Preoccupying: McKenzie Wark

August 2, 2012

McKenzie Wark is a writer and teacher interested in media theory and new media, whose works include ‘A Hacker Manifesto’ and ‘The Beach Beneath the Street’. Having visited Occupy sites in the US and Australia he describes the movement as a ‘weird global media event’. His writing on Occupy features in his new book, Telesthesia.

Occupied Times: Writing soon after the the occupation of Wall Street, you suggested that one of the most interesting aspects of the phenomenon was its demonstration that politics itself is lacking in the world of Wall Street. What do you mean by that?

MW: Only intellectuals and leftists seem to actually believe politics exists. Nobody else seems to. Well, what if everyone else is right? God is dead, as Nietzsche says; politics is dead too. It’s a kind of fantasy that took the place of a benevolent father in the sky. The fantasy of the fraternity or brotherhood of property-owning men here on earth who could rule just as wisely as He could. Well, that is in essence still what politics is. That women can vote and even occasionally govern does not change things as much as one might expect. Politics is a fantasy.

Now, while politics does not exist, certain other things are very real. Capitalism exists. Exploitation exists. Oppression exists. Inequality exists. The climate crisis is very, very real. So how can we work on all those things without invoking either God or the magic of politics? Perhaps we just need to invent new practices, drawing on past experiences, which might help, but without invoking the protective fantasy of politics, which is no more real than God.

OT: Even if we were to accept that politics in this sense is ‘dead’, the obituary certainly hasn’t been published, and centralised governments remain prevalent. How can new processes hope to challenge these failing establishments so long as their fanfare continues?

MW: One should add that the state is real, but has nothing to do with politics. I had a law professor who kept insisting to us: “there is no justice, only law.” I think in a similar way one could say: “there is no politics, only state.” Although that would be to think from the point of view of the state, which sees everything in its own terms.

I think that rather than confront the state one should do one’s best to ignore it, to make forms of life in its shadow, as it were. But it depends on local contexts, on how much the state is ‘ours’ in any sense and how much it is ‘theirs’. Marx used to take visitors around London and say to them: “this is their parliament, this is their foreign office”, and so on. But in the twentieth century the state had to respond to the tactics of the labour movement and others by ceding some of its functions to the interests of the movement, thereby of course incorporating it into the state. So there is always a local strategic assessment of how much of it can be salvaged, and how much is just ‘their state’.

OT: When it comes to new practices, do you believe the occupation of physical space is a tactic that should be revisited, or are there alternative tactics that may prove more effective in challenging economic, social and environmental injustices? What advice do you have for those looking to develop new tactics?

MW: Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. It worked brilliantly with Occupy. One should never get emotionally attached to a tactic or a base. There’s a certain symbolic power to particular places. There’s power in the image of people together. And of course people who do these things learn a lot and some will become comrades for life. (Some of course, will never speak to each other again!)

But the problem is: how do you occupy an abstraction? Power has become vectoral. It can move money and resources anywhere on the planet with unprecedented speed. You can block a particular site, but vectoral power routes around such sites. The Thai ‘yellow shirt’ movement, while one might not agree with their views, they got this. They occupied Bangkok airport. Now, I’m not suggesting anybody should do that, but it highlights the lengths to which one would have to go to make interrupting physical space actually count, outside of its symbolic effects.

It would be irresponsible for me to recommend tactics to anyone from the comfort of my armchair. So all I suggest is that people interested in tactics should study tactics. Study what others have done. Or as Guy Debord did — read Clausewitz. His account of Waterloo is still an astonishing document. Now, we mean tactics in a different sense here, non-violent movement tactics, not tactics of war. But there’s still something to be learned by studying actions taken under the pressure of time, of incomplete information, of the ‘friction’ caused by the situation itself.

OT: One criticism of Clausewitz is the claim that his theories on war and warfare cannot adapt to ‘swarm’ type warfare, where the boundaries between warring parties are unclear, as with the semi-autonomous cells of organisations such as al-Qaeda. Do you think the established models of capitalism and mainstream politics face a similar problem against the unpredictable tactics used by movements such as Occupy?

MW: There’s not all that much that’s really new about Occupy, so the extent to which it invalidates past accounts may be rather overstated. And to go to a completely different and unrelated example, there’s not much all that new about Al Qaeda either. New comms technology changes the envelope of possibilities for the unfolding of events in time and space. But this is what a reading of Clausewitz is for: to equip one to understand how events unfold in time and space and how one acts within them with limited knowledge and under constraints of time as well as material and emotional inertias. Or in short: how not to think and act like an intellectual!

OT: You have described Occupy Wall Street as a ‘weird global media event’. What is meant by this, and what would you say are the unique or interesting features of Occupy in this sense?

MW: My first book, Virtual Geography (1994) was about weird global media events, like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the occupation of Tiananmen square in the late 80s. Occupy is an event of that kind. It is an event in appearing to be unexpected, at least to the media. It is a media event in that its novel nature meant that it was picked up and amplified (and of course distorted) by media coverage, which would then feedback into the event itself. It was global not in that it embraced the whole planet but that it invoked a world, and showed through its moment of exception how at least part of the world functions. It was weird in that nobody really knew what they were doing. Decisions had to be made with so little context to go on. Weird global media events are moments when the abstract world, the world of vectoral power, reveals itself, and its functioning, in a moment of exception, where the norms and codes seem not to apply.

OT: The media obviously plays a huge symbiotic role in maintaining the status quo, but is it possible that the emergence of citizen journalism could help redefine traditional news values, and lead to media more likely to promote change than stifle it?

MW: One has to make media of any form respond to popular moods as expressed in acts. Part of it is by trying to develop autonomous channels, but part of it is by working the polyvalent quality of any popular form. Media is only popular if it can respond to a range of desires, including radical ones, simultaneously – by commodifying them.

OT: You have spoken in favour of a ‘low theory’ of revolutionary practices rooted in everyday life. Could you tell us what is meant by this, and how this method differs from other approaches to revolution?

MW: High Theory is the grand tradition of philosophy, claiming to legislate for other domains of thought and practice, whereas low theory is the organic concept-forming practices of everyday life, which might borrow from High Theory but really doesn’t care about its desires. High Theory desires academic respectability and honours, at the end of the day. Low theory might be written by people as driven by vanity and self-regard as anyone else, but it doesn’t take the existing forms of the game to be all that interesting. It is about inventing new practices of knowledge, hopefully more interesting ones. After all, if philosophy was going to save us, it would have done so by now. It’s been 2000 years. That’s long enough to declare an experiment a failure.

OT: The processes and habits of the Occupy movement have, at times, appeared to mimic the practices of open source software development; the development of which has been one of the more successful implementations of resistance to capitalism in recent times, with large areas of the “market” and production held in common. What other tools could be adapted from networked media and communication to further movements such as Occupy?

MW: I think there’s a continuum of practices, some more technical, some more social, through which forms of non-commodity relation are continually being created and re-created. A lot of everyday life is outside the commodity form. How groups of parents raise their kids together. How communities work. Churches, temples and mosques. I think it may be about seeking alliances more broadly and coming up with ways of sharing skills and conducting inter-generational education on how to live. The attacks on education, obviously, are about preventing this, which makes me think the education sphere is a key one right now.

OT: Today’s creators of intellectual property have been described as belonging to the ‘Hacker class’. Does this reflect a change in dynamic between private property, production and the commodity form in today’s world?

MW: Well, the hacker class, as I defined it in A Hacker Manifesto (2004), were always the creators, in whatever field, of what becomes ‘intellectual property’. But not owning the means of production, they – we – don’t get to profit so much from what we create. And in any case, as any creator who is honest with him / her self knows, creation is always re-creation, always built from borrowed parts. There is no private language, as Wittgenstein says, and neither are their ‘original’ works in science or art.

But you notice how now someone like Steve Jobs gets all the credit. As if the entrepreneur was the ‘innovator’ and did it all by himself! When Jobs died, there was even a little shrine outside the Apple Store on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. Imagine! People offering little apples to their dead little god! It’s part of what makes this a rentier culture rather than the dynamic, creative one that capitalism was – for all its faults – in its better moments. It’s just about collecting the rent now. It’s not really about invention. Nothing Apple invented holds a candle to the breakthrough research in computing on which it is based, which was all done with public money at public and non-profit private universities.

OT: In your recent work, you highlight a hypothetical parallel between the anti-nuclear weapons movement of the twentieth century and the environmental movement today, raising concerns that these forms of critical energy could in fact work in the favour of existing political forces. Could you explain this dynamic and the possible implications for those looking to challenge environmental injustice?

MW: One liberation movement has succeeded without limit, only it did not liberate a class or a people or a gender. It liberated an element: carbon. Climate change is very real. It’s a molecular problem: molecules of carbon (and methane, etc) being not where they should be. So no, ‘environment’ is not a distraction. It’s the other way around, we distract ourselves with lots of things that don’t address the main event.

There are however distracting uses of ‘environment’. As if recycling a few pizza boxes would save the planet. Or as if just moving toxicity and danger from rich to poor parts of the world will do it. So in that sense, environment is marketing or buck-passing rather than genuine re-engineering of the whole infrastructure. That’s a distraction.

OT: Writing in ‘The Beach Beneath The Street’, you suggest that leaving the twenty-first century “might not be a bad ambition”. What do you identify as the chief problems with our time that may give rise to this ambition, and in what sense should one interpret the notion of a ‘departure’ from the twenty-first century?

MW: The Situationist International – whose tactics are among those worth studying – talked about leaving the twentieth century. Well, we didn’t, other than in a chronological sense. But it is getting urgent that we figure out how to leave the twenty-first century. Times’ up. We’ve run out of planet. There isn’t any more of it. The method of quantitative accumulation, the method of capital, won’t work, at least not as a dominant form of resource discovery and allocation. That’s if this is even still capitalism. I’m not so sure. What we see now is not capitalism, it’s worse. It’s a rent-seeking, parasitic form of commodity economy. Time to figure out how to leave it.

OT: Despite these concerns, the ‘party line’ of the economic status quo holds that ‘There Is No Alternative’, and any attempts to challenge or depart from this course are marginalised or downplayed. How might we hope to bring the marginalised calls for a departure from our predicament to the forefront of public attention?

MW: There’s layers to it. There is actually an alternative within mainstream economic debate at the moment, and that is interesting. What you might call the ‘Austrian school of austerity above all’ is really not working very well even for the ruling class. If you put money on its predictions — for example that looser monetary policy and the modest Obama stimulus would cause interest rates to rise even in a recession – you would have lost money. Australia and Iceland – the two ‘Keynesian’ line responses to the crisis – seem to be fairing better than the Austrian austerity-based approaches. Even the Cameron government realises this, even if its response is to try to funnel public money into private companies to do public works’ projects that the public sector would do a better job at through bond issues. So actually, there is an alternative, and it is actual economics, as opposed to the ideologies that took over and are popular with the ruling class.

But that only gets us as far as ending this very, very long recession by getting back to business as usual. After that, the next alternative is to try to use public investment to shift the economy away from carbon and on to a less hazardous path. Obama at least tried this but the energy sector shut down pretty much all hope. But I think one has to keep at this: connecting science, technology, design, the mobilising power of the state, and economic and social justice.

Then there’s the alternative to those alternatives. Which is that we really just have to start organising the whole of social life ourselves all over again. What if that civilization really had ended but nobody realised it? What if we were already in the ruins and starting again? Using leftover bits of the old one and doing a vast détournement or patch-together job, and hoping that all our micro-scale initiatives will accrete together as we learn how to scale things up from the bottom?

Or in short: there’s plenty of alternatives. I think the ideology of our times is so shrill because everybody knows a phase-change has to happen, and the alternatives are all around us.


Follow McKenzie Wark on Twitter: @mckenziewark