Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Theory of Change #056: Richard Barbrook on libertarianism, neoliberalism and "Californian Ideology"

Theory of Change #056: Richard Barbrook on libertarianism, neoliberalism and "Californian Ideology"

Author Richard Barbrook talks about the failed promises of tech liberation, neoliberalism, and the ‘Californian Ideology’
[Article Image]
Illustration: Lloyd after Frans Bouma. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The future is a funny thing. It’s always around the corner and yet it never quite arrives. That’s certainly true when speaking about the technology industry. As the personal computer revolution and the internet began spreading around the world, commentators and entrepreneurs made fortunes telling everyone that we were going to have a technological utopia in which everything was possible.

It was a parallel to what was happening in the political world, where the collapse of the Soviet Union inspired writers and politicians to declare that humanity had reached the “End of History,” a singular moment in time in which we could have the freedom of social democracy as smiling and benevolent billionaires provided everything we could ever want at unimaginably low prices.

In the years since, however, all of these promises have failed to materialize. While we can indeed get more stuff than ever before, wages have been stagnant, millions have abandoned the labor force, and the supposedly benevolent billionaires have openly allied themselves with religious fundamentalists in the hopes of preserving the massive wealth they’ve extracted from the world economy.

One person who perhaps saw this coming is Richard Barbrook, our guest on this episode of Theory of Change. He’s the co-author of a 1995 essay called “The Californian Ideology,” which was a rare contemporary dissent from what became known as neoliberalism outside of America and libertarianism in the States. While the essay went on to become one of the earliest viral pieces of content on the early internet, its argument for a greater role for governmental engagement in the technology economy was not heeded in the U.S. or elsewhere.

Several years after “The Californian Ideology” was published, Barbrook wrote a 2007 re-examination of the subject in a book called Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village which argued that left-leaning critics of techno-libertarianism needed to put forward an alternative vision if they hoped to prevail.



MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Welcome to Theory of Change, Richard.

RICHARD BARBROOK: Thank you, welcome from snowy London to warm California. It’s a bit dark outside, but my patio is covered with snow, you’d be glad to hear.

SHEFFIELD: Oh yeah? Well, that’s definitely not something that happens here in Southern California.

But speaking of that, though, our conversation today, we’re going to kind of structure it in parts here. So we’re certainly going to talk about the “Californian Ideology,” that you co-wrote in 1995. But I do want to maybe go into the history of where all the tech world came from, because there’s some misconceptions about how everything got started with the internet and things like that.

So why don’t you take us back before all of that Silicon Valley stuff got started, if you could please.

BARBROOK: I wrote Imaginary Futures because I was always very skeptical about the origin myth of the internet. Because they would say, well it was invented because in a nuclear war, they didn’t want to have a centralized telecommunication system. So they were going to replace, cheap, reliable switches with expensive, flaky, mainframes.

So there was obviously something weird going on there that they, that, this what Paul Barron’s original report for Rand was about. And then this whole thing was then taken up by the hippie generation in the sixties.

And these were the people who actually created Silicon Valley, the internet, and the digital revolution, which was proclaimed to be transforming the whole planet and transforming it into California.

And so I went backwards to see what was going on. And as I was doing this, I came across these references all around these particular years, 1964, 1965, which was actually when I, as a child, was actually in America.

I went to a junior school in Boston, Massachusetts. And because my father was on a CIA scholarship to spend a year at MIT political science department where every professor and every graduate student was funded by the CIA at that point. And so I, I had that experience through my parents of actually being part of the extension of the empire into Europe.

And we went to New York World’s Fair, on the way, we actually went by boat. We must be one of the last generations who actually traveled to America by boat. We got off at New York and there was this World’s Fair on. So we went to it. And I was curious. The picture that’s on the front, the photo, it was taken by my father of us with the “Unisphere” behind us.

So this, this is what I was curious about, about how that particular vision of the high-tech future inspired actually the technologies that would later create the internet.

It’s to do with the Cold War race between America and the Soviet Union. The two empires basically.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and, and as you noted, the Americans were responding to some ideas that the Soviets–

BARBROOK: Yes, yes. They had, they had in, it was since this Russian comrade pointed out to me, they were the last generation who really believed the Soviet Union was about to build communism.

And so in the late 1950s, 1960s, there was a group of reformers who thought, well, the problem with Stalinism is it’s basically the industrial stage of modernity, and if we bring in computers and networking, we can create what they call cybernetic communism. And Kruschev at the 22nd Communist Party of the Soviet Union Congress actually said, ‘we will be in cybernetic communism by the 1970s.’ And so–

SHEFFIELD: And what was that supposed to mean, cybernetic communism?

BARBROOK: The people nowadays say, well, it’s what Walmart does, or any large corporation. It’s using computer networks to plan the economy. So there was, you have this central planning. The problem is how do you get the information, how, how do you respond to changes in the economy?

I mean, I have friends who grew up in the old Soviet block and they would say, well, one point, everybody wants to have white flare jeans because ABBA is the great thing, the music they’re all liking, or hippie-dom in general. And then suddenly the, the, the system responds to it. But by the time it’s responded and produced white flare jeans, punkers arrive and they all want black skinny jeans instead.

And that’s a sort of very trivial example, but it’s a general problem of the system. So they thought you could solve that by having real time planning by if somebody goes into a shop and buys black, straight skinny jeans instead of white flared jeans, it would immediately go back to the jean factory and tell them to switch from one to the other.

You can see that there’s lots of the just in time production systems, they have have sort of realized that. The difficulty is they didn’t have the telephone systems or the computers.

They had the idea though. And I think the idea terrified certain people in America, because we did have the “bomber gap” and the “missile gap,” and then they thought there was going to be a “cybernetic gap.” And that’s what was really interesting. Why did they spend all this money on building the internet, this flaky communication system?

And I think I realized that it was, it, it, people, lot of people say, well, they had this technology and then they built fantasies like the Californian Ideology on top of the technology. But what’s interesting is the fantasies instead have to come first to get the funding, both in the Soviet Union and in America.

And the key one was, who owns the future? Because in the Cold War, the Soviet Union says, well, we are behind, we’re not as democratic, we’re not as rich as America, but we are the beta version of the communist future. And in America, it’s very difficult in a way. What comes after the consumer society?

Because you can’t have, for historical reasons, Americans couldn’t say, well, we are going to build communism, right?


BARBROOK: So they have to have another vision of the future. And that’s where all these ideas, like the Information Society Network, society, Techtronic Society, all these idea, they’re sort of the American substitute for Soviet communism.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and–

BARBROOK: And in history. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And , I guess in a lot of ways it was kind of presaged with the idea of the the space race as well.

BARBROOK: Yeah, yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Got that started. And we kept seeing this, this dynamic of, of rivalry between capitalism, communism, repeating, indifferent spheres,

BARBROOK: Communism in really, it, they never claimed to be communist.

That’s the point. I think that’s the other point, which was obscured by the whole collapse of the Soviet Union, is that the people adopted this American Cold War. That, that somehow the Soviet Union was communist. When they never claimed to be communist. They said, we are really existing socially well, like in the moment in China, they say socialism with Chinese character.

Communism was the future that they’re building. We forget this because we are living in the 2020s or even when we were arrived for our 1990s.

People had already forgotten that trajectory of history, as you said in the opening, that that, Francis Fukuyama takes the Hegelian idea, it was actually a Hegelian Marxist idea coming from Alexandre Kojève– of the concept of the end of history.

And he takes that and basically appropriates it for what, at the time was neoconservatism in America– we are the next stage of history everywhere else we’re, we are like the beta version of the future, and everywhere else will become like us.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and it was also the idea that nothing else can exist.


SHEFFIELD: ‘Except for what we’re talking about.’

BARBROOK: Because America had won the Cold War.


BARBROOK: In some sense. Of course in the other sense, America had lost the Cold War and has been looking for it ever since.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, so that’s sort of the historical background–

BARBROOK: Well I think the key thing is to think about why they spent so much money developing the internet. It’s not an obvious thing to develop, compared to either other military technologies or civilian technology.

And also why did they fixate on that particular technology as the one that was going to create a new society. I mean, if you think about, I don’t know, jumbo jets, the shipping container, antibiotics, I mean there’s a whole series of other technology that probably had a more, in many ways, a more profound effect on modern societies.

But they fetishized on this particular– well, it used to be called the convergence of computing, telecommunications and media into one, and that, that is interesting, that particular part of the economy. I mean, again, as we know today, if we look at Wall Street, these corporations are very powerful and large.

But why pick on that, that particular technology as the one that creates the next stage in history?



SHEFFIELD: Well, no, that’s–

BARBROOK: That’s an interesting, interesting idea thing in itself because what’s, what they’re saying is that, human history, I mean, this is what they, Marshall McLuhan provided for, he was at the, the American science who,

SHEFFIELD: Well, for, for people who don’t know who Marshall McLuhan was–

BARBROOK: Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian English professor who created a sort of a form of media technological determinism, or I’m very simplifying his theory.

I think it’s not so much what he wrote, it’s what it became, what the French called McLuhanism. I think you have to distinguish between the two.

But what he says, what he says is, essentially in most of human history, we had the oral stage, pre-literate. And then you have printing, and printing creates all those things which we associate with capitalism: nationalism, individualism, and all the rest of it.

And then in the 1960s, we are creating the internet, essentially the tribal drum, which he then calls the global village, which is a phrase people still use today. And that’s going to create the next stage of human history. He’s talking about, Telstar satellites and color television, but you know, because he’s been told by the CIA among other people about cyber, the whole prediction of cybernetic communism, he then in a sense domesticates it for the American audience and becomes very famous in the process.

And the whole range of people ever since have basically been doing the same prediction again and again, and again.

SHEFFIELD: And that’s a good point there, the technological determinism. It was a political project initially. And it’s kind of difficult, I think in the United States for Americans, the term neoliberalism, it doesn’t mean the same thing to your average American, of course, because we have this strange definition of liberal here.

BARBROOK: You are stuck in the late 19th century. You didn’t make the evolution. Most of other capitalist countries, the liberals collapsed into the conservatives.

And then you have the emergence of a socialist, social democratic communist party, some of which are indistinguishable from liberal parties anyway. But the rhetoric changes basically.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. So just to go back to right before your paper, “The Californian Ideology,” which came out in 1995.

So at that time in the eighties and the nineties, there was an emergence of these sort of right wing voices, like Newt Gingrich, like George Gilder, who were both very fundamentalist Christian, far-right individuals, but they had read their McLuhan and they had absorbed it.

And they were some of the, the earliest backers of this type of thinking.

BARBROOK: In, in Europe it was slightly different, because we sort of lost our religion, somewhere along the way, because the–

SHEFFIELD: Oh, certainly in UK especially.

BARBROOK: Yeah. Yeah. They were saying God died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

But so here it was there were people around Margaret Thatcher’s government from 1979 to 1990 who definitely connected together new technologies, the “sunrise industries” as they used to call them, and neoliberal economics, which obviously, she was one of the champions of. So it was, so we had a slightly different version of it in Europe.


BARBROOK: And particularly in the 1980s when François Mitterrand, who was elected in the early eighties as president of France as a socialist. And when his attempts to reflate the economy through the nationalization plan failed, they then shifted to a sort of soft form of neoliberalism and a fascination with Silicon Valley.

But that again, it didn’t import, as you say, all that Newt Gingrich sort of implicit racism, the love of the Confederacy and all these other bizarre things that it was associated with in America.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And then of course there were the Ayn Rand fanatics–

BARBROOK: Who’s never been popular in Europe. I mean, she’s, no, she’s a


BARBROOK: Terrible novelist and a horrible human being. So, yeah, she’s never really had a constituency here at all. The person who is the big influence here in the 1980s was Friedrich von Hayek, because Margaret Thatcher said Road to Serfdom was her favorite book, and The Constitution of Liberty probably was her second favorite book. And that says, if you have a welfare state, well the next stage is The Gulag Archipelago, basically.


BARBROOK: I mean, I remember reading it after she got out. I just thought, this is batshit crazy, this book. But it’s incredibly influential.

SHEFFIELD: So we’re now at the point then where the American government has invested all this money on computer networking, and physically laying down wire, and actually they started on what later became Wi-Fi actually in the 1960s, and the idea of forcing AT&T to give away the code of UNIX, and not being allowed to sell it. So there were all these hosts of things that were completely anticapitalistic.

BARBROOK: Whereas in the Soviet Union simultaneously, they got very frightened by this vision of cybernetic communism. I had a friend who grew up in, in the Soviet Union, and he said all the computer networks were deliberately made so they were incompatible. They couldn’t be linked together because they didn’t want people linked. The bureaucracy didn’t want feedback from the workers and peasants about what a shitty job they were doing.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So anyway, but, so the US government had invested all this money and behaved decidedly anticapitalistic and created the internet, and ARPANET first, and then, and later what became the internet.

And so that takes us to 1995 when you were working on “The Californian Ideology,” with your colleague. So tell us, first of all, what does the Californian Ideology mean?

BARBROOK: Well, I think you have to go back to that period in England.

So we had a long period of conservative government. The internet arrives. A friend of mine set up the world’s first internet café in Soho in London.

And in this café, you’d meet people who would be against privatizing healthcare or railways or things like that, but as soon as it got on to talking about computers or the internet, they would suddenly start spouting neoliberal ideology. And this was because they were all reading this magazine called Wired.

And so me and Andy Cameron were setting up an MA in hypermedia studies for the University of Westminster, and we sort of wrote “The Californian Ideology” partly as a manifesto to attract students and say, well, we think differently about this than the sort of stuff they’re talking about in Wired.

And it was, as I said, partly, we wrote it for ourselves and for this mailing list, this sort of European mailing list called NetTime. And it just took off. We were really surprised. I mean, it was published by Mute magazine in London, and then we distributed it on this NetTime mating list, and suddenly it went off like a rocket and it was like viral, went viral, I guess we’d now say.

And what I always remember see reading an article somewhere, they just talked about the Californian Ideology and they didn’t link to our article. And initially I thought, oh, that’s bad, why aren’t they crediting? And then I thought, actually, now that shows you’re a success when you, when you invented a phrase and it’s passed into everyday language and people don’t need to be told where it comes from.

That’s success basically.


BARBROOK: And it’s still going. I mean that’s the other thing, is that here we are talking about it decades later, and so it, it obviously hit a nerve.


BARBROOK: It’s interesting what I think The Well had this, Bruce Sterling hosted this, this group in there called “Loony Lefties Sniping at Wired,” or something. And it was all, and Louis Rossetto was deeply annoyed with it, and all the rest of it– that was good.

SHEFFIELD: You’re going to have to say who, who, who is Louis Rossetto.

BARBROOK: Louis Rossetto was this rather dodgy character who was the editor of Wired. He’s actually lived in Amsterdam. He had a real animus, not so much against the Soviet Union– a bit like, a bit like Hayek and Mises, it’s actually social democracy, that’s what they really didn’t like. And he had the same thing. What he really didn’t like was social democracy. Even in a sort of mild, West European type. And he obviously really, really got through it.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, okay. So, but the title, I guess. Yeah. Tell us about the title. Why did, why did you guys use that?

BARBROOK: Well, there’s a very famous book by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels called The German Ideology. It has a sort of a really simplified and very readable vision of the materialist conception of history.

They sort of update this theory, which, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson was the great developers of, but they sort up update that for mid 19th century socialists.

And what they’re arguing in The German Ideology is not that all Germans have this ideology, but this particular form of, sort of what they call left Hegelianism, it’s just a sort of form of radical republicanism, but very philosophically based, could only have happened in Germany at this particular time. And it wouldn’t have happened in France, or in Britain, or America or anywhere else.

And we thought this was a good analogy, because this sort of mixture of new left and new right, the sort of hippie capitalist is a very Californian phenomenon, and you wouldn’t have got it in Boston, for instance, or New York or other places where technology was being developed at the time.

And so we thought that was a really good analogy to make. I don’t think whether, whether many people got where we nicked the title from. I don’t know. But of course, and also it sounds quite poetical, doesn’t it? And it’s interesting because I discovered it’s now on the reading list for undergraduates because if it’s long ago enough ago, the people who criticized California become part of the California theoretical universe, because it’s, I suppose it’s quite flattering in a way.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and, and I guess one of the things that is striking to me about the essay at the time was that, in the United States in particular, but I think you saw it later in with Tony Blair and his Third Way, quote unquote, is that a lot of the people who embraced what you guys call the Californian Ideology, which, in many ways is just like a shorthand, one could argue for a form of libertarianism, right?

BARBROOK: Well, neoliberalism as we in–

SHEFFIELD: For people who have an understanding of political ideologies and history, these are, these are traditions which are are on, firmly on the ideological right side.

BARBROOK: Oh yeah.

SHEFFIELD: But for people at that time in the nineties and ever since, like Elon Musk or like, a number of these Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, they actually thought that they were on the left, which you were saying that it was kind of a– they were taking cultural affects of New Left personal liberation, but completely ignoring any of the economic and social aspects.

BARBROOK: Well, what they ignore is the class politics. Since the 1848 revolutions, you’re only on the left if you actually talk about class politics. I mean, obviously fighting against racism, sexism, heterosexism is important, but that’s to unite the workers against the capitalist class. They’re not in themselves the issue. So they sort of have radical liberalism about individual identity. How can you have individual freedom without collective freedom?

And that’s like a mid-19th century concept, which is abandoned, I think, by late 20th century in many ways.


BARBROOK: And I think that we’re still living in the aftermath of that actually. It’s very difficult to get people to even– it’s interesting in America, if you look at people like the Democratic Socialists of America, who I’d be in many ways very sympathetic with, it’s interesting how much identity politics obsesses them to the detrimental to class politics.


BARBROOK: So they don’t– again– they don’t see it as creating class unity. They see that it, it’s in itself the main struggle. And okay, you can say that’s part of the history of America, you had slavery for hundreds of years, and then institutionalized discrimination, and you had immigrant society with lots of different nationalities having, creating these communal politics, and sexism and all the rest of it.

But there’s something very distinctive about that. And again, it’s interesting how people like Daniel Bell, who is, the coming of a post-industrial society. He’s one of these forerunners of the Californian Ideology. He also wrote the End of Ideology where he says, class politics is over, and what we’re going to have is competing interest groups. That is the future.

And that’s, he’s the CIA promoted theorist. And so it’s interesting that sort of liberalism, in that sense of the word, social liberalism connects with neoliberalism together.

The Democrats are doing exactly the same. I don’t think this in that sense, if you look at it from the outside, there’s one thing in the Californian Ideology is they’re, they’re two bits of the war party, you know they’re all funded by the military industrial complex.

They all love wars. They go around invading other people’s countries and then internally, I mean, Joe Biden has just broken your railroad unions strike, and he’s supposed to be on the left.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. So, okay. So, and, and basically the, the point of the essay was to say that, look, this, it’s presenting itself as something new and completely different, but it’s actually really not that different. It’s just using technological trappings, if you will, right?

BARBROOK: But it’s promoting this, you have to understand that was like the apogee of, of the American empire’s unipolar moment, wasn’t it? The obvious opposition, which was Stalinism in Russia in its various forms and interpretations. It failed, yeah?

It collapsed into, I mean, that was the 1990s. It was a period of absolute disaster in Russia. And then the other obvious contender, which is China, was then keeping its head down and taking the capitalist road. So that seemed to be going, and the prediction was that China would evolve into America.


BARBROOK: I mean, even if you read Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat, and that’s only what, 10, 15 years ago? It’s not that long ago. He’s convinced that India, for instance, is a contender against China.


BARBROOK: And this sort of thing. And he’s convinced that, that India’s great advantage, they speak English and they’re more like America. And all the tropes that the Chinese can’t innovate, they’re just imitators, et cetera, et cetera.


BARBROOK: And so it’s, it is interesting that, that, even now if, I mean, if you look at that book now, for instance, because that’s a good example of a sort of New York Times version, the Californian ideology is how dated it seems. That confidence that the whole world will become America.

And I think that’s partly, you can see why, because if you go to America, there’s lots of people who come from different cultures and become America. And so the assumption is the whole world wants to do that.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah.

BARBROOK: The idea that they actually have their own history, their own cultures and their own trajectory to modernity. If you talk to Chinese communists, they always think this is hilarious. The idea that they’re going to somehow abandon the whole history of the Long March and the 1949 revolution and Mao, all the experiences of Mao, and whatever thing that’s happened since.

I talk Chinese students who are always said that we are a democracy, actually. They looked around at all the Westerners in this seminar group and said: ‘China is a democracy, our living standards go up every year,’ and then the implicit thing to all the other people: and yours don’t. ‘Things get better every year in China. The government responds to what we want.’

It is a bit difficult to counter that.

So they have a different trajectory of history, and that’s something now that Chinese people can feel very self-confident about saying in public, in a way they wouldn’t have done it in the 1990s.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and we should get into that a little bit later, but so what was the, the reaction to the essay after it came out?

BARBROOK: There was outrage around the, the wired crew. Louis Rossetto was, I gathered, absolutely furious with it. I was told that Howard Rheingold, when I was at this, I was at this event with Howard Rheingold, who’s this very sweet old hippie, wrote The Virtual Community and Smart Mobs, I think it’s called, very nice.

But he, he, I was told beforehand, he was slightly worried about meeting me because he thought I was some sort of hard line communist who beat him up or something, which I thought was quite funny. We got on alright when we met.

And then of course the other reaction though in Europe was to see it as an anti-American piece, which we also found in a way more disturbing. That it was seen as a sort of anti-American manifesto, because it’s not. I’ve lived in America. One of the great loves of my life is America. So I’m not anti-American.

It is the system I don’t like. I don’t like the government. And that’s the reason I wouldn’t live there. But I’m not anti-American, and there is this sort of, unfortunately, because it’s an empire and it’s done horrible things to people all over, well, you get this sort of knee jerk anti-Americanism.

So it’s not that that, that I thought we thought in some ways is a rather disturbing side of, of the reaction.


BARBROOK: Because in a way, a lots of stuff about the New Left is very positive.


BARBROOK: As you said, we all grew up on that sort of hippie culture, even if I became a punk and said ‘never trust a hippie.’ But we’re all influenced by the music and the culture, the drugs, all the rest of it.

We all absorbed that as part, we all read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and that became part of our view of the world. That was the weird thing about the empire. In lots of parts of it, I don’t think now really so much, but in the past, the major opposition to the empire actually came from inside America.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah.

BARBROOK: So it is not, it’s not an anti-American piece, and it’s certainly not an anti-Californian piece.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well it’s, it’s, I mean, yeah, definitely mostly analytic, I would say.

BARBROOK: Yeah. Yeah. There was a magazine that predated Wired called Process Word, and that was really good. I mean, that was a sort of very much people around in and around Silicon Valley who were using, like, they’d read Marx, for a start, which helps. And they, they were really engaging with a lot of these sort of transformations, the way technology was affecting, how people worked and how people lived.

And that’s sort of what was lost, I think, in that period. It was that triumphalism, wasn’t it, of the 1990s. I think people forget that now because the empire is in severe crisis, how self-confident it was.

This is before the debacles in the Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and now in Ukraine, so that was a different age where it did appear that the whole world would become America in a way.

You read like The Long Boom, which Wired produced. They actually started with a chapter called the American Ideology. Which I thought was a neat, neat homage to us.

And that’s what they say. The whole world will become like us.


BARBROOK: And I don’t think anybody could say that now, though.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well now one, one thing that was emerging during that time, it was very, very nascent, was what later came to be called the open source software movement or free software.

I’m, if I remember it, I think it was 1989, when Richard Salman founded the GNU Project. You guys didn’t mention that. Were you aware of that at that time?

BARBROOK: Well, we, I later wrote a piece called Cyber Communism, which was sort of, partly, partly came out of the writing of Imaginary Futures.

I was invited to this 50th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan first talking at Fordham University in New York. This is a Catholic university. And so I got up and made this, it was just before the .Com Bust, so it must have been like ’97, ’98. And I said, joking, I said, the US military invented the only working model of communism in human history. It’s called the internet.

And then I wrote an article basically taking that paper and riffing on it about the way that– you know it’s interesting, okay, partly because it’s obviously coming out of the Cold War, the way you get a lot of the corporate Silicon Valley, as you said, it comes out of the state, essentially state planning even.

I think Bob Reich says that, that America has central planning like everyone else, except they call it the defense budget.

Which I think is a nice quip since he was Clinton’s minister of labor, wasn’t he? And then of course the other side of it is this sort of, other type of communal production, this sort of thing.

And it was partly slightly, obviously from the title, slightly satirical, but it was about how the Americans are superseding capitalism in cyberspace. And I think that’s, so that was something we didn’t put in there because it was a short article. But yeah, we’re certainly aware of it and I had friends involved in that sort of– that interesting interface where they were like working on open source software and then using that software for their commercial jobs.

And I thought that this idea that it’s all a perfect market, which is a lot of the Californian Ideology was about, and then this other thing, which you said, Richard Stallman used to the other extreme, which is it can only exist as a completely de-commodified experience, says he being living in MIT, which is funded by the Department of Defense.

It, it’s that bit in the middle, which I thought was interesting.

SHEFFIELD: And I don’t, I don’t know how much attention you paid to the economics of, of open source, but I mean, even there we’ve had this, this kind of divergent system, because on the one hand you’ve had, it’s become extremely capitalized–


SHEFFIELD: — with very large companies like IBM and other companies, Microsoft, making contributions to the Linux kernel and funding developers there directly. So, Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, created a foundation, and it has all this gigantic corporate sponsorships.

But then at the same time, there’s been controversies within that world about licensing because, so in the case of Torvalds, the GNU project came out with multiple versions of their license, and he doesn’t like their third license. And so there’s been some controversy in that. Is that something you followed at all? I don’t want to get into it if you haven’t.

BARBROOK: Oh. So all those sort of Eric Raymond and all those people?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, like Raymond was–

BARBROOK: The Cathedral and The Bazaar. But they were funny in a way because that, it’s strange how the way that image of the cathedral was then taken up by all these near reactionary types and the opposite direction, the Moldbugs and all those sorts of people.


BARBROOK: But you know, it’s obviously not a bazaar, it’s not lots of small entrepreneurs in a market. And anyway, his idea of what a bazaar is, is very strange because obviously the prices in a bazaar are more or less fixed. There’s always a floor, under which nobody will go. Probably there’s reasons, because they’re all connected with each other by family and friendships.

He actually came to talk here, which I wasn’t there, so it’s nothing to do with me and the “Cyber Communism” article. But somebody asked him this, they said, oh, isn’t this all basically communist? And he just stormed off the stage and refused to come back.

And he said: ‘Oh yeah, Europeans are all fucking arrogant.’ [mock muttering]. Because again, people, I wasn’t there, but the people, a lot of the people there, because they’re Europeans are involved in this, they’re sort of an anarchistic types or maybe some of them have been in Trotskyist groups, so they’re going to have this sort of left-wing sensibility and not see words like that as a bad thing. Whereas obviously if you come from America and you are a sort of right wing gunda, you are going to have this sort of atavistic reaction against this.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And it was, and that was actually a common criticism in the nineties of

BARBROOK: Yeah, it was open source, I guess, I guess in America. In Europe, if you say, well, we’re doing a communist software project, people say: ‘Oh good, that sounds excellent. You are part of that movement, you’re part of the left.’

Or if you’re in certain countries in Europe, you probably get a grant for saying that. Whereas, whereas obviously in America, you’re not going to get that, are you?

SHEFFIELD: Well you wouldn’t. And but I, I guess, perhaps that’s a, another conversation, but, so, so take us then to your book Imaginary Futures, which you wrote several decades later.

BARBROOK: It was a sort of development. It came out of this. I wanted to write a book on Marshall McLuhan.

I think that’s the really basic idea behind it. It was two things. I wanted to go do the pre-history, the pre-history of, of the internet. As I explained, my father was on this MIT working sabbatical at MIT, basically from his job in England, funded by the CIA.

And his great hero was Walt Rostow, who was National Security Advisor for Lyndon Baines Johnson, and helped organize a military coup in Brazil, overthrew democracy, and was obviously notoriously involved in the invasion of Vietnam. And I remember he came to dinner after he murdered a few hundred thousand people.

And so it was that milieu, he knew people like Daniel Bell. They, they’re in the Democratic, I mean, again, very similar to now, they were in the Democratic Party and in some ways, in internal politics, they seem left of center. So I always remember Rostow going on about how he’d been forced into retirement in Boston,, but he was involved in doing improving education, particularly for African Americans and Hispanics, and, and he’s in favor of healthcare and all rest.

But this is the guy who was like a vicious fascist as soon as he went abroad. And you can see that with the Biden administration. It’s the same thing, really. Internally, they, you could say a lot of the stuff, some things you could argue they’re doing quite, doing quite progressive things, but externally they’re just the normal, horrible imperialist Americans.

SHEFFIELD: But at the same time though, I mean in the eighties, I mean there was, especially in France, there was this a different idea for the network society.

BARBROOK: The Minitel.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Tell tell the, our, our viewers about that, for those who don’t know. I mean, I was a French student in the nineties, so they told us all about it. They were quite proud.

BARBROOK: Yeah, so the first mass public packet switching network wasn’t the internet. It was actually, it was actually this system called Minitel.

So in in the 1970s, there was this report done called The Computerization of Society. There was this guy called Simon Nora, who was like a big bureaucrat, basically . And this up and coming socialist politician called Alain Minc, who eventually becomes quite well known.

And they write this report and they say, well, what France has to do is not get overwhelmed by American technology. And so what we need is a grand project to stop this. And so what they suggested was what became Minitel. And Minitel was essentially, it was like a dumb terminal. I mean what we now call cloud computing, I guess. So France Telecom, which have these big servers, and you would, instead of having a telephone directory, you would get a free terminal.

And then on this terminal, which basically used premium phone lines, you could access various services on it. So a lot of them were information services. Say if you are a farmer, you can find out about the price of potatoes or things like that.

In 1985, we booked a train ticket online. This seemed like the future. I thought, God, this is amazing. It shows you how far America is behind. We bought a high speed train ticket down to the South coast. That was quite amazing.

But then the big thing that really took off and made money up for it was what were called messageries, which was essentially chat lines, where you could go on. And lot of, a lot of things that became famous on the internet about people changing their sex or age or whatever, became really famous through that.

So a lot of them were, being French, about sex, of course– or human. So if you went to Paris in the 1980s, they were all full of these sort of little stickers everywhere, advertising erotic messagerie services.

But obviously, people on the left use them for political organizing. People just used them for social life. I remember somebody who worked for France Telecom, she did this really interesting report on it, and then she tells this very sweet story about this teenage boy makes friends with his middle-aged or grandmother, woman. And then normally they would never meet and become friends, but they had some common interest.

And through this connection, through online connection, they then became friends in real life. So this guy, who probably would only know a part from his parents’ friends, not know anybody of that generation, suddenly has a very good friend from that generation. And she suddenly knows a teenage boy who she doesn’t normally have friends with.

And that was, she said, that’s really interesting because it broke down that social barrier. And they were talking about that in the 1980s, not in the 1990s. So all the stuff that Howard Rheingold would later talk in The Virtual Community, that was already happening in France in the 1980s.

The problem was, there were two problems with it. First it was only in France. And it didn’t have that– the Californian Ideology was this idea that the internet was the whole world basically. So you didn’t have that wonderful ability to think globally. Suddenly I have friends who moved abroad and thanks to the internet, I’m still friends with them. Or friends who moved abroad, I lost contact with, suddenly came back into my life because we are connected through this technology.

And the other thing is, it was on premium phone lines. So it made sense to run these services. I mean, I knew someone who ran a radio station. They basically funded it through the messagerie services because France Telecom would take 50% and you’d get 50%.

I assume some of the sex lines probably they did make lots of money, but you could certainly make enough, and of course when the internet came on, it offered these services for free, or with advertising.

And so it really, so it was both the technology had problems because it was only French, and it was also based on this dumb terminal, big mainframe.

And the PC came along. And that’s the other interesting thing, is that there was that moment when the intelligence went from the center, into the periphery. I mean, now it’s looking to go back again.

Suddenly with the internet, you could do CU-SeeMe, and talk to people on videos, rather flakily and it would break up, but this was amazing. There’s another thing you couldn’t do on, or show pictures or have color, for instance.

So it got technologically superseded as well. I think also ideologically, it lost out, because this idea of state led projects, which in 1981, particularly when François Mitterrand was elected as the socialist president, seemed absolutely the future by the early 1990s, that just seemed like the past because the French Socialist Party had embraced neoliberalism by then.

SHEFFIELD: The funny thing though about Minitel is that people continued to use it right up until the very end. By the time they ended it, there were almost a million terminals still in use in 2012.

BARBROOK: Because it was very, it was, it had lots of, it was really easy to use. And I think also it’s, again, it’s like any of these technologies, once people have learned to use them, they’re reluctant to learn a new thing, aren’t they?


BARBROOK: Why, why would you, why would you do something else, when you’re used to getting certain types of information or whatever services, and you don’t want to buy a computer and go through all the hassle with computers that don’t work or connections and all the rest.

SHEFFIELD: And you couldn’t get a virus.

BARBROOK: You couldn’t get virus. It’s just really simple. But it’s like how people don’t have smartphones.


BARBROOK: That lot of people, some people I know, have actually gone back to, some of them to dumb phones as they call them, because they don’t, they don’t want all the distraction of social media, right?

They just want to make phone calls and send texts. So that’s all they want. And that’s, I think, the same with Minitel. There was a certain element in front of French society were fine. Why, why do we need, why do we need to set up a PC? Particularly when it was a PC. And there’s all that hassle with PCs, and particularly if they’re running Windows where it is still a bit flaky.

It’s not plug and play, and you have to sit there and work out why doesn’t Microsoft, all the drivers automatically installed all that sorts of nonsense.

SHEFFIELD: Well, so, but I guess the other thing that’s interesting also, and obviously Minitel hadn’t shut down at that point that you wrote “The Californian Ideology,” but from a information economy, news media, journalistic economy, Minitel was also more sustainable than what later developed the worldwide.

BARBROOK: Yeah. It actually paid people for making content, and hosting services, so it wasn’t reliant on advertising and free labor. I think that’s a really interesting part of it. And so you have the socialist state that’s doing this project, but actually in a way it actually created markets in a way that when we talk about open source, that problem, the problem of how do you make money online?

I mean, the sort of push towards social media has obviously been a part of that, because it becomes dependent on advertising revenue. And then that advertising is captured by the platforms, not by the content producers.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And then captured by the advertising operator themselves.

BARBROOK: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly. So, and there’s all, and there’s all the surveillance problems with it involved.

As soon as [my son] Artie’s mother got pregnant, I immediately got bombarded with nappy [U.S. English: diaper] adverts. So I thought that’s great, I have hardly, I don’t think I’d announced it to anybody, certainly not publicly online, but she’d had picked up that I was about to become a father. So you, you are really aware then of the level of surveillance.

What’s interesting about that it was, is I think also is that, that the French bought in because of, we, we talked about the California Ideology, they bought into this idea that there was one Global Information Society, which would be run by California, and they sort of resisted it.

You now get this talk in the European Union, digital sovereignty, and you think, well, unless you, I, I mean I’ve been at conferences, what I just say to them, well, it’s what, what have you been doing since the 1990s? You’ve allowed eBay, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Google, all these companies to take over this space, and they’re run from California, Oregon, or wherever, and they’re, they’re not European.

And it’s, putting it bluntly, America is a hostile power in many ways to Europe. But you are just so enamored by the empire you can’t see it. And it’s interesting because people criticize the Chinese for creating this Great Firewall of China as it’s called.

And obviously it does have censorship putting things behind it. But you, you think actually that it was probably the CPC, Communist Party of China’s greatest decision actually, because it’s economically protected its computing and internet industries. Which has allowed them to develop. So they have their own equivalent of e-commerce sites, which are actually now more successful.

SHEFFIELD: And are now on the international web.

BARBROOK: Yeah. And, and they have their own, exactly. So they have all their own equivalent of these platforms, but they’re actually Chinese. And of course now they’re exporting them with things like, they’ve now got software industry and so they can create TikTok. So, the growing social platform in outside China is actually a Chinese piece of software.

And then Zoom is the other of this example, which though it’s got a nice shell company operating it in California, it is actually all the software’s written in China. So that’s the other interesting thing. So I, I, I mean, I used to, a long time ago, I would say, oh, this is a good example of the Leninist state, making sure it’s protecting its information monopoly.

But actually, I’ve just completely gone through a 180 degrees. I just think that was the best thing they ever did is build the Great Firewall of China, just from an economic point of view. And what’s what Europe didn’t do.

So the Minitel logic would be you generalize Minitel across the whole of the European Union and build a big firewall stopping American corporations operating in that space because otherwise you don’t have sovereignty.

SHEFFIELD: Or pipe it in some, external method or something like that.

BARBROOK: Well, I mean, but you know, the Chinese have pushed out Google and Amazon. A combination of political and economic, they don’t exist. Or you can only access, I mean, I’ve talked to people who’ve lived there and they said, well, what’s interesting, it’s easy to jump over the firewall with a VPN but it’s, most people just don’t bother because why would you bother to go?

And then occasionally they’ll just fuck up the VPNs just to make sure they don’t become too popular. But they have, like everybody who wants to get over the firewall can, if they really want to, but they just make it a hassle.

And then if you’ve got your mobile phone, you’re probably not going to install the VPN, because all the services you really want, handling a taxi or buying your food online or whatever, they’re all going to be in these Chinese services or your social media. That’s where all your friends are, on Chinese sites, not on Twitter.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and that’s, and that’s a network effect.

BARBROOK: Yeah. Yeah. And they made that happen in a way that the Europeans failed to do it. And I think partly it’s because of that end of empire, Californian Ideology moment, where Europe lost confidence in itself.

You can see this at the moment where Europe is sacrificing its economic, its own economic self-interest over this horrible conflict in eastern Europe. And it’s not making any effort to stop it because it won’t do anything without the permission of the Biden regime.

Something that fundamental where, you could de-industrialize the German economy, put millions of people on the dole. They can’t do it because they’re so captured, this generation, by the post 1991 “End of History,” Californian Ideology. They can’t imagine a world without America.

SHEFFIELD: Now part of that might be also that they de-invested in their own military industrial complexes as well, I mean–

BARBROOK: Oh, yeah, yeah. Well that’s–

SHEFFIELD: So, I mean, that’s the paradox though, isn’t it?

BARBROOK: Well, yeah, no, no, I mean, I know what I mean. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that’s the other thing. I mean, obviously, yes, exactly.

It’s much cheaper to let the Americans defend you, but then they drag you, they can drag you into a conflict, which you, which is being, that’s, that’s the real danger. They’ve blundered into this conflict. And the Europeans can’t control something happening on their own border, because they have no sovereignty. And that’s a really obvious crisis at the moment, but it’s a generalized thing across Europe about how it’s part of the West, whatever that means.

And then, then we’ve got this, if there’s a multipolar world emerging, which there, it obviously is. Suddenly, the international community, actually 85% of humanity is not part of the international community, or the rules are based international order, or whatever phrase there is. And they’re actually looking, their major trading partner is China, for instance.

So that becomes a really interesting moment about. I was actually told by somebody, who’s allegedly left of center, that the problem with this is that China is an alien civilization.

And I just looked at them with amazement. I mean, this is an extraordinary thing to say. And they said it without thinking. They said, sort of like, you know why is China an alien civilization? I mean, because it doesn’t have that sort of Europe and then it’s offshoot to America history.

But, most of the world, doesn’t necessarily share that. But you know, the fact that the Chinese have their own 2000 years of history and their own legends and all the rest of it. I mean, it doesn’t make them alien.

SHEFFIELD: It just means you don’t know about it.

BARBROOK: Or appreciate, or you don’t appreciate it, or you’ve been so brainwashed to think that everything since 1945 has been in China has been a horror show. And this sort of thing.

I just find that very, very strained. Dismiss a fifth of humanity as aliens.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. Well, but, okay. But let’s stay on that point a little bit more though, because we’ve talked before the show that if somebody were to write an essay about where the future is being located at, or being built now, you were saying that it would be in Shenzhen.

BARBROOK: I mean, I would say it would probably be called the Shenzen Ideology, wouldn’t he?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. So, okay, so for those who don’t know it, like, tell us about Shenzen. What is that?

BARBROOK: Well, okay, so, so Shenzen is this place next to Hong Kong. It was a fishing village. It’s now surpassed Hong Kong as an economic zone. It’s on this Pearl River Delta where there’s a whole series of cities with Hong Kong and Macau at the front, the ex colonies. And it’s really where all the high tech industry is. Where Huawei and all these others, Tencent, that’s where they’re all based basically.

I mean, obviously there’s other places in China, Beijing, Shanghai and so on. They’re also innovating. But it’s the key place where it’s got this, got this entrepreneurial culture and they say they innovated Shenzen Time, so they’re, like, like you would’ve said in the 1990s, if you want to be at the cutting edge of technology, you go to Silicon Valley. Now people would say, go to Shenzhen.

You can, you can go to these like big markets and buy anything, any piece of technology, you can get prototype into production. And it’s also, the other reason is, it’s that weird mixture of this very cutthroat capitalist competition and the sort of Chinese Maoist vision of the future.

So the reason why I said this, I saw this program where they went to, they went to some startup in Shenzhen, and they had the characters of a line from Mao Zedong’s On Protracted War on the wall. And I assume because his calligraphy is very famous, that it’s in his handwriting as well. And so it’s a similar thing that when I remember being taken to the Facebook’s offices in Stanford and it had a clenched fist salute behind the receptionist desk.

And that’s the same thing. But their history is not the Wild West, the American War of Independence liberalism, their history is different. The way they modernized was through the Communist Party of China winning the revolution in 1949 and going through all the stages that they needed to get, to get to where they are now.

And so I thought was an interesting way, it’s that combination of left and right which Deng Xiaoping made possible to take off, but of course Chinese people say, well, actually it was also like that in the 1950s to a certain extent.

So there’s, there’s that combination of both capitalist modernization and socialist modernization, together as one moment, has that same feel as the Californian Ideology. That’s what, yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and the, I guess one of the other kind of interesting notes, the parallels though, is that Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist also loves China, and talks about how they are the model for the future.

BARBROOK: Yeah. But he doesn’t get the, he doesn’t get the whole Mao thing. I mean, that’s the interesting thing. He doesn’t really understand that whole– that part of it he sees as somehow illegitimate. They’ll only be happy when China does what the Soviet Union did in 1991.

He wants to pull down all the statues of Mao, and bury him and all the rest of it. Whereas actually, I have people who are obviously not being leftists, are obviously very critical of the government, but they, they don’t see that as an illegitimate part of their history. They see that as an essential part of our history.

I mean, this one friend of mine who was teaching in Hong Kong, and I remember when his daughter was doing history of China, and he said, we’re on the Long March this week. It’s really exciting. And it’s like, you know, I don’t know, it’s a bit like Valley Forge is for Americans. It’s a foundation myth of the modern state.

And so this idea that, you know, because with the West we’re taught that everything basically before Deng Xiaoping is evil, just doesn’t make sense to Chinese people. They just think it is bonkers. The average age of Chinese people in 1949 was 35. The average lifespan was 35 years, and then when Mao died it was 64 years. So whatever hell’s happened, obviously the things that happened, there were lots of horrible things that happened during his reign, but to the mass of the population, it was a huge, huge improvement compared to the previous 2000 years.

So that’s the difficulty that, that again, the way that his quotations and poetry and writings are essential part of modern Chinese culture. As I say, if you’re going to set up your startup, you’re going to think that you are like the Communist Party of China in the 1930s.

The Communist party of China was the most successful startup in Chinese history, wasn’t it? They started off with like 10 or 11 members and ended up ruling the whole country.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and it’s kind of interesting also though that this Chinese Ideology or Shenzhen Ideology, there’s a lot of similarities I think, in some ways of, beyond just blending left and right, but also it’s– you could argue that it might be an iteration of the Californian Ideology, it’s just saying, well, we’re going to step, step past that point here.

BARBROOK: Well, but you have to understand that the materialist conception of history, is that these history and stages. And people obviously criticize it and say, no, no, we can do something else, or we could leap forward into a new utopia. But it’s so ingrained in modernity.

So Adam Smith says, we start off with hunting, and then we go to herding, and then agriculture, and then commerce. And then what leftists did in the 19th century is add communism as the next stage.

That’s all they did. They said, well, actually we don’t, the end of history isn’t commerce liberalism. There’s another stage afterwards. And in a way, that’s what we’re all bound in, that view of history. I mean, you can go through and criticize and say, oh, some people went from herding back to hunting or, or agriculture back to hunting.

So there’s ebbs and flows. But they, you can say this concept of progress does argue in favor of that that’s happening there. We, in most recent history, most of the people a few hundred years ago lived off subsistence agriculture with all the problems of disease and famine.

And now, now I think half the world, or just over the half world now, is living in cities. In China, that’s very obvious, isn’t it? I mean, they lived in a immense poverty of, of again, subsistence agriculture. Now, whatever it is, 60% of the population now live in cities and they’re living standards have shot up.

So that, that’s, that seems as progress, and therefore they start to believe that they are going forward. And they do see the world as still in stages, that they were in feudalism and now we’re going along the capitalist road, and eventually they will get to the communist future, whatever that means.

I’m never sure what they mean by that, but that’s officially what they think they’re doing.


BARBROOK: They’re following the capitalist road to communism. Although other people argue, they’ve been doing that since 1949 . But that, so that gives that, in that sense, you can see the parallel because the Californian Ideology and before that, the people who are writing The Information Society, or whatever, were also responding to the Stalinist version of that.

So in a way that, that’s a common view of history. I mean, I’ve got, I said, I’ve got this Chinese comrade, he said we used to go to America to see the future. And now we go there to see the past.


BARBROOK: They feel self-confident, with high speed rails and ways, and all the rest of it, that they are now the future. 5G, you can’t get in decent 5G reception or, you can’t buy everything with a card or with your phone.

I don’t know. I don’t know. You know, there’s that vision that somehow they’re , they’re catching up and surpassing America. And in social organization, 4 million didn’t die of covid, let’s say, which should be the equivalence of the covid deaths in America.

Yeah, those sorts of visions make them feel confident that they, whether rightly or wrongly, that that’s what they’re doing.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. Well, and, and I, I guess the other thing also that’s different from the sort of neoliberal ideology is that the Chinese also did not willfully throw away manufacturing.

BARBROOK: On the contrary.

SHEFFIELD: That’s the bedrock of what they’re doing.

BARBROOK: Yeah. Yeah. It’s the workshop of the world.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. In that sense, the, the neoliberal, techno-libertarianism, it kind of was a rejection of the labor theory of value of actual products, in favor of financialization

BARBROOK: And, and the rejection of the working class.

I mean, they, the way, what they wanted, they were afraid of the industrial working class in the west, weren’t they? So they thought, wow, if you send it out to China, and India, and Mexico, they can deal with all that. They can deal with all the troublesome labor relationships and trade unions. And particularly if it’s an authoritarian state, that’s much better because then they’ll keep wages low. And then we’ll just, we’ll just do the Sunrise Industry.

They always had, I was saying this earlier on, in the 1980s, the Thatcher neoliberals were all talking about we should abandon the Sunset Industries, manufacturing basically, and replace it with the Sunrise Industries, which were like new technologies, but also finance of course.

SHEFFIELD: And of course, yeah, finance has ultimately done nothing for the world economy.

BARBROOK: Yeah. But they could hoover, they could hoover up the profits. So someone like a manufacturer in China, like 80 cents out of every dollar was actually going to the West, their take out of that $1 of value realized was actually very low.

And what’s happened is that they’ve slowly gone up the technological sophistication where now they are making the new technologies. They are the people creating.

SHEFFIELD: And they’re the consumers of it as well.

BARBROOK: And then, and then in a good Keynesian sense, the producers are the consumers. If you want to create the circuit of capital, in the introductory chapters of Volume Two of Capital, that’s what it is.

They, they’ve got that. You can realize the value, yeah? Create effective demand. And that’s one of the reasons why living standards have to rise in China. And they’re not too– it’s interesting about recently in Foxcon, they had this huge basically a riot to force Foxcon to fulfill this labor contracts.

They’d signed up all these new labor workers. And it was interesting that how I was thinking in the West, the police would’ve been really violent in suppressing the protests, but how passive the Chinese police were. So they obviously were, though they don’t like organized trade unions, they’re quite willing to tolerate mass protest protests because it probably in their long-term interest to push wages up.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, I mean, although they’re dealing with some other things as well.

So, this has been a, it’s been a good conversation here, but let’s maybe for the final discussion topic here, let’s maybe bring it back.

This whole, this whole thing that we’ve been talking about today and your written work here is about a vision of the future, a vision of progress that–


SHEFFIELD: A lodestar, if you will, that the necessity of humans wanting something to be pointing toward. But there has been an emergence with Bernie Sanders, and you could argue Corbin, Jeremy Corbin in the UK. And there was some, some pieces in other countries around the world as well.

But here’s the thing though, is that, so a lot of that critique, a lot of these movements tend to be mostly around critique, and not enough about substance and toward a new vision of the future, an iteration of leftism, if you will, that people can point toward as something that, well, we don’t like this neoliberal present, well, what could we have instead?

BARBROOK: Well, I think the greatest achievement of Jeremy Corbin during his leadership was the two election manifestos. So, we came within a hundred thousand votes of winning in 2017. Unfortunately, in 2019, it turned into a bit of a disaster, and the Blair-ites came back into control of Labor Party.

But those two manifestos, I think did give a sort of left social democratic alternative. I think that’s why they were so determined to get rid of him. But I think the, I think there is in there a sort of trying to take a lot of the ideas of, social democratic, new left experiments and update them for the 21st century.

I mean, we wrote this digital democracy manifesto with Jeremy’s second leadership campaign, and some of it went into the manifesto. Digital bill of rights and sort of trying to make platform co-ops, these sorts of things. I mean, there’s various ideas that were going about trying to create a sort of– it’s not overthrowing capitalism or creating cybernetic communism, but at least it’s pushing society in that direction.

And I think that was the worry. There was a thing that Thatcher said, there is no alternative. And she deliberately closed down anything that looked like an alternative. And in a way, you can see that that’s the why in the West, the ideal is America, its political system where you have two political parties, which are both controlled by the rich.

So you have blue and red, and they’re essentially the same party. They have cultural differences, but on the economy, they’re no different. And on imperial policy, they’re no different as far as I can see. And they might criticize each other when they’re out of power, but they’ll just do the same thing when they’re in power.

And that in a way has been the problem in so-called democracy in the West, I think for decades. And so it’s these emergence of the alternatives, whether it’s the DSA in America, the whole Corbin project here, France Insoumise, Linke in Germany, and so on, is that they’re trying to actually create something that says something different and says there’s a different one.

But the warning is, when a radical party was elected in Greece, Syriza, it got, crushed basically very quickly. And not just from externally, but internally, it was very difficult for even people elected to power to actually break with the existing system because they’re so tied in with it.

And so, if we’d got elected in 2017, how long would’ve we stayed in power? I don’t know. I mean, because large part of the Labor Party would’ve preferred the Tories to win. It’s a bit like you’ve got people like [West Virginia Senator Joe] Manchin, haven’t you, in Congress who are essentially Republicans in all but name.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, in the US, it’s a contest between reactionaries and conservatives.

BARBROOK: Exactly. And the Democrats are the conservatives, basically. But the sad thing, I think, is the way that the DSA has got completely co-opted into the Biden regime.

They’ve not opposed the war, and they’ve gone along with breaking a a railroad strike, which I think is really shocking to be honest. I can see, because of the political system, the electoral system in particular, you have to work within the Democratic Party, but to actually go along, to not oppose the defense budget every year, you should vote against the defense budget on principle. Not a penny, not at man, as they used to say before 1940.

You never wrote for the military, because they, they got nothing else. They’ll be used against you if you’re not careful. So, so that seems to be a real thing. And then also the real basic thing is you stand in solidarity with strikes, never cross a picket line.

And so that, that’s the worry. Once people get into power, they start to become like the people they claim to oppose when they’re elected. And that’s been a problem for the left, since the early 20th century. In the 19th century, we could keep our principles firm because we were excluded from power.

But the 20th century, that is a story of what happens when socialists and communists come to power. You can say there’s been immense achievements made across the world, but also they have become the system in many ways, and people eventually end up rebelling against the left.

One of the theorists in Solidarność, he said my basic aim in life in Poland is to make the left left and the right right. But even now in 2022, it’s very difficult to see that. Some of the people who are often arguing most for welfare and state intervention are actually considered to be on the right, and often the far rights actually. And people who are supposed to be on the left turn out to be basically soft neoliberals.

So this is the difficulty, we haven’t rearranged it so there’s class politics. No, that’s why they’re so into lifestyle issues, or even you could argue a lot of the green issues because they’re not tackling the cause of environmental crisis.

They’re just doing sort of superficial measures. And I think that’s the problem.

SHEFFIELD: Certainly that’s where carbon credits are, and taxes.

BARBROOK: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Which can then all carbon credits even worse so it can be traded, so wow, we just made more money for Wall Street and the City of London.

So, tackling these key issues, I mean, it comes back to what we were trying to say in “The Californian Ideology,” it’s a class issue at the end of the day. These other issues aren’t unimportant, but unless you’re talking about the class issue, the divide between the mass of the population who have to sell their labor for a living and the very small group of people who own all the wealth, you’re not really talking serious politics, actually.

SHEFFIELD: Well, it’s also though that understanding that these things are linked together. They’re all linked together. Like they’re used as tools of people to preserve their wealth.


SHEFFIELD: And you certainly see that with like Elon Musk trying to attack transgender people, as if that has anything to do with his billions of dollars.

BARBROOK: Or vice versa, the Biden regime thinking somehow the US military is progressive if it has a transgender official on the top of it, or a woman running Raytheon, or a black man who’s running the Ministry of Defense.

I mean, this is nothing to celebrate. The fact that they have a diversity in the ruling elite doesn’t mean they’re not the ruling elite anymore.

SHEFFIELD: And it doesn’t help the people that are from these groups.

BARBROOK: Well, Barack Obama being the great example of this. They had eight years of a black president, and African Americans were worse off. They were both relatively, and in absolute terms, worse off compared to the rest of Americans. And he was supposed the black president.

In the 1970s, if you, you said, we’re going to have a black president. They would think like, this was radical. It was like [Black Panthers co-founder] Huey P. Newton in power or something.

But no, no, no. It turned out that he was just a front neoliberal, basically in the military industrial complex. That’s what he was. He’s done very well out of it. He has a big house in Martha’s Vineyard and all the rest of it. Him and his family have done well, but for the average worker who happens to be African American, he was, he offered nothing.

He offered a source of moral boost, didn’t he? Okay. There’s someone like me as president, but he’s not really like them. He’s actually not like them. He’s a member of the elite. He’s a member of the capitalist class.

And so if you’re a worker, you have nothing in common with him. He’s got much more in common with Dick Cheney than he has with your average inhabitants of Oakland or South Central LA.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, so yeah, I mean, so ultimately trying to get people to understand the sort of sense of shared fate and shared struggle that that’s ultimately when has to be done?

BARBROOK: Well, I think, I think you have to, you have to think that we’ve spent, the Cold War– and now what we’ve been talking about, what happened in the last 30 years. One of the key things has been to stop that, there’s been a very deliberate policy to divide and rule the workers, basically. And to create alternative visions of the future.

SHEFFIELD: Well, alright, so I want to actually end on a more positive note here. Tell us what a better vision of the future is. Just like a few points here that you would say.

BARBROOK: Well, I think there’s two ways you have to think about the future. I mean, the first is, the sets of practical reasons the left have to put forth, which I said that, these election manifestos are not the Labor Party produced which are a great collective effort.

Lots of people, their ideas were a way of creating a 21st century vision of a working social democracy. Maybe that’s actually utopian now, that the empire will never allow what it actually was willing to tolerate in previous decades. So there’s that, which is, like, let’s improve things at a really basic level, local level, make sure people have access to healthcare, and education, and housing, and transports, and all the benefits of these new technologies, to make sure that they’re properly distributed among the whole population because we all love these technologies.

Here I’m having an interview with you on video for free. This is extraordinary, isn’t it, really? I mean, it’s an amazing.

SHEFFIELD: Well, I’m paying for it, but yeah. (laughs)

BARBROOK: We could do it on Zoom for long email or whatever, but yeah. Well, very cheaply, let’s say very cheaply.

SHEFFIELD: Point taken though. Point taken.

BARBROOK: Yeah. I mean, so this, so there’s this huge potential in this technology, which is not being realized basically, because the system doesn’t want to realize it. They want to channel it in ways that profit them. It’s a great argument this guy put out, he said, you can only understand the history of the last hundred or so years as the prevention of communism. That’s what all the elites around the world are trying to prevent capitalism from spontaneously evolving into communism, which is a nice sort of Hegelian conceit, I thought.

So that’s the other side of it. You need to have some utopian vision of a post capitalist society where people can– are empowered to create the truly human civilization, where it’s not money, and wealth, and war that dominates our lives, but looking after our children, and our old people and actually living a civilized life. Not living to work, and all that sorts of thing, so to create jobs that are meaningful, to create communities where people are really are connected with each other to try and solve these problems of alienation.

So that, that’s the other side of it, so that’s that. If you think about the advantages our ancestors had in the 19th century before they actually had to go through the experience of left wingerdom, is that they had this vision, they could actually have these visions of what communism were.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels carefully didn’t define what they meant by it, because they were being more practical about it. But lots of other people had– America was full of these utopian experiments, wasn’t it, all over the place for a long period of time.

So that’s the bit of the New Left that we also should recover, I think, is those ideas of how can we live in different ways. How can we interact with each other, and maybe not quite as stoned as they were, but they might be more practical. But that’s also what we need to, is to take those technologies and see whether we can connect together in a better way.

Because there are other visions of the future. We can see them, these very authoritarian, top-down corporate visions. And I’m not sure whether we can rely on the Communist Party in China to create full communism, either.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, that seems unlikely. All right. Well, now this has been a good conversation here. Appreciate your time here.

So we’ve been speaking with Richard Barbrook. He is the author of Imaginary Futures, it’s a book that came out in 2007. It’s worth checking out. And then if you are on Twitter as well, you can follow him at at richardbarbrook. That’s B-A-R-B-R-O-O-K.

So, Richard Barbrook, great having you here today and I encourage everybody to check out your work.

All right, so that’s our program for today. I appreciate everybody joining us.

And we definitely are thankful and grateful to the people who do support us as well. I really appreciate that.

Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? History is filled with stories of people and institutions that spent big and devoted many resources to effect change but have little to show for it. By contrast, many societal developments have happened without forethought from anyone. And of course, change can be negative as well as positive.
In each episode of this weekly program, Theory of Change host Matthew Sheffield delves deep with guests to discuss larger trends in politics, religion, media, and technology.