Richard Barbrook on Wed, 19 May 2010 07:04:46 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Imaginary Futures - introduction to the Polish edition

This introduction was written for 'PrzyszÅoÅci WyobraÅone: od myÅlÄcej maszyny 
do globalnej wioski' - the Polish translation of 'Imaginary Futures' which was 
published by Muza SA:


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 â 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 passà 
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 â and so are its made-in-America 
imaginary futures.

If I needed confirmation of this bookâs 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 
1989âs âspringtime of the nationsâ 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 didnât just mark the break with the impoverished Russian empire, but also a 
commitment to American post-industrial modernity. The new elites of ânew Europeâ had 
made the mistake of swapping one Cold War superpowerâs 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 wasnât to me. A Polish leftie had predicted 
what would happen in 1984 â 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, thatâs what I say.  

âItâs all over, you know. No one believes in the system. Not the workers, not the peasants, 
not even the bureaucrats.â Elcia was a SolidarnÃsc activist who had fled to London after 
the 1981 military coup. Weâd 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 
âmad Polesâ 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 ÃmigrÃs 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 SolidarnÃsc â 
and sheâd 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: âRemember what Lenin said? The revolution 
will succeed when the masses canât go on in the same old way and neither can the ruling class. 
Well, thatâs what itâs like in Poland now. Itâs all over, finished, done with. Once Poland goes, the 
whole rotten structure will collapse across the East. Weâve won, weâve won!!â 

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 
werenât around at the time, it is difficult to explain the liberation that we felt when the Cold War 
finally ended. Iâd 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 SolidarnÃsc were horrified 
when English leftists carried banners of Lenin and Trotsky on their demonstrations. We were 
disgusted when the workers of Gdansk gave a heroâs welcome to Margaret Thatcher so soon 
after she had brutally smashed the National Union of Minersâ 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 enemyâs 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 Kuron 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: âWe donât want any more social experiments.â They 
werenât like their parents whoâd been fooled by fascists who spoke like communists. This was 
Georg Hegelâs âend of historyâ 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 â 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 âdouble disappointmentâ 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 â and instead witnessed the nations of ânew 
Europeâ 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 â 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 stateâs 
assets in return for relinquishing their grip over political power without bloodshed. What is more 
difficult to understand - twenty years on â is why there was mass support for the âshock therapyâ 
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 wasnât as if there werenât 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 ânew Europeansâ were convinced 
that the dotcom entreprises of neo-liberal California represented the future in the present. No wonder 
that âdouble disappointmentâ was the leitmotif of final panel at the Solidarity/solidarities conferenceâ

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 theyâre 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 âliberalâ option for 
Political Views on their Facebook profile â 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. SolidarnÃsc 
smashed the Stalinist bureaucracy â 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. Letâs remember that â for them - Francis Fukyama 
had reinterpreted the âend of historyâ 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 â one of the most reactionary presidents in US 
history â 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. Hereâs 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 â 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 
â 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 empireâs imaginary future would be replaced 
with that of its rival. As the last public act of his eventful life, Jacek Kuron wrote an open letter in 
support of the people protesting against the 28thâ30th 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 âcreate a new 
conception of social cooperation, realise the ideals of freedom, equality and social justice.â 
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 â and be inspired! 

Richard Barbrook,
12th June 2009

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