Issue 5 - Fall/Winter 1997

Assessing cy.Rev:
A Commentary on Stalin's Opposition, Central Plans and Utopian Premises
(page 1 of 3)
By Louis Proyect

The Chicago area computer programmers and activists who decided to start a new journal called cy.Rev chose wisely to publish on the World Wide Web of the Internet. This is a great example of merging medium and the message after the fashion of Marshall McLuhan. The driving force behind this project is Carl Davidson, a leader of SDS in the 1960s and a writer and editor of the Guardian Newspaper during the 1970s. In recent years Davidson has done computer consulting for non-profit groups and unions in the Chicago area and believes passionately in the new technology.

Davidson and others organized themselves into the Chicago Third Wave Study Group which started cy.Rev in an effort to promote their ideas in "cyberspace". They dubbed themselves "Third Wave" because the futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler were a strong influence on their vision of socialism. The Tofflers have been promoting the Third Wave theory like missionaries for years. Only since the arrival of personal computing and the Internet has "Third Wave" theory achieved the kind of high profile the Tofflers have sought for it over the years.

What exactly is the Third Wave? Put simply, the theory states that there are three important "waves" in social history: (1) rural societies based on agriculture, (2) urban societies that emerged with the industrial revolution, and (3) the information-based world in which we currently reside. The United States is in the throes of this third microchip-inspired wave. Most of its difficulties are the fault of its inability to migrate smoothly out of the "Second Wave" of dying smokestack industries into the promised land of computer networks and knowledge-based industries.

Newt Gingrich is a booster of the "Third Wave." So is Wired Magazine, a cosponsor of high-tech conferences with the Georgia reactionary. Davidson and the editors of cy.Rev want to cut the ties between "Third Wave" theory and its right-wing supporters and enlist in on behalf of a technologically supercharged version of market socialism. Not surprisingly, they blame the problems of traditional Marxism as having been too closely connected with "Second Wave" thinking. Such thinking gave birth to Stalinist bureaucracies where investments in heavy industry took priority over the technology of the information revolution.

There is a strong green emphasis in cy.Rev which argues that "Third Wave" socialism can also help to alleviate the environmental crisis. Both "Second Wave" capitalism and socialism have caused environmental degradation, despite the best intentions of governments east and west: "This feature of industrial society is not a problem of the distant future. It is the 'dirty little secret' of today's world standing behind the rising the conflict between North and South. The truth is that we cannot have economic equality among nations based on today's levels and standards. If every country in the world were organized on just the same level and just the same types of production and consumption that are 'enjoyed' in the either the U.S., or Europe, or Japan, or even the former Soviet Union, the resulting polluted biosphere would render the globe uninhabitable for humans."

Rejecting the development model of the former USSR, cy.Rev places itself squarely in the market socialism camp:

"In our view of socialism, we affirm the entrepreneurial spirit, the motivating energy of the market and the right of individuals to become wealthy through the private ownership of the capital they have helped to create. At the same time, we fundamentally reorder priorities in how both property and capital is defined. While both personal property and capital may still be owned by individuals. we no longer see ownership as an absolute power. Property, especially productive property in the form of capital, is to be seen primarily as a social power relation that can be guided and regulated, just as other power relations are regulated for the common good of society. Incomes are also subject to progressive taxation."

According to cy.Rev, the biggest obstacle to a smooth transition to "Third Wave" socialism in the United States is the stubborn tendency of jobs to disappear in capitalist society. They draw attention to studies such as Jeremy Rifkin's "The End of Work" and Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio's "The Jobless Future" which attempt to explain this problem. Both books take note of the replacement of blue-collar jobs through automation. Rifkin's solution is to create more jobs in the non-profit world of museums, schools and parks and the like. Davidson sympathies lie with the socialists Aronowitz and DiFazio (Aronowitz has recently joined the editorial board of cy.Rev). Reduction of work hours, regulation of capital to prevent capital flight, quality education with an accent on computer skills, a guaranteed income and a new research agenda geared to human needs rather than private profit are some of the solutions they propose in "The Jobless Future."

In addition to promoting this vision of "Third Wave" socialism, cy.Rev also includes useful articles that cover the proliferation of high-technology into the world of non-profits, unions, educational institutions and the progressive movement. One of the more interesting articles appears in the premier issue is "SoliNet: Electronic Conferencing for the Trade Union Movement" by Marc Belanger of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. SoliNet is a public computer conferencing system open to the labor movement and its allies with approximately 1500 users. According to Belanger, it probably the world's only such system owned and operated by a union.

Cy.Rev is a refreshing alternative to the "Neo-Luddism" of Kirkpatrick Sale or the anti-technology jeremiads of Neil Postman. Postman complains in "Technopoly" that, "In automating the operation of political, social and commercial enterprises, computers may or may not have made them more efficient but they have certainly diverted attention from the question whether or not such enterprises are necessary or how they might be improved. A university, a political party, a religious denomination, a judicial proceeding, even corporate board meetings are not improved by automating their operations.

They are made more imposing, more technical, perhaps more authoritative, but defects in their assumptions, ideas, and theories will remain untouched. Computer technology, in other words, has not yet come close to the printing press in its power to generate radical and substantive social, political, and religious thought. If the press was, as David Riesman called it, 'the gunpowder of the mind,' the computer, in its capacity to smooth over unsatisfactory institutions and ideas, is the talcum powder of the mind."

Anybody who has implemented computer systems for trade unions or liberation movements will find Postman's views one-sided and excessively pessimistic. If nothing else, cy.Rev's unbridled enthusiasm for computer technology is a much needed counter-balance to the gloom-and-doom warnings of a Sale or a Postman. Where cy.Rev errs, it is in the way it too closely identifies with the "information revolution" hype promoted relentlessly in Wired. One of the more glaring examples is the kid gloves treatment of Robert Reich in Carl Davidson's review of "The Work of Nations: Preparing for 21st Century Capitalism."

According to Davidson, "Reich makes a convincing case that it is both impossible and reactionary to try to prevent the globalization of the market. Instead, he poses a strategic question: Rather than trying to prevent low-wage, low-skill jobs from leaving the United States, why don't we try a policy that would encourage high-wage, high-skill jobs to come into the U.S., regardless of the nationalities of the investors." While Reich believes that a new generation of "symbolic analysts" will ease transition away from smokestack industries, Davidson warns that the biggest obstacle to this transition is the "savage inequalities" in our school system. He quotes approvingly Reich's desire to see "excellent public schools in every city and region and ample financial help to young people who wanted to attend college and substantial additional investments in universities, research parks, airports and other facilities conducive to symbolic-analytic work." More >>


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