A Grisly Vocation

McKenzie Wark’s Capital is Dead (Verso, 2019)

An IBM punchcard produced for the SS Racial Office.

An IBM punchcard produced for the SS Racial Office.

What you need to remember about Capital is Dead: Is this Something Worse? is that the title is the thesis. That’s it. Nowhere in the book’s excruciating length will you find any further nuance or qualification. This thesis—though Wark herself is only ever comfortable calling it a “thought experiment” or “minimally plausible argument”—is a clever slogan, regurgitating the entirety of Wark’s long and repetitive intellectual life and serving it up as a timely rumination on contemporary political economy. Every element of this book has appeared elsewhere. Such self-scavenging is a typical practice in academic publishing, to be sure, but Wark’s performance here is particularly egregious. The bulk of the chapters are culled from talks and previous essays, and the operative concepts have all appeared in her previous works. For example, the notion of the vector, central to Capital is Dead, originally appeared in Virtual Geography in 1994. The hacker (as a political class) appeared in 2004’s Hacker Manifesto, the détournement of Marx in her Situationist “non-trilogy” which culminated in The Spectacle of Disintegration.

But, even for a critical theory éminence grise like Wark, simply making sausage out of your old shit isn’t going to get the books moving off the shelves. So, she endeavored to whip these tired concepts into a new narrative, custom-built for a supposedly new world-historical stage. No small feat, as her putative audience today must, by this point, have had far more than their share of supposedly groundbreaking re-imaginations of capitalism in terms of hackers, or blogs, or digital life. No, Wark was forced to break new ground with her old tools to set herself apart from the pack. Her fellow travelers in Theory at the New School all dutifully position their work as anti-capitalist, illuminating the route to innovation (and better sales): tell us that capitalism has already ended!

Initially, she puts this forth in the spirit of devil’s advocacy, a pretense which quickly becomes an afterthought. What if capital persists in our minds only as a discursive figure, propped up by sheer inertia? She suggests that the continued reference to ‘capitalism’ as the name for the current mode of production is nothing other than nostalgia, and if we could properly open our eyes we would recognize that, as her subtitle helpfully reminds us, “this” is something worse. We must all take stock and shake our heads at ourselves, even and especially those critical of capitalism. “[W]e want to believe this is capitalism even if we hate it…” she says, claiming that “[e]ven its opponents have started to imagine that Capital is eternal”. This invocation of nostalgia or irrational desire allows her to neatly sidestep the many arguments which one might be tempted to raise against her thesis by pathologizing anyone who would disagree. Any attempt to contest her position becomes yet another instantiation of this craving for Capital’s existence. At the risk of drawing Wark’s condescension, however, we should hold onto our nostalgia for a little longer and examine the evidence which she provides.

Her attempt to turn techno-positivism into a critical instrument is, taken alone, the start of something promising. It initially obscures that the narrative Wark is selling here is not the bolt from the blue she wants us to think it is. Her cleverness lies in calling out the recent spate of prefix capitalisms (semio-, cognitive, surveillance, etc.) which have followed the theorization of what Christian Fuchs calls “digital labor.” The slapdash neologism factory at which she takes aim is certainly worthy of criticism, but her choice of attacks is little better. She winds up reproducing the so-called “post-industrial turn” of the 70s and 80s, now in a cultural register. The post-industrialism of before was championed by Daniel Bell and later by Manuel Castells in his Network Society trilogy in the early 90s. It’s important to emphasize that Wark’s argument is exclusively about affect, obsessing over how it feels to live in a digital universe. This extends to her critiques of Marx, all of which turn on some supposed insight into the affective attachment of contemporary theorists and leftists to his work. Nevertheless, she has convinced herself she is writing about political economy, despite failing to engage whatsoever with economic categories. In doing so, she sidesteps the the self-valorizing tautology of data arising from “knowledge working upon knowledge” which drives Castells’ and similar theories, but leaves aside the question of how information control actually becomes power. Instead she gives us post-industrial pessimism: yes, capital is dead. And that’s bad!

Wark begins by declaring the death of capitalism on page 3: “[s]ure, there is still a landlord class that owns the land under our feet and a capitalist class that owns the factories, but maybe [emphasis mine] now there’s another kind of ruling class as well—one that instead owns the vector along which information is gathered and used.” Not only that, this new class rules the other ruling classes as well: “[t]his is not capitalism anymore,’’ she continues, “[i]t is something worse. The dominant ruling class of our time no longer maintains its rule through the ownership of the means of production as capitalists do. Nor through the ownership of land as landlords do. The dominant ruling class of our time owns and controls information.” The end result is “the greater glory of Amazon, Google, Apple or some other company, owned and controlled by a new class, the vectoralist class.” This information, though it can be owned, apparently answers to different rules than traditional private property, though Wark does not elaborate upon what these might be. From the perspective of many “leftist” economists, information generally follows a model which looks a lot like ground-rent carried to a dizzying extreme: make once, sell millions. One wonders: if Wark was familiar with the concept of rent and the continued existence of rentiership in even this advanced “non-capitalism”, would she have written this book?

When forced to talk about the structure of capitalism or any other mode of production, Wark’s already-flimsy edifice collapses completely. Her repeated reference to the possibility of multiple modes of production being able to “overlap” is incoherent. It appears that her view of economic history ascends in order of abstraction from control over land as the seat of power (which features two classes, farmers and landlords) to the control of the factory (proletarians and capitalists) and finally ending here at the control of information (hackers and vectoralists). Wark paints a picture in which humanity ascends these orders of abstraction and complexity as if climbing a ladder through history, carrying the weight of previous class schema.

But let’s get down to brass tacks for a moment. One minimal definition of capitalism is the production of commodities for market exchange. If we have left capitalism behind, there must be a force which has modified this practice of production for commodity exchange beyond recognition, right? Wark offers a possibility: this change has taken place because of the rise of the information vector.

What the fuck is a vector? Well, for those of you that haven’t been following this concept of Wark’s as it has failed to develop over the past 35 years, a vector is a “particular kind of line”. A sort of line that carries information along its length. We never learn how this happens. In this book, the ‘vector’ and its accompanying ‘vectoralist’ language is a residue of Wark’s previous work, and is more or less useless outside of offering a tidy objectification of the enormously complex labor and capital required to shift information from A to B. If we try to look past the vector jargon, what we’re left with is “information.” So, what is information? Well, fuck you for asking. Wark acts as if the meaning and function of “information” are obvious, proceeding forth in the confidence that her audience would never be so gauche as to demand anything like “differentiation within the category of information” or “analysis of information’s role in social production.” These trivialities, it seems, are beneath her. Let other people work out the nitty-gritty details of the new world-system. To make the argument that capital is dead, Wark really only needs to do one thing: to differentiate information from capital, and as such the vectoralist from the capitalist.

She does not succeed. Wark’s fear of solid definitions corresponds to the book’s self-interred position within ‘cultural studies’—we can only talk about essences here and never forms. Information just is, as far as Wark is concerned. It appears precisely as whatever it needs to be throughout Capital is Dead. Sometimes, information shows up as some sort of untrammeled accelerationist-style divine consciousness come to earth (“information has worked its way through the entire value production and reproduction cycle”, information has “strange ontological properties” and can “eat brains”). In chapter 3, information appears as a transcendental technological rationality which belongs to the Left and which capital has distorted. We might usefully recall here Raniero Panzieri’s remark that “the capitalist use of machinery [or technology in general] is not, so to speak, a mere distortion of; or deviation from, some ‘objective’ development that is in itself rational, but that capital has determined technological development”See Raniero Panzieri, “The Capitalist use of Machinery: Marx versus the Objectivists”, in Outlines of a Critique of Technology, ed. Phil Slater, trans. Quintin Hoare (London: Ink Links, 1980), 44.

. The version of information presented here is any empty counterfactual, a fantasy of a world whose capital-free history is radically divergent from our own which nevertheless underwent the same sequecne of technological development. Wark, at her most lucid, notes that information itself is mediated by commodities such as phones, tablets, computers, etc., and the inexhaustable hunger on the part of these commodities for new information sources to given rise to a “new” tendency to search for data-markets further afield. The insight is worthwhile, and yet she fails to show that this phenomenon is anything more than a new way of describing processes already predicted by the “nostalgic” critique of capitalism.

Wark’s fumbling attempts to make the extent of digital colonization visceral, by offering up a body horror version of Deleuze and Gerald Raunig’s trope of the dividual from “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, do not land. She attacks classical distinctions of class, noting that the atomized dividual corresponds to “vectoral culture”, insofar as one element of you must become an entrepreneur while another remains a worker, and that there is an exquisite tension in creating the personal brand needed to thrive in today’s economy. This dividual, or collection of parts, is on two occasions compared to aspic—discrete parts coalesced into an aggregate whole.

Though Wark attempts to give her due to an intersectional formation of class, she completely overlooks the brutality of digital regimes on marginalized populations in favor of schlock value. She is clearly, to me, trying to invoke something like Hortense Spillers’ (and later Alexander Weheliye’s) concept of flesh, in which the body of the subject is relegated to nothing other than a slate which power inscribes and mutilates. The flesh offers a useful heuristic for approaching not only dehumanized victims of power but the explicit identity of those victims. The scars that power reaves into the flesh compose what Spiller calls “hieroglyphics”, and offer a history of depravity and pain that nevertheless remains human and grotesquely concrete. Weheliye, when discussing Agamben’s infamous homo sacer, notes that Spillers’ flesh corrects Agamben’s tendency to make homo sacer abstract and thus an object of contemplation. Wark’s dividual, however, is even more abstract, her description held back by both a media-centric approach and what I suspect is Wark’s own hazy understanding of the brutality of precarious life. With no proper theory of power, all Capital is Dead can state is that contemporary information regimes breed a ruthless self-improvement in which “[f]ailure to live up to your own personal brand is understood through languages that are medical, therapeutic, or ‘spiritual’”. Nowhere is a discussion of the ways in which technological artifacts and information make the hieroglyphic cuts into the flesh both deeper and broader; instead, the colonization of the body by information is a bad feeling, rather than absolute mortification.

When we are finally given an actual definition for information, shorn of all ‘gothic’ editorializing, we get a tautology: information is the “capacity to transmit, store, and process information” which then enables “big data” type prediction. This prediction is one of several ways “[t]he information vector is clearly connected to new kinds of property, authority, and expertise.” What are these new forms? What is this “clear connection”? Apparently, it’s just patents. Though the first patent system came into being in 1474 in Venice, we are told their existence has all along presaged the formation of a new class. “[L]ike the enclosures or the joint-stock company before it, intellectual property law becomes the form of a new kind of relation of production,” Wark writes, “more abstract than its predecessors, and one that makes not land or physical plant, but rather information itself, a form of private property.”

Never mind that the evidence points precisely against Wark’s thesis here—Google (one of Wark’s vectoralist titans) systematically undermines the US patent system as a business practice, freeing up IP in order to eliminate competition and secure monopoly. Fabienne Orsi and Benjamin Coriat make the point, in the “The New Role and Status of Intellectual Property Rights in Contemporary Capitalism”, that the regime of intellectual property has undergone historical changes related to the collapse of “Fordist” economic models in the West. These changes are embedded within the rise of technology market sectors, to be sure. But the fundamental change is, as Orsi and Coriat see it, that the IP system has become imbricated in the market altogether. This is not a new structure of law, as Wark would have it, but the swallowing of existing institutions into capitalism’s heart. IP is deployed to maintain equilibrium, with patents awarded and rescinded across the entire system in order to promote competition or monopoly as the market requires. In short, a patent is a tool for the orchestration of capital on a global scale, not a means by which private entities can secure data like a king would their fiefdom.

In the end, the meat of Wark’s theory is that information has fundamentally altered the status quo. The legibility of “information” as category, as I have hopefully shown, is as shaky as Wark’s understanding of patent law history. But, suppose we grant Wark her categories, and attempt to engage her on her own playing field. We can put her theory to the test by using her category of information-as-such to analyze one of her blind spots: history beyond the past two decades.

Edwin Black’s 2001 book IBM and the Holocaust details the open secret of IBM’s involvement in facilitating the Holocaust, providing critical R&D, maintenance, and 2,000 Dehomag Hollerith punch-card machines for use throughout the Reich. Geert Lovink, in his book Sad by Design: On Platform Nihilism, shows how IBM played both sides of the long slide into World War II. IBM’s CEO at the time spent the years up until the outbreak of the war in 1941 preaching “World Peace Through World Trade”, and made his business providing logistical support to both the British and German war machines. What IBM offered was, in a word, information, stored, aggregated, and analyzed on an as-yet-unseen scale. This information, originally gleaned from questionnaires delivered to residents’ homes, formed the backbone upon which Nazi devastation rested and, in a very real way, made the Holocaust possible.

So what does this mean for Wark’s theory of capitalist-vectoralist distinction, upon which the entirety of Capital is Dead rests? Were the Nazis were the first vectoralists? Wark would balk at this, of course—her new ruling class is supposed to have transcended the crass orchestrations of its predecessors in favor of behavioral modification and nudging, which she grounds in the “classical” advertising boom of the 1960s. Well then, does this mean information has different modalities? Were the Nazis using one type of information, distinct from that generated by social media? Hard to imagine, as both ‘types’ were and are ‘self-reported’, and only achieved political relevance in aggregate. The aforementioned emptiness of Wark’s information-concept prevents any neat exclusion of this archive from the field. Maybe the Nazis were only using data in a ‘siloed’ case, and now information has invaded every pore of society. But if information only existed in the 1930s and 40s in a somehow protean and limited form, how was it employed to such dramatic effect, ensnaring entire populations in a terrifying genocide from which there was little escape? The answer is obvious: information does not have a coherent existence when considered as anything but one feature of human society. This book is predicated upon creating enough confusion that we might think otherwise; however, when the theories contained within come face to face with history—not intellectual history, not ‘cultural studies’, or whatever—they become illegible.

Wark spends an inordinate amount of time placing the blame for any factual errors or myopia on her readers. Her enemies, in writing this book, are exoterically “some professors that have tenure” (self-loathing, cope) or “conservative textologists” (people who don’t read Marx “through the interpretive filter of someone else’s text”), and implicitly, the reader. This hatred is palpable: see page 9 of the introduction, when Wark attempts to explain the logistical reality of “vectoralism” using the anecdote of ordering Capital: Volume 1 via Alexa. Or maybe it’s when she calls Marx a punk or “one of the great modern poets” and describes “his greatest hit, his epic track…something of an earworm”. She wants to be buddy-buddy with you, presenting her argument as common-sense and proletarian: “[u]nless you happen to be worth several million dollars, the chances are you do not perceive this as something better than capitalism or a capitalism that always improves on itself”.

Wark is a tenured professor at The New School. This book could only arise from a combination of institutional coddling and a slavering hatred for everyone outside that institution. By pretending to be a communist, with all the political implications which that label still entails, she has turned a brain-dead exercise in elitist media theory into a gasp for relevancy. Here’s the thing though: Wark is not your friend, but her book and her insipid thesis require an affected bonhomie to sound believable, like an aside whispered in your ear rather than sold to you by an ‘expert’ for money. This book is not fascist. It’s nothing. Wark makes Marx a poet, technology a feeling, class a job, and herself a joke. The paper-thin varnish of vectoralism is yet another stratum of mystification in the venal tradition of ventriloquizing Marx. Capital is Dead is a journal of the grisly vocation that has occupied the bourgeoisie since the very beginning—the establishment of ever more refined methods of distancing themselves from you, all the while grinding your skull to dust beneath their heel.

There is no need to continue further. Wark hates you. Best return the favor.

ANONYMOUS is an idiot surfing the information superhighway.