Politics and Surveillance in the Digital Age: Part 2

April 28, 2020

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).

What is So Great about Work Anyway? Lecture 2

December 7, 2012

I want to start first of all with the distinction between work as a value and work as a reality. Of course all of us, unless we are independently wealthy and can live of rent, have to work to pay for our needs. We might argue what our needs might be, but without the money that we earn from our work we would have no food, no shelter, indeed no life at all.  But the reality of work is not the same as the value of work. Today work is not only seen as a reality but as the very reason for living. I do not work in order to live, but I live in order to work, and it is not sufficient simply to turn up to work and do one’s job as well as one can, but one has to believe in it, as if working were a philosophy in itself. One has to fit one’s ethics to one’s job. Work is promoted as though it were a life style rather than a necessity.

Such an valuation of work has not always been a constant in human history. The ancient Greeks, for example believed that working for others was the same as being a slave.[1] Aristotle argued that a true citizen would not work at all, but devote themselves to the practice of politics:

A state with an ideal constitution – a state which has for its members  men who are absolutely just, and not men who are merely just in relation to some particular standard  – cannot have its citizens living the life of mechanics or shopkeepers, which is ignoble and inimical to goodness. Nor can it have them engaged in farming; leisure is a necessity both for growth in goodness and for the pursuit of political activity. [Politics 1328b37-1329a.2]

The argument is not whether this is a better view of work than ours, but that it is different. This means that our view of work as a necessity for ‘growth in goodness and for the pursuit of political activity’ is equally a consequence of the society in which we live, rather than intrinsic or natural property of what is means to be human (unlike the necessity of work, which of course is), as was the ancient Greek view that work was a curse that everyone would avoid if they could.

Such a change in the value of work (that work is valued in itself and rather than just a necessity) can be seen in the role and  justification of education. Education is not seen as a process of the development of the individual, but as an investment for the sake of future earnings. Thus, employability, which is a general designation of an individual’s worth, is no longer linked to specific skills that one might learn at work or in training to work, but to education as a whole. The difference between academic and vocational abilities has been elided, not because every subject in the university has to be academic, but that every academic subject has to be vocational. This has led to a crisis in the conception of the humanities, which used to be seen as the bedrock of the university, but which now, if it is allowed to exist at all, has to defend itself as supplying skills for future employment. The idea that one would study a subject at university for its own sake is seen as laughably anachronistic.

When history repeats itself the second time it is always a farce, as Marx famously remarked about Louis Napoleon.[2] So there is no point thinking, even if we wanted to, that we could return to a time when work was not seen as the ultimate value of existence, or universities were not factories of employment. However, this does mean, from within our own time, our own reality, we simply have to accept the status quo and accept whatever value is imposed upon us. It is perfectly possible for us to rethink, for example, what a university might be for us, rather than returning to some medieval fantasy.

Noam Chomsky, in an interview, argues that there are two concepts of education (Learning without Frontiers 2012). One, what he calls the Enlightenment view, that education was a process of self-transformation, and the other, indoctrination, where the purpose of education is to instruct students in certain values that they are not meant to question or criticise. In the first case, the student is an active learner, and in the second, passive. What is particularly interesting about his comments, however, is that he places the dominant view that universities should be primarily, and for the majority, vocational on the side of indoctrination and not enlightenment. This has both a subjective and objective side. Subjectively, the student is meant to think that the only purpose of university is to get a job, and objectively, that one has to get a job to pay off the debts one has incurred by going to university in the first place (a strange kind of vicious circle that everyone takes to be commonplace).

The opposite of a vocational university, therefore is, a critical questioning university. A university whose staff and students together refuse to accept received opinion and authority. A university, like ours, which places the highest value on employment, cannot be such a university. It might allow at its margins, a different conversation or dialogue (perhaps because it has a faint memory of what another university might be), but its indulgence is precisely proof of its indifference. How else can only explain the axiom that every student, even a humanities one, must have ‘employability’ embedded in their curriculum without question or debate? As Chomsky remarks, human knowledge would not be possible without openness. So we are now faced with the paradox that our university’s primary function is not to open but to close minds, which is the very opposite of knowledge.

It is not enough, of course, to say one ought to be critical, one has to practice it as well. So what does it mean to be critical of the value of work? First of all, work, for the vast majority of people in our society, is not a form of self-expression but the opposite, and they know this in their daily lives. Again, as with education one can explain this subjectively and objectively. Subjectively, work is experienced as alienation, objectively as exploitation. When I work for another, I am selling my labour time to them as a commodity in so doing I increasingly see myself, and others see me, as a commodity that can be bought and sold. I therefore become alienated from myself as a living, breathing and complete human being who is not just a thing that has an economic price attached to their existence. This separation is everyday by the vast majority as the boredom, cynicism and anxiety of work. I am bored because work does not express my existence, I am cynical because to succeed at work means to exploit and alienate others, I am anxious because alienated from myself I feel that I have no control over my life, and the division between life and work has become increasingly blurred.

Objectively work is exploitation. This is because when working for another, I do not own the product that I produce. In a capitalist society, it is the capitalist not the worker who owns the means of production. I sell my labour time to produce the things that the capitalist sells to produce a profit. Marx argues that there are two kinds of capital, fixed and variable. Fixed (or constant) capital is the machinery and the technology, whereas variable capital is labour. The capitalist produces profit, according to Marx, through surplus value. They must pay the worker less than the product’s value in order to make a profit. The contradiction at the heart of capitalism, as the financial collapse in 2008 demonstrated, is that those who work do not have enough money to buy the products to produce the necessary level of profit except on credit that they cannot pay back.[3]

What I have just described is the classic Marxist theory of labour value. One might criticise it in terms of economic theory (Keen 2011, pp.277–99), but even it is were right economically, one might wonder whether capitalism has developed in such a way that it quite fits this model of the opposition between the worker, on one side, and the capitalist on the other. Or we might put it this way. Modern capitalism has become increasingly subjective. Rather than seeing myself as alienated and exploited by capital, I have to see myself as capital, as human capital. We can see precisely how this works in the example of education. The purpose of education is to increase my earning power. I invest in myself (either directly by paying for my education, and indirectly by forgoing earnings during the period of my education) in order than in the future I would earn a higher salary. All of us, then, to some extent, have come to see ourselves as little enterprises. We are self-entrepreneurs. The aim of society, then, is how to increase human capital, for it is only through this investment that innovation and creativity will increase and thus profits (which in turn are meant to be invested back into the accumulation of human capital). At this point, there is no division between life and capital, for any investment in life, is seen as an investment in human capital.[4]

Well if I did want to resist all this, how would I begin? One of the pressures of an ideology, if not the dominant one, is to present itself as the only reality. ‘There is no alternative’ is the refrain that we hear on many people’s lips these days, which should precisely make us be suspicious of it. One reason why we might think that this is not true is that even if capital and life have become increasingly synonymous, nonetheless capitalism or work is still parasitical on human creativity and solidarity. What we might call, following Graeber, ‘baseline communism’ (Graeber 2011, pp.94–102). Of course when we think of communism we tend to think of it the former USSR or the current China, but this isn’t what Graeber means by the word. First of all these states, even on their own terms, are not communist but socialist (indeed some might argue that they were and are not even that, but state capitalist).[5] Secondly what is at the heart of this ideological communism is a myth of the ‘common ownership and common management of collective resources’. Rather than a communism of the past that might exist again in some ideal future, Graeber argues that there is a communism that exists right now, and to some degree, we are all already communists.[6] Such a communism does not begin with the principle of collective property, but ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’. We all act of this principle, Graeber asserts, if we are involved in some ‘common project’. If we are fixing, to use his example, a broken water pipe, If I ask you to pass the wrench, then you are unlikely to ask me what you will get from it if you do so. We allocate tasks and activities by ability and need. The everyday co-operative basis of work is communist. Without co-operation and communication, how would work work? The opposite of this is the bureaucratic managerialism that stifles creativity and innovation, but even this is parasitic on what little co-operation it allows to survive.

‘Communism,’ Graeber writes, ‘is the foundation of all human sociability. It is what makes society possible’ (2011, p.96). Mostly we help each other and strangers, because we see someone in need and we have the ability to do something about it. Society pretty much has to be the edge of collapse for that not to be the case. Of course different societies have different levels of what Graeber calls ‘baseline communism’. So in an impersonal city, getting directions from a stranger might be as much as one can assume, whereas as in more personal societies, feeding and accommodating strangers would be seen as a norm. What is common to all these ‘communisms’ is that no account is taken. It would be very strange to ask for payment for opening a door for someone, or giving directions, as it would to pay for a meal amongst the Nuer (Nilotic pastoralists of southern Sudan, which Graeber uses as an example of a less impersonal society than ours), but any kind of accounting, any kind of exchange or market relation is dependent on this fundamental hospitality to the other, even though it obscures or even actively attempts to destroy it, as a virus might destroy a body that it needs to survive.

Works Cited

Applebaum, H.A., 1992. The Concept of Work: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, Albany: SUNY Press.

Desai, M., 2004. Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism, Verso.

Foucault, M., 2008. The Birth of Biopolitics : Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79, Basingstoke [England]; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Graeber, D., 2011. Debt : the First 5,000 Years, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House.

Keen, S., 2011. Debunking Economics – Revised and Expanded Edition: The Naked Emperor Dethroned? Second Revised & enlarged., London: Zed Books Ltd.

Learning without Frontiers, 2012. Noam Chomsky – The Purpose of Education, Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DdNAUJWJN08&feature=youtube_gdata_player [Accessed November 28, 2012].

Marx, K. & Engels, F., 1950. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. In Selected Works : in Two Volumes. Moscow: Foreign Languages Pub. House.

May, T., 1994. The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism, University Park, Pa: Penn State Press.

[1] ‘The artisan’s work is considered to be service to others, a form of slavery, and an activity unworthy of the truly free man.’ (Applebaum 1992, p.31)

[2] ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’ (Marx & Engels 1950, p.247)

[3] As Desai writes, ‘The truth is no capitalist will employ a worker who doesn’t produce more value than the cost of hiring him or her.’ (2004, p.65)

[4] For an account of this historical transformation of capitalism and the importance of the notion of human capital, see Foucault’s lectures The Birth of Biopolitics (Foucault 2008, pp.216–38).

[5] I am thinking here of the critique of USSR by Castoriadis who described it as ‘bureaucratic state capitalism’. Todd May, in The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism, writes a good short overview of his work (1994, pp.38–43).

[6] He also points out that there is a ‘communism of the rich’ (Graeber 2011, p.326).