Yuppies on the Run
A Class Analysis of the Y2K Hysteria
by Greg Sharzer
New Socialist Magazine, April - May 1999
As we near the year 2000, our biosphere is drowning in the flow of pollutants and much of the world is engulfed by famine and war. Capitalism is still a crisis-ridden system that exploits billions for the profit of a few. But out of all this, modern soothsayers have fixed their sights on the chief evil: a computer bug.
Y2K is short for the Year 2000 bug, a programming glitch where computer chip manufacturers saved cash by recording years in two digits instead of four - 99 instead of 1999. On January 1, 2000, 5% of existing chips will think it's 1900, causing potential breakdowns in all the systems that use computers: everything from cars to power grids.
This has been picked up by everyone from survivalists stockpiling rifle shells to the mainstream left, in the form of a Citizen's Action Guide (CAG) published by Utne Reader. The rhetoric is apocalyptic: the CAG calls Y2K "the social equivalent of a worldwide earthquake", due to failures in "the infrastructures that make modern life possible."
Here common themes emerge between left and right. There's a certain smugness shared by all millenarians that 'We are right, and you'll be sorry.' The CAG may call for community action, but as one Y2Ker quoted puts it, "This preparedness will help through any disaster such as that 100-year flood due to hit us." It's no mistake that Y2K anxiety sounds like Christian fundamentalism: they both fear a destructive force beyond our control, waiting to wreak havoc upon those who didn't hear the Word. For fundamentalists it's God; for Y2Kers it's technology.
They see technology as "the interconnections by which we have woven the world together". But these connections are unstable, because they're "inherently uncontrollable". Again, Y2K starts to sound like Christianity: we've lost God through our modern ways, but Y2K will be the final judgement on humanity. It will destroy current technology to save us, and "re-create our communities and culture" on the way.
If that's not a secular Second Coming, then it's a uniquely 90s mix of Judeo-Christian myth and technophobia. The contradictions are plain. The same pamphlet offers subscriptions for next year, which get mailed from the US. Apparently UTNE READER has a place on the ark. Y2Kers don't see that our communities exist BECAUSE of technology: phones, radios and planes are the only ways we can distribute information and resources.
Is all technology under our control? Every socialist would agree, for example, that nuclear weapons should be eliminated. But if they're not fixed before January 1 and they go off, then forming community groups won't help and you might as well party like it's 1999 (which it is!) But the military won't let that happen. Not because they're caring; quite the opposite - they have to defend their country in the imperialist pecking order. To keep this up they need their weapons intact. There's a logic to capitalism, however brutal. So why don't the Y2Kers get this?
150 years ago, Karl Marx described a phenomenon called COMMODITY FETISHISM. It works something like this: workers produce goods. But not for themselves - those goods are made for exchange with other goods. All the worker gets is a wage. So rather than seeing the economy as a system of relationships between people, workers only see the goods exchanging. They become alienated, seeing commodities where they should see human relationships.
But those human relationships are what really make up society. Marxists understand that society is a system of people working together to reproduce themselves. The real labour of real workers creates society, not computers. But the Y2Kers don't see that. The doomsayers - from left to right - see only the technology, the computers that supposedly run everything, without seeing the people producing it. They create a 'fetish' of technology.
Of course, technology APPEARS irrational. Robots that save work end up putting people out of work. Nuclear power that powers our lights leaves toxic waste behind. But technology is just a tool. Capitalists need robots to replace workers, because robots are cheaper; they need a giant nuclear industry to invest in. Yet a robot could really save someone work, if it didn't create unemployment. Nuclear fusion could be researched, if there wasn't so much money in nuclear fission. Technology is not bad in itself; it's put to bad or good uses by the people controlling it.
So why the fetish? Who are these Y2Kers? Beneath the rhetoric they look middle class, a class which doesn't produce goods and will buy into mysterious fetishes more easily. Their paranoia shows the true nature of jacuzzi socialism. What makes them call for community organizing? Not police brutality or defending refugees, everyday capitalist brutalities: the only thing that gets their blood boiling is the disruption of their middle class lifestyle. (The CAG says: if you need to mix corn and wheat, "many health food stores sell hand-cranked grain mills." What the hell, put it on the gold card, my designer Birkenstocks haven't maxxed it yet.)
Their safe communities and secure homes are at risk, and you might wonder from what. The CAG suggests "global recession and civil unrest." Is the middle class really concerned over getting enough to eat? Or is it expecting dispossessed masses to trample their pesticide-free lawns when the magnetic locks on the gated communities stop working? Or even worse, as the CAG quotes the Dean of the Yale School of Management, "the only hope is keeping the world economy from total deterioration...it is all now truly left to Adam Smith's invisible hand." There go all those stock options, bought on the backs of super-exploited workers in the Third World.
Queasy time-sharing Volvo drivers are afraid of losing their class privileges. But even this smacks of hypocrisy, because they never mention their middle class comrades actually profiting from Y2K. All the consultants and futurists are cashing in, getting paid to pander to the hype. Some have told us to start stockpiling goods before the great collapse, and you can bet the supermarket capitalists are panicking at the run on escargot and mineral water. On January 2 all the bourgie types will crawl out from the shelter and hold a cocktail party; the working people duped into panic-buying will realize they've given their savings to Mr. Gouda.
The plain truth is that most working people don't have that much to begin with, so they don't have much to lose. If the supermarkets close, working people will open them; if capitalists want to keep control, they will have to get distribution systems moving again. If they don't, workers might not see any point in working - and you can bet the capitalists will fix that pretty fast. Capitalists can't afford to 'shut down' and have workers start punching them instead of the clock.
If a chip goes awry, it doesn't change the capacity of people to work. It might affect it a while, but so do poverty and oppression. Capitalist misery has disrupted lives, killed and maimed way more than any computer chip can. Only workers and the oppressed can stop that: they have the potential to make a democratic world based on need, not greed. Their struggles will change the 21st century long after Y2K is a footnote in the Socialist Encyclopedia. Y2K? Y To Care is more like it. Let the monied classes tremble in their Gortex tents. If on January 1, 2000 the alarm systems shut down and people start looting, then we'll see the real potential of Y2K.
Greg Sharzer is a member of the New Socialist Group with a really old computer.