18 08 06

Revolution in the Post-Fordist Revolution?

On the Internet as a Weapon of the Multitude

Gene Ray

      In 2005, four members of the collective Retort published a powerful analysis of the new global mutation of primitive accumulation they call “military neo-liberalism.”  Retort, a note on the cover of their book Afflicted Powers tells us, is “a gathering of antagonists to capital and empire, based for two decades in the San Francisco Bay Area.”[1]  The book grew out of a broadsheet the group wrote for the global antiwar protests of 15 February 2003, protests which in the event turned out to be the largest linked demonstrations in world history; “Neither Their War Nor Their Peace” offered two pages of “negative wisdom addressed to comrades in a dark and confusing time.”

      The appalling destruction of Lebanon has spurred Retort to follow up these trenchant texts with a new broadsheet, this one bitterly titled “All Quiet on the Eastern Front.”[2]  Among its eleven paragraphs of lucid observations and critical propositions is the assertion that the “balance of power in the image-world is changing.”  As never before, the reality  “at the heart of modernity” has been exposed to view.  “For more than a century, modernity and state terror from the air – modernity and mass civilian death – have been mutually constituent terms.  But never before so instantly, so vividly, so ubiquitously.”  Retort points to the material basis of this shift through a biting quotation of US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s whining complaints about the brutal new context in which Empire must fight its wars of systemic enforcement:  “an era of e-mails, blogs, cell phones, Blackberrys, Instant Messaging, digital cameras, a global Internet with no inhibitions, hand-held videocameras, talk radio, 24-hour news broadcasts, satellite television.”

      Scrutinizing this list of demons haunting the sleep of the war technocrat-in-chief, we can rapidly separate apparatuses of corporate and public sector media subordinated to the rule of profit and state administration (talk radio, 24-hour news broadcasts, satellite television) from independent means of production and uncensored networks of communications (all the other items on his hate list).  It is furthermore clear that “a global Internet with no inhibitions” – the open, distributed network that makes possible the rapid and uncontrolled planetary dissemination of images and discourses – is the techno-material factor that links all the mobile micro-means of production and tips the balance of power in the image-world.

      If events have not made us reflexively hostile to every glimmer of optimism, we might be willing to read here some confirmation of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s claims about the revolutionary and radically democratic potential of contemporary conditions.  Why should this not be recognized as an attempt by the emergent global multitude to appropriate the material means of post-Fordist modes of production and turn them against Empire?  As far as I can see, this is a precise and accurate theoretical description of what is going on.  The caveat, by which some pessimism is bound to return, is that the balance of power in the image-world does not in itself suffice to negate the brute force of real systemic power.  While losses in the image war are sabotaging the machines of consensus and further subverting a damaged hegemony, the multitude still shows few signs of organizing itself into the forms of practical agency that could push what is now perhaps a crisis of legitimacy in the direction of a global revolutionary situation.

      In A Grammar of the Multitude (2005), Paolo Virno elaborates the notion of this “plurality” that refuses the synthesizing One of a People or State.  On analogy to Gaston Bachelard, Virno sketches the multitude from the perspective of various heterogeneous “predicates,” or concepts and notions borrowed from across the disciplines.  Virno’s arguments in the “Day Two: Labor, Action, Intellect” section of his book have deservedly catapulted two of these predicates, “virtuosity” and “general intellect,” to the center of current debates about the nature and workings of post-Fordism.  Virno’s suggestive but passing discussions of the Frankfurt School notion of “culture industry” and the Situationist notion of the “society of the spectacle” at least establish that a critical articulation of these two bodies of theory with the Italian Autonomist Marxist interpretation of post-Fordism is an urgent task today.[3]

      Here are some preliminary thoughts.  If, as Horkheimer and Adorno argued, the social functions of industrialized and administered “culture” in late capitalism are systematically to inculcate resignation, conformity, and accommodationism and to block the development of rebellious and revolutionary impulses, then under post-Fordist capitalism the Internet may mark the emergence of a new cultural sphere beyond the control of “administration.”  Or, to say the same thing in Guy Debord’s Situationist idiom, if the social power of the spectacle works by linking spectators in a “one-way relationship to a center,” so that it “unites what is separate, but unites it only in its separateness” (Society of the Spectacle, §29), then the Internet is potentially a source of counter-spectacle that reconnects and reactivates subjects and in which images that negate and dissolve the unified image of power can circulate.  The spectacle does not, as Virno reads Debord to mean, “reveal what men and women can do.”[4]  The opposite is the case:  it shows us the image of our impotence.  Dispossessed of historical agency, we can only accommodate ourselves to a given that affirms itself as unchangeable with all the power of brute fact.  The message of both the spectacle and the culture industry is that resistance is futile.  But, just maybe, the Internet, as the anarchic medium of counter-images, is beginning to reveal “what men and women can do.”

      Of course, we would need immediately to qualify this in various ways.  We would need, first, to repudiate the whole neo-liberal discourse in which the Internet is mystified as the Smiling Utopia of Networked Personal Computing.  So far, our new micro-chipped commodities of liberation have mainly been deployed against us, as the flexible instrument of intensified exploitation and surveillance.  We will need to retain all the skepticism and remember all the warnings expressed by Geert Lovink and others who already in the 1990s were refusing the “California ideology” and attempting to establish a “critical Internet culture.”[5]  Moreover, we will have to fight to keep the Internet anarchic and basically free from administration.  After all, servers and material infrastructure are still mostly in State and corporate hands.  If Rumsfeld is raging against an “Internet with no inhibitions,” we can be sure that steps to discipline and neutralize it are high on power’s agenda.  Still, this is surely a possibility worth fighting for. 

      Last and most important qualification:  if in fact we are now beginning to make and show ourselves the virtual image of what we can do, it still remains to do it.  That means:  eventually putting our bodies on the line with others in real struggle.

      The circulation of counter-images is already an indispensable critical function of the Internet.  Today the lying images and utterances of Empire are immediately answered by ad-hoc networks of autonomous media.  This de-reifying circulation is what Retort points to – and Rumsfeld wrings his hands at.  But it needs to be matched by networks of organized practice – what Negri calls “constituent power.”  The Internet as counter-spectacle would have to be more than a circulation that merely reproduces existing structures of passive and isolated spectatorship.  It would need to be not a liberal, but a radical public sphere:  a means of production of new forms of organization and militant action eventually capable of reaching the critical mass of anti-systemic agency.  In this sense, Peoples’ Global Action, the noborder network, the anti-G8 dissent! network, regional social forums and euromayday are beginnings that go in the right direction.

      And for all the black holes of commerce and maelstroms of porn and idiocy to be found in the ether, promising hints of a networked militancy to come continue to emerge.  Modest examples point to potentials.  In Spring 2005, a coalition of students, faculty, and community members in Honolulu took direct action to block a Navy-funded center for secret weapons-systems research at the University of Hawai’i.  When the coalition took over the president’s offices and occupied them for a week, they turned his conference room into a bustling Indymedia center.  Their campaign web site – complete with web cam, blog, document archive, and continuous uploads of photos and the coalition’s statements – soon caught the attention of student and activist networks on the mainland.  The action was top story for several days on the main Indymedia web site, with coverage and photos also reproduced on the San Diego, Bay Area, Portland, and NYC IMC pages.  The filmmaker Michael Moore picked up on the protest and hosted the occupation web cam on his own web site, and Amy Goodman, the host of the important alternative daily news program Democracy Now!, covered the action with a cell-phone interview. Solidarity emails poured in from around the world.[6]

      This globalized reception served to “legitimize” the resistance to the planned Navy weapons lab, compelling local corporate media finally to acknowledge and cover it.  The direct action and its digital dissemination galvanized student and community support, exposed a back-door deal to public scrutiny and debate, and so far has scuttled the University’s fast-track embrace of Empire’s war machine.  Episodes like this lend a degree of credibility to Hardt and Negri’s claim, in the opening of Multitude, that “the possibility of democracy on a global scale is emerging today for the very first time.”[7]

An expanded version of this text is forthcoming in Third Text, vol. 21, no. 1 (2007) and online at

[1] Retort (Iain Boal, T.J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, and Michael Watts), Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (London: Verso, 2005).

[2] Retort, “All Quiet on the Eastern Front,” on-line at

[3] Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson (Los Angeles and New York: Semiotext[e]), especially pp. 56-61.

[4] Ibid., p. 60.

[5] Geert Lovink, Dark Fiber: Tracking Critical Internet Culture (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002).

[7] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004), p. xi.

Gene Ray