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Author: Richard Barbrook

Imaginary Futures – Introduction to the Polish edition

I was sitting in a lecture theatre at University College London listening to the speakers at the final session of the Solidarity/solidarities conference on the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe. Jan Dzierzgowski had worked hard on this translation and I owed it to him to write a smart introduction for its Polish readers. Where better to find inspiration than at this retrospective look at the demise of the Cold War? Imaginary Futures is a book about the political and cultural impact of the technological prophecies which emerged from this geopolitical confrontation. Computers and the Net are much more than useful tools. For over half a century, they have also embodied utopian dreams in the service of imperial ambition. During the Cold War, the American and Russian empires competed not only to control space, but also to own time. The nation that was pioneering the future in the present could claim leadership over the peoples of the world. The Berlin Wall might have fallen and the Russian troops have returned home, but this technological determinist ideology has proved to be remarkably persistent. The cheerleaders of neo-liberal globalisation have spent the past two decades pointing out American predominance over the computer industry and the Net – and then ordering the rest of the humanity to adopt their socio-economic panaceas of US-style privatisation, deregulation and financial speculation. By painstakingly explaining the history of the imaginary futures of artificial intelligence and the information society, my aim is to equip the readers of this book with the knowledge to refute this passé argument. The next time that someone tells you that the post-industrial utopia is just around the corner, you can reply that this prediction is nothing more than recycled McLuhanism. The Cold War is over – and so are its made-in-America imaginary futures.

If I needed confirmation of this book’s relevance, I could find it in the air of melancholy at the Solidarity/solidarities conference. This event was being held to mark the 20th anniversary of the wonderful historical moment when the Stalinist monopoly over political power was breached for the first time: the 4th June 1989 multi-party elections to the Polish parliament. Within a few months, the old order was being swept away across Eastern Europe – and decades of mendacity and oppression had come to an end. Yet, as I sat in the lecture theatre, the closing session of this conference seemed to be as much a memorial service for frustrated aspirations as a celebration of revolutionary victories. One Polish member of the audience ruefully admitted that he and his compatriots now enjoyed that greatest of European privileges: being able to complain in public about how dreadful everything was. The excitement of 1989’s ‘springtime of the nations’ seemed like a distant memory when the region was being battered by the worst global economic crisis since the 1930s. Adding to the misery, its governments were still in thrall to the ideological choices that had been made during the transition to national independence and political pluralism. Neo-liberal economic policies didn’t just mark the break with the impoverished Russian empire, but also a commitment to American post-industrial modernity. The new elites of ‘new Europe’ had made the mistake of swapping one Cold War superpower’s imaginary future for that of the other. While I was listening to the downbeat discussion at the Solidarity/solidarities conference, I cast my mind back to when I first realised that our continent was on the brink of a momentous upheaval. The implosion of the Russian empire might have been a big surprise to expert opinion in the West, but it wasn’t to me. A Polish leftie had predicted what would happen in 1984 – and the opinions of someone who is on the side of the workers are always more credible than those who only think what is allowed to be thought. Trust your own, that’s what I say.

“It’s all over, you know. No one believes in the system. Not the workers, not the peasants, not even the bureaucrats.” Elcia was a Solidarnösc activist who had fled to London after the 1981 military coup. We’d first met when she and her friends were making a programme for their fellow refugees on Our Radio: 103.8FM. They would knock on the door of the house in Kilburn where the studio of this pirate station was based and proudly announce that the “mad Poles” had arrived to do their show. Yet, beneath this bravado, there was the sadness that they faced long years of exile from their homeland. Scattered across London were the exiles from the 1953 Berlin Uprising, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the 1968 Prague Spring. This new wave of Polish émigrés knew that they might have to wait 10 or 20 years before another attempt was made to overthrow the Stalinist regimes which oppressed the nations of Eastern Europe. They would be condemned to live in limbo – separated from their family and friends back home with their children growing up in England having little more than an exotic name to connect them with their Polish heritage. No wonder my friend was so jubilant. It was only three years after the military coup that had crushed Solidarnösc – and she’d been able to make a quick visit to see her parents without any difficulties. The secret police must have known about her subversive activities in London, but no one seemed to care in Warsaw. She was enjoying a sweet irony: “Remember what Lenin said? The revolution will succeed when the masses can’t go on in the same old way and neither can the ruling class. Well, that’s what it’s like in Poland now. It’s all over, finished, done with. Once Poland goes, the whole rotten structure will collapse across the East. We’ve won, we’ve won!!”

Elcia had read the historical conjuncture correctly. She could now move back to Poland with her son in anticipation of what was to come. Five years later, it really was all over. For those who weren’t around at the time, it is difficult to explain the liberation that we felt when the Cold War finally ended. I’d spent all of my adult life with the nagging fear that a stoned American pilot or a dodgy piece of Russian technology might accidentally launch a nuclear weapon which would start a conflagration that wiped out a large percentage of the European population. What made matters worse was how the institutionalised hypocrisy of the two superpowers had colonised the minds of people trapped on both sides of the Iron Curtain. This was a looking-glass world where the American bastion of democracy overthrew elected governments and the Russian champion of socialism sent in the tanks against the proletariat. Of course, it was easy to see the ideological corruption of this imperial duplicity in others. Our Polish friends from Solidarnösc were horrified when English leftists carried banners of Lenin and Trotsky on their demonstrations. We were disgusted when the workers of Gdansk gave a hero’s welcome to Margaret Thatcher so soon after she had brutally smashed the National Union of Miners’ strike at home. But, trying to get each other to understand that these acts of stupidity were symbolic gestures of defiance was almost impossible. Convinced that your enemy’s enemy must be your friend, too many dissidents on both sides had forgotten that they were united in a common struggle for freedom and dignity.

In 1989, when the Polish elections began a chain reaction which swept away the Stalinist regimes across Eastern Europe, there was the brief moment of euphoria when it seemed that the doublethink of the Cold War might be exorcised. Jacek Kuroń joked in an interview that he was on the verge of accomplishing his mission in life: restoring the rationality of politics in Europe by making the Left on the left and the Right on the right. The crowds in the streets of Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, Berlin and Bucharest chanted the slogan: “We don’t want any more social experiments.” They weren’t like their parents who’d been fooled by fascists who spoke like communists. This was Georg Hegel’s ‘end of history’ when utopian dreams are transformed into pragmatic solutions. On that magic evening of 9th November when the Berlin Wall came down, we celebrated in style in London with expensive champagne and strong weed. Power hungry US Presidents and Russian General Secretaries would no longer be aiming nuclear missiles at the major cities of Europe. The common people had shown that – with enough courage and determination – it was possible to overcome the violence and lies of a modern state. This time, the good guys were the winners.

Two decades on, the participants at the Solidarity/solidarities conference faced the hard task of explaining what one contributor called the ‘double disappointment’ of the hopes of the 1989 revolutions. Radicals in the West had expected that the collapse of Stalinism would lead to the emergence of a reinvigorated socialism in the East – and instead witnessed the nations of ‘new Europe’ embracing neo-liberalism in its most brutal forms. Oppositionists in the East had anticipated that the adoption of a free market economy would lead to consumer plenty for all like in the West – and instead saw the divisions between rich and poor within their societies growing ever wider. Of course, it is now all too easy to blame the shabby deals that allowed the Party bosses to plunder the state’s assets in return for relinquishing their grip over political power without bloodshed. What is more difficult to understand – twenty years on – is why there was mass support for the ‘shock therapy’ of privatisation, deregulation and cuts in welfare. Having rejected the failed social experiment of Russian-style Communism, sane and sensible people had voted in overwhelming numbers for a new social experiment: US-style neo-liberalism. It wasn’t as if there weren’t any other options. Just across the Baltic, there were the prosperous and egalitarian societies of Scandinavian Social Democracy, but, unfortunately, they lacked the ideological magic of the free market model. Above all, the American empire had seized the ownership of the imaginary future of the information society. As the transition gathered pace in the early-1990s, the arrival of the Net confirmed the correctness of this US-led path of modernisation for the nations of the East. In the same way that their parents had admired the industrial combines of Stalinist Russia, these ‘new Europeans’ were convinced that the dotcom entreprises of neo-liberal California represented the future in the present. No wonder that ‘double disappointment’ was the leitmotif of final panel at the Solidarity/solidarities conference…

In 2009, the Polish community in London is thriving. Unlike Elcia and her friends, a new wave of exiles has come here voluntarily to earn money, learn English and experience life in a foreign country. They take it for granted that they can move and back forth across Europe with no problems. The only thing that they’re escaping from back home is the conservative morality of the Church. You can move in with your partner without getting married as long as you do it abroad. Tellingly, most of the Polish students who I teach at Westminster University choose the ‘liberal’ option for Political Views on their Facebook profile – and they mean it in both the social and economic senses of the term. These are the children of the defeat-in-victory of the 1989 revolution. Solidarnösc smashed the Stalinist bureaucracy – and then the neo-liberal regime destroyed the organised working class in Poland. As this generation came to adulthood, the dream of dissidents like Elcia of founding the Self-Managed Socialist Republic of Poland must have seemed like a relic from a long forgotten theological debate. Let’s remember that – for them – Francis Fukyama had reinterpreted the ‘end of history’ to outlaw any alternative to US-style capitalism. There was only the American path to modernity.

The aim of this book is to help its readers to refute this ideological claim to imperial hegemony. On 15th September 2008, the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers marked the end of the neo-liberal ascendancy. George W. Bush – one of the most reactionary presidents in US history – was soon implementing the 5th demand of The Communist Manifesto: public ownership of the financial system. In such strange times, it is necessary to rediscover the complex history of the imaginary future of the information society. Here’s an interesting fact which is overlooked in the official accounts of the West. One of the first prophets of post-industrialism was Oscar Lange in the 1950s – and he was Polish. This visionary believed that the advent of the Net would provide the technological foundation for participatory democracy in both politics and the economy: cybernetic communism. With intellectual property withering away in cyberspace, his prediction does seem more prescient than it did a decade ago at the height of the dotcom bubble. If nothing else, Lange is telling us that the future is not necessarily neo-liberal California – and that the Polish Left can find its own path to a better future. The reformers of his generation opened the way for their successors to begin the process of dismantling of totalitarian rule. What they could have never envisaged was that one evil empire’s imaginary future would be replaced with that of its rival. As the last public act of his eventful life, Jacek Kuroń wrote an open letter in support of the people protesting against the 28th–30th April 2004 meeting of the World Economic Forum in Warsaw. Castigating the neo-liberal orthodoxy with the same contempt that he once directed against Stalinism, he called upon the dissidents of the 21st century to ‘create a new conception of social cooperation, realise the ideals of freedom, equality and social justice.’ What more needs to be said? I hope that the Polish translation of my book can make a small contribution towards fulfilling this goal. You can use the tools of the Net to invent new futures for humanity. Enjoy the book – and be inspired!

Richard Barbrook,
12th June 2009

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.