Neoliberal networks: a response to William Davies

The question of how these two disparate logics - network sociality and neoliberal competitive individualism - relate to each other is arguably the key issue in the analysis of contemporary power relations. 

Jeremy Gilbert
18 July 2013

William Davies’ excellent account of the relationship between neoliberalism and the network logics of contemporary social media deserves a further gloss.

Any account of such important phenomena must avoid falling into the trap of assuming a natural organic fit between very diverse phenomena.  Social media on the one hand, and the neoliberal ideological and governmental programme on the other, are not necessarily part of the same singular entity, even if they contribute to each others’ functioning in significant and unexpected ways. It is easy to make the assumption that, because of the relationships between them charted with such accuracy here, 'social media' are somehow inherently 'neoliberal'. But any such assumption would be a mistake, because social media have no inherent political valency. Rather - the precise ways in which they are currently deployed are shaped by neoliberal priorities because of the deliberate and non-inevitable intervention of agencies commited to those priorities.

I don’t mean to imply that the author himself makes this mistake in his very acute analysis, which in fact raises a fundamental problem for contemporary social theory. On the one hand, the apparently collaborative, ‘horizontal’, decentralised patterns identified by commentators since the 1980s as typical of ‘post-Fordism’ - characterising what Castells already christened in 1996 ‘the network society‘ -  seem to be ever-more visible and prevalent, and to be wholly manifest in the forms and procedures of emergent social media. Any account which pays particular attention to these developments - such as Hardt & Negri’s in their books Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth - is likely to see the growth of such new forms of collective creativity and democratic possibility as the key feature of contemporary cultural change. 

On the other hand, any attention either to the enacted policies of governments the world over, or to the ideological content of popular mass media outputs, or even to the kind of trend picked up by those surveys which find today’s young people to be the least sympathetic to the poor and to welfare-claimants of any generation on record, must acknowledge an important truth. That truth is simply this: the neoliberal programme, simultaneously imposing an individualised model of sociality and highly regimented and centralised forms of bureaucratic management on huge sections of our social and cultural life, has achieved a very high level of success. The question of how these two disparate logics - network sociality and neoliberal competitive individualism - relate to each other is arguably the key issue in the analysis of contemporary power relations.

One of the earliest attempts to capture their convergence in a single formulation is arguably Deleuze’s famous ‘post-script on the societies of control’. Here, Deleuze argues that the ‘disciplinary’ institutions described by Foucault as typical of modern societies - prisons, regimented and conformist schools, hospitals, asylums - were giving way to new modes of power. The novelty of these new modes, Deleuze suggests, lies in the fact that whereas their predecessors tended to impose highly delimited norms on their participants - demanding a singular standard of behaviour in the workplace, the classroom, the home or the street - these new forms instead orient themselves toward the development of dense and extensive systems of monitoring which could allow the system itself to anticipate and adapt to changes in the behaviour of individuals and populations.

Deleuze’s account is almost certainly influenced by Foucault’s own lectures in the late 70s, in which he seems to posit the emergence of a logic of ‘security’-informing practices of governance that potentially displaces the normative logic of discipline and supervision. Will’s analysis of the functioning of the Prism system seems to illustrate this hypothesis very nicely. What is at stake for the institutions of government now is the observation, anticipation and management of relationships and behaviours: the actual content of messages, or of consciences, is of little consequence. Contrast this with the obsession of all state spies - from the Spanish Inquisition, or the withchfinders of the seventeenth century, to the last days of the Stasi - with learning the ‘truth’ of an individual’s personal beliefs, and making it conform to an established norm, and we understand almost everything we need to about the shift from disciplinary societies to the societies of control.

But what such formulations tend to leave aside is a very important point: that the network logic manifested by social media does not necessarily mesh perfectly or automatically with the ideological  imperatives of neoliberalism; they do not even necessarily express a single, organic set of interests. On the one hand we have  a social logic which tends towards the promotion of egalitarian collective creativity. On the other, we have an ideology which demands that we remain commited to the liberal individualist obsession with our private, interior lives and our separability from all other beings. It insists that the outputs of all such creativity - and even the condition of possibility for those outputs - manifest themselves only as forms of private property: from the ‘transferrable skill sets’ which we ‘sell’ in the labour market to the carefully-defined pieces of intellectual property that are the substance of the ‘knowledge economy’. Of course they can be made to mesh together very well, and of course networks have their own specific inequalities and power imbalances, as pointed out by commentators such as Boltanski & Chiapello and Tiziana Terranova. But it would be a mistake to imagine - as some do, although not the author I think - that the relationships between these different sets of processes are by any means simple or always necessarily mutually-reinforcing.

What any such assumption risks missing is the crucial dimension of active conflict, capture, and intervention which has to be understood as having produced those relationships in their current form. So what has emerged is not merely a seamless development from one stage of neoliberalism into another: rather, neoliberalism has been, since its inception, a reactive strategy aimed at capturing, commodifying, and individualising the very creative, and necessarily social, energies which emerged from the cultural and technological revolutions of the 1960s. These are the energies which capital must to some extent facilitate and intensify, precisely in order to be able to exploit them for its own benefit.

This paradoxical dynamic, whereby capital must create productive relationships, while also policing them, containing them, and capturing their outputs is not new: it is precisely the contradictory logic of capitalism as analysed by Marx, and conceptualised more recently by Hardt and Negri in terms of the 'parasitic' relationship between capital and 'the multitude'. If we do not recognise the extent to which this drive to capture and commodify the consequences of new forms of human co-operation is an ongoing political problem for capital and its agents, rather than merely an organic development of capitalism or neoliberalism as such, it becomes very difficult for us to identify any possible sites of progressive political agency.

If you want a concrete illustration of the ways in which the types of relationship under discussion are themselves actives sites of intervention, and consistent sites of anxiety, for the agents of neoliberalism, then just consider the ways in which Google and Facebook have tried to control their online territories. Terrified by Newscorp's failure to turn MySpace into an effective site of capital accumulation, they have worried endlessly about how to monetize and commodify that space (striating its smooth space in line with the logic of the 'societies of control', Deleuze would no doubt have pointed out).

Their key ideological strategy has been to try to delimit and guarantee the real-world individual identities of users, limiting any potential social media might have for the abandonment or proliferation of modes of belonging and interaction, trying to ensure that the liberal vision of a socius composed of isolated individuals connected by purely voluntary, weak, transparent and time-limited relationships becomes a digital reality. You log in to everything through your facebook account (and increasingly they want to ensure that you only have one and that they know it's definitely yours) so that they can be sure that you are always and only ever 'you' - a little bundle of accurate market data to be marketed on the basis of its veracity in the 'real' world of actual spending.

A parallel example is the growth of bureaucratic managerialism in the corporate as well as the public sectors (see Mark Fisher’s article in the same series on neoliberalism, crisis and the world system), despite the fact that such authoritarianism apparently runs counter both to the ideal of post-Fordism ‘flat management’ theory - which supposedly encourages worker-autonomy and creative team problem-solving - and to the libertarian ideals of Hayek et al.  Such bureaucratic measures as standardised testing and leagues tables for schools are most likely to be imposed at precisely the point when those constituencies (for example, students and teachers) who might easily be empowered by the new social media and new forms of collective collaboration to communicate and make decisions in democratic and productive ways, run up against the problematic interface with institutions committed to a neoliberal ideology that insists that competitive market relations are the only acceptable mode of sociality.

But the point is - they wouldn't have had to introduce these increasing layers of checks and controls if they weren't worried about what would happen in their absence. And this in turn suggests that social media retain a radical potential which we need to think about in order to exploit and develop, rather than assume that this is a component fully coopted by neoliberalism.

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