2011/04/26

Book Review: A Hacker Manifesto (In-Progress)

"Information wants to be free but is everywhere in chains."



In an interview, Slavoj Zizek points out (page 80 of The Anti-Capitalism Reader):
[A]t the most elementary level, Marx's concept of exploitation presupposes a certain labor theory of value. If you take this away from Marx, the whole edifice of his model disintegrates. What do we do with this today, given the importance of intellectual labor? Both standard solutions are too easy - to claim that there is still real physical production going on in the Third World, or that today's programmers are a new proletariat.

In A Hacker Manifesto, McKenzie Wark attempts to tackle this problem, re-interpreting and adapting Marx to our current age. He does it with insight, wit, and poetic flair, but he is not always easy to follow, particularly if you are not already familiar with some Marxian jargon. This book review is also an attempt to help you interpret and understand what the book is trying to say.

It is still unfinished; I am editing it online. It will be marked as "in-progress" until I am done. In fact, right now it is just a series of notes. I have just finished reading the book, but need to think about it, rehash, perhaps re-read, and start all over again.



Glossary

Need to start a glossary. abstraction, adequacy (special meaning in philosophy), alienation, appropriation, bifurcation, capitalist, class, commodification, commodity, communication, contingent, envelope, expression, flow, hack, hacker class, hacking, history, information, interiority, nature, necessity, object, pastoralist, productive classes, production, recuperation (special meaning in philosophy/Marxism), representation, second nature, spectacle, stock, subject, subjectivity, surplus, telesthesia, third nature, vector, vectoralist, virtuality



A friend lended me A Hacker Manifesto by McKenzie Wark. Already upon opening the book, I noticed something strange. I went to see how many pages it had by turning to the back and looking for page numbers. There are none. But I can tell you it is 389 paragraphs long.

I started turning pages from the front of the book, and saw this:

ABSTRACTION CLASS EDUCATION HACKING HISTORY INFORMATION NATURE PRODUCTION PROPERTY REPRESENTATION REVOLT STATE SUBJECT SURPLUS VECTOR WORLD WRITINGS

Big, important nouns. Important concepts for discussing our society. I looked at that and thought, "What would a hunter-gatherer think?". The only two words that would clearly translate are "nature" and "world" (and they might easily translate to the same word), with the possible addition of "surplus", but only in the sense of "extra" - "hey, that was a big deer, we have lots of meat for everybody". That is how completely our lives and our consciousness have changed from their origins.

Related Diversion: Place Hacking

Serendipitously, clicking on my link to zunguzungu's blog led me off to this beautifulness: Exploring the London Mail Rail.

Reading "Abstraction"

I can see already why this is sometimes referred to as the Communist Manifesto 2.0. It's got some great stuff about the class dimensions of intellectual property.

Deleuze keeps coming up. I will have to read his work.

"To abstract hackers as a class is to abstract the very concept of class itself."

Holy shit, this is good:
[017] Land is the detachment of a resource from nature, an aspect of the productive potential of nature rendered abstract, in the form of property. Capital is the detachment of a resource from land, an aspect of the productive potential of land rendered abstract in the form of property. Information is the detachment of a resource from capital already detached from land. It is the double of a double. It is a further process of abstraction beyond capital, but one that yet again produces its separate existence in the form of property.

Wark gives the name "vectoralist class" to the emerging ruling class that controls "intellectual property". In the next chapter he explains that that they are "so named because they control the vectors along which information is abstracted," just as capitalists and pastoralists - his name for landlords of farmland - control the means of production.

[021]...Hackers come to struggle against the usurious charges the vectoralists extort for access to the information that hackers collectively produce, but that the vectoralists come to own.
Think Apple and Amazon taking heavy cuts from the sale of ebooks and iPhone apps - sometimes 30%. Or the would-be genomic monopolists, who would commoditize our own DNA and sell the information back to us.

Reading "Class"

Even the endnotes - given the chapter title "Writings" - are great. The note for [032] includes this gem:

There can be no one book, no master thinker for these times. What is called for is a practice of combining heterogeneous modes of perception, thought and feeling, different styles of researching and writing, different kinds of connection to different readers, proliferation of information across different media, all practiced within a gift economy, expressing and elaborating differences, rather than broadcasting a dogma, a slogan, a critique, or line. The division of genres and types of writing, like all aspects of the intellectual division of labor, are antithetical to the autonomous development of the hacker class as [a] class, and work only to reinforce the subordination of knowledge to property by the vectoral class.

He claims in this chapter that (traditional) capitalism is over in all but name. "The leading corporations ... divest themselves of their productive capacity, as this is no longer a source of power." Instead, they outsource to competing capitalists. Meanwhile, the current form of power - power over people's use of information - has the most tenuous grip of all, because while land naturally lends itself to scarcity, information absolutely doesn't. "The services of the hacker class become indispensable to an economy that is itself more and more dispensable - an economy of property and scarcity."

mountaintop-removal coal mining

And what so many of us have come to realize:

But now the stakes are far higher. Survival and liberty are both on the horizon at once. The ruling classes turn not just the producing classes into an instrumental resource, but nature itself, to the point where class exploitation and the exploitation of nature become the same unsustainable objectification. The potential of a class-divided world to produce its own overcoming comes not a moment too soon.

Thoughts after reading "Education" and "Hacking"

For a while now I've been struggling to find language to describe my own particular position in society.

I will assume for now that you, the reader, belong to the 98% of us who do not own our own stores or businesses or who have a small business that is just a front for being an independent contractor. I agree with Chris Carlsson's analysis (watch for about 50 seconds): in the end, we are all working class. The idea that each $10,000 more you make a year puts you in a new class is fundamentally misleading.

Down to the basics: capitalists own the means of production. If you don't own any means of production, you must sell your labour (your time). While at work, you do what other people tell you to do, and in exchange you receive the money you need to buy the necessities of life - food, shelter, and so on. The fact that you may earn and spend more than others, or may hold investments, isn't as important as the fact that you need to sell your labour to someone else to survive.

(One exception is the class of merchants and small business owners, who make up about 2% or so of the US. But most of them, though they may own the means of production (their stores or businesses), could not afford to be absentee owners, so they are really not in the same boat as the truly wealthy, who are a vanishingly small fraction of the population.)

I write computer programs for money; I work for others, receiving a salary, but usually work at startups where part of the payment is in stock options (aka "lottery tickets") that, in essence, allow the grantee to directly earn capital. In rare cases, that capital can be sufficient to catapult the worker into the class of people who don't need to sell their labour. More commonly, the options are worth between zero and a nice fraction of the salary; four years at a startup that does quite well might earn enough for a down payment on a house in the San Francisco Bay Area. [The real purpose of stock options is to explicitly align the recipient's interests with those of the owners; ie with capital.]

I've sometimes compared the privileged position of programmers to the "aristocracy of labour". While still working class, programmers are top of the heap. Not only are they paid a good professional salary, they often have fewer constraints than most professionals: less restrictive dress codes and working hours and more flexibility in telecommuting. Crucially, the working environment is usually far more democratic than in most other professions. Programmers tend to self-organize in systems that are roughly democratic, with some meritocratic elements. It's one reason for the phenomenal success of free software.

I treasure this democratic working environment. I'm not sure whether it is a reflection of the labour power of an elite group with rare skills, or whether it is necessary for programmers to work effectively, and therefore tolerated by employers in order to get good work (similar to how the Soviet Union allowed its scientists more leeway to dissent because science requires a certain amount of intellectual freedom).

In many ways, programmers are treated extraordinary well. If every workplace were like my own, I'd have far fewer problems with capitalism. So it's sometimes hard to see the connection to, say, a factory worker.

In this book, Wark does an excellent job of outlining the homology between farmers, workers, and hackers. He succeeds in identifying many salient characteristics of hackers as a class. This is exactly the kind of thing I've been looking for.

Diversion: The Moral Underground

I read about the book The Moral Underground and watched an event featuring the author, Lisa Dodson. Dodson details a widespread practicing of ordinary people bending or breaking the rules of property to help out their low-wage employees or indigent elderly, for example. It gives me great hope to see this behaviour. It shows an underlying moral understanding that our economic system is wrong.

Reading "Information"

Very dense, more jargon-y, it seems to me than other chapters so far. Definitely will need some re-reading and interpretation.

Reading "Nature"

At this point, I'm kinda getting into Wark's beatnik-ish rhythm. The absurdity of the idea of having a word "nature" comes full force - nature is just too "multiplicitous". Blockquote:

The representation of nature as God's estate, as the engine of competition, as complex data networks - all of these abstractions of nature abolish it in their representation of it, and yet are partial expressions of its multiplicity. Education teaches the model of nature that corresponds to the property form of the day - land, capital, information. Each appears as more true than the last at the point at which the form of property from which it derives has become second nature.

Misc
"If the ruling class is a vampire, finance is the vampire's vampire."

Reading "Property"

Beautiful sentence: "Only in vectoral society are there riots over pension plans." Reminds me of the quote from Paul Mason's speech at the Left Forum 2011:

Masked youths, clad in black, torched cars, smashed storefronts, and threw up roadblocks Tuesday, clashing with riot police across France as protests over [pause] raising the retirement age to 62 [laughter] took a radical turn." [more laughter]

In-Progress

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