The society of control, Kafka and the Greek crisis

Be assured that it gives much more pain to the mind to be in debt, than to do

without any article whatever which we may seem to want.” – Thomas Jefferson

When soldiers are trained for battle, they encounter a strange test. They have to sit in a darkened room, while they are shown a sequence of dolls and toys. They have to recognize the objects as fast as possible.  The purpose of this test is to train soldiers to explore unfamiliar terrain at night. During the examination a doctor gives helpful advice:” Don’t look straight ahead. Your eyes will see more of the world when you glance at it sideways.”

Although the Greek crisis is already a reality for a few years, we have never tried to look at it sideways. Our Zielgerichtheit and blind sense of urgency have hindered us from asking the right questions concerning the Greek crisis. It is not simply a Greek phenomenon, nor a strictly European. As Hannah Arendt already knew, in politics the world is at stake, not this or that community or this or that policy.

How to stand at the assembly line: disciplinary society

Let us then try to look at the Greek situation from a sideway glance. In 1990 the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze published a very dense and enigmatic text called “Post-scriptum sur les sociétés de contrôle”. He declares the end of disciplinary society and claims that we now live in a society of control. Let us first examine what he means by “disciplinary society”. The expression refers to the work of his fellow philosopher and friend Michel Foucault. Deleuze summarizes Foucault’s theory around two axes: (1) how power works and (2) how human subjects are formed.

(1) Power is focused in institutions (prison, school, factory, etc.) where human bodies are enclosed and put into prefigured molds. The result is the creation of docile bodies; humans become standardized bits and pieces in the big machine called society. As a result they can be productively inscribed in the ruling mode of production (Fordist capitalism). For instance, the prison takes in rebellious bodies and forces them into socially productive constraints. The output is the docile body of the rehabilitated delinquent. Power has to augment the productive capacities of the body through molding them into something that can be put to work at the assembly line.

(2) The human subject is transformed into the individual through this process of disciplining. He is first separated from the outside world (the prison wall) and then isolated (the prison cell). The subject has to be visible at all times for the prison officer and criminologists and psychologists subject him to a scientific discourse that labels him as type X or Y delinquent. Afterwards those individuals are put back together in a social system (the masses), but in such a way that all have become little docile machines composing one big machine (the mass workers at the assembly line making up the factory).

Discipline in crisis: a warm welcome for the society of control

Deleuze claims that disciplinary society is in crisis. Prisons, schools, factories, all have lost their authority. For example, imprisonment in contemporary penal law is only a last destination after a long road of other penal measures. Electronic collars, suspended and alternative sentences, etc. are now hegemonic. The innovation of the society of control is that from now on bodies do not have to be fixed in space and time in order to be disciplined. We do not need a prison. Even when the subject moves, he can be controlled with GPS-tracking. Control, in contrast to discipline, extends to bodies in movement. Resistance to discipline hence becomes futile. In the disciplinary society the standpoint of resistance could locate itself outside the disciplinary institutions. When Marx criticized the industrial working conditions of the proletariat, he could base his critique on the claim that outside the disciplined subjectivity of docile mass workers, there was another truer kind of humanity (Gattungswesen) that could not be expressed in factory labor. Disciplinary institutions were all separated from each other and thus produced a series of external ruptures where the subject was apparently acquitted from discipline. When you were in the factory, you were no longer at school and when you were in prison, you were no longer in the factory. As a result, there emerged a space in between factory, school and prison where something like ‘real life’ happened. Control, by subjugating the movements of people, eliminates those cracks between institutions. Control is directed towards the body in movement. When you are in the factory, you are also a bit at school, since you receive monthly workshops and trainings. When you are sitting at your computer, you are also a bit in prison, since your web searches are monitored and the police is alerted by every terrorist threat. This is why Marxist criticisms of the Greek crisis ultimately fail. They argue that the state and the EU make Greeks work hard for minimum wages, while they no longer have any energy left for real life. The slogan that we work to live and not live to work, is history. Life and work are no longer distinguishable. In the society of control power and subjectivity change their character.

(1) Power is no longer a mold, but a modulation. Both the subject and the norms, to which he has to conform, change in the controlling process.  The university, for instance, no longer produces standardized docile bodies for the economy. Instead we go to universities with individualized study trajectories, optional courses, etc. Every student has a different set of norms to conform to. In our contemporary economy workers can no longer be dumb, isolated machines performing the same operations over and over again. Instead all work is socially cooperative and creative. Teamwork, innovation and communication are the buzzwords of the high priests of the stock markets. For instance, a business employee no longer has to perform the same bureaucratic actions over and over again, but should communicate with co-workers in meetings, create innovative ideas for the company, brainstorm about new directions.

(2) The human subject is transformed from an individual into a dividual. The latter is the combination of singular communications, ideas and feelings. These are first dispersed in communicative networks (the meeting) and then reconfigured in a creation of ideas (the business plan). This is why life and work can no longer be separated as the Greek Marxists suggest. Life itself has become a means of production and therefore work. The free time in the space between disciplinary institutions has become indistinguishable from labor time. For example, our business employee will receive a cell phone and a laptop from his boss on the condition that he will be available at all times. The boss no longer needs to fix his employees in a factory; he can control them in movement. The reverse side of the dividual is the password. In order to become a subject, we need access to the databases in which our communications and ideas are stored. Our life capacities are no longer our own property, but become privatized by the company we work for. His boss patents the innovations of the employee and the latter can only gain access to his own subjectivity by being admitted to the company database. The result is a new form of exclusion. While in the past, exclusion was a force eliminating people from a group (e.g. Nazi anti-semitism), nowadays it is a force not letting people in (e.g. asylum seekers). The dividual can only appropriate his life by gaining access via the password, or passport in the case of refugees. This is why the racist answer to the Greek crisis, symbolized by the fascist Golden Dawn party, is also wrong. ‘Kicking out’ immigrants does not change anything, since this kind of exclusion has nothing to do with the way economy works. The Greek unemployed are refused access to their lives, but the problem is the password, not immigrants. The latter do not steal Greek jobs, because the Greeks do not want jobs, but their lives that are owned by these jobs.

Pay your debts! Even if you cannot

In the society of control enclosed man becomes man in debt. When you are always available for your boss, then you have a permanent debt to pay. The business employee can potentially always work for his company, so when he does not, he is not simply enjoying his spare time, but actually doing nothing during his labor time. This lost time has to be made up for. Your boss owns your life in his database and you can only have access to it by paying of your debts. Thereby of course you further enlarge your debt, since you pay with your life for access to your life, which is afterwards again privatized. The more you pay off your debts, the more debts you have. The same counts, of course, for other institutions. You are always in debt with school, because when you are not learning, you are missing opportunities for permanent education that have to be made up for. The Greek debt crisis too is infinite. The more austere European policies, the more people are excluded and the greater people’s debts become. Debt is the new Nomos of the earth.

Hasn’t Deleuze painted a very bleak picture for Greece? Both Marxists and fascists are wrong, while the center parties are the ones holding the passwords and refusing everyone access by implementing the European austerity policies which exclude people from their jobs. Is there really no hope? Deleuze answers:” There is no need to fear or hope, only to look for new weapons.” But where can we find these weapons? Deleuze mentions only a few names in his article, but one of them is the thinker par excellence of man in debt: Franz Kafka.

One of the most famous texts of Kafka’s is his “Vor dem Gesetz”.  A man from the earth (Mann vom Lande, which refers to man as such) wants to gain access to the Law, but is stopped by a doorkeeper. He asks to enter, but the keeper refuses, telling him that it is possible to enter, but not yet. The man waits and sits by the open gate and as time passes by, he becomes smaller and smaller. At the end he is called childish and Kafka’s description tends towards the animal. He can’t simply walk past the doorkeeper, because behind the latter is yet another keeper, who is even greater and stronger. This goes on ad infinitum. He even tries to bribe the doorkeeper. The latter accepts the bribes, but only to give the man the consolation of knowing not to have wasted any opportunity. In the end, the man is dying and with his last breath he asks the doorkeeper a question: “Everyone strives after the law, so how is it that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The doorkeeper answers: “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.

Greece before the law

At first reading most interpreters think this is a rather pessimistic text. For example in the reading of two KULeuven professors, Luc Anckaert and Roger Burggraeve, man can never gain access to the Law (which is interpreted as happy, redeemed life), because he is blocked by the other whom he cannot recognize as the face of his redemption. He becomes ever more animal, because he is deceived. He should not directly focus on the Law, but on the other man as the expression of the Law. The man perceives the doorkeeper as an instrument towards his own goal, not as a person. The Law is to love thy neighbor as thyself and by instrumentalizing the guard the man cannot love him. In the vocabulary of Deleuze we could say that man in debt is unhappy because in order to gain access to life, or the Law, he must have the password of the doorkeeper. This life is especially assigned to him, because the Law is a modulation where all norms are fitted to every singular man. This is indeed the hegemonic discourse concerning the Greek crisis. The problem is that austerity policies exclude the Greeks from their jobs and thereby make them unhappy. As a result the Greeks revolt to gain access to the Law.

Kafka_Before-the-Law_Orson-Welles-stillThis interpretation stands or falls with the identification of the Law with happy life. Why does the doorkeeper refuse access to the man? Not because the man does not recognize him as a person, but because his debts are not paid off yet. That is why he always answers that the man cannot enter yet. The problem is that his debts will never be paid off. On the contrary, if he would pay his debts to the doorkeeper, there would be an even greater doorkeeper awaiting him. But by sitting there and doing nothing his debts also become greater. Even bribes (obeying austerity) only fill a bottomless pit. He becomes smaller and smaller in comparison to the doorkeeper. We have therefore to ask ourselves whether we can really identify the Law with happy, redeemed life. Gaining access to the Law through the password seems to be exactly the same as being excluded from the Law by enlarging our debts. By trying to gain access to the Law we are in fact perpetuating our exclusion from it. There is nothing behind the gate of the Law, we can only sit in front of it and wait for nothing to happen except our own dissolution.

This means that we can reinterpret the last lines of Kafka’s Vor dem Gesetz. Here I follow Giorgio Agamben’s interpretation of the parable. When the doorkeeper closes the gate, this is not a defeat but a victory. Redemption is not paying your debts, but refusing them in such a way as to render the Law inoperative. Not access, but exodus. What this means for the Greeks is for the Greeks to decide, since this entrance was assigned only to them.

Further reading

Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the societies of control” in Dialogues.

Franz Kafka, The trial.

Luc Anckaert & Roger Burggraeve, De rode huid van Adam.

Antonio Negri & Michael Hardt, Empire.

Giorgio Agamben,  “The Messiah and the Sovereign: the problem of law in Benjamin” in Potentialities, pp. 160-177.


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