Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The age of the indebted, mediatised, securitised and depoliticised

In Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s latest book Declaration (Argo Navis, 2012) — although, probably given its brevity (just over a hundred pages) compared to the books comprising their trilogy (Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth), they refer to it as a “pamphlet” — they articulate the global crisis of the present era in terms of four “figures”, or “subjectivities” produced under conditions of what they call Empire, or the new sovereign economic and political power ruling the world.

These are the following, and I quote them at length (p9): “The triumph of neoliberalism and its crisis have shifted the terms of economic and political life, but they have also operated a social, anthropological transformation, fabricating new figures of subjectivity. The hegemony of finance and the banks has produced the indebted. Control over information and communication networks has created the mediatised. The security regime and the generalised state of exception [á la Agamben; BO] have constructed a figure prey to fear and yearning for protection — the securitised. And the corruption of democracy has forged a strange, depoliticised figure, the represented. These subjective figures constitute the social terrain on which — and against which — movements of resistance and rebellion must act … these movements have the ability not only to refuse these subjectivities but also to invert them and create figures that are capable of expressing their independence and their powers of political action.”

I cannot do justice to the subtleties of their argument in one short blog-post, but I’ll try to give a kind of overview up to a point. Their discussion of each of these subjectivities produced under current socio-economic and political conditions (which, under Empire, are all intertwined) brings forward just how hamstrung people in today’s world are by the powers that be — Foucault would be astonished to see that the “docile bodies” that he theorised in Discipline and Punishment did not yet represent the nadir of docility, which we are fast approaching today.

“The indebted” is a figure that marks the general condition of being in debt today, and their enumeration of all the levels and sites of debt (including house mortgages, student loans, car-instalments, personal loans to pay any number of other debts) resonates with the experience of most people today — called the 99%, and with good reason (see Jason Hickel’s recent Thought Leader blog on global inequality). Loans have indeed become the “primary means” to be able to live in a social context.

But more than that, apart from “welfare” having turned into what they call “debtfare”, debt may be said to take Foucaultian discipline further: it controls everything, from consumption to your very survival. Without exaggerating, Hardt and Negri point out that it determines one’s choices, such as those confronting you when you finish your university study with a repayable loan, and have to find a job to be able to pay off your debt, or being held captive to work uninterruptedly by a mortgage on an apartment, lest you lose it. They compare debt to the work ethic, with the difference that the latter is “born within the subject”, while debt starts as an external force, only to invade one’s subjectivity later. Under debt, for which you are responsible, guilt (of a financial kind, in contrast to earlier forms) becomes a “form of life”. The indebted is the contemporary, non-dialectical counterpart of Hegel’s slave.

The figure of “the mediatised” appears today as the inverse of people’s position regarding the media in former eras, when they could legitimately complain that they did not have sufficient access to information and means of expression. Hardt and Negri readily grant that there are still governments today which limit access to communicational means such as websites, and so on — something that should justly be opposed. But that is not what “the mediatised” refers to; in fact, it suggests the exact opposite, namely that “mediatised subjects” today are choking on a surplus of information and ways to express themselves. No wonder Deleuze remarked that the problem, today, is not that people don’t express themselves; it is rather to provide “little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say … that might be worth saying” (quoted on p15).

Commenting on this, Hardt and Negri observe: “Primarily at stake in the question of political action and liberation … is not the quantity of information, communication, and expression but, rather, their quality.” This is a stark reminder of the utter vacuousness of the vast bulk of tweets and texting, even if, under conditions of political resistance, they can become meaningful as means to action. It is actually more complex than this, though, as they hasten to remind one — communication devices and social media both liberate one from, and tether you to your job, because with a smartphone, for instance, you can work from anywhere you may go, and often you do. Hence, “mediatisation” exacerbates the blurring of the boundaries between work and your personal life.

“The securitised” indexes the “dizzying” extent of information that is being produced on everyone most of the time, from heightened surveillance in certain places to airport security checks, election fingerprinting of voters, unemployment registers, hospital admissions and the like — covering everything (and more) that Foucault listed under the panoptical surveillance of modern, carceral societies. Add to this credit card purchases, texting on your mobile phone, e-mailing and internet searches, all of which may be intercepted at any time, and it should be clear that no one escapes being “securitised”. As Hardt and Negri put it (p19): “Security technologies have leapt forward in recent years to delve deeper into society, our lives, and our bodies.” In this society everyone is expected to play the roles of both “inmates” (subject to surveillance) and “guards”, in so far as you are expected to be on the alert for any “suspicious” activity, to be part of this globalised “security machine”.

Despite the fact that it is constantly rammed down one’s throat that we live in an age of democracy and human rights, and that the existence of repressive regimes, even today, gives credence to that claim, a curious phenomenon exists regarding the almost universally valorised representative forms of government — so-called democracy. This phenomenon entails the rejection of “representation” by many of the protest movements of especially 2011 (which Hardt and Negri list at the beginning of the book). How is this possible, one may ask — to reject the gift of “democracy”?

Hardt and Negri explain (p24): “To understand their critique we must recognise that representation is not, in fact, a vehicle of democracy but instead an obstacle to its realisation, and we must see how the figure of the represented gathers together the figures of the indebted, the mediatised, and the securitised, and at the same time, epitomises the end result of their subordination and corruption.”

What this means is that the “power of finance and wealth” prevents ordinary (indebted) people from organising themselves effectively into political entities that could contest elections — only the very rich can do so under their own steam. Secondly, to harness one’s political beliefs effectively in a mediatised world one needs the media, but the dominant media usually block independent movements, while political elites easily find the financing to use the media. Lastly, through the media the natural associative or social tendencies of people are transmogrified into the “fearful isolation” of the securitised. And “representative democracy” wastes no time in making ordinary people aware of what Hardt and Negri call “this world of filth”.

There is hope, however, for these authors believe that all four of these “dominated figures of contemporary society” have the ability to become “figures of power” instead. That is what my previous post was about, and there is more to come.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • Metaphors (as models), and our own ‘networked’ existence
  • Sleepwalking into a geophysical storm?
  • ‘Dark technology’ and human ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’?
  • People are not as free as they think they are