Utopian thinking beyond Brexit

Of course, the reactionary nostalgia of the Brexiteers is untenable. There is no 'going back' to the fantasy of national states as spaces of democratic freedom and popular unity. The problem is that there is no 'going forward' either. Those who think loyalty to the European Union is the nec plus ultra of progressive commitment are just as reactionary in their way, just as wedded to illusion. No one yet has the means to address, or even name, what is emerging.

Let us say that, in Deleuzean terms, what is appearing is something like a society of 'control'. It is not a matter of being bossed about, nor of being threatened with death, or of having norms shoved down one's throat. These modes of power continue to work, sedimented into the capitalist mode of production. But late capitalism and its digitalisation -- which goes far deeper and farther than even the techno-utopians suspected it would -- expedites the emergence of something else.

In the 'control' society, no one gives you instructions. Options, pathways, incentives, are opened or closed, proffered or withdrawn, based on a number of 'technical' considerations. That is, considerations about which no debate is possible or necessary because the balance of political power has already determined the answer. One of these might your detailed personal profile, a complex web of data-tracks from, say, your online purchasing history to your Oyster card usage. That will help determine whether you are offered a credit card, and at what spending limit. Another might be the ratings that someone's algorithms have assigned to various businesses, so that when you ask Alexa or Siri for a nearby restaurant or shoe shop, it will be Apple or Google or Amazon that determines your path of movement through the urban space. 

Of course, as we know all too well, this can easily be articulated with other forms of power. The centralised, sovereign power of state surveillance and military violence is often boosted by platform technologies. Likewise, the disciplinary power of norm-based evaluations and stratifications can be harnessed to emerging networks of sensors, data collectors and mobile technology in the so-called 'smart city' to enable 'social credit' schemes like the one currently being pioneered by the Chinese government. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before the penal institutions, beginning with the lower ends, are subsumed into this structure.

The 'control' society can be experienced as freedom, however, precisely on the condition that it occludes its norms. It works better when it doesn't tell you what is good or bad. It simply offers a range of possibilities, all linked to certain consequences which may be largely psychological -- the platforms, much as video games have always been, are mass laboratories for refining these incentive/disincentive structures and find out what makes us feel good or bad. What is in fact the upshot of political and ideological decisions becomes submerged in the 'given' structure of things. Google and other data giants are merely 'giving us what we want', thanks to the wonder of algorithms, even if the algorithms are mainly employed to the purpose of giving corporations the markets they want.

Well, obviously, while the internet does constitute its own type of space, involving specially produced rules, protocols and infrastructures, it is no longer merely 'hybridised' with 'reality'. It is no longer a case of 'augmented reality'. Our social reality is becoming digitised, with far-reaching effects. And one of these is that while legacy polities, from national states to regionalist trading blocs like the EU, continue to divvy up the world on the basis of a certain inherited territoriality, the underlying political imaginaries are changing drastically. So, arguably, are infrastructural realities. The sociologist Benjamin H Bratton argues that the future lies in "discontiguous megastructures", with urban spaces linked by the logic of the cloud. 

Benedict Anderson's thesis was that print capitalism gave us the intellectual, moral and ideological conditions for the emergence of nationalism. These conditions laid foundations which were fully operationalised after a serious of 'bourgeois revolutions', and in the context of the emergence of industrial capitalism and big centralised states in the nineteenth century. During the era of nationalist flourishing, the nation-state appeared as a relatively progressive, modernising ideal; a space of freedom in which culturally similar people, sharing a linguistic foundation, could work out their dreams together. The exclusionary, colonial and racist darkness of this ideal was glossed over.

The dominance of print capitalism is coming to an end. The emerging political communities and identifications are increasingly impossible to stabilise around national, let alone racial, belonging. Arguably the growing salience of 'identity talk' in this context reflects an uneasy awareness that its coordinates are being lost. This doesn't mean that the nation-state as the key strategic locus on which major investment decisions take place, and in which major concentrations of political violence are organised, and through which markets in goods, labour and services are reproduced, is currently 'withering away'. Such states will play a central role in organising the emerging order. Rather, like everything else, always depending on patterns of political struggles, states will be 'rewritten' by the new digitus, internalising its logic. But it does mean that the national state as the locus for some minimal form of democratic accountability and popular control, does not have a long-term future.

In no way can a displaced form of nationalism, in the form of fantasies about the European Union as a 'democratic' and cosmopolitan union of peoples, address what is changing. In no way is a status quo fixation in progressive guise able to even pose the question: what comes next? Nor, of course, can the majority of 'left-Brexit' aspirations, since they are wholly dependent on the idea of a 1945-style Keynesian welfare national-state. 

But anyone with a modicum of utopian imagination should be asking, what are the opportunities secreted within this emerging network of control? When older forms of democratic possibility are being foreclosed or rendered obsolete, what new (and perhaps better) possibilities can be found? How can the emerging order, which has thus far depended so much on deliberately produced ignorance, and on keeping its political allegiances occulted, be politicised? 

Become a patron to

Unlock 176 exclusive posts
Listen anywhere
Connect via private message