The Control Society After 9/11

Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen
Twenty years ago Gilles Deleuze published the short five pages text “Postscript on control societies”. The text is an analysis of the arrival of the control society that according to him is replacing the disciplinary society. “We are moving toward control societies that no longer operate by confining people but through continuous control and instant communication.” (Deleuze “Control and becoming”, 174) Deleuze’s text describes how the institutions of the modern disciplinary society withers and are replaced with a new kind of control that is no longer rooted in these institutions but is spread throughout the social body. As Deleuze phrases it the striated space of disciplinary society is replaced by the smooth space of the society of control. Control is now everywhere and is no longer only exercised in the delimited space of disciplinary power.

The institutions of the disciplinary society which Deleuze’s friend Foucault analysed are today in a state of crisis. The closed spaces are falling apart and the production of subjects has acquired a new form, it has become fluid, Deleuze writes. Now normalisation is no longer restricted to the closed room of the institutions but take place everywhere.

Deleuze’s sketch-like analysis has been hugely influential for the way postmodern or late capitalist society has been mapped by critical theory. The text has been important for a certain post-structuralist and post-marxist analysis of how power has become ever more decentralized and is now no longer in any straight forward sense connected to easily locatable institutions and exerted by centrally placed actors but is rather spread out in extremely complex structures and networks where it is not possible to excavate the origin or place of power.

A long row of books has drawn on Deleuze’s short text. One of the most influential ones is Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. The two authors explicitly refer to Deleuze’s control society thesis in their analysis of the transition to a new kind of sovereignty transcending former national actors in a new transnational network capitalism, called Empire. According to Hardt and Negri, the nation state has lost much of its former importance and has been superseded by a stateless empire existing everywhere and nowhere. This new global sovereignty has no territorial limits and functions like a decentralised power continually transforming the world to a smooth space of desires and investments where it is not possible to distinguish between politics, economy and culture. The arrival of this empire has to do with developments within capitalism. Today the capitalist means of production no longer needs the nation state system – in which the geopolitical competition took place and was regulated – in order to function. Today profit is no longer only made at the factory and cannot be measured according to the individual worker’s working day. Production has become a part of life taking place as a kind of bio-political production where the communicative abilities and language, but also the body and the senses create value.

9/11: Sovereignty and imperialism

These different analyses equipped us with useful means in the mapping of the control society but all of a sudden something happened: Confronted with 9/11 it seemed as if Deleuze’s description of the wavelike movements of power and Hardt and Negri’s diagnosis of the global factory without walls paradoxically appeared to be too fine meshed. Suddenly George W. Bush made all the decisions. The invisible micro power structures and internalised mechanisms of interpellation were replaced by a sovereign who decided to launch an indefinite war against evil.

9/11 and the war on terror constituted a real challenge for the Deleuze-inspired analyses that seemed capable of critically accounting for the changes going on in how the highly developed societies were governed but now post-9/11 looked uselessly post-modern or overly optimistic because they prematurely had skipped the notion of the nation state’s political sovereignty in favour of different ideas of networked power.

After 9/11 the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben analysed George W. Bush as the sovereign who declared a state of emergency. The war on terror was thus understandable as a generalised state of emergency where the sovereign suspends the law and creates ‘empty holes’ where undesirable subjects are placed deprived of juridical and civilian rights. The national political community is according to Agamben constituted on the exclusion of people that are refused the status of citizens. The American Guantanamo base on Cuba is the prime example of such a space of exclusion/inclusion. Here the US president detains more than 500 people that have not been trialled or convicted of any crime. The sovereign power has simply excommunicated them, reduced them to what Agamben terms naked life, a biological body emptied of political content and exposed to the force of pure political power. Agamben’s account of Bush as the sovereign who makes the decision of suspending the law had a great analytic as well as polemical relevance and it effectively destroyed the idea that it is possible to make a clear distinction between democracy and totalitarianism showing how the liberal democracy was capable of the bio-political tendencies visible in Guantanamo and other secret prisons where enemy combatants were detained without a trial and subjected to different kinds of sanctioned or not sanctioned torture.

Not only Agamben with his analysis of the continued existence of sovereignty in modern politics but also more classically Marxist oriented thinkers like David Harvey and Alex Callinicos seemed to have a better grasp of the development after 9/11 with their revised imperialism take that drew on the classical imperialism works of Lenin, Bukharin and Luxemburg from the early 20th century arguing that the rising geopolitical conflicts had to do with capitalism and its inability to create profit as well as inter-state rivalry. The imperialism analysis made it possible to explain why the US had gone from a policy based on consensus to one based on direct force and plundering. Bush and his conservative administration were according to Harvey motivated by the possibility of controlling not only Iraq’s oil but the entire region’s oil stock. Not just because of strict economic interests but also because control of the oil of the Middle East would equal control of large parts of world economy. Harvey’s and Callinicos’ analyses were thus that the US-led invasion of Iraq and the war on terror was an attempt to handle the ever returning contradictions of capitalism – how to handle the surplus that is constantly produced – through territorial expansion opening new areas for what Harvey following Marx’s notion of primitive accumulation calls accumulation as dispossession where capitalism suspends people’s right and access to natural resources.

Old and new: Preventive anti-rebellion

Both the different imperialism analyses as well as the sovereignty have been able to explain important aspects of the development after 9/11 where the US has followed an aggressive and explicitly unilateral policy aimed at securing American hegemony and the interests of the American bourgeoisie even at the risk of alienating former traditional political partners and in complete disrespect of the enormous suffering it causes for the wretched of the earth. On the face of it these analyses have been better equipped to critically account for the present historical situation than the Deleuze-inspired analyses with their descriptions of the invisibility and ‘democratisation’ of power in de-central networks. But it is precisely the contemporaneity of both invisible, speeded up and de-central control and bombastic gestures of sovereignty where people disappear or are bombed to pieces that characterises the present conjuncture.

After 9/11 we have witnessed how a genuine police or war regime has been put in place not only aimed at handling military affairs and concrete events but having political, economic, juridical, ideological and cultural consequences for the whole of society. The war is precisely not just military; it affects both base and superstructure and it is characterised by the absence of a distinction between inside and outside. The war is invasions, occupations and massacres from above as well as the implementation of a repressive security apparatus. The security arrangements have taken shape as suspension of civil rights and criminalisation of former accepted political protests forms now staged by the state as terrorism. The war on terror has also meant the construction of camps where people are reduced to bare life and is left at the whim of the prison guards. It looks as if not only the disciplinary society and its closed spaces but also sovereignty are back and have merged with the molecular power forms of the control society creating what we might term a police society governing through specific, differentiated and permanent interventions in the behaviour of the population and public opinion. We are confronted with the arrival of a preemptive anti rebellion regime whose logic seems to be that we are confronted with a number of inevitable disasters and treats like terrorism, biospheric meltdown, economic collapse or food shortage that are all unavoidable but that can be directed and cannot be allowed to develop into grand politics in Nietzsche’s sense where the rich becomes poor and vice versa.

As Fréderic Neyrat writes in Biopolitique des catastrophes, the war on terror is thus just the first stage in a comprehensive transformation where a vast number of crises and treats are considered inevitable but governable. As an integral part of this preventive anti rebellion regime flexible networks of micro conflict solution is joined with sovereign exclusion/inclusion and disciplinary training in an as yet unseen system that not only aims at handling the present but also structuring the possible and wipe out potentiality. There is in other words an epistemological insecurity at work that not only has to do with an absent knowledge but also has to do with the condition that the treat does not yet exist and has not yet acquired form but nonetheless has to be removed. The future has to be modulated even before it exists; it is necessary to act before something completely different happens.

The Beginning

The present therefore makes it necessary to use both the Deleuzian control society thesis as well as the sovereignty and imperialism analyses in order to be able to account for the processes going on after 9/11. It is indeed strange times where the joining of stoppage and metamorphosis, the old and new makes it difficult to grasp and often plays a trick on our perception and praxis. As Retort writes in Afflicted Powers: “The past has become the present again: this is the mark of the moment.” (9) Control society and gun boat diplomacy in one. In what forms the resistance against this regime will manifest themselves remains to be seen. It is difficult to see a ‘dialectical’ alternative to the present order, not to talk of Marx’s subversive world subject preparing to press, rebel and abolish this order. But nonetheless the protection of the already established is well underway and is being tested continually.

Works cited:

Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Callinicos, Alex. Imperialism and Global Political Economy. Cambridge: Polity, 2009.

Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on control societies”, trans. Martin Joughin. Negotiations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995: 177-182.

Deleuze, Gilles. “Control and Becoming”, trans. Martin Joughin. Negotiations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995: 169-176.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Harvey, David. A New Imperialism. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Neyrat, Fréderic. Biopolitique de catastrophes. Paris: Éditions MF, 2008.

Retort. Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War. London & New York: Verso, 2005.

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