Richard Barbrook on Thu, 27 Aug 1998 17:18:47 +0200 (MET DST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> THE HOLY FOOLS <part 2>

5: From Stalin to Pol Pot

Techno-nomad TJs are attracted by the uncompromising theoretical
radicalism expressed by Deleuze and Guattari. However, far from succumbing
to an outside conspiracy, Frequence Libre imploded because of the
particular New Left politics which inspired A Thousand Plateaus and the
other sacred texts. Unwilling to connect abstract theory with its
practical application, the techno-nomads cannot see how Deleuze and
Guattari's celebration of direct democracy was simultaneously a
justification for intellectual elitism. This elitism was no accident.
Because of their very different life experiences, many young people in the
sixties experienced a pronounced 'generation gap' between themselves and
their parents. Feeling so isolated, they believed that society could only
be changed by a revolutionary vanguard composed of themselves and their
comrades. This is why many young radicals simultaneously believed in two
contradictory concepts. First, the revolution would create mass
participation in running society. Second, the revolution could only be
organised by a committed minority.<14>

The New Left militants were reliving an old problem in a new form. Back in
the 1790s, Robespierre had argued that the democratic republic could only
be created by a revolutionary dictatorship. During the 1917 Russian
revolution, Lenin had advocated direct democracy while simultaneously
instituting the totalitarian rule of the Bolsheviks. As their 'free radio'
experience showed, Deleuze and Guattari never escaped from this
fundamental contradiction of revolutionary politics. The absence of the
Leninist party did not prevent the continuation of vanguard politics. As
in other social movements, Fr=E9quence Libre was dominated by a few
charismatic individuals: the holy prophets of the anarcho-communist

In Deleuze and Guattari's writings, this deep authoritarianism found its
theoretical expression in their methodology: semiotic structuralism.
Despite rejecting its 'wooden language', the two philosophers never really
abandoned Stalinism in theory. Above all, they retained its most
fundamental premise: the minds of the majority of the population were
controlled by bourgeois ideologies.<16> During the sixties, this elitist
theory was updated through the addition of Lacanian structuralism by Louis
Althusser, the chief philosopher of the French Communist party.<17> For
Deleuze and Guattari, Althusser had explained why only a revolutionary
minority supported the New Left. Brainwashed by the semiotic 'machinic
assemblages' of the family, media, language and psychoanalysis, most
people supposedly desired fascism rather than anarcho-communism. This
authoritarian methodology clearly contradicted the libertarian rhetoric
within Deleuze and Guattari's writings. Yet, as the rappers who wanted to
make a show for Frequence Libre discovered, Deleuzoguattarian
anarcho-communism even included the censorship of music. By adopting an
Althusserian analysis, Deleuze and Guattari were tacitly privileging their
own role as intellectuals: the producers of semiotic systems. Just like
their Stalinist elders, the two philosophers believed that only the
vanguard of intellectuals had the right to lead the masses - without any
formal consent from them - in the fight against capitalism. 

For young militants, the problem was how this committed minority could
make a revolution without ending up with totalitarianism. Some of the New
Left thought that anarcho-communism expressed their desire to overthrow
both political and economic oppression.<18> However, even this
revolutionary form of politics still appeared to many as tainted by the
bloody failure of the Russian revolution. Had not the experience of
Stalinism proved that any compromise with the process of modernity would
inevitably lead to the reimposition of tyranny? Consequently,
anarcho-communist thinkers increasingly decided that just opposing the
oppressive features of economic development was not radical enough.
Desiring a complete transformation of society, they rejected the
transcendent 'grand narrative' of modernity altogether, especially those
left-wing versions inspired by Hegel and Marx. According to these
ultra-leftists, the whole concept of progress was a fraud designed to win
acquiescence for the intensification of capitalist domination. While the
mainstream Left still wanted to complete the process of modernisation, the
New Left should instead be leading a revolution against modernity.<19>

Once anarcho-communism was transformed into an ahistorical ideology, the
New Left's opposition to economic development soon developed into a desire
to abandon modernity altogether. Following the May '68 revolution, support
for rural guerrillas resisting American imperialism soon became mixed up
with hippie tribalism, concerns about environmental degradation and
nostalgia for a lost peasant past. Disillusioned with the economic
progress championed by the parliamentary Left, many on the New Left
synthesised these different ideas into hatred of the mass urban society
created by modernity. For them, a truly libertarian revolution could only
have one goal: the destruction of the city.<20>

Deleuze and Guattari enthusiastically joined this attack against the
concept of historical progress. For them, the 'deterritorialisation' of
urban society was the solution to the contradiction between participatory
democracy and revolutionary elitism haunting the New Left. If the
centralised city could be broken down into 'molecular rhizomes', direct
democracy and the gift economy would reappear as people formed themselves
into small nomadic bands. According to Deleuze and Guattari,
anarcho-communism was not the 'end of history': the material result of a
long epoch of social development. On the contrary, the liberation of
desire from semiotic oppression was a perpetual promise: an ethical stance
which could be equally lived by nomads in ancient times or social
movements in the present. With enough intensity of effort, anyone could
overcome their hierarchical brainwashing to become a fully-liberated
individual: the holy fool.<21>

Yet, as the experience of Frequence Libre proved, this rhetoric of
unlimited freedom contained a deep desire for ideological control by the
New Left vanguard. While the nomadic fantasies of A Thousand Plateaus were
being composed, one revolutionary movement actually did carry out Deleuze
and Guattari's dream of destroying the city. Led by a vanguard of
Paris-educated intellectuals, the Khmer Rouge overthrew an oppressive
regime installed by the Americans. Rejecting the 'grand narrative' of
economic progress, Pol Pot and his organisation instead tried to construct
a rural utopia. However, when the economy subsequently imploded, the
regime embarked on ever more ferocious purges until the country was
rescued by an invasion by neighbouring Vietnam. Deleuze and Guattari had
claimed that the destruction of the city would create direct democracy and
libidinal ecstasy. Instead, the application of such anti-modernism in
practice resulted in tyranny and genocide. The 'line of flight' from
Stalin had led to Pol Pot.<22>

6: The Antinomies of the Avant-Garde

Ironically, the current popularity of Deleuze and Guattari comes from
their stubborn refusal to recognise the failure of the anti-modernist
revolution. Even when Frequence Libre went bankrupt, Deleuze and Guattari
never questioned their 'schizo-politics'. Instead, they transformed the
historically specific politics of the New Left into theoretical poetry
which existed outside history. The libidinal intensity of revolutionary
failure was much preferable to the limited achievements of parliamentary

For 'cutting edge' TJs, it is now almost compulsory to sample from the
theoretical poetry of Deleuze and Guattari. Yet, this New Left revival is
taking place in very different circumstances from the revolutionary
sixties. However, the political irrelevance of Deleuze and Guattari does
not discredit their theoretical poetry among radical intellectuals. On the
contrary, the defeat of the New Left has enabled their disciples to
complete the transformation of anarcho-communism from the hope of social
revolution into the symbol of personal authenticity: an ethical-aesthetic
rejection of bourgeois society. Although defeated in reality, the ideals
of May '68 can be used to imagine a revolutionary dreamtime for the Net. 

The aestheticisation of revolutionary politics is a revered tradition of
the European avant-garde. Back in the twenties, the Surrealists perfected
the fusion of artistic creativity with social rebellion. Inspired by
Lenin, this avant-garde movement claimed that the consciousness of the
majority of the population was controlled by cultural mediocrity and
puritan morality. Therefore radical intellectuals had the heroic task of
freeing the people from ideological domination. Their innovative art would
undermine the repressive cultural norms of bourgeois society. Their
bohemian way of living would challenge the dull conformity of everyday
life under capitalism. In this interpretation of Leninism, cultural
experimentation became the privileged expression of revolutionary
politics. Whether from the tribal past or the science-fiction future, any
vision of a more authentic life should be used to subvert the cultural
philistinism of the bourgeois present. Innovative paintings, sculptures,
photography, films and literature would be made " the service of the

The cult of Deleuze and Guattari is the latest manifestation of this
European avant-garde tradition. The change in language disguises a
continuity in practice. Just like its Surrealist predecessors, the
contemporary avant-garde equates experimental art and bohemian lifestyles
with social rebellion. Despite their involvement with radio and Minitel,
Deleuze and Guattari hoped that the 'line of flight' from modernity would
lead back to the tribal past. In contrast, their contemporary followers
have no ambiquity about their relationship with modern technologies. Far
from desiring the destruction of the city, radical intellectuals hope that
the Deleuzoguattarian utopia will emerge from the hi-tech Net. Using
intellectual alchemy, they transmute their gurus' anti-modernist
scriptures into a philosophy of hyper-modernism. 

This aestheticisation of May '68 is made much easier by the poetical style
of Deleuze and Guattari. As in modernist painting, the 'realism' of the
text has been superseded by a fascination with the formal techniques of
theoretical production. For Deleuze and Guattari, theory was a piece of
literature expressing authentic emotion rather than a tool for
understanding social reality. Having failed in practice, New Left politics
could live on as theory-art. Following this example, techno-nomad TJs
sample Deleuzoguattarian discourse to produce leftfield philosophy. Yet,
as with Britpop bands, something is lost in these respectful homages to
the past. In the sacred texts, the rational analysis of society had
already been replaced by the literary celebration of irrational desires.
The European avant-garde is now discarding the few remaining connections
with practical politics. Using Deleuzoguattarian discourse, avant-garde
intellectuals recreate the May '68 revolution as a theory-art project for
the Net. 

Yet, like the Leninist vanguard, the European avant-garde is haunted by
the fatal contradiction between popular participation and intellectual
elitism. In their theory-art, the techno-nomads use Deleuzoguattarian
discourse to celebrate DIY culture. However, according to the sacred
creed, most people - including members of the DIY culture - are
brainwashed by semiotic 'machinic assemblages.' But, when illuminated by
the teachings of Deleuze and Guattari, radical intellectuals can amazingly
cast off the mental shackles of bourgeois rationality and experience the
redemption of ecstatic immanence. Although many are called, only few can
become true disciples of the esoteric doctrine. 

This elitism is a hallowed tradition of the European avant-garde. For
decades, radical intellectuals have adopted dissident politics, aesthetics
and morals to separate themselves from the majority of 'herd animals'
whose minds were controlled by bourgeois ideologies.<25> Despite their
revolutionary rhetoric, avant-garde intellectuals fantasised about
themselves as an artistic aristocracy ruling the philistine masses.
Following this elitist custom, the Deleuzoguattarians champion nomadic
minorities from the 'non-guaranteed' social movements against the
stupified majority from the 'guaranteed'sector. Once again, the revolution
is the ethical-aesthetic illumination of a minority rather than the social
liberation of all people. 

Earlier in this century, this dream of an artistic aristocracy sometimes
evolved into fascism. More often, the avant-garde supported totalitarian
tendancies within the Left. Nowadays, cultural elitism can easily turn
into implicit sympathy with neo-liberalism. The European avant-garde - and
its imitators - could never openly support the free market fundamentalism
of the Californian ideology. Yet, as TJs cut 'n' mix, the distinctions
between right and left libertarianism are blurring. On the one hand, the
Californian ideologues claim that a heroic minority of cyber-entrepreneurs
is emerging from the fierce competition of the electronic marketplace. On
the other hand, the Deleuzoguattarians believe that this new elite
consists of cool TJs and hip artists who release subversive 'assemblages
of enunciation' into the Net. In both the Californian ideology and
Deleuzoguattarian discourse, primitivism and futurism are combined to
produce the apotheosis of individualism: the cyborg Nietzschean Superman. 

"...the rear a master race, the future "masters of the
earth"; a new tremendous which... philosophical men of
power and artist-tyrants will... work as artists on 'man' himself."<26>

7: The Hi-Tech Gift Economy

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the contemporary avant-garde
must substitute itself for the missing political vanguard. The
techno-nomads therefore remix Leninism into Deleuzoguattarian discourse:
subversive theory-art 'deterritorialises' the semiotic 'machinic
assemblages' controlling the minds of the majority. Lenin is morphed into

In the late nineties, revolutionary elitism can only be expressed in the
words of May '68. Yet, important pioneers of the New Left were highly
critical of this tradition of cultural elitism. For instance, the
Situationists advocated transforming the social context of cultural
production rather than the aesthetics of art. Instead of following the
avant-garde elite, everyone should have the opportunity to express

Above all, the Situationists looked for ways of living which were free
from the corruptions of consumer capitalism. Despite their Hegelian
modernism, they claimed that anarcho-communism had been prefigured by the
potlatch: the gift economy of Polynesian tribes. Within these primitive
societies, the circulation of gifts bound people together into tribes and
encouraged cooperation between different tribes. This tribal gift economy
demonstrated that individuals could successfully live together without
needing either the state or the market. However, the Situationists
believed that here could be no compromise between tribal authenticity and
bourgeois alienation. After the social revolution, the potlatch would
completely supplant the commodity.<28>

Following May '68, this purist vision of anarcho-communism inspired a
generation of cultural activists. Emancipatory media supposedly could only
be produced within the gift economy. During the late seventies, pro-situ
attitudes were further popularised by the punk movement. From then to the
present-day, the 'cutting edge' of music has remained participatory.
Crucially, every user of the Net is now also participating within a gift
economy. Without even thinking about it, people continually circulate
information between each other for free. They cooperate together without
the direct mediation of either politics or money. Far from being the
privilege of intellectuals, anarcho-communism is the mundane activity of
ordinary people within cyberspace. 

>From the beginning, the gift economy has determined the technical and
social structure of the Net. Although funded by the Pentagon, the Net
could only be successfully developed by letting its users build the system
for themselves. Within the academic community, the gift economy has long
been the primary method of socialising labour. Funded by the state or by
donations, scientists publicise their research results by 'giving papers'
and by 'contributing articles'. Despite the dispersed nature of this
educational gift economy, academics acquire intellectual respect from each
other through citations in articles and other forms of public
acknowledgement. The collaboration of many different scientists is only
possible through the free distribution of information.<29>

>From its earliest days, the free exchange of information has been firmly
embedded within the technologies and social mores of cyberspace. Above
all, the founders of the Net never bothered to protect intellectual
property within computer-mediated communications. Far from wanting to
enforce copyright, they tried to eliminate all barriers to the
distribution of information. Within the commercial creative industries,
advances in digital reproduction are feared for making the 'piracy' of
copyright material ever easier. In contrast, the academic gift economy
welcomes technologies which improve the availability of data. Users should
always be able to obtain and manipulate information with the minimum of
impediments. The design of the Net therefore assumes that intellectual
property is technically and socially obsolete. 

Even though the system has expanded far beyond the university, the Net
remains predominantly a gift economy. From scientists through hobbyists to
the general public, the charmed circle of users was slowly built up
through the adhesion of many localised networks to an agreed set of
protocols. Crucially, the common standards of the Net include social
conventions as well as technical rules. The giving and receiving of
information without payment is almost never questioned. Even selfish
reasons encourage people to become anarcho-communists within cyberspace.
By adding their own presence, every user contributes to the collective
knowledge accessible to those already on-line. In return, each individual
has potential access to all the information made available by others
within the Net. Everyone takes far more out of the Net than they can ever
give away as an individual.<30>

Despite the commercialisation of cyberspace, self-interest ensures that
the hi-tech gift economy continues to flourish.  For most users, the Net
is somewhere to work, play, love, learn and discuss with other people.
Unrestricted by physical distance, they collaborate with each other
without the direct mediation of money or politics. Unconcerned about
copyright, they give and receive information without thought of payment.
In the absence of states or markets to mediate social bonds, network
communities are instead formed through the mutual obligations created by
gifts of time and ideas. 

The hi-tech gift economy is even at the forefront of software development.
For instance, Bill Gates admits that Microsoft's biggest competitor in the
provision of web servers comes from the Apache program.<31> Instead of
being marketed by a commercial company, this program is shareware. Because
its source code is not protected by copyright, Apache servers can be
modified, amended and improved by anyone with the appropriate programming
skills. Shareware programs are now beginning to threaten the core product
of the Microsoft empire: the Windows operating system. Starting from the
original software program by Linus Torvalds, a community of
user-developers are together building their own non-proprietory operating
system: Linux. For the first time, Windows has a real competitor.<32>

8: Beyond the Avant-Garde

The New Left anticipated the emergence of the hi-tech gift economy. People
could collaborate with each other without needing either markets or
states. However, the New Left had a purist vision of DIY culture. There
could be no compromise between the authenticity of the potlatch and the
alienation of the market. Fr=E9quence Libre preserved its principles to
the point of bankruptcy. Bored with the emotional emptiness of
post-modernism, the techno-nomads are entranced by the uncompromising
fervour of Deleuze and Guattari. However, as shown by Frequence Libre, the
rhetoric of mass participation often hides the rule of the enlightened
few. The ethical-aesthetic committment of anarcho-communism can only be
lived by the artistic aristocracy. Yet, the antinomies of the avant-garde
can no longer be avoided. The ideological passion of anarcho-communism is
dulled by the banality of giving gifts within cyberspace. The theory of
the artistic aristocracy cannot be based on the everyday activities of
'herd animals'. 

Above all, anarcho-communism exists in a compromised form on the Net.
Contrary to the ethical-aesthetic vision of the New Left, the boundaries
between the different methods of working are not morally precise. Within
the mixed economy of the Net, the gift economy and the commercial sector
can only expand through mutual collaboration within cyberspace. The free
circulation of information between users relies upon the capitalist
production of computers, software and telecommunications. The profits of
commercial net companies depend upon increasing numbers of people
participating within the hi-tech gift economy. Under threat from
Microsoft, Netscape is now trying to realise the opportunities opened up
by such interdependence. Lacking the resources to beat its monopolistic
rival, the development of products for the shareware Linux operating
system has become a top priority. Anarcho-communism is now sponsored by
corporate capital.<33>

The purity of the digital DIY culture is also compromised by the political
system. Because the dogmatic communism of Deleuze and Guattari has dated
badly, their disciples instead emphasise their uncompromising anarchism.
However, the state isn't just the potential censor and regulator of the
Net. Many people use the Net for political purposes, including lobbying
their political representatives. State intervention will be needed to
ensure everyone can access the Net. The cult of Deleuze and Guattari is
threatened by the miscegenation of the hi-tech gift economy with the
private and public sectors. Anarcho-communism symbolised moral integrity:
the romance of artistic 'delirium' undermining the 'machinic assemblages'
of bourgeois conformity. However, as Net access grows, more and more
ordinary people are circulating free information across the Net. Far from
having any belief in the revolutionary ideals of May '68, the overwhelming
majority of people participate within the hi-tech gift economy for
entirely pragmatic reasons. In the late nineties, digital
anarcho-communism is being built by hackers like Eric Raymond: "a
self-described neo-pagan [right-wing] libertarian who enjoys shooting
semi-automatic weapons..."<34>

Threatened by the banalisation of the hi-tech gift economy, the European
avant-garde is surreptiously embracing the capitalist fundamentalism of
the Californian ideology. For this convergence to take place, Deleuze and
Guattari's anathema against market competition must be skillfully
abandoned. First, their adepts deny the wealth-creating powers of human
labour. Then the work of living beings is subsumed within the mobility of
dead matter. Finally, far from being condemned as a 'machinic assemblage'
imposed from above, market competition is sanctified as the apotheosis of
self-organising systems. As in the Californian ideology, this
Deleuzoguattarian heresy believes that the market is a chaotic force of
nature which cannot be controlled by state intervention. Abandoning any
residual connections with the Left, these TJs instead celebrate the new
aristocracy of nomadic artists and entrepreneurs who surf the
'schiz-flows' of the information society. In this bizarre remix,
anarcho-communism becomes identical with neo-liberalism. 

As a consequence, the techno-nomads have to ignore the major social
transformation catalysed by the new information technologies: the
widespread adoption of a new method of working. Rejecting the 'economism'
of the Left, many TJs have replaced the creativity of human labour on the
Net with a digital vitalism inspired by Deleuze and Guattari's theory-art.
Denying the ability of people to determine their own destinies, these
techno-nomads believe that information technologies are the semiotic
forces determining culture, consciousness and even the conception of
existence. However, there is nothing inherently emancipatory in
computer-mediated communications. These technologies can also serve the
state and the market. The Net was originally invented for the transmission
of orders from the military hierarchy. In the future, electronic commerce
will play a significant economic role and public services will
increasingly be made available on-line. 

At the same time, millions of people are spontaneously working together on
the Net without needing coordination by either the state or the market.
Instead of exchanging their labour for money, they give away their
creations in return for free access to information produced by others.
This circulation of gifts coexists with the exchange of commodities and
funding from taxation. When they're online, people constantly pass from
one form of social activity to another. For instance, in one session, a
Net user might first buy something from an e-commerce catalogue, then look
for information aon the local council's site and then contribute some
thoughts to a listserver for fiction-writers. Without even consciously
having to think about it, this person would have successively been a
consumer in a market, a citizen of a state and an anarcho-communist within
a gift economy. The 'New Economy' of the Net is an advanced form of social

The techno-nomads cannot comprehend the subversive impact of these
everyday activities of Net users. As members of the avant-garde, they're
looking for the intensity of ethical-aesthetic 'delirium' within the flows
of vitalist matter. For them, there can be nothing particularly special
about the mundane activities of net users who aren't producing fashionable
theory-art. Yet, at this particular historical moment, market competition
is disappearing for entirely pragmatic reasons. While commodified
information is closed and fixed, digital gifts are open and changeable.
Instead of fixed divisions between producers and consumers, users are
simultaneously creators on the Net. Obsessed with immanence of semiotic
flows, the Deleuzoguattarians cannot appreciate the deep irony of this
contingent moment in human history. This is the point in time when the old
faith in the inevitable triumph of communism has completely lost all
credibility. Yet, at this very moment, market competition is quietly
'withering away' within cyberspace. 

Over the past few centuries, people within the industrialised countries
have slowly improved their incomes and reduced their hours of work.
Although still having little autonomy in their money-earning jobs, workers
can now experience non-alienated labour within the hi-tech gift economy.
>From writing emails through making web sites to developing software,
people do things for themselves without the direct mediation of the market
and the state. As net access spreads, the majority of the population are
beginning to participate within cultural production. Unlike Frequence
Libre, the avant-garde can no longer decide who can - and cannot - join
the hi-tech gift economy. The Net is too large for Microsoft to
monopolise, let alone a small elite of radical intellectuals. Art can
therefore cease being the symbol of moral superiority. When working people
finally have enough time and resources, they can then concentrate upon
", love, play, etc., etc.; in short, everything which makes Man [and
Woman] happy. "<36>

At such a historical moment, the European avant-garde is being made
obsolete through the realisation of its own supposed principles. The
techno-nomads celebrate digital DIY culture to distinguish themselves from
the rest of society. Yet, far from being confined to a revolutionary
minority, increasing numbers of ordinary people are now participating
within the hi-tech gift economy. Rather than symbolising ethical-aesthetic
purity, the circulation of gifts is a pragmatic way of working within
cyberspace. Although it is impossible to predict the future of the hi-tech
gift economy, one thing is almost certain. The intellectual elitism of
Deleuzoguattarian discourse is being superseded by the emancipatory 'grand
narrative' of modernity. As more and more 'herd animals' go on-line,
radical intellectuals can no longer fantasise about becoming cyborg
Supermen. As digital anarcho-communism becomes an everyday activity, there
is no longer any need for the leadership of the cultural avant-garde. The
time for the revolution of holy fools has passed. As has already happened
within popular music, the most innovative and experimental culture will be
created by people doing things for themselves. By participating within the
hi-tech gift-economy, everyone can potentially become a wise citizen and a
creative worker. 

"...the word 'creation' will no longer be restricted to works of art but
will signify a self-conscious activity, self-conceiving, reproducing for
its own terms...and its own reality (body, desire, time, space), being its
own creation."<37>

Respect due: Andy Cameron, Armin Medosch, David Garcia, Fran Rayner, James
Flint, John Armitage, John Barker, Luther Blissett, Michele Puccioni,
Mixmag, nettime, Pit Schultz, Roya Jakoby and Simon Schaffer. 

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: