Revolutionary Dreams: Dissent from the Economic Inquisition


As Gilles Deleuze predicted in his famous essay “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, the university is an institution that struggles in the 21st century. Since the 1990s, especially humanities departments are affected by the corporatization of the institute (Saad Filho 156). Managers judging of the value of education are judging in the economic sense, where it is not asked what something it worth, but how much it is worth (Gorz 37). This economic logic is incapable of measuring the value the “tradition of open ended inquiry” which is sometimes said to define what a university should be for (Collini 2), and faculties which do not deliver measurable economic profit suffer from financial cutbacks.

Following the occupation of the Maagdenhuis at the University of Amsterdam, which started in January 2015, students and teachers at multiple universities united, under the name The New University, in order to express their frustration with what they called the financialization of education. The term financialization has been explained by Ewald Engelen as a process in which financial value becomes the dominant determinant for social value, thereby pushing away other standards for measurement, for example justice, solidarity or sustainability. Willem Schinkel, a few months later, when reflecting on the birth of this movement, stated that the oppositional practices of The New University were merely reactive and conservative, and according to Schinkel this would only lead to organized frustration, with which he referred to the process of incorporation or institutionalization of the frustration of the students and teachers by the university, therefore only strengthening a system of organizing instead of opposing to it. According to Willem Schinkel, two elements need to be addressed in order to effectively discuss the financialization of education. The first element would be an analysis of how “we have got where we are”, and the second would be a good “story” on why the university exists in the first place, and this would have to account for why the university is a public good (Schinkel).

Bruno Latour once stated that in the fight against the Economic Inquisition, the call for action has none of the traits of older revolutionary dreams (1). Andre Gorz has added to this statement, by remarking that there will be no revolution by overthrowing the system through external forces (127). A proper revolutionary theory must not lay blame on a particular government, corporation of individuals, because this will distract from the actual sources of a problem, which cannot be traced back to one origin. (Halpin). A truly revolutionary theory is based on the analysis of everyday life, which is not only defined by the flow of capitalist commodities, but also by the school system, the law, the internet, the police, and other structures (Halpin).

In order to explore what (some of) the possible traits of new revolutionary dreams, of those seeking to oppose this economic inquisition could be, this paper is an attempt to the analysis of everyday life in the contemporary world. This is the story, or part of the story, of how we got where we are. It will be argued that the contemporary world is defined by the co-existence of socio-economic systems of the 19th and 20th/21st century. A concise overview of the effects on social structures of these forms of capitalism will be provided. Special attention will be paid to what relationship this 21st century capitalism has with democracy, because this will explicate why someone would want to look for a new revolutionary theory, and because it is intertwined with the story about why the university is (or, should be) a public good. To give an example of how the struggle is currently taking shape, a contemporary case of dissent will be analyzed; the case of hacktivist Aaron Swartz. Swartz is taken as an example in this paper because he envisioned a specific role for academia in the fight against the economic inquisition. Swartz’s declaration of the necessity of civil disobedience will be analyzed with the help of Hannah Arendt’s conceptualization of civil disobedience, in order to further explore the role of practiced opposition as complementary to revolutionary dreams/revolutionary theories.

What is Cognitive Capitalism?

According to André Gorz, we are living in a time in which modern capitalism, which is concentrated on the valorization of large quantities of material fixed capital, coexists with postmodern capitalism, which depends on the valorization of “immaterial capital” (1). Gilles Deleuze also signaled these co-existing social structures, naming them, after Foucault, the societies of Discipline and Control. How are these two societies to be defined, and in what ways are they different?

The 19th century society of discipline and the 21st century society of control work through different spaces of enclosure. In the society of discipline the technology that defined social structures was mechanical. The factory confirmed the mass/individual logic of the society of Discipline: it served to constitute individuals as a single body, which made them exchangeable for one another, but it at the same time allowed them to group together in unions, which were the tool for resistance against the surveying boss (Deleuze 5). Nineteenth century capitalism can be defined by concentration, production and property (Deleuze 6). Twentieth century capitalism replaced the factory by the corporation: and compared to the localizable, tangible factory, the corporation is like smoke: when you try to grasp it, it disappears (Deleuze 4). The corporation works by presenting rivalry as a healthy form of motivation, by which it opposes individuals against one another (Deleuze 5).

The continuous reforms in industries, schools, hospitals, and prisons, announced by those in charge, signal that 19th century institutions are expiring in the 20th and 21st century: as the corporation replaces the factory, perpetual training replaces the school, and continuous control replaces the examination (Deleuze 5). Research will be more and more abandoned at universities, giving place to training, and that the corporation will be introduced at all levels of schooling (Deleuze 7). Deleuze observes: “[m]any young people strangely boast of being “motivated”; they re-quest apprenticeships  and permanent training. It’s up to them to discover what they’re being made to serve, just as their elders discovered, not without difficulty, the telos of disciplines” (Deleuze 7).

Whereas in the society of discipline the signature designated the individual, and the administrative number indicated her or his position within the mass, the society of control works with a code: a password (Deleuze 5). This code is the “language of control” which gives access to information, or rejects it (Deleuze 5). This code ties in with the type of machine that expresses the social form of the society of control: the computer (Deleuze 6). The danger is the machines of the society of discipline, those involving energy, has the danger of jamming and entropy, but the danger of computers is jamming, and more importantly: piracy, and the introduction of viruses (Deleuze 6). This technological evolution is signals the mutation of capitalism: production is relegated to the third world, and capitalism is involved in higher-order production. This higher-order production ties in with the earlier mentioned “valorization of immaterial capital” (Gorz 1). Capitalism no longer buys and sells products, but sells services and buys stocks: it is no longer capitalism for production, but for the selling and marketing of the product (Deleuze 6).

André Gorz argues that postmodern capitalism, which he also calls cognitive capitalism, has led to the redefinition of both labor and new forms of capital. To work has become to produce oneself, and management has become management by objectives: executives “set out objectives for the employees to work out how to fulfil them” (Gorz 8). The skills necessary to fulfil these tasks cannot simply be taught and then put into work: the postmodern worker has to continually produce and reproduce himself (Gorz 11): this is the perpetual training Deleuze refers to. The postmodern worker can be said to be a self-entrepreneur: the worker is the capital that must continually be reproduced, modernized, and valorized (Gorz 8). In economic sense, value is always relative: value is not determined by what something is worth, but by how much something is worth, or, exchange value (Gorz 37). Capital in the postmodern society is immaterial capital: “knowledge has become the main productive force; […] the products of social labor are no longer chiefly crystallized labor but crystallized knowledge […]” (Gorz 35).

Common goods that are not produced, that were not producible at all or things that are not exchangeable or not intended for exchange, for example, the human heritage, have no value according to economic sense (Gorz 38). These sources can be valorized, though: through control of access (Gorz 39). Artificial barriers, the privatization of routes of access, can turn “natural riches and common goods into quasi-commodities that will earn a rent for the sellers of the access rights” (Gorz 39). The corporation which monopolizes the access to common goods do not have buyers, but users: the firm remains in permanent relation with its customers (Gorz 72). The corporation can decide whether an individual is granted access, and this is also the case with online databases of knowledge or culture. The “language of control” gives the corporation the power of giving or taking access to information (Deleuze 5).

Cognitive Capitalism and Democracy

What is the link between postmodern/cognitive capitalism and democracy? Noam Chomsky has stated that the current democracy that is practiced in the west is a Neoliberal democracy: “with its notion of the market uber alles, [it] takes dead aim at this sector. Instead of citizens, it produces consumers” (Chomsky 11). Globalization is not the result of the increased interconnectedness of people around the globe, but it is “[…] the result of powerful governments, especially that of the United States, pushing trade deals and other accords down the throats of the world’s people to make it easier for corporations and the wealthy to dominate the economies of nations around the world without having obligations to the peoples of those nations” (Chomsky 13). According to Jaques Rancière, in the current phenomenon called democracy, which it not a democracy but a Neoliberal democracy, politics is the change between interchangeable oligarchs (76). Hannah Arendt also stated that representative government is in a crisis, because it has lost all institutions that permitted citizen’s actual participation, and because it is affected by bureaucratization and the tendency of a two party system to “represent nobody except the party machines” (89): this appears to be the case today. Chomsky concurs: the governed have the right to consent, they are spectators, but not participants, apart from the occasional choice among leaders (44). The limitless movement of wealth is the reality of our world and its future, according to Rancière, and governments are merely concerned with taking off the restrictions national states put on the unlimited development of wealth (77).

According to Chomsky, an actual democracy requires that people feel connected to their fellow citizens, and moreover, that this connection manifests itself through a variety of nonmarket organizations and institutions (11). A democracy functions when individuals can participate in the public arena, while not being interfered by concentrations of power: that is why a functioning democracy presupposes equality in access to material and informational resources (131). But, as Gorz emphasized, public property can also be privatized, and in the 21st century, informational resources have been successfully handed over to corporations, which also made that they had to be profitable (Chomsky 70). The computer, being the universal and universally accessible tool through which knowledge can be accessed (Gorz 14), could have been a democratic revolution in the providing of access to information, compared to for example libraries which have to be accessed physically, but the internet has become privatized, and a source of growth of wealth for, in the words of Intel CEO Andrew Grove, “connection providers, the people involved in generating the worldwide web, the people making the computers” (“people” meaning corporations), and the advertising industry” (Chomsky 70). The privatization of knowledge is, following Chomsky, a definite threat to democracy.

Yes, individual liberties are respected in contemporary democracies, at least up to a certain extend: there exists relative freedom of press; association and demonstration are permitted (Rancière 74). But these freedoms were not ‘given’ by the ruling oligarchs: they were won through democratic action (Rancière 74). In the state capitalist democracies, the public arena has been extended and enriched, but this has happened through continuous struggle, and at the same time private power has worked to restrict it (Chomksy 132). This struggle can be said to form a good part of modern history (Chomsky 132). Knowing that this struggle forms a good part of modern history teaches an important lesson, which Rancière adequately formulated when stating that “[t]he ‘rights of man and of the citizen’ are the rights of those who make them a reality” (74).

Hacktivism: the case of Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz, a student at Stanford University, recognized that the contemporary world is defined by the dominant technology, the computer, and that the way to social intervention would be jamming that computer, not by introducing viruses, in this case, but by performing acts of piracy. One of these acts has earned him the title of the “first big victim of the cyber war” (Amadeu da Silveira 7). What is this cyber war, and how did Swartz become a victim?

Swartz was part of what is called the ‘hacker culture’, which is inspired by free access and exchange of knowledge, and who believe in the utopian possibilities the democratization of access to information has to offer (Amadeu da Silveira 9). Of course, large corporations that make money with the privatization of information have opposed these hackers, and moreover, hackers have often been depicted as criminals in mainstream media (Amadeu da Silveira 10).

In order to communicate his ideas about the freedom of access, Swartz wrote the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto. In this manifesto, Swartz argues that “[t]he world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier”. The cultural heritage of humankind used to be stored in public facilities like libraries, or were privately owned and had to be physically accessed. The internet, instead of liberating this heritage from its physical barriers, has up to now not brought democratization, but only a larger amount of customers for large corporations like Reed Elsevier seeking to exploit the provision of access to this heritage, and actively block the potential of the internet (Johnson 109). Swartz sees academics being “forced to pay money to read the work of their colleagues”, and scientific articles provided to “those at elite universities in the first world, but not to children in the Global South”, and states that this is “outrageous and unacceptable”.

Swartz writes that many feel powerless standing up against corporations who hold the copyrights to the knowledge they sell, and that this practice is “perfectly legal”. But, as Martin Luther King already recognized, that something is legal, does not mean it is just: “[w]e can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal”” (9). “There is no justice in following unjust laws”, Swartz writes. According to Swartz, the actions undertaken by hackers in order to liberate information has been called “stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy”. Those blinded by greed are Corporations. Because of the moral imperative of sharing, Swartz states “it’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture”. This can be done through the active appropriation of information, a process in which Swartz assigns a specific role to the academic community in the university, because they have been given the password that allows them to access the monopolized common goods:

“Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world […]

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access […]”

Swartz practiced what he preached. On January 6th 2011, at 24 years old, he was arrested for electronic fraud (Amadeu da Silveira 11). Swartz had downloaded 4,8 million documents from the JSTOR database. Even though Swartz had free access to these documents (since he was a student at MIT, the institution through which he accessed the JSTOR database), and had not started spreading these documents, the government representatives involved in the process stated that the downloading of many articles from academic journals is a hacker crime: the criminal attitude was said to be the use of a script to download many articles (Amadeu da Silveira 12). This argument turned out invalid after critique of internet experts who claimed Aaron did not “hack” the JSTOR website, but merely accelerated the process of right-clicking and choosing “Save As” in the browser, and this left the case against Swartz with one consistent accusation: the one over his intention to release the texts (Amadeu da Silveira 11). Even though the case was clearly a legal aberration, the prosecutors involved sought what is called an ‘exemplary conviction’: in order to discourage copyright violation, they demanded a sentence of 35 years in prison (Amadeu da Silveira 12). Facing this punishment, Swartz committed suicide in his New York apartment on January 11, 2013 (Amadeu da Silveira 1). After the public upheaval Swartz’s suicide caused, the charges against him were dropped, but the battle for freedom and sharing of knowledge and culture continues.

The case of Swartz is interesting because it shows those involved in this struggle who (or, what) they are up to. Swartz’s revolutionary dreams, as they are formulated in the Open Access Manifesto, would have been classified as old revolutionary dreams by Latour, because Swartz lays blame on a single entity, “those blinded by greed”, corporations, for socio-economic inequalities, while a new revolutionary theory should address the actual structural sources of a problem (Halpin). Nevertheless, it is clear that, in the case of Swartz, the government representatives represented private, corporate interests (and consumers, instead of citizens): the case against Swartz was in the name of the market and the development of wealth. In the struggle for the public arena, and therefore the struggle for democracy, it seems that it can be questioned whether the government, and the law, is serving citizens, or corporations, and whether those opposed are just the private corporations or also the governments which support them. That is why Swartz, in his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, states that those seeking to join the struggle, should not be afraid to break unjust laws, and resort to civil disobedience. What is civil disobedience, how can it be used, and was Swartz’s action indeed an act of civil disobedience?

Hannah Arendt on Civil Disobedience

When discussing civil disobedience, Hannah Arendt states that in the Western tradition, two figures are considered exemplary: Socrates, and Thoreau. This is a misconception according do Arendt, because both based their dissenting act not on a common opinion or judgement, but on the idea of “a common conscience” (58). According to Arendt, there is a difference between the conscientious objector and the civil disobedient. Civil disobedience, according to Arendt, “can never exist as a single individual”, but the phenomenon can only “survive as member of a group” (Arendt 55). Civil disobedience can be defined as “organized minorities, bound together by common opinion, rather than by common interest, and the decision to take a stand against the government’s policies even if they have reason to assume that these policies are backed by a majority; their concerted action springs from an agreement with each other” (Arendt 56).

The conscientious objector relies on the individual conscience as a legitimation for disobedience, but according to Arendt the individual conscience is apolitical, because 1. it cannot be generalized, and 2. it relies on the assumption that man has the innate ability to see right from wrong, whereas Arendt states that morals are dependent on social-economic factors (64-65). Overall, individual conscience and individual acts cannot be legitimate civil disobedience, because this exclusive personal character makes it a philosophy which allows any individual, for whatever reason, to disobey (57). Swartz can be seen as a conscientious objector for two reasons: 1. his disobedient act was an individual one, and 2. in the Open Access Manifesto, he states that his disobedient act is the consequence of a moral imperative. Swartz therefore was not acting in “the grand tradition of civil disobedience”, but in the traditional Western misconception of civil disobedience.

Does Swartz then confirm to the definition of a criminal, which Arendt sets apart from civil disobedience? The criminal acts “for his own benefit alone”, avoiding the public eye, whereas the civil disobedient acts publicly for “the name and the sake of a group”. Swartz did not perform his act publicly, but the only consistent accusation made by the prosecutor was that Swartz intended to release his texts. This leads to a paradoxical conclusion. Swartz cannot be defined as a criminal in Arendt’s sense of the term, for the same reason as why he was prosecuted, thus, seen as a criminal by the American legal apparatus. For the moment, it will suffice that Swartz, in Arendt’s sense of the term, was not a criminal.

Civil disobedients and rebels have, according to Arendt, in common that they wish to change the world (77). It is sometimes argued that the civil disobedient accepts the frame of established authority, while the revolutionary rejects it, but this is a frail distinction. Arendt uses the example of Mahatma Ghandi, a famous example of civil disobedience, of whom it can be questioned whether or not he accepted the frame of “accepted authority” (77). While both the rebel and civil disobedience strive (or, can strive) for revolution, the only viable distinction between the rebel and civil disobedience is nonviolence (Arendt 77). This is what makes civil disobedience the peaceful tool for achieving social change, and Swartz’s focus on this tool for practical action in his Open Access Manifesto makes the manifesto a relevant source of inspiration in the battle against the economic inquisition.

The role of Academia

Swartz, in his manifesto, specifically addresses those who, because of being part of a University, have access to “the banquet of knowledge”. These people indeed have a unique role to play in in the realization of the democratization of knowledge through practices of civil disobedience, which is essentially the realization of a more democratic world, as the earlier observations made by Rancière, Arendt and Chomsky have shown. This unique role has not only to do with access, but also with the fact that in cognitive capitalism the economic sense of value, exchange value, is an irrelevant category: “the exchange-value of commodities, material or otherwise, is no longer determined in the last instance by the quantity of general social labor they contain but mainly by their content in terms of general information, knowledge and intelligence” (Gorz 35). Cognitive capitalism is therefore a system that perpetuates itself, even though its categories are not relevant anymore, because wealth it no longer quantifiable in economic value, and the “main productive force is no longer a rare resource of a privatizable means of production but a set of plentiful, inexhaustible forms of human knowledge, which, when used, increase in scope and availability” (Gorz 105-106). According to Gorz, the surpassing of capitalism into cognitive capitalism, paradoxically, makes that the economy ceases to dominate society, because the human, the worker, is no longer the means for producing wealth, but a self-entrepreneur who is wealth (Gorz 113). The human is no longer working in order to produce wealth, but production is in the service of the production of the self (Gorz 113).

Swartz, and those students and academics involved in The New University have recognized something Gorz also observed: that the possible agent for the actual surpassing of this system which perpetuates itself, even though it is paradoxical, the human in human capital (Gorz 115). Who are more valuable human capital than those in academia, being filled with knowledge and receiving training after training, in order to increase that human capital? In their very persons, those who possess that human capital at its highest form, can use this human capital, their understanding of and access to stored knowledge, in order to dissent “based on a different conception of economy and society” (Gorz 115)

A Revolutionary Theory: The Academy, the Undercommons

What can be learned from the hacker community, the case of Aaron Swartz, when formulating a new revolutionary theory? Gorz observes that, with the Free Software movement (which is a hacker community), the importance of direct action lies that the freedom they are striving for can only be reached through practice, not through program: “the practice is the program” (Gorz 125). The hacker community seeks to change the world, in a nonviolent manner, without taking power, but by reappropriating that which capital has taken from people (in Swartz’s case, knowledge and cultural heritage, but in an indirect way, democracy) and thereby delegitimizing the institutions that hold them (Gorz 125).

Why should the practice be the program? As has been pointed out in this paper, the ‘source’ of contemporary socio-economic inequalities cannot be traces back to one individual, corporation, or government: the inequalities are the product of a complex system, which cannot be simply ‘overthrown’. This is why Gorz argues that “[t]he negation of the system spreads within the system itself by the alternative practices, to which it gives rise” (Gorz 127). A revolutionary theory should address the alternative practices which are the product of the system, and address how to make these alternative practices more effective and widespread. Civil disobedience could be a tool in order to achieve this.

In the Open Access Manifesto, Swartz merely addressed the academic community when stating that ‘they’ should unite and then spread information, but a revolution is not only made by uniting students and academics, even though they do have a specific role to play with regard to knowledge. In order to be a movement of civil disobedience, the students and academics should not only join together: they should form an organized minority which is not bound by common interest, but by common opinion (Arendt 56). The common interest uniting students and academic would be the stance against the corporatization of the university, or maybe even the safe keeping of jobs for academics, but the common opinion that binds these intellectuals to others is the stance against the privatization of the public arena, and the unlimited development of wealth. According to Gorz, it is they, “those most aware of their and other people’s alienation”, who should form an alliance between themselves and those who are most oppressed. This would mean an alliance between  “academics, economists, writers, artists and scientists”, and  “oppositional trade-unionists, post-industrial neo-proletarians, cultural minorities, landless peasants and unemployed and insecurely employed people” (Gorz 128). This alliance might bring about that true form of globalization: the interconnectedness of people around the globe.

Moreover, for the students and academics still seeking to change the university, thinking it should be changed back to its original form, referring to its acclaimed tradition of “open ended inquiry” (Collini 2), but also for the others seeking to “reappropriate” that which capital has taken from them, it is important to take notice of an observation made by Peter Burke in The Social History of Knowledge: in the Renaissance, intellectuals from Petrarca and Ficino to Erasmus thought that even though the university was the place they received training, the institute was inhospitable to their intellectual practices (Lütticken & Seijdel). They took great effort to remain independent, and the most interesting debates did not take place in the university, but in the “humanist’s more informal counter-institution: the academy” (Lütticken & Seijdel). The ‘unconditional university’, the university that is opposed to powers such as the nation-state, economics, the media, ideology, religion, culture, or in short, “the powers that limit the democracy that is to come”, has never been in effect (Derrida 26-27). There is nothing to reappropriate: in the journey towards the democracy to come, there are only things to appropriate. It cannot be denied that the university is still a place of enlightenment, which gives access to knowledge to a privileged few, but the only relationship student academics seeking to stand up against postmodern capitalism can have to the university is one where they will sneak into the university and steal what they can, or, in the words of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney: “[t]o abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony, its gypsy encampment, to be in but not of – this is the path of the subversive intellectual of the modern university” (101).

The academy might be the header under which, or the public space in which those most aware of theirs and other people’s alienation and those most oppressed form an alliance and try to bring into practice a truly unconditional university. The undercommons, a term coined by Moten and Harnet, can refer to people, but the academy would be an undercommon: the common good, common knowledge, the truly unconditional common university, that is the alternative practice to which the system gives rise.

By Aster Hoving

Work Cited

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