Semiocapitalism and the Neoliberal Self

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“Turn on, tune in, drop out.” – Timothy Leary

Leary would use that phrase he received from Marshall McLuhan the media guru of the era during the 60’s to describe mental activation, harmonious interaction with others and the world, and a sense of “wu wei” or not-doing, a detachment from the work-a-day world while at the same time a commitment to the singularity of one’s own creative potential. In Flash Backs he’d describe it this way:

“Turn on” meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. “Tune in” meant interact harmoniously with the world around you – externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. “Drop out” suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. “Drop Out” meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean “Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity”.

Today to turn on means to enter the program, get with the data-flows of capital. To tune-in is to mesh with the levels of abstraction in the infosphere, keep pace with the digital matrix. Drop out is more of a political act of disconnection, unplugging from the machine, discovering a way to survive the onslaught of info-glut one is immersed in daily. The psychedelic age is gone and with it the whole notion of “mobility, choice, and change”. Today we live in a futureless present, a realm of apathy, depression, and decay. People distrust politics and media to the point that it has become more of a joke than not. Bifo Berardi pulling no punches tells us the truth: “Democracy seems unable to stop the criminal class that has seized control of the economy, because the decisions are no longer made in the sphere of political opinion, but in the inaccessible sphere of economic automatism. … No room for political choice is left, as corporate principles have become embedded in the technical fabric of language and imagination.”1

Jean-Pierre Dupuy in his latest work, Economy and the Future: A Crisis of Faith was led by a sense of shame “at seeing politics allow itself to be humiliated by economics, at seeing political authority disgraced by managerialism, by the cult of business management”.2 Peter F. Drucker one of those who shaped this new breed of financial management once described the process that would be needed to make it come about as “benchmarking”:

… benchmarking today does not only mean comparing operations with the best that happens within a given agency. It means comparing what one does with the best that is being done anyplace, and especially with the best of what is being done outside. And by that token, the things you report as major achievements in government agencies would be considered more or less clerical adjustments in a good many outside institutions, and not only in business but in a great many nonprofit organizations as well.3

Yet, comparisons would not be enough. One would need a rating system, a way of testing and analyzing performance indexes: “But how do you now convert these promises into performance? For without an organized, systematic, continuous, and ongoing process—and without measurements that hold what an individual agency does against the best, the very best that anyone, inside and outside the federal government, does—these are only promises. And the seedlings, no matter how lush and green they look today, are bound to wither and shrivel up.” (p. 169)

As a software engineer for the better part of 25 years I understand just what he means. In the past 16 years or so I’ve seen this sense of benchmarking put into practice in various implementations of command and control by corporations I’ve contracted with. Without going into every methodology I’ve worked within over the years, they all had one thing in common: the struggle to reduce cost, and to bring about efficiency and quality at the greatest speed (an ever accelerating process of cycles and benchmarks). Ultimately one system seems to have taken on this task because it was both fast and controllable, and one that implemented the task of benchmarking to the tee: that was the Agile Process.

Agile product management occurs when all aspects of development, including requirements, design and prototypes, are constantly examined on a recurring and incremental basis. By viewing projects incrementally, there are opportunities to adjust the project and move in another direction to accommodate changing circumstances. This is in contrast to a more traditional project management paradigm where development proceeds according to pre-defined requirements, with little room for change. Under a traditional approach, the development team has only one opportunity to get the development right. Agile development allows businesses to optimize development by building the right product at greatly reduced cost, while adapting to change and getting to market quicker.

The key is optimize, reduce cost, and adapt to changing markets. These seem to be the basic principles that drive software development, and I would say the whole business cycle itself in our present managed world of business and government. Drucker would also be key to another notion: “Globalization does not mean that there is worldwide trade in goods or services. It means that there is worldwide information. And that is the determining factor” (p. 216). It’s this immaterial world of information that has in our time become the basis of a new economy. What Drucker long ago termed the “knowledge economy”.

Berardi would call this new economy “semiocapitalism”: Shifting from the sphere of production of material objects to the semiocapitalist production of immaterial goods (knowledge), the economic concepts are losing their foundation and legitimacy. The basic categories of economics are becoming totally artificial.” (p. 144) As Philip Mirowski would state it the “core insight of the Neoliberal Thought Collective was that the cultural and the economic should not be treated as substitutes, much less discrete spheres of experience, but rather, as integrated into a virtuous whole: surrender your selfish arrogance and humbly prostrate yourself before the Wisdom of the Universe, as nurtured and conveyed by the market.”4

The notion of reinventing the very foundations of government and business were at the heart of Peter F. Drucker’s policy initiatives, of bringing about a change in the corporatist state and businesses a new Knowledge Society that would be based on immaterial wealth and goods. One that would also break apart the old Factory model of managers against workers unions. The way they did this was to do away with the factories and the workers, thus allowing the unions to vanish without a fight. Along with this the neoliberals would also need to do away with the old liberal work-ethic and liberal subject that had for so long contributed to the social stasis of this Fordist Factory model.

As Berardi recognizes the new technocapitalism no longer needs workers, instead it just “needs cellular fractals of labor, underpaid, precarious, depersonalized” (p. 141). Fragments of impersonal nervous energy, recombined by the network. the crisis is going to push forward technological change and the substitution of human labor with machines. In semiocapitalism the “brain is the market” (p. 136). Intelligent knowledge is what is needed: creativity and innovation. Berardi asks us to imagine the new precarious worker:

Let us think of the crowd of people sitting in the subway every morning. They are precarious workers moving toward the industrial and financial districts of the city, toward the places where they are working in precarious conditions. Everyone wears headphones, everybody looks at their cellular devices, everybody sits alone and silent, never looking at the people who sit close, never speaking or smiling or exchanging any kind of signal. They are traveling alone in their lonely relationship with the universal electronic flow. Their cognitive and affective formation has made of them the perfect object of a process of desingularization. They have been pre-emptied and transformed into carriers of abstract fractal ability to connect, devoid of sensitive empathy so as to become smooth, compatible parts of a system of interoperability. Although they suffer from nervous aggression, and from the exploitation that semiocapitalism is imposing on them, although they suffer from the separation between functional being and sensible body and mind, they seem incapable of human communication and solidarity; in short, they seem unable to start any process of conscious collective subjectivation” (p. 132)

It’s as if our whole society had been groomed into becoming a pure sociopathic desensitized assemblage of merciless manipulators, all to meet the demands of the new immaterial semiocapitalist economy. Adam Kotsko in Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television tells us the “sociopath is an individual who transcends the social, who is not bound by it in any gut-level way and who can therefore use it purely as a tool” (p. 9).5 This sense of being disconnected to the social worlds of family, love, etc. seem to pervade our world toady. Berardi tells us that this a-social neoliberal world that sees the social body as both waste and garbage to be expunged rather than mollified: a systematic profiting of the fractalized intelligence of the time vectors of part-humans rather than the care and maintenance faithful employees.  A world where the human-machines that must plug themselves into the virtual worlds of capital like accelerating and overexploited bits of nervous energy leads to what Berardi terms as suicidal “exhaustion”: Nervous breakdown, psychopathology, panic, depression, suicidal epidemic, and mass murder. (p. 133)

Anthony Giddens will see our trust in abstract systems which has become a part of this neoliberal regimes absorption of labor into the virtual worlds of the new economics as an opening to ontological insecurity and new forms of psychological vulnerability: a trust in abstract systems is not psychologically rewarding in the way in which trust in persons is.6 But do machines trust each other? Haven’t we slowly given up our old liberal notions of subjectivity based on humanism? Hasn’t the whole of the past fifty years of academic anti-humanist and anti-realist thought contributed to the neoliberal unmaking of the liberal Subject at the heart of humanism? I’m reminded of Will Self’s hilarious short story “Ward 9”, a satire on the neoliberal subject’s that had slowly been drained of their nervous energy, their brain power only to be thrown our and disposed into the final enclaves of exhaustion: “Tom had told me that he referred to the hospital, privately, as the Ministry of Love; and it was true that the sepulchral ship forging its way through the grid of streets had something of the future, the corporate about it, mixed in with the despotic past.” 7 At one point we discover the truth:

‘You see, what we have here is a situation that calls for mutual aid. … indeed all of the patients on the ward, could be said to be casualties of a war that we ourselves have waged. That’s why we felt it was our duty to care for them in a special kind of environment. You, of course, noticed the curious involution of the pathology that they exhibit, Misha, and that was right – you passed the first step. They are not mad in any accepted sense, rather they are meta-mad. Their madness is a conscious parody of the relation in which the psyche stands to itself … but you know this. Unfortunately, you didn’t do so well on the other tests …’ Busner tipped out some of the Parstelin from the pot on to the table. ‘You took these, Misha, and you fucked Mimi in just about every available cupboard on the ward. This is not the behaviour of a responsible therapist. You had a choice, Misha. On Ward 9 you could have been therapist or patient; it seems that you have decided to become a patient.’ (p. 337)

Maybe in the end that’s the truth of our predicament: we have all become patients in an open sanatorium under the dominion of overlords who have become both our managers, therapists, and mad entrepreneurs of a sociopathic society. The problem is that we’ve agreed to their terms, and to their pharmaceutical diagnosis. As Maurizio Lazzarato states it if “motorized machines constituted the second age of the technical machine, cybernetic and informational machines form a third age that reconstructs a generalized regime of enslavement: recurrent and reversible ‘human-machine systems’ replace the old nonrecurrent and nonreversible relations of subjection between the two elements.” (p. 34)8 The new knowledge worker is machinic to the extent that she provides intelligence as surplus value, everything else is expendable and is waste. Once the worker has been used up it can be silenced, drugged, or let out to pasture for suicide. For semiocapital only the creativity and innovation of the worker matters all else is dross to be sloughed off as so much garbage.

Berardi tells us that the Enlightenment project of progressive civilization that brought about the great social systems that protected the fabric of social society are at an end. The dissociation between capitalism and modernity is complete. Deregulation as the central concept of neoliberalist ideology has swept away all the old safeguards. The privatization of every aspect of life has now imposed the brutality of financial capitalism in every nook and cranny of the social sphere, restructuring both the institutions and subjectivities of the progressive world to the point that they exist no longer but in fragmentation and disarray. The new generation coming of age lives in an electronic infosphere that disconnects them from the former subjectivation of real relationships based on trust and solidarity.

Berardi will ask: “Why are the cognitariat weak and disunited and unable to assert their rights as laborers, their knowledge as researchers?” His answer: Because they live in a bifurcated form, because their brain is detached from their body, because their communication communicates less and less, while more and more freezing sensitivity to life. (p. 163) Lazzarato will ask: “How do we invent and practice both equality and “ethical differentiation” (singularization) while breaking with the machinic enslavements and social subjections of modern-day capitalism that have a dual hold on our subjectivity?” (p. 249)

When Berardi mentions the need for active withdrawal he tempts us with something other than some mass exodus, rather as he says,

Radical passivity means active withdrawal, and withdrawal means creation of spaces of autonomy where solidarity can be rebuilt, and where self-relying communities can start of process of proliferation, contagion, and eventually, of reversal of the trend. I don’t see any conservatism or moralism in this, just the acknowledgement of the dead end we are facing after thirty years of economic subjugation and profit worshipping. (p. 177)

Spaces of freedom, autonomous zones (Hakim Bey?), where artists and philosophers, activists and everyday citizens can come and participate in rebuilding links to actual human community and solidarity through open communicative strategies and alliances. When I think back to the coffee houses of Paris during the 20’s and after WWII and other cities around the globe where art and philosophy, politics and activism came together united in one thing: opposition to the dark desires of capitalism. This gives me hope it could happen again. Instead of giving our brain trust to the capitalists, let’s take it back and create our own open society. Too idealist? Maybe, but we want know unless we try, now will we? My only issue is that we may have already gone too far down this path of neoliberal constructionism, that both the institutions and the reconstruction of the human project itself is beyond reversibility; that, with all our talk of spaces of freedom we have to face the actual question: what to do? Where to get the funds to begin such a task? Who would be involved? This would entail the global effort of artists, thinkers, philosophers, and just about every creative being on the planet. Is such an effort to build localized enclaves of freedom in this desert of semiocapital possible?

1. After the Future. Franco “Bifo” Berardi. edited Gary Genosko & Nicholas Thoburn (AK Press 2011)
2. Dupuy, Jean-Pierre (2014-10-01). Economy and the Future: A Crisis of Faith (Studies in Violence, Mimesis, & Culture) (Kindle Locations 163-164). Michigan State University Press. Kindle Edition.
3. Drucker, Peter F.; Wartzman, Rick (2010-07-05). The Drucker Lectures: Essential Lessons on Management, Society and Economy (p. 169). McGraw-Hill Education. Kindle Edition.
4. Mirowski, Philip (2013-07-09). Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (Kindle Locations 2087-2090). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
5. Kotsko, Adam (2012-04-27). Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television (p. 9). NBN_Mobi_Kindle. Kindle Edition.
6. Giddens, Anthony (2013-04-24). The Consequences of Modernity (Kindle Locations 1532-1536). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
7. Self, Will (2010-11-02). The Undivided Self (p. 296). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.
8. Maurizio Lazzarato. Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity (Semiotext(e) 2014)

4 thoughts on “Semiocapitalism and the Neoliberal Self

  1. While reading this the thing that kept popping into my mind was that section of Obamacare which basically says when we are too old to work we will be euthanized. I don’t know if that part is still in the bill, but I’m sure it is. When I first heard of it, in 2009, I railed against it, but as time has passed and I have changed….I don’t think, anymore it is such a bad idea.

    After all, “They have been pre-emptied and transformed into carriers of abstract fractal ability to connect, devoid of sensitive empathy so as to become smooth, compatible parts of a system of interoperability. ”

    So true….

    “Is such an effort to build localized enclaves of freedom in this desert of semiocapital possible?”

    I don’t know. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yep, he’s revitalizing D&G’s sense of desire as flow in the assemblage: rather than as being bound to the Freudian-Lacanian origins in sex and drives, etc. He extends their original findings and elaborates a theory of desire that goes beyond their work while incorporating its potential for new possibilities.

      This sense as in Guattari and Stern that we are immersed in a pre-verbal matrix and only later negotiate it through the acquisition of linguistic structures imposed on us from the outside that shape and organize the real according to social rules and regulatory structures: that it is our birth into language that divides us against ourselves, our affective life, etc. That lack does not constitute us: that lack is itself constituted by the imposition of language on us – that it is the divider that produces lack rather than the ground from which we emerge. That language is the source of the cleavage between our experience of life and our representations which are part of the verbal symbolic order imposed on us.

      Language helps us share, but it also hides parts of experience and our own life from us. That’s part of the key for me in why Scott Bakker is stuck in his BBT theory: he leaves out this pre-verbal aspect and seems to confine his theoretic to attacking the verbal structures of consciousness. While the affective aspects of our life are eliminated altogether as intentional baggage, etc. He seems to accept the folk wisdom as something we will live with for some time, while the scientific aspect will exist in actual practice etc. This is where the shamanistic aspect comes in for me: it’s more of a cartography of this destruction of the linguistic self and a reversion to the pre-verbal modes of consciousness, etc. This is a schizophrenia as Guattari/Deleuze describe it.

      Then of course he shows how the political aspects of language control and manipulate the subjectivation process forming and shaping our subjective notions of self and society, etc. Using Foucault’s notions of “disciplinary dispotifs”. Over and over he will remind us that for D&G desire is “machined”, constructed; that it is not natural (sexual) but is artificial. He will show from Foucault how Freud was not the originator of psychoanalysis, but rather came at the long end of a process of social construction that had begun in the Enlightenment/Romantic projects through the power/knowledge sequences of archive and networks of discourse, etc.

      I thought that was funny where the whole point of this long line of thought that became the central motif of Freud and his familial romance theory was the “campaign against masturbation”. haha… He says it started with the publication of Onania by Bekker in 1710, then moved to Germany and France by 1760. For Foucault this was part of the disciplinary function to produce the correct type of subjectivation for the new capitalism of the era. Focusing on the space of the Family – allowing the new modes of self-discipline and surveillance to restrain and curtail deviance, etc. The point of all this attention to the deviance of the child’s body was to create a tamed and passive human, one that could be controlled and disciplined to serve capitalism.

      The basic motif is that all these various disciplinarian modalities of power/knowledge are as Guattari will suggest (affirming Foucault) are political constructions, modes of disciplining bodies (Families) as part of the Integrated World Capitalism (Guattari).

      Like

      • if you get a chance to read developmental folks like gopnik these sorts of early speculations around socialization/language-use don’t really hold up as we are deep in the social-matrix from very early days, but still much to sort out along such lines as to how (and to what) we are shaped, for me sublimation is the lasting bit of the freudian corpus:
        http://www.psy.herts.ac.uk/pub/sjcowley/docs/cradle.pdf

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