Notes on "Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power" (2017), by Byung‑Chul Han

Byung-Chul Han, as a writer and philosopher, has an admirable quality: he writes clearly and objectively about complex topics. Even so, it was a laborious book due to the constant need to separate the wheat from the chaff. However, once the cause of the problem was identified, the reading was quite fruitful. The work is divided into thirteen sections/essays: (1) crisis of freedom; (2) intelligent power; (3) the mole and the serpent; (4) biopolitics; (5) Foucault's dilemma; (6) healing as murder; (7) shock; (8) the lovable big brother; (9) the capitalism of emotion; (10) gamification; (11) big data; (12) beyond the subject; and (13) idiocy.

In summary, in the development of some theses, Byung-Chul argues that neoliberalism operates the transition: from the biopolitical society (body control) to the psychopolitical society (mind control); from disciplinary power (negative and violent) to intelligent power (positive and internalized); from productivity by exploring rationality to productivity by exploring emotion (gamification of work and life, reward system); from the worker-subject (classist, proletarian) to the project-subject (self-entrepreneur); from the exploitation of man by man (exploiter and exploited) to the exploitation of man by himself (“self-exploitation”); from the material mode of production (material objects) to the immaterial mode of production (“emotion/like capitalism”, sociability and communication are exploited); from human memory (forgetting and narrative) to digital memory (non-forgetting and quantification); from the repressive forces against expression (censorship) to the seductive forces of expression (social networks); from extrinsic surveillance (secret services) to intrinsic surveillance (self-exposure); from Bentham's panopticon (prison and isolation, optical control) to the digital panopticon (illusory freedom and communication, big data).

The chaff is that, in several of the theses presented, Byung-Chul does not operate in terms of a dialectical relationship between the elements, or even of deepening, but rather in terms of complete transformation. Therefore, in the first 11 sections, neoliberalism assumes an absolute and deterministic disposition, generating some conclusions detached from reality even if based on half-truths. In my reading, the root of this problem comes from the realization that neoliberalism “eliminated the extrinsic exploitation of the working class”, so that there would be no proletariat (a class exploited by another) in neoliberalism. Now, one thing is verifying that neoliberalism's new techniques of power operate in the sense of omitting (!) antagonism and class struggle, “internalizing exploitation” in workers and affecting individuals “at a pre-reflective level”. Another thing is taking it as an absolute/deterministic aspect of reality. That is, Byung-Chul completely erases the existence of class struggle within neoliberal society, which leads him to revise Marx (by the way, others as well, including Foucault). For Byung-Chul, neoliberalism transforms workers into entrepreneurs of themselves through “self-exploitation” (half-truth) to the point where the class antagonism between the exploited and exploiters has been eliminated (false).

To elucidate the problem with just one concrete example: Byung-Chul describes the gamification of work (reward system, productivity by exploring emotion, etc.) and “self-exploration” (self-entrepreneur) of neoliberal logic, that is, observable aspects in the reality of couriers using apps (point system, absence of employment relantionship, etc.); however, there is no scope in the proposed theory to contemplate the classist and concrete organization of couriers in the fight against (self)exploitation, claiming better working conditions and explaining in all letters: “nobody here is an entrepreneur, we are a workforce” . In other words, the practice of those who fight in a classist and antagonistic way against the exploitation imposed by capital in favor of the bourgeoisie, the dominant class for holding ownership of the means of production (it is important to remember), puts Byung-Chul's revisionist defeatism in check. That said, with regard to the exploitation of labor in neoliberalism, a complementary synthesis/epigraph would be: “protect me from what I need to do to survive”; however, in relation to the alleged digital freedom and big data, the epigraph of the book remains relevant: “protect me from what I want” (Jenny Holzer).

Disagreements aside, in addition to the gamification of life and work, I emphasize the passages about the quantified self and the applications of big data, via artificial intelligence, as a form of neoliberal domination in the most varied spheres of life. The imperative in the digital age is for everything to become data and information, in such a way that, through the quantified self (followers, likes, number of friends) and big data, digitus begins to take the place of phallus. In this sense, human sociability and communication, under the pretext of an illusory freedom of neoliberalism, play a central role in the production of masses of data and information. In view of this, mining via artificial intelligence this immense amount of data that we produce daily is capable of creating a faithful “digital/multidimensional version of ourselves”, influencing and predicting our behavior and even accessing our most intimate thoughts and desires. In this context, even our unconscious is exploited, both individual and collective. Through big data and artificial intelligence, neoliberalism managed to merge exploitation, commercialization, information, surveillance, and domination (the junction between Big Brother, Big Data, and Big Business, in Byung-Chul's terms). A concrete example is the influence of a private company's big data on the course of the 2016 US elections. Notwithstanding, by way of mention, Byung-Chul provides one of the best metaphorical explanations of data mining and big data. He makes an allusion between Dataism and Dadaism, which later unfolds into a metaphor to reflect on the power and implications of artificial intelligence black blox (although he does not address this concept directly in the book).

Finally, in the last two sections, Byung-Chul suspends the deterministic disposition of his analysis of neoliberalism and proposes a philosophical way out to combat it: idiocy. Explaining in a reductionist way, being an idiot in the Socratic sense of the posture of knowing that you know nothing. For Byung-Chul, intelligence means “choosing-between” within the logic of a system. Thus, intelligence would not be entirely free due having to choose according to what the system offers. Idiotism, on the other hand, would be completely free because it is heretical and alien (“outsider”) to the systemic immanence of intelligence. The idiot, through the immanence of emptiness, remains silent and in solitude and, therefore, finds the singularity of what is “really worth saying” (in a negative sense [“subversive”] in relation to the system). The idiot, therefore, would not exist as a subject of the system (contrasting the individualism of neoliberalism), he would be more like “a flower: an existence simply open to the light”, being characterized not by individuality, but by singularity. Despite not being directly explained, the idiot somewhat resembles Zarathustra or a Buddhist monk, which makes sense in view of the theoretical references of this philosophical departure proposed by Byung-Chul: Nietzsche, Deleuze, Clément Rosset, and Botho Strauss.

In conclusion, it is a relevant book for understanding the new techniques of power and exploitation of neoliberalism, but which, in my view, does not incisively contribute to overcoming this domination, to the radical transformation of this reality, given the defeatism of Byung-Chul before the famous maxim of thesis eleven. As much as there are interesting reflections from a strictly philosophical point of view, I don't know of any oppressed people who have effectively fought their exploitation as proposed by idiocy. The same, however, cannot be said about the much criticized Marxist praxis. The struggle organized in a classist way was historically more effective towards the appreciation of life and human emancipation.

Footnote for audiovisual enthusiasts: there is not a single episode of Black Mirror that is not contemplated by some part of this book. The raw reality of all of us who are exploited, even digitally and psychologically, by capital. Some excerpts:

The capitalism of Like should come with a warning label: Protect me from what I want. (pg. 16)

Under neoliberalism, the technology of power takes on a subtle form. It does not lay hold of individuals directly. Instead, it ensures that individuals act on themselves so that power relations are interiorized – and then interpreted as freedom. Self-optimization and submission, freedom and exploitation, fall into one. (pg. 23)

The neoliberal regime is in the course of inaugurating the age of exhaustion. Today, the psyche itself is being exploited. (pg. 24)

Neoliberal psychopolitics is dominated by positivity. Instead of working with negative threats, it works with positive stimuli. Instead of administering ‘bitter medicine’, it enlists Liking. (pg. 28)

Today’s society of information is not characterized by destroying words, but by multiplying them without end. (pg. 29)

In the digital panopticon, the illusion of limitless freedom and communication predominates. Here there is no torture – just tweets and posts. Nor is there a mysterious ‘Ministry of Truth’. Transparency and information have taken the place of truth. The new conception of power does not involve controlling the past, but steering the future psychopolitically. (pg. 30)

The gamification of work exploits homo ludens. The player subjugates him- or herself to the order of domination in the very act of playing. Today, the gamification logic of ‘Likes’, ‘Friends’ and ‘Followers’ means that social communication is also being plugged into and subordinated to a game mode. The corollary of the gamification of communication is its commercialization. That said, this process is destroying human communication. (pg. 38)

Belief that life admits measurement and quantification governs the digital age as a whole. ‘Quantified Self’ honours this faith too. The body is outfitted with sensors that automatically register data. (pg. 45)

Who am I? ‘Quantified Self’ represents a Dadaist technology too; it empties the self of any and all meaning. The self gets broken down into data until no sense remains. (…) The motto of Quantified Self is ‘Self Knowledge through Numbers’. (pg. 46)

Big Data never forgets anything at all. For this reason alone, the digital panopticon is much more efficient than Bentham’s. (pg. 47)

For instance, at a given stage of pregnancy, a woman may crave a particular product – yet this impulse marks a correlation of which she remains unaware. She buys the item, but she doesn’t know why. That’s how it is. Conceivably, this that’s-how-it-is (Es-ist-so) exists in psychic proximity to the Freudian id (Es), which escapes the ego and consciousness. In this light, Big Data is making the id into an ego to be exploited psychopolitically. If Big Data has access to the realm of our unconscious actions and inclinations, it is possible to construct a psychopolitics that would reach deep into our psyche to exploit it. (pg. 48)

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marginalia   philosophy  

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