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Episode Summary

The future is a funny thing. It’s always around the corner and yet it never quite arrives. That’s certainly true when speaking about the technology industry. As the personal computer revolution and the internet began spreading around the world, commentators and entrepreneurs made fortunes telling everyone that we were going to have a technological utopia in which everything was possible.

It was a parallel to what was happening in the political world, where the collapse of the Soviet Union inspired writers and politicians to declare that humanity had reached the “End of History,” a singular moment in time in which we could have the freedom of social democracy as smiling and benevolent billionaires provided everything we could ever want at unimaginably low prices.

In the years since, however, all of these promises have failed to materialize. While we can indeed get more stuff than ever before, wages have been stagnant, millions have abandoned the labor force, and the supposedly benevolent billionaires have openly allied themselves with religious fundamentalists in the hopes of preserving the massive wealth they’ve extracted from the world economy.

One person who perhaps saw this coming is Richard Barbrook, our guest on this episode of Theory of Change. He’s the co-author of a 1995 essay called “The Californian Ideology,” which was a rare contemporary dissent from what became known as neoliberalism outside of America and libertarianism in the States. While the essay went on to become one of the earliest viral pieces of content on the early internet, its argument for a greater role for governmental engagement in the technology economy was not heeded in the U.S. or elsewhere.

Several years after “The Californian Ideology” was published, Barbrook wrote a 2007 re-examination of the subject in a book called Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village which argued that left-leaning critics of techno-libertarianism needed to put forward an alternative vision if they hoped to prevail.

The video of our December 14, 2022 conversation is below. A transcript of the edited audio follows. Please note that you will need to be a member of the Flux Patreon in order to read the full text. Thank you for your support


Video


Transcript

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Welcome to Theory of Change, Richard.

RICHARD BARBROOK: Thank you, welcome from snowy London to warm California. It’s a bit dark outside, but my patio is covered with snow, you’d be glad to hear.

SHEFFIELD: Oh yeah? Well, that’s definitely not something that happens here in Southern California.

But speaking of that, though, our conversation today, we’re going to kind of structure it in parts here. So we’re certainly going to talk about the “Californian Ideology,” that you co-wrote in 1995. But I do want to maybe go into the history of where all the tech world came from, because there’s some misconceptions about how everything got started with the internet and things like that.

So why don’t you take us back before all of that Silicon Valley stuff got started, if you could please.

BARBROOK: I wrote Imaginary Futures because I was always very skeptical about the origin myth of the internet. Because they would say, well it was invented because in a nuclear war, they didn’t want to have a centralized telecommunication system. So they were going to replace, cheap, reliable switches with expensive, flaky, mainframes.

So there was obviously something weird going on there that they, that, this what Paul Barron’s original report for Rand was about. And then this whole thing was then taken up by the hippie generation in the sixties.

And these were the people who actually created Silicon Valley, the internet, and the digital revolution, which was proclaimed to be transforming the whole planet and transforming it into California.

And so I went backwards to see what was going on. And as I was doing this, I came across these references all around these particular years, 1964, 1965, which was actually when I, as a child, was actually in America.

I went to a junior school in Boston, Massachusetts. And because my father was on a CIA scholarship to spend a year at MIT political science department where every professor and every graduate student was funded by the CIA at that point. And so I, I had that experience through my parents of actually being part of the extension of the empire into Europe.

And we went to New York World’s Fair, on the way, we actually went by boat. We must be one of the last generations who actually traveled to America by boat. We got off at New York and there was this World’s Fair on. So we went to it. And I was curious. The picture that’s on the front, the photo, it was taken by my father of us with the “Unisphere” behind us.

So this, this is what I was curious about, about how that particular vision of the high-tech future inspired actually the technologies that would later create the internet.

It’s to do with the Cold War race between America and the Soviet Union. The two empires basically.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and, and as you noted, the Americans were responding to some ideas that the Soviets–

BARBROOK: Yes, yes. They had, they had in, it was since this Russian comrade pointed out to me, they were the last generation who really believed the Soviet Union was about to build communism.

And so in the late 1950s, 1960s, there was a group of reformers who thought, well, the problem with Stalinism is it’s basically the industrial stage of modernity, and if we bring in computers and networking, we can create what they call cybernetic communism. And Kruschev at the 22nd Communist Party of the Soviet Union Congress actually said, ‘we will be in cybernetic communism by the 1970s.’ And so–

SHEFFIELD: And what was that supposed to mean, cybernetic communism?

BARBROOK: The people nowadays say, well, it’s what Walmart does, or any large corporation. It’s using computer networks to plan the economy. So there was, you have this central planning. The problem is how do you get the information, how, how do you respond to changes in the economy?

I mean, I have friends who grew up in the old Soviet block and they would say, well, one point, everybody wants to have white flare jeans because ABBA is the great thing, the music they’re all liking, or hippie-dom in general. And then suddenly the, the, the system responds to it. But by the time it’s responded and produced white flare jeans, punkers arrive and they all want black skinny jeans instead.

And that’s a sort of very trivial example, but it’s a general problem of the system. So they thought you could solve that by having real time planning by if somebody goes into a shop and buys black, straight skinny jeans instead of white flared jeans, it would immediately go back to the jean factory and tell them to switch from one to the other.

You can see that there’s lots of the just in time production systems, they have have sort of realized that. The difficulty is they didn’t have the telephone systems or the computers.

They had the idea though. And I think the idea terrified certain people in America, because we did have the “bomber gap” and the “missile gap,” and then they thought there was going to be a “cybernetic gap.” And that’s what was really interesting. Why did they spend all this money on building the internet, this flaky communication system?

And I think I realized that it was, it, it, people, lot of people say, well, they had this technology and then they built fantasies like the Californian Ideology on top of the technology. But what’s interesting is the fantasies instead have to come first to get the funding, both in the Soviet Union and in America.

And the key one was, who owns the future? Because in the Cold War, the Soviet Union says, well, we are behind, we’re not as democratic, we’re not as rich as America, but we are the beta version of the communist future. And in America, it’s very difficult in a way. What comes after the consumer society?

Because you can’t have, for historical reasons, Americans couldn’t say, well, we are going to build communism, right?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah.

BARBROOK: So they have to have another vision of the future. And that’s where all these ideas, like the Information Society Network, society, Techtronic Society, all these idea, they’re sort of the American substitute for Soviet communism.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and–

BARBROOK: And in history. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And , I guess in a lot of ways it was kind of presaged with the idea of the the space race as well.

BARBROOK: Yeah, yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Got that started. And we kept seeing this, this dynamic of, of rivalry between capitalism, communism, repeating, indifferent spheres,

BARBROOK: Communism in really, it, they never claimed to be communist.

That’s the point. I think that’s the other point, which was obscured by the whole collapse of the Soviet Union, is that the people adopted this American Cold War. That, that somehow the Soviet Union was communist. When they never claimed to be communist. They said, we are really existing socially well, like in the moment in China, they say socialism with Chinese character.

Communism was the future that they’re building. We forget this because we are living in the 2020s or even when we were arrived for our 1990s.

People had already forgotten that trajectory of history, as you said in the opening, that that, Francis Fukuyama takes the Hegelian idea, it was actually a Hegelian Marxist idea coming from Alexandre Kojève– of the concept of the end of history.

And he takes that and basically appropriates it for what, at the time was neoconservatism in America– we are the next stage of history everywhere else we’re, we are like the beta version of the future, and everywhere else will become like us.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and it was also the idea that nothing else can exist.

BARBROOK: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: ‘Except for what we’re talking about.’

BARBROOK: Because America had won the Cold War.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah.

BARBROOK: In some sense. Of course in the other sense, America had lost the Cold War and has been looking for it ever since.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, so that’s sort of the historical background–

BARBROOK: Well I think the key thing is to think about why they spent so much money developing the internet. It’s not an obvious thing to develop, compared to either other military technologies or civilian technology.

And also why did they fixate on that particular technology as the one that was going to create a new society. I mean, if you think about, I don’t know, jumbo jets, the shipping container, antibiotics, I mean there’s a whole series of other technology that probably had a more, in many ways, a more profound effect on modern societies.

But they fetishized on this particular– well, it used to be called the convergence of computing, telecommunications and media into one, and that, that is interesting, that particular part of the economy. I mean, again, as we know today, if we look at Wall Street, these corporations are very powerful and large.

But why pick on that, that particular technology as the one that creates the next stage in history?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah.

BARBROOK: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Well, no, that’s–

BARBROOK: That’s an interesting, interesting idea thing in itself because what’s, what they’re saying is that, human history, I mean, this is what they, Marshall McLuhan provided for, he was at the, the American science who,

SHEFFIELD: Well, for, for people who don’t know who Marshall McLuhan was–

BARBROOK: Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian English professor who created a sort of a form of media technological determinism, or I’m very simplifying his theory.

I think it’s not so much what he wrote, it’s what it became, what the French called McLuhanism. I think you have to distinguish between the two.

But what he says, what he says is, essentially in most of human history, we had the oral stage, pre-literate. And then you have printing, and printing creates all those things which we associate with capitalism: nationalism, individualism, and all the rest of it.

And then in the 1960s, we are creating the internet, essentially the tribal drum, which he then calls the global village, which is a phrase people still use today. And that’s going to create the next stage of human history. He’s talking about, Telstar satellites and color television, but you know, because he’s been told by the CIA among other people about cyber, the whole prediction of cybernetic communism, he then in a sense domesticates it for the American audience and becomes very famous in the process.

And the whole range of people ever since have basically been doing the same prediction again and again, and again.

SHEFFIELD: And that’s a good point there, the technological determinism. It was a political project initially. And it’s kind of difficult, I think in the United States for Americans, the term neoliberalism, it doesn’t mean the same thing to your average American, of course, because we have this strange definition of liberal here.

BARBROOK: You are stuck in the late 19th century. You didn’t make the evolution. Most of other capitalist countries, the liberals collapsed into the conservatives.

And then you have the emergence of a socialist, social democratic communist party, some of which are indistinguishable from liberal parties anyway. But the rhetoric changes basically.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. So just to go back to right before your paper, “The Californian Ideology,” which came out in 1995.

So at that time in the eighties and the nineties, there was an emergence of these sort of right wing voices, like Newt Gingrich, like George Gilder, who were both very fundamentalist Christian, far-right individuals, but they had read their McLuhan and they had absorbed it.

And they were some of the, the earliest backers of this type of thinking.

BARBROOK: In, in Europe it was slightly different, because we sort of lost our religion, somewhere along the way, because the–

SHEFFIELD: Oh, certainly in UK especially.

BARBROOK: Yeah. Yeah. They were saying God died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

But so here it was there were people around Margaret Thatcher’s government from 1979 to 1990 who definitely connected together new technologies, the “sunrise industries” as they used to call them, and neoliberal economics, which obviously, she was one of the champions of. So it was, so we had a slightly different version of it in Europe.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm.

BARBROOK: And particularly in the 1980s when François Mitterrand, who was elected in the early eighties as president of France as a socialist. And when his attempts to reflate the economy through the nationalization plan failed, they then shifted to a sort of soft form of neoliberalism and a fascination with Silicon Valley.

But that again, it didn’t import, as you say, all that Newt Gingrich sort of implicit racism, the love of the Confederacy and all these other bizarre things that it was associated with in America.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And then of course there were the Ayn Rand fanatics–

BARBROOK: Who’s never been popular in Europe. I mean, she’s, no, she’s a

SHEFFIELD: Oh yeah.

BARBROOK: Terrible novelist and a horrible human being. So, yeah, she’s never really had a constituency here at all. The person who is the big influence here in the 1980s was Friedrich von Hayek, because Margaret Thatcher said Road to Serfdom was her favorite book, and The Constitution of Liberty probably was her second favorite book. And that says, if you have a welfare state, well the next stage is The Gulag Archipelago, basically.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm.

BARBROOK: I mean, I remember reading it after she got out. I just thought, this is batshit crazy, this book. But it’s incredibly influential.

SHEFFIELD: So we’re now at the point then where the American government has invested all this money on computer networking, and physically laying down wire, and actually they started on what later became Wi-Fi actually in the 1960s, and the idea of forcing AT&T to give away the code of UNIX, and not being allowed to sell it. So there were all these hosts of things that were completely anticapitalistic.

BARBROOK: Whereas in the Soviet Union simultaneously, they got very frightened by this vision of cybernetic communism. I had a friend who grew up in, in the Soviet Union, and he said all the computer networks were deliberately made so they were incompatible. They couldn’t be linked together because they didn’t want people linked. The bureaucracy didn’t want feedback from the workers and peasants about what a shitty job they were doing.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So anyway, but, so the US government had invested all this money and behaved decidedly anticapitalistic and created the internet, and ARPANET first, and then, and later what became the internet.

And so that takes us to 1995 when you were working on “The Californian Ideology,” with your colleague. So tell us, first of all, what does the Californian Ideology mean?

BARBROOK: Well, I think you have to go back to that period in England.

So we had a long period of conservative government. The internet arrives. A friend of mine set up the world’s first internet café in Soho in London.

And in this café, you’d meet people who would be against privatizing healthcare or railways or things like that, but as soon as it got on to talking about computers or the internet, they would suddenly start spouting neoliberal ideology. And this was because they were all reading this magazine called Wired.

And so me and Andy Cameron were setting up an MA in hypermedia studies for the University of Westminster, and we sort of wrote “The Californian Ideology” partly as a manifesto to attract students and say, well, we think differently about this than the sort of stuff they’re talking about in Wired.

And it was, as I said, partly, we wrote it for ourselves and for this mailing list, this sort of European mailing list called NetTime. And it just took off. We were really surprised. I mean, it was published by Mute magazine in London, and then we distributed it on this NetTime mating list, and suddenly it went off like a rocket and it was like viral, went viral, I guess we’d now say.

And what I always remember see reading an article somewhere, they just talked about the Californian Ideology and they didn’t link to our article. And initially I thought, oh, that’s bad, why aren’t they crediting? And then I thought, actually, now that shows you’re a success when you, when you invented a phrase and it’s passed into everyday language and people don’t need to be told where it comes from.

That’s success basically.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah.

BARBROOK: And it’s still going. I mean that’s the other thing, is that here we are talking about it decades later, and so it, it obviously hit a nerve.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah.

BARBROOK: It’s interesting what I think The Well had this, Bruce Sterling hosted this, this group in there called “Loony Lefties Sniping at Wired,” or something. And it was all, and Louis Rossetto was deeply annoyed with it, and all the rest of it– that was good.

SHEFFIELD: You’re going to have to say who, who, who is Louis Rossetto.

BARBROOK: Louis Rossetto was this rather dodgy character who was the editor of Wired. He’s actually lived in Amsterdam. He had a real animus, not so much against the Soviet Union– a bit like, a bit like Hayek and Mises, it’s actually social democracy, that’s what they really didn’t like. And he had the same thing. What he really didn’t like was social democracy. Even in a sort of mild, West European type. And he obviously really, really got through it.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, okay. So, but the title, I guess. Yeah. Tell us about the title. Why did, why did you guys use that?

BARBROOK: Well, there’s a very famous book by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels called The German Ideology. It has a sort of a really simplified and very readable vision of the materialist conception of history.

They sort of update this theory, which, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson was the great developers of, but they sort up update that for mid 19th century socialists.

And what they’re arguing in The German Ideology is not that all Germans have this ideology, but this particular form of, sort of what they call left Hegelianism, it’s just a sort of form of radical republicanism, but very philosophically based, could only have happened in Germany at this particular time. And it wouldn’t have happened in France, or in Britain, or America or anywhere else.

And we thought this was a good analogy, because this sort of mixture of new left and new right, the sort of hippie capitalist is a very Californian phenomenon, and you wouldn’t have got it in Boston, for instance, or New York or other places where technology was being developed at the time.

And so we thought that was a really good analogy to make. I don’t think whether, whether many people got where we nicked the title from. I don’t know. But of course, and also it sounds quite poetical, doesn’t it? And it’s interesting because I discovered it’s now on the reading list for undergraduates because if it’s long ago enough ago, the people who criticized California become part of the California theoretical universe, because it’s, I suppose it’s quite flattering in a way.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and, and I guess one of the things that is striking to me about the essay at the time was that, in the United States in particular, but I think you saw it later in with Tony Blair and his Third Way, quote unquote, is that a lot of the people who embraced what you guys call the Californian Ideology, which, in many ways is just like a shorthand, one could argue for a form of libertarianism, right?

BARBROOK: Well, neoliberalism as we in–

SHEFFIELD: For people who have an understanding of political ideologies and history, these are, these are traditions which are are on, firmly on the ideological right side.

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