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Author: Richard Barbrook

THE HOLY FOOLS (MUTE MIX) by Richard Barbrook

The Lost Utopia

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 founders of Wired appropriated New Left rhetoric to promote their New Right policies for the Net. [2] Within Europe, a long history of class-based politics and compulsive theorising makes such ideological chicanery seem much more implausible. However, this does not mean that Europeans are immune from embracing digital elitism in the name of Sixties libertarianism. Ironically, this bizarre union of opposites is most evident in writings inspired by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.

Although these two philosophers were overt leftists during their lifetimes, many of their contemporary followers support a form of aristocratic anarchism which is eerily similar to Californian neo-liberalism. By doing so, the Deleuzoguattarians have unwittingly exposed the fatal weaknesses within what appears to be an impeccably emancipatory analysis of the Net. Trapped within the precepts of their sacred creed, the disciples of Deleuze and Guattari can’t even grasp why the spread of the Net really is such a subversive phenomenon.

At the end of the century, the superficiality of post-modernism is no longer fashionable among radical intellectuals. Because the Soviet Union has collapsed, the European avant-garde can return to its old obsession with Leninism. Instead, TJs look back to the libertarian spontaneity of May ‘68. [3] Even after decades of reactionary rule, the folk memory of the Sixties still remains an inspiration for the present. The democratic ways of working, cultural experimentation and emancipatory lifestyles initiated in this period survive – and even flourish – within the DIY culture of the Nineties. [4] However, belief in the overthrow of capitalism is no longer credible. Therefore contemporary European intellectuals have turned social transformation into theoretical poetry: a revolutionary dreamtime for the imagination.

The cult of Deleuze and Guattari is a prime example of this aesthetisation of Sixties radicalism. Above all, their most famous book – A Thousand Plateaus – now provides the buzzwords and concepts for a specifically European understanding of the Net. In contrast with the USA, a vibrant techno-culture has been flourishing across the continent for over two decades. Pioneered by computer-generated dance music, this digital aesthetic now embraces fashion, art, graphic design, publishing and video games. When it emerged in Europe, the Net was at first seen as a place for social and cultural experimentation rather than as a business opportunity. Unlike the Californian ideology, the writings of Deleuze and Guattari do seem to provide theoretical metaphors which describe the non-commercial aspects of the Net. For instance, the rhizome metaphor captures how cyberspace is organised as an open-ended, spontaneous and horizontal network. Their Body-without-Organs phrase can be used to romanticise cyber-sex. Deleuze and Guattari’s nomad myth reflects the mobility of contemporary Net users as workers and tourists.

D&G now symbolises more than just Dolce & Gabbana. Within the rhizomes of the Net, the Deleuzoguattarians form their own subculture: the techno-nomads. These adepts are united by specific ‘signifying practices’: computer technologies, techno music, bizarre science, esoteric beliefs, illegal chemicals and cyberpunk novels. There even is a distinctive Deleuzoguattarian language which is almost incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Above all, these techno-nomads possess a radical optimism about the future of the Net. While all that remains of hippie ideals in Wired is its psychedelic layout, the European avant-garde and its imitators still champions the lost utopia of May ‘68 through the theoretical poetry of Deleuze and Guattari. The revolution will be digitalised.

The Politics of May ‘68

Far from deterring an audience educated in structuralism, the hermetic language and tortured syntax used within A Thousand Plateaus are seen as proofs of its analytical brilliance. However, this idiosyncratic Deleuzoguattarian discourse is causing as much confusion as elucidation among their followers. For instance, the Rhizome.Com web site blandly announces that: ‘rhizome is…a figurative term…to describe non-hierarchical networks of all kinds.’ [5] At no point does this web site explain either the political meaning of this peculiar concept or how its principles might be applied within the Net. On the contrary, rhizome is simply a hip European phrase borrowed to celebrate the disorganised nature of the New York cyber-arts scene.

Yet, Deleuze and Guattari were not simply avant-garde art critics. The two philosophers were ‘soixante-huitards’: supporters of the May ‘68 revolution.[6] Deleuze and Guattari championed the most radical expression of Sixties politics: anarcho-communism. As its name suggests, anarcho-communism stood for the destruction of both state power and market capitalism. Society would be reorganised as a direct democracy and as a gift economy. The appeal of anarcho-communism did not derive only from its abstract theory, but also from its concrete practice. During the Sixties, anarcho-communists led the search for radical solutions to the historically novel problems facing young people. With the arrival of consumer society, the traditional Left policy of unrestricted modernisation appeared to have reached its limits. Once almost everyone had annual rises in income and mass unemployment had disappeared, the problems of everyday life took on increasing importance, such as restraints on sexual and cultural freedom.

Above all, many people now wanted a say in the decisions which effected them. They were no longer willing to accept leadership from above without some form of dialogue. Responding to these historically specific circumstances, young militants rediscovered and updated anarcho-communism not just as a theory, but also as a practice. Unlike their parents’ parliamentary parties and trade unions, the New Left could articulate their contemporaries’ demands for more participation. Instead of others deciding their lives for them, young people wanted to do things for themselves.

‘[Anarcho-]communism is not a new mode of production; it is the affirmation of a new community.’ [7]

The Romance of ‘Schizo-Politics’

Like other gurus of the New Left, Deleuze and Guattari believed that the state itself was the source of all oppression. According to their foundation myth, the state and its allies had been using top-down tree-like structures to subjugate people ever since the dawn of agrarian civilisation. Described as a process of ‘territorialisation’, they claimed that the media, psychoanalysis and language were the primary ‘machinic assemblages’ used by the state to control everyday life in the modern world. In contrast with Marxist analyses, Deleuze and Guattari believed that economics was only one manifestation of the state’s primordial will to dominate all human activity.

Facing the transhistorical enemy of the state was a new opponent: the social movements. Deleuze and Guattari thought that the traditional style of left-wing politics was now obsolete. As part of the ‘guaranteed’ sector of the economy, private and public sector workers not only had been bought off by the system, but also had their desires manipulated by the family, the media, the dominant language and psychoanalysis. Like much of the post-’68 New Left, the two philosophers instead looked to social movements of youth, feminists, ecologists, homosexuals and immigrants to ‘deterritorialise’ the power of the state. As part of the ‘non-guaranteed’ sector, people in these movements were excluded from the system and were therefore supposedly eager to fight for the revolution. [8]

In A Thousand Plateaus, the nomads poetically symbolised the ‘molecular’ social movements which were making the anarcho-communist revolution against the ‘molar’ tyranny of political power. Far from trying to seize political power, nomads used their mobility to avoid the ‘territorialised’ control of the authoritarian state. Similarly, the social movements formed a multiplicity of hippie tribes which were autonomous from all centralising and hierarchical tendencies, especially those supported by the mainstream Left. Along the ‘lines of flight’ mapped out by the New Left, the oppressed would escape from the control of the authoritarian state into autonomous rhizomes formed by the social movements. In A Thousand Plateaus, the rhizome became the poetic metaphor for this nomadic vision of direct democracy.

For Deleuze and Guattari, the overthrow of political power was only the beginning of the anarcho-communist revolution. They believed that political domination was only made possible through personal repression. The anarcho-communist revolution therefore had to liberate the libidinal energies of people from all forms of social control. The individual ‘delirium’ of schizophrenics prefigured the chaotic spirit of collective revolution. This meant that radicals not only had to detonate a social uprising, but also personally live out the cultural revolution. The New Left revolutionary was symbolised as the Body-without-Organs: a person who was no longer ‘organised, signified, subjected’ by the rationality of the state. [9] Such individuals were forerunners of the new type of human being who would emerge after the anarcho-communist revolution: a hippie equivalent of Nietzsche’s Superman. For Deleuze and Guattari, anarcho-communism was therefore not just the realisation of direct democracy and the gift economy. In their ‘schizo-politics’, the revolution would destroy bourgeois rationality so each individual could become a holy fool.

‘[The Fool]…is the vagabond who exists on the fringe of organised society, going his own way, ignoring the rules and taboos with which men seek to contain him. He is the madman who carries within him the seeds of genius, the one who is despised by society yet who is the catalyst who will transform that society.’ [10]

The Moment of Community Radio

Within the exuberant writings of the Deleuzoguattarians, there is a curious – and revealing – omission. They almost never mention Guattari’s claim in the Eighties that the Minitel system was about to replace top-down mass media with bottom-up ‘post-media’. [11] The reason for this absence must be found in the close similarity between Guattari’s Minitel utopia and his earlier dreams about the revolutionary potential of community radio. Paradoxically, it is Guattari’s anarcho-communist adventure within radio which provides the answer to why his contemporary disciples have developed such a curious affinity with the aristocratic ideology of Wired.

After May ‘68, many members of the New Left believed that producing alternative media was the most effective and fun way of putting their revolutionary theory into practice. In both Italy and France, the nationalised radio and television corporation had disseminated propaganda from the ruling conservative parties for decades. During the Seventies, New Left activists challenged this monopoly by setting up pirate radio stations. As the regulations against unlicensed broadcasting collapsed, thousands of ‘free radios’ emerged first in Italy and later in France. Although most were commercial, a minority were run by New Left activists.

According to Guattari, community radio stations were the only alternative to the domination of the airwaves by mindless ‘disco radios’. He wanted radio broadcasting to be used to create an electronic form of direct democracy which could replace the corrupt system of representative democracy. Instead of elected politicians, people would directly express their own opinions on the programmes of the community radio stations. The community radio stations supposedly prefigured the imminent reorganisation of the whole of society around direct democracy after the anarcho-communist revolution. Even this ultra-left utopia didn’t go far enough for Guattari. The ultimate aim of a ‘free radio’ was the subversion of bourgeois rationality and repressive sexuality within everyday life. When people were able to express their own views over the airwaves, Guattari hoped that the ‘delirium’ of desire would be released within the population. [12]

In the early-Eighties, Guattari was the leader of Fréquence Libre, a community radio station licenced to broadcast across Paris. However, it soon became obvious that turning Deleuzoguattarian theory into practice was impossible. Far from encouraging audience participation, the sectarian politics of the two philosophers actually discouraged people – including many on the Left – from getting involved in their community radio station. Guattari and his colleagues were more interested in lecturing the audience rather than engaging in discussions with them. This revolutionary elitism even extended the musical policies of the station. When some rappers approached Fréquence Libre about the possibility of making some programmes, the station refused to let any hip-hop crews on-air until their lyrics had been politically vetted! After they’d alienated most of their potential activists and audience, Guattari’s ‘free radio’ encountered growing difficulties in raising sufficient cash and recruiting enough volunteers to operate the station. Eventually, Fréquence Libre went bankrupt and its frequency was sold to pay its debts. Guattari’s attempts to turn theory into practice within the ‘free radio’ movement had ended in tragedy. [13]

From Stalin to Pol Pot

Techno-nomad TJs are attracted by the uncompromising theoretical radicalism expressed by Deleuze and Guattari. However, far from succumbing to an outside conspiracy, Fréquence Libre imploded because of the particular New Left politics which inspired A Thousand Plateaus and the other sacred texts. Unwilling to connect abstract theory with its practical application, the techno-nomads cannot see how Deleuze and Guattari’s celebration of direct democracy was simultaneously a justification for intellectual elitism. This elitism was no accident. Because of their very different life experiences, many young people in the Sixties experienced a pronounced ‘generation gap’ between themselves and their parents. Feeling so isolated, they believed that society could only be changed by a revolutionary vanguard composed of themselves and their comrades. This is why many young radicals simultaneously believed in two contradictory concepts. First, the revolution would create mass participation in running society. Second, the revolution could only be organised by a committed minority. [14]

The New Left militants were reliving an old problem in a new form. Back in the 1790s, Robespierre had argued that the democratic republic could only be created by a revolutionary dictatorship. During the 1917 Russian revolution, Lenin had advocated direct democracy while simultaneously instituting the totalitarian rule of the Bolsheviks. As their ‘free radio’ experience showed, Deleuze and Guattari never escaped from this fundamental contradiction of revolutionary politics. The absence of the Leninist party did not prevent the continuation of vanguard politics. As in other social movements, Fréquence Libre was dominated by a few charismatic individuals: the holy prophets of the anarcho-communist revolution. [15]

In Deleuze and Guattari’s writings, this deep authoritarianism found its theoretical expression in their methodology: semiotic structuralism. Despite rejecting its ‘wooden language’, the two philosophers never really abandoned Stalinism in theory. Above all, they retained its most fundamental premise: the minds of the majority of the population were controlled by bourgeois ideologies. [16] During the Sixties, this elitist theory was updated through the addition of Lacanian structuralism by Louis Althusser, the chief philosopher of the French Communist party. [17] For Deleuze and Guattari, Althusser had explained why only a revolutionary minority supported the New Left. Brainwashed by the semiotic ‘machinic assemblages’ of the family, media, language and psychoanalysis, most people supposedly desired fascism rather than anarcho-communism. This authoritarian methodology clearly contradicted the libertarian rhetoric within Deleuze and Guattari’s writings. Yet, as the rappers who wanted to make a show for Fréquence Libre discovered, Deleuzoguattarian anarcho-communism even included the censorship of music. By adopting an Althusserian analysis, Deleuze and Guattari were tacitly privileging their own role as intellectuals: the producers of semiotic systems. Just like their Stalinist elders, the two philosophers believed that only the vanguard of intellectuals had the right to lead the masses – without any formal consent from them – in the fight against capitalism.

For young militants, the problem was how this committed minority could make a revolution without ending up with totalitarianism. Some of the New Left thought that anarcho-communism expressed their desire to overthrow both political and economic oppression. [18] However, even this revolutionary form of politics still appeared to many as tainted by the bloody failure of the Russian revolution. Had not the experience of Stalinism proved that any compromise with the process of modernity would inevitably lead to the reimposition of tyranny? Consequently, anarcho-communist thinkers increasingly decided that just opposing the oppressive features of economic development was not radical enough. Desiring a complete transformation of society, they rejected the transcendent ‘grand narrative’ of modernity altogether, especially those left-wing versions inspired by Hegel and Marx. According to these ultra-leftists, the whole concept of progress was a fraud designed to win acquiescence for the intensification of capitalist domination. While the mainstream Left still wanted to complete the process of modernisation, the New Left should instead be leading a revolution against modernity. [19]

Once anarcho-communism was transformed into an ahistorical ideology, the New Left’s opposition to economic development soon developed into a desire to abandon modernity altogether. Following the May ‘68 revolution, support for rural guerrillas resisting American imperialism soon became mixed up with hippie tribalism, concerns about environmental degradation and nostalgia for a lost peasant past. Disillusioned with the economic progress championed by the parliamentary Left, many on the New Left synthesised these different ideas into hatred of the mass urban society created by modernity. For them, a truly libertarian revolution could only have one goal: the destruction of the city. [20]

Deleuze and Guattari enthusiastically joined this attack against the concept of historical progress. For them, the ‘deterritorialisation’ of urban society was the solution to the contradiction between participatory democracy and revolutionary elitism haunting the New Left. If the centralised city could be broken down into ‘molecular rhizomes’, direct democracy and the gift economy would reappear as people formed themselves into small nomadic bands. According to Deleuze and Guattari, anarcho-communism was not the ‘end of history’: the material result of a long epoch of social development. On the contrary, the liberation of desire from semiotic oppression was a perpetual promise: an ethical stance which could be equally lived by nomads in ancient times or social movements in the present. With enough intensity of effort, anyone could overcome their hierarchical brainwashing to become a fully-liberated individual: the holy fool. [21]

Yet, as the experience of Fréquence Libre proved, this rhetoric of unlimited freedom contained a deep desire for ideological control by the New Left vanguard. While the nomadic fantasies of A Thousand Plateaus were being composed, one revolutionary movement actually did carry out Deleuze and Guattari’s dream of destroying the city. Led by a vanguard of Paris-educated intellectuals, the Khmer Rouge overthrew an oppressive regime installed by the Americans. Rejecting the ‘grand narrative’ of economic progress, Pol Pot and his organisation instead tried to construct a rural utopia. However, when the economy subsequently imploded, the regime embarked on ever more ferocious purges until the country was rescued by an invasion by neighbouring Vietnam. Deleuze and Guattari had claimed that the destruction of the city would create direct democracy and libidinal ecstasy. Instead, the application of such anti-modernism in practice resulted in tyranny and genocide. The ‘line of flight’ from Stalin had led to Pol Pot. [22]

The Antinomies of the Avant-Garde

Ironically, the current popularity of Deleuze and Guattari comes from their stubbon refusal to recognise the failure of the anti-modernist revolution. Even when Fréquence Libre went bankrupt, Deleuze and Guattari never questioned their ‘schizo-politics’. Instead, they transformed the historically specific politics of the New Left into theoretical poetry which existed outside history. The libidinal intensity of revolutionary failure was much preferable to the limited achievements of parliamentary reformism. [23] For ‘cutting edge’ TJs, it is now almost compulsory to sample from the theoretical poetry of Deleuze and Guattari. Yet, this New Left revival is taking place in very different circumstances from the revolutionary Sixties. However, the political irrelevance of Deleuze Guattari does not discredit their theoretical poetry among radical intellectuals. On the contrary, the defeat of the New Left has enabled their disciples to complete the transformation of anarcho-communism from the hope of social revolution into the symbol of personal authenticity: an ethical-aesthetic rejection of bourgeois society. Although defeated in reality, the ideals of May ‘68 can be used to imagine a revolutionary dreamtime for the Net.

The aestheticisation of revolutionary politics is a revered tradition of the European avant-garde. Back in the Twenties, the Surrealists perfected the fusion of artistic creativity with social rebellion. Inspired by Lenin, this avant-garde movement claimed that the consciousness of the majority of the population was controlled by cultural mediocrity and puritan morality. Therefore radical intellectuals had the heroic task of freeing the people from ideological domination. Their innovative art would undermine the repressive cultural norms of bourgeois society. Their bohemian way of living would challenge the dull conformity of everyday life under capitalism. In this interpretation of Leninism, cultural experimentation became the privileged expression of revolutionary politics. Whether from the tribal past or the science-fiction future, any vision of a more authentic life should be used to subvert the cultural philistinism of the bourgeois present. Innovative paintings, sculptures, photography, films and literature would be made “…in the service of the revolution.” [24]

The cult of Deleuze and Guattari is the latest manifestation of this European avant-garde tradition. The change in language disguises a continuity in practice. Just like its Surrealist predecessors, the contemporary avant-garde equates experimental art and bohemian lifestyles with social rebellion. Despite their involvement with radio and Minitel, Deleuze and Guattari hoped that the ‘line of flight’ from modernity would lead back to the tribal past. In contrast, their contemporary followers have no ambiquity about their relationship with modern technologies. Far from desiring the destruction of the city, radical intellectuals hope that the Deleuzoguattarian utopia will emerge from the hi-tech Net. Using intellectual alchemy, they transmute their gurus’ anti-modernist scriptures into a philosophy of hyper-modernism.

This aestheticisation of May ‘68 is made much easier by the poetical style of Deleuze and Guattari. As in modernist painting, the ‘realism’ of the text has been superseded by a fascination with the formal techniques of theoretical production. For Deleuze and Guattari, theory was a piece of literature expressing authentic emotion rather than a tool for understanding social reality. Having failed in practice, New Left politics could live on as theory-art. Following this example, techno-nomad TJs sample Deleuzoguattarian discourse to produce leftfield philosophy. Yet, as with Britpop bands, something is lost in these respectful homages to the past. In the sacred texts, the rational analysis of society had already been replaced by the literary celebration of irrational desires. The European avant-garde is now discarding the few remaining connections with practical politics. Using Deleuzoguattarian discourse, avant-garde intellectuals recreate the May ‘68 revolution as a theory-art project for the Net.

Yet, like the Leninist vanguard, the European avant-garde is haunted by the fatal contradiction between popular participation and intellectual elitism. In their theory-art, the techno-nomads use Deleuzoguattarian discourse to celebrate DIY culture. However, according to the sacred creed, most people – including members of the DIY culture – are brainwashed by semiotic ‘machinic assemblages.’ But, when illuminated by the teachings of Deleuze and Guattari, radical intellectuals can amazingly cast off the mental shackles of bourgeois rationality and experience the redemption of ecstatic immanence. Although many are called, only few can become true disciples of the esoteric doctrine.

This elitism is a hallowed tradition of the European avant-garde. For decades, radical intellectuals have adopted dissident politics, aesthetics and morals to separate themselves from the majority of ‘herd animals’ whose minds were controlled by bourgeois ideologies. [25] Despite their revolutionary rhetoric, avant-garde intellectuals fantasised about themselves as an artistic aristocracy ruling the philistine masses. Following this elitist custom, the Deleuzoguattarian champion nomadic minorities from the ‘non-guaranteed’ social movements against the stupified majority from the ‘guaranteed’ sector. Once again, the revolution is the ethical-aesthetic illumination of a minority rather than the social liberation of all people.

Earlier in this century, this dream of an artistic aristocracy sometimes evolved into fascism. More often, the avant-garde supported totalitarian tendancies within the Left. Nowadays, cultural elitism can easily turn into implicit sympathy with neo-liberalism. The European avant-garde – and its imitators – could never openly support the free market fundamentalism of the Californian ideology. Yet, as TJs cut ‘n’ mix, the distinctions between right and left libertarianism are blurring. On the one hand, the Californian ideologues claim that a heroic minority of cyber-entrepreneurs is emerging from the fierce competition of the electronic marketplace. On the other hand, the Deleuzoguattarians believe that this new elite consists of cool TJs and hip artists who release subversive ‘assemblages of enunciation’ into the Net. In both the Californian ideology and Deleuzoguattarian discourse, primitivism and futurism are combined to produce the apotheosis of individualism: the cyborg Nietzschean Superman.

‘…the possibility…to rear a master race, the future “masters of the earth”; – a new tremendous aristocracy…in which… philosophical men of power and artist-tyrants will…work as artists on “man” himself.’ [26]

The Hi-Tech Gift Economy

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the contemporary avant-garde must substitute itself for the missing political vanguard. The techno-nomads therefore remix Leninism into Deleuzoguattarian discourse: subversive theory-art ‘deterritorialises’ the semiotic ‘machinic assemblages’ controlling the minds of the majority. Lenin is morphed into Nietzsche. In the late-Nineties, revolutionary elitism can only be expressed in the words of May ‘68. Yet, important pioneers of the New Left were highly critical of this tradition of cultural elitism. For instance, the Situationists advocated transforming the social context of cultural production rather than the aesthetics of art. Instead of following the avant-garde elite, everyone should have the opportunity to express themselves. [27]

Above all, the Situationists looked for ways of living which were free from the corruptions of consumer capitalism. Despite their Hegelian modernism, they claimed that anarcho-communism had been prefigured by the potlatch: the gift economy of Polynesian tribes. Within these primitive societies, the circulation of gifts bound people together into tribes and encouraged cooperation between different tribes. This tribal gift economy demonstrated that individuals could successfully live together without needing either the state or the market. However, the Situationists believed that here could be no compromise between tribal authenticity and bourgeois alienation. After the social revolution, the potlatch would completely supplant the commodity. [28]

Following May ‘68, this purist vision of anarcho-communism inspired a generation of cultural activists. Emancipatory media supposedly could only be produced within the gift economy. During the late-Seventies, pro-situ attitudes were further popularised by the punk movement. From then to the present-day, the ‘cutting edge’ of music has remained participatory. Crucially, every user of the Net is now also participating within a gift economy. Without even thinking about it, people continually circulate information between each other for free. They cooperate together without the direct mediation of either politics or money. Far from being the privilege of intellectuals, anarcho-communism is the mundane activity of ordinary people within cyberspace.

From the beginning, the gift economy has determined the technical and social structure of the Net. Although funded by the Pentagon, the Net could only be successfully developed by letting its users build the system for themselves. Within the academic community, the gift economy has long been the primary method of socialising labour. Funded by the state or by donations, scientists publicise their research results by ‘giving papers’ and by ‘contributing articles’. Despite the dispersed nature of this educational gift economy, academics acquire intellectual respect from each other through citations in articles and other forms of public acknowledgement. The collaboration of many different scientists is only possible through the free distribution of information. [29]

From its earliest days, the free exchange of information has been firmly embedded within the technologies and social mores of cyberspace. Above all, the founders of the Net never bothered to protect intellectual property within computer-mediated communications. Far from wanting to enforce copyright, they tried to eliminate all barriers to the distribution of information. Within the commercial creative industries, advances in digital reproduction are feared for making the ‘piracy’ of copyright material ever easier. In contrast, the academic gift economy welcomes technologies which improve the availability of data. Users should always be able to obtain and manipulate information with the minimum of impediments. The design of the Net therefore assumes that intellectual property is technically and socially obsolete.

Even though the system has expanded far beyond the university, the Net remains predominantly a gift economy. From scientists through hobbyists to the general public, the charmed circle of users was slowly built up through the adhesion of many localised networks to an agreed set of protocols. Crucially, the common standards of the Net include social conventions as well as technical rules. The giving and receiving of information without payment is almost never questioned. Even selfish reasons encourage people to become anarcho-communists within cyberspace. By adding their own presence, every user contributes to the collective knowledge accessible to those already on-line. In return, each individual has potential access to all the information made available by others within the Net. Everyone takes far more out of the Net than they can ever give away as an individual. [30]

Despite the commercialisation of cyberspace, the self-interest ensures that the hi-tech gift economy continues to flourish. For most users, the Net is somewhere to work, play, love, learn and discuss with other people. Unrestricted by physical distance, they collaborate with each other without the direct mediation of money or politics. Unconcerned about copyright, they give and receive information without thought of payment. In the absence of states or markets to mediate social bonds, network communities are instead formed through the mutual obligations created by gifts of time and ideas.

The hi-tech gift economy is even at the forefront of software development. For instance, Bill Gates admits that Microsoft’s biggest competitor in the provision of web servers comes from the Apache program. [31] Instead of being marketed by a commercial company, this program is shareware. Because its source code is not protected by copyright, Apache servers can be modified, amended and improved by anyone with the appropriate programming skills. Shareware programs are now beginning to threaten the core product of the Microsoft empire: the Windows operating system. Starting from the original software program by Linus Torvalds, a community of user-developers are together building their own non-proprietory operating system: Linux. For the first time, Windows has a real competitor. [32]

Beyond the Avant-Garde

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]


[1] Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, Pan, London 1947.

[2] See Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, ‘The Californian Ideology’.

[3] A TJ is a ‘theory-jockey’: Amsterdam slang for intellectuals who cut ‘n’ mix philosophies like DJs in a club.

[4] DIY stands for ‘do-it-yourself’. See Elaine Brass and Sophie Poklewski Koziell with Denise Searle (ed.), Gathering Force: DIY culture – radical action for those tired of waiting, Big Issue, London 1997.

[5] See the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) section on Rhizome (was, now

[6] “May ‘68 was a demonstration, an irruption, of a becoming in its pure state… Men’s only hope lies in a revolutionary becoming: the only way of casting off their shame or responding to what is intolerable.” Gilles Deleuze, ‘Control and Becoming’, Negotiations: 1972-1990, Columbia University Press, New York 1995.

[7] Jacques Camatte, The Wandering of Humanity, Black & Red, Detroit 1975.

[8] See Félix Guattari, Molecular Revolution: psychiatry and politics, Penguin, London 1994.

[9] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia, Athlone Press, London 1988.

[10] Alfred Douglas, The Tarot. This Gnostic vision of human freedom is remarkably close to the liberating role of insanity championed by the two philosophers.

[11] See Félix Guattari, ‘Three Ecologies’, New Formations, Number 8.

[12] See Félix Guattari, ‘Les Radios Libres Populaires’ in Pascal Defrance (ed.), De la Necessité Socio-culturelles de l’Existence de Radios Libres Indépendantes; and his introduction to Collectif A/Traverso, Radio Alice, Radio Libre (translated in Molecular Revolution: psychiatry and politics).

[13] Jean-Paul Simard, Interview with Author, Fréquence Libre, April 1985; and Annick Cojean and Frank Eskenazi, FM: la folle histoire des radios libres, Grasset, Paris, 1986.

[14] The vanguard was a military term used for the advance guard who opened up the path for the main army. Applied to politics, this phrase emphasised the leadership role of radical intellectuals within revolutionary organisations.

[15] For a critique of New Left vanguardism, see Jo Freeman, ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ in CS (ed.), Untying the Knot: feminism, anarchism & organisation, Dark Star/Rebel Press, London 1984.

[16] See V.I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?: burning questions of our movement, Foreign Language Press, Beijing 1975; and Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, Merlin, London 1968.

[17] See Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays, New Left Books, London 1971.

[18] Above all, anarcho-communism was seen as the heir of those Left Communists who had fought for direct democracy organised through the Soviets against the dictatorship of the Leninist party. See Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks & Workers’ Control: 1917-1921, Solidarity, London 1970; and Ida Mett, The Kronstadt Uprising 1921, Solidarity, London 1967.

[19] See Jacques Camatte, The Wandering of Humanity. Of course, a much diluted variant of this attack on oppressive ‘grand narratives’ later formed the ideological basis for the self-styled post-modernists.

[20] In classic New Left films like Weekend and Themroc, rebellion against a repressive and alienating urban society was symbolically represented through a return to primitive simplicity. Curiously, both films portrayed cannibalism as the ultimate expression of liberation from bourgeois morality!

[21] See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus.

[22] Apart from its emphasis on peasants rather than nomads, Khmer Rouge ideology was very similar to the anti-modernism espoused by Deleuze and Guattari. See Michael Vickery, Cambodia: 1975-1982, Allen and Unwin, Hemel Hempstead 1984.

[23] In contrast, most of their contemporaries gravitated towards either electoral politics or post-modern nihilism. See Jean-Pierre Garnier and Roland Lew, ‘From The Wretched Of The Earth To The Defence Of The West: an essay on Left disenchantment in France’, Socialist Register 1984: the uses of anti-communism, Merlin, London 1984.

[24] From 1930 to 1933, the Surrealists’ journal was called Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution. See Helena Lewis, Dada Turns Red: the politics of surrealism, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 1990.

[25] According to Nietzsche, the culturally impoverished masses were ‘herd animals’ compared to the ‘eagles’ of the artistic world.

[26] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, Vintage, New York 1968. Deleuze commended Nietzsche for the ‘positive task’ of inventing the reactionary concept of the Superman.

[27] See Ken Knabb (ed.), Situationist International Anthology, Bureau of Public Secrets, California 1981.

[28] See Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, Practical Paradise, London 1972. The Situationists discovered the tribal gift economy in Marcel Mauss, The Gift.

[29] See Warren O. Hagstrom, ‘Gift Giving as an Organisational Principle in Science’ in Barry Barnes and David Edge, Science in Context: readings in the sociology of science, The Open University, Milton Keynes 1982.

[30] See Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, ‘Cooking Pot Markets: an economic model for the trade in free goods and services on the Internet’.

[31] See Keith W. Porterfield, ‘Information Wants to be Valuable: a report from the first O’Reilly Perl conference’.

[32] See Eric C. Raymond, ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’.

[33] See Netscape Communications Corporation, ‘Netscape Announces Plans to Make Next-Generation Communicator Source Code Available Free on the Net’.

[34] Andrew Leonard, ‘Let My Software Go!’.

[35] Wired uses ‘The New Economy’ as a synonym for its neo-liberal fantasies about the digital future.

[36] Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY 1969.

[37] Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick NJ 1984.

Within this MySpace version of the electronic agora, cybernetic communism was mainstream and unexceptional. What had once been a revolutionary dream was now an enjoyable part of everyday life.