How to Be A 21st Century Marxist with Hacker Theorist McKenzie Wark

The Writer Behind The Hacker Manifesto, Gamer Theory, and Capital is Dead On Labor in the Information Age

  • Text: Sanja Grozdanić
  • Photography: Heather Sten

Our lives are mediated by platforms that, in their most benign incarnation, profit from the information we freely offer, exploiting our emotional and cognitive abilities in an ever-escalating bid for our attention. In a no less frequent manifestation of our platform economy, a complex system of surveillance disguises itself within our hyper-fantasy of connection. Should you drive a Tesla, it is filming you, and if you have an Alexa or an Echo, it's recording you. Amazon is a convenient service provider for the private citizen––and ICE uses its technology when tracking and apprehending immigrants. Perhaps most staggering of all, none of this is secret.

Writer, theorist and educator McKenzie Wark writes in 2019’s Capital is Dead: “reduced to nothing but users, and our actions forced into the commodity form, our collective work and play produces a world over and against us...collective human labor made a world for a ruling class that keeps making not only itself but us in its image.” Can we see technology as a social and psychic apparatus—that the two are dependent on one another? An ambient dread is palpable.

I’m calling McKenzie to discuss the class relations in this fraught landscape, most recently interrogated in her book, Capital is Dead, published by Verso Books last year. In Capital is Dead, Wark argues that we are living under a new form of class relations. Expanding upon the terms “Hacker” and “Vectorialist class,” first coined in her 1994’s The Hacker Manifesto, McKenzie questions our reluctance to re-define our reality—suggesting that this reluctance also circumvents our ability to reckon with it. New class relations entail new forms of exploitation; novel threats to our autonomy and social order.

To move forward, allow me to go backward. McKenzie wrote her masters thesis from behind the counter of Numbers, a sex shop on Oxford Street, Sydney. McKenzie was fired for mixing the rubber and leather displays, an anecdote I recall for its quotidian rejection of category, which seems fundamental to McKenzie’s character. Chris Kraus writes to McKenzie in her “auto-ethnography,’’ Reverse Cowgirl, out with Semiotext(e) in February: “how uncanny and unpredictable it is, how things turn out.” I tell McKenzie that one of the most profound things in her work, to me, is her ability to forge a new kind of criticism—one that is less about negation and more about possibility—that leans into this uncanniness and contrariety. “I'm more interested in what happens if you go off the linear path and start thinking about the past as a maze, with all these little byways,” McKenzie tells me. "Something that didn't flourish in the 1920s or 1960s might be the place to start now...especially if you're being gaslit by exactly the same people over and over again.” To think about the past as a maze, as McKenzie suggests, is to see the future as contestable.

Sanja Grozdanić

McKenzie Wark

You’ve written that you were formed by the labor movement. What founded your political beliefs?

One tends to be a little reserved about that. The right not to answer certain questions—like are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party, is important, so I never really directly answer that other than to say that, I was cadre trained. I was not a very good party militant for my early life. I was a member of the left faction of the mainstream Labour Party of Australia for some years. I think the thing that is maybe significant about that is living through a series of defeats, and having to deal emotionally with the fact that one always gets defeated, and that there's a rethinking that comes after that, like a reorientation. So I feel a little bit out of tune with some of the revivals going on now, because I had to process why all these things were defeated in the past, and why we had to think again.

It reminds me of a line by Dubravka Ugrešić where she says something like, “I'm on the side of the losers,” which actually always felt very hopeful to me.

I can’t reproduce the line even in translation, but in Rimbaud it’s: “I’m of that race that sat on the scaffold.” I remember being electrified by that when I read it as a teenager. My fate was sealed!

Is your relationship to writing similar to teaching?

Being a teacher is a big part of my personality, I can't help but be shaped by that. I like to not be too caught up in institutional frameworks. I like learning outside of that kind of environment and I always did, so I always want to be available for that. I was in the middle of a rave explaining to a trans woman how to turn her blog posts on being a trans sex worker into a book proposal and I'm like, “Why am I doing this?” It's a bit of a defaulting, once you've done it for awhile. There’s also, I guess, a political project that's connected to the idea of pedagogy—that if we could learn how to learn we could solve a lot of problems.

I’ve always found your work generous and generative—open in that sense. I’m interested in what you mean by “low theory.” Until recently, I’ve lived in London—where the annual Mark Fisher memorial lecture at Goldsmiths spills into several theatres, is always over capacity, and is followed by a student-organised rave. There’s an intimate relationship between Fisher and his readers.

“Low theory” is a back formation from what used to be called “high theory,” which is particularly the reception of Derrida through the Yale school of deconstruction, which is a fine and wonderful thing, but it's just not me. I never had the pedigree or the training to do that, and it seems to have ended up as a sort of set of formal exercises that could never escape the university. And that was not my formation. More central to me is somebody like Stuart Hall who said, “Theory is a detour on the way to somewhere more important.” It's not up to me to say what's more important, I just write books, but it’s about how these things are enabling. How can a book be a thing that’s got the tools in it, where you don’t need (in the American context) $100,000 worth of graduate school education just to read the book? I don't want to write like that. I also think of “low theory” as connected to practises. It can be any kind—it doesn't need to be specifically immersed in a movement. It can be connected to art practise.

In a lecture at The Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, you said that the utopian is the practical taken to the extreme, and it's a term that comes up frequently in your work. Is there any room for utopian projects—when reactionary projects seem to be occupying the most space? What utopian projects do you see?

It’s a tricky term to deploy; you have to get out of a sort of cold war liberal discourse where utopia is always bad because it leads to totalitarianism, and liberals are really practical people—they just go out and murder a bunch of foreigners in the name of defeating communism. The other complexity is: could you think of anything more utopian than neoliberalism? It's like a utopia for the ruling class. What I think people miss about the utopian is that it’s really about who takes out the trash, what do we do with bad feelings; it tries to deal with all of these difficult problems. There’s something to be said for that, and for building in the present––you can have a utopian evening, that seems to me to be a thing worth attempting. A good rave is a utopia.

Capital in its most modern forms seems to be preparing us for a retreat from the public world—the outside world is either abandoned or expensive; pathologized or sterilized. Can you speak a bit about your relationship with New York, whether it’s changed.

I've lived here for 20 years, so I'm a New Yorker. I became part of the city. I feel like I have a stake in it. In my kid's lifetime, it will probably be under water, so I feel like archiving it in a way, documenting it, as well as just enjoying it while it's still here. It's still just marginally inhabitable, but it's getting harder and I probably missed its golden age. I came here in the Giuliani era, so it was definitely getting less fun. It still has its quirks and margins and there's enough junk space out in its peripheries that people can do things in them and inhabit them, but it takes money, and a lot of people hang on in very precarious ways. It's massively, massively policed, and that policing is racialized and that is so obvious. I occupy many layers of privilege just to be able to walk around the streets. But I love cities. It's one of the great tragedies of my life that they started to become uninhabitable.

In Capital is Dead you write—“whatever this mode of production is, that it eats brains as well as bodies seems key to how it works, and how it is made.” For Baudrillard capitalism was hysterical; for Deleuze and Guattari it was schizophrenic—what is the relationship between our bodies and the new mode of production you describe?

Whatever this emerging or emergent mode of production is, it treats everything as reducible to information. So to what extent do bodies become known in detail? And then massively, statistically aggregated and treated probabilistically. That's a piece of it. You carry a phone around—it’s, as we all know, basically, a kind of data recorder reporting back pretty much constantly on your movements and your states. We tend to think about this in terms of individual privacy, but the other side of it: Who gets to own all of that information in the aggregate? Who owns the information about us as a population? That becomes the thing to not lose sight of.

You write that class consciousness is always a rare and difficult thing. It seems to me that there’s a danger in the way we are assuming millennials as inherently progressive—of course, being downwardly mobile, we’re inherently radicalized, but how might we build real or lasting solidarities?

That's always the big question. It’s now pretty naked—the war to find division, you see an entire media apparatus just devoted to nothing but looking for scapegoats. I'm now one of them. To scapegoat trans people, particularly trans women, is just a whole industry at the moment. And that's sort of strategically smart in the sense that we're a very small population, mostly fairly poor and mostly isolated and politically unorganized—so attack us and sort of split us off, and get us all fighting. The problem is the structure of social media really privileges those kinds of pile-ons of positive feedback that generate noise, that generate controversy. So it's hard to generate a different kind of affect that's just about—you know, people are different, but do we have common interests, as people who aren't the ruling class?

You’ve been using terms like “hacker” and “vectorialist class” for some time, but they seem especially pertinent now. Can you explain what the “vectoralist class” is?

We were doing this critique in the 90s—there was this relentless truism that the whole discourse about technology was positive and it's like, you’re just not reading widely honey. Not just me, but a whole community of people, who were critical practitioners of a kind of punk approach to tech. It's sort of bittersweet to see people stumble into this out of nowhere. I don't care if my language sticks, but this is the part that interested me: is there a new layer to what exploitation is? Is there a new mode of production growing out of capitalism? It hasn't replaced it, we mostly still live in capitalism, but it's not all that anymore; there’s something a little bit different. Is there a new kind of ruling class, and could we view it as one that mostly controls information? It's really not interested in things; it doesn't directly own factories. It doesn't care about physical things. It cares about controlling the value chain through controlling information. There are elements of that all through capitalism, but for it to be emerging to the point of dominance is relatively new. And I think that needs a new critical language—so I called it the “vectorialist class,” who controls the vector of information.

And then the word “hacker” gets used a lot—but what does it mean to you?

All this begs the question of whether there are new subordinate classes––and I think there is one, one that makes information but doesn't get to own it. That's most of the people I know; that’s me. That's what you do. You're making information. Somebody else owns it. I call it the “hacker” class. It's maybe not a great word anymore, call it what you like. It's like labor but it's not quite the same thing as labor because it’s very, very hard to quantify. Your relation to work time is very different. Your relation to whether what you do will have value is very different. I think that needed some specificity. What's the hacker worker alliance all about? I think to evolve the language about class, that's where we're at.

It seems undeniable that there's a kind of new hierarchy, when Mark Zuckerberg is called into the Senate to explain a new currency.

I think the evolving of the language turns out to be the hard part. And certainly, that it’s even just called “the tech industry,” or “Silicon Valley”—no-one calls it the “new ruling class”—got away with making us talk about innovation and a whole bunch of other bullshit. There's a tendency to shy away from linguistic innovation. I think we need our own linguistic innovation, is what I’m coming down on the side of, rather than a retreat to this sort of 19th century Marxist terminology, which describes a part of the world, but also misses some things that are different. How do we be 21st century Marxists? It is a question I think is not asked often enough.

Sanja Grozdanić is a writer living in London.

  • Text: Sanja Grozdanić
  • Photography: Heather Sten
  • Date: February 6