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).

Genealogy and the Will to Power, Nietzsche and Foucault – Lecture 5

August 11, 2016

panopticonFrom one so dismissive and critical of much of philosophy, Nietzsche is unhesitating in his admiration of Spinoza. He writes in a postcard to this friend Overbeck:

I am utterly amazed, utterly enchanted. I have a precursor, and what a precursor! I hardly knew Spinoza: that I should have turned to him just now, was inspired by ‘instinct.’ Not only is his over-all tendency like mine – making all knowledge the most powerful affect – but in five main points of his doctrine I recognize myself: this most unusual and loneliest thinker is closest to me precisely in these matters: he denies the freedom of the will, teleology, the moral world-order, the unegoistic, and evil.[1]

What does the death of God mean in Nietzsche? It isn’t merely a matter of demonstrating once and for all that God does not exist, since in some sense Kant had already achieved this, but that with the death of God Man also ceases to exist. We forget, in the famous scene of the madman in the Gay Science, the crowd who are laughing at the man searching for God and who declares we have all killed God, are themselves atheists. No one believes in God anymore, at least not serious people, and no-one is the least worried about whether God exists or not. What is really disturbing is what happens after God dies, for it there is no longer any transcendent order to the universe. ‘Are we not straying,’ the madman cries, ‘as through an infinite nothing’ (Nietzsche, 1974, p. 181).

God is a symptom not a cause. It is the sign of a desire to uncover an ultimate purpose or goal of the universe, as though all of this meant something more than the fact that it exists. This purpose or goal is a reflection of human interests and desires projected upon the universe. As though the universe only existed for the sake of human beings. God is just a sign of the ridiculous over weaning pride of a highly evolved chimpanzee who imagines that the universe is a reflection of itself.

In the preface to the third part of the Ethics, Spinoza argues that human beings are not a special being separate from the rest of nature, but a part of nature like anything else. Human beings are no more sinful or evil than any other being. The right way of living is not to be referred to some mysterious human power that takes us outside of nature, but to active and passive affects and how the mind can moderate them that are immanent to nature. It is not enough to curse and laugh at our affects and actions, rather it is important to understand them, just as we understand any other animal behaviour. What is good and best for us. Just as it would be absurd to morally judge the actions of lion or a volcano, then it is ridiculous to morally judge our affects. Anger, for example, is a natural affect of human beings. It would be wrong to label it therefore as a defect or evil. We might come to see that in certain circumstances anger is a not beneficial, and then we might come to moderate it, but we do so because we understand and rationalise it, not because we have given it a moral label. Nature operates by rules, and if human nature is part of nature, then it too must operate by rules. To understand our behaviour means to understand what causes us to act or respond in a certain way and what would be most beneficial to our lives (in the same way that we understand what benefits a plant or animal, too much water and sun it will die, or it if it is not fed the right kind of food). This means that we treat human actions ‘just as it were a question of line, planes and bodies’ (de lineis, planis aut de corporibus) (Ethics 3 pref.).

This is not to argue that values, morals and religions do not exist, because we can look around the world and see that they do, but that the origin of values, morals and religion cannot not itself be moral or religious. Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals is about the non-moral or non-religious origin of morality or religion. This origin is power. Thus, although morality and religion present themselves as the opposite of power, as though they were objective rather than subjective, they are disguised forms of power, or the way in which power organises and distributes affects. What better way to control and dominate others than to cause them to control and subjugate themselves? Religion, before it is a metaphysical doctrine of the origin of the universe, is a legitimisation of political authority. God the King is a justification of the King as God.

Value judgements, like ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are immanent to a form of life. What is good for me is bad for you or vice versa, just as the gazelles are good for lions, but lions are bad for gazelles. That the gazelles construct a universe in which lions are intrinsically evil is retrospective justification of their hatred of lions. The universe, of course, is indifferent to them both. The language we use to justify ourselves has its origin in history. It is just that we have forgotten this history. For Nietzsche morality has it origin as the expression of power. Those who have power see themselves as good against those they see as different from themselves. Morality is the expression of a rank society. If we were equal, then there would be no moral judgements. The antithesis of this aristocratic instinct is herd morality. How do the weak impose their own values? ‘By inverting, disfiguring the meaning attributed to the strong’ (Kofman and Large, 1993, p. 87). Our values, rather than expressing a separate hidden order of the universe, are nothing but the forgotten etymological transformations of the result of the historical changes in power and the social logic that maintained them.

In the past, what was called good was the expression of the power of those who had aristocratic values. The was still the case when priests took power, since divine authority (the pure and the impure) was there to maintain aristocratic values. The emergence of kingdoms in human history was the result of military conquest. The function of religion subsequently was to legitimate social stratification. We are the pure, they are the impure. We are pure because we are powerful. They are impure, because they are weak. The emergence of a kingdom from a rank society always follows the same logic:

Eventually the aggressive leader of one rank society (often a highly motivated usurper) gained an unforeseen advantage over his neighbours. He pressed his advantage relentlessly until he had subdued all his rivals. He turned their chiefdoms into the provinces of a society larger than any previously seen in the region. To consolidate power, he broke down the old loyalties of each province and replaced them with an ideology stressing loyalty to him. He rewarded priests who were willing to verify his genealogical credentials and revise his group’s cosmology, ensuring his divine right to rule. (Flannery and Marcus, 2012, p. 347).

It is not morality and religion that explain social stratification, but the other way around; social stratification explains the origin of different moralities and religions. This is the major and perhaps only lesson of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, even if you disagree with the details of his argument.

The final social logic we observe is the internalisation of the priestly type. Here the priest does not exist for the sake of the power of the king, but for himself. This is the history of Judeo-Christianity and the domination of a slave morality and the inversion of the moral order. What had hitherto been seen as worthy and good, the aristocracy, is now seen as a base and evil. All that is powerful is evil and all that is weak is good. But not only do we get a reverse of the terms of the relation but the type of relation. The first form is active, whereas the second is reactive. The noble morality first of all experiences itself as good and then judges what is different from it as bad, whereas the second form of power, slave morality, has to judge first what is bad to be able to feel good about itself. Thus the noble spirit cannot take its enemies seriously for long. It does not have the spirit for revenge. It forgets. And for this very reason it loves its enemies for how else is it to prove itself. For the slave, on the contrary, the enemy, the noble spirit, is the wicked and evil one. The thought of evil is the first thought, and only secondarily does it come up with the idea of the good.

It is in the triumph of slave morality that Nietzsche believes morality as ideals and thereby judgement is born. Weakness is turned into an ideal, as though it were something that one had to choose to be rather than what one is. Thus patience and obedience to a higher power (God) is seen as a virtue. Be submissive! They are no doubt miserable and hate life, but they believe that they will be rewarded in the future, in heaven. They see themselves better than the noble, even though they have to obey them, and obey all authority, because their God has told them to do so. But they comfort themselves that they, the nobles, will punished in the future, whereas, the slaves they will see their reward. Or own morality is a residuum of this triumph of reactive will to power. The only difference is that there no nobles, but only the values of the slave, and thus we do not even see ourselves as slaves anymore.

Even though Foucault’s story will be very different from Nietzsche’s, there are many things, in terms of methodology, that they share in common, and Foucault himself is transparent about this.[2] History is not made up of a necessary evolution that somehow ends up with us, as though the whole of history had this intention in mind from the beginning, or that there was an internal logic to its development like ripening of a fruit. On the contrary, history is contingent and we only discover its meaning after the fact. Thus Nietzsche’s story of the origin of our morality is not necessary. Things could have happened differently and our morality could be totally different. There is no necessity that slave morality would have triumphed or that slave morality had taken the form of Judeo-Christianity, and thus we could be living totally different lives with totally different values, as there is no necessity that the universe itself came into existence.

Rather than human history being made up of chain of historical events that are linked together necessarily, it is made up of singular contingent events that are rare and exceptional. What we discover, in the archaeological and anthropological evidence, is changes in social logic are sporadic and intermittent, and nothing changes for 1,000 of years or hundreds of generations, if not at all. What is interesting about human history is not how many things happen, but how little different kinds of things happen, and thus is because of course power is essentially conservative. Why change something when things have always worked.[3] If revolutions in social logic are rare, then they are also discontinuous. Thus a society that works with one logic that stresses equality and sharing, for example, in which hoarding and wealth is seen as shameful and dishonourable, like the Hadza, will be completely different from a society in which inequality is hereditary and stratified, like the Tongans. They will speak a completely different social logic, and their religions and moral values will therefore be completely different. Societies with different social logics are discontinuous and incommensurate and there is no universal language that can translate one into the other. There is no such thing as truth, but only truths (the Hadza truth, the Tongan truth and so on).

It is for this reason that we have to understand power historically rather than metaphysically. There is no essence of power, only different social forms of power that are expressed historically. If we look to our most recent past, rather than the long stretch of our human history from 200,000 years ago, then we can say that Europe has undergone a transformation of political power. In the first instance, power is justified, as in most kingdoms, through divine right. Sovereignty is the authority of the king justified through religion as is the case in all kingdoms. From the 16th century, Foucault discerned a new kind of power, which he called disciplinary power, and which was latter transformed into new form in the 18th and 19th centuries, which he called biopolitics. In the first case, power has as it object individuals, in the second, the population as a whole.

The justification of society is no longer transcendent, in the sense of sovereign power, but immanent, in the sense of a contract. The key distinction is no longer between the people and the sovereign, as it is in an aristocratic kingdom, but between the people and the multitude. The question of power is how can we transform the multitude, which represents chaos and disorder, into the people, which represents stability and order. Disciplinary societies do so through controlling individuals through institutions (prisons, barracks, schools and hospitals), biopolitical societies through the production of populations through norms and standardisation. Each society would require its own discourse and moralities, which would be very different in their meanings and effects, even if they were to use the same language and terms. This new form of power is the power of the market:

The market determines that good government is no longer simply government that functions according to justice. The market determines that a good government is no longer quite simply one that is just. The market now means that to be good government, government has to function according to truth. (Foucault et al., 2008, p. 32).

Thus it is the change in the nature of power that determines the rise of utilitarianism as the dominant form of moral rationality, because utilitarianism can now be expressed in language of the market, cost-benefit analysis and rational choice theory, rather than whether utilitarianism is the best expression of an objective universal ethics, as opposed, for example, to deontology. Morality is not external to power relations. It is just one more discourse amongst many used to justify and legitimate them.

If power is the explanation of morality and not morality power, then how do we explain power? Power names actions or practices. Promising, judging, loving, and governing are all practices. History is nothing less than the history of changing practices and the social logic that underpins them. When it comes to practices there is always a relation between forces, one which is active and one which is passive or reactive. So there is the loving and the being loved, the judging and the being judged, governing and the being governed. A practice is the encounter between these two forces. This encounter Is not causal. In other words, the active force does not cause the passive one, rather there is an encounter between an active and passive force. Nor is the difference between the passive and active force one of quantity. It is not necessarily the case the active force is stronger or tougher than the passive force.

When Deleuze explains Foucault’s work he distinguishes between pure matter and pure functions (Deleuze, 2006). The pure matter of force is power to be affected, and the pure function of power is the power to affect. It is important not to confuse this with the actualisation of power, which is formed matter and formed function. The actualisation of power are actual historical institutions and practices. Foucault’s genealogy is the description of virtual relations of power and not actual relations. These virtual relations of power are diagrams. The example of a diagram that Deleuze gives is the Panopticon. Foucault is not interested in actual Panopticon nor the fact that Bentham’s plan was never actually built, but rather what the idealisation of Bentham’s plan says about how power has been changed or transformed.

There is always a relation between power and knowledge. Power always attracts knowledge, but that does not mean that knowledge and power are the same. Knowledge has to do with formed matter and formed functions rather than pure matters or functions. Knowledge concerns the actualisation of virtual relations of power in institutions. When we come to think about morality, then, it concerns knowledge. How virtual relations of power are actualised. These actualisations are always subsequent to the practices themselves. Knowledge is always the attempt to fix and stratify relations of power so they repeat invariantly through techniques of power and the human sciences (what Deleuze calls ‘dispositif’, but is variously translated as ‘device’, ‘apparatus’, ‘construction’, ‘machinery’, and so on). On the other side, however, because power and knowledge are not the same, even though power attracts knowledge, and knowledge falls back onto power and ‘miraculates’ it, as though it were the origin of power, the virtual relations of power are always escaping their stratification. The virtual relations of love are infinite, even within a given field, whereas actual relations of love are finite (only these relations of love are permitted and none other).

There are two possible confusions. First of all, we can think that the relation between active and reactive forces is dialectical and that the one causes the other. In this sense, we might think that power is transcendent and sovereign. There is never a substance or essence to power (we cannot define outside of situation in which we find power operating). This means that wherever there is power there is always resistance because there cannot be an active power without resistance. Secondly, we should not confuse actual relations of power with virtual relations of power. Rather than thinking of power as homogenous and regularised, outside forces are constantly escaping it. In one of the last papers Deleuze wrote, ‘Postscript of the Societies of Control’, he speaks of the new form of power as permanent training and perpetual audit, but he also imagines, even now, in ways that we have never visualised, the young are conceiving of new ways of escaping and new lines of flight.

Many young people strangely boast of being ‘motivated’; they re-request apprenticeships and permanent training. It’s up to them to discover what they’re being made to serve, just as their elders discovered, not without difficulty, the telos of the disciplines. The coils of a serpent are even more complex that the burrows of a molehill. (Deleuze, 1992).

Works Cited

Deleuze, G., 2006. Foucault. Continuum, London.

Deleuze, G., 1992. Postscript on the Societies of Control. October 59, 3–7.

Flannery, K.V., Marcus, J., 2012. The creation of inequality: how our prehistoric ancestors set the stage for monarchy, slavery, and empire. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.; London.

Foucault, M., Bouchard, D.F., Simon, S., 1977. Language, counter-memory, practice: selected essays and interviews. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y.

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

Kofman, S., Large, D., 1993. Nietzsche and Metaphor. Stanford University Press.

Nietzsche, F.W., 1974. The Gay Science : with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Vintage Books, New York.

Yovel, Y., 1991. Spinoza and Other Heretics: The Adventures of Immanence. Princeton University Press.

[1] As quoted by Yovel in ‘Spinoza and Nietzsche: Amor Dei and Amor fati’ (1991, p. 105).

[2] See his essay, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ (Foucault et al., 1977).

[3] It is usually external contingent events that causes revolutions in social logic, like climate change, agriculture and domestication, or the Europeans turning up on your doorstep.

Natural Rights and Virtue – Lecture 4

August 7, 2016

SpinozaSo far in this course we have looked at the traditional philosophical arguments for morality: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue theory. We have seen that the first two, though at first glance might appear to totally oppose one another, have, as their object, actions. Morality is a subset of rational activity. We are moral because we are rational. In the first case, consequentialism looks at, as the name implies, the consequences of an action, and in the second, deontology, the intentions behind an action. Virtue theory is different because it does not examine moral activity itself, deciding which action is moral or not, but the character of the moral agent themselves over a life time. The question is not whether such an action is honest, but what does it mean for me to be honest, which might differ in different situations.

There is, however, a more fundamental question, which we shall examine over the course of the next two lectures, whether the philosophical justification of morality is itself an illusion. Levinas asks at the beginning of Totality and Infinity, whether we are ‘not duped by morality?’ (1969, p. 21) The aim of this question is to make us think about the status of moral justification. When we observe people’s behaviour we might think the last thing we observe is morality. Is not the world exactly the opposite of the one described by philosophers? Deeper than this suspicion, we might also wonder whether the morality of philosophers themselves is as universal and rational as they portray. At one and the same time as Kant is defending the universality of the categorical imperative, he is declaring in his lectures on anthropology that Black people and Native Americans are congenitally lazy and incapable of real work.[1]

One way to respond to these criticisms is to say that Kant is merely repeating the prejudices of his age and that it is possible to salvage a rational core, but another response might be that morality is really a secondary phenomenon of a more fundamental aspect of human history, which is power. Kant conceives of Native Americans and Blacks as secondary human beings because of colonialism. The moral abrogation of their status as human beings is secondary consequence of this fact. What better way to justify slavery and genocide than a pseudo-scientific hierarchy of human races, but also we might notice how neatly this pseudo theory fits the actual actions of the European powers at the time in their systematic plundering of wealth and resources, which was fundamental to the rise of capitalism.

Morality, then, is not a subset of rationality but of power and we ought to be more critical of its supposed claim to universality that merely acts as screen concealing its true ideological function. There is a whole other history of philosophy, however, which is far more realistic about morality and power, and that is the theory of natural rights which has its source in ancient philosophy but has its modern form in the writings of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Spinoza.[2] Before we come to this tradition, let us describe how we normally think about rights (and this too has its own long history). We normally think of rights in terms of the essence or definition of something. We define what it is to be human being, for example, and then from that follows certain rights, which might be different from the rights of animals. Indeed, we have seen from our own history that how we consider the definition of people will change how we think about their rights (if we define women to be equal to men, then what we mean by this is that they have the same rights).

This way of thinking about rights goes back to antiquity. The Roman philosopher Cicero would argue that a thing is defined by its essence, which is the law of its nature.[3] Natural right does not refer to a state prior to nature but what conforms to an essence in a good society. A good society is one in which a man might realise his essence, which is his true nature. What is first is one’s duty. One only has rights to the extent that one has obligations, since it is these obligations or offices that allow me to fulfil my essence. It is the philosopher or sage who knows what essence is, what the best society would be to fulfil this essence, and what offices or duties, therefore, that would bring this realisation about.

Christianity repeats this doctrine of natural rights. The difference between the Christian version and the ancient theory is who has the authority to define what essence is, what the best society would be, and the offices and duties therein. It is no longer the philosopher who does so, but the church. How does one reverse this account of natural rights? Not by coming up with a different definition but by completely rethinking what we mean by ‘right’ altogether, and the first philosopher to do so is Hobbes. What he is doing is also saying that morality has to do with politics, which is not that different from Cicero, who is appropriated by Christianity, but he adds that when it comes to politics we need to think of power not essences. Not what is something, but what can that thing do, what is it capable of. Thus it is within the right of a small fish to eat the larger one (Spinoza, 1951, p. 200). This sounds abhorrent to us because we still think of rights in terms of schema of antiquity and Christianity, where a moral action conforms to an essence.

If natural right is defined in terms of power, then the state of nature precedes society. This means for Hobbes that human beings are not born social but have to become so. This is directly against the Christian tradition where Adam existed without sin prior to the fall. Without sin, he conformed to the natural essence of man and it was the adventures of existence that caused him to lose it. In Hobbes’ eyes it is the other way around. One is not born social and reasonable, rather one has to achieve it. What is first is not obligations or duties but rights. One limits rights in order that one can become social and responsible, but it is rights that are first. At the level of rights everyone is equal. Everyone does what they can in terms of their power. Difference arises at the level of the social, which limits people’s rights. What is important here is that it is not at the level of natural rights that we can speak of the differences between people. This means that there is no competent authority who can say what anyone is capable of or what their essence might be (it is up to them to decide what they are capable of and not an external authority). If rights come before obligation or duties that are decided in advance by an authority, then the question becomes why should I limit my rights in order to become social. In other words, what are the benefits of society to me? If a society does form, then it does so as an agreement of persons of equal rights because as a collective each increases the power of the other that would be less if they existed alone. It is we who decide to come together because it is in our best interests to do so and not because of any external authority. Here we have two very different conceptions of politics. The Antiquity-Christian model, which is juridical, and this new theory of politics that is based on power.

Just as much as we can view rights in terms of power, then so too can we redefine virtue, which would give a different meaning to virtue theory. In Machiavelli’s The Prince, virtue (virtù) does not necessarily mean moral virtue, as we might mean it, but strength or power. Thus he speaks of skill of an archer who can hit the target of from a long distance because they know the ‘strength’ of their bow.[4] The word that he uses in this context is virtù. In this way, when he speaks of the virtue of the prince, he is not listing their moral qualities, but their power to influence events and their ‘fortune’.

Spinoza, who read both Hobbes and Machiavelli, too thinks of ethics in terms of power. ‘By virtue and power,’ he writes, I understand the same thing (E4 D8). At the heart of Spinoza’s ontology is conatus. What determines the singularity of a being is not its conformity to a universal essence, whereby we might claim it is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, such that we might say of someone that they are not rational enough once we have defined all human beings as ‘rational animals’, but its power to exist. Every individual thing, be it a stone, plant or animal, strives to preserve its existence and will continue to exist as long as something more powerful does not prevent it from so doing. I am nothing more than my power to exist, as you are, and our power to exist, conatus, is individual to each one of us. Universals, like ‘humanity’ are only abstractions that do not exist as such. I can have an encounter with you on the street, but I cannot encounter ‘humanity’.

When we normally think of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ we do so through moral values. So we might think of ‘good’ as morally good, and ‘bad’ as morally evil, but for Spinoza these are retrospective justifications for something much deeper. What is good is everything that I find useful for me; that is, what increases my power to exist. What is bad is everything I find not useful to me; that is, everything that decreases my power to exist. What is good or bad for me will be determined by my nature. Thus what is good or bad for a stone, is not going to be good or bad for me, what is good or bad for a plant is not what is going to be good or bad for me, and what is good or bad for a lion is not going to be good or bad for me, and equally, since being is singular for Spinoza, each of us are an individual expression of the power to exist, what is good or bad for me is not necessarily going to be good or bad for you. ‘We do not desire,’ Spinoza writes, something because we say it is good; rather it is good because we desire it’ (E3 P9sch.). Thus, it is not bad for the lion to eat the gazelle, since that is what lions do, but it is not good for gazelles to be eaten by lions, so generally gazelles try to avoid lions. What Spinoza would say is that we don’t need to add a moral language to understand it. Moral judgements, as we might suspect are irrelevant.

Now we might say that is alright for lions and gazelles but not for beings like us, since we, as consequentialists and deontologists would say are special and unique within the animal kingdom because of our capacity to make moral judgements. It is at this point that Spinoza’s ontology meets his ethics (and that there is no difference between them is central point of his thought, unlike Kant, for example, who saves ethics by separating them into two distinct worlds). For Spinoza, all beings, stones, plants, animals and human beings are expression of one and the same being to a certain degree. There are no exceptions, or as Spinoza says, human beings are not ‘a dominion within a dominion’ (E3 Pref.). No doubt a plant is more complex than a stone, and animal more complex than a plant, and a human being more complex than a lion, but this does not mean, ontological speaking, that human beings are a completely different kind of being. No doubt because we can speak we can confuse words with ontological reality. So because we have the word ‘evil’ we think there are evil things that transcend our own interests, but this does not mean that evil exists as such exterior to these interests. Human beings act just as lions do, the only difference is that they try and convince the gazelle that they are good for them as well. It might be true that I would lock the serial killer in prison, because such an encounter would seriously undermine by power to exist, but why, as with the example of lions and gazelles, do I need to add a moral language of judgement on top of this to justify it?

Ethics is ethnology. Just as I can study the behaviour of a lion, then I can study the behaviour of human beings. We can just as much talk about an ethics of fleas as we can of human beings, though of course the life of a flea is simpler. How is this different from the normal way that we talk about morals? Normally we talk about morality in terms of norms and values. We say that if you want to be a good person you should behave in such and such a way. ‘Ought’ is not the same as ‘is’. This brings us back to essences that we discussed before, because you can’t have a norm without an essence. I can’t act in the right way if you don’t tell me what it is to be such a person. Thus if there are norms about what it is to be a woman then this follows from the definition of woman. This essence of course is an ideal. In this way no individual woman could ever live up to what it would be to be a woman. All women would fail from the beginning.

Spinoza’s ethics has nothing at all to do with norms because he understands essence in a completely different way. An essence is not an abstraction or definition, but the individual existence of a singular being. We can speak of the essence of ‘William’ as the individual existence of someone called ‘William’, but there is no essence of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ as such. Ethics is a way of being, rather than a norm. When I speak about my ethics (and there can only be an individual ethics for Spinoza), then I am speaking about my individual way of being.

Throughout my life this essence is to be understood as a variation. Sometimes my power to exist increases and at other times it decreases. This is because my body is always in contact with other bodies, and since I have a very complex body, then this means that these relations are numerous and complex. If this contact increases my power to exist, then I experience it as joyful, and if it decreases my power to exist, then I experience it as sadness. These are the two primary affects of existence for Spinoza, which correspond to my conatus. Ethics, then, for Spinoza, is understanding those encounters that bring you joy and those that bring you sadness, and learning to avoid the latter. I know that coffee increases my power to exist in the morning, but drinking too much gives me eczema, so I shouldn’t drink too much. I know speaking to Paul makes me happy, but Peter really depresses me (perhaps it is the other way around for someone else), so I should avoid him. What really surprises Spinoza is that people seem to go out of the way to make themselves sad, and moreover we appear to live in societies whose only function seems to be to make the vast majority of people unhappy and miserable (the two source of this are the two great normative tyrannies, which are religion and politics).

It might appear on first sight that Spinoza’s ethics is egotistical and individualistic. If all that matters is my own power to exist why should I care about others? This would be to ignore human nature, though. Human beings are by nature social beings. The more I compose my power to exist with others, then my own power to exists increases. It would belong to my own interests to create a society in which the greatest amount of people would be capable of expressing their own power to exist. What best serves my purpose is another person who increases my power to exist and this would be the same for them, and so on to the next person. This is why he will argue, in the Tractatus Politicus, that democracy is the best form of government (Spinoza, 1951, pp. 385–7). ‘Nothing,’ he writes in the Ethics, is more advantageous to man than man’ (E4 P18 Sch.).

Works Cited

Deleuze: Spinoza: 09/12/1980 [WWW Document], n.d. URL http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=20&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2 (accessed 4.9.16).

Levinas, E., 1969. Totality and infinity: an essay on exteriority. Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh.

Machiavelli, N., Mansfield, H.C., 1998. The prince. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill.

Mikkelsen, J.M., Kant, I., 2013. Kant and the concept of race: late eighteenth-century writings. SUNY Press, Albany.

Spinoza, B. de, 1951. A theologico-political treatise and a political treatise. Dover, New York.

Ward, J.K., Lott, T.L., 2008. Philosophers on Race: Critical Essays. John Wiley & Sons.

[1] Kant writes in his unpublished notes, Reflexionen, that ‘Americans and Negroes cannot govern themselves. Thus are only good as slaves’ (Mikkelsen and Kant, 2013, p. 8). See also Bernasconi’s essay ‘Kant as an Unfamiliar Source of Racism’ (Ward and Lott, 2008, pp. 145–66).

[2] An excellent and concise of this history can be found in Deleuze’s lectures on Spinoza (“Deleuze: Spinoza: 09/12/1980,” n.d.).

[3] Cicero is useful for us, because he sums up the ancient Greek tradition of ethical thought in Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, but also his own work was influential on the ethical theory of Christianity and especially Aquinas.

[4] ‘He should do as prudent archers do when the place they plan to hit appears too distant, and know how far the strength of their bow carries, they set their aim much higher than the place intended’ (Machiavelli and Mansfield, 1998, p. 22). It is interesting to note that the translator, Mansfield, feels that he cannot leave virtù translated as ‘virtue’ in this context, since it has such a moral overtone for us.