Categories
General

Whatever Happened to the Factory?

introduction

Over thirty years have passed since Deleuze wrote the Postscript on Societies of Control, and it remains a prophetic document, well-known both for the depth of its analysis and the remarkable accuracy of its predictions. But we’ve also been able to refine our analysis of the general social shift that Deleuze recorded in 1990, and with time, our estimations of its contours have grown clearer. The intervening decades have let us test its predictions and analyses against the past and present, and alongside its striking congruities we’ve noticed a few stray threads that are less secure than previously imagined. This essay attempts to further investigate those loose ends, and map the convergence of control and the regimes it once seemed to eclipse.

One of the postscript’s deficiencies is more pronounced than the others, a bundle of loose ends that spring from a problem of perspective: in the moment, as paradigms of sovereignty and governance scream overhead to settle into their colossal rhythms, it often seems as if the old world is being completely annihilated to make space for the new. In 1990, it likely seemed that the infrastructure of discipline was to be completely overcome by a new modulating force. As is often the case with capitalist destabilization, crisis did not yield a revolutionary change in the pre-existing vector of social control. We would do well to turn to any number of Deleuze’s explanations of the development of capitalism, whether its incorporation of repressive mechanisms already designed and perfected under feudalism, or the ideology of capital itself, described as a “motley painting” in one memorable passage of Anti-Oedipus. What appeared as a “generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure”[1] has since proven to be the new operational standard of Empire. Instead of its total dissolution, we are confronted with a generalization of enclosure, its permeation to the molecular level, as it learns to operate on the same terrain as the social relations it once oversaw. Instead of taking the form of a rupture with disciplinary society, control has proven itself completely compatible with the coagulation and demarcation of categories, the aggressive individualization of groups and breakneck subjectivation of any body not already legible to the colossal aggregates of control and production that crosscut society. Any attempt to revisit the Postscript must grapple with the hidden nature of this crisis of enclosure – so that’s where we’ll begin.

enclosure

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure… everyone knows that these institutions are finished, whatever the length of their expiration periods. It’s only a matter of administering their last rites and of keeping people employed until the installation of the new forces knocking at the door.

– Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control

Empire exists “positively” only in crisis, only as negation and reaction.

– Tiqqun, Introduction to Civil War p. 125

What Deleuze perceived as a transitory event has never stopped repeating itself since its inception. We still believe that the disciplinary institutions are dying, that any day now, the permeability and diffusion driven by globalization will finally do away with them. The trick of governance is concealing the regular operation of this world behind predictions of disaster, disarray, and an impending end. All real crisis is deferred by a permanent state of emergency, a million tiny insecurities and instabilities that send us flying to our nearest seat of power, unaware that the very “return to normal” we beg for is only the reproduction of the crisis, its more astute management. Our constant saturation in risk and precarity only furthers our dependence on the structures that induce those risks and percarities, while alienating us from each other and preemptively undermining attempts to create new ways of living in the world.

The thesis of this essay is simple: enclosure never left. The core conceit of universal panopticism, of cybernetic self-governance and autonomous machines of subjectivation is inseparable from this point – the dawn of connectivity may have changed the deployment of the old disciplinary mechanisms, but their overall project, that of social homogenization and stabilization, has remained the same. Despite all of our unprecedented access to information, our permanent connection to one another via an array of social media platforms, and the triumph of virtual communication over a pandemic-induced quarantine, we find ourselves hopelessly alone, abandoned into a world that demands we become motivated, that we emulate the practices of whichever representational subject we choose, as long as that choice falls within acceptable bounds. Joy is replaced by a queasy hope, satisfaction by ever-receding dopamine hits, we build a rhythm of self-repair dependent on the virtual attention of others, throwing ourselves into a void and trusting the algorithmic models of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. to direct us to our best-suited communities.

The motor for our self-policing and has been identified for decades, if not centuries:

It is a banality to claim that there is a fundamental difficulty in human communication. And it is not hard to recognize in advance that this difficulty is partially irreducible. To communicate means to try to establish a unity, to make one of many; this is what the word communion means. In one way or another, something is always missing from the communion sought by humans, driven by the feeling that solitude is impotence itself. We must necessarily risk our lives: this implies entering into a movement connecting ourselves to other humans who are similar to ourselves. This is absolutely necessary for the life of the flesh. [2]

Bataille is right to diagnose a fundamental difficulty in human communication, one expressed negatively in his analysis that we would do well to turn on its head:[3] it is not that there underlies all communication an insufficiency, a lack, but that an inertia undercuts life, one of ethical polarizations and movement that grants bodies a direction. This Brownian motion, a swarm of bodies and affects, is necessarily wasteful. The only thing it produces is a constantly-rising pressure on anything that attempts to enclose it.

Homogeneous society, perfected and exported to the liberal order under fascism, cannot tolerate this seething mass of pure heterogeneity. It must purge, contain, or otherwise neutralize heterogeneous elements that pose a threat to the normalcy of social functioning. This takes the form of both coercive and productive manipulation: not only the police, but the social institutions they protect, the schools, the clinics, the massive social media infrastructures and empty seats of power. Its most effective efforts are preemptive, they ensure, through a general social atomization, that nothing ever happens. As Debord puts it: “Spectators are linked solely by their one-way relationship to the very center that keeps them isolated from each other. The spectacle thus reunites the separated, but it reunites them only in their separateness.”[4] It is not a mistake that we are immersed in a general alienation, split and segmented by atomization, vivisected by a general panopticism and a unilateral war on communication. Atomization is our condition because liberation will be a collective affair.

Given this dispersion of power (and powerlessness), the confusion and discoordination that plagued the recent storming of the Capitol on January 6th is understandable. Led to the “heart of our democracy” by the then-sitting President of the United States, the members of the mob found themselves wandering empty halls. This was their real discovery: that in the place of the levers of power they’d found a series of offices, auditoriums, and stairwells. Confronted with ornate but empty halls, portraits and edifices, and a symbolic practice of governance whose integrity was largely property of the Spectacle, the rioters were forced to contend with the fact that they themselves were subsumed by purely spectacular modes of governance, that their attempt to destroy power only marked an internecine conflict within the already-dominant order. And as the dust settled, the mask of the current order begins to slip, revealing the absolute emptiness it disguises and grants illusory substance. The hollow appeals to democratic processes and traditions that rang out after the events of January 6th leave no room for uncertainty: classical sovereignty is dead. Power resides in the architecture, the infrastructure of domination, in Spectacle’s reproduction of alienation and Biopower’s constant modulation and safeguarding of lives deemed livable – in short, power is reducible to the environment we call Empire and the mechanisms of coercion and control that use this environment as their staging ground. Empire itself is enshrined in the act of conquest, of naming and mapping, and the administration of captured territories, a decentralized and self-sustaining vampirism that compels its subjects to subjugate themselves to illusory masters. Democracy yields governance, not government, the self-policing and maintenance of internal consistency of the population is taken on by the population itself.

This is not a vestige of old modes of governance, it is their logical extension. Presiding over the colony of Rhodesia, Cecil Rhodes mused on the possibility of conquering other worlds, his thoughts occupied by fantasies of feeding the unending desire for consumption and growth that animates capital as a world-system. “I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.”[5] In a sense, Rhodes is representative of the impulse at the heart of capital. The capitalist, says Marx “is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labour.”[6] Rhodes, vile overseer of a whole regime of primitive accumulation, is Empire personified, his soul is the soul of Empire. But Empire has one single life-impulse, the tendency to expand, to conquer, to consume its outside and map frontiers wherever none exist. It fights an unending war of eternal peace, abstracted from the progression of time, to feed its illusions of invulnerability and stave off the recognition of its unraveling.

As it turned out, Rhodes’ prediction was already far more grandiose than reality. Faced with a largely-mapped world, capital turned inward, proliferating new markets in a colonization of life.[7] Today, our entire mode of living, our perception of time, the value we ascribe to our lives, and the futures we quietly submit to are all defined by – and are constitutive of – the real subsumption of life to capital.

All of these observations orbit a question, one that we’ve avoided for the sake of clarity until now: what role does enclosure play in the totality of social relations we call capital? The answer has been constant and functionally unchanging since the first waves of legislation marked the start of primitive accumulation in Europe. Enclosure prepares the ground for the extraction of value, it makes possible the infiltration of capitalism’s real subsumption of life into new terrains, and in the context of the transition into a post-Fordist capitalism, it represents the frontlines of what we will call the social factory, the latent battlefields of a global civil war.

the factory

At the highest level of capitalist development, this social relation [between factory, society, and state] becomes a moment of the relation of production, the whole of society becomes an articulation of production, the whole society lives in function of the factory and the factory extends its domination over the whole society. […] [W]hen the factory extends its control over the whole society – all of social production is turned into industrial production – the specific traits of the factory are lost amid the generic traits of society. When the whole society is reduced to the factory, the factory, as such, begins to disappear.

– Mario Tronti, “Factory and Society,” from Workers and Capital, p. 26-28

The great narratives of progress are dead – they died in the first wave of crises, the ones Deleuze noted decades ago. And since the very beginnings of this shift we have witnessed the proliferation of a new mechanism of governance: the constant appeal to crises yet to come. This is an unavoidable fact, one that is most visible in our mid-pandemic world, which has seen the real-time mutation of the old institutions, once thought to be decaying, now understood to leech life from their own perceived collapse. For example: the school. Instead of ushering in a new structure that replaces the old disciplinary and punitive models (the examination, homework, rigid schedules, deadlines: all of the hallmarks of the pre-employed, preparation for the “labor market”), the pandemic has allowed the refinement of those surveillant models (the proctored exam, the zoom call, online submissions whose deadlines are automated, the collapse of the home and the classroom into one space of constant discipline and productivity). The same has occurred for many of those who remain employed – the most notable commonality is that the virtualization of school and work has finally transformed the home into a site of production in both instances.

What we are describing is the extension of the value relations inherent in commodity production into the deepest recesses of life. To defer to Deleuze on this point:

In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation.[8]

Despite the mutation in form that this process underwent, its overall teleology remains unchanged. With the sublimation of the factory, its strict regimentation of production softened, but its aim, the extraction of labor power and the production of value, did not. Piece work, refined in its modern form on the floor of the Amazon “Fulfillment Center,” the payment-by-commission of the semi-employed Uber driver, and the constant stress and obsession with productivity that permeates the home-turned-office differ only in form, not function.

We can identify, for the sake of elaboration, the general contours of the mechanisms by which the factory is merged with the whole of society, beginning with an ethical injunction to be productive – a social relation dominated by capital that is nonetheless divorced from any immediate relationship to the primary production process.[9]

At the center of this apparatus: each moment of our lives must be useful, an injunction we inherited from the floor clock. As commodity production yields social reproduction, the mapping of social life extends control and piece-work into our individualized self-labor, we create ourselves as social commodities and our attention and interest is bought and sold. We are convinced to reduce our lives to the order of utility and instrumentality. The appeals to unitary sovereignty and divine rule that previously oversaw precapitalist political arrangements have fallen through, and only the architecture of self-possession remains, ripe for capture by commodity domination. We become purchasable and acquirable collections of commodified traits, existing for the sole purpose of conspicuous transactions, a living currency on markets of human social relations.

This is inseparable from what Deleuze describes as a ”strange craving to be motivated” – in addition to making each moment useful, our lives must be productive, each person is expected to garner some self-worth from their social usefulness, and unemployment is a moral failure. Notably, this does not only translate to having a job of some sort, but instead fulfilling the elaborate requirements of our protestant work ethic: being integral to society. And in a society that is bloated with unnecessary markets and forced to create the most banal areas of employment (see Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs), this ultimately serves as an indiscriminate weapon of coercion and psychological mutilation.

This transition has not left the general factory structure unchanged. Notably, the role of administration and the boss has been instilled in each subject. Work itself has become diffuse, and workers no longer form a coherent social body based on their identification with their labor. As a side-effect of universal fungibility and the gig economy, the working class views work as something that is constantly at risk of slipping away from them, if it has not already. As the wage system shrinks and begins to implode, capital finds new markets, or more accurately, introduces markets where none were even imagined before. Alongside the gig economy, designed to extract value from the populations excluded even from wage labor, we have the mass proliferation of marginal employment and commodification of basic living activities. Everything is integrated into a self-propagating market whose draw is made even more present by the mass dispossession of the pandemic.

It’s necessary above all to maintain the reign of the economy beyond the extinction of the wage system. This has to do with the fact that if there is less and less work, everything is all the more mediated by money, be it in very small amounts. Given the absence of work, the need to earn money in order to survive must be maintained. […] The present technological offensive should also be understood as a way to occupy and valorize those who can no longer be exploited through waged labor. What is too quickly described as the Uberization of the world, unfolds in two different ways. Thus on the one hand you have Uber, Deliveroo and the like, that unskilled job opportunity requiring only one’s old machine as capital. Every driver is free to self-exploit as much as they like, knowing that they must roll around fifty hours a week to earn the equivalent of the minimum wage. And then there are Airbnb, BlaBlaCar, dating sites, “coworking,” and now even “cohoming” or “costorage,” and all the applications that enable the sphere of the valorizable to be extended to infinity.[10]

We are now free to become our own boss, to exploit ourselves, and to generate a little value by commodifying our own relation to each other and the world on the side – so if there’s not a boss controlling you anymore, it’s because there doesn’t have to be. We’ve either learned to become our own bosses, we’re made to function correctly through psychiatric intervention, or we are simply let die.

For the gig economy, the servitude of the wage relation has not disappeared, and neither has the real subsumption of the life of the exploited to their exploitation. The opposite is the case: the proliferation of side hustles and the valorization of activity that had previously been non-instrumental turns all of the non-working day into a potential reserve of unharnessed labor-time. We can see the explicit movements of this relation as the pandemic’s dispossession forces an exodus from the wage labor system and into the hyper-exploitative arena of the gig economy – which does its best to remind us that we are compelled, by indirect force if necessary, to enter into self-exploitation “willingly.” And beyond the explicit migration from wage labor to gig work, or adoption of both, there is also the marketization of daily life: a passion for writing turns into a Patreon, sculpting that had been a pastime gives way to a small business effort, etc. Hobbies and passions are forcibly transformed, out of necessity, into ad-hoc commodity production.

The real subsumption of life irreparably alters our relation to the world and each other. Personal property begins to fulfill the role of private property: your car, your phone, and your home are all means to produce value, to produce surplus value for someone else. Your hobbies, interests, and escapes are captured by marketization, activities pursued for personal enjoyment become another form of work. This risks completely destabilizing our ability to demarcate between general productive activity (whether instrumental or non-instrumental), which we will tentatively call labor, and instrumentalized and coerced labor, once largely confined to the wage system, which we will call work. As life becomes a moment of the production process and all of our social relations are made productive, it becomes more and more difficult to envision a future in which labor is not compelled or driven by vital necessity.

Our self-exploitation, instead of being hidden, tends to take on a positive value, drawing on centuries of the protestant work ethic to imbue itself with virtue. While the soul of capitalism was once incarnated in the figure of the capitalist, we are now each individually blessed with its presence, and our reaction is the opposite of that of the Apostles, confronted by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. We feign contentedness, satisfaction, and completion, gesturing to lives and passions we wish we had. There’s even a market for this grotesque, free-floating manipulation: social media influencers are paid to travel to exotic locales (or pretend to travel, as has repeatedly been the case) and document their flawless experiences, making sure to thank their sponsor companies at regular intervals.[11] “Influencer” has become a sought-after font of social status, and many social media users attempt to cultivate followings large enough to be admitted into its ranks.

As social media plays an increasingly substantial role in our mid-pandemic lives, providing us an easy and effectively-designed palliative for loneliness, its role in the capitalist economy and its effects on radical thought both deserve further scrutiny.

At first glance, it appears that social media is animated by its users, who decide to engage with it willingly in order to access its product, connection to others. This is inaccurate. Social media is not generative of social relations between people, it simply captures them, relying on that feeling that Bataille named so long ago, “that solitude is impotence itself.” The whole innocuous appearance of social media is derived from this obfuscation, and revealing its internal workings forces a realization to occur: you are not the laborer, you – more specifically, social relations that you take part in – are the raw material, the site from which Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat extracts value.[12] Those social relations are provoked further by engagement-maximizing algorithms, then surveyed and bundled into packets of behavioral data by a pre-existing social media infrastructure.[13] The bundles of data are then exchanged on a market. This is the newest terrain that capital operates on in its unending effort to produce for production’s sake: social media platforms, dating apps, and even the tracking architecture of search engines all serve to valorize any social relation or access to information that is virtually mediated.

The transformation of online social relations from the free conflict of social life to a harvestable resource is not immediate, and it is not without its consequences. Each platform that mediates access to information or relations between people is capable of quietly directing that information or connection, shifting it imperceptibly towards behaviors and beliefs that benefit the platform’s generation of value or the maintenance of the existing order.

For social media companies, algorithms are designed to provoke repeat engagement or prolong already-existing engagement. The most effective means to generate emotional investment in the app, which yields attention data and ad revenue, is the encouragement of conflict. Controversy spreads, forms groups that are party to the conflict, and guarantees both further participation in the conflict and revealing behavioral data about users. Resolution to these conflicts is sometimes dissuaded, as is the case with Twitter, by the structure of the app. Search engine algorithms allow external factors, aggregated tracking data, and previous interests to influence the scope of available information. Similarly to many social media platforms, this serves to reinforce dominant modes of interacting with and interpreting the world.

All of these algorithmic controls form a network of passive corrective and mediative devices, which influences the terrain, bounds, and form of our interactions, trajectories, and development of strategic and incisive thought, or lack thereof.[14]

It’s not necessary to go beyond a quick survey of the online left and its internal detractors to recognize the absolute sterility of online discussion and “discourse.” Centuries-old debates are resurrected to serve as initiation rituals, with entire polar structures forming around the expression or denunciation of a given aggregate’s views.[15] The incentive structures of various apps (upvotes, comments, quote tweets, likes, retweets, character limits, etc.) generate an endless repetition of the same stances, and given the left’s tradition of polemic and conflict, there’s plenty of material to feed this stagnant rot. We can all afford to be vultures, picking over the corpse of a half-century of aborted revolutions – backed by the suspicion that any deviation from the old programs would expose us to the collective shame of the community.

An escape from this self-effacing cycle requires a commitment to strategic thought – and cannot reach its maximum potential when mediated by algorithmic membranes and channels. This is an invitation to think strategically regarding enclosure, to recognize both the limits and opportunities brought about by our environment.

To conclude with two particularly evocative quotes:

Let’s leave the little schemas up to the great improvisers. Let’s leave intricate but blind analysis up to the pedants. We’re interested in all that has the power to grow and develop. We’re interested in getting the message across that today this power lies almost exclusively in working-class thought.

– Mario Tronti, “A Course of Action,” Workers and Capital p. xv

In every situation there is one line that stands out among all the others, the line along which power grows. Thought is the capacity for singling out and following this line. A form-of-life can be embraced only by following this line, meaning that: all thought is strategic.

– Tiqqun, Introduction to Civil War

notes

[1] Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control

[2] Georges Bataille, “The Socratic College,” from The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge

[3] It is crucial to reframe this concept, to rescue it from the vampires: communication is productive. It does not spring from some universal apathy or hollowness, and it would be a mistake to assume that its function is to repair that hollowness. Communication is a visceral connection, a mutual vulnerability between bodies that allows an intense and vital link to form between them. Speaking about it in terms of insufficiency or completion only serves to subordinate it to a given social or metaphysical structure.

[4] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

[5] Cecil Rhodes, cited in Empire p. 221

[6] Karl Marx, Capital vol. 1, ch. 10, section 1

[7] This is not to say that the world is no longer the battleground of imperialism or colonization – just that at a certain stage of development, reliant in large parts on imperialist exploitation and drawing from its constitutive logic, capital was granted access to new terrains of communication and information, which it quickly colonized as well.

[8] Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on Societies of Control

[9] To better understand this, it is necessary to separate the origin of each of the social mechanisms that carry on the role of the factory from their somewhat-discrete functions. That is to say, while many preceded the shift from the epoch of discipline to the integration of control into the management of civil society, the transition to Empire, their function was brought more tightly in line with that of the factory with the turn of the century, with its connectivity and proliferation of cybernetic modes of governance.

To put it more clearly: the factory clock, floor boss, shift manager, and piece work have all metastasized, they’ve been able to infiltrate the whole of society, revealing themselves to have been mere points on a continuous subordination of life to production for production’s own sake.

[10] The Invisible Committee, Now

[11] From a friend who works at a fancy local restaurant: the typical influencer will have signed a contract determining their review of the restaurant, their meal, how many pictures and/or stories they will post, etc. before even arriving at the venue.

[12] To return to influencers, the mass of users competing to be chosen by a sponsor attempts to raise the user from the status of an inert object (resource) to that of a laborer transformed into one (worker).

[13] This infrastructure is composed of the dead labor of the people who designed and implemented it, and powered by the living labor of the people who routinely maintain it.

[14] To quote Tiqqun’s Introduction to Civil War: “In every situation there is one line that stands out among all the others, the line along which power grows. Thought is the capacity for singling out and following this line. A form-of-life can be embraced only by following this line, meaning that: all thought is strategic.” The opposite occurs on Twitter, where focus is instead grouped on the various lines that yield the maximum engagement or social standing, and “discourse” forms a background noise of chatter incapable (and unwilling) to reach any conclusions on anything.

[15] This is visible in mainstream left-wing twitter communities: Grayzone readers and anti-grayzone people, dengists and anti-tankies, ancoms and MLs, primitivists and anti-primitivists, etc.