The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

By Steven Shaviro
The Pinoccio Theory

October 21, 2004

A Hacker Manifesto

McKenzie Wark's A Hacker Manifesto is a
remarkable and beautiful book: cogent,
radical, and exhilarating, a politico-
aesthetic call to arms for the digital age.

The book really is, as its title says, a
manifesto: a public declaration of
principles for a radically new vision, and
a call to action based on that vision. It's
written as a series of short, numbered
paragraphs or theses; the writing is
tight, compressed, and aphoristic, or a
Wark himself likes to say, "abstract."
It's not "difficult" in the way that certain
"post-structuralist" philosophical texts
(Derrida, Lacan, etc) are difficult;
rather, A Hacker Manifesto is characterized
by an intense lucidity, as if the writing
had been subjected to intense
atmospheric pressure, so that it could
say the most in the least possible space.
Deleuze writes somewhere that an
aphorism is a field of forces in tension;
Wark's writing is aphoristic in precisely
this sense. I read the book with both
delight and excitement, even when I
didn't altogether agree with everything
that Wark said.

A Hacker Manifesto owes something -- both
in form and content -- to Marx and
Engels, and more to Guy Debord's
Society of the Spectacle (a book about
which I feel deeply ambivalent). Wark's
ambition (which he calls "crypto-
marxist") is to apply Marx's ideas to our
current age of digitization and
"intellectual property." Unlike cultural
marxists and "post-marxists" (who tend
to refer to Marx's general spirit more
than his actual ideas), Wark focuses
squarely on "the property question,"
which is to say, on issues of economic
production, of ownership of the means
of production and the results of the
production process, and therefore of
exploitation and expropriation. Class is
the central category of Wark's analysis,
and Wark defines class as Marx defined
it, as grounded in people's diverse
relations to production and property,
rather than using the vaguer sociological
sense (a group of people with a common
sense of identity and values) that is
most often used today. It's always a
question of conflicting interests between
the producers of value, and the legal
owners who gain profit from the
producers' labor, and who control the
surplus that the producers produce.

Modern capitalism begins in the 16th
and 17th centuries, when -- in the wake
of the decline of feudalism -- wealthy
landowners expropriate formerly
common lands, reducing farmers or
peasants to the status of (at best) paid
laborers (but more often, landless
people who own nothing, and can't even
find work). (This is the stage of what
Marx calls "primitive accumulation," a
useful term that Wark oddly fails to
employ). Capitalism then intensifies in
the 18th and especially the 19th
century, when industrial workers, in
order to survive, must sell their labor to
capitalists, who control the means of
production, and who reap the profits
from the massive economic expansion of
industrialization. Wark sees a third
version of this process in our
contemporary Information Age, where
the producers of information
(understood in the widest sense: artists,
scientists, software developers, and all
sorts of innovators, anyone in short who
produces knowledge) find their labor
expropriated from them by large
corporations which own patents and
copyrights on their inventions. Wark
calls the information producers
"hackers," and refers to the
owners/expropriators of information as
"the vectorialist class" (since
"information" travels along "vectors" as
it is reproduced and transmitted from
place to place).

This formulation allows Wark to
synthesize and combine a wide range of
insights about the politics and
economics of information. As many
observers have noted, what used to be
an information "commons" is
increasingly being privatized (just as
common land was privatized 500 years
ago). Corporations trademark well-
known expressions, copyright texts and
data that used to circulate in the public
domain, and even patent entire
genomes. The irony is, that even as new
technologies make possible the
proliferation and new creation of all
sorts of knowledge and information
(from mash-up recordings to database
correlations to software improvements
to genetic alterations), the rules of
"intellectual property" have increasingly
restricted this proliferation. It's
paradoxical that downloading mp3s
should be policed in the same way as
physical property is protected from
theft; since if I steal your car, you no
longer have it, but when I copy your
music file I don't deprive you of
anything. Culture has always worked by
mixing and matching and altering,
taking what's already there and messing
with it; but now for the first time such
tinkering is becoming illegal, since the
very contents of our common culture
have been redefined as private property.
As I'm always telling my students, under
contemporary laws Shakespeare never
could have written his plays. Though
nothing is valued more highly in our
world today than "innovation," the rules
of intellectual property increasingly
shackle innovation, because only large
corporations can afford to practice it.

Wark makes sense of these
developments as nobody else has, by
locating them, in his "crypto-marxist"
terms, as phenomena of "the property
question" and class struggle.
"Information wants to be free but is
everywhere in chains" (#126). This
means also that the struggle over
information is more crucial, more
central, than traditional marxists (still
too wedded to the industrial paradigm)
have been willing to notice. While
previous forms of economic exploitation
have often been (dubiously) justified on
grounds of scarcity, Wark points out
that for information this justification
becomes completely absurd.
Information is cheap and abundant, and
it takes all sorts of convolutions to bring
it under the rule of scarcity. This alone
reveals the idiocy of "intellectual
property." Individual hackers (software
engineers, say, or songwriters) might
feel they have something to gain
economically by controlling (and making
sure they get paid for) the product of
their particular informational labors; but
in a larger sense, their "class interest"
lies in free information, because only in
that way do they have access to the
body of information or culture that is the
"raw material" for their own creations.
And the fact is that, by dint of their
ownership of this raw material, it is
always the "vectorlist class" who will
profit from new creations, rather than
the creators/hackers themselves.

In making his arguments, Wark brings
together a number of different currents.
If his Manifesto has its deepest roots in
the Western Marxist tradition, from Marx
himself through Lukacs and Benjamin to
the Situationists, it also draws heavily
on Deleuze and Guattari's notions of the
"virtual," as well as Mauss' theory of the
gift. At the same time, it relates directly
to the practices (and the ethos) of the
free software movement, of DJs
producing mash-ups, and of radical Net
and software artists. (Indeed, much of
the book originally appeared on the
nettime listserv).

Much of the power of A Hacker Manifesto
comes from the way that it "abstracts"
and coordinates such a wide range of
sources. Wark argues that the power of
"information" lies largely in its capacity
to make ever-larger "abstractions": "to
abstract is to construct a plane upon
which otherwise different and unrelated
matters may be brought into many
possible relations. To abstract is to
express the virtuality of nature, to make
known some instance of its possibilities,
to actualize a relation out of infinite
relationality, to manifest the manifold"
(#008). Abstraction is the power behind
our current servitude, but it is also the
source of our potential expanded
freedom. The regime of intellectual
property abstracts away from our
everyday experience, turning it into a
controlled stream of 1s and 0s. But the
answer to this expropriation is to push
abstraction still further, to unleash the
potentialities that the "vectorialist"
regime still restricts. A Hacker Manifesto is
already, in itself, such an act of further
abstraction; it charts a path from
already-existing forms of resistance and
creation to a more generalized (more
abstract) mode of action.

There are various points, I admit, at
which I am not entirely convinced. Wark
makes, for instance, too much of a
separation between industrial workers
and hackers, as between capitalists and
vectorialists; this underestimates the
continuity of the history of
expropriation; I'd be happier with a
term like Hardt and Negri's multitude,
vague and undefined as it is, than I am
with Wark's too-rigid separation
between industrial production and
knowledge production. Hardt and Negri
have a more generous understanding
than Wark does of the ways in which the
information economy creates the
common. I'm also, I fear, too cynical to
accept the historical optimism that Wark in
fact shares with Hardt and Negri; in the
world today, I think, in both rich
countries and poor, our affective
investments in commodification and
consumerism are far too strong for our
desires to really become aligned with
our actual class interests (however
powerful a case these theorists make for
what those interests are).

Nonetheless, I don't want to end this
review on such a (mildly) negative note.
If anything, I fear that my comments
here have failed to give a sense of the
full breadth of Wark's argument: of the
full scope of his references, of how
much ground he covers, of the intensity
and uncompromising radicality of his
vision. Whether or not A Hacker Manifesto
succeeds in rousing people to action, it's
a book that anyone who's serious about
understanding the changes wrought by
digital culture will have to take into

For more information on the book:

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