Print this page

Author: Willem Von Weelden

ARS ELECTRONICA ’96 INTERVIEW with Richard Barbrook and Mark Dery

The Liberalism Discussion

MD: I would simply add as a kind of hypertext link to that statement, the term ‘liberal’ in America means something very different [from the European use of the term. WvW] and I think the boilerplate phrase ‘liberal economics’ is more usefully phrased for Americans as a ‘laissez-faire’ Ayn Randian deregulated economics. Not liberalism in the sense of social policies but ‘liberal’ meaning the least regulated, the least statist intervention.

RB: Simon Martin Lipset says in his book American Exceptionalism: ‘all Americans are liberals’ it is just that they are either conservative liberals or social liberals. And that is part of the problem in the American debate; it is completely narrow. And he says quite rightly that there’s never been really a conservative party. You know pro-church, pro-aristocracy party since the revolution and similarly there’s never been a real socialist party, not even in the social democratic sense.

The Commodification of Social Theories and the State

MD: When Richard suggested they recapitulate Spencerian social theory it is interesting to know that the Spencerian theory was every bit as popular with the monopoly capitalists of his days as the neo-biological downsized demassified decentralized theories of Kevin Kelly are with corporate managerial theorists as Peter Drucker and Tom Peters, the last one being the author of the book Thriving on Chaos which is a bizarre carnival mirror, kind of fun house distortion of Deleuze in a very strange way. The disillusion of the body politics in sort of a flesh-eating viral fashion into a puddle of anomic atomized cellular units protoplasmicly going their own separate ways on the one hand echoes delirious excesses of Deleuzian theory at its most outermost bounds, and on the other hand the American militia movement at this moment, which also embraces very much the notion of micro-political resistance. Where have we ever heard that phrase before? Foucault sits upright in his grave and coughs a blood bubble!

RB: That’s the interesting thing there is this link between the New Left and the New Right which is: anti-statism which actually anti-democracy. Both are against representative democracy. They see the political process as inherently corrupt because it involves compromise, the articulation of interests. The both have the common fantasy of direct democracy. Pure speech actions between people. This is interesting because – in classical republicanism – media freedom was seen as part of participation in the democratic process, it was not the substitute for it. But both the New Left and the New Right saw the media as a substitute for representative political institutions. Guattari talks about the community radio stations as ‘the immense permanent meeting of the airwaves’ where people engage in direct democracy, bypassing the Italian state. As we know it is a very deeply reactionary idea. Because politics involves being a citizen and that’s the reason why I’m a libertarian Social Democrat and not an ultra leftist! You have to accept that we are not we’re not just members of civil society. Both deny this dialectic between membership of civil society and political citizenship.

The Future of the State

MD: Since you are looking for differences between us one difference that should absolutely be highlighted but should be triple underscored italicised and said in fluorescent wired day-glo orange: I’m not a Social Democrat!!! nor am I an academic neo-Marxist!!! I’m deeply, deeply disenchanted with the notion of the nation state and profoundly saddened about the perilous state of constitutional participatory democracy in America at this point which is not to say that I don’t think that it is a remarkably robust line of political code and that I don’t think it is inherently one of the more liberating political systems, but where Richard and I part company is that – in America – the federalist paradigm, the government has been effectively brought to heel and hollowed out and turned essentially into a sickafennic lapdog by corporate power that is evermore global in scope that flows with the frightening liquidity over national borders from whence springs all of this utopian rhetoric in the Wired camp about the end of the nation state, the end of geography in a sort of dizzy vertiginous hyper-real way that almost sounds post-modern. And again the discorporation from the immediate physical body. But in their hands, in the hands of what a New Yorker essayist called the ‘Tofflerist/Gingrichist alliance’ all this rhetoric of returning power to the individual and ultimately to the local level is really a very transparent threadbare blind for on the one hand utterly unraveling of the social safety net and laying the full burden of responsibility for the sort of social concerns at the doorstep of the individual, and simultaneously as I said in my paper dismantling the rickety framework of the nation state that even now only just constraints corporate power to clear the way for transnational media monoliths whose power is utterly unconstrained and answerable to no one. So the pernicious, corrosive enzymes of corporate power have effectively hollowed out constitutional democracy in America. And we need look no further than the recent capitulation to all of Rupert Murdoch’s attempts to roll back anti-monopoly legislation where essentially all of the inside the beltway power-brokers basically melt and kissed his ring. This is the moment to my mind where the state is in serious peril.

RB: This libertarian rhetoric is of a limited section of the economy and is an ideology in the classic sense of the word: it is a false description of reality. What’s interesting is that it is not a really successful economic strategy compared to the post-war period or the New Deal. State regulations and taxes are like physical exercises, nobody really wants to do them or have it imposed on them. A good example is universal access. One of the big campaigns of these free marketeers is to remove universal access from the provision of this new fibre-optic grid. It is literally going to be the virtual class that will be half-wired into the fiber-optic grid and the rest of the population will be left the decaying copper infrastructure. But if you create a mass market you need the masses to be on-line. So it needs the state to pro-actively built the turn-and-see value in order to electrify to…. If I were Time Warner I would want the state to organise the infrastructure and be able sell your commodities.

MD: But how do you respond to my critique, my misgivings, profound weariness, my trepedation about rallying around the banner of the state. As a Social Democrat, you sound much more sanguine about participatory democracy’s ability to disentangle itself from the tentacles of corporate power and I would like you to address the way in which corporate power profoundly undermined the fundamental tenets of participatory democracy.

RB: Political democracy is centered around state structures. If you are against the state in a very fundamental sense, you are against political democracy. It is about participating in political decision-making at a region a national and now at a continental level in Europe. That you have to state first and foremost. We are living within a mixed economy and each of these actors play a different role. But we have to be wary of saying that the state is disappearing, because in a sense it is accepting the propaganda but still the state plays an enormous role, in America as everywhere else. You have to be aware not to over exaggerate globalisation as we are still not at the stage we were in 1914. International trade is less important than it was then. After that we entered a period in which nations became radically autonomous, especially in the Depression era. Eastern Europe as the prime example. Everybody did this, everybody retreated behind the protectionist walls and yes they have been broken down in the last fifty years we reassembled a global trading system, but even now we are still not at the point we were at the beginning of this century.

MD: My question hangs in the air unanswered; your response to my question about the extent in which corporate intervention and influence peddling and the enormously long dark shadow of transnational corporate power pass inside the beltway which effectively to my mind parries participatory democracy. There is a growing feeling in America which gives rise to the Militia Movement throwing a lever in a ballot booth is essentially a sob for the masses and that the real decisions made in the corridors of power have everything to do with pacts and corporate influence peddling and that that acts as a prophylactic, a firewall against the real wills and desires expressed by the people. Your response to that is that we first have to concede that we are committed to the state, and the state is a really profound influential entity; I would not deny that the state has a profound influence and still exercises an enormous impact on the everyday lives of citizenry e.g. in America. The point is that the state is evermore ventriloquised by transnational corporate power. Let me give you a material example; the recent telecommunication legislation in America. A statist, highly interventionist radically deregulatory act. It is the issue that draws all the heat and light from the Wired people because as libertarians they are very concerned with individual rights; it is the Hyde amendment, the so-called Communication Decency Act, which is a hairball! A fleetingly brief mirage, a distraction! The real profound issue in there are the evisceration of common carriage, the roll back of the regulation that would prevent monopolies and given media markets. So this is statist intervention but it is essentially the hamburgler hand puppet given out at McDonald playlands, you know, so, it is operated by corporate power. The pincers of the state close on our lives, but the people manipulating those indicators are in fact a sort of Deakyanesque captains of consciousness of global corporate power. It seems that you have to take that into account when you sort of robustly singing the anthem of statism.


RB: There is a very specific problem in American because fifty percent of the population don’t vote, it has to do with the very bizarre constitution that you have that, as you can read in The Federalist Papers, was designed to obstruct popular will. Alexander Hamilton makes it absolutely clear if you read what he says about it. So it is partly due to the American constitution, so you need constitutional reform, the end of the division between legislator and executive, proportionate representation, there is rather a number of measures, and even on a more profound level since Roosevelt there has not been a political project in America which is of a very consciously articulated social democratic value.

MD: That is a distant geographically removed, I think academically aloof analysis of why Americans aren’t voting. If you descend to the ragtag and bobtail and ask them why they don’t vote they don’t say: We don’t vote because we think the democratic project has been brought to its knees by too much separation between legislative and executive branches. They say: I don’t vote because I feel it doesn’t make a difference! I feel that there is a profound disjuncture, a disconnect, a rupture, a bifurcation between this impotent, again, sop for the masses that I’m adopt a sort of a monkey on a unicycle performance kind of trained act that I play into the illusion of democratic participation when I doodively margin to the polling booth throw the lever and think that that has a profound impact when in fact that impact has largely been subverted by the real powers who have kind of woven their tendrils inside the beltway to the point where they have fenced out real democratic participation. It seems to me that the prophylactic alternatives, pragmatics progressive solutions, you propose don’t address the real gut-level visceral embodied quotidian reasons that Americans en masse are saying Don’t Vote! They don’t vote because it does not make a difference. To me it’s a no-brainer that it doesn’t make a difference because corporate power has unplugged participatory democracy by vast amounts of liquid capital with which they flooded the halls of representative legislation. If you’re going to make the case for the nation state you’ve got to look who at the end of the century in terminal culture is evermore ventriloquising the nation state. My position, my half-hearted animic endorsement of the nation state has entirely to do, following that analysis with the notion that is the last threadbare shopworn, flimsy prophylactic evermore rickety firewall between us and the raging fireball of totally unconstrainted corporate power that will run rough-shod over individual liberty.

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.