Heresies and prophecies (interview)

Heresies and prophecies: the social and political fall-out of the technological revolution: an interview*

* Chapter from Jim Davis, Thomas Hirschl and Michael Stack (eds), Cutting Edge: technology; information capitalism and social revolution (New York and London, Verso, 1997).

Michael Stack: How do you see the significance of the new technologies? 

A. Sivanandan: Their significance, firstly and fundamentally, is in the qualitative change they have brought about in the productive forces, which in turn has predicated a mode of production based on information, data, gathered from dead and living labour. The magnitude of that change can best be understood in contrasting the industrial revolution to the technological revolution. Cast your mind back to that period. Imagine yourself in a society that was moving from handicraft to ‘machino-facture’ – from energy based on muscle power to energy based on steam power and then, in a second wave, to electricity. Think, now, how micro-electronics replaces the brain. That is the size of the revolution of our times. 

Of course I am being sweeping here, and speculative. But the great thing about an interview is that one can speculate, envision. And we desperately need to do that at a time when we have been cast out into uncharted seas and have lost our moorings – when, if I may change my metaphor, we are in the middle of a sea-change, caught in the trough between two civilisations: the industrial and the post-industrial. 

Secondly, information is not only a factor of production, so to speak, but also a factor in social communication and political dis course. The term information society should be understood to mean both the information fed into machines to produce commodities and the information fed to people to produce cultural homogeneity, political consensus, etc. Those who control the means of communication control also the economic, the cultural and the political. It is no longer the ownership of the means of production that is important, but the ownership of the means of communication. Not Britannia, but Murdoch, rules the waves. 

What I am talking about here is the centralisation of power behind a democratic facade — and that perception underlies my whole thinking about post-industrial society. 

MS: What sort of social impact do you see the new technologies having? 

AS: Changes in the mode of production change social relations. If ‘the handmill gives you society with the feudal lord and the steam-mill gives you society with the industrial capitalist, the microchip gives you society with the global capitalist, the universal capitalist, and the universal factory. Capital is no longer restricted by time or place or labour, It can produce ad hoc: to the customer’s needs, ‘just-in-time’. Its factories are not fixed in place, nor does it need to aggregate thousands of workers on the same factory floor. It can, instead, take up its plant and walk to any part of the world where labour is cheap and captive and plentiful, moving from one labour pool to another, extracting absolute surplus value — since labour per se is increasingly dispensable, and racism decrees Third World labour to be particularly so. 

Such emancipation of Capital from Labour alters the whole fabric of industrial society, disaggregates and recomposes the working class into highly-skilled ‘core’ workers at one end and unskilled or semi skilled ‘peripheral’ workers at the other, with the former being ab sorbed into management and the latter being gradually cast out into the semi-employed or unemployed zone — so engendering the two-thirds, one-third division of society characteristic of monetarism and the free market. 

A similar division obtains in the Third World – except that there the ratio is the other way round: one-third haves and two-thirds have-nots — with the former identifying themselves not with the national interest but with international capital. So that what you have, in effect, is a new capitalist order in which the world is divided into the rich and the poor — with the poor increasingly becoming a population surplus to capital’s requirements – marked out, more often than not, by race and colour. 

MS: Two Worlds, then, and not three? 

AS: Two worlds and three. In economic terms, two; in political terms, three. Global capitalism, as an economic system, divides the world into two, but global capitalism, as a political project, divides the world into three. The three world schema is to be understood not in terms of its original paradigm but in terms of present-day power relationships. The First World is still the dominant power, but the Second World is its junior partner and the Third World the client state. Or, put it another way, the First World is organically, ‘naturally’ capitalist, the Second World can choose to be capitalist, the Third World has capitalism thrust upon it. 

MS: But how can you separate the economic from the political? And have you done away with political economy? 

AS: Ah, that is my great heresy. But to take your first question first. I am not separating the economic from the political. I am saying that their relationship has changed, the emphasis has changed, so that we can no longer talk about ‘the political economy’, only about the econo mic polity, Governments receive their power not from the voters, but from business conglomerates, media moguls, owners of the means of communication, who massage the votes, manipulate the voters. Those who own the media own the votes that ‘own’ the government. The polity is an instrument of the economic imperative. Governments go where multinationals take them – to institute policies at home or set up regimes abroad that are hospitable to capital. The irony is that, with the break up of the industrial working class, the riposte to capital’s economic hegemony is no longer economic but political. 

MS: To get back to the impact of the new technologies. What do you think has been the social (and intellectual) response to these? AS: Firstly the flight from class, especially on the part of the metropolitan white left, (a) because of the break-up of the industrial working class and the weakening of the trade union movement, and (b) because, as I said before, the centre of gravity of exploitation has moved, out of sight, to the Third World. And, following on that, secondly, the elevation of the new social forces (blacks, women, gays, environmentalists, etc.) as the agents of change in society – leading, thirdly, to a pluralist view of society, of society as a vertical mosaic of cultures, religions, ethnicities, sexualities, etc. Hence identity politics and cultural politics – but no class politics, no radical political culture. Hence, too, all the post-modernist, post-marxist claptrap. Hence, finally, the moral vacuum on the left and moralistic fundamentalisms on the right. 

MS: From the US we tend to see these changes in US terms. Can you give us a sense of their international or global impact? 

AS: I think I have already touched on the global impact of the new technologies from a Third World perspective. What I’d like to do here, though, is to take your remark about seeing things in US terms and, turning it around a bit, ask myself why it is that, when it comes down to the question of the havoc wreaked by US capitalism in the Third World, even the US left, more often than not, do not see beyond Latin America to Africa or Asia. And even when they do, it appears invariably as abstracted, removed – or even paternalist, driven alternately by guilt and duty, carrying the sins of the IMF and the World Bank and the multinational corporations. There is no feel for Africa or Asia: they are continents apart, objects of imperialist study or venues for good works and charity, often pitiable, but always that little bit beyond hope. Even among the black left or ‘people of colour’, there is no visceral understanding of Africa or Asia, only a sentimental (root seeking) attachment or an intellectual commitment. Perhaps it is because here in Europe, we — Asians, African-Caribbeans, Africans, etc. — are still only a generation or two removed from our land bases. Or perhaps it is because our home countries are still caught up in the relics of a feudalism that US capital, springing full-fledged from the head of Midas, has never experienced. 

MS: The traditional model has been high-tech/knowledge intensive work in the developed countries and low-tech/labour-intensive work in the Third World. This seems to be changing, with the periphery taking on more skilled work. Comments?

AS: Part of the trouble with a revolution is that we get hung up on old questions, or work from old premises. I don’t think the old inter national division of labour model can stand us in good stead anymore. Everything is much more flexible now, much more fluid. Capital can set itself down or pull itself up as technology takes it. And technology changes so fast that any division of labour is ad hoc and temporary. For instance, some of the low-tech, labour-intensive work in the garments industry, which was once being farmed out to the free trade zones in Asia, has now, because of new manufacturing techniques combined with the availability of cheap female Asian labour, come back to Britain. And in recent years, Japanese and German car manufacturers have availed themselves of the de-unionised and/or unemployed labour force in Britain to set up factories here. 

What I think we should gather from this is the importance not of the international division of labour but of the international alliance of capital. The bourgeoisie of the Third World is no longer a national bourgeoisie working in the interests of its people, but an international bourgeoisie working in the interests of international capital. The so called Tiger Economies (of South East Asia) which have been held up as pointing the way to Third World capitalist development are 

Heresies and prophecies 5 partnerships between state and local capital (often the same thing) and multinational capital – a partnership in robber-baron exploitation which has not improved the lives of the people by one iota, and taken away their freedoms instead. 

MS: Have you any comments to make on the ‘Brain Drain’ or how information – technical, scientific and cultural – is concentrated in the countries of the centre to which the Third World only gets access at a price? Are there other ‘intellectual property’ issues that you see at play here? 

AS: Following on what I said before about the international alliance of capital, as a rider to it almost, I would say that brains go where the money is. And the money is in technology, and technology is in the West. Secondly, the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), instituted by the IMF and World Bank as part of their development package for Third World countries, choke off the funds available for education, especially at the primary and secondary levels, and produce an elite whose allegiance is not to their own people but to ‘opportu nities’ in the West. In 1991 alone, Africa lost over a third of its skilled workers to Europe, and in Ghana some 60 per cent of the doctors, trained in the early 1980s, went to work abroad. And, finally, of course, there are the trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPS) and the ‘conditionalities’ tied to trade agreements such as GATT and NAFTA which ensure that Third World countries do not develop their own local equivalents of western products. Zantac, for instance, a drug widely used in India for the treatment of ulcers and manufactured locally for local users, can no longer be sold cheaply because of the royalties that now have to be paid to the transnationals which hold the patent. And, under current GATT proposals on agriculture, such patents are to be extended even to seeds, plants and animals. 

MS: You write of the end of the working class as we know it, though you have some problems with Gorz’s ‘Farewell to the working class’. Yet the high profile ‘knowledge workers’ symbolic analysts’, etc., are sometimes referred to as the new working class. How do you see classes being played out in this period of ‘Information Capitalism’? 

AS: What I was trying to say there is (a) that the demise of industrial society heralds the demise of the industrial working class (as we know it) and (b) that the working class of post-industrial capitalism is no longer concentrated at the centre, but scattered all over the non industrialised world. To say farewell to the working class as a whole, therefore, was Eurocentric. 

As for the intellectuals — the knowledge workers – being the new working class, I think it is a useful metaphor. Because, as I have said before, in a society where information is paramount and does aid or alter material fact, it is they who are in the engine room of power. They are the workers of mind and brain, if you like, that run the Information Society. And it is they who are best placed to unmask governments, counter dis-information, invigilate the communication conglomerates and, in the process, rekindle the drive for a just and equal society. Instead, they have become collaborators in power, wanting only to interpret the world instead of changing it. 

And at the other end of the spectrum, we see the growth of a so called under-class. “So-called because it is not so much a class that is under as out-out of the reckoning of mainstream society: de-schooled, never-employed, criminalised and locked up or sectioned off. They are a replica of the Third World within the First, a surplus population, as I mentioned earlier, surplus to the needs of technological capitalism, without economic or political clout – wastrels, given to drugs and prone to AIDS and undeserving of welfare. Hence yet more cuts in health care, housing, child benefit, etc., and so on and on, in a downward spiral. 

MS: Given that labour migration is international and there are migrant communities in every metropolitan centre, is the prospect for inter national consciousness and activity greater, or are there important factors constraining this type of development? AS: First of all, I think we are beginning to see the end of labour migration, partly because capital can move to labour instead of importing it (and its attendant social costs) and partly because there is a reserve army at home. The European Community has shut its borders to immigration altogether, earning for itself the name of Fortress Europe, and even genuine refugees and asylum-seekers are being sent back to the countries they have escaped from, on the grounds that they are economic and not political refugees. Which overlooks the fact that it is the authoritarian regimes maintained by western governments in Third World countries, on behalf of transnational corporations, that throw up refugees on western shores. 

As for migrant communities coming together in some sort of united struggle, the immediate problems are those of language and culture. And these are often used by the government and the employers to drive a wedge between the various groups and further depress their wages and living conditions. But over a period of time – and faced with a common oppression and a common exploitation – the original differences tend to be subsumed to the broader purpose of a common survival around basic rights. Thus in Germany, where citizenship is based on blood (jus sanguinis) and is therefore denied even to those ‘immigrants’ who were born and bred in the country and know no other, the platform that unites the various groups is the minimum demand for citizenship rights based on length of residence. But in Britain, where black communities have been more political and have a common background in a common colonial experience, there is a greater feel for the problems of Third World countries and a greater international consciousness. 

MS: You said earlier, and also in your article, ‘The hokum of New Times’, that the emancipation of Capital from Labour has moved the struggle from the economic to the political terrain. Can you expand on that?

AS: The point I was trying to make there was that the political clout that the working class had under industrial capitalism came from its economic clout: its ability to withdraw labour, organise in trade unions, set up pickets and so on. All of which, in turn, derived from the labour process: thousands of workers amassed on the same factory floor, stretched out in assembly lines. But the labour process has changed: there are no thousands of workers anymore doing the same thing in the same place, and the assembly lines are stretched across the globe. Taylorism has given way to just-in-time production, and jobs that were once broken down into a hundred different processes to be done by a hundred different workers under industrial capitalism are now being integrated into microprocessors and computers and robots under electronic capitalism. And with the disaggregation of the industrial working class has gone its economic might which, even at its weakest, kept Capital in check and, at its strongest, was instrumental in effecting political change. Not just the Factory Acts, the Education Acts, the Public Health Acts, but even the so-called bourgeois freedoms, of speech, of assembly, universal suffrage, etc., stemmed, not from bourgeois benefice, but from working-class struggle. 

But now that Capital has shaken off its working-class shackles, now that we cannot take Capital head on (not yet, anyway) in its economic might, we have got to go straight for its political jugular – move the struggle from the economic to the political terrain, the terrain of government power, state power, conglomerate power, with culture, a culture of resistance, as the combusting force of that struggle. Industrial capitalism controlled the economy, information capitalism controls the polity. 

As a footnote I might add that the problem of our times is not the production of wealth, but its distribution. And that, too, moves the struggle from the economic to the political terrain, 

MS: How is such political resistance to be understood? You have written of another type of organisation, of how people come together as a community ‘to oppose the power of the state as it presents itself on the street’. You have described a few such ‘Communities of Resistance’. Are the Zapatistas a community’ of resistance? Do you see other Zapatista revolts brewing about the world? AS: What I had described in my book were essentially local struggles, black struggles here, of people coming together to contest deportation cases, black deaths in custody, police brutality and so on. But there have been more widespread resistances, too, over the poll tax, for instance, in 1992. It began with poor people refusing to pay what was, in effect, a head tax levied on everybody (irrespective of means) and grew into a popular resistance, culminating in massive demonstrations all over the country – leading finally to the abolition of the tax, a cornerstone of Thatcherite economics. 

The Zapatistas are certainly a community of resistance – at a higher level, at the international level, taking on NAFTA and the Mexican government and big business. As is the struggle that the Ogoni people are waging in Nigeria against Shell, and the Nigerian dictatorship, whose coffers it fills, and against the western governments who still refuse to outlaw the murderous regime of General Abacha, even after the monstrous execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the leader of the Ogoni resistance, and eight of his comrades. 

Other resistances, too, abound — big ones, such as that over French nuclear tests in the Pacific islands and a host of little ones, such as the resistances to the destruction of the English countryside for the construction of motorways to lubricate multinational trade and transport. 

In the process, a wider political culture is beginning to emerge which goes beyond fighting for the personalised rights of individuals and groups to taking on the power of governments and multinational corporations. There is a move, in other words, from identity politics and cultural politics, which close in on themselves, to a political culture which opens out to all. 

It is worth making the point here, I think, that in the post-industrial set-up there is no working-class army to take on the system, only a host of battalions. And the outcome may not be revolution, only an incremental progress towards radical change in society. 

MS: Community seems to be the in-word these days. What distinguishes your communities of resistance from Etzioni’s communitarianism, the British Labour Party’s version of community and, indeed, the community of the Internet? 

AS: In my defence, I must say that I had been writing about communities (of resistance) long before the term became fashionable. But, apart from the use of the term, there is nothing in common between my understanding of it and that of Etzioni, or the Labour Party (which are similar) or the Internet. Etzioni’s is a self-avowed community of shared values that throws the weight of social responsibility on to the worst-off in society without demanding a commensurate responsibility on the part of the state. The Labour Party’s community (or Clinton’s, for that matter) takes its inspiration from Etzioni, but is that much more dangerous in that it is policy-oriented. The community of the Internet is a community of interests, not of people. Communities of resistance are political communities that emerge in the course of struggle. 

Etzioni’s is a middle-class project for middle-class people to safe guard themselves from the excesses of the marginalised. The Labour Party’s and Clinton’s version of community is an attempt to deny the basic rights, of employment, housing, schooling, welfare, etc., to the poorest sections of society while demanding their allegiance, and so taking away their last right: the right to revolt. A good community, according to them, is that which pulls itself up by the boot-straps that the system denies it. 

But these versions of community are so shallow and superficial that we can afford to overlook them. Communities, after all, cannot be set up by manifesto or prescribed by policy: they emerge in the course of resisting, subverting, defending. As a remarkable woman, Pat Partington, said at a head teachers’ conference here, ‘by resisting we will refine, by subverting we will redirect and by protecting, we will create’. 

What I find much more insidious than Etzioni and that lot, however, is the widespread use of the term community in relation to the Internet, because it is another example, if you like, of technological escapism substituting virtual reality for reality. It is such a fad, cyberspace, that people are beginning to make a world out there and pretending it is the real world, with real communities, joined together by common interests – free, not policed over or threatened or repressed. And that plays straight into the hands of capital, for once these virtual communities are established – and this is from a Wall Street report – there should also be an opportunity for what they call ‘transaction related and advertising related revenue schemes’ to be introduced. As Nat Wice has said, ‘for Wall Street, community is the new commodity’. 

If I may go off on another tack. I was reading an article by John Barlow, the other day (the American who co-founded the Electronic Frontier Federation) and he was saying that he was disillusioned with cyberspace communities because there was no ‘prana’ (the Hindu term for life-force) in them. But he still could not overlook the fact that, when his loved one died, it was strangers on the Internet who had taken up the eulogy he had written over her and put their unseen arms around him, ‘as neighbours do’. 

A disembodied neighbourliness? Disembodied emotions? I found that a telling indictment of technological civilisation. But, then, America has already disembodied its emotions. Emotions are there to be displayed, discussed – on the Oprah Winfrey show- to be analysed (as in analysis, that is), applauded, condemned by people (neighbours?) whom you do not know. It is almost as though the only way of being emotional is by disembodying it. The British embalm emotion, the Americans exchange it. Emotion is information – about yourself. Emotion is not my experience of you. Hence, neighbourliness without neighbourhood. 

Cyberspace communities are made up of units of information, not of people. Hence, relationships are reified. We do not delve into each other and grow through the experience. As Eliot might have said, we have lost knowledge in information, wisdom in knowledge. 

MS: On another level, it has even been suggested that the Zapatista uprising is a post-modern phenomenon, facilitated by the Internet. Any comments? 

AS: It is certainly remarkable that a largely peasant army should have caught up with technological capitalism and learnt to subvert the modem, the fax, the e-mail to its own uses to inform the world what their struggle is about. They know that in the age of information, it is important to capture hearts and minds and, therefore, the means of communication. But changing minds does not change reality; it still needs people to make a revolution. Besides, rural Mexico has no electricity. 

Remember how people were equally starry-eyed when the Palestinian leadership in the diaspora used faxes to by-pass the Israeli state and communicate directly with the intifada? But what happened? The leadership became even more remote from the uprising: they had the information, but not the feel. 

And that I think is true of the situation in Burma, too, where the Internet helps to connect the rebels of one region with those of another, but is unable to bring them together on the ground. As I said, you need people to make a revolution, and the Internet, by bringing them together at one level, separates them at another. 

It is typical of the post-modernists, though, to appropriate struggle without entering it. But then, representation is all. 

MS: You have got it in for post-modernism, haven’t you? AS: Not just for post-modernism, but for most of the intellectual currents that the technological revolution has given rise to: post-coloniality, post-Marxism, end of history, all that stuff. Because, as I’ve said before, the intellectuals hold a key position in the Information Society, and their ideas, if not the ruling ideas of our time, are certainly the fashionable ones: the style ideas of a style age. And I see it as part of our struggle for a new political culture to contest those ideas and the purveyors of those ideas. Because they are reactionary, dangerous, treacherous — treacherous of the people. It’s the treason of the intellectuals, la trahison des clercs. The Information Society gave them opportunity and position, and they sold out. 

Look at some of their ideas: history is over, no more contradictions to capitalism, no dialectics; post-coloniality is a condition and bears no relation to poverty, racism, imperialism; and for post-modernists, as for the post-Marxists, everything is transitory, fractured, free-floating – there are no grand narratives explaining the world in its totality, no universal truths. Hence, discourse sans analysis, deconstruction sans construction, the temporal sans the eternal. 

But it is animals that live in time, humankind lives in eternity, in continuity in meta-narrative. That’s why we have memory, tradition, values, vision. The notion that everything is contingent, fleeting, is (if I may quote myself) the philosophical lode-star of individualism, an alibi for selfishness, a rationale for greed. They are the cultural grid on which global capitalism is powered. 

As for the post-Marxists, they have given up on the search for the Holy Grail of the classless society in the real world and found it instead in the heaven of virtual reality Gates has opened up for them. 

To put it another way, the new technology has made fantasy fact. You can now live in that fantasy world, because it is a world that you create in the home, alone. And, therefore, in a world of loneliness, you are never alone. In a world of poverty, you are never poor. In a world of class conflict, you are classless. Post-Marxism is the ideology of cyberspace.