Politics and Surveillance in the Digital Age: Part 2

In the last lecture on politics and surveillance in the digital age we looked at the way in which social media subverts democracy through targeted fake news. Examples of this are Brexit and Cambridge Analytica, and even in the recent general election it has been claimed that 88% of Tory adverts on Facebook were fake (Thousands of misleading Conservative ads side-step scrutiny thanks to Facebook policy, 2019).  Jamie Bartlett has argued that the spread of such fake news undermines our democracy, since the spread of such false information makes it impossible for citizens to make informed decisions (Bartlett, 2018). We suggested that perhaps we needed to go deeper than this liberal critique of social media, however justified it might be, to critique power, and especially how it is explained by the French philosopher Michel Foucault.

Power is not best represented by institutions or even ideals like democracy, but as a force. When we think of power as a force, then it is best understood as a practice. In any situation there are two forces, one which is active and the other which is passive. So, for example, in teaching, there is the teacher, who is the active force, and there is the taught, the students, which are the passive one. Power operates whenever there is a conjunction of forces. This conjunction is not causal for Foucault. Active forces do not cause passive ones, for example, and it is not necessarily the case that the active force is the stronger one. All teachers know that students resist being taught and quite successfully so.

Practices are also always historical. Relations between forces differ across time and space and there is no fixed constant or essence of force. Foucault, in his earlier works, was particularly interested in how power changed in the mid-18th century to the early 19th century in France, which still in some way determines our modern world. He called this new kind of power disciplinary power, and it was typified by him through Bentham’s famous panopticon (Foucault, 1995). The object of this new power was individual bodies, and Foucault noticed a similarity of how this power operated across different modern institutions like schools, universities, prisons, and hospitals.

If disciplinary power is the form of modern power, then it has gone through an important modulation in our own time, and it is this transformation that Deleuze (another French philosopher and a friend of Foucault) describes in his article ‘Postscript on the Society of Control’ (Deleuze, 1992). Deleuze explains that now power no longer requires institutions in order to function. In fact, we are seeing these institutions collapse all around us. Rather than enclosed spaces controlling individuals they have been replaced by passwords and instead of attempting to escape these new kinds of control we identify with them. Deleuze, for example, seems particularly shocked that young people would actively seek permanent training. He does suggest, however, at the end of the article, that just like his generation, the young will have to find new forms of resistance.

In this lecture we want to investigate one phenomenon of this new form of power, which is human capital, and which we hinted at in the first lecture. We want to describe this phenomenon from two different angles: the subjective and objective side. We shall also suggest that this phenomenon is intimately linked with digital technology. This should not surprise us since the rise of digital technology is a mutation of a new form of capitalism.

Before we examine human capital itself, let us first define what capitalism is in the most general way. Of course, there is no neutral objective definition of capitalism since it is a politically contested term. If you are pro free markets, then you will define capitalism in one way, and if you are not, then you might define it in a very different way. If we were to define capitalism in the most basic mode, then capital is the assets that are required in order to produce goods. If I want to grow potatoes, for example, then I will need the capital to invest in land, seeds, and machinery (notice that in this basic model labour is not an asset but a cost). But capital is not just an asset. It is also a social form. It is the private ownership of assets, the existence of a market, where goods and services are bought and sold, and, ‘the profit motive is the driving force’ (Bowles, 2012, p. 9). Capitalism throughout its history does not have a fixed form. If the aim of capitalism is to maximise profit, then production must be constantly expanded to find new and novel ways to make it. The first form of capitalism was agricultural, then industrial, and now we are entering a third kind of capitalism, which is financial.

Just because we are entering a new kind of capitalism, this does not mean the other forms vanish. There is, of course, still agriculture and industry today. But just as agriculture was increasingly industrialised after the Industrial Revolution, so too are both industry and agriculture being financialised after the Financial Revolution. The best way to understand this transformation from industrial to financial capital is through the concept of immaterial labour.[1] Lazzarato explains that we should understand this as both a change in the form and content of the nature of work (Lazzarato, 2010). Work is now increasingly a matter of information and cybernetics and what was previously not considered to be work (emotional labour, for example), is now work. The change in work explains the drive of mass participation in higher education. We work no longer, so to speak with our hands, but with our heads. Capitalism no longer requires the production line worker, but creative and intellectual labour. A worker must now be an active one. She no longer fits a role or function but must continually invent new ones. She must be flexible both inside and outside of work.

If the nature of work has changed objectively, then it has also changed subjectively. Not just how the worker is seen from the side of the corporation, which has replaced the factory, but how the worker sees themselves. This explains the concept of human capital. From a Marxist perspective, it makes no sense to talk of human capital, since they are opposed to one another, and even in our simple model they are conceived of differently. Capital is an asset, whereas labour is a cost, which is why capitalism always seeks to drive down labour costs. But in human capital, what is human is itself seen as an asset.

Foucault himself saw the birth of human capital as an event in the history of capitalism (Foucault, 2008). It is wholly new way of conceiving of subjectivity unforeseen in previous economic paradigms. Its novelty, Foucault argues, is that it extends the limit of economic analysis into domains that were never considered to be economic before. In classical economics, as we have seen, the importance of labour is devalued. It is conceived only as a quantity of time. Labour cost then is just the cost of an amount of time.[2] In this theory, from the perspective of the proponents of human capital, labour is conceived of only abstractly but not how it is lived.

How then, in their point of view, is labour really lived?[3] The answer is that it is lived subjectively rather than objectively in a theory. Economic analysis is explained in terms of production, exchange and consumption, but when it comes to the subjective experience of labour then it is a matter of choice. In choosing one thing, I am not choosing another. How do I allocate my scarce resources for alternative ends? Work is an activity. Why do I work? In order to earn a wage. An income is not the same as a price in terms of how labour time is quantified, as in the above example, when I pay someone to plant and harvest my crops. An income for the worker is capital, because capital is anything that can be a source of income in the future. For me it is a cost, like the seed, fields and machinery. But for the worker it is not. It is capital. If we think of labour as capital, then what kind of capital is it? Subjectively, it is a skill or an ability. Someone pays me for what I am capable of. Objectively, it is an income stream. This is a special kind of capital because it cannot be separated from the person who possesses it. I am my own capital. I must see myself as my own capital. The income stream belongs to me over a lifetime, but the amount fluctuates. I might earn little or nothing when I am young, but it increases as I grow older and as I gain more skills, abilities and qualifications. It might also decrease if I become redundant and must learn new skills, and then it might increase again.

What Foucault is particularly interested in is how this changes how I view myself. If I see myself as a piece of capital that must be invested in, then I have become an entrepreneur of myself. We have all become entrepreneurs of ourselves. Just like I invested in the farm and hope to gain future income from it, then I must invest in myself, so that I can increase my income stream over my lifetime. What is important about this new perspective is that it extends economic analysis over areas of my life that previously I would not have thought were economic. Some of my skills and abilities are of course innate, but there are others that can be acquired. Neoliberalism, which is the theory of human capital, is more concerned with the latter than the former, because as we have seen it is interested in what choices we make.[4] The best way to improve your acquired abilities is through education. Education here is conceived of not just as schooling, but also more broadly as child-rearing, and mental and physical health. So, read to your children so that in the future they could have higher income streams. Go to yoga classes to increase your well-being so that you could earn more. And so on. We can see that virtually any form of human activity could be incorporated into this model of capital. Anything could be an element of a future income stream, and what cannot be becomes redundant. Everything is a future investment (asset) to increase our future potential to earn more.

What, then, is the relation between this concept of human capital and social media? The answer to this question is both subjective and objective. Objectively, social media reflects the transformation of capitalism from industrial production to financial and immaterial production. The wealthiest corporations today, like Google and Amazon, don’t really produce anything at all. They sell services, and this is where the profit is.[5] In terms of capitalism, it is the human subject that is now where value is extracted. Its landscape is not the external world but our intimate selves. If human capital dissolves the boundary between work and life, then digital technology is the mechanism through which this process happens. We become nothing more than the information about us, and this information can then become a way of measuring our own human capital score.[6]

Digital technology is the illusion of subjective freedom. It makes it easier to express ourselves and consume, but when we look beneath the hype, we see that the rationale behind social media is not so that we can easily contact our friends or family, or better search the web, but that these supposedly free services can better mine what Zuboff calls our ‘behavioural surplus’, so that they can micro-target us with advertising and marketing (Zuboff, 2019). Social media is perhaps the best example of how the division between work and leisure has disappeared, because now when we entertain ourselves, we are producing value for others. Not only is social media hungry for our attention, which we could be using for something else that increases our creativity and joy, but this stolen time only increases the wealth of the technology companies so that they can produce ever more novel ways to take even more of our finite attention. All this pilfered time makes us even more passive and submissive even as we believe we are more active and spontaneous. We turn our aggression not against the system, but ourselves as we become ever more anxious and depressed. We have freed ourselves from the disciplinary panopticon only to throw ourselves into a virtual digital one. We don’t surrender our data under duress. We give it away for free. As consumers we have no interest in politics. We complain like consumers, but we react passively. We cannot imagine a different life. Our democracies have become, as the German Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han describes them, ‘spectator democracies’ (Han, 2017). Our lives are forms of self-optimisation so that we can better sell ourselves to the highest bidder. We don’t need anyone to discipline us, because we will discipline ourselves. Conform or you will never work, or your jobs will be menial and precarious. Only for the very few ‘super-workers’ will there be any real jobs at Google or Microsoft. But to get these jobs they will have to almost destroy themselves and their lives. Be anything you like, but you must be a self-entrepreneur and you must compete against everyone else. ‘Physical discipline’, Han writes, ‘has given way to mental optimisation’ (Han, 2017). We are no longer exploited but exploit ourselves and do so continuously and non-stop. Even our mental pain is merely one more step towards ‘well-being’. There is no negativity only relentless positivity and smiles. Our capacity to work, to be productive, is measured by our emotions. Our managers are emotional consultants. They are continuously asking us how we feel. The more technology has freed us from work, the more our leisure time has become a new kind of work. Rather than working less, we are working more, and work, like money, has become our new religion. There would be only true freedom, Han insists, if there were freedom from work and not freedom to work (Han, 2017).

One way to escape this freedom that is not freedom, Han suggests, is to become an idiot (Han, 2017). Not an idiot in the way that people normally think about idiots, but a philosophical idiot like Socrates or Descartes. Nowadays everyone wants to conform and be like everyone else, but nobody wants to be idiosyncratic or different. Everyone wants to communicate, to be part of social media and the network, but the idiot doesn’t have a Facebook account and has no idea what the latest memes are. The idiot does not communicate. The idiot keeps silent. She doesn’t participate. She does her own thing. The idiot is neither a subject, nor an individual, but an anonymous joyful life.

Works Cited

Bartlett, J. (2018) The people vs tech: how the internet is killing democracy (and how we save it). London: Ebury Press.

Bowles, P. (2012) Capitalism. Harlow: Pearson.

Deleuze, G. (1992) ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, October, 59, pp. 3–7.

Foucault, M. (1995) Discipline and punish : the birth of the prison. Translated by A. Sheridan,. New York : Vintage Books, p. 333 pages :

Foucault, M. (2008) The birth of biopolitics: lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79. Edited by M. Senellart. Basingstoke [England]; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Han, B.-C. (2017) Psychopolitics: neoliberalism and new technologies of power. Translated by E. Butler. London; New York: Verso.

Hanson, D. (2019) The 20 Richest Companies In The World | The Wealthiest Companies, Money Inc. Available at: https://moneyinc.com/richest-companies-in-the-world-in-2019/ (Accessed: 26 April 2020).

Kobie, N. (2019) The complicated truth about China’s social credit system, Wired UK. Available at: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/china-social-credit-system-explained (Accessed: 26 April 2020).

Lazzarato, M. (2010) ‘Immaterial Labour’, in Virno, P. and Hardt, M. (eds) Radical thought in Italy a potential politics. Minneapolis, Minn: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Thousands of misleading Conservative ads side-step scrutiny thanks to Facebook policy (2019) First Draft. Available at: https://firstdraftnews.org:443/latest/thousands-of-misleading-conservative-ads-side-step-scrutiny-thanks-to-facebook-policy/ (Accessed: 22 April 2020).

Zuboff, S. (2019) The age of surveillance capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. London: Profile Books.


[1] It is important to note that it is not capital that has changed, and this is the case with the industrial revolution, but the form of production which has changed. That is, what capital is invested in.

[2] This is true, Foucault adds, even in Marx’s analysis of labour.

[3] It is important to understand that Foucault’s account is not a normative one. He is not defending their point of view but describing it and how it encapsulates a change in capitalism.

[4] With modern technology, the division between innate and acquired traits becomes less and less, since with genetics we might be able change what is innate. Well at least the rich will.

[5] It is significant that the wealthiest corporations in the world are services industries, and especially in information and digital technologies (Hanson, 2019).

[6] Already in China digital technology is used to give everyone a credit score. There is no reason why this could not be ubiquitous, and this credit score used to control and discipline individuals (Kobie, 2019).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: