Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The genesis of ‘uncontrollable societies’

What could “uncontrollable societies” – a phrase that probably strikes fear into the hearts of every member of technocratic governments the world over – possibly mean? To explain it is no easy task, because it entails abstract thinking and conceptualisation not often required of individuals in our technologically oriented society today.

The intertextual reference of the phrase is, as continental philosophers would probably have recognised, Gilles Deleuze’s famous (or perhaps infamous, because it debunks the supposed “benevolence” of capitalism) essay, “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, where he argued that we no longer live in Foucault’s predominantly “disciplinary societies”, because control, today, is exercised along rhizomatic, constantly changing economic and financial networks. If you don’t believe this to be the case, try buying a car on a hire purchase plan or getting a visa without the requisite financial evidence (such as bank statements and proof of regularly paid accounts). In brief: without demonstrating your qualifications to be in debt (that is, controlled), your so-called freedom is severely curtailed.

In the book, Uncontrollable Societies of Disaffected Individuals: Disbelief and Discredit (Vol. 2), translated by Daniel Ross, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2012), French philosopher Bernard Stiegler elaborates on the complex causes of (lack of) control today. In a nutshell, Stiegler believes that individuals in contemporary societies become “uncontrollable” because of the “spiritual misery” (not in any vague, mystical sense of “spiritual”, but relating to the bond between individuals and their communities, which is being eroded), that is inflicted on them by various aspects of banal consumerism, accompanied by the measures of control that are concomitant with the increasingly conspicuous obsolescence of our technological-industrial economic system. The latter is characterised by the unabated intrusion of “the market” in people’s everyday lives, destroying their ethos or sense of communal place in the process. The result has been that, increasingly, people have nothing edifying to expect or look forward to, except the calculable, albeit uncertain, consequences of their economic involvements.


In the introduction of the book he observes that: “No longer having anything to expect also means no longer having anything to fear … with desperation comes a lack of fear – and the proliferation of repressive mechanisms intended to cope with the effects of this loss of authority that is also a loss of spirit turns out to be less and less effective and, ultimately, to increasingly engender the opposite of that for which they were intended, in extreme and totally irrational forms. This is the point at which we have arrived, and it is very bad news: the hyper-power of the technical system of the hyper-industrial epoch can only maintain its power for as long as everyday, blind trust … remains possible, a trust inevitably ruined by the destructive irrationality resulting from the liquidation of the kingdom of ends [that Kant linked to ethics; BO]. Now, trust is a precondition of the functioning of hyper-power: from the moment trust is lost, hyper-power is inverted into hyper-vulnerability and impotence. The loss of motives of hope then spreads, encompassing all of us like a contagious illness. But this ‘all’ is no longer a we: it is a panic.”

It is not difficult to grasp what Stiegler means by “trust” being lost – sociologist Manuel Castells has found in his research that people worldwide no longer trust politicians or financial institutions. And it is no accident that Stiegler wrote this book after the suicide bombings in London (“7 July”, or “7/7″) – this is precisely a symptom (among many others, such as the murder of their children by a French couple, followed by their conviction) of the obsolescence of our present economic system, and of what he conceives of as the accompanying “despair” generated by its perpetuation through various modes of control. The latter includes the way in which consumers are controlled, for the sake of profit, by advertising tapping into human drives or desires – themselves “liberated”, earlier, by the social tenets of the so-called permissive society. In so doing, according to Stiegler, human desire is directed away from those things that are reasons for living, in the process annihilating the human spirit. If anyone thinks that Stiegler is alone in this criticism of capitalism’s impact on human behaviour, they would be sorely mistaken; such criticism is increasing.

One should understand Stiegler’s trenchant criticism of the present economic system in the context of his work on technics or technological materiality, which he regards as being inseparable from being human. Without technics, no human history would be possible, because we would lack the material means of archiving, such as writing, to store or transmit human knowledge from one generation to the other. Today such technical memory-systems assume the shape of electronically mediating, external memory devices like smartphones. No individual cognition is thinkable without the mediation of such memory-systems, whether in oral or in written form, for instance. Now, for Stiegler there is a connection between the historical relationship(s) that obtain between humanity and technics, on the one hand, and the generation of “spirit” and a meaningful life, on the other. As mentioned earlier, “spirit” (or perhaps “mind”) means nothing mystical or religious here, but refers rather to common, collective memory engendered by the relation between mental or psychic processes and different technical “prostheses”.

This is a crucial point to be able to understand what Stiegler means by claiming that control under consumer capitalism is destructive of spirit, including the grounds for trust and belief. If this sounds unintelligible, recall that calculating control-mechanisms in our capitalist world include, most prominently today, the mounting “financialisation” of more and more aspects of our daily lives – so much so that one might say that the calculation of money-resources becomes the mainstay of our existence. Needless to emphasise, under such circumstances “spirit”, with everything it entails, in the above sense, is undermined. Those things that we believe and trust in, or hope for, are not susceptible to calculation; they are our reasons to want to live. The more our lives are permeated by various forms of control – television being among these – the more trust is obliterated and cynicism generated; this is fertile soil for the eponymous “uncontrollable societies” to emerge.

The paradox should be clear: excessive social control for the sake of prolonging the rule of the present economic system gives rise to a society of individuals who become uncontrollable, where the very desires and drives that were harnessed for the sake of greater profit, morph into uncontrollable, irrational drives that find expression in the most horrific instances of “acting out”.

That the conditions described by Stiegler in this complex and difficult book are cause for extreme concern is beyond doubt. There is no space here to discuss the highly unusual kind of politics that Stiegler proposes in the face of a process that constitutes, in his view, the greatest crisis in the history of humanity (keeping in mind that the word “crisis” comes from the ancient Greek for “decision”). In the final analysis Stiegler justifies his criticism of the increasingly problematic economic status quo with reference to what one might call the “right” of humanity to a “future”. The following passage from the book’s Introduction should make the connection between the critical juncture of the present and the possibility of a future clear:

“Spiritual misery, insofar as it is the blockage or destruction of psychic and social circuits through which the objects of spirit are constituted – which are the objects of admiration, sublimation, and love (of art, science, language, knowledge, and wisdom, which in Greek is called philo-sophia) – this blockage or this destruction, then, also engenders an anxiogenic situation that aggravates and reinforces this paralysis of the human psycho-social spirit: the noetic soul feels that, deprived of its premier faculty, thought, its capacity to discern and therefore to anticipate, and to want and to act knowingly, is radically threatened – and with it, the human species in totality.”

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