural environment that is affected, but the health of workers as well: "work-related diseases among electronics workers were three times higher than in most other manufacturing sectors. They came in second only to agricultural workers, who are exposed to high levels of pesticides and fertilizers."( Howard, Malcom - "Modern Information Technology a Dirty Industry", PeaceNet, Third World Network Features/Inter Press Service (via Nettime)

The most common argument for the environmental-friendliness of information technology, meanwhile, is in the area of paper. Because information can be created, disseminated, and processed through a single medium, it has been hastily concluded that less paper would be used, thereby saving trees. While the argument makes sense, what is forgotten is that technology is a double-edged sword. Since we are less restrained than in the past when it comes to the production of mass media thanks to applications such as word processing and desktop publishing, in conjunction with easier and high-quality printing, more paper is being used at a faster rate.

Moreover, since telematic applications have not yet reached a mass level in terms of use, much online information is reverting to traditional paper-based formats in order to capture a wider audience. Thus, until a large part of the world becomes "wired" into the information society, there is every reason to believe that paper consumption will increase apace.

Aside from paper, the global information society will also lead to a marked increase in the consumption of energy. While in some cases resources can be recycled (as with paper), this one cannot. True, in an effort to preempt this problem, manufacturers have already begun developing energy-saving technologies for computers. However, this cosmetic solution to the problem merely shifts the problem elsewhere. If the information society will become truly global in scale, then it is very unlikely that devices which simply shuts off a computer when it stands idle will be enough to offset a drastic increase in consumption. As of yet, this problem has not even been given serious consideration by leading policymakers. As with most ecological catastrophes, action is always taken after the problem arises.

Finally, there is the question of garbage. Since technology is expanding at a phenomenal rate, equipment is constantly being redesigned and improved, leading to piles of old and obsolete pieces of equipment. Although there is now an effort underway to make machines with reusable parts, there will always be leftover parts lying around, especially since the tendency is toward higher capacity and speed, in addition to increasingly compact, lighter, and portable hardware. So far, the problem has been contained as the Third World and eastern Europe have provided a dumping ground for surplus hardware.

But it is not only the hardware in use by the end user that is the problem, but other pieces of equipment that is used to "build" the information society as well. At present, there are about 7,700 man-made objects currently in orbit around the earth; only 6% of these are working satellites.(18 ) Also, much of this galactic garbage is radioactive. As the information society continues to expand, this situation will only worsen, increasing the amount of garbage already precariously floating over our heads.

Environmental concerns aside, the global information society will also give rise to a host of social problems. As mentioned earlier, the optimism for progress is based in part on an expansion of scientific knowledge, in where a map of uncharted territories has been unfolded before us. What most proponents of the global information society tend to forget, unfortunately, is that the map is not the territory. This basic premise is so easily forgotten because we have become isolated within a world of our own making.

Because of this, the global information society is steeped in ethnocentrism. Like classical Marxism, the values that are being espoused are being taken for granted as universal axioms. They are based on Judeo-Christian assumptions of the world and the universe and are indifferent to the needs and responses of other cultures. Because of this, those areas of the world outside the realm of western civilization have become (and will continue to be) victims of progress.

Progress, sustainable development, etc, are all concepts foreign to many parts of the world. Conversely, subsistence living is considered by western civilization as not living (or worth living), despite the fact that people have been able to live in harmony with their environment in such a way for thousands of years. In comparison, only a couple of hundred of years of industrial living has depleted resources and caused irreversible environmental damage. The global information society, as an extension of industrial society, therefore, will carry this destruction further.

But apart from the global aspect, within the narrow confines of the western world the future also looks bleak. Life in modern society is based on economic success, measured in terms of capital. However, since capital is no longer limited by the constraints of physical space, as in Marx's day, economic success will likewise be intangible. Meanwhile, as the benefit of technology has always been that it speeds up and eases traditional tasks, the effects of the global information society will be that people will be chained to the speed of unflagging machines in order to remain afloat; those who do not wish to accept this paradigm or who are unwilling to keep pace will end up falling by the wayside. The end result will be a profusion of people "living on the edge", which in any kind of society is not conducive to social cohesion and peace. (John Horvath)