A Hacker Manifesto

McKenzie Wark‘s A Hacker Manifesto is a remarkable and beautiful book: cogent, radical, and exhilarating, a politico-aesthetic call to arms for the digital age.

The book really is, as its title says, a manifesto: a public declaration of principles for a radically new vision, and a call to action based on that vision. It’s written as a series of short, numbered paragraphs or theses; the writing is tight, compressed, and aphoristic, or a Wark himself likes to say, “abstract.” It’s not “difficult” in the way that certain “post-structuralist” philosophical texts (Derrida, Lacan, etc) are difficult; rather, A Hacker Manifesto is characterized by an intense lucidity, as if the writing had been subjected to intense atmospheric pressure, so that it could say the most in the least possible space. Deleuze writes somewhere that an aphorism is a field of forces in tension; Wark’s writing is aphoristic in precisely this sense. I read the book with both delight and excitement, even when I didn’t altogether agree with everything that Wark said.

A Hacker Manifesto owes something — both in form and content — to Marx and Engels, and more to Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (a book about which I feel deeply ambivalent). Wark’s ambition (which he calls “crypto-marxist”) is to apply Marx’s ideas to our current age of digitization and “intellectual property.” Unlike cultural marxists and “post-marxists” (who tend to refer to Marx’s general spirit more than his actual ideas), Wark focuses squarely on “the property question,” which is to say, on issues of economic production, of ownership of the means of production and the results of the production process, and therefore of exploitation and expropriation. Class is the central category of Wark’s analysis, and Wark defines class as Marx defined it, as grounded in people’s diverse relations to production and property, rather than using the vaguer sociological sense (a group of people with a common sense of identity and values) that is most often used today. It’s always a question of conflicting interests between the producers of value, and the legal owners who gain profit from the producers’ labor, and who control the surplus that the producers produce.

Modern capitalism begins in the 16th and 17th centuries, when — in the wake of the decline of feudalism — wealthy landowners expropriate formerly common lands, reducing farmers or peasants to the status of (at best) paid laborers (but more often, landless people who own nothing, and can’t even find work). (This is the stage of what Marx calls “primitive accumulation,” a useful term that Wark oddly fails to employ). Capitalism then intensifies in the 18th and especially the 19th century, when industrial workers, in order to survive, must sell their labor to capitalists, who control the means of production, and who reap the profits from the massive economic expansion of industrialization. Wark sees a third version of this process in our contemporary Information Age, where the producers of information (understood in the widest sense: artists, scientists, software developers, and all sorts of innovators, anyone in short who produces knowledge) find their labor expropriated from them by large corporations which own patents and copyrights on their inventions. Wark calls the information producers “hackers,” and refers to the owners/expropriators of information as “the vectorialist class” (since “information” travels along “vectors” as it is reproduced and transmitted from place to place).

This formulation allows Wark to synthesize and combine a wide range of insights about the politics and economics of information. As many observers have noted, what used to be an information “commons” is increasingly being privatized (just as common land was privatized 500 years ago). Corporations trademark well-known expressions, copyright texts and data that used to circulate in the public domain, and even patent entire genomes. The irony is, that even as new technologies make possible the proliferation and new creation of all sorts of knowledge and information (from mash-up recordings to database correlations to software improvements to genetic alterations), the rules of “intellectual property” have increasingly restricted this proliferation. It’s paradoxical that downloading mp3s should be policed in the same way as physical property is protected from theft; since if I steal your car, you no longer have it, but when I copy your music file I don’t deprive you of anything. Culture has always worked by mixing and matching and altering, taking what’s already there and messing with it; but now for the first time such tinkering is becoming illegal, since the very contents of our common culture have been redefined as private property. As I’m always telling my students, under contemporary laws Shakespeare never could have written his plays. Though nothing is valued more highly in our world today than “innovation,” the rules of intellectual property increasingly shackle innovation, because only large corporations can afford to practice it.

Wark makes sense of these developments as nobody else has, by locating them, in his “crypto-marxist” terms, as phenomena of “the property question” and class struggle. “Information wants to be free but is everywhere in chains” (#126). This means also that the struggle over information is more crucial, more central, than traditional marxists (still too wedded to the industrial paradigm) have been willing to notice. While previous forms of economic exploitation have often been (dubiously) justified on grounds of scarcity, Wark points out that for information this justification becomes completely absurd. Information is cheap and abundant, and it takes all sorts of convolutions to bring it under the rule of scarcity. This alone reveals the idiocy of “intellectual property.” Individual hackers (software engineers, say, or songwriters) might feel they have something to gain economically by controlling (and making sure they get paid for) the product of their particular informational labors; but in a larger sense, their “class interest” lies in free information, because only in that way do they have access to the body of information or culture that is the “raw material” for their own creations. And the fact is that, by dint of their ownership of this raw material, it is always the “vectorlist class” who will profit from new creations, rather than the creators/hackers themselves.

In making his arguments, Wark brings together a number of different currents. If his Manifesto has its deepest roots in the Western Marxist tradition, from Marx himself through Lukacs and Benjamin to the Situationists, it also draws heavily on Deleuze and Guattari’s notions of the “virtual,” as well as Mauss’ theory of the gift. At the same time, it relates directly to the practices (and the ethos) of the free software movement, of DJs producing mash-ups, and of radical Net and software artists. (Indeed, much of the book originally appeared on the nettime listserv).

Much of the power of A Hacker Manifesto comes from the way that it “abstracts” and coordinates such a wide range of sources. Wark argues that the power of “information” lies largely in its capacity to make ever-larger “abstractions”: “to abstract is to construct a plane upon which otherwise different and unrelated matters may be brought into many possible relations. To abstract is to express the virtuality of nature, to make known some instance of its possibilities, to actualize a relation out of infinite relationality, to manifest the manifold” (#008). Abstraction is the power behind our current servitude, but it is also the source of our potential expanded freedom. The regime of intellectual property abstracts away from our everyday experience, turning it into a controlled stream of 1s and 0s. But the answer to this expropriation is to push abstraction still further, to unleash the potentialities that the “vectorialist” regime still restricts. A Hacker Manifesto is already, in itself, such an act of further abstraction; it charts a path from already-existing forms of resistance and creation to a more generalized (more abstract) mode of action.

There are various points, I admit, at which I am not entirely convinced. Wark makes, for instance, too much of a separation between industrial workers and hackers, as between capitalists and vectorialists; this underestimates the continuity of the history of expropriation; I’d be happier with a term like Hardt and Negri’s multitude, vague and undefined as it is, than I am with Wark’s too-rigid separation between industrial production and knowledge production. Hardt and Negri have a more generous understanding than Wark does of the ways in which the information economy creates the common. I’m also, I fear, too cynical to accept the historical optimism that Wark in fact shares with Hardt and Negri; in the world today, I think, in both rich countries and poor, our affective investments in commodification and consumerism are far too strong for our desires to really become aligned with our actual class interests (however powerful a case these theorists make for what those interests are).

Nonetheless, I don’t want to end this review on such a (mildly) negative note. If anything, I fear that my comments here have failed to give a sense of the full breadth of Wark’s argument: of the full scope of his references, of how much ground he covers, of the intensity and uncompromising radicality of his vision. Whether or not A Hacker Manifesto succeeds in rousing people to action, it’s a book that anyone who’s serious about understanding the changes wrought by digital culture will have to take into consideration.

One Response to “A Hacker Manifesto”

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