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N5M3, Amsterdam, March 1999:
Random Thoughts of a Cybersocialist

Short report on an alternative cyberspace event

Peter Waterman


1. n5m3 means Next Five Minutes Three. There must be another possible, and easily recognisable name for this occasional event, which talks of `tactical media' and concerns itself with `alternative', `radical', `subversive', `democratic' or `oppositional' uses and understandings of, and projects for, the whole range of electronic media. This event, however, is heavily into the elusive, the imaginative, jouissance (`playfulness' obviously lacks the required French weight). 2. The central part of the event takes place in two famous neighbouring cultural centres in the centre of cultural Amsterdam. There was a related but autonomous Cyberfeminist event preceding in Rotterdam. And there are connected events taking place at a third site in the middle of Amsterdam. And there will be following hands-on events in Rotterdam. All of this having been set up, for the third time, by an alliance of communication and culture people, and subsidised by Dutch, European Union and other such funds. I missed the previous two, having a job at the time. Having taken early retirement (my job getting in the way of my work), I bought a three-day ticket for n5m3 but dropped the third day in order to sort out my head and write this. I feel good about doing this since the intensity, variety and flexibility of the event means I can anyway check it out and contribute to it from this very machine. 3. It's too bad my companera, Gina the Peruana, is not here, with her `que maravilla!', and `khow can they do that Waterman?'. Gina has an infinite capacity for wonder and delight, as well as an openness to things she may not have previously have considered or confronted. But right now she is stuck in the middle of a national general strike and consequent state of emergency in a globalised Ecuador - where she has discovered a vibrant feminist and women's movement. Gina, when she travels, usually finds herself in institutes and agencies, in international feminist events and non-governmental circles. Although interested in and open to cyberspace (whilst cursing MSWord - and me for introducing her to it), this is a space of creativity, freedom, commitment and competence that she would enjoy. 4. Threading my way through the maze of computers, cables, videocameras, gays, punks, culture-shocked Africans, streetwise London Blacks, Russian cyberfeminists, anarcho-something bookstalls, and an English guy about my age (63) - with the only tie in the event - I find myself in one of two major, dusky halls. Loudspeakers are piled high, an immense screen for video-projection requires one to move to the back of the hall to see it all, and tiny figures of all shapes, sizes, abilities, ethnicities (and, surely, sexual options), look, listen and make short, pungent, or totally confusing presentations. I am reminded of the carnival creativity of the 1960s-70s. I think of the 1920s, when the cultural avantgarde briefly combined with the political vanguard. 5. I am in a condition of simultaneous chagrin and satisfaction. In 1979 I began, with a couple of colleagues, the self-published Newsletter of International Labour Studies, which concerned itself not simply with studies but also the promotion of a new labour internationalism. Around 1984 I wrote a piece, `Needed a New Communications Model for a New Working-Class Internationalism'. For some years I worked on this theme, both academically and politically. From the early-90s a number of international labour computer networks and conferences took shape. But then I was distracted by the need to complete a couple of books. And, while I blinked, the n5m took shape and took off. 6. But `What About the Workers?' There is no speaker, no demonstration, no literature here about alternative international labour communication by computer - though this is now booming, has challenging and professional websites, and has interesting stories to tell. The only fulltime labour communication activists here are, I think, Chris from LabourNet in the UK, and Apo and Rex from the Asia Monitor Resource Centre, Hongkong. It is not that the socialist or pro-labour computer people blinked, it's that they are still blinkered. Their orientation to socialism, workers and organisations (primarily trade unions) cuts them off from the feminists, the artists, those with mohican haircuts, those who speak elusively, who play with illusion. Equally are they cut off from those who use French words where there exists a perfectly good English one, to show they have read French penseurs like Foucault, Derrida and Guattari (whose disdain, or dedain?, for the working class, labour movement, trade unions, socialism are as infinite as cyberspace). 7. Yet, surprise! surprise! much of this is present here, at least in the interstices. To start with, there are - to judge from the accents - plenty of British working-class people, or people of working-class origin, and with interests in popular culture - present here. There is here more serious talk about capitalism, particularly in its globalised networked form, than I have heard in a dozen academic or feminist events over the past five years. In these other events, capitalism is usually represented as `globalisation' (OK, the latest phase of the Big C), `neo-liberalism' (OK, the latest project of the Big C). Here the Big C is named, and its implications spelled out, particularly by activist academic Saskia Sassen, but also by others. Here, a globalised networked capitalism, a globalised cultural capitalism, seems to be understood less as a threat, or a promise, than as a terrain that one both inhabits and contests. Thus, we have attacks by the Clean Clothes Campaign on Nike, and its ubiquitous `swoosh' (turned into a question mark, with blood dripping from it), applauded by an audience, including those wearing swooshes. 8. It appears that, in the new media, labour is being not so much represented, by unions or socialist parties, it is being re-presented by radical, democratic and maybe even small-s socialist activists: like the CCC above, which works with open-minded unions but on consumers, not in workplaces or union offices, but outside the stores and in the shopping malls. Then there is Deedee Halleck, veteran of Paper Tiger TV in the US, on on-line resistance to the prison-industrial (labour) complex - now spreading worldwide. And those working with video with immigrants (working, work-seeking), under the slogan `No Human is Illegal'. And Rachel Baker from the UK, with her attempt to computer-subvert the major British supermarket chains (where workers work and buy), by interfering with their `loyalty cards' (and getting threatened by their lawyers for her pains). Not to speak of the now world famous campaign of two British working-class activists against McDonalds, which rapidly got on to the internet and video, and led this goliath to spend millions to indict them (workers work in McD, workers eat in McD). Not to speak of the anarcho-ecological Reclaim the Streets campaign, a now worldwide direct-action movement, only four years old, which believes streets should be public-human-space and not private-auto-space, and who lent their disrespect for authority, and their capacity for making a joyful noise, to the striking Liverpool dockworkers, at a time when their trade unions - from the local to the global level - were finding 101 good reasons to ignore, condemn or control it. 9. And, neither least nor last, there was Richard Barbrook, an ivory-tower academic no less, asking `how can digital workers organise to advance their common interests?', and answering, `Formed within the digital economy, a virtual trade union should emphasise new principles of labour organisation: artisanal, networked and global'. Richard, a veteran of 1970s type alternative media, was, like most of those who mentioned labour, rather more friendly toward unions than might have seemed justified by their invisibility at the event. Or, for that matter, by the story from the Dutch Intermediair, that I found and read on my train back to The Hague last night. Subtitled `Trade Unions and CBAs [Collective Bargaining Agreements] Advance in IT Sector', it quoted extensively from the union officer concerned, whose own concerns were to convince the cheerfully dismissive and ruthlessly anti-union corporation directors also interviewed that 1) unionism and CBAs led to greater efficiency, 2) that they were a useful weapon in inter-company competition (for workers), 3) that they were good for the economy and…(at this point I gave up, having got the message that Dutch trade unions provide the oil that prevents Dutch capitalism from squeaking). Should I have read on? Or should I have returned today to show them a union card I possess and carry around to demonstrate that the slogan of the Dutch trade unions is less `abolition of the wages system' than `if you can't beat them, join them, subordinate yourselves to them, prostrate yourselves before them, become them'? What I carry around internationally, in my hipzipbag, next to my arse (Am. Engl: ass), is a plastic union card, which combines the real advantages of an interest or pressure group, with the appearance of my Visa Card, the logo of a Customer Card, and the same value as a Sainsbury's Loyalty Card has in Tacna, Peru. 10. A plastic card for a plastic union? If this suggests a certain cynicism with respect to the capacities of trade unionism to confront a globalised networked capitalism, and if this would seem to be confirmed by the absence of specifically labour representatives at n5m3, it would be difficult to explain my own continued concern with labour questions and worker organisation. There is a line, fine and blurred, between cynicism and scepticism. This appeared, perhaps, in the discussion on what the event's organisers called the Post-Government Organisation (PGO). Although intended precisely to reveal a new arena of power struggle in the era of globalisation, and to stress the ambiguity of the phenomenon, the audience took the term to mean Government Substitution Organisation (GSO). The guy with the tie tended toward the cynical end of the spectrum by showing some of the most prominent of these international NGOs (you know, `we are the world, you are the useless third world') as being simultaneously controlled by Western intelligence agencies and major transnational corporations - and by then leaving it to academics to interpret his evidence. Somebody from Greenpeace (which combines the media-awareness of n5m3 with the publicity savvy of Benetton and the internal democracy and openness of the Central Committee of the CPSU) took exception and argued passionately that `we' should not permit ourselves to be divided, given the common problems and enemies with which `we' are confronted. Yes, well… One of the problems with which this session was concerned was precisely that of the representativity and accountability of PGOs. 11. I share the concern about representativity and accountability of NGOs, and, consequently, have for 20 years or so been off the invitation lists of either the Dutch ministry of development cooperation, or its financially-dependent development funding agencies, or its equally financially-dependent trade union development agencies. But I still wonder how representativity/accountability can apply within a globalised networked capitalism. These principles seem more appropriate to organisations rather than networks. Or to individuals who 1) speak in the name of others, and 2) keep their sponsors, finances and procedures/structures secret. Who was represented by the amazingly successful anti-MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investment) campaign? To whom is it accountable? I have the feeling that what we (woops!) need to concern ourselves with, and be upfront about, is who and how we re-present (exactly how we manipulate=handle), how we function, who we are. This question arises quite dramatically within the area of international labour CMC. 12. International trade union websites are the least problematic: they are run by representative democratic organisations created in, by, and sometimes against, a state-nation-based industrial capitalism. They see the web as a `tool' or `channel', for the processing and projection of their databanks, bulletins or magazines. Sometimes they also call for solidarity campaigns. But the notion of cyberspace as an agora (woops, again, but, it's in the English dictionaries) for discussion and debate does not exist. (NB. This statement is intended to provoke counter-information, allowing me to put my sceptical messages on optimistic international union websites). They tend to be run by people who think that reference to their `representative' or `democratic' nature excuses them from behaving according to the Iron Law of Oligarchy, discovered by social-democrat Robert Michels on the basis of studying German social democracy around 1910. They tend, finally, to think that women's, human rights', and other NGOs should defer to them as `the largest democratic movement in the world'. 13. `Alternative' labour websites, lists and other services, tend to be run by individuals or groups, with names like LabourNet, LaborNet, Labour-List, LabourStart. Relations within, between and around these projects vary. So does the technical quality, frequency of update, breadth of coverage…and financial or political relation with institutionalised labour. Just as the New (or Nice) Social Movements are often run by Old Political People, so are the new, independent, international labour media projects often run by people from Old Vanguard Socialist Parties (I am one of them). These may act in quite traditional territorial, competitive, exclusive, aggressive/defensive, devious or abusive ways. (Remember when the end justified the means, rather than the means determining the ends?). Others seem to understand that operating in the infinity of cyberspace allows for and even requires new modes of behaviour. Given the infinite stretch, depth and variety of relations that cyberspace allows, tolerance, flexibility, speed of movement, lightness of touch, creativity, imagination all seem to be called for. A little jouissance wouldn't be out of space here either. We need to recognise, as Hans Magnus Enzensberger did, in his apparently forgotten post-1968 essay on the media: The open secret of the electronic media, the decisive political factor, which has been waiting, suppressed or crippled, for its moment to come, is their mobilising power [...] When I say mobilise I mean mobilise...namely to make men more mobile than they are. As free as dancers, as aware as football players, as surprising as guerillas. 14. Enzensberger did not say `as accountable as an international union leader', nor `as democratic as the general secretary of the central committee of the vanguard party of the revolutionary internationalist working class'. None of which prevents such an individual, or group, from operating in cyberspace, though it may reduce the number of those prepared to work with him/them, or who feel spoken for or to. Or who are going to ask him/them awkward questions about how he/they finance his/their efforts. 15. Enough of men already. Although women were in a minority at n5m3, I did not hear them complaining, far less protesting, about this. Reasons being, I suppose, that a Cyberfeminist event had preceded ours, that Cyberfeminists opened our event, and that a critical mass of active, creative and evidently quite self-confident women were doing their non-feminist, feminist or post-feminist things around the spaces of n5m3. Curiously, it was those from the second Cyberfeminist International event who appeared most uncertain about the meaning of cyberfeminism. It seemed a shapeless, who-knows, what-does-it-matter, do-it-yourself kind of phenomenon or project, and possibly more revealing of an individualistic post-feminism than with the thrust and bite of second-wave feminism. I did not find the full range of women's needs and desires, or of the concerns of other n5m3 women, expressed here. Fortunately, thrust, bite and challenge could be found in the written report of the First Cyberfeminist International, held two years previously in Kassel, Germany. 16. Consider No. 16 as a bunch of virtual flowers offered by me to the organisers and workers (hey!) who set up this event. They showed me what an international cyberspace PGO should look and sound like. This was a multi-cultural event (it had a major section on `information poor' South Asia) which did not get bogged down in the differences present. It was a cross-class event with both popular and avantgarde, practical and academic, elements. It seemed to both live within and look beyond the New Capitalist World Disorder. I felt both comfortable and marginal here. Comfortable for reasons just expressed: marginal because I wasn't on the platforms, on the screens, in the books. But marginality today is not the same as isolation or self-isolation. Saskia Sassen made a similar point about the local. This is no longer to be necessarily understood traditionally, as the end of a chain (with one end firmly grasped by transnational capital in a core country). It is to be, or can more usefully be, considered as one node in a global web. Like Chiapas in the Deep South of Mexico. Like the Liverpool dockworkers in a Thatcherised UK. It is now possible to be both marginal and influential. It depends on the relevance and quality of your ideas, the economy and elegance of your message, your recognition of the necessary recombination of the aesthetic and the rational. And, of course, your ability to be as free as a dancer, as aware as a football player, as surprising as a guerilla… PS. For the rest, check out my site above, or n5m3 at one of the following: http://www.n5m.org info@n5m.org 

[Peter Waterman, who retired from the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, in 1998, is author of Globalization, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms (Mansell, London and New York, 1998) and co-editor of Labor Worldwide in the Era of Globalization: Alternatives for Unions in the New World Order (Macmillan, London and St Martin's New York, 1999).

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