The handloom weaver and the factory maid

The final scene of Promised Land. The fatted and illustrious factory owners are celebrating in their mansion. The women and children are in overbearing colour, the men wear suits and smoke cigars. There are the Jews, the Poles, the Rus all bowing into our line of sight as we reach the capitalist war room. People talk but we can’t hear them. The drum-heavy soundtrack drowns out any dialogue.

Juxtaposed with this end-of-the-world opulence are brief crane shots of the grey masses motionless outside the factory gates, the machines motionless indoors (their accumulated rhythm during the film traced out by the increasingly urgent beat of the drum), the grey masses again. But this time we detect a solitary movement. A conductor waving his hands. But this is no marching band, so what is being conducted? A march? A lockout? A strike? This drumbeat is not a soundtrack. It is neither intra- nor extra- diegetic. It is taking direction from the working classes of the film and also directing them.

In a wide shot of the conductor we see there are no instruments. And yet inside the mansion our hard-pressed capitalists are at breaking point, simply can’t bear this atrocious noise. Then, as the drumbeat fades away, they start to ease out of their panic. A brick crashes through the lounge window from a crowd an impossible distance away. Like the drum, its origin is both intra- and extra- diegetic. Or, more rightly, neither. It is inexplicable and entirely maddening. The drums start up again irresistibly and the order is given to fire upon the inert mass (for that is all they appear from the lounge window. No longer even the sluggish political agency afforded by the plural). Then all is undone as the rushed retreat of a worker leads us into the midst of the mass and leaves us with our final image: the blood on his face and the red flag in his hand, the feet of workers yet to take a step.

This is a long way of saying that I’ve been reading Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society, and reflecting on the fortuitous emergence of LulzSec on the 200th anniversary of the Luddite disturbances. Given I’m no initiate in hacking or hacktivism, and at best a non-native resident of the internets, I’ve found the Deterritorial Support Group’s explanation of the online uprising incredibly informative.

To the élite mind both the political and social characteristic of ‘the masses’ was indecipherability, impenetrability, irrationality, opaqueness, ageusia. Emerson demands that we do away ‘with this hurrah of masses, and…have the considerate vote of single men’. William Phillips, the mycologist, claimed ‘the masses are governed more by impulse than conviction’. Thomas Moore is surprised at ‘one of the few proofs of good Taste that ‘the masses’, as they are called, have yet given’. Basically, action en masse is coded as menstrual-whorishness: fucking around without distinction, and getting blood all over the shop. This is obviously antidemocratic polemic (and permeates near every discussion of ‘democracy’ right up to this day), and Williams is at pains to say as much. But in evaluating the history of the definition of ‘masses’ Williams goes further than this simple oppositional stance. His critique is a subversion as well as a negation. Phillips’ opaque mass becomes a series of partial transparent masses played for ‘political and cultural exploitation’: a/the construction of capital’s gaze (where the ambiguity in this phrasing allows for ‘construction’ to be both object and action). This is negative feedback:

There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses. In an urban industrial society there are many opportunities for such ways of seeing. The point is not to reiterate the objective conditions but to consider, personally and collectively, what these have done to our thinking. The fact is, surely, that a way of seeing other people which has become characteristic of our kind of society, has been capitalised for the purposes of political or cultural exploitation. What we see, neutrally, is other people, many others, people unknown to us. In practice, we mass them, and interpret them, according to some convenient formula. Within its terms, the formula will hold. Yet it is the formula, not the mass, which it is our real business to examine. It may help us to do this if we remember that we ourselves are all the time being massed by others. To the degree that we find the formula inadequate for ourselves, we can wish to extend to others the courtesy of acknowledging the unknown.

It is this last word – unknown – and its destabilising potential, that I want to focus on. ‘Acknowledgement of the unknown’ is the very real and entirely practical problem facing a number of government agencies and international corporations at the minute in their response to anonymous, LulzSec, and co; just as it was the problem Byron diagnosed in his opposition to the framework bill:

Are we aware of our obligations to a mob? It is the mob that labour in your fields and serve in your houses — that man your navy, and recruit your army — that have enabled you to defy the world, and can also defy you when neglect and calamity have driven them to despair. You may call the people a mob; but do not forget that a mob too often speaks the sentiments of the people.

As formulated by international policing, nobody has a fucking clue who, IRL, is behind this, how many they are (legion being one pretty vague answer), where they operate, or what their motivation is. And so it is said this is new territory for law enforcement, these people have no clear demands, their actions are brutish and without explanation, they are irrational. Of course every part of this formulation betrays a complete lack of knowledge of, and unwillingness to acknowledge, the native masses of the internets. There is no simple conspiratorial behind, nor is there a territory upon which to advance. The internet hordes present an absolute instance of the radical unknowability of the masses in their ultra-heterogeneity/homogeneity (something not exclusive to the internet masses, but perhaps typical of all constructions of masses, as evidenced by my liberal use of the OED). It is no coincidence that they seized on this scene from V for Vendetta as emblematic of their approach (I worked a nice little pun in there, if you’re interested). There are no demands because the masses do not make demands as such, because the masses do not really exist at any moment, and because there is nobody for them to make demands to (an interesting parallel to this is the destruction of media equipment by protesters in Syntagma Square: ‘We’re not interested in media coverage. We’ve been here 22 days and this is the end of it. We’ve had enough’). The masses are a conception of capital, and nowhere near an independent social category, they are unknown. Thus any attempt to pin them down will at best be the recapitulation of a nightmare. The response is at once to suppose an agent, whilst also rejecting the legitimacy of this agent. But this agent is nowhere to be found, and yet its symptoms appear pervasive to capital’s gaze. All the while what is happening does not register as more than paranoid feedback. To define what is happening as a call for representation and recuperation is to entirely misconceive the events in Syntagma Square, and the events on the Lulz Boat. The machine-system of the internet now confronts its user as a pre-existing material condition of recuperative representation that demands a radical challenge. First and foremost, they are breaking machines.

Which is not to say that they are the internet’s proverbial luddites, doomed to artisanal obsolescence as the industrial internet revolution starts to take hold at the turn of the 21st century. Rather, it is this lazy interpretation of Ned Ludd and his gang that is obsolete. In reimagining the history of framebreaking as a history of the hacker we might just get a glimpse of the destructive redeployment of the means of communication, of a Byronic defiance that can speak without demand. The hacker is first and foremost a native of the internets, understanding it better than the mass of unskilled users that now labour upon it. She was there first. It would be wise to remember that the Luddites were not the reactionary idiots they are still painted as. As hand loom weavers they will have understood the mechanics of the machines they destroyed far better than the unskilled labourers employed in the new factories. They understood that the destruction of machines, the fixed capital of the industry, was the only means of communication they could effectively deploy against capitalism. It was not symbolic action; like the strike, and like work-to-rule, this was a smashing into the body of capital.

So there is some use in conceiving the national and corporate Cyclopean machines now emerging online as evidence of the early stages of machinery’s abolition of the traditional informational networks that formed the immediate technical foundation for their very construction (as long as we don’t conceive this as part and parcel of the abolition of the hacker as some historically determined category on a par with handloom weavers). During the industrial revolution, when the system attained a certain degree of development, it had to overthrow its ready-made foundation, which had meanwhile undergone further development in its old form, and create for itself a new basis appropriate to its own mode of production. The recent increase in international and cross-polity regulation of online information communication, though uneven, points towards capital’s new found confidence in its competence in this domain. The chapter in Karl Marx’s Capital on ‘Machinery and Large-Scale Industry’ contains a valuable footnote to this process:

It is only after a considerable development of the science of mechanics, and an accumulation of practical experience, that the form of a machine becomes settled entirely in accordance with mechanical principles, and emancipated from the traditional form of the tool from which it has emerged.

Even the ‘collective worker of manufacture’ presented a ‘stumbling-block’ in its deficit in the accumulated knowledge that was required for the concentration of value in the vast machines of large-scale industry. The coming of the machines proceeded not as a triumph through the streets of Cottonopolis, but in productive tension with the very workers it was set to displace and replace. Productive for both weaver and capital, hacker and internet industry. The men of tools did not sit on the sidelines and applaud their usurpers in good spirit, but were a precondition of the machines’ emergence. In this regard it is remarkable that by and large the tool of choice deployed by hacktivists is not the sophisticated weapon dreamt up by Hollywood (the Pentagon’s ideas factory, lest we forget), but rather the DDoS attack. They are users with their tools, not ‘liberals with bombs‘. In the context of Promised Land this tweet from LulzSec becomes particularly appropriate:

Guess what Sophos, every brick throw doesn’t have to involve a double-backflip and secret handshake; the window is fucked either way.

Fucking windows is the practice of the excluded – from the means of their reproduction, from the organs of their representation. They are employing the tools of the collective internet user to undermine the new basis for the emergent internet industry, for its legalised construction, and for their own extinction. In these attacks they pose for capital and government the problem of their lack of satisfactory representability. They present a crisis of mass representation.

This window smashing thus offers a possibility for the sabotage of the negative feedback of the presumed liberal democracy of the internet. The diagnosis of this malaise is by now so familiar that I don’t need to put it through the nth iteration. However, the way it is accented in William’s critique is worth reviewing:

We fail to realise, in this matter, that much of what we call communication is, necessarily, no more in itself than transmission: that is to say, a one-way sending.

and later:

Democratic theory remains theory, and this practical scepticism [lack of trust in the competence of the democratic community] breeds the theoretical scepticism [of the possibility of democratic community] which is again becoming, even in our own society, dangerously marked. The consequences are unsatisfactory from most points of view. If people cannot have official democracy, they will have unofficial democracy, in any of its possible forms, from the armed revolt or riot, through the ‘unofficial’ strike or restriction of labour, to the quietest but most alarming form – a general sullenness and withdrawal of interest. Faced with this set of facts, it is always possible to fall back on the other part of the ‘mass’ interpretation; to see these symptoms as ‘proving’ the unfitness of the masses – they will not take an interest – such is the nature of that brute, the mob. I am arguing, on the contrary, that these characteristic marks of our civilisation are not interpretable in this mode; that they are, rather, symptoms of a basic failure in communication. It is possible to say this, and to conclude that the answer lies in educational projects, the feeding of information, or a new publicity drive. But this is to go on thinking of communication as transmission alone, a renewal, perhaps by new means, of the long dominative effort. the point is very difficult to see, in practice, when a group is certain that its case is right and urgent, and that for their own good, and urgently, people must be brought to recognise this.

Rather than a feedback form with ‘fuck you’ written in upper case, the hacktivists offer a big ‘fuck you’ in the form of feedback. In the face of politics of technocratic governance through staid representational forms is the refusal of the masses to represent anything, or be represented by anything. The attempt to graft an international and traditional liberal legal system (importantly, one that enshrines private property) onto the internet is meeting with resistance from those who understand the absurd brutality of this proposition. The recognition that underpins this resistance could even translate into recognition and resistance IRL.

Though it should be stressed that it isn’t the internet as such that presents the possibility for a new democracy or a new representation (whatever that might mean), so much as what we do with it and how we use it to communicate. In response to the increasingly negative feedback of the tyranny of ‘postwar consensus’ in all its guises, there is the potential for the positive feedback embodied by the internet as reinstatement of the radical, disruptive potential of communication. Assertion, not demand (where the earliest, now obsolete, definition of ‘assert’ meant to ‘grant or ensure liberty, to protect’):

Yet the uneasy symptoms are, precisely, a response to a dominative organisation. In a revolt, in most riots, in many strikes, it is a positive response: the assertion of a different kind of answer.

Update: so, operation AntiSec is underway, and it’s almost as if they’ve catered their rhetoric to my analysis:

Welcome to Operation Anti-Security (#AntiSec) – we encourage any vessel, large or small, to open fire on any government or agency that crosses their path. We fully endorse the flaunting of the word “AntiSec” on any government website defacement or physical graffiti art. We encourage you to spread the word of AntiSec far and wide, for it will be remembered. To increase efforts, we are now teaming up with the Anonymous collective and all affiliated battleships.

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