Living in a Society of Control

The Mantle proudly presents the third in a series of important blog posts by Cæmeron Crain exploring critical concepts in contemporary political philosophy. Last week, Cæmeron addressed Deleuze & Guattari's difficult concepts of Territorialization & Deterritorialization. Below, he illustrates the kind of society brought forth by the power of deterritorialization, where despite the appearance of an unparalled freedom, "the diffusion of power places us all the more under the forces of capitalism."


In his “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” Gilles Deleuze articulates the way in which we are/were moving from what Michel Foucault described as a Disciplinary Society and toward a Society of Control. The piece itself is well worth reading, and I encourage everyone to do so. If nothing else, our friend Gilles seems to be terribly prescient; writing in the early 90s, prior to the hegemony of the internet, he already tells us that “everywhere surfing has already replaced the older sports.” But, what does it mean to live in a society of control? While Deleuze’s reflections on this matter are thought-provoking and important, I want to approach the issue through slightly different terms, pulling on the experience of living in what—I would claim at least—is almost fully such a society. We have left the old disciplinary systems largely behind.1

An important aspect of the society of control is that we are allowed to do “whatever we want.” It presents itself as a kind of freedom. No longer restrained by enclosure structures, like those of the school or the factory, we can pursue an online education in our time, or work from home. This seems like freedom, but we should notice how it diffuses “responsibility” throughout life. Perhaps it is nice to work from home, but now we are expected to be responsive to the demands of work even away from the office; to respond to emails in a timely manner. While “freed” from the enclosed workspace, the demands of work come to pervade all of our time. I, for one, have been chastised for not responding to a phone call, then text message, then email, for more than 12 hours. I would be surprised if others have not felt a similar kind of demand, though maybe they responded quickly and avoided the disapprobation of their superiors.

What seems to be lost here is true “free time”—something I was scolded for holding onto an idea of—that would be time fully outside of the structures of power. While it had its own oppressive power relations, a disciplinary society seems to have had space for this: when I punch out at the factory, my time is my own, until I go back tomorrow, for another shift. In a society of control, this increasingly disappears. While freedom seems to be increased on the one hand, the control of our activities expands on the other. Rather than a Panopticon, with a centralized focal point from which activity is surveilled, we have a diffuse matrix of information gathering algorithms. Everything is tracked and encoded, interpreted into patterns that are either acceptable or unacceptable. Touch off enough markers in your internet activity, by going to certain sites, or using certain words, and you’ll be placed on some sort of “watchlist.”

Jeremy Bentham's "Panopticon" - a model for the disciplinary societyThe effect is the same as with the panopticon: it does not matter if you are actually being watched, but to create the feeling that you might be under surveillance at any given moment. Yet, in a society of control, even that feeling is discouraged. We know that we are being tracked, but are encouraged not to worry about it. This normalization of surveillance is behind the governmental outrage—such as it was—over the affair with Edward Snowden. Of course they are paying attention to everything we do, so much as they can, but they don’t really want us to think about it. They rather want us to accept it as an unconscious reality, and not to worry. This is evident in some of the reactions to Snowden, which questioned why anyone would be surprised and encouraged us to just go about our business.

Unfortunately, bringing this all to conscious awareness would not seem to have much of an effect. The best case scenario is that we are reminded that Big Brother is watching us—and of course we might then rail that he should cut that out. But, one might wonder what use Big Brother is if we don’t know he’s watching. After all, if we recall Orwell’s 1984, this fear of being watched would seem to be integral. We have not only telescreens, but posters with Big Brother’s face, informing us that he is watching. One cannot know whether anyone is actually paying attention, but the power of the Party is secured by the paranoia that any and all actions might be surveilled. So, within such a frame, the knowledge that we are being watched would only seem to bolster the power of those in charge. If the revelations we owe to Snowden have any kind of effect, this can only be because the power apparatus in place differs meaningfully from that which Orwell envisioned. Rather than being spurred to paranoia, we are encouraged not to worry because we aren’t doing anything wrong, while at the same time asked for confidence and endorsement of the idea that those who are breaking the rules will be caught. It is perhaps the latter idea—that “wrongdoers” should always be caught—that would have to be called into question to pose a real challenge to the structures of control.  

It is important for the society of control to maintain the illusion of freedom, but we should note the ways in which freedom here is not merely an illusion. One can say or do whatever one wants, at least within the circumscribed parameters. Most of us fall within those parameters without even thinking about it—since the only forms of discourse truly proscribed are radical indictments of our political system, calls to “terrorist” action, and the like—and so experience ourselves as fully free to express our views, live our lives, and so on. The important thing to grasp is the way in which an apparatus of power can exert control over us precisely by letting us “do whatever we want.” Proscribed behavior is largely unrecognized as even existing, or thrown under the category of the “criminal,” which we do not take the time to examine in general. A negative is created—a class that falls outside the “we” who have freedom—and deep thought about the shared humanity of these individuals is strongly discouraged. We are under control precisely to the extent that we think of those subjugated to the effects of power as other than “us.”

If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear

All of this means that the political task we face is far harder than anyone wants to think. In his essay, Deleuze wonders about the future of unions, and their continued efficacy. In our own time, this is no longer speculation. It seems clear, in light of the attempts to undermine collective bargaining in Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere, along with other various attempts (usually more or less successful) to undermine the power of unions, that they will not save us. They struggle to even maintain the right to make one concession after another. This is because their place was in a disciplinary model, and they are increasingly obviated by a model of control. Perhaps the unions can adapt, if they realize the new situation, and I for one hope they can exert some kind of counter pressure to the way in which power is exerting itself. But, as Deleuze says, we need new weapons.

He does not, himself, give much in the way of suggesting what these new weapons might look like, saying that it is a task for the next generation. We can only expect his prescience to go so far. But, we are the next generation to which he refers. It falls to us to figure out how to resist this control. Perhaps there are some resources, nonetheless, in the way that Deleuze, along with Guattari, thought about the predicament we now find ourselves in. In the next post, I will try to articulate what those might be.

  • 1. Not entirely, however, insofar as the prisons may continue to exhibit structures better approached through the thought of discipline, and other institutions cling to disciplinary elements as well. Regardless, my point is not to make the claim that disciplinary structures have been obviated, so much as it is to work toward articulating the new apparatuses of control. There may also be ways in which the prisons, etc., have moved toward models of control, in ways that I am unaware of. Regardless, deep thought about the prison-industrial-complex is called for.

Cæmeron Crain is pursuing his PhD in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, and teaches as an adjunct lecturer in New York City. He earned his M.A. in Philosophy, as well as a B.A. in Communications, from Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.