the foundations of oppression can't be plucked up without the anger of a multitude

The Cambridge Analytica Scandal, part 2: biopower

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In Part 1 of this two-part series, I looked at the Cambridge Analytica ‘scandal’, seeing how a corporation with knowledge of a population’s ‘hobby-horses’, could steer, with targeted social media posts, enough people to get the vote they wanted. I argued that the ‘scandal’ was not, as was presented by some, about Facebook stealing our data. I suggested it is about what Michel Foucault called ‘biopower’. In part 2, I explain what that means and then go on about the smoking ban a bit.michel foucault

In the 1970s, French theorist, Michel Foucault traced the historical emergence of a technique of power he called ‘biopower.’ Reading back his Lectures at the College de France, 1975-76, collected in a Penguin book called ‘Society Must Be Defended’, and in particular his final lecture of 17 March 1976, I found some flesh for the bones of my essay. His argument runs a bit like this:

As European societies moved out of a Feudalism, the modern capitalist state slowly and unsteadily emerged. Feudal society had, as its symbolic and literal head, a sovereign with the power of ‘life and death’: what he calls the ability ‘to take life or let live’. As those powers faded, merged or changed, new organisational forces emerged. In the 17th and 18th century capitalism developed ‘the disciplinary technology of labour’ to manage its new workforce: the recently dispossessed peasants now forced to earn wages in factories. This technology developed with institutions and involved surveillance, hierarchies, inspections, bookkeeping, reports, etc. It was about training individual bodies to the disciplines of wage labour.

In the 19th century, Foucault argues, there was a second ‘seizure of power’, that of a power over the mass: ‘massifying’ not ‘individualising’. Unlike the old ‘take life or let live’, it was a new power to ‘”make live” and “let” die’. It emerged not to replace but to complement the disciplinary techniques of factories, prisons, barracks, schools and hospitals. It was, says Foucault, a ‘biopolitics of the human race’.

It started with measurement. It counted the ‘birth rate, the mortality rate, various biological disabilities, and the effects of the environment’. Draining swamps and cleaning up the rapidly expanding cities were some of its first aims. However, data and knowledge are by no means apolitical. As mathematician can tell you, once you start measuring things you also begin shaping their outcomes. In the Middle Ages, power had to respond to the epidemics of plague, famine or black death that periodically decimated populations. Now power was taking aim at ‘endemics’, i.e. ‘the form, nature, extension, duration, and intensity of the illnesses prevalent in a population’. These were illnesses that did not kilSheffield, 19th Centuryl directly, but which affected production and which were costly to treat. If the state did not invent biopower as such, writes Foucault, anticipating attacks of conspiracy theory, ‘at any rate, at this moment [latter half of the 18th century], demographers began to measure these phenomena in statistical terms’.

Medicine’s main function becomes public hygiene, with all the class-based distinctions and interests that that involved. It was no longer just charitable institutions to mop up the old and infirm run by the church (‘at once widespread and patchy’), but mechanisms such as ‘insurance, individual and collective saving, safety measures and so on’.

These apparently harmless developments invented a new character. No longer the ‘social body’ as the Feudal world knew it, nor the individual as the disciplinary techniques discovered, but the creation of a thing called ‘the population’. It was ‘a problem at once scientific and political.’ You could know how a mass moved, even if each individual within that mass is in her/himself unpredictable.

When Foucault writes about ‘phenomena that are aleatory [random] and unpredictable when taken in themselves or individually, but which at a collective level display constants that are easy or at least possible to establish’, he could be talking about your ‘recommends’ on Amazon or Youtube. The algorithms might ‘suggest’ something that you scoff at, but somehow on a general level its understanding of group behaviours sells products.

Biopower can accept a few ‘abnormal’ individuals. It intervenes ‘at the level of the generality’. As long as overall the population is less expensive medically, more fit for work, more likely to buy products, more likely to behave obediently, who cares if a few people absolutely hate and are disgusted by the whole affair?

Its power is as a ‘normalising’ society. ‘Normal curves’ in Maths contain almost all of the data in the middle with a few irrelevant outliers at either edge. It is the same attitude that can ‘let die’ the ‘undesirables’ as long as it ‘makes live’ the ‘desirable’. The era that developed these scientific methods of regularising ‘the biological processes of “man-as-species”’ – that invented data analysis, statistical elements and insurance –  is the same era that invented racialised chattel slavery. People, inhumanly exploited in the plantations of the Americas, could justifiably be enslaved as sub-humans because it was meant to teach them civilisation; wars can be waged to eliminate a biological-cultural threat to ‘our way of live’. ‘It is at this moment,’ said Foucault, ‘that racism is inscribed as the basic mechanism of power, as it is exercised in modern States’.

An Interesting Sidetrack About Death

Death, says Foucault, with all its public ceremonies became the ultimate taboo. It had been the ‘manifestation of transition from one power to another, i.e. from control of the God-like King to the King-like God. Now it ‘is outside the power relationship … the moment when the individual escapes all power, falls back on himself and retreats, so to speak, into his own privacy’.

It is notable now that the billionaires and millionaires of silicon valley are trying to find ways to eliminate death (for those who can afford it). Foucault noticed it in the 1970s when General Franco was maintained on a life-support machine for a month. He saw ‘a power that managed life so well, that took so little heed of death’, that it could keep people ‘alive when, in biological terms, they should have been dead long ago’.

Nuclear war, he says, is the test of how completely the new techniques of discipline and biopower have taken over from the old power of sovereignty. Is the atom bomb Feudal warmongering multiplied to an extreme: destroying all life to assert sovereign rule? Or is it a new biopower that destroys as a hygienic control: letting all die to eliminate, e.g., the communist threat to the population?

Fat Man atomic bomb due for Nagasaki

‘Fat Man’ atom bomb, due to be dropped on Nagasaki

Perhaps in Foucault’s era, power was tentative about using its full force of destruction because it had reached an apparently insurmountable contradiction. Once power has killed everything, ‘suppressing life itself,’ power would also ‘suppress itself in so far as it is the power that guarantees life’. ‘Who wants to govern a cinder?’, asked Christopher Logue in 1958.

But, Foucault predicts, atomic and nuclear power are not the end of it. That is to come ‘when it becomes technologically and politically possible for man not only to manage life but to make it proliferate, to create living matter, to build the monster, and ultimately, to build viruses that cannot be controlled and that are universally destructive’. This dystopian nightmare is there in genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, automation, chemical warfare, computer hacking. Eliminate whole populations, eliminate ecologies, eliminate labour in your production processes, eliminate all hereditary diseases for an elite class of superbeings. Perhaps even eliminate death itself.

The Nudge Unit

The Behavioural Insights Team with its 'broad range of backgrounds'

The Behavioural Insights Team (from the BIT’s website)

To bring it back to the present. In 2010, the British government set up the Behavioural Insights Team, known amongst insiders as the ‘nudge unit’. They are now an independent ‘social purposes company’ part-owned by the Cabinet Office. Their aim is ‘enabling people to make ‘better choices for themselves’.[1] They employ behavioural psychology, with behaviourist methods of ‘rewards and penalties’, figuring that by arranging incentives and disincentives in particular ways they can get populations to act in ways they consider beneficial. They are, they say, ‘highly empirical’. Not long after taking office in 2010, David Cameron used a TED talk to announce his new unit, declaring that, ‘with all the advances in behavioural economics, I think we can achieve a real increase in well-being, in happiness, in a stronger society without necessarily having to spend a whole lot more money.’[2]

Koestler and Behaviourism

Arthur Koestler

Koestler at the window

In the 1960s, Hungarian-born writer Arthur Koestler wrote diatribes against Cameron-esque ‘behavioural economics’. In the early 20th century, pioneer of the science of Behaviourism, B. F. Skinner, decided that psychology needed to do away with such ‘spurious’ concepts as the ‘mind’ or ‘ideas’, because they ‘lack the dimensions of physical science’. Thus, ‘highly empirical’ Behaviourists are ‘only permitted to study objective, measurable aspects of behaviour.’ Koestler writes in ‘The Ghost in the Machine’ (1967):

‘The “cynical onlooker” might now ask: if mental events are to be excluded from the study of psychology – what is there left for the psychologist to study? The short answer is: rats.’

He quotes Cyril Burt: ‘The result is that psychology, having first bargained away its soul and then gone out of its mind, seems now, as it faces an untimely end, to have lost all consciousness.’

But it wasn’t just any old rats they were looking at. It was rats, not in their natural environments, but rats pressing bars in a Skinner Box in response to ‘rewards and penalties’. The aim was, according to J. B. Watson (‘Behaviourism’, 1928), ‘to predict and control human activity as physical scientists control and manipulate other natural phenomena’. This aim, says Koestler, ‘sounds as nasty as it is naive’.

Behaviourism may have been discredited as a science, but it is, as I think Nudge Units and Cambridge Analytica demonstrate, very much alive in modern politics. Behaviourism, said Koestler, ‘has replaced the anthropomorphic fallacy – ascribing to animals human faculties and sentiments – with the opposite fallacy … it has substituted for the erstwhile anthropomorphic view of the rat, a ratomorphic view of man.’

In ‘Ghost in the Machine’, he says that he has faced criticism for attacking Behaviourism, either from ‘defenders of orthodoxy, … which is only fair and to be expected’; or from those who ‘argue that, since the pillars of the citadel are already cracked and revealing themselves as hollow, one ought to ignore them and dispense with polemics. Or, to put it more bluntly, why flog a dead horse?’

Today we all know that the rats with something to do took less heroin than the rats trapped in a cage with only a heroin-emitting bar to press for entertainment. Nevertheless, in ratomorphised human societies, there is still nothing to do for entertainment and deaths from opiates continue to rise. Koestler’s answer to the ‘dead-horse’ critique goes like this:

‘Even orthodoxy recognises today the limitations and short-comings of Pavlov’s experiments; but in the imagination of the masses, the dog on the laboratory table, predictably salivating at the sound of a gong, has become a paradigm of existence, a kind of anti-Promethean myth; and the word “conditioning”, with its rigid deterministic connotations, has become a key-formula for explaining why we are what we are, and for explaining away moral responsibility. There has never been a dead horse with such a vicious kick.’

Koestler left the Communist party in the 1930s. In the autobiographical ‘Scum of the Earth’, he explains his reason for doing so in a recreated dialogue with a fellow internee of a French detention camp for ‘enemy aliens’ in 1939. They have been locked up along with other ‘enemy aliens’ and anti-fascists who, in trying to persuade people that the Nazis were a real and serious danger, were seen as refugee warmongers trying to drag France into a war. In the camp, Koestler accosts F., a member of the German Communist Party Central Committee, after he hears that the USA CP has come out against. the blockade of Germany. In the course of their argument, Koestler says,

“‘I have ceased to believe that the end justifies the means – and that is why I have left the Party’
‘Petty-bourgeois liberalism,” said F. with finality.’

The Smoking Ban

I too have a problem with ends-to-justify-means and no doubt that leaves me open to the same accusation. We cannot know for certain where the road will lead, so we can only make the right steps in the present and trust they lead us in the right direction. Who knows to what ends incorrect means will lead us?

I have frequently argued with people of similar political persuasion about the smoking ban and have won next to no converts in the course of these debates. Probably, dear reader, you will disagree too, but at least I can have the pleasure of putting forward my arguments without interruption.

smoking indoorsDoubtless the smoking ban has reduced smoking. It has made pubs, cafes and restaurants more pleasant places to be, workers don’t have to put up with smoky atmospheres and it has given a lot more work to awning-fitters. Smoking areas have become social hang-out spaces. Clubs which used to be too loud to have a conversation in, now have a place to talk as well as dance. Smokers can borrow lights and strike up acquaintance with strangers.

This is all well and good, but in my rarely-shared opinion, the positive gains of the outcome do not justify the acceptance of so-called ‘libertarian-paternalist’ lifestyle decrees. I am fine with legislation against harm done to people, other animals or the environment, but if the hobby-horse a person chooses to saddle (or roll into a rizla paper), ‘neither compels you or me to get up behind him, —- pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?’

(Of course the flaw in this argument is exactly how harmful passive smoking is, but let us skip over that for now).

Let us suppose a different route towards the promised land of smoke-free public spaces. The Pembury Tavern in Hackney, the first pub in the country to accept payment in bitcoin, was also the only pub I know to have banned smoking before the official Smoking Ban. Maybe, as our friends at Cambridge Analytica would say, they were ‘early adopters’ of a trend, and that trend may have caught on anyway without covert nudges and the invisible hands of ‘highly empirical’ civil servants.

I would have no problem with a government declaring its opinion that it would be better for establishments to ban smoking – for public health, quality of nights-out, job satisfaction in the hospitality trade, or for whatever other reason they believed. They could then let the venues decide what kind of atmosphere they wanted. People would go or not go to them as the case may be.

This may sound like a free-market argument. I am aware that right-wing libertarians Spiked magazine and Nigel Farage have also been anti-smoking ban. The fact that our different political convictions have led us to the same conclusion on this matter does not much concern me. Had this been an open and public debate without coercive legislation brought into the mix, no one would have been offending anyone or promoting violence by arguing for or against smoking inside. Let the debate happen. Government’s problem is that they are so busy manipulating people, dissembling and outright lying that no one trusts anything they say and ‘politician’ has become a by-word for ‘shifty, lying bastard with his snout in the trough’ (or something else in the snout, in the case of David Cameron). They cannot engage in debate with the people so they subtly nudge ‘populations’ to ‘make better choices for themselves’.

Means are important. Perhaps under my method, it would have taken longer for the thick-headed plebs to realise that a cozy, non-smoking building with a covered smoking area, fitted out with plenty of pot plants and warm blankets was the ideal configuration for a British public house. Maybe we would have found that gigs were better with smoking inside so that people actually stayed for the support act and could blaze a surreptitious spliff or two to make the music go down sweeter like they used to. Walking the route we were proscribed produced measurably better results- but only when judged against certain predefined outcomes. And so here is the test of your politics. You can like the outcome but still oppose the means. I don’t care if targeted Facebook adverts disguised as genuine news article promote Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump; I don’t like the method. Under paternalism you cannot adjust the rules when unforeseen problems arise. Now with the smoking ban, pubs don’t need to make smoking areas nice, it’s just the law, so get your arses outside in the freezing rain and allow men to congregate together on the street and bring their boozy wisdom to the wolfwhistling of passing women or fights with the other blokes on the other side of the high street. And smokers should feel guilty about their habit because it is socially undesirable and cost the NHS 7 squillion pounds a day.

What is in my best interests

Pavlov and dogData analysis may be able to predict (and thus manipulate) trends with remarkable accuracy. Our tastes and preferences may well be shaped to depressing degrees by class and culture, but let us at least try to make decisions for ourselves. Until we realise and learn to defend it, we will lose the key principle of a mature society: ‘What is in my best interest, is for me to decide my best interests for myself’. In the meantime, random white supremacist billionaires can get ‘populations’ to vote Turkey-like for more Christmases and no amount of reduction in heart disease and increase in recycling is going to convince me of the validity of bio-power nudging as a political method.

Lawrence Sterne ends his defence of the hobby-horse (written as an address to his patron) by talking of where his tolerance of it has a limit: when a man with power rides his personal hobby-horses ‘beyond the time which my love to my country has prescribed to him, and my zeal for his glory wishes’. In these cases his liberalism ceases and, ‘then, my Lord, I cease to be a philosopher, and in the first transport of an honest impatience, I wish the HOBBY-HORSE, with all his fraternity, at the Devil.’

May behavioural scientists, marketing campaigners and election manipulators take note.




Written by angrysampoetry

August 28, 2018 at 10:19 pm

One Response

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  1. […] thing I have written about before is the Behavioural Insights Team, the ‘nudge unit’ of the UK government. With the rise of Dominic Cummings, more people have […]


    April 26, 2020 at 9:04 pm

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