Societies of Control

by Liero Plantir

In 1992 Gilles Deleuze explained and predicted the characteristics of the society in which we currently live, in his essay titled Postscript on the Societies of Control. He follows on from the work of Michel Foucault who did extensive work analysing the society in which we once lived, the disciplinary society. This is most prominently discussed in his book Discipline and Punish and is key to understanding the transition into a society of control.

Disciplinary Societies

The disciplinary society was most prominent towards the end of the nineteenth and into the start of the twentieth century, taking its form around the first industrial revolution. A disciplinary society is shaped by the fact that there is the constant threat of surveillance rather than constant surveillance itself, which is where a society of control contrasts. Power is distributed more widely than in previous societies in which a monarch usually had centralised power, thus making it much more difficult to resist or fight against.

One of the underlying elements that characterised disciplinary societies was the closed environment. These environments existed separate from one another, and as an individual your life consisted of moving through them. Your first was family, then the school, then the barracks, then the factory. ‘From time to time the hospital; [and] possibly the prison’, which is the ultimate closed environment. These are the key institutions of a disciplinary society because once you leave one environment you are no longer part of it, hence the mutual exclusivity. Control was exerted through this enclosed nature because the threat of surveillance was necessary to implement rigid discipline.

The factory is a key example to understanding the nature of these environments. Production is organised in this type of society and in the factory every aspect of production is organised, including the life of the individual. This applies to when they should work, how to behave and what methods to use etc., thus implementing schedules and strict discipline. This society is fundamentally a magnification of the factory.

Previously, workers had a lot more autonomy with agriculture being the main form of work, and their primary worries surrounding yields and taxation. As a worker in the factory however you are less an individual but rather part of a mass in which there was a boss who surveyed each element of the mass and the unions. This society was very restricted and disciplined and could be argued to have caused individuals to become more submissive because of this threat of surveillance.

Societies of Control

The transition into societies of control is based around new freedoms which became available to individuals following the end of industrialisation. One of the key differences of a society of control is that there is an illusion of freedom because despite being more free than ever we are now under constant surveillance rather than just the threat of it. The closed environments which were central to disciplinary societies have now become an amalgam, therefore the individual now exists in many of these environments simultaneously.

In disciplinary societies you were always starting again whether that was from school to the factory, whereas in societies of control you are never really finished with anything and fluctuate between environments. Discipline was of long duration, infinite and discontinuous whereas control is short-term, consisting of rapid rates of turnover, but also continuous and without limit. Technological growth has enabled us to seamlessly move through these different environments as the world has grown smaller.

Control is therefore no longer defined by the constraints of enclosure, but by your activities and relation to others online, from advertising to employment. Power is now most densely distributed throughout tech companies as they hold the keys to our connectivity and can work with governments to use this us.

With the transition into a society of control, the traditional institutions that dominated disciplinary societies are severely disrupted. This includes institutions such as schools, factories, hospitals and prisons.

To follow along with the example of the factory this is the key industry which is now almost non-existent in the first world. It has wholly been replaced by the corporation. The first contrast Deleuze makes between factories and corporations is the idea of salary. He argues that the corporation ‘works more deeply to impose a modulation of each salary’, viewing the success of game shows and contests as a reflection of how the corporation regulates salary. ‘The factory constituted individuals as a single body to the double advantage of the boss’. The corporation however presents rivalry and competition ‘as a healthy form of emulation’. ‘An excellent motivational force that opposes individuals against one another and runs through each, dividing each within’. Corporations seemingly stand by the idea of ‘salary according to merit’.

This idea has permeated into the school system as it has become more and more competitive from an earlier age in order to prepare children for entering into a corporation. Deleuze observes the institution of school extending into all aspects of our lives stating that perpetual training is replacing the traditional idea of school and continuous control replacing the examination, Nose Dive being a dystopic metaphor for this.

Deleuze gives examples of ‘neighbourhood clinics, hospices, and daycare’ as the first kinds of places to disrupt the hospital, however in the present day the domination of the pharmaceutical industries have largely transformed this institution, with prescription drugs and services now being available from our phones. Technology has also made it possible to get diagnosed without a doctor and single out those most vulnerable.

The effectiveness is derived from the methods of control no longer being seen as such, but rather as exercises of your own freedom. We’re allowed access to everything from social media accounts, credit cards, international travel and DNA tests to name a few. Therefore, because we have a choice to do these things it disguises the fact that it only increases the power institutions and governments have over us, as they can be shut off at any moment and used against us. This has become more of an issue in the last decade with increasing awareness of how much of our data is harvested unknowingly, from big stories such as Cambridge Analytica and Edward Snowden. Even small aspects of our devices, such as our accelerometers can reveal a lot about us.

Capitalism is no longer involved in production as it no longer buys raw materials and no longer sells the finished products: it now buys the finished products or assembles parts. Production is now relegated to the third world and what capitalism now wants is to sell services and buy stocks. Therefore, under societies of control it is now capitalism for the product rather than for production. ‘The factory has given way to the corporation’.

In a broader context the two identifiers of the disciplinary society were that of the individual's signature coupled with the number of that individual in relation to the mass. However, the defining feature of a society of control is a code, which is a password in a sense. Deleuze makes the distinction by stating that disciplinary societies are regulated by watchwords and societies of control by passwords, which mark access to information or reject it.

Deleuze identifies a transformation in the mass/individual pair that dominated the disciplinary society. Individuals, he states, have become ‘dividuals’ and that masses have become ‘samples, data, markets or banks’. The premise of this is that the individual refers to something that is indivisible because we were once a fixed number in relation to a mass, however we now exist as a code which is divided into all categories of samples, data and demographics. ‘The disciplinary man was a discontinuous producer of energy, but the man of control is undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network’.

Where are we at?

It could be argued that we’re currently in a mix of a disciplinary society and one of control. The institutions which dominated in the eighteenth and nineteenth century will continue to exist, however they will continue to be vastly overshadowed by the new forms of control that have developed.

When comparing the two societies Deleuze states, ‘There is no need to ask which is the toughest or most tolerable regime, for it’s within each of them that liberating and enslaving forces confront one another...there is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons’.

Despite technology being at the centre of control it has also emerged as being an answer to these new weapons Deleuze refers to. The most prominent example of this is decentralised finance (DeFi) ushered in by the invention of Bitcoin and its underlying technology. The traditional finance industry is slowly becoming overshadowed by the potential of these new technologies. Many projects in the space are beginning to offer alternatives for the products previously under the control of traditional finance institutions. This includes loans, privacy, lending and exchanges to name a few. Although there is a long way to go, it indicates the emergence of these ‘new weapons’ that Deleuze refers to and the crises that traditional industries face.

It is difficult to tell how our society will evolve. The future will always remain uncertain and the ways in which control continues to exert itself will change. There will most likely be more of these new weapons in the future and maybe within our lifetime we will see a new type of society emerge.