Issue #146 Editorial: A Hacker Manifesto, Twenty Years On

Editorial: A Hacker Manifesto, Twenty Years On

McKenzie Wark

Issue #146
June 2024

Actually, Twenty-Five Years

I published the first version of A Hacker Manifesto in 1999, so really it’s twenty-five years. I had some trouble finding a publisher for the book-length version. It was turned down by MIT Press, Semiotext(e), Verso, Soft Skull, and maybe one other I’ve forgotten. Out of desperation I sent it to Lindsay Waters at Harvard University Press. He called me on the phone just a few days later, convinced he could make it happen. Thanks to Lindsay’s enthusiasm, it came out with Harvard in 2004. Harvard’s legal counsel absolutely refused to make it Creative Commons licensed, so it has a copyright. I figured it would just get pirated anyway, and of course it did.

Before I had a contract for its publication in English, I had a contract for its publication in French. This was because of a chance encounter on the Nettime listserv (more on which shortly) with “Louise Desrenards,” aka Aliette Guibert-Certoux. She ran a small publishing concern called criticalsecret. That edition came out after the English one, but I’m thankful for her early faith in the book.

I wrote A Hacker Manifesto in an imaginary language I call “European,” which is equal parts Church Latin, Marxism, and business English—the three transnational languages of the continent. Perhaps as a result, it’s been widely translated. Of the three words of its title, the only hard one to translate is the first word: “A.” The indefinite article is important as it is part of its argument that there can be no definitive manifesto of the movement it sought to name.

I’ll come back to the contexts and genesis of the book. First, just a few words on why I wanted to curate some contemporary texts that to some degree or other might engage it or differ from it. Having a few books to my name, I find that there are some where you write the book, and there are some where the book writes you. A Hacker Manifesto was the second kind. It set me on a path as a writer for a quarter of a century.

There are aspects of one’s own books about which the author knows very little. I’m aware of some of the limitations of A Hacker Manifesto—which is why I wrote Capital is Dead (2019), to revise some of its key theses. I thought it would be interesting to see what other people thought about either the book itself or some aspect of the situation it attempted to critique. The contributors to this special issue have all helped me rethink some aspect of the ongoing project which for me really began with this book, and which in one way or another continues to constitute my writing life.

The contributors to this issue come from a wide range of backgrounds, disciplines, and aesthetic, theoretical, and political orientations. If I may say so, not the least interesting thing about A Hacker Manifesto is the way it cuts through assumed polarities on a diagonal. Needless to say: the contributors to this issue do not share the aesthetic and political lines that I’ll unpack in what follows. It would be boring if they did.

The Avant-Garde Never Gives Up

The political and the aesthetic are neither reducible to each other nor separable from each other; nevertheless, I’ll lay down some notes on the aesthetic context for A Hacker Manifesto first and the political second. It came out of a lifelong interest in the avant-gardes, and may even be said to be part of one.

I read Maurice Nadeau’s History of Surrealism at an impressionable age, and wanted to be part of something like that. What I got as a late-seventies teen was punk rock, or rather the cluster of music, art, cinema, and writing that had punk music at its center.

For something to be “avant-garde” it has to be more than an outré work in one medium or another. An avant-garde is an aesthetics of organization. It brings together artists in different media around some contested but more or less agreed impulse. An avant-garde touches all aspects of life and proposes a revolution of everyday life along aesthetic lines. In Walter Benjamin’s famous formula, it counters the aestheticization of politics (fascism) with a politicization of aesthetics, which I prefer to think of as something that extends beyond “the political.” The political, let’s not forget, was for citizens, not women, slaves, or beasts. I don’t think the political is ever even thinkable without some kind of exclusion. On the other hand, an avant-garde wants much, much more: as Rimbaud put it, to change life.

The historic avant-gardes that are best known form a series: futurists, dada, surrealists, Fluxus, situationists. One can set the bar high or low for what counts as one. I think they are interesting when they are in a multiple way trans: trans-national, trans-generational, trans-media—sometimes even trans-sexual. They’re never the same thing, as avant-gardes sort of by definition reinvent not only the aesthetics of organization but also the organization of aesthetics.

There’re hundreds, thousands of avant-gardes. I got to participate in two: Semiotext(e) and Nettime, the influence of both of which are easily detectable in A Hacker Manifesto. I’d really wanted Semiotext(e) to publish it. The late Sylvère Lotringer was very gracious when he turned it down. He just couldn’t see an Australian as a “foreign agent” in American culture. After that, whenever I saw him I’d mention how well it was selling or which translation was coming out and he’d smile and express regret about the one that got away.

A Hacker Manifesto owes a lot to Nettime. This was a listserv that was also a series of meetups and publications.1 Nettime brought together those who wanted to change life in its political and aesthetic dimensions beyond using the digital media tools then at our disposal. Contrary to the myth that we were all starry-eyed utopians in the nineties, Nettimers were mostly pragmatic about digital media. It was an open-ended experiment with what could be done with them.

Nettime was only one of a cluster of overlapping listservs: there was Spectre, Faces, 711, Undercurrents, C-Theory, Rhizome. At Nettime, we talked about “collaborative filtering,” meaning a group practice of sifting through all of what was being said and done about emerging forms of media, looking for clues as to what was possible and what the dangers might be. That was our contribution to the avant-garde as an organization of aesthetics and an aesthetics of organization. It was the silver age of social media. There would be no golden age.

A Hacker Manifesto grew out of this practice of reading and writing in collaborative, distributed, digital form. Far from utopian, it was a critique of the emerging forms of power with which we were confronted. Through an almost ethnographic immersion in practices of emerging digital labor, I found that the mode of production might be mutating. That the value chain could now be controlled by owning the vectors of information.

The figure of the “avant-garde” is a miliary metaphor, referring to those who advance first into the breach. I prefer to think about it in terms of labor. Avant-gardes, when they are interesting, are advanced forms of collaborative, creative, mediated labor. All avant-gardes are media avant-gardes. It’s where the conditions of aesthetic production that will later be generalized are discovered. It is where the struggle begins over the autonomy of creative work.

It’s not surprising then that avant-gardes keep encountering the labor movement, and attempting or failing to form some alignment with it. Before their fascist turn, for the futurists this was the anarchist movement. Dada and surrealism tried with very mixed success to align themselves with communism. The situationists outflanked the Stalinist parties to the left.

At stake is the (non)relation under conditions of commodity production between creative labor (the production of difference), and industrial labor (the production of sameness). Or to put it in other terms, labor as the making of form and the making of content. Could there be an alliance between these kinds of making that commodification has severed from each other?

The Undead of World History

The people make history, but not in the media of their own choosing. They make it via signs and symbols transmitted from the past. The tradition of dead reading lists weighs like a nightmare on the citations of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such moments of transition they anxiously conjure up the icons of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

Thus, Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul; the Revolution of 1789 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. Those who took to the barricades in 1968 did so under various Bolshevik-derived banners. If anything has changed in the twenty-first century it is that today’s radicals cut and paste from all previous revolutions at once. Those who start the revolution over in our own times translate it back into old languages, making the present seem the same as the past. And thus we fail at that task for which Marx had such a genius: speaking the beautiful language of our own century.

I took the last two paragraphs from Marx’s famous Eighteenth Brumaire, my favorite of his hot takes.2 Not to cite them as an authority but to détourn them. To erase from the text what history has already superseded. To transform inherited language in the direction of possibility. Many of today’s self-declared “Marxists” amuse me with their careful citations from Capital applied in a contemplative fashion to the contemporary situation, at least as it appears in the daily news feeds. This is an approach to theory in which the present can only be contemplated in those aspects that appear like the past. Had this been Marx’s approach to his own era, how would he have ever moved past the left-Hegelian critique of religion?

Marxism is not a theory, it’s a practice. What one discovers if one spends some time with its history as a practice is a century and a half of defeat. Either outright defeat, or victory turned to defeat, where revolution prepares the way for restoration in a new form of oppression, as with Stalin or Mao. In such cases the new ruling class did not hesitate to silence, exile, or assassinate the revolutionaries who made their rise to power possible, all the while claiming the mantle of Marxian theory in a stale and dogmatic form.

Outside of the bureaucratic-socialist states, dogmatic forms of Marxism lived on in two variants: that of the official Stalinist parties, whether they looked to Moscow or Beijing or Havana; and that of various Trotskyist sects, the founding impulse of which is to claim to be a more authentic dogma than their Stalinist rivals. These competed with each other for doctrinal rectitude, conflating citational accuracy and fidelity with political perspicuity.

In the Anglophone world, particularly in the United States, the Marxist tradition as cultivated by the Communist Party was thoroughly suppressed by the Cold War blacklists. Scholars, writers, artists, filmmakers, even schoolteachers lost their jobs—a cultural and intellectual mutilation so thorough hardly anyone today is even aware of the damage done. To the extent that a Marxist tradition endured, it is known through its Trotskyist variant and its fellow travelers, and through the creation out of a canon of “Western Marxism” what Perry Anderson was at least candid enough to name “Academic Marxism.

I was raised in part on the canon of Academic Marxism that Anderson and others established. They did so as a political-intellectual project that, in the absence of a mass Marxist party, relied on the university as a base. In the process, the knowledge-procedures of Marxist theory and practice were assimilated into those of scholarship, to the point where they became indistinguishable. Marxism lost its coherence and became simply a flavor of each of the academic disciplines into which its corpus was dismembered.

I was also trained by the party to think of Marxism as something rather different. Something practical. Something that had to respond to the long history of our failures and defeats. To be a Trotskyist, like being a liberal, is to be able to pose as an innocent in history. Everything bad was perpetrated by someone else. I was never a Trotskyist. I was taught by comrades who felt both defeated by history and implicated in its disasters. I don’t think of Marxism as an innocent tradition whose founding concepts can simply be cited and applied. History intervenes, over and over.

In party school I learned about Czech Marxist Radovan Richta—a complicated and certainly implicated figure. In the resistance during the war, he joined the party shortly after, and rose to prominence in official social science. The book we studied was a collaborative project he oversaw, Civilization at the Crossroads (1969). Whatever its faults, it’s still an interesting model of collaborative labor across the social sciences. Its main argument is that there was a mutation in the mode of production, which the book refers to as a “scientific and technical revolution.

In the context of the Soviet-controlled postwar states after the death of Stalin, the book implied more than stated a political program: the replacement of the bureaucratic-repressive form of governance with one that fostered open education, research, and development. Rather than control by the party claiming to represent the working class, an alliance expressed the dual capacities of industrial labor with creative, technical labor. The book was not unconnected to the reform movement in Czechoslovakia which caused the Soviet Union to panic and invade it. What Richta had termed “socialism with a human face” was the path not taken from this historical crossroads. Richta himself remained in academia after the so-called “normalization.” A compromised figure.

The first hint of the thinking that went into A Hacker Manifesto I probably owe to reading Richta in party school in the late seventies. There was a theory there of a profound mutation that might have occurred in the mode of production, suggesting that neither bureaucratic state socialism in the East nor what Paul Sweezy called “monopoly capitalism” in the West was quite what it appeared.

I put that thought aside during the eighties. This was the era of what we might call “superstructural Marxism.” Those of us who worked in media, education, or the arts were confronted with the difference between what we did and what industrial workers did, and looked for a way to be in alignment. Louis Althusser offered the infamous formula of the “relative autonomy” of the superstructures of the capitalist social formation. Meaning that the institutions of politics, law, education, culture, and media partly answered to the necessities of the economic base, but were also partly independent sites of struggle.

In this way of thinking, Marx had uncovered the law of surplus value that determined the form of the economic base, but the political and ideological superstructures had their own relatively autonomous forms. Some, like Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, were interested in the political; others sought the ideological. There, we built on the insights of structural linguistics and psychoanalysis to understand its workings. Roland Barthes is a key figure in this turn. I spent the eighties trying to apply superstructural Marxism to the conflicts specific to Australian national culture.

This worked for a time, and then it didn’t. Theories are made to die in the war of time, as Guy Debord says. The history of Marxism is a history of theories put into practice—with very mixed results. If you’re not getting results, try another concept. Learn from praxis. The experimental praxis of the avant-gardes, thought as moments of possible creative labor in formation, is as good a place as any to look for lessons.

He had his differences with the avant-gardes of his time, but nevertheless Pier Paolo Pasolini had some contributions to make to Marxist theory that turned out to be more relevant than Althusser. Like Althusser, he was thinking through Gramsci, thinking again in the light of struggles of his time. There were two revolutions, he thought. The “internal revolution,” our one, the struggle of labor in and against capital. And we lost. The “external revolution,” the counterrevolution, via which capital revolutionized itself, prevailed.

Rather than the relative autonomy of the superstructures from the base, it turned out that what mattered was the relative autonomy of the base from the superstructures. A technical revolution in the forces and relations of production made the old superstructures obsolete, and the struggles in them a rearguard action.

Pasolini was thinking through the rise of analog mass media—television, radio, and cinema—and how those were implicated in the production of new kinds of mass-produced subjects who would be the consumers of the mass-produced objects of postwar industrial consumer society. That still seems to me a good place to start thinking about a further development in the forces and relations of production, the digital turn, and how that transformed, once again, not just the production of commodities but the production of a kind of human to match it—now disarmingly called “users.”

Sometimes it’s helpful to go back to Marx, but sometimes it’s better to go back to the most recent and relevant adaptations and transformations of the Marxist tradition. A Hacker Manifesto owes a lot to the Italian and French “autonomist Marxists,” who among other things had a critical relation to Pasolini. I in turn had some differences from them. I thought their concepts smacked of idealism: “the general intellect,” “immaterial labor,” “cognitive capitalism.” These identified a mutation in the forces and relations of production, but did not anchor it firmly enough in the materiality of information.

Later, Paul Preciado would make a different but I think parallel critique: That the mutation had as much to do with “social-technical reproduction” as with production. That the developments in commodification had as much to do with the corporeal as the cognitive. That what we needed was an account of the history of struggles over the “pharmacopornographic regime”—pills’n’p0rn—through which the cishet body was manufactured. But that’s a story for another time.

A Hacker Manifesto is in a certain sense an “accelerationist” text. It differs significantly from other instances of that tendency in that it centers the antagonism of the productive classes—farmers, workers, hackers—against residual, dominant, and emergent ruling classes alike. It does not see capital as an accelerating agent arriving from the future through “hyperstitional” magic to speed the human to and beyond its end. But like the autonomists, the accelerationists prefer a closed world of discourse in which they don’t engage with others—certainly not with me.

In short, A Hacker Manifesto took the experimental digital labor of the avant-gardes of the nineties—here shorthanded as Nettime—as the praxis via which to revise and critique the Marxist critical media theory we had received from previous eras, in light of other currents also attempting a theory of the present situation. It drew on classical Marxist language but also on the century and more of developments in Marxist theory, alongside the rich inheritance of avant-garde practices, not least writing practices.

My own critique of its limits was Gamer Theory, which was also published by Lindsay Waters at Harvard University Press, in 2007. That came out of my friendship with Eric Zimmerman and through Eric, meetings with the most creative game designers and thinkers of the early twenty-first century. It seemed by the early years of this century that we’d lost the fight for what the internet could become. The era of enclosure and extraction had begun. I thought the persona of the “gamer,” rather than the hacker, best exemplified what it meant to be a user, and I think it still does.

It’s a theory which sees the computer game as the allegorical double, at the level of form, for what commodified life became. Here I drew on Alexander Galloway’s approach, which dragged Fredric Jameson’s critical apparatus into contact with contemporary media form. Everyday life appears as a zero-sum game for imaginary stakes in a “gamespace” with no outside.

About five years later Charlie Brooker’s TV show Black Mirror would thematize much the same sensibility. I’m not comparing myself to them in terms of results so much as of ambition: if A Hacker Manifesto was my version of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, Gamer Theory was my version of Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. I’d rather fail at grand ambitions than be satisfied with anything less.

Century of Clouds

How are we to write in the present? One can sense and feel the present in its nuanced relation to past and present, in its variations and gradations, but it is very hard to write that way. Language imposes a cut. One either assimilates the present to the past, as if there were no cut, or one declares that present to be new, imposing the cut. Neither says anything about the present as it is sensed and felt.

I’m not interested in claims to novelty, not least because those became the language of an emerging ruling class, out to “disrupt” everything, meaning to render it tender for enclosure and extraction. Supposedly critical theory also ends up making a lot of claims to a new-this and a new-that, unconsciously mimicking the language of marketing.

Rather, I’m interested in how writing might make the present appear through a tension between inherited language, not to mention received ideas, and its deformation and permutation, such that the present situation might appear in the play of language in-between repetition and difference. Maybe history is more Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “A Cloud in Pants,” a diffusion made legible through form, but barely.

I am not interested in that Marxism that became a theology, which has made of capital an eternal essence, the same for all time, until the resurrection, when the revolution somehow magically happens in its classical form, and we can live in the communism of the twentieth century. I see the appeal, but this seems to be a structure of belief, not the ruthless criticism of all that exists, on which Marx insists. Including inherited Marxist traditions themselves.

I’m starting to think that there is a kernel of anxiety in clinging to nineteenth-century Marxism as formalized in academic Marxology. A fear of castration, a fear of the cut in history. And so the denial of the very possibility of the cut. If there had been a cut in history, Marxism would lose its potency. But rather than take the other side, insist on the cut, on a radical novelty in historical time, I want to think forms of transformation, transduction even, which are outside the linguistic bind of sameness and otherness.

Somehow that produces even more anxiety among those who cling to received ideas. That historical time might subtly mutate in ways language has trouble grasping—what an even more terrifying thought! Not castration, but the body politic on exogenous hormones, slowing becoming transsexual.

But I am joking, of course.


Readme!, the Nettime anthology, is available from Autonomedia .


Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), chap. 1, .

Internet, Technology, Marxism
Return to Issue #146

McKenzie Wark is the author, among other things, of A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard), Gamer Theory (Harvard), The Beach Beneath the Street (Verso) and Raving (Duke). She teaches at The New School in New York City. She edited the “trans | fem | aesthetics” issue of eflux journal and coedited the “Black Rave” issue, with madison moore.


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