The Stalder/Holmes debate on technopolitics
This continues the series of "Three nettime posts on the Egyptian Uprising." Felix launched this debate by suggesting that the fall of Mubarak was the end of the process of eliminating outmoded central-planning and dictatorial state-forms that started in 1989. I proposed it was beginning of the breakdown of a 30-year attempt to stabilize the new conditions of globalization. The discussion then shifted onto technopolitical ground in the posts below, as I tried to describe the paradigm of neoliberal informationalism and Felix sorted out what he would and would not accept in that description. This pushed me to finally accept (in a slightly modified form) the idea that the current crisis is a regulation crisis of informationalism. Great debate!
On Wednesday February 9 2011, Brian Holmes wrote:
> We think there is a link between financially driven globalization,
> just-in-time production, smart-weapons warfare and the rise of the
> Internet: all of that begins in the early 70s, starts to develop
> seriously in the 80s and comes to a peak in the late 90s and early
> 00s; and it's all associated with changes in organizational forms,
> media, cultural values, even the very definition of money. In short,
> it's a different paradigm.
Well, the question is, what kind of links? If I read you correctly, these are the some of the dimensions that make up the paradigm you call informationalism, and if one goes down, the other go as well. The revolt in Egypt then is just the latest sign of the whole edifice unraveling, aka the beginning of the end.
I'm not sure I can follow you here.
First, I don't think the revolts in the Arab world are a product of the financial crisis, or, even react to the same underlying structural problems. I think they react to different things: a combination of the rise in food prices (relating to a real degree to global warming issues, e.g. Russia not exporting any grain due to record droughts last summer and Egypt being the world's biggest grain importer ), corrupt and sclerotic regimes way past their time, and empowered youth thanks to digital technologies. The regimes are sclerotic not because they are run by very old men, but because they embody structures that are outdated and cannot reform themselves to a new environment. We saw this happening in Russia and its periphery and now we are seeing happening again in Arab World. It's perhaps not a co-incidence that Mubarak was trained as an air force pilot in the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, a time when Arab nationalism was left wing. This is why I compared it to Berlin 1989, not because I think the outcome of these uprisings will be the same.
I think it would be a analytical mistake not to account sufficiently for the degree to which major institutions can lag behind other currents in society (most importantly, the economy and civil society) and the fact that several logics can and do co-exist on different levels at the same time. And geo-political arrangements are certainly among the most complex forms of governmental institutions so there is no surprise that they can outlive the conditions that produced them for a long time, at least in certain areas, such as the middle east. This why I see this as the end of the end.
Second, I don't think the things in the quote above are in the same category, thus they should not be lumped together even though they are linked. Let me explain. In my view, informationalism is an particular organizational paradigm that enables to combine flexibility and scale at previously unmanageable levels of complexity, based high-speed, high-volume information flows. It does not relate to a particular political or economic program. Financial globalization is one way to implement this organizational capacity to achieve particular economic and political ends. Just-in-time production is another, but also the rise of a global civil society, the alter-globalization movement, the global criminal economy and whatnot. They all belong together because they implement this organizational paradigm and some of its basic values such as diversity, flexibility and networking. Still, they are not a solid edifice where one element depends on the other. Rather, they comprise a mess of competing agendas and power struggles.
So, unless you are talking about "de-growth" and real subsistence economy, you will be stuck within the informational paradigm. Personally, I think this is a good thing, because it's informationalism that allows to ggregate people's intelligence in new ways and create new kinds of (post-representational) politics. Parts of that are played out in central Cairo. So, rather than seeing this as the peak of the paradigm, it's the very paradigm triumphing yet again over the previous, obsolete one.
On 02/09/2011 09:02 AM, Felix Stalder wrote:
> rather than seeing this as the peak of the [informational] paradigm, it's the very paradigm triumphing yet again over the previous, obsolete one.
Felix, your view is the intuitive one, which sees the hoped-for collapse of the Mubarak regime as a consequence, more or less, of the freedom to communicate: in a situation made tense by rising food prices, liberal informationalism finally exerts its effects. I don't have any argument with that as far as it goes, but my counter-intuitive view looks into the future and asks, What could this springtime of the Arab world mean for geopolitical alignments based on the hegemonic role of the US, not only as a military power but as the society which has defined the current "information era"? Responding to my post, Charles Turner makes the point that "fortunately, the people of Egypt don't have to assimilate all of this to know what to do." Still, everyone including the Egyptians will have to assimilate a basic change in the geopolitical order, equivalent in magnitude to the one that took place after 1989, if such a change does in fact occur. That's what seems so fascinating to me in the present!
I do disagree when you say that "informationalism is a particular organizational paradigm that enables to combine flexibility and scale at previously unmanageable levels of complexity, based high-speed, high-volume information flows. It does not relate to a particular political or economic program." The reason I disagree is simple path-dependency: that organizational paradigm DID relate to a particular political and economic program, which responded to an historically particular kind of crisis, namely the one of the 1970s. Eactly this is what gives a specific character to a period. In addition to the general decline in corporate profitability, the key factors of the crisis of the seventies were the self-assertion of resource-providing "third world" countries (such as Vietnam, the OPEC group, Iran); the uncertainties brought by floating exchange rates after the breakdown of Bretton-Woods; and domestic pressure for a more open, less repressive and materialistic society. The response ultimately produced a characteristic set of relations between financialization, just-in-time production and what's usually called "the revolution in military affairs." Now, I am not trying to say that information technology can't be used for other things (global civil society among them). But I am trying to say that a certain form of stability and order, however repressive and environmentally damaging, has been characteristic of the age in which information technology became the mainstay of the world economy, and I really think that is what should be called informationalism. Funny enough, this is exactly the way Manuel Castells sees it in what I think is his best book, The Informational City (1989). He defines informationalism not just as an organizational paradigm but as a full-fledged and specific mode of development:
"Modes of development emerge from the interaction between scientific and technological discovery and the organizational integration of such discoveries in the processes of production and management... The transition between modes of development is not independent of the historical context; it relies heavily on the social matrix initially framing the transition, as well as on the social conflicts and interests that shape the transformation of that matrix. Therefore, the informational mode of development will emerge from the interaction between its technological and organizational components, and the historically determined process of the restructuring of capitalism."
For Castells, this emergence of informationalism as part of economic restructuring clearly occurred under US hegemony. He goes on to talk about the shift from the "urban welfare state" to the "suburban warfare state," detailing Reagan's historic increase in defense budgets devoted to information technologies (Star Wars). In his analysis, military investment became the driver of ICT development in the eighties. Quite interestingly, the USA's first joint military production project with Israel was in the mid-eighties, and it was for a tactical drone, which the Israelis had started working on after the Yom Kippur War. With real insight into what was going on, Castells writes:
"The political crisis suffered by the American state both domestically (Watergate) and internationally (Vietnam; Iran; the erosion of its political control in Africa and Central America; increasing economic and technological competition from new powers, particularly Japan; strategic parity achieved by the Soviet Union in the arms race) called for a state of emergency in which the greatest power on earth would flex its muscles to show, in a responsible yet determined manner, that it was ready and willing to engage in sharp confrontations to preserve its status and power. Business interests, both in the US and internationally, redeploying themselves on a planetary scale in the aftermath of the crisis, welcomed this newfound resolution in the leader of the free world, both for its symbolic value and for its global practical concerns."
Castells must have often thought of this sentence while the great coalition for the first Gulf War was being assembled in 1990, in the immediate wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He was right: America was definitely making a bid to guarantee the stability and security of the world-system for the tremendous period of capitalist expansion that was to follow. And it was doing so with smart bombs and laser-guided missiles in the Middle East.
The historical relation between financialization and the spread of networked technologies seems obvious to me: not only in the tech boom of the 1990s, when capital was raised and allocated by the financial markets for the cabling of the entire planet; and not only in the tremendous expansion of the financial markets that this global installation of IT allowed, till the point where by mid-2008 you had a notional $683 trillion of derivatives contracts circulating around in a seemingly infinite electronic financial sphere. Finance also mattered culturally: the dematerialization of labor, the slosh of funny money in the job markets and the expressivity allowed by a personalized media system absorbed most of the lingering middle-class complaints about the repressiveness of American society, at least for a while. In addition to that, the really amazing thing has been the development of just-in-time production (originally used by Toyota for automobiles) into a modus operandi for globalized industry and distribution, under the new name of "global supply chain management." The biggest corporate database is now Wal-Mart's (70 terabytes). Global supply chain management is what allowed the almost complete delocalization of the US low- and medium-tech manufacturing sector, through the creation of the mysterious bicontinent "Chimerica," or what's also called "Wal-Mart world" (and of course I agree with Joseph Rabbi, this was done by Western corporate elites who are the real yellow peril). Now, all that forms a densely interrelated complex of capital expansion, a "mode of development" as Castells would say. The question is, what's gonna happen as that mode of development goes into crisis?
The financial meltdown is a serious contradiction, because it was the networked financial system (first currency futures, then through a vast panoply of derivatives) that made global just-in-time production possible, by offering insurance against the fluctuation of exchange rates in the post-Bretton Woods currency system. The dates on this are very precise: the Reuters Monitor, which is the first networked trading platform, came out in 1973, and networked finance has grown exponentially ever since, all the way to today's high-frequency trading. Nothing serious has been changed in this system since the meltdown, so its wild gyrations will continue to throw the whole globalized economy into danger. Another, even more extreme contradiction is climate change, intensified by massive industrial development of just-in-time globalization: that's a central factor in the current spike of food prices, and it will get worse, creating havoc in a world where food production is totally commodified and everyone depends on the global market to eat. Then, a third contradiction is that with the transnationalization of US hegemony, the formerly "domestic" resistance to oppressive practices goes global as well, facilitated by IT. The combination of all this instability produces an outright geopolitical crisis: a potential change in the whole structure of US military alliances in the Middle East. Are we not looking at a possible transmutation of the military-informatic-financial mode of development that emerged in the US in the 1980s, and then went on to play the central structuring role in the post-1989 world system?
The US has thrown in its stake with repressive Arab regimes (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi etc) because they apppear to guarantee the flow of oil while accepting to coexist with the great American ally in electronic warfare, Israel. The military fear is now destabilization of the region, refusal to stand idly by at the next Israeli invasion of Gaza or Lebanon, and possible war on a large scale. But America loves to focus on this kind of military fear, because that is how it has built up its linchpin role in globalization. What actually seems more likely to me is a democratization of the region, spurred by the demands of people who have been cut out of global development, with attempts to overcome some of the inequalities and allow people to engage in more productive activity. Yet to the extent that the US goes on supporting Israel and Saudi, it clearly cannot shape this transition. What you see in Latin America, East Asia and now the Arab world, is a serious decline of hegemonic influence. This can only bring a deep reconfiguration of social relations, including the relations to information technology and its associated organizational forms.
By 1989, Castells, Harvey and others were able to explain in detail the shift from the Keynesian Fordist industrial economy to Neoliberal Informationalism. Good for them. What's more difficult is to try to look from a position within the current crisis and see the beginning of the end of the technopolitical paradigm of Informationalism. I think it's worth trying to do this, because it's almost sure that the generations growing up in these tumultuous years are going to be part of deep technological, social, cultural, geopolitical and ecological change. In short, they will face the conditions of a paradigm shift. Hopefully they will be able to guide it in a more positive way than the last time around, where the hopeful and generous revolutions of 68 ultimately helped produce neoliberalism and financialization (but some other good things too: the global civil society you mentioned). When you look at it from a world perspective, these years since the financial crisis of 2008 have been incredibly agitated, and this is only the beginning. Big things will happen and great things can be achieved. May the Egyptian people -- including the young leftists who helped spark this revolution -- find fulfillment on their path to a more just and more egalitarian society.
utopistically yours, Brian
it took me a while to absorb this. I agree with you as far as the three main crises are concerned and the exceptional challenges they pose to the US (and, in to a lesser degree, Europe and Japan): financialization (compensating for the loss of productive capacity with credit, allowing to hide rising social inequality and ignore demographic challenges), climate change (necessitating the reorganization of global energy flows) and the transformation of hegemony (shifting from a center/periphery structure into a network that internalizes everything).
What I still don't agree with you is the characterization of informationalism and its supposed inherent path-dependencies. The concept of 'mode of development' only make sense in conjunction with the concept of 'modes of production'. One is a techno-organizational, the other is a political paradigm. One is about means, the other is about ends. Of course, historically, they are always deeply intertwined, because it is the end that produces the means.
Joseph Weizenbaum realized in the mid 1970s that the techno-organizational transformation where actually stabilizing the political system, rather than challenging it:
“Many of the problems of growth and complexity that pressed insistently and irresistibly during the postwar decades could have served as incentives for political innovation....Yet, the computer did arrive ‘just in time.’ But in time for what? In time to save--and to save very nearly intact, indeed, to entrench and stabilize--social and political structures that otherwise might have been either radically renovated or allowed to totter under the demands that were sure to be made on them. The computer, then, was used to conserve America’s social and political institutions. It buttressed them and immunized them, at least temporarily, against enormous pressure for change.”
Yet, the context of their invention does not determine their development, let alone their use. The Internet was initially developed by the military, but it's no longer a military technology.
I think it is necessary to separate Keynesianism from Fordism (or more generally, industrialism), and neoliberalism from informationalism. Historically, Fordism has been a mode of development in a variety of political systems, one of them being Keynesisan capitalism, but also in Soviet statism (to use another of Castells expressions), where it was oriented towards very different political ends.
The same thing is with informationalism. Its emergence is connected to the political transformations of the late 1970s and 1980s, that is, the transformations of capitalism, which were essentially about preserving its core features. But the resulting neo-liberalism is not the only political system that can embody. China, it is my suspicion, makes very different use of capacities of informationalism, it's certainly not neoliberal.
Thus, when I speak of the role of social media in the Egyptian revolution, I'm not a starry-eyed web2.0 enthusiast claiming Facebook will set you free. What made the revolution 'liberal' are the universal aspiration of freedom, democracy, individual dignity expressed by the people. Zizek is quite right about this. The exactly opposing values are advanced by global jihadists, who are using the informational paradigm for their ends.
There is a relationship between informationalism and political dynamics, but it's much more open. And, finding ways to act within the contemporary macro-transformations is exactly about articulating this openness. Otherwise, we have wait for the full crash before anything new can happen.
This exchange has been extremely interesting for me, it has caused me to think in detail and revise my ideas, so I thank you, what a pleasure.
The quote from Weizenbaum is great (gotta read that book someday). Indeed the deployment of radically new computer tech in order to keep entire patterns of governance the same would seem to be what has happened with the national power complex. Yet I agree with you, the Internet as we know it (TCP/IP, an extremely open, unformatted protocol) has and continues to be a game-changer with respect to the hierarchical controls of what Keith Hart is calling "national capitalism." Information technology enables new organizational forms, new public spaces, new political tactics and strategies. If we pursued the argument over "informationalism" it would be purely semantic, and what's in a word? The interesting thing is what's happening now, the transformation of those controling structures.
As you write:
> I think it is necessary to separate Keynesianism from Fordism (or more
> generally, industrialism), and neoliberalism from informationalism.
This seems to be the key, and I'll add a twist that might make it even more persuasive. It has always been puzzling to me that leftist circles have so easily taken to the term "Fordism" to designate the post-WWII boom, despite the fact that Ford's great invention came in the 1910s. Within twenty years, Detroit, one manufacturing center, was producing some 2/3 of the world's cars, exporting them across the earth. A huge transformation had already occured during Ford's own lifetime. So why call the postwar system by this antiquated term, Fordism? History geeks who have read James Beniger's great book The Control Revolution know that the auto industry is no isolated case: the assembly-line mass-production revolution had been gathering steam (and electricity, and petrol) in both Germany and the US since the close of the 19th century, i.e. since the Great Slump of the 1880s. Yet there was a crisis, 1929, the Great Depression. As you have gathered, I think this kind of crisis is fundamental. For a decade or more it disrupts everything, socially, industrially, geoplitically. It marks a paradigm shift. But what does that mean, a paradigm shift? Does it change everything?
When talking about the postwar period, I always say "Keynesian Fordism." And I think of it as *at once* a new paradigm, in social, industrial, geopolitical and many other terms, *and* as a stabilization of the tremendous productive energies unleashed by the techniques of assembly-line mass production. The postwar boom brought order after a period (1890s-1940s) which also constituted a long wave of development, but one that was marked by intense and violent disruptions. It was stabilized, within the developed countries at least, by the Cold War balance and the welfare-state constructions. Now, just to be precise, I actually think Keynesian Fordism is a variety of state capitalism, and in that sense, while there are obviously differences of kind between the US cybernetic/military Keynesianism, the European social-democratic flavors, and the Soviet formula of central planning (and don't forget the Japanese MITI green-tea variety either), nonetheless I think all these constitue a broad worldwide paradigm or range of paradigms which emerges as the resolution to what you might call the "regulation crisis" of the assembly-line mass production system. This, by the way, is also what Alex Foti thinks, in his text on "The Grid and the Fork" published on nettime some years ago; and you find similar ideas in the work of different thinkers across the political spectrum, Carlota Perez being a notable one on the techno-financial-geeky side of things. Yet most of these versions (maybe not Alex's) are too simplistic, and the techno-financial ones are far too rosy.
For years in the late 1990s and then disturbingly, for way too many years after the bursting of the New Economy bubble, the ambient discourses stressed only the breakthroughs of the new informational toolkit. Because of that overemphasis, I've oriented a lot of my research over the last five or six years to the actual political-economic conditions in which that toolkit came together with other societal factors to form a very unstable paradigm, one which is actually founded on various sciences of crisis-management. I'm talking about neoliberalism, or neoliberal informationalism. I do think this kind of paradigm formation is the technical meaning of the term "mode of development" which Castells borrows from the Regulation School economists: it refers to the ways in which a technology set and its associated organizational forms are intergrated into other social, institutional, economic and political dynamics, so as to achieve a relative balance and make things predictable for at least twenty or thirty years. But again, let's not worry too much about semantics. What I'm trying to say is that I agree with you: what is coming into crisis now is the neoliberal form given to informationalism, which so far has decisively shaped the major deployment of the computer/network toolkit and has overdetermined most of its functions (look at finance, logistics, biotech, surveillance, weaponry, e-commerce, all the sectors in which informationalism has been put into major production). But this has not closed off all the doors, not by any means. On the contrary, what we have seen since the Asian Crisis of 1997-98 revealed the dead-end of neoliberalism, is a rising tide of contestation taking many different forms, most of which are somehow centrally enabled by the computer/network toolkit. One example of that enabling role can be found in the Egyptian revolution that has just happened: but as our friend Armin Medosch argues, it is still human beings, and not computer networks, who play the central role. Hopefully we will learn more about how this revolution was done, very soon.
So what our conversation makes me see much more clearly is that the current crisis is something like the regulation crisis of informationalism. This has to be faced in its fullest implications. Because of the fact that informationalism in its neoliberal form has been so tied up in the maintenance of the US-centered power system, this regulation crisis could involve a huge nasty shooting war, or a series of wars, or a period of global civil war (as we already have at low intensity) or many other unsavory outcomes, including lots of dark police-state stuff. Keith Hart makes that point very clearly in his last brilliant post. However, as Keith points out, this crisis could also involve extremely positive things, like the exploration and use of the democratic potentials of networked communications, and also the inventive potentials of a debate across borders and continents, the two of which together are at the heart of any positive outcome to this crisis of the uses of information. Such an outcome has to make equality rhyme with ecology: that is the only way to avoid the kind of "descente aux enfers" that we saw in the 20th century.
People all around the world are longing for access to the fruits of technical progress, the fascinating and engaging pleasures of cosmpolitanism, and the satisfaction of seeing the members of their own national, linguistic or religious communities rise out of poverty and enter a brighter future. The wealth has to be shared, the access to productive activity has to be shared. At the same time, the whole world is heating up with the acceleration of capitalistically oriented technical progress, and this negative dynamic, like the surveillance/warporn complex, works against the positive ones. You can see that so clearly in China, where, despite the best efforts, the huge deployment of industry creates the kinds of ecological disasters that we already have in North America and Europe. You can feel it in Korea, where in the spring and the fall, people wear face masks against the sandy wind that blows across the ocean from the breakneck industrial development of northern China. And this kind of environmental abuse originated in Europe and especially in the United States, where we are still facing the same things: Halliburton everywhere, they're drilling in the backyard, poisoning the water. Just-in-time is too much, too fast, with no thought for the future. A whole universe of ideas that accompanied the development of informationalism, namely the ecological side of the various versions of complexity theory, has been largely abandoned under the neoliberal paradigm. There is tremendous cooperative work to be done in order to surmount the dissolution of that paradigm and find new pathways toward the peaceful, egalitarian and ecological development of the constructive and destructive energies unleashed by informationalism. This is what intellectuals and artists and scientists can contribute, along with all kinds of other people, in the upcoming years. Let's bring some flowers to the Arab Spring.
Thanks again for so many ideas -
PS - For bibliography on the version of neoliberalism that has developed in China, in terms of ownership structure, labor markets, citizens' rights, entrepreneurialism, corporate involvement, trade patterns and cultural forms, see the footnotes in my text "One World One Dream."