Wednesday, May 8, 2013

gunboats redux

The Control Society and Gunboat Diplomacy

by Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen

Twenty-two years ago Gilles Deleuze published the short, five-page text “Postscript on control societies” in the French journal L’autre journal edited by Michel Butel. The text is an analysis of the arrival of what Deleuze calls the society of control, which he claims 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”.[1] Deleuze’s text describes how the institutions of the modern disciplinary society wither 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 the 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.

As Deleuze writes, his short sketch builds on insight from his friend Michel Foucault who analysed how in the 18th and 19th centuries there occurred a transformation of the former ‘sovereign’ society, where power was located at the top and was exercised over a territory. This hierarchical structure was replaced by another structure, the disciplinary society, where social mastery was located in institutions fabricating specific productive subjects and behaviours. In this society individuals moved from one closed room to another undergoing a production and regulation of habits and conduct: the factory, the family, the hospital, the school and the prison. The disciplinary society was thus a series of closed spaces producing relatively stable and demarcated forms. Each of these spaces or institutions had its specific logic of subjectification, structured according to a distinction between normal and deviant.

The point of departure for Deleuze’s small note is of course that the institutions of the disciplinary society are in a state of crisis. The closed spaces have become porous and the production of subjects has acquired a new form; it has become fluid, Deleuze writes. Now normalization is no longer restricted to the closed space of the institutions but takes place everywhere directly within the subjects that are no longer able to escape the disciplinary apparatus but are always working, studying, recovering, etc.

“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”.[2]

The cell has been replaced by movement. In the society of control, power has become immanent in the social body, it is exercised directly in and by the subjects themselves. Discontinuous moulding is replaced by the continuous modulation of control; a kind of self-deforming form that can be altered every second. As Deleuze exemplifies it, while the factory of the disciplinary society was characterized by a strict wage and salary structure, the firm of the control society is characterized by continual modulation of each and every wage and salary – in a kind of “perpetual metastability that operates through challenges, contests, and highly comic group sessions”.[3] While the factory worker never stopped doing the same work, one never finishes anything in a corporation.
Bureau d'études, 2005

Deleuze’s sketch-like analysis, which was also inspired by William Burroughs’ novels about soft machines and Paul Virilio’s analysis of speed and urbanity, has been hugely influential for the way postmodern or late capitalist society has been mapped by critical theory. It seems as if Deleuze had an almost intuitive understanding of the transformations that capital was going through at the time, and the text has functioned as a point of departure for a huge volume of analysis of the change in the workings and organization of power. The text has thus been pivotal to a certain post-structuralist and post-Marxist analysis of how power has become ever more decentralized and is now no longer connected in any straightforward sense to easily locatable institutions and is no longer exercised 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 locus of power. This kind of diagnosis was dominant in the 1990s, when many people distanced themselves from a more traditional Marxist or historical-materialist analysis of capitalist society and its alienation and exploitation. The dismantling of historical materialism that had been going on since the early 1970s was in many respects a necessary move, as it enabled critical theory to problematize notions of historical progression and historical laws, although it seems as if the cost of this was a disastrous faith in the ability of capital to self-reform.

Surveillance and Empire

A long succession of books has drawn on Deleuze’s short text. The French artist and philosopher Éric Sadin’s book from 2009, Surveillance globale. Enquête sur les nouvelles formes de contrôle, is one recent example. According to Sadin the ensemble of surveillance techniques available today from GPS to biometrics and RFID constitutes an uninterrupted continuum of surveillance where security, marketing and technology are fused in completely new ways. Just twenty years ago security and marketing were relatively separate, but today they are so closely knitted together that they collect, use and share the same information. A continual, intensive gathering of information takes place on the basis of everyday activities like shopping, communication and movement. The intuitive idea of marketing as social control that Deleuze presented in 1990 is very much the case today, according to Sadin. The intensive surveillance is made possible by an extremely accelerated technological development where sophisticated techniques replace one other at a hectic tempo, and a violently aggressive market where companies and firms compete on a worldwide scale and everybody is forced to create a special relationship with the consumer who is no longer embedded in traditional communities but participates in fluid commodity- and image-based lifestyles. Whereas it was the deviant who was the object of surveillance in the disciplinary society, today it is everybody. Every gesture is registered, information is gathered on everybody and becomes part of enormous databases, and is processed in complex diagrams predicting future actions. Sadin’s analysis of the new forms of control seems to confirm Deleuze’s prediction that we are moving into a new paradigm where the prison tower is replaced by an ever-present modulation where the position of everybody is already registered thanks to electronic chains of different sorts.

One of the most influential books drawing on Deleuze’s text is Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, which was published in 2000 with a great deal of fuss as a combination of Italian autonomist Marxism, French post-structuralism and American literary theory. 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 they call ‘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 decentralized power continually transforming the world into 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 need the nation-state system – in which 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 in terms of the individual worker’s working day. Production has become a part of life, taking the form of a kind of bio-political production where communicative abilities and language, but also the body and the senses, create value. Hardt and Negri’s Empire thesis, in accordance with Deleuze, describes the withering of former forms of power and points to the introduction of a new control paradigm where power is no longer located in identifiable actors but instead constitutes a global system of control penetrating the social body as well as the individual.

These different analyses equipped us with useful tools for mapping the control society and its globalized surveillance machinery, but all of a sudden something happened: confronted with 9/11, 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 finely meshed and of little use in the analysis of the imperial war machine that manifested itself after enemies of the American empire hit the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in September 2001. Suddenly George W. Bush made all the decisions. As he himself often said: “I make the calls.” From the Oval Office in the White House in Washington it was decided that we were in a state of war, that everybody was now for or against democracy or terrorism. No other positions were possible in the new era. The invisible micro power structures and internalized mecha­nisms of interpellation were replaced by a sovereign who decided to launch an indefi­nite war against evil.

Approximately ten years after the publication of Deleuze’s text, and less than a year after the publication of Hardt and Negri’s book (it was written in 1997), the situation had completely changed. The different descriptions of de-central networks and smooth spaces seemed incapable of accounting for the accelerated development where the US reacted to Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks with invasion wars, state terror from above and crusade rhetoric. Counter to the we-are-beyond-the-nation-state-analysis Hardt and Negri used in Empire, the USA behaved like a sovereign nation state from the 19th century, seeking political, economic and military control of foreign territories. First it was an already ruined Afghanistan that had to bear the burden of US aggression. Then the USA sidestepped the UN, and with the support of a few faithful nations like Great Britain, Australia, Spain, Italy and Denmark, invaded an Iraq that had nothing whatsoever to do with Islamic terrorism and the terrorist attack on 9/11. But the invasion was in clear accordance with the rhetoric about an axis of evil threa­tening the democratic world. The others were barbarians. In that fight there was no place for diplomatic negotiations or global accords. It was necessary to get rid of Saddam; and that was it. He had to go. Even if it meant lying before the Security Council and making up evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction. It was time for yet another round of death, terror and collateral damage on the grand scale. That traditional allies like France and Germany were not keen on the project, and Russia and China were not content at all, made no difference. They would eventually realize the benefits of the new order where any kind of opposition could be framed as terrorism and thus struck down with as much power as possible. The USA made it clear that it did not have to wait for or comply with the UN, but on the contrary was willing to go ahead itself no matter what other nations said. Hardt and Negri’s analysis of the withering of state power did not seem very appropriate as Bush and the USA launched a war. Were the complex network models, with power no longer based on a few concrete actors, but spread out in a system as codes and protocols, of any use in a war on terror that seemed more to be a question of sovereignty and classical imperialism?

Sovereignty and Imperialism

9/11 and the war on terror constituted a real challenge for the Deleuze-inspired analyses that had seemed capable of accounting critically for the changes going on in the ways in which highly developed societies were governed, but now, post-9/11, looked uselessly post-modern or overly optimistic, because they had prematurely skipped over the notion of the nation-state’s political sovereignty in favour of various ideas of networked power. The Deleuze-inspired critics and theorists had rarely spent much time analysing developments in the so-called Third World, where any discussion of the disappearance of ‘old-school’ sovereignty would be irrelevant.[4] Al-Qaeda might very well be a network-based terror organization that seemed capable of generating destruction by itself, and of creating a global suicide community though suicide videos and explosives; but looked at analytically, the return of older power forms seemed to require something the Deleuze-inspired network discourse could not deliver. It was nevertheless back – sovereignty – in the shape of colonial wars and a militarized public sphere where civilian rights were suspended. The question was thus, as the post-Situationist group Retort phrased it, “whether the forms of assertion of American power since September 11 […] [were] a step backward, an historical regression, in which the molecular, integral, invisible means of control which so many of us believed were indispensable to a truly ‘modern’ state-system have given way to a new/old era of gunboats and book-burning?”[5]

After 9/11 the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who before 9/11 had already been working on a major political-philosophical project correcting Foucault’s idea of the passage from a feudal-state and legal-sovereignty model to a disciplinary society and bio-power, and instead stressing the simultaneity of sovereignty and bio-politics today, analysed George W. Bush as the sovereign who declared a state of emergency and excommunicated people. The war on terror was thus understandable as a generalized state of emergency where the sovereign suspends the law and creates ‘empty holes’ where undesirable subjects are placed, deprived of legal and civil rights. The national political community, according to Agamben, is constituted on the exclusion of people who 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 who have not been tried for or convicted of any crime. The sovereign power can simply excommunicate people, reduce 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 to suspend the law had great analytical as well as polemical relevance, and it effectively destroyed the idea that it is possible to make a clear distinction between democracy and totalitarianism, by showing how liberal democracy is capable of the bio-political tendencies that can be seen in Guantanamo and other secret prisons where enemy combatants are detained without trial and subjected to various kinds of sanctioned or non-sanctioned torture.[6] “The immediately biopolitical significance of the state of exception as the original structure in which law encompasses living beings by means of its own suspension emerges clearly in the ‘military order’ issued by the president of the Unites States on November 13, 2001, which authorizes the ‘indefinite detention’ and trial by ‘military commissions’ (not to be confused with the military tribunals provided for by the law of war) of noncitizens suspected of involvement in terrorist activities.”[7]

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 developments after 9/11, with their revised take on imperialism drawing on the classic works on imperialism by Lenin, Bukharin and Luxemburg from the early 20th century, which argued that the emergent 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 USA had gone from a policy based on consensus to one based on direct force and plunder not so dissimilar to the one Great Britain and France had used a century before, and the USA had used in the 1920s in Central America. According to Harvey, Bush and his conservative administration were motivated by the possibility of controlling not only Iraq’s oil but the entire region’s oil stock; not just because of purely national economic interests, but also because control of the oil of the Middle East would equal control of large parts of the world economy.[8] There were thus both economic and geopolitical interests at stake when the USA invaded Iraq, according to Harvey. Control of the oil was important in itself, but would also send a clear signal to the thriving economies in South East Asia and tighten Washington’s grasp on the energy resources on which the European and Asian rivals were dependent. Harvey’s and Callinicos’ analyses thus claim that the US-led invasion of Iraq and the war on terror were an attempt to handle the ever-returning contradictions of capitalism – how to handle the surplus that is constantly produced – through territorial expansion opening up new areas for what Harvey, following Marx’s notion of primitive accumulation, calls accumulation as dispossession, where capitalism suspends people’s rights and access to natural resources. In the 1990s the USA could restrict itself to using what Harvey and Callinicos call free trade imperialism through institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. Now the USA had to resort to military occupation and war in order to create profit and secure US geopolitical hegemony in the region.

Both of these imperialism analyses mapping the conjunction of the state’s territorial power with the power logic of capital and its circulation of money and capital as well as sovereignty, with their focus on state power and the complex relationship between law and violence in parliamentary democracies, have been able to explain important aspects of developments after 9/11, where the USA 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 traditional former political partners and with complete disrespect for the enormous suffering this causes the wretched of the earth. On the face of it, these analyses have been better equipped to account critically for the present historical situation than the Deleuze-inspired analyses with their descriptions of the invisibility and ‘democratization’ of power in de-central networks. But then again it would be an error to dismiss the network approach, since it is precisely the use of invisible, speeded-up and de-central control  mechanisms alongside bombastic gestures of sovereignty where people disappear or are blown to pieces, that characterize the present conjuncture.

The Joining of Old and New in a Preemptive Anti-Rebellion Regime
After 9/11 we have witnessed the return of an aggressively military American state that has lied to the global public and the UN in order to be able to terrorize Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq and kill hundred thousands of innocent bystanders. We have also witnessed how a genuine police or war regime has been put in place, not only for handling military affairs and concrete events but with political, economic, legal, ideological and cultural consequences for the whole of society around the world. For this war is not just military; it affects both base and superstructure, and it is characterized 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 ‘at home’ where the terrorists or other security risks are also deemed to be present. The security arrangements have taken the form of suspensions of civil rights and the criminalization of formerly accepted types of political protest, now framed by the state as terrorism. The war on terror has also meant the construction of camps where people are reduced to the bare essentials of life and left to the whims 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 facing an array of inevitable disasters and threats such as terrorism, biospheric meltdown, economic collapse or food shortage, all of which are unavoidable but which can be controlled and cannot be allowed to develop into ‘grand politics’ in Nietzsche’s sense, where the rich become 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 threats are considered inevitable – the climate crisis is just the latest and the US administration is already talking about “declaring war against global warming”[9] – but governable.[10] The model for this idea seems to be the Israeli army’s handling of the Israel-Palestine conflict which the Israeli army considers unsolvable but manageable. The point is to “manage the conflict” and use it as a kind of constructive chaos.[11] As an integral part of this preemptive anti-rebellion regime, flexible networks of micro-conflict solution are combined with sovereign exclusion/inclusion and disciplinary training in an as yet unseen system that aims not only at handling the present but also structuring the possible and wiping out potentiality – the condition that it can both be actualized and not actualized, and thus involves an indeterminate otherness.[12] The preemptive anti-rebellion regime thus not only addresses territorial questions but also has a temporal dimension that has to do with the field of possibility of the body, control of what the body can do. As Brian Massumi writes, the new regime is thus characterized by being preemptive; it operates in the present with a view to a future threat.[13] There is in other words an epistemological insecurity at work due not only to the absence of knowledge but also to the fact that the threat does not yet exist, has not yet acquired form, but nonetheless has to be removed.[14] The future has to be modulated even before it exists; it is necessary to act before something completely different happens.[15] As Neyrat writes, it is the very possibility of the threat that is being criminalized or eradicated: “It’s no longer a question of marking an act in its legal form afterwards […] but of neutralizing the possibility of the act before any kind of actualization. The anti-terror laws have been the test case for such a transformation.”[16] These are the terrifying contours of the preemptive anti-rebellion regime that is taking shape. 

The Beginning

The present situation makes it necessary to use both the Deleuzian control society thesis and the sovereignty and imperialism analyses in order to account for the processes going on after 9/11. The great challenge to analysis is the mixture of flexible networks, disciplinary normalization and sovereign spaces of disappearance – the presence of code, rule and ban. It is a strange hybrid we are confronted with. It is not so much a question of choosing between two positions or analyses as of being able to work with the society-of-control thesis as well as the sovereignty analyses in the mapping of the new police and war regime. As Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker write in The Exploit: A Theory of Networks: “[T]he juncture between sovereignty and networks is the place where the apparent contradictions in which we live can best be understood.”[17] It is precisely the friction between and the joining of the two that need to be analysed.

We are indeed living in strange times when an alliance of stasis and metamorphosis, the old and new, makes it difficult to get a handle on the situation, and often plays tricks on our perception and praxis. As Retort writes: “The past has become the present again: this is the mark of the moment.”[18] Deleuze himself was actually fleetingly aware of this possible development in his short text, when he ended up writing: “It may be that older methods, borrowed from the former societies of sovereignty, will return to the fore, but with the necessary modifications. What counts is that we are at the beginning of something.”[19] Control society and gunboat diplomacy in one. In what forms the resistance to this regime will manifest itself remains to be seen. It is difficult to see a ‘dialectical’ alternative to the present order, never mind Marx’ subversive world subject preparing to push and rebel against and abolish this order. Nonetheless, the protection of the established order is well underway and is being tested continually.[20]

This essay originally appeared in Left Curve 37 (2013) and is re-posted here with the author’s permission (and images). Many thanks, Mikkel.

[1] Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press, 199), p. 174. 
[2] Ibid., p. 179.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Maurizio Lazzarato, Les révolutions du capitalisme, (Paris: Seuil, 2004), p. 103.
[5] Retort, Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (London & New York: Verso, 2005), p. 18.
[6] The events in Abu Ghraib – where prison guards humiliated prisoners by raping and abusing them and documenting it on camera – is an example of non-sanctioned torture, but interrogation methods like waterboarding, where water is poured over the face of an immobilized captive, causing the individual to experience the sensation of drowning, was an example of officially sanctioned torture. As Seymour Hersh has explained, the line between the two has very difficult to maintain for the US adminis­tration. Hersh, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 71.
[7] Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 3.
[8] David Harvey, A New Imperialism (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 19.
[9] Iain Boal, “Climate, Globe, Capital: The Science and Politics of the Abyss.” Sum: 5 (2009): 39. In February 2010 the US Department of Defense released its Quadrennial Defense Review, which for the first time considered climate change as a major geopolitical factor with direct or indirect consequences for US national security. Quadrennial Defense Review 84-88. Available at:
[10] Fréderic Neyrat, Biopolitique de catastrophes (Paris: Éditions MF, 2008), p. 26.
[11] Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (London & New York: Verso, 2007), p.  253. 
[12] Giorgio Agamben, “Bartleby, or On Contingency,” trans. Daniel Heller Roazen, in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 267.
[13] Brian Massumi, “Potential Politics and The Primacy of Preemption.” Theory & Event 10, 2 (2007): n.p., online at
[14] The Bush administration was perfectly clear about this change in the status of reality. As one White House aide explained to Ron Suskind: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. […] We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you are studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study, too.” Suskind, “Faith, Certainty, and the presidency of George W. Bush,” New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004. 
[15] As former United States Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld phrased it in 2002 at a press briefing: “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
[16] Fréderic Neyrat, “Rupture de défense.” Lignes 29 (2009): 48-49. 
[17] Alexander Galloway & Eugene Thacker, The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (Minneapolis & London: Minnesota University Press, 2007), p. 5
[18] Retort, Afflicted Powers, p. 9.
[19] Deleuze, Negotiations, p. 7.
[20] The election of Barack Obama as president of the US did not mean any real change in the anti-rebellion regime, in the creation of which the USA is the prime mover. There was been a change in the rhetoric, where “the war on terror” was replaced by “overseas contingency operations” and “enemy combatants” by “detained persons”, but the overall mechanisms are still in place and there has been no genuine dismantling of the emergency laws implemented after 9/11. The election of Obama is probably to be read as a kind of “digestion phase” after Bush Junior, as with Carter after Nixon, as Pièces et main d’œuvres writes. Pièces et main d’œuvres. À la recherche du nouvel ennemi. 2001-2025: Rudiments d’histoire contemporaine. Montreuil: L’Échappée, 2009), p. 103.

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