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Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse? by McKenzie Wark (image courtesy Verso Books)

McKenzie Wark writes in order to identify and describe an unrealized global “info-prole” (short for information proletariat), or “hacker class,” as she dubbed it in her 2004 book A Hacker Manifesto. According to Wark, a new kind of class struggle, unlike anything Karl Marx could have diagnosed, now ravages our world on an unprecedented scale. This creeping reality, as the author’s latest book, Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse?, sets out to illustrate, is that the big, evil Capital, which we all think we’re so familiar with, often taking for granted (whether we like it or not) that it remains the eternal system that rules our lives … is actually dead. Something new and much worse, involving what Wark calls “the vector,” has usurped it.

The vector is our unwitting input, which charges the system with every click, share and purchase — for example, whenever we want something and want it to be delivered as soon as possible to wherever we are located. The hacker class could be anyone and everyone who uses the internet or so-called smart technology, like that “mineral sandwich in your pocket” as Wark describes the smartphone. The vectoralists own not only the means of production, as with the capitalists — in fact, the vectoralists own the capitalists — but also the greater communicational and distributional means and infrastructure that control how our information permeates the world via our new technology. They alone know the secrets of how to analyze this data for their exclusive profit and greater overall societal control. They insist upon a certain kind of hyper-consumerist lifestyle:

[…] not capital but the vector enters the flesh and commands it, and not just as meat, but also as information, through monitoring its stages, through modifying its functions with drugs that alter chemical signals, through patenting aspects of life as design. What is at stake is neither a bios nor a polis but a regime of property in information extending into the organism.

The vector is our information traveling in one direction away from us to become something more valuable to someone whom we can’t see. We thus live in asymmetrical times, and we are afforded only a small number of things in exchange for giving ourselves away like this, namely, “the privilege of playing” online whenever we like, as Wark confesses she loves to do in the book’s introduction: “Things like online quizzes hold our attention long enough for us to escape boredom, and it gives [us] something to post on social media, presumably to snag other people’s attention ….” Meanwhile, the old gears of IRL capital keep grinding workers somewhere. Their factories haven’t closed down since the emergence of the vector, but they’ve been transplanted somewhere abroad and out of sight.

Capital Is Dead aims to not only incite its readership to revisit Marx’s original writings, but also consider the possibility of new radical marriages between art and science, philosophy and technology — and détournement, a technique popularized by the Situationists of hijacking media for new means — as radical intellectual and artistic tools for inventing new meaning across various disciplines, and our everyday lives. Marx was essentially practicing détournement with his books, Wark explains, by throwing the language of the bourgeois elite factory-owner class back at it, reworked. In the words of French Situationist Guy Debord, whom Wark quotes almost as frequently as Marx, “Détournement founds its cause on nothing but its own truth as critique at work in the present.”

Following that, Wark suggests we might look into certain dark, forgotten corners of the past to seek inspiring examples, obscure prophecies or “neglected storylines” that might be recombined in the present to create new meaning. A chapter entitled: “A Time Machine Theory of History” begins with Wark imagining what it would be like to travel back to mid-1970s China and the Soviet Union and explain to people what exactly is going on in the 21st century. The Chinese might be pleasantly surprised when you tell them that by the second decade of the new century, their Communist Party has gained more or less supreme influence over the global economy, applauding your predictions while remaining somewhat skeptical of them.

In Russia, you might have the pleasure of speaking with a rather dour-faced, ambitious young man named Vladimir Putin, who has just joined the KGB in 1975. Like many of the Communist ideologues in his country during that period, he is trying to remain optimistic, and lying through his teeth: everything is going great here! How dare you speculate that it will all be over for us by the start of 1990s!

Wark then writes, “If you took the time machine back to the United States in the mid-seventies, you might be the one who is confused.” The neoliberals of the time did not yet have a lot of influence, as Wark elaborates; they didn’t register the importance of the founding of a new company called Microsoft, for instance, but decades later they pretended that they did. Another prophetic figure from even further back in time worth revisiting, whom Wark introduces in the same chapter, is the prominent British scientist J.D. Bernal: “[Bernal] envisioned the consummation of rationality and desire not so much as making human life better, but of transforming the human into some sort of posthuman species-being.” Bernal published a book called The World, The Flesh and the Devil in 1929, which foresaw how

[…] scientific corporations might well become independent states and be enabled to undertake their largest experiments without consulting the outside world […] The world might, in fact, be transformed into a human zoo, a zoo so intelligently managed that its inhabitants are not aware that they are there merely for the purposes of observation and experiment.

Getting back to the present day, Wark elaborates on the notion of commanding or, better yet, “monopolizing attention” as the goal of the ideal vector-driven public self, which must represent a diligent consumer to support the economy. We are encouraged to act at all times like a “hard-charging boss” and attention magnet. It’s no longer time so much as attention that is money and power. As Wark reiterates throughout Capital Is Dead, “… control over the value chain through ownership of the information …” defines the crushing grip of the vectoralist owning class. But there may still be hope after all. It is probably impossible for any machine to know exactly what a human is, wants, and will do, especially when seen “entirely from the perspective of consuming,” but as Wark describes it, this is what many late-capitalists who now compose the vectoralist class have tried to hire others to do. Détournement is one strategy to prevent the machines from helping them. “The old banner will have to come down someday,” as Wark concludes. “[W]hat is still to be achieved is the struggle to grasp the surface effects of the present through concepts that articulate the abstract forces that are not eternal and are not an essence.”

Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse? by McKenzie Wark (2019) is published by Verso Books.

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Ben Tripp

Ben Tripp's writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, HTML Giant, CCM Entropy and BOMB. He is the author of What About Frasier (Gauss PDF, 2015) and lives in Queens...