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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.

Author

  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.

16 Comments

  1. Maria Maria 19 April 2013

    While I do entertain interpretive differences from Hardt and Negri on certain issues (their take on some poststructuralists, like Derrida, is wrong in important respects), when it comes to a political grasp of the consequences of the “new world order” tightening its grip on many levels of social existence, it is difficult to fault them.

  2. Chris Allsobrook Chris Allsobrook 19 April 2013

    I beg to differ on indebtedness.

    The most indebted nation on the planet is also the most powerful.
    The poor are poor in virtue of their incapacity to attract, manage and wield debt.

    Only the slave demands independence;
    the master demands help.

  3. Maria Maria 20 April 2013

    Chris, there is no contradiction re indebtedness. As you say, the most indebted nation on earth is also the most indebted – i.e. there is a correlation between the degree of indebtedness and the level of power. What H & N call Empire would therefore always approach, asymptotically, a saturation point of indebtedness, with more and more of the poor supposedly being economically empowered, while in truth they are only being drawn into the web of debt, with all its obligations and control. So you’re right – and this corresponds to what H & N say about the slave and the master – that the master needs help, i.e. the slave, to be able to rule. In the present scenario, this means that the indebted has replaced the slave, in the process empowering the master economically.

  4. Maria Maria 20 April 2013

    I meant “As you say, the most indebted nation on earth is also the most powerful”.

  5. Rene Rene 20 April 2013

    Ironically, however, it is only the dominant economic powers that can be described as powerful; not the indebted masses. They can show their latent power by not entering into debt, as far as possible. I don’t – I only use the funds I have – I don’t even have a credit card.

  6. Sophia Sophia 20 April 2013

    Bert, there’s some very compelling & exciting elements in H&N’s neo-Marxist rendition of the historical features of our times; but by not providing your readers with the counterpoint to their views & why the latter should be rejected, it’s hard to take counsel from the polemic. There’s no doubt their 4 subjectivities provide useful existential earmarks, but what should we make of the following simplified examples of H&N’s position? 1. Societies deemed by many to be the most democratic, by virtue of the rule of law, freedom of representation, franchise & speech are ironically demonised as being most unfree. 2. Societies that are the most affluent & that boast sophisticated financing infrastructures to fuel innovation & productivity are regarded as engines of indebtedness (neglecting an understanding of capital accumulation & the legal underpinnings of the fungibility of assets). 3. People who’ve acted in concert to oppose murderous dictators or malicious organisations intent on harming innocent folk are depicted as the new bourgeois hegemony. 4. Countries that have struggled via legal & political process to maintain a balance between protecting its citizens & retaining privacy are characterised as surveillance freaks. 5. Global institutions that work to manage the ‘noodle bowl’ of international trade relations & interests are conspiratorially poo-pooed together with the ideal of democracy, which is presented as a system merely concealing its nefarious opposite…

  7. Maria Maria 20 April 2013

    Sophia, don’t you think there are more than enough people – bloggers, columnists, etc. – defending the positions you implicitly defend against H & N, to explain why one should give readers access to the far less read, such as H & N? Besides, to present those points in such simplified form is to hide H & N’s reasons for holding them. They are merely following in the footsteps of those philosophical predecessors who, in their different ways, demystified conventionally valorized beliefs. I have never taken you as someone naive enough to believe that the democracies of the present are truly democratic. What has just happened at the US Senate proves my point, and H & N’s, that “the represented” are actually excluded from democracy: those senate members that blocked the law intent on making it less easy for someone to own a firearm in the US, did not represent the “people;” they represented their own interests, and those of the NRA. This is what the figure of “the represented” suggests. Bert’s earlier posts on Ranciere draw attention to the same thing – for Ranciere democracy only appears there, where the “part of those with no part” asserts itself in disruptive fashion. As for the rest, it is the rule of what Ranciere dubs “the police”, who partition the polis neatly, without surplus, among those who comprise the social hierarchy.

  8. HEADLIGHT HEADLIGHT 22 April 2013

    Chris. It’s difficult to argue with someone when you intrinsically agree with them. To deconstruct is better because it pays honour where honour is due. Thus, though I claim your original statement I yet amend it: The poor (and most importantly never the ‘criminal’) are poor by virtue of their incapacity to attract, manage and wield fear. Furthermore, if the slave demands independence then only the slave still demands the Nation state. The master demands help, indeed attaches the self to whoever (regardless of colour or creed) will consume enough to abet an abnormally paranoid fear of poverty. If the ‘good old USA’ is still the most powerful nation on earth it is because the IMF & World Bank have invested every master’s debt there: that is until manageable democracy comes to China.

  9. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 22 April 2013

    Bert your previous article prompted an interest to look beyond the obvious, so I did some research on internet usage – data is from an Internet site called “Internet World Stats” (www.internetworldstats.com) – whilst internet usage has grown 566% in the last 12 years only 34.3% of the world has access to internet (2,405 Bill), of which Asia has the largest slice of the pie with 1,076 Bill persons having access (44,8%), then Europe with 21,5% and then North America with 11,4%. Individual countries stack up as follows: China 538 mill users/ 40,1% penetration/ 633k Face Book users; America: 245mill/ 78,1%/ 254mill; India: 137 mill/ 11,4%/ 62,7mill; Brazil: 88,5mill/ 45,6%/ 58,5mill; Indonesia: 55mill/ 22,1%/ 51 Mill; Mexico: 42 mill/ 36,5%/ 38,4mill; UK: 52,7mill/ 83,6%/ 33mill; Nigeria 48,3mill/ 28,4%/ 6,6mill; South Africa 8,5mill/ 17,4%/ 6.2mill. The English world (NA + UK) makes up 297,9 million with Internet access and say 200 million FB users…

  10. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 22 April 2013

    Why I wanted to look at the stat’s is I think our Western view is dominated disproportionally by an English media and I think the other-than-western view is simply ignored. Yet proportionally China alone has far greater access to the Internet. What dominates their discourse at the moment – I haven’t a clue, I don’t speak Mandarin. Is my English view of the world therefore the whole picture?
    Could we use internet access as a proxy for media access? Could it be that the pessimism/ despondence/ cynicism generated by commentators such as H&N is based on an American dominated discourse? Typically when we refer to “democracy” we refer to America/UK, we don’t include Brazil and India in that analysis, same applies for media, security etc. On social media what is really trending, if you consider Asia has 254 million Face Book users vs. the 200 Million of the English world.
    Like the hidden-from-view movement in your last article, I think there is a whole discussion/ discourse out there beyond the English world and maybe we need to listen to it too?

  11. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 22 April 2013

    One final point – possibly to the securitisation aspect – lots of criticism of the Western Media has emerged following the attention to the Boston bombing vs. say the coverage of bombings in Iraq/Baghdad on the 15 April that killed at least 55 people. But if you take into consideration where the majority of reporters in the English media are located, where the majority of the English media is based, namely America, it is simply a numbers game, of more people on the scene in Boston, reporting in more English media outlets, than English media persons on the ground in Baghdad. And so the impression is created that the Western World is biased towards American lives, that the western media is “racist” and thereby that the western world doesn’t care about Arab lives…

  12. Bert Bert 22 April 2013

    Gary – I’m surprised that (South) Korea isn’t among the top countries as far as internet penetration goes – it is regarded as the most ‘connected’ country in the world. Interesting stats, though. And I don’t believe Hardt and Negri’s views are based one-sidedly on information on/from western countries – Hardt participated in a conference where I was a participant, too, in Durban (in 1990). Moreover, in their work they refer to many instances from countries across the world. One thing they consider in Empire, e.g., is the source of religious fundamentalism in Arabic countries, and they consult some Arabic writers in this regard. In Multitude they allude to protests in South American countries, too. That does not change the fact that western mainstream discourses are the dominant ones, though, but as you will see in my more recent post, in the context of the ‘network society’ these have been adopted acros the world, by and large, given the ‘totalization’ of this societal form.

  13. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 22 April 2013

    Bert – South Korea has 40,3 million with Internet access, 82,5% penetration and 10 Mill FB users. So your view is accurate i.t.o. internet penetration.
    I just wonder if we are not too focused on the loudest voice in the room, in community gatherings, the loud mouth may have lots of airtime, and if we measured airtime dominance as the key indicator of influence, then the loud mouth would take it? How many times is it the silent person in the corner, the person who actually makes a difference in the world and due to politeness, kindness, tolerance, wisdom lets the loud mouth rant, but on the quiet gets on with the real work? I think we are oblivious to a whole world of debate and interaction that occurs outside of the English world. That because we in the West, shout the loudest, have the fanciest cars, take the front row in church, and proclaim our gospel to all quarters, we think we dominate. Do we really?

  14. Sophia Sophia 23 April 2013

    Maria, you misunderstand me completely

  15. Devin P Devin P 27 April 2013

    Regarding the indebted :

    The control debt exerts over the indebted’s life is growing and could be beginning to solidify into a prescribed system. The following quote, from the Financial Post, shows what may be in store for Irish insolvents :

    ” Monthly individual living expenses for people seeking debt relief may be capped at 35.73 euros ($46.7) for clothing, 247.04 euros for food and 33.40 euros for personal-hygiene items, the Insolvency Service of Ireland said in Dublin today. Households in towns with “adequate public transport links” may not need a car, while private health insurance may also be banned, the ISI said. ”

    Debt on a macro level also has huge effects. With financial service directed QE playing havoc with global markets / prices in almost every sphere.

  16. bert bert 2 May 2013

    Devin P, I am not surprised. I hope more and more people wake up to the new, capitalist, version of what Max Weber called an ‘iron cage’, and start looking for alternatives with those millions of other people across the world who are doing so.

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