The Oligarchic Principle: A World Without Humans

What we exclusively aim at are machines, the functions of which, make us superfluous, turn us off, and liquidate us. It is irrelevant that this target condition is only ever approximated. What counts is the tendency, and this is ‘without us’.

—Günther Anders (1902-1992)

Karl Marx in one of those insightful passages which would earmark the underlying contradictions within capitalism would say in the first volume of his classic critique of political economy:

there is an immanent contradiction in the application of machinery to the production of surplus-value, since, of the two factors of the surplus-value created by a given amount of capital, one, the rate of surplus-value, cannot be increased except by diminishing the other, the number of workers. This contradiction comes to light as soon as machinery has come into general use in a given industry, for then the value of the machine-produced commodity regulates the social value of all commodities of the same kind; and it is this contradiction which in turn drives the capitalist, without his being aware of the fact, to the most ruthless and excessive prolongation of the working day, in order that he may secure compensation for the decrease in the relative number of workers exploited by increasing not only relative but also absolute surplus labour.1

The tendency in capitalism is to increase profits while at the same time eliminating the need for workers, which as automation and assembly lines began to incorporate Taylorist principles of efficiency and production would slowly replace the workers with machines while at the same time enforcing long hours for the remaining workforce.

That was then, in our own time with the rise of network societies and the digital age what we are seeing is that the more our lives, production processes and intellectual and cognitive activities configure themselves around machines, the less humans are needed as machines become more capable.2 One might say that intelligence itself is migrating from the human to its anorganic rivals, that the optimization of intelligence in material artifacts is becoming the entry into an Inhuman Age of Machinic Life.

As Müller will say in his study of Günther Anders put otherwise, and more succinctly: “employees are working themselves out of work. The more efficient they become because of technological advancement and the more quantifiable their patterns of consumption become, the more human employees become dispensable. This is a first indication of why Anders suggests that ‘today the true robots are not the pretend-humans (Scheinmenschen) that are assembled from dead components and actualised in “computing machines,” but the machine-parts that living humans function as’.” (P: KL 3366) Humans function as spare parts in a machinic civilization that is slowly and methodically disposing this need for the human to the point that in some near future scenario the machines will not need us or our political economies. But in the meantime a minority of humans have opted to side with the machinic in gaining longevity within a system of exclusion and disposability by harnessing the power of the machines to their own benefit: the Oligarchs.

Müller citing Bernard Stiegler in his Decadence of Industrial Societies offers a slogan from Xerox Research Centre, which perfectly captures the strategy that is adopted to combat our limited ability to anticipate the future: ‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it.’11 Stiegler’s discussion of control societies goes on to highlight how this mantra has become a strategy, not just for the business world, but also one adopted by state power. In doing so, he succinctly illustrates the consequence of the oligarchic principle: the more technology mediates our lives, the more market leaders and investors in infrastructure are also in a position to shape the future because they have the resources and market shares to promote the technological solutions around which future lives will revolve. (P: KL 3342)

The Oligarchic Principle (so called) describes the steps that effect the redundancy of a worker merely seeks to illustrate the equation with which Anders describes technological progress: ‘The tendency without which no machine would be a machine, is the aim of concentrating a maximal degree of efficiency and power with the lowest possible investment of human effort. This is the idea inherent to technology.’ (P: KL 3324) What Anders introduces us to here, however, is what he calls ‘the oligarchic principle of technology’. This principle seeks to describe how the salaried or leisurely interaction with a machine leads to an automatic concentration of power (and also wealth). For machines reduce effort in two distinct ways. They increase the productivity of the worker, and simultaneously create (social) conditions in which the rationalization and influencing of individual behavior is met with less and less resistance. It is here that we can begin to understand why Anders insists that the mere existence of a machine amounts to its use, for it either prescribes particular relations and modes of interaction or it ‘“sets the ground” for such relations to unfold’. The emerging technological networks were not directly or exclusively invented in order to find applications in the office. Rather, it is their very existence that illuminates potential applications and unanticipated opportunities to reduce a workforce or automate a specific process. The consequence of this ‘oligarchic principle’ is that power begins to be concentrated into the hands of those who history will reveal as having had an understanding of how to effectively mobilize technological innovations, or see their innovation, application or hardware widely adopted.(P: 3329)

One might also term it the Promethean principle of business: the power of foresight, innovation, and focus that allows an entrepreneur to mobilize creativity, produce efficient products, and the insight to forge the mass adoption of these products, while concentrating the power and wealth within the product itself. As a consequence of this principle the obsolescence of individual lines of work that may ensue from technological progress is likewise not the product of a malignant desire to create unemployed workers, but a consequence of the desire to attain a workflow that does not require any employees. As is corroborated by statistical data, for instance by ‘the Great Decoupling’ of the American economy diagnosed by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, the oligarchic principle is creating an environment in which there is an ever widening gap between the winners who profit from the emerging networks and technological infrastructures, and who can ever more effectively ensure that they will continue to do so, and the losers whose efforts are no longer required as the digital revolution unfolds and who are increasingly locked out of the labour market. (P: 3353)

Stiegler has described this in his new work The Automatic Society as capitals tendency to always take advantage of the technical system as a second nature that duplicates, absorbs, replaces and short-circuits the social systems between which and within which psychic individuals form and connect the circuits of transindividuation through which and within which they form collective individuals. The crux of his argument is that as we externalize our memories in these digital devices (Smart phones, Google, AI, etc.) we are losing our own ability to remember, thereby becoming void of memory retention abilities. In the current stage of metamorphosis, which would be that of the chrysalis (with the appearance of new forms and a new organization), the stupefying and narcotizing state of fact in which the present experience of automatic society consists sets up a new mental context – stupefaction – within which systemic stupidity proliferates. The result is a significant increase in functional stupidity, drive-based capitalism and industrial populism.4

One of the points raised by Müller and Stiegler is that in the hyper-industrial stage, hyper-control is established through a process of generalized automatization. This represents a step beyond the control-through-modulation discovered and analysed by Deleuze (pdf). In the hyper-industrial stage, the noetic faculties of theorization and deliberation are short-circuited by the current operator of proletarianization, which is digital tertiary retention – just as analogue tertiary retention was in the twentieth century the operator of the proletarianization of life-knowledge, and just as mechanical tertiary retention was in the nineteenth century the operator of the proletarianization of work-knowledge. (AS: KL 1347)

The point here is that as we externalize our memories, become more dependent on these digital devices to not only inform us but make our decisions for us we are being modulated and controlled in a ubiquitous and entertaining way, our lives shaped and defined by algorithmic governmentality without ever knowing this is what is going on. It all seems so ordinary that it has become invisible and internalized to the point we no longer even see it.

As Müller remarks the data we generate is the capital of the digital age, not only because it is enabling the automation of seemingly distinct human capabilities, thus potentially rendering human contributions obsolete or at least economically unviable, but also because it invites a more fundamental and destructive form of obsolescence – the obsolescence of ‘our heart’, as Anders calls it, that is, the obsolescence of ‘our inhibitions, fears, worries, regrets’.5 The economic dimensions of obsolescence that Anders contemplates in his extensive discussions of the machine assisted division of labour are focused onto the emotional detachment between ourselves and the actions we are implicated with. This detachment is amplified the more complex and autonomous technological objects become. Whereas early modernist analogue capitalism focused on the emotional wounds employees suffer on account of a labour market in which they are replaceable, Anders no longer focuses on the phenomenological realm of observable emotional repercussions of being an employee, but on the untraceable and intangible chains of abstraction that the work of hundreds, yes even thousands of employees add up to. For these forces of abstraction are the Promethean chains that Anders seeks to contemplate, as these are the chains that bind us to the deceptive feeling of ordinariness that our senses present us with. (P: KL 3296)

As we migrate into this digital infosphere that seems day by day to become so ordinary, an ordinariness that only a generation ago seemed so wild and cyberpunk, our digital gadgets, our network society is beginning to re-ontologizing our world while at the same time creating new realities. As Luciano Floridi remarks the threshold between here (analogue, carbon-based, offline) and there (digital, silicon-based, online) is fast becoming blurred, but this is as much to the advantage of the latter as it is to the former. Adapting Horace’s famous phrase, ‘captive infosphere is conquering its victor’, the digital-online is spilling over into the analogue-offline and merging with it. This recent phenomenon is variously known as ‘Ubiquitous Computing’, ‘Ambient Intelligence’, ‘The Internet of Things’, or ‘Web-augmented Things’. I prefer to refer to it as the onlife experience. It is, or will soon be, the next stage in the development of the information age.  With a slogan: hyperhistory happens onlife.5

The virtualization of reality, the sense that we are living inside an artificial environment is becoming more and more apparent day by day. Over the past fifty years even our concept of Nature, of the external environment within which we all depend for our survival: the planet earth itself. It is eroding, vanishing before our eyes and being absorbed into the virtual. The borders between the two realms are blurring and mixing, a mutation and metamorphosis of technology and the human which is eroding age old structures of the mind. When Nietzsche defined nihilism as the process of emptying our connections to the environment, of losing the value systems, the sign systems that had guided our morals, our behaviours, our psychic and social relations for millennia this is what he was speaking of. This sense that we have been retreating further and further into our artifices, our artificial worlds of the Human Security System (Land).

In her recent book Expulsions Saskia Sassen tells us of a the emergence of new ‘logics of expulsion”. As she explains “the past two decades have seen a sharp growth in the number of people, enterprises, and places expelled from the core social and economic orders of our time. This tipping into radical expulsion was enabled by elementary decisions in some cases, but in others by some of our most advanced economic and technical achievements. The notion of expulsions takes us beyond the more familiar idea of growing inequality as a way of capturing the pathologies of today’s global capitalism. Further, it brings to the fore the fact that forms of knowledge and intelligence we respect and admire are often at the origin of long transaction chains that can end in simple expulsions.”6

One familiar example in the West that is both complex and extreme is the expelling of low-income workers and the unemployed from government social welfare and health programs as well as from corporate insurance and unemployment support. Beyond the negotiations and the making of new law required to execute this expulsion, there is the extreme fact that the divide between those with access to such benefits and those denied it has sharpened and may well be irreversible under current conditions. Another example is the rise of advanced mining techniques, notably hydraulic fracturing, that have the power to transform natural environments into dead land and dead water, an expulsion of bits of life itself from the biosphere. (E: KL 46)

It’s this slow drift toward automation and machinism that is bringing with it the expulsion of humans from their own work, societies, and habitations. This complexification of life we term globalism is producing a brutalization of the human and its expulsion from its own socio-cultural systems. She’ll as How does complexity produce brutality? Saying, the logics organizing some of today’s major order-making systems in domains as diverse as global environmental protection and finance. As she tells it the thesis she presents is that we are seeing the making not so much of predatory elites but of predatory “formations,” a mix of elites and systemic capacities with finance a key enabler, that push toward acute concentration. Concentration at the top is nothing new. What concerns me is the extreme forms it takes today in more and more domains across a good part of the world. I see the capacity for generating extreme concentration in some of the following trends, to mention just a few. There has been a 60 percent increase in the wealth of the top 1 percent globally in the past twenty years; at the top of that 1 percent, the richest “100 billionaires added $ 240 billion to their wealth in 2012— enough to end world poverty four times over.” (E: KL 210)

At the core of this need to control and concentrate wealth in the hands of the few is the notion that the capitalist form is devolving and eroding its own profit making structures which have enabled it a global system. The very technologies that provide the elites with a platform for profit are at the same time excluding humans from their surplus value in the same system. Due to this intensive curtailment of the human within the ongoing machinic takeover and automation of society the oligarchic principle of innovation and profit is in a tailspin devolving toward a zero point of no return in which humans will no longer be needed to produce wealth. At that point capitalism as we’ve known it at least since Marx’s diagnosis will have ended and something else will have replaced it.

Its as if we were entering a new stage of animistic society, but with a difference: instead of projecting our minds into the environment through hallucination and dream like sequences, we are investing our memories and perceptions in our technologies which are then re-ontologizing our world and our psyches through a process of technologization. In this sense we are being hooked into a technocratic commercium, a neuroeconomic empire based on a collective hypermind in which we are mere replaceable spare parts within a fully automated society of machinic civilization: the Mechanosphere.

Exclusion and disposability, expulsion from the very systems of innovation and technics we helped invent and put into practice, humans have in their bid to profit from the technologization of reality, bringing the power and wealth into a system of concentration under the eyes of a few elite bankers, financiers, stock moghuls, land owners – the wealthy entrepreneurs and Oligarchs of the .01% have allowed themselves to produce a global system that will in the end exclude even them from the fruits of their theft.

The Society of the Spectacle that Debord once described has become the end game of predatory capitalism and violence at the hands of its own technologies. Indeed, what is new about the current historical conjuncture say Brad Evans and Henry Giroux in Disposable Futures: The Seduction of Violence in the Age of Spectacle  is not only a commodified popular culture that trades in extreme violence, greed, and narcissism as a source of entertainment, but the emergence of a predatory society in which the suffering and death of others becomes a reason to rejoice rather than mourn. Extreme violence has become not only a commodified spectacle, but one of the few popular resources available through which people can bump up their pleasure quotient.7

In our recursion to artifice, our escape into artificial playlands and the virtualization of reality we’ve entered a new stage of sociopathic civilization. As Charles Derber in Sociopathic Society: A People’s Sociology of the United States remarks a “sociopathic society breeds routinized, institutionalized pervasive and fierce sociopathy that chips away at its own foundations”. 8 Sociopathy is antisocial behavior by an individual or institution that typically advances self-interest, such as making money, while harming others and attacking the fabric of society. In a sociopathic society, sociopathic behavior, both by individuals and institutions, is the outcome of dominant social values and power arrangements. A sociopathic society, paradoxically, creates dominant social norms that are antisocial— that is, norms that assault the well-being and survival of much of the population and undermine the social bonds and sustainable environmental conditions essential to any form of social order. Like an “autoimmune disease, such antisocial societal programming leads to behavior that weakens and can, in the most extreme scenario, kill the society itself”. (SS: KL 303)

In this sense we as humans seem moving toward an all out self-annihilating praxis, a pathway that is at once terminating the fabric of human civilization even as it is inventing a future without us, handing it over to the very technics and technologies that once provided it wealth, power, and profits. A re-wiring of the human is underway, a sociopathic exercise in de-naturalization that is wiping our ancestral psyche blank and fabricating a society based on hypertechnologization and the metamorphosis and mutation of the human into posthumaninty. Nick Land’s statement that “nothing human makes it out alive” is a two-edged forecast, on the one hand this means that our conceptual humanistic frameworks are being annihilated and replaced by a new logics of machinism (Deleuzeguattari); and, on the other hand the very fabric of human civilization is mutating, along with its economic, social, cultural and pychic/physical systems to the point that the human itself is becoming machinic in a literal sense rather than figuratively.

Where we will end up is anyone’s guess… can we resist such overwhelming force? Is it too late even to think of resistance? For most of our contemporaries this all goes on as usual, it’s become ubiquitous, invisible, and ordinary life. Our fascination with technology and gadgets, our dependence of mobile devices and the smart technologies that they’ve spawned and are slowly migrating into the things around us is creating a virtualization of reality, an re-ongologizing of our mind and flesh as we become members of a collective body without organs: the Mechanosphere, the Hypersphere… as Anders said: “as more technology mediates our lives, the more market leaders and investors in infrastructure are also in a position to shape the future because they have the resources and market shares to promote the technological solutions around which future lives will revolve.” We are being captured by technics and technology in a self-replicating feed-back loop that is accelerating us well past the meridian of return, entering a black hole of futurial mutation that is redefining the human into posthumanistic socio-cultural systems that will ultimately decide the fate not only of humanity but of the earth we stand on. Divested of our ancient environmental cues, de-naturalized and machinic we are entering an age of global inhumanism in which the human is being expulsed from the order of its own civilization.

… more of my journey into this strange new world tomorrow.

  1. Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy: A Critique of Political Economy v. 1 (Classics) (Kindle Locations 7707-7724). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
  2. Müller, Christopher John. Prometheanism: Technology, Digital Culture and Human Obsolescence (Critical Perspectives on Theory, Culture and Politics) (Kindle Locations 3365-3366). Rowman & Littlefield International. Kindle Edition.
  3. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee . The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (January 20, 2014)
  4. Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society: The Future of Work (Kindle Locations 1319-1323). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  5. Floridi, Luciano. The Ethics of Information (p. 8). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.
  6. Sassen, Saskia. Expulsions (Kindle Locations 40-44). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.
  7. Giroux, Henry A.; Evans, Brad. Disposable Futures: The Seduction of Violence in the Age of Spectacle (City Lights Open Media) (Kindle Locations 293-296). City Lights Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  8. Derber, Charles. Sociopathic Society: A People’s Sociology of the United States (Kindle Locations 296-303). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

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