Deleuze’s societies of control

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which gives you a proper chronology of sections.

Note: the content below is all in first draft format. It will change considerably during the time it takes for the study to be completed (especially by way of more academic support, generally). I post now ‘for interest’s sake’.

In his essay, ‘Postscript on Societies of Control’, Giles Deleuze offers an analysis of two phases of Western society; it is an analysis that contains very useful information regarding the question of what prevents change in a social system where human action is widely acknowledged to be steering the planet’s collective ecosystems into critical conditions (see Chapters 1 and 2 in this regard). The two phases of Western society Deleuze identifies are disciplinary and control societies, the latter being the contemporary phase that emerged from the former. Disciplinary societies, prevalent in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, are ones where (as the name suggests) disciplinary institutions play the major role in conditioning members of the public from early ages to accept subservience to authority as the unquestioned status quo. Several examples of such disciplinary institutions, as well as the chronology of one’s transition through them, are offered by Deleuze (1995: 177):

first of all the family, then school (‘you’re not at home, you know’), then the barracks (‘you’re not at school, you know’), then the factory, hospital from time to time, maybe prison.

Deleuze (ibid) points out that each institution has its “own laws”, and that each serves the same basic purpose:

bringing everything together, giving each thing its place, organizing time, setting up in this space-time a force of production greater than the sum of component forces.

These are simple but powerful and relevant observations by Deleuze: the fact that he identifies the family unit (which was undeniably exclusively patriarchal in the aforementioned centuries) as a starting point for the acceptance of the authority of disciplinary institutions is important, because at such a young age children are susceptible and vulnerable, learning in their early years much about the world from their parents, who themselves are/were conditioned to accept the authority of disciplinary establishments without question. The child then goes to school, and thereafter (if male) the army, then the factory; males and females are exposed to hospitals and are (at least) aware of the existence and threat of prisons. Deleuze (1995: 179) points out that transitions between phases always involves “starting from zero”, which means the repetition of having to learn new rules, expectations, and ways of behaving. The essential ingredients for the prevention of change in disciplinary societies have therefore already been identified: the acceptance of authority, conditioned into an individual from a very early age, as well as the frequent adaptation to ‘the next’ form of disciplinary organisation, keeps the individual checking their actions against the dictates of the various disciplinary institutions that constitute society. People moving chronologically through this collection of disciplinary units are unlikely to incite social change because their conditioning makes them subservient to ‘the system’, a system that itself requires subservient citizens for its perpetuation.

After briefly describing facets of control societies, Deleuze (1995: 178) observes that disciplinary “sites of confinement” are breaking down, and that “societies of control” are gradually replacing them. In a control society, “businesses take over from factories” (1995: 179), and in such corporate contexts, marketing “is now the instrument of social control and produces the arrogant breed who are our masters”. Whereas in disciplinary societies one is always “starting again all over again” (Ibid), in control societies “you never finish anything” (Ibid), and Deleuze invokes the atmosphere of the white- and blue-collar workplace where employees are endlessly involved in “challenges, competitions and seminars”. The comparison is accordingly made between a game show and a corporation: “If the stupidest TV game shows are so successful, it’s because they’re a perfect reflection of the way businesses are run” (ibid). People in such an environment do not need the threat of a disciplinarian in order to achieve the goals of their corporate ‘masters’, namely profit and perpetuation of the means by which profit is secured. Instead, they work to reinforce corporate capitalist ideology because, since young ages, they have watched items like game shows on television, been part of school systems where “continuous assessment” in employed (Ibid), and experienced parents and friends opposed as individuals against one another (i.e. competing) as per the capitalist agenda of their control society:

 …businesses are constantly introducing an inexorable rivalry presented as healthy competition, a wonderful motivation that sets individuals against one another and sets itself up in each of them, dividing each within himself. Even the state education system has been looking at the principle of ‘getting paid for results’: in fact, just as businesses are replacing factories, school is being replaced by continuing education and exams by continuous assessment. It’s the surest way of turning education into a business. (Ibid)

The outcome is that people/employees/pupils/(puppets) implicitly learn and internalise control mechanisms, perpetuating the mechanisms themselves, as well as the problematic ecological impacts of the control society (because the contemporary control society happens to be an Advanced Industrial Society, whose ecological impacts have been seen at various stages of this study).

The question of what prevents social change can also be approached by considering the ‘manufacturing’ context of a control society. Disciplinary societies were focused on production, while

capitalism in its present form is no longer directed toward production, which is often transferred to remote parts of the Third World… It’s directed towards metaproduction. It no longer buys raw materials and no longer sells finished products; it buys finished products or assembles them from parts. What it seeks to sell is services, and what it seeks to buy, activities. It’s a capitalism no longer directed toward production but towards products, that is, toward sales or markets.

Finished products are neatly packaged, conveniently detached from the polluting ‘aura’ of industrial processes that are required to make them; members of corporations who often have the task of “assembling finished products” (Ibid) therefore do not necessarily see the impact of advanced industrial processes on the environment. As insinuated in Deleuze’s game-show remark already encountered, it can be said of corporation employees that that they ‘play the game’, i.e. they function according to their ‘training’, a training that occurs in the context of the control society so far described. Consumers of the neatly packaged end products (i.e. fully assembled finished products) see even less of the direct negative ecological impacts of industry. In pointing out that capitalism’s focus on “products” in control society is somewhat coterminous with its focus on “sales or markets” (Ibid), Deleuze is indirectly alluding to the debt-based monetary economy at the heart of the contemporary Promethean dispensation that is capitalism. Indeed, Deleuze later (1995: 181) makes a direct comment on this facet of control society when he points out a difference between a disciplinary and control societies: “man is no longer a man confined but a man in debt”. He notes (1995: 180) that money is symbolic of the change of methods of control between the two types of society: the one uses a gold standard, while the other uses rates of exchange, i.e markets:

Money, perhaps, best expresses the difference between the two kinds of society, since discipline was always related to molded [sic] currencies containing gold as a numerical standard, whereas control is based on floating exchange rates, modulations depending on a code setting sample percentages for various currencies.

It has already been seen in previous sections that rates of ecological deterioration accelerated exponentially as the money supply increased, and as was also discussed in those sections, money is debt; so in focusing on the operation of markets as instruments of social control, Deleuze is identifying (partly) the money/debt relationship as one that prevents social change. Deleuze goes on to employ some interesting symbols to illustrate the change between disciplinary and control societies:

If money’s old moles are the animals you get in places of confinement, then control societies have their snakes. We’ve gone from one animal to the other, from moles to snakes, not just in the system we live under but in the way we live and in our relationships with other people too. Disciplinary man produced energy in discreet amounts, while control man undulates, moving among a continuous range of different orbits. Surfing has taken over from all the old sports.

So when people are involved with “challenges, competitions and seminars” (1995: 179) that partly constitute the working world for most capitalist employees, they in a sense themselves ‘play the game’ according to the ‘fluid’ (hence “surfing”) corporate and business imperatives of the system rather than with a disciplinarian explicitly instructing them – this has already been discussed in this section. Even more ‘fluid’ is the movement of digital, debt-based money on the stock exchange and between the Reserve banks of the world and the state-endorsed banks that loan out the money for interest, a kind of digital surfing that affects the lives of the vast majority of the people on the planet, people who are conditioned (by, for example, the flow of money in the system) in their control society to perpetuate ecologically problematic actions.

During Deleuze’s short analysis, he briefly mentions three industries as examples of ones particular to control societies: “pharmaceutical productions”, “molecular engineering” and genetic engineering” (1995: 178). The lattermost of these industries, in the form of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) engineering, was explored in Chapter 2; its modus operandi is similar to that of the first two example industries just mentioned. Considering that the GMO industry was listed in that Chapter as the eighth of various industries with disastrous consequences for overall ecology of the planet, it seems reasonable to suggest that all of the industries explored in Chapter 2 are structural systemic ‘players’ in the broader Advanced Industrial free-market neoliberal capitalist control society. This is to say that all the relevant industries perpetuate control mechanisms in similar ways to that of the GMO industry, or as Deleuze (Ibid) puts it, they “play their part in the new process” of control. Appropriately, these industries do conform to the ‘fluidity’ characteristic identified by Deleuze when he uses the word “surfing”. Consider all of the industries discussed in Chapter 2: the fossil-fuel industry, the petrochemical industry, the agricultural industry, the construction industry, the mining industry, the meat and fish industries, the ‘bio-tech’ industry (genetic engineering), and the fractional reserve money industry. These industries have ‘developed’ either through the transition from disciplinary to control society, or have arisen after the transition, as in the case of the GMO industry, and Deleuze (Ibid) illustrates how this process unfolds via the change from (for example) the hospital (disciplinary) to various other forms of control:

It’s not a question of asking whether the old or new system is harsher or more bearable, because there’s conflict in each between the ways they free and enslave us. With the breakdown of the hospital as a site of confinement, for instance, community psychiatry, day hospitals, and home care initially presented new freedoms, while at the same time contributing to mechanisms of control as rigorous as the harshest confinement.

The hospital was clearly a mechanism of disciplinary society, and in control society it becomes more fluid, as per Deleuze’s explanation. The same can be said for any of the industries under scrutiny in Chapter 2: a random example is the mining industry, where in a control society the owners of production explicitly act as authoritarians who ‘call the shots’, whereas in a control society many layers of (for example) management have been added to the corporate capitalist dispensation so that there is more control from various departments throughout the mining industry that ‘play the corporate game’ as per the earlier discussion in this chapter about employee “challenges, competitions and seminars” (1995: 179). As was discussed earlier, such business and corporate ‘layers’ that are added to distance employees from the industrial ‘production’ towards dealing with ‘products’ and ‘sales’ instead: “The sales department becomes a busines  s’ centre or ‘soul’”[1] (1995: 181). Another example would be the neoliberal focus on protecting the interest of corporate investors (relevant to all the industries under the spotlight in Chapter 2), which again adds another ‘layer’ of control rather than a sense of direct ‘disciplinary’ ownership; the latter is quantifiable in a ‘solid-state’ form, i.e. ‘the owners’, while the former is fluid in the sense that investors are quantifiable as holders of company shares on an ever-changing stock exchange.

The focus on the various industries above can be ‘grounded’ with a more concrete (if somewhat ‘extreme’) example of how individuals in a control society are forced to subscribe to certain control mechanisms of the Advanced Industrial system and thereby perpetuate the ecological crisis, unable to instigate social change. Deleuze (1995: 181-182) refers to the scenario described by his associate Felix Guatarri, where an electronic card is used by an individual to open barriers out of an apartment, street, and neighbourhood. The same card, however, can also be used to bar entry back into relevant areas. Deleuze points out that the barrier is less the mechanism of control than the computer: control “doesn’t depend on the barrier but on the computer that is making sure that everyone is in a permissible place, and effecting a universal modulation” (1995: 182). One needs merely to think of the ubiquitous roles played by computers in advanced industrial society – needless to say, computers have pervaded all aspects of life in the system, and Deleuze (via Guatarri) offers a stark reminder that the underlying Promethean character of technology is something with immense powers of social control. It is true that computer technology has allowed for dissemination of information to groups of people all over the world who previously were left disempowered by exclusion from communication networks. However, such a positive aspect is surely outweighed by the widespread use of computers in a predominantly corporate, market-based economy, where employees sit everyday behind their computing machines to (mostly) perpetuate the industries that have such problematic ecological consequences. Change in such a society is by and large change from an old model of a computer to the next, newer model; the role of system-perpetuation stays the same – the already-encountered comment from Deleuze stands out again here: “Marketing is now the instrument of social control and produces the arrogant breed who are our masters” (1995: 181). And when computer technology is used as a tool to affect some kind of social change, ‘the barriers come down’ (to employ the language of Guatarri’s illustration above) on those using technology in such a way, as was seen in the Occupy Movement on January 3rd 2012 when six people were arrested for facilitating the broadcast of the protests against the USA’s National Defence Authorisation Act[2] (one example of many). Instead, potentially ‘revolutionary’ tools of social networking are incorporated as control mechanisms whereby users become accustomed to the act of pushing a button to ‘like’ someone else’s Facebook post, ‘surfing’ over to another person’s profile and making a brief comment on a ‘friend’s wall’, or ‘surfing’ to another webpage to sign an e-petition. These activities are all fitting for a society conditioned to accept political action as something constituted by placing a mark on a piece of paper in an election (see section 4.3, Democracy in a free-market capitalist system).

[1] This quote will resurface at the beginning of a section in Chapter 5 called ‘Common vs. Commercial law’.

[2]     accessed March 16 2015.