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.