"Have you ever actually seen a terrorist?"
Wired, February 1998: activist cyber-terrorists bring it all
crashing down. Almost: a John-Wayne type in the Pentagon saves us.
The ultimate shock of the future, this, the whole
earth brought to its knees by a cold, faceless entity, destructive but
aimless: nothing human about it, its only manifestation a logo, a slogan,
momentum, and some vague propaganda.
In other words, corporate power.
In the techno-corporate cybercult1 for
which Wired is a sacred text, it is dogma that there are no centers,
no certainties, just ceaseless flux.
But the cult of course has some tenets, among them:
Power is no longer in government.
The human body is no longer the ultimate creation. The new power is corporate and virtual.
Computer technology will one day replace the
human brain. Opposition to the new power endangers us all.
It is foolish and short-sighted to deny this.
This "paradigm shift," as it is called by the self-proclaimed
"digerati," has two levels: the corporate/pragmatic, that shows up in Wired,
and the fully theoretical and abstract, decreed by the likes of Marvin
Minsky, Hans Moravec, et al.
These mystical halves, which complement and depend
on each other, define an instant split-level religion. The more extreme
half, full of apocalyptic predictions, serves to contextualize and make
more exciting the worldly assertions of the other. This latter more accessible
but still privileged sanctum, constantly outlined in Wired and other
corporate literature, is the catechism in action; it allows the cult's
mostly managerial-class adherents to feel themselves part of something
millenial, and--perhaps the raison d'être of the whole edifice--it
casts their entrepreneurial amorality as exalted, and ordains it.
As in any religion--or millenial world view, such as that other
equally schizophrenic one, whose history we find at the core of that financial
entity, the new Europe2--opposition, implied or real, is both needed
and despised, essential and unthinkable.
For the cybercult, since scapegoating is so unfashionable
and no real opposition exists, an enemy is invented. "Cyber-terrorism,"
unlike the Jews, does not seem to have a real-world component (appropriately
enough for a virtual religion), but it serves well as the shadow and enemy
of corporate power, displacing any lingering unconscious unease with the
new order onto something that looks just like it but stands as its opposite,
and that never needs be confronted (except by Harrison Ford, the updated
John Wayne). And it taps in well to the "terrorism" that has replaced Communism
as the televized enemy for the culture at large.
Fighting the Terror
The popular glorification of corporate power, in whatever form it takes--techno-utopianism,
techno-paganism, etc.--is misguided and weak-minded at best, considering what
is known about how corporations behave. In fifty years the "cybercult" may look like the
boosterism of television, the automobile, or the atomic bomb looks to us now--or
it may look like certain impressive rallies burnt hard on our retinas.
The sort of demonization inevitable at the end of the hype,
delirious as it may seem, may (conceivably) portend a real challenge to the
notion of constructive sabotage, especially if "we"--those who do not buy into
the techno-corporate cybercult, and who fight the system it worships--are at
But what is really frightening about the cybercult's fanciful
enemy is that it points up a certain lack--at least perceived--of an actual one. Since corporate
power has indeed become globally ascendant, as the "digerati" assert, a possible lack
of solid opposition is frightening.
®TMark's original (and excessively optimistic) intent was to help remedy this situation. Our first task was to examine the special
conditions to which the lack of resistance might be ascribed. The history of
®TMark can be seen as an evolution in our
thinking on this matter.
In approaching the problem of opposing corporate power, we
immediately had to acknowledge that corporate power is different, essentially
and perceptually, from the government power against which there is such a long
and varied tradition of resistance. Corporate power is alien and faceless, a
disembodied, unlocalized, inhuman force that constantly thrusts itself upon
us, but has only a multitude of seemingly dissociated aims and no position we
can count on, or against which we can fight. Its horror can't even be named--"kafkaesque"
may be close, but neither it nor "orwellian" will really do, because in Kafka
and Orwell the nightmare forces ostensibly emanate from a malevolent or amoral
government, not from countless disembodied entities that, like wraiths in a
video game, can never conceivably be destroyed all at once by any weapon, ideological
Luckily for the activist, the flexibility of corporate power,
its lack of a center, comes at a price: it has no brain. It may be as tenacious
as a virus, but it also has the intelligence of one: mechanical, soulless, miniscule.
It is very easy to attack, and unlike government, it usually reacts to attack
by mutation--which makes for its durability, but also gives protest unprecedented
power to achieve immediate results, however evanescent they turn out to be.
This mutating quality led ®TMark
to settle on widespread, individually-conceived product sabotage as a viable
method of combating corporate power. With a sustained barrage of attacks, it
was reasoned, substantial changes might be effected.
These changes might not be permanent, but the barrage could
be. In order to position itself as a permanent fixture rather than as an interim
solution, ®TMark decided to model itself
after corporations, i.e. not model itself at all, and define itself only by
logos and slogans. The pronouncements in this paper, earnest as they are, do
not define ®TMark; ®TMark
is defined by the way it is perceived and used, and our only face is our graphics,
sound bytes, and occasional products. ®TMark,
like a corporation, adapts and mutates as conditions necessitate, in service
to its bottom line: opposition.
It is easy, given the discouraging mutability of corporate
power, the impossibility of determining a single characteristic or creed that
defines it, to fall into the trap of choosing to believe that it is relatively
benign. Since so little is really known about it, almost all hypotheses seem
equally valid, and it is easiest, after all, to accept the most pleasant. In
this case, the most pleasant is that the shift of power from governmental to
corporate represents an improvement. Since governments are often quite bad--we
know this, because of the Nazis and because anti-government protest has told
us this for at least hundreds of years--it stands to (unexamined) reason that
what remains after the evaporation of government will be good.
The desire to see corporate power as benign, even in the
face of all evidence, is understandable. Since this desire renders the fight
against corporate power difficult, even with the machinery in place, ®TMark
decided, in 1997, to shed its veil of secrecy and attempt to act as a nexus
for perceptions and insecurities about corporate power and the struggle to fight
it. ®TMark was also spurred by the publicizing
of another group's large reward for the year's best act of "creative sabotage,"
which we perceived to indicate a need for a public anti-corporate presence.
We began by encouraging previous ®TMark
workers to speak with the media, and by replacing the dial-in system with a
web site (http://rtmark.com/). While this change has not dramatically increased
the number of actions ®TMark has been able
to sponsor, it has allowed ®TMark to publicize
them in a manner that would have been impossible before. In at least two cases,
this has resulted in widespread coverage that probably would not have occurred
By becoming more public, ®TMark
has also come to serve as a sort of public space where anti-corporate activists
can meet each other online. If we judge our success at this as a corporation
might, using typical benchmarks, we come away quite encouraged. In the eight
or so months since our move to the Web, our site has received nearly twenty
thousand visits, and several ongoing collaborations have resulted from our matchmaking
efforts. And we can only assume that some of those who see the ®TMark
site, or who hear about us on TV or in the daily or monthly press, will find
their own ideas sparked; the steady of stream of project proposals we receive
would support this conclusion.
The Mutual Fund System
Considering ®TMark's long-term aim of establishing
a permanent and significant opposition to corporate power, however, we were
forced to acknowledge in 1998 that our successes had until then been exceedingly
modest. We continued then to believe in widespread individually-conceived sabotage
as a means of fighting the hydra that is the corporate, but had to admit that
even our shift to a more public mechanism had at best barely begun to effect
the indomitable resistance that has always been our agenda.
To determine our next course of action, we turned our attention
to a system that in fact inhibits the critique of corporate power at a purely
mechanical level: the stock market. By interesting nearly everyone in corporate
welfare through ownership of stocks or mutual funds, corporations have created
a conservative majority whose bottom line is the same as their own, consciously
and unconsciously: what's good for GM is good for me.3 The media's
positioning of economic news in the boldest headlines helps extend the effect
even beyond those growing multitudes who own stock.
®TMark felt it had to
offer, perceptually if not actually, an alternative to the endless flow of bounty
provided by the stock market. Much as the National Endowment for the Arts, even
with its slim offerings, provided the illusion of an alternative to corporate
systems--an illusion more important than the actual sums (and which has now
vanished, along with the NEA's influence)--®TMark
hoped to provide a similar illusory but conceptually powerful alternative to
the "bottom line" of corporate power.
To effect such a perceptual change, and to create a steady
stream of funding to replace the spotty financing our projects now enjoy, ®TMark
implemented its "mutual fund" system. Much as timid consumers can be convinced
to wager their savings on corporate stocks by means of mutual funds, in which
direct contact with the stocks is relegated to "experts," so we believed that
by classifying projects according to theme, risk, and so on, and taking care
of the specific details of allotment--as well as by extending ®TMark's
corporate protections to cover investors--we could assuage some of the fear
that might interfere with investment in specific projects, and increase the
cashflow available to our projects.
To increase this effect, we also recruited several "celebrity
fund managers" who, having demonstrated their staying power as reliable producers
of cultural dividends, are eminently suited to decide on distribution to the
cultural enterprises our projects represent. By lending the power of their name
to groups of projects, we felt they might interest investors who otherwise would
be afraid of the cultural risk of supporting ®TMark
projects. The high profile lent by these managers would also help increase the
perceived profile of the ®TMark alternative.
We ended the original version of this article on a note that, in retrospect,
strikes us as terrifically naive (as in fact does much of the previous sections, which we have revised, but insufficiently):
Luckily for the activist, the primary reason the new ascendancy of corporate
power has been so meekly accepted is probably not its facelessness, nor the
stock market, but rather simply its age. It has only been a short time since
the model of the corporation has replaced that of government as a personal
guiding metaphor, since we've stopped thinking of "fair government" in favor
of "productive investment" (and since Harrison Ford replaced John Wayne).
The old power regime, with all its metaphors, existed for hundreds of years,
and protest had just as long to develop; the new techno-corporate mythology
is still being formulated and implanted, and there has just not been time
to learn how to fight it.
It may be that our current steady efforts will at some
point reach a sort of "critical mass," at which time the idea of sabotage
will lodge in the popular consciousness with the force necessary to effect
widespread change, but we cannot count on this. Whether by the means we are
currently considering, or by means we have yet to consider (and which may
reach us from the public at large), we will continue to strive to expand ®TMark's
ability to combat corporate power and the ludicrous but dangerous mythologies
that support it.
Until sabotage seems more natural and obvious than going
to the coffee machine, ®TMark will not
be able to claim real success. Until conscientious resistance is so common
that corporations anticipate it everywhere, and are constantly attempting
to pre-empt it with conscientious behavior, ®TMark
will need to examine its methods and consider whether new ones might be more
It is no longer even conceivable to us that product sabotage
could ever reach the scale at which it could fundamentally change the balance
of power between corporations and people, nor even affect it significantly.
It is even possible that it could never reach that scale, that other
mechanisms would come into play long before change occurred.
The value of ®TMark is,
and has always been, not in any real pressure it can possibly bear, but rather
in its ability to quickly and cheaply attract widespread interest to important
issues. ®TMark is thus essentially a public
relations agency for anti-corporate activism, using sensationalist framing--"sabotage,"
"financial muscle", etc.--to attract mainstream press interest to
projects that, to one degree or another, illustrate the enormous abuses of corporate
power against democracy and human life. ®TMark
serves not only to obtain such publicity by means of sensationalism, but to
steer it through careful press-release writing and in interviews with the press.
The fact that the effect of ®TMark-style
projects is mainly pedagogical has led some people (including, at times, ourselves)
to question whether they constitue activism at all. But this line of reasoning, pursued
further, would also call into question whether the enormous protests against
the WTO, the IMF, etc. are activism, either, since their primary effect has
"merely" been to draw withering public attention to some tools of
corporate abuse. Such a question, of course, is completely absurd.
Of course, the power of enormous protests--direct (through
immediate shutdowns) and, more importantly, indirect (through publicity and
increased public awareness)--is immeasurably greater than that of ®TMark-style
activism. But this "smaller" activism does have the benefit that it
can obtain very widespread, useful publicity quickly, at minimum cost, and with
a minimum amount of planning and coordination. No assemblies need approve plans,
and even individuals can accomplish something
working nearly alone.
As for truly lasting gains, these can only be accomplished
through legal solutions, whereby corporations are officially divested of the
superhuman rights they currently enjoy... or by a degree of insurrection that's
not entirely conceivable at present.
1"Something is hovering over our heads which
looks like a 'cybercult.' We have to acknowledge that the new communication
technologies will only further democracy if, and only if, we oppose from
the beginning the caricature of global society being hatched for us by
big multinational corporations throwing themselves at a breakneck pace
on the information superhighways." Paul Virilio, "Speed and Information:
Cyberspace Alarm!", CTHEORY, 1995
3After WWII, of course, the U.S. government
used a similar technique for similar ends by practically giving away suburban
houses to returning G.I.s, thus creating a land-owning, conservative generation,
and in the process emptying the once powerful and liberal inner cities.