The Out of Control Society

The disciplinary society of enclosed spaces known as school, army or work has largely collapsed under the assaults of neo-liberalism. What is becoming clear is that the society of control that was imagined to be its replacement is getting out of control.

Permanent school in the form of life-long training was the society of control: now we have debt out of control, and machines to do the labor. Permanent prison was to replace the panopticon but society can no longer afford it. The permanent counterinsurgency has collapsed into a brutal necropolitics–the right to determine who shall be killed.

Debt was today discussed in genteel terms on the New York Times editorial page. The Times found it “welcome” that Mount Holyoke has frozen its price of attendance at a trifling $53,000. Sewanee, the University of the South, has reduced costs to “lure” students with a mere $44,600 charge, to be kept constant for four years.

On the facing letters column, the President of Sarah Lawrence, the most expensive school in the country, suggests that with grant aid her institution can be an “affordable choice” if “educational value” is factored in. In short, financial aid is another form of privilege. It’s been widely noted that for many students Harvard can be less expensive than the California State system, which was designed to cater to working- and middle-class students.

Less well-heeled institutions have stopped bothering to pretend. The University of North Iowa Regents today approved cuts, reported to involve closing its Physics department, among several others, as well as a Lab School and its museum. 30 tenured and tenure track faculty will be dismissed.

Yesterday came a spectacular declaration of the collapse of global counterinsurgency into sovereign assertion of the right to kill. Attorney General Eric Holder claimed:

Some have argued that the president is required to get permission from a federal court before taking action against a United States citizen who is a senior operational leader of Al Qaeda or associated forces,” Mr. Holder said. “This is simply not accurate.”

This is, to the contrary, by any standard out of control. If the Bush administration had said this, we would all have gone crazy–and maybe run for President on the idea of restoring the rule of law.

Let’s consider how Deleuze defined the society of control in 1990:

The operation of markets is now the instrument of social control and forms the impudent breed of our masters. Control is short-term and of rapid rates of turnover, but also continuous and without limit, while discipline was of long duration, infinite and discontinuous. Man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt.

It is possible, then, to claim that the rapid change of direction we are seeing is simply an intensification of the society of the control. Deleuze did note that universities would abandon research and education would become corporate throughout. However, it seems now to read better as

Debt is continuous and without limit.

It was striking for ,e to see how often the closing phrase of my preceding post on debt was cited on Facebook and elsewhere:

The most dangerous idea now might be this: it’s not worth paying for college because there are no jobs anyway and no job that you want would pay you enough to service the debt.

As I reflect on this context, it seems that being dangerous means taking the fact that everything is out of control as a starting point.

In the era of the emerging disciplinary society, such people were called visionaries or prophets, like the Digger Gerard Winstanley, who saw that the “earth was a common treasury for all” in a 1649 vision during the English Revolution. So he and some companions went and occupied St George’s Hill in Surrey. They called for what has been called a “general strike” against waged labor and for communal living. The Army and the gentry soon put an end to all that. Their heir was the far better-remembered “prophet against Empire,” William Blake, who railed against “One King, one God, one Law.”

As if to remind us that this is no longer the age of prophecy, Mark Butterworth’s play Jerusalem has been running on both sides of the Atlantic since 2009, although it opened in New York in 2011. The play is a lament for the passing of a certain possibility, shrouded in mythic Englishness by being set on St George’s Day in rural Wiltshire with a lead character called Byron. Johnny Byron. Johnny occupies a patch of common land, like a latter-day Digger, except that he deals in drugs and his trailer acts as a hang-out for the local marginal population.

Mark Rylance as Johnny Byron in "Jerusalem"

His encampment was an Occupy in all but name and the action begins when it becomes one, because a local real estate developer plans to turn the land into a sub-division (in US terms), so Rooster (as he is known) is served an eviction notice. These themes, like the English flag and the song “Jerusalem,” are not without clear overtones of white nostalgia for empire. The play ends in such a way that you either have to assume that Rooster is sleeping with a teenager or that her brother has been abusing her. It’s the dangerous supplement to the good old Oedipus complex that has been the stuff of drama for so long.

What Jerusalem was not was a revival of the prophetic voice–most critics talked about Shakespeare not Blake, lat alone the poet Byron, a reference they all seemed to miss. Nor did it in fact prophesy Occupy because the overwhelming majority of sites were urban, not rural, such as the long-lasting Occupy Bristol, closest to Wiltshire.

What’s dangerous about rejecting even the out of control society is very clear to people–that you risk giving up the one chance you might have, however attenuated, to break out of your social strata. US social mobility is amongst the lowest in the overdeveloped countries. At the same time, the chance of being perceived as a prophet, as opposed to an out of control homeless person, is too low to mention. In Terence Malick’s odd film Tree of Life, the only prophet that could be evoked was Job, whose sufferings at the hand of an apparently malign deity ring somewhat truer than stories of redemption.

The religiosity is the problem. Where messianism once offered a counterpoint to law, it scarcely does today in the evangelical US, where being Christian is a requirement for office every bit as strict as the shariah of Iran.

It’s the anarchic streak implied by “out of control” that now rings true from Rosa Luxemburg to Winstanley and Occupy–“no god, no master.” It’s perhaps the least commented on feature of the movement and it’s most dangerous one: not just out of control but a rejection of the desire to be controlled.