As one of those pathetic evolutionary throwbacks who has never used e-mail or the Internet, and has hardly ever handled a mobile phone, I can approach this book with all the supreme disinterestedness of a eunuch in a harem. In fact, however, the hacker of McKenzie Wark’s title is more metaphorical than literal. He means by it, rather oddly, researchers, authors, artists, biologists, chemists, musicians, philosophers and the like, all of whom he sees as “hacking” fresh concepts out of existing data. Hackers are the new proletariat, whose creations are being confiscated by what Wark rather obscurely calls the “vectoralist” ruling class. The time has now come for dispossessed innovators everywhere to form a collective class, and Wark’s manifesto is an opening salvo in this fresh form of class warfare. We have moved from the handloom weavers to the hackers, but the social logic remains the same.
What’s wrong with the word “intellectual,” in its broad Gramscian sense, to describe the group Wark has in mind? The modish word “hacker” is certainly more eye-catching, and publishers (even the prestigious Harvard University Press) are notoriously shy of allowing the leaden-footed word “intellectual” into their book titles. But it seems perverse, as well as unduly romanticizing, to hang a connection between intellectual workers and criminalized code-busters on an arbitrary metaphor. Calling all these diverse types “hackers” is also a touch homogenizing for a book that proudly declares that “to hack is to differ.” Do McKenzie Wark and the Master of the Queen’s Music really belong to the same class?
From a Marxist viewpoint, “class” is the wrong word in any case. Intellectuals, like butchers or lap dancers, form a group rather than a social class. They don’t, for example, necessarily share a single location within the means of production. Social classes are not just bunches of people with things in common. Senior citizens or people with bushy eyebrows don’t constitute a potentially revolutionary class, since they are not so positioned within the capitalist system as to be capable of taking it over. You do not become a revolutionary class simply by being militant, visionary, impoverished or oppressed. The peculiarity of Marxism on this score is that it is not up to us to nominate who will transform the system. Unlike a pope, the system nominates its own successor.
However, since doubts first began to emerge on the political left about whether the industrial working class was any more capable of revolution than people with bushy eyebrows, socialists have been looking anxiously about them for a candidate with a CV impressive enough to fill this role. Students, peasants, women, schizophrenics: All have at some time or other been auditioned for the part. Now, with A Hacker Manifesto, it is the turn of the intellectual innovators, or “infoproles,” to inherit this august role. “All power to the computer programmers!” might be the book’s less than resonant slogan.
It is not, even so, a project to be sniffed at. There is indeed a need to rethink classical Marxism in the epoch of video games, and this book, even if it takes itself a touch too seriously, is a searching, thoughtful meditation. The question that inspires it–where are the sources of resistance in postindustrial capitalism?–is a compelling one, even if the answers it provides leave something to be desired. A Hacker Manifesto is not just another postmodern carve-up of Marxism; on the contrary, it clings to a quasi-Marxist grand narrative, all the way from pastoralism to capitalism, in order to demonstrate its claim that the infoproles have now replaced the industrial proles as the last revolutionary class in history. Marxism is turned against itself, rather than fashionably dismissed.
Just as The Communist Manifesto is laced with upbeat revolutionary idealism, as befits its genre of political agitation, so is this curious blending of Marx, the French Situationist Guy Debord and the French anarchist philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Throughout the text, the hacker is resolutely romanticized. In Marxist terms, he or she stands for the dynamic productive forces striving to break through repressive social relations. But this notion of artists, programmers, biologists and the like as creative innovators is absurdly overgeneralized. Wark tells us excitedly that such types “create the possibility of new things entering the world.” But only avant-gardists and Americans believe that the new is inherently positive. The twentieth century’s big new political idea was known as fascism. The antiglobalization movement is new, but so is the war in Iraq. Biologists cultivate anthrax as well as penicillin. Programmers work for the Pentagon as well as for peace campaigns. Philosophers can be reactionary as well as enlightened. It is marketplace ideology, not radical thought, that imagines that the new is always to be championed over the old. It was Leon Trotsky who remarked that socialists had always lived in tradition. In his downgrading of the old in light of the new, Wark is unconsciously in accord with Donald Rumsfeld’s view of Europe, and very much a product of the social order he rightly criticizes.
A Hacker Manifesto also has a starry-eyed view of future possibility. In this respect, it has a remote affinity with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s rather too ebullient Empire. “Every hack,” Wark enthuses, “is an expression of the inexhaustible multiplicity of the future, of virtuality.” But the future is not in fact inexhaustible. We are closing down some of its possibilities forever by the actions we take in the present. Nor is the potential always to be preferred to the actual. If socialism is possible, so is nuclear catastrophe. Wark has an admirable vein of idealism; all he needs, in order to modulate it into realism, is a good dose of old-European skepticism. It is naïve to believe, as he appears to, that something called “information” is inherently valuable, and all that is wrong is the act of restricting it. Lots of information is either useless, trivial or pernicious, and there are restrictions on it–not sending the Central Intelligence Agency a detailed schedule of McKenzie Wark’s average day, for example–that are beneficial rather than malign.
A less glamorous word than “intellectual” for hackers, if a less euphonious one, would be the petite bourgeoisie. When A Hacker Manifesto tells us that hackers are hard to collectivize, feel suspicious of mass politics, stand somewhere between rulers and masses and cherish their differences, he is describing that “contradiction incarnate” (Marx), the lower middle class. Their interests, Wark remarks, are separate from those of the working class but potentially in alliance with them. It is, in fact, just this ambiguity that has made the lower middle class so slippery a political bedfellow in its day, as likely to be seduced by fascism as enlisted by socialism. There is little reason to believe that Wark’s army of French horn players and fashion designers would be any more reliable.
Even so, this is a perceptive, provocative study, packed to the seams with acute analysis. It is true that one’s faith in the nuanced nature of its author’s judgments is somewhat undermined by statements like “education is slavery” or “all representation is false.” There is an audible clashing of genres here, as the scrupulous academic in Wark does battle with the flamboyant polemicist, New School University meets the Left Bank. On the whole, Wark is at his best when he is not trying to sound like Gilles Deleuze. But then, who is not?