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Re: <nettime> joxe's empire of disorder
Keith Hart on Mon, 2 Dec 2002 16:21:57 +0100 (CET)


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Re: <nettime> joxe's empire of disorder


There is more than one strand to this conversation, but I am having fun, so
here goes again. I have learned a lot from Ken Wark's ruminations on the
specificity of the communications revolution today. How can I deny that it
is the most significant aspect of our moment in history? I wrote a book
about it not long ago. As always, Brian's riff on the struggle in our world
is both invigorating and a creative extension of my deliberately
antiquarian post. Thanks to both. I would like to stick with the old and
new liberalism, however. My point was that anything of interest is old and
new at the same time. I am reminded of the screenwriter's adage that there
are only a few stories and the audience will kill you if you don't tell one
of them, but you have to tell it in a way they have never seen before. In
this case, I would argue that our chance to do something new rests on
something old dying. It might pay to ask what it is and where it came from,
since we are the creatures of a dialectic of old and new. As Ken says, it
is a Hegelian point of view, but none the worse for that.

When I say that we might borrow from the liberal revolutions of the 17th -
mid19th centuries, I do not mean to endorse small-scale entrepreneurship.
The issue is really to establish which war we are in and on whose side. The
liberal or 'bourgeois' revolutions aimed to displace the old regime of
agrarian civilization that had ruled the planet for 5,000 years. This meant
overthrowing military power based on landed property in favour of urban
commerce, civil society, capitalism, market economy, call it what you will
-- the power of money. The logic of the class struggle was made crystal
clear in political economy from Smith to Ricardo: shift distribution from
rent to profit and everyone becomes better off. John Locke's commonwealth
was a rather more ambitious appeal for democracy through personal autonomy.
He identified money with the fall from a state of nature, but this didn't
prevent him from being seen today as an apologist for capitalism.

To sum up my argument, the urban middle classes almost put paid to agrarian
civilization in some key places, but, faced with the growth of an urban
working class as a result of the machine revolution, they retreated from
their historical mission in order to shore up repressive structures derived
from agrarian civilization (notably the state, widely considered in the
mid-19th century to be an anachronism) in alliance with the old mitlitary
aristocracy. Landed power shifted from control of estates to control of
national territory in an uneasy alliance with the power of money. State
capitalism was inaugurated in the 1860s and is still the dominant social
form in the world today, if not the only one. Its reported demise has been
postponed by the Bush regime's espousal of what can only be called state
capitalism in one country (only). Unpopular regimes everywhere are shored
up by America's existence in its present posture, which is why they offer
such weak protest to outrageous policies.

Despite a consistent barrage of propaganda telling us that we now live in a
modern age of science and democracy, our dominant institutions are still
those of agrarian civilization -- territorial states, embattled cities,
landed property, warfare, racism, bureaucratic administration, literacy,
impersonal money, long-distance trade, work as a virtue, world religion and
the family. This is because the rebellion of the western middle classes
against the old regime has been co-opted by state capitalism and, as a
result, humanity's progressive emancipation from unequal society has been
reversed in the last century and a half. Nowhere is this more obvious than
when we contemplate the shape of world society as a whole today. A remote
elite of white, middle-aged, middle-class men, "the men in suits", rules
masses who are predominantly poor, dark, female, young and out of sight.
The rich countries, who can no longer reproduce themselves, frantically
erect barriers to stem the inflow of migrants forced to seek economic
improvement in their midst.  In most respects our world resembles nothing
so much as the old regime in France before the revolution, when Rousseau
wrote his discourse on unequal society, in fact. 

I take this to mean that we still have an enormous struggle on our hands to
displace the old regime from world society and capitalism has historically
been a means to that end, as well as having become thoroughly embroiled in
the state's latterday revival (as of course did the poltiical parties and
intellectuals representing working class and peasant interests). Of all the
errors of modernism, the greatest is the presumption that we have seen off
the agrarian past and can concentrate on removing capitalism from the
scene. When billions of human beings still work with their hands in the
fields and have never made a telephone call in their lives, we would be
unwise to write off the structures that got them into that condition. A
third of humanity lives in India and China, the heartlands of agrarian
civilisation at its peak. If they assumed their rightful position in world
society, what would that do for its predominant character?

There was a previous period when agrarian civilization was threatened by a
rising bourgeoisie. For 800 years in the ancient Mediterranean during the
first millennium BC, property in land slugged it out with property in
money, forming great coalitions led by some places you may have heard of.
First it was the Assyrian landed empire against the Phoenician trading city
states of the Lebanese coast; later the Persian empire against the Greek
city states; then Sparta vs Athens in the Peloponnesian war (in effect a
pan-Mediterranean war). The last great representatives of the two sides
were Rome and Cathage. When Athens was at its height, you would have had to
put your money (as it were) on a win for the capitalist revolution of urban
maritime commerce. When Hannibal crossed the Alps, half of the Italian
cities declared for him. Even among Rome's allies, there were substantial
factions supporting Carthage, despite Livy's racist claim that all Italy
rose up to beat off darkest Africa.  We all know who won and the lights
went out on urban capitalism for another 1500 years. Scipio sowed the ruins
of Carthage with salt andt the men in helmets with stabbing swords ruled
the world from their base on little plots of land.

This is not a flippant analogy. In the course of the 20th century, the
forces of statist militarism also almost won the world more than once. It
could happen again. Look at the Pentagon war machine, faced with no serious
enemy, and think of what happened to Athens once it went the way of
coercive empire. That is one reason for asking whether there are
potentially progressive aspects to capitalism today. The anti-globalization
movement (I know they are not all against it) is a ragbag of popular
interests who resemble the winning coalitions of the classical liberal
revolutions more than anything familiar to 20th century politics. But they
can't organize the world economy. Since a victory for our side (who? the
people of course) depends on embracing the communications revolution more
effectively than the others, it still remains to ask who will send up  the
satellites and wire in the billions who are excluded so far. It follows
that a democratic revolution will probably need the support of capitalist
interests for whom the old regime of state capitalism and its agrarian
hangover represent an obstacle to their development as well as to ours. 

There is a lot more along these lines if I am to get close to the concrete
scenarios Brian has raised. And I do agree with Ken Wark that the main site
of struggle requiring our analysis is over so-called intellectual property.
Perhaps a bridge to these concerns would be to ask, iof you could have some
capitalist firms on your side, who would they be and why? They won before
because of the power of their money, not their ideas. We could probably use
some now.

Keith

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