LulzSec and the open society

Type: Think Pieces Written by Preston Byrne | Wednesday 13 July 2011

Subversion has been subverted, says PJ Byrne. Mass media gives us a sanitized and dumbed-down mélange of culture. LulzSec was so popular precisely because it lacked the solemn pompousness of most "subversives", and it was beholden to nobody. What matters is not our bank balance but our internal liberty to think and act freely.

The first subversive act I can remember carrying out was during the spring of my senior year in high school. At the time, I had signed up for intramural ultimate frisbee – I didn't take to interscholastic sports and never saw the point of spending my weekends being carted off to faraway destinations in a van, just to throw a ball at some people I'd never met before. Everything was going swell until one day, after arriving to practice bare-footed as usual, I was ordered to go back to my room to throw on some shoes.

I was stunned: mandating shoes for frisbee constituted a wanton and savage violation of both natural justice and the very raison d'être of the sport. When I quite rightly asked how such a rule had come about, I was told by the supervising faculty member that it was "policy" put into place by a personal edict from the school's athletic director, a highly unpleasant man whom for present purposes we shall call "Rupert". This only made matters worse: I'd crossed paths with Rupert before and did not care much for him, nor he for me. So, within earshot of forty people or so, I offered a pithy but nonetheless colourful one-liner about Rupert's abilities as a policymaker (which I shall not repeat, save to say that it included the word "worthless"). In exchange for my wise counsel, I was invited to spend a day working in the school's mail room. But gosh, was it fun – and totally worth it.

With that in mind, you might understand why I was disappointed when, a few weeks ago, the infamous hacker group known as Lulz Security disbanded. Claiming loose affiliation to the global Anonymous movement, LulzSec – in a series of very public and highly illegal operations – fiddled with the computers of major international companies and organizations including Sony, Petrobras, News Corp., and various government agencies, including the CIA. (They even hacked my brain: after visiting their website, I had the theme song to "the Love Boat" stuck in my head for over a week.)

But hacking into a computer and my brain is not, on its own, newsworthy: people do this sort of thing all the time without getting mentions in the Wall Street Journal and the FT. What makes these fellows special is that they aren't doing it for financial gain, or for fame and glory; they're doing it, above all, because it was amusing: "we've been disrupting and exposing corporations, governments, often the general population itself, and quite possibly everything in between, just because we could." But even this is insufficient to explain the popular fascination with this merry band of computer hackers – for awhile, the whole world knew what they were doing, and seemed utterly fascinated by it. So why did they get so much attention?

LulzSec has managed to latch on to something primal, and long absent from public discourse: public subversiveness. By "subversiveness" I do not mean conduct which is illegal by necessity, but rather I mean a flagrant refusal to behave, an attempt to change social conditions through ridicule or contrast, grounded in an ethically legitimate and justifiable desire to change attitudes to power and the way things are. It is undeniable that, over the last two months, much of the blogosphere and the media has excitedly watched this scrappy group of young people embarrass one corporate giant after another at great personal risk to themselves.

But I suspect that the reason the hacks have been so well-received is not because the world population has suddenly caught an affinity for breaking into computer systems, but rather, it's because we don't get to see proper subversion anywhere else, and in recent years it has been seriously on the wane. Take, for example, Glastonbury festival, which was founded on a subversive new age hippie philosophy in the 1970s (its infamous "Pyramid Stage" was first built on a ley line), but which is now totally corporatized: this year's bash featured a performance by Beyonce Knowles, attracted counterculturists like Wayne and Colleen Rooney, and for just a tad over $9000, you could enter the Age of Aquarius in a luxury yurt.

In day-to-day life, the sense of loss is palpable. We have few opportunities to accidentally stumble upon information which gives us pause to think about the established order, certainly not on television, or over the airwaves, or in music, or in the written word (when was the last time anyone can recall being handed a pamphlet that had anything meaningful written on it, or saw a particularly controversial position adopted by a newspaper?) – we can only really encounter it when we look for it, on the Internet, and even then the fact that the reader is looking for the material means that the content loses much of its subversive strength. So this leads us to a question: where have all the subversives gone? And why?

This is a problem that traditional libertarian ideas are not well-equipped to solve. If genuine subversiveness is dying out, it is certainly not because of the state: in liberal society, the only serious penalty that remains for most out-of-fashion ideas is ostracism (but, as Hubert Humphrey pointed out, the the right to free speech never included a right to be taken seriously). Nor is it because the technology isn't there: there are myriad forms of free and anonymous expression around today, and people regularly avail themselves of these. We must, therefore, look elsewhere to try to fill in the gaps, to learn where our understanding of society is deficient. I suggest we look at capitalism.

That's right, capitalism, that thing which libertarians almost never question. I have been fortunate to encounter, and have had time to read, bits of the outstanding critique of capitalism provided by Critical Theory – in particular the views of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse. For if, like the three men aforementioned we begin by looking at capitalism as a force which takes all things and ideas and commodifies them, giving them a price and a value and incorporating them into a total system, it is possible to draw parallels between these leftist ideas and our own – and, I believe, find a suitable compromise.

To the critical theorists, high culture- art, music, literature and the like- is, when properly constituted, meant to serve many functions and be "many things- opposition and adornment, outcry and resignation." But, wrote Marcuse, "it was also the appearance of the realm of freedom: the refusal to behave", a subversive function. With this in mind, the critique of capitalism in Critical Theory can best be summed up thus: capitalism as a cultural force destroys freedom by creating a scenario where "[art and mass communications] no longer need to present themselves as art. The truth that they are nothing but business is used as an ideology to legitimize the trash they intentionally produce." This results in in "a system of nonculture to which one might even concede a certain 'unity of style' if it made any sense to speak of a stylized barbarism." (Adorno and Horkheimer) In other words, art and music – among other things – lose their subversive character and turn into servants of the established order.

Bear with me for a minute here.

As a liberating force, high culture used to place a degree of distance between ourselves and reality, and through the negation of reality it revealed "a dimension of [truth about] man and nature which was repressed and repelled in reality." However, "art has this magic power only as the power of negation. It can speak its own language only as long as the images are alive which refuse and refute the established order"; and by 'negation', we mean not the "[distinction] between art created in joy and art created in sorrow, [or] between sanity and neurosis, but that between the artistic and the societal reality... the Great Refusal – the protest against that which is." (Marcuse)

Unfortunately, the Critical Theory view argues that the capitalism we, as libertarians, place so much faith in tends to break down this distinction, incorporating art (and everything else, for that matter) for its own purposes, especially "[when] an art is in vogue which is adept at promoting the right attitudes" (Adorno), forcing art to not stand in opposition to social reality but rather be employed by it. When this occurs, "the Great Refusal is in turn refused; the other dimension is absorbed into the prevailing state of affairs... [and works of art are] deprived of their antagonistic force, of the estrangement which was the very dimension of their truth." (Marcuse)

But what the hell does all of this actually mean? In practical terms, it means that art, a tool we once used to both discover and combat oppression, is now part and parcel of it. We will recall, just last year, how a popular revolt against a Simon Cowell television show accidentally sent not one but two songs that were ultimately owned by Sony-BMG racing to the top of the charts. Rage Against the Machine, though it preaches a subversive message, is a paper tiger; the group possesses no power to refute the established order, as it has long-since been pressed into service for it.

Even worse, say the Critical Theorists, commodification destroys not just the art, but also the listener too: for example, if you tune in to "Classic FM" at any point of the day you might be be bombarded by a "popular," but aesthetically nonsensical mish-mash of Fauré, Tchaikovsky, Grieg and Mozart in the space of 20 minutes or less. This accomplishes two things. On the one hand, the music is ruined (as Richard Wagner realised: he refused for years to consent to the performance of the Walkürenritt on its own, calling such a move "an utter indiscretion"). On the other hand, art-presented-as-commodity also "positively debars... the spectator from thinking", since when presented in a bite-size format, it is designed to "be alertly consumed even in a state of distraction", conditioning the listener to lose his or her ability to reflect on it, with the consequence that "the power of industrial society is imprinted on people once and for all." (Horkheimer and Adorno) In the end, "the seriousness of high art is destroyed in speculation about its efficacy; the seriousness of the lower perishes with the civilizational constraints imposed on the rebellious resistance inherent within it as long as social control was not yet total." (Adorno)

And this, I think, is why subversiveness is disappearing: if social control is not yet total, it is very close to being so. From a young age, we are conditioned to accept all manner of absurd propositions through quasi-artistic media forms. Many of us, rich and poor, dutifully tune in once a week to watch a stage-managed, airbrushed Simon Cowell castigate a bunch of decidedly unremarkable vocalists; we then read about the false drama the following day in the Metro on the way to work, without really questioning the manufactured nature of the entire enterprise. We are told: "don't conform: buy a Citroen" by our television sets, and rather than point and laugh at the manifest absurdity of such a statement, we sit quietly and accept it while munching away at our dinners. The competitive drive in something as mundane as the newspaper industry is capable of consuming entire professions, and even the rule of law.

Even our politics, the centre of democratic power, cannot escape: politicians' "appearance on television... is hardly suitable for drama beyond that of the advertisement, while the consequences of their actions surpass the scope of the drama" (Marcuse), and the drama itself masks that there is, in fact, not much politics left: most political disputes have degenerated to petty arguments over the redistribution of money for use in the market.

But I am a libertarian, not a Marxist, and believe that capitalism with free markets is the greatest economic system yet created. It has done more to improve human knowledge and living conditions than any before it, and its more comprehensive and perfect implementation is a central objective for most libertarians living today. But it is far from perfect, and as we try to create new theory to match our rapidly-changing facts, we should understand that the creation of a libertarian, free-market capitalist state is not going to be our endpoint.

We may safely assume that much which is true today would, at the completion of this project, be long obsolete, and capitalism's better-disguised contradictions would by then have drifted to the fore. But we will be able to adapt if we realise that certain things are as true now as they will ever be, namely, we are neither liberated nor enslaved by our tax bracket, bank balance, or station in life. At the end of everything, it is what von Mises called the 'ultimate given' that creates change, brings it to pass, and allows us to be free – the individual, "internal world of thought, feeling, valuation, and purposeful action." And very little else.