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

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.

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