Corporatocratic Networks vs. the Digital Dissidents
“The banished is not simply excluded from the reaches of the law, set aside or untouchable for it, but given to the law through its removal.”1
2021 has gotten off to a chaotic start. Events such as the sudden storming of the capitol building and the subsequent series of social media crackdowns — including the suspension of sitting POTUS Donald Trump — could quite possibly change the course of politics and culture for the foreseeable future. This has called into question the legitimacy of governance itself and forced us to ask who, or what, holds actual power in our techno-capital global landscape. In some ways, this has been a culmination of a hyper-real presidency. Politics, as in all endeavours in a society influenced increasingly by the internet, is being stretched apart and contorted by hyper-reality: the blending of fiction with the ‘event’.
Today, both inside the law and outside as an exception, the digital dissident becomes the target and scapegoat of the managerial state, with now very real extra-legal consequences. They are given over to the law not just by the state, but by the decentralized corporate network itself. Dissidents are forced into the ‘dark forests‘ of the internet, roaming in confined and isolated spaces around the periphery of power. They shall never again gain massive influential statures, but private spheres of common belonging in a sea of purposeful alienation (until tech companies and governments find ways to cut off servers to private message boards and chat rooms). As Strickler explains:
“These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments. The cultures of those spaces have more in common with the physical world than the internet... The idealism of the ’90s web is gone. The web 2.0 utopia — where we all lived in rounded filter bubbles of happiness — ended with the 2016 Presidential election when we learned that the tools we thought were only life-giving could be weaponized too. The public and semi-public spaces we created to develop our identities, cultivate communities, and gain knowledge were overtaken by forces using them to gain power of various kinds.”
No longer are digital public spaces sources of meaning-making, mutual belonging, free exploration of the total edges of human existence, and abstract machines of desire-creation. They are only suited for a particular type of regimented neoliberal subject, one that is sanitized of all dissident desires and thoughts, reinforced by various techniques of discipline from outright bans, surveillance, and ways of cutting off channels of information.
Of course, I won’t be making an equivalence between internet censorship and the real horrors of exception that create the Homo Sacer Giorgio Agamben has pointed to over the years — such as the mountains of bodies in 20th century millenarian regimes, the war on terror, the poor, old and infirmed left to die in catastrophes such as hurricane Katrina. But there is no doubt that a micro thanato-necro politics is taking place, one that could potentially reach from the virtual world into the ‘IRL’ world, and given the new emergent form of digital subjectivity, it is not a stretch or hyperbole to claim that being blocked from engaging in that which is vital to flourishing in this age is to have a form of violence committed upon the self.
What fruits that this essay hopefully bears, is a more nuanced understanding of how power/knowledge operates in a hypermodern network society — for we are dealing with totalizing forces that in some ways must come about, as they’re programmed into the very logic of the workings which make up a ‘modern’, ‘civil’, capital-driven society. What is needed to understand this new dynamic of power in the digital age and its relation to subjectivity, therefore, is the work of thinkers from the previous critical discourses surrounding the war on terror — namely Michel Foucault, and more importantly, Giorgio Agamben.
The prevailing liberal political ideology of most functionaries within various tech companies and government institutions is but one component in a series of factors that have culminated in what the online world looks like today. When it comes to the question of how certain groups or “netizens” are barred from entry, Agamben’s concept of the “Homo Sacer” within various states of exception (translated from Latin as “sacred man” paradoxically) serves this purpose.
Instead of much older forms of power which determines if a subject merely lives or dies, Agamben builds off Michel Foucault’s theory of “Biopower”: the modern conception of power that preserves, regulates, and disciplines life (in toto). The management of life itself — through various apparatuses of surveillance, normalization, data collection, the machinations and technologies that are brought about by instrumental reason, etc. — becomes the subject of a new “micro politics” upon the modern subject.2 What Agamben posits, is an alternative interpretation where biopower was not created from a seismic break into modernity, but was rather present in the ancient world, specifically in the Greek definition of man as a political animal.
To Foucault, biopolitics in modernity is not the power of producing death and letting be those who are deemed worthy enough to live, but to “make live and let die”: one that produces, sustains, and regiments life. According to Agamben, however, through the sovereign state of exception, this was always present, and those who shall be “left to die” are the exceptions which lay paradoxically outside of, but fundamentally reaffirm the “Nomos” or sovereign law in society reaffirming the various states of exceptions.3
This is where the role of the Homo Sacer (HS) comes in, translated to the “sacred man.” The translation itself is another paradox, for the HS is not an ‘untouchable’4, but one who is excluded and banished from the sovereign law and who can be killed or punished without legal consequences. Agamben’s theoretical prowess also comes into play when he is often invoked to describe various grey areas of judicial and civil law. Zones of death and liminal spaces of transitory subjects that lay outside of the law and are thus expendable, such as refugees, mental patients, and prisoners of war (especially in the legal blackhole of Guantanamo Bay during the War on Terror5).
The Homo Sacer is a product of the sovereign injecting the politics of death, Thanatos, into the political sphere via exclusion, banishment, and abandonment. The HS comes in between what Agamben refers to as “Zoe” (the bare facts of biology) and “Bios” (what constitutes the subject and the manner that defines how one lives, especially in a polis). The HS is thus a product of biopower, which produces what Agamben calls “bare life” that lay in between Zoe and Bios, nameless, undifferentiated brute existence that is a product of a sovereign state of exception.
Agamben plays with these concepts of thresholds and paradoxes, for the HS is an integral population that is created by sovereign biopower from choosing the exception. The HS is thus relegated to the realm of bare life. For instance, “Bare life is mute, undifferentiated, and stripped of both the generality and the specificity that language makes possible.”6 The existence of the HS is an “Injection” of death into the political body, a Thanato-politics or Necro-politics that includes this aspect of bare life within the act of its exclusion.
Agamben further states that every society and state has come to terms with this fundamental struggle between life as a political citizen within sovereign power, and those forces of exception, bare life and total abjection (that being the abject subject, a mutant, the state of being cast off from the social body)7. Every society sets this limit on a more fundamental level. Because in Agamben’s analysis of the Greek state and onwards, there is a constant negotiation and decision between “Bios,” the engagement of one’s self within a polis and being allowed to participate as a political citizen, and the adjected state of a being cast to the forces of bare life.8
Now, let’s extend the concept of the HS from various concrete and worldly states of exception to the virtual:
The information war is one of various intensities of speed and access to several information outputs (qua Virilio), but also the purposeful limiting of such information. We can then turn to the digital dissident (of all stripes) as a model of what a category of the HS looks like when it comes to engagement on the internet. As it stands, there is already the same war on terror rhetoric being brought home in the need to infiltrate “loops holes” and “hidden spaces” of “radicalization” and “alternative truth,” such as forums, telegram groups and podcasts. Since those who are rendered down to the state of bare life are outside of sovereign law completely and banned from engagement with the law, total power can be exercised over these populations with impunity.9 To Agamben, not only is Biopower the politicization of all life, but bare life can never be separated from Zoe, for this placing of a threshold upon a population reaffirms the norm, banning some so that others can become ‘proper sovereign citizens’.
One of the most telling and honest communiquès about the new paradigm of combating the digital dissident — the faceless and imperceptible mass of anonymous shitposters, trolls, and radicals of all stripes — comes from columnist and former GamerGate social justice culture warrior Arthur Chu. In a particularly unhinged rant, upon celebrating the death of Ashley Babbitt at the Capitol, Chu tweeted:
“When a bullet goes through the fatty tumor a Nazi has in the space where a human being would have a brain, nothing is lost. A pile of meat that moved and spoke and acted like a person was made to stop moving, and thus could no longer fool people into thinking it was one of them
A Nazi is the opposite of a person, and therefore our morality to them must be reversed: To hate them is to love To harm them is to heal To kill them is to bring life
You should feel less bad than you do about putting down a rabid animal In that case the rabies virus and the host are separate entities, one was the victim of the other A Nazi is the disease”
With this, Chu almost perfectly replicates the driving force behind the creation of the category of Homo Sacer in society, those who deserve their banishment and total subjugation to the arbitrary whims of the sovereign. To him they are as Agamben states:
“The life of a bandit… is not a piece of animal nature without any relation to the law and the city. It is rather, a threshold of indistinction and of passage between animal and man, physis and nomos, exclusion and inclusion…. like a werewolf, neither man nor beast, and who dwells paradoxically within both.”10
A ‘Nazi’, in this context, is anyone with an ideological disagreement with the neoliberal order of things; an order Chu is willing to dehumanize people to defend. For him, the online dissident, whose ideas and information channels are starting to bleed over into IRL, are to be met with this inversion of the law. Everything is thus reversed in the treatment and existence of the Homo Sacer — for such people are just playing, or ‘larping’ the human experience, instead of actually being humans. Dissidents are automatons of ideology that must be destroyed to preserve the democratic order and the sovereign law, rendered down into nothing but biological functions — which is bare life itself in Chu’s tirade. Chu is not alone; the intelligence community and the managerial state are also willing to enact new measures of containment and simultaneous exclusion of digital dissidents. Even Meghan McCain on national television says protestors need a trip to Guantanamo Bay (evoking the solemn authority of her late father, the now secular American saint John McCain.)
To Chu and others, the targeting of dissidents has become narrativized, as all things are in a hyper-real, media-saturated environment. American culture, after all, has always lent itself to this stark dichotomy of Good vs. Bad; from the Turner thesis to Disney movies and the Marvel universe. Now politics is apart of this infotainment, where verified bloggers can Larp as epic Nazi-hunting heroes, one tweet at a time.
The rhetoric has taken on a near quasi-theological struggle for narrative supremacy against digital dissidents, as the new digital HS becomes a sacred justification for the order of things.
Despite the political Right in North American liberal politics has been a handmaiden of the Corporatocracy since Ronald Reagan and the new politics of free-market fundamentalism, the Right and the Dissident Left (or post-liberal left/post-woke left?) are often coming to an implicit agreement about the Corpocratic order in the internet age.
The political divide is becoming clearer, as the actuality of realpolitik becomes dissidents of all stripes vs. the (neo)liberal order using semi-decentralized corporate networks to exclude threats to their total dominance over the global public space. Take for instance Glenn Greenwald in his recent piece on the unilateral actions against dissident social media site Parler by Google, Amazon, and other corporate tech monoliths. Or Tulsi Gabbard’s warning about the dangers of new domestic terrorist legislation, where former CIA director Brennan is openly talking to the “expert” class on insurgencies and terrorism overseas. Now, these police/militarized terminology, such as ‘terrorism’, are being used to represent and describe the “beliefs of at least half the United States.”
One could say that a collective madness has swept across the hyper-connected social media landscape, where the language of counterterrorism is turning a political class into non-persons to be monitored and persecuted. Critics on the Dissident Left are even accused of ‘enabling’ white supremacy, fascism, and insurrections against those ‘sacred norms’ of democratic Western society. But what is unique is the element of decentralized networks taking an active role in creating an underclass of bare life. We’re already seeing examples of children selling out their own parents who participated in the Capitol demonstration. Or prior to that, had numerous instances of ‘woke’ kids throwing their own parents under the bus to gain traction on the social-media attention machine over various ideological grievances.
These kids may be using official avenues of law enforcement and power to get back at their ‘bigoted’ parents, but the real trial is beyond that; it is the real court of social media fabulation that they are after. It is not the sense of ‘justice’ or ‘principles’ or some other juridical abstraction that motivates these events. It is rather the social currency of clout within the spectacle-driven society that delivers up a mutually enforced apparatus of surveillance and ideology-policing. This is where the micropolitics of power gets complicated for even Agamben’s analysis of how the Homo Sacer is created.
We’re now right back at the Foucauldian concept of Panopticism; with the Panopticon society being created through techno-capital internet-based communication channels now a mutually participatory and self-enforced form of Panopticism; the subject a channel of information, and the means of making ‘useful subjects’ on a voluntary basis of confessional and self-regulatory interactions with social media technology. Various ‘surveillance assemblages’ coalesce to create a social media environment of self-servitude to impersonal forces of algorithms, data collection, social trends and the like.11 There was a time when thinkers thought anonymity on the internet ensured a transcendence of physical limitations, where identity takes on a ‘purer’ form of performativity and self-creation. But the corporate-controlled internet discovered that the impersonal forces of trends, algorithm channels and data collection render the subject imperceptible.12
In fact, the imperceptible and tangential nature of anonymous subjectivity on the internet has aided this digital alienation and corporatization of the subject within the E-panopticon just as much as it has provided means of escape. When you become nothing but pure information, pure anonymous profile characters in place of a being, it is quite easy to create the conditions of bare life. You do not interact with another, but with the enemy which must be eliminated, caught in a whirlwind of the spectacle.
The state of exception, eventually, always becomes permanent to Agamben: the political model of civilization itself, where “all politics becomes sacred, and all life becomes bare life”.13 Only that now, the state of exception is being created by decentralized corporate networks working in concert with Governments and with each other to ensure certain users are excluded from the digital landscape. Corporations, therefore, exist in a state of ‘hyper-citizenship’, as the structure of global corporations themselves — especially in the age of globalization — affords them certain buffers to limitations imposed by governments relative to normal citizens.
As corporations take on this nebulous personhood, they increasingly hold within their grasp the vital functions of ordinary life — from information, food, and service distribution, to the allocation of physical and financial resources. The neoliberal framework has also enabled corporate omnipotence through the decentralization of various functions, and the typical juridical blindness to power-relations within a ‘rights-based’ framework.14 Everyone is an equal citizen, including corporations ‘as persons’, therefore they possess the rights of autonomy, expression, and non-interference as anyone else, despite their immense power over the very resources of life themselves.
This is where Agamben gets things partially wrong about the nature of power within the state of exception. Agamben still privileges the liberal juridical notion of power being an exercise of a state-based sovereign. Corporate power is complicated in the framework as a paradoxical inclusive exclusion from the sovereign. They are vectors of power within networks but operate themselves on an exclusionary or inclusionary basis. You can violate the TOS and they are free as hyper-citizens to exclude you, even if their services are vital to life. They exist both inside the political order of sovereign power but have capabilities that are uniquely outside of it.15 For example, people have been banned from payment processors for holding dissident political opinions and banks have recently worked in unison with other corporations to deny services to the former sitting US president. Activists and political firebrands have even been deplatformed and banned from the global public space at once from vastly different banking and social media sites.
What we are seeing is the rise of a discursive form of Biopower, one that is intimately tied to normative social rules of speech, belief, and proper action, then enmeshed into an apparatus of corporatocratic actions made in near unison across sectors of the economy and digital telecommunication networks. It is not a ‘conspiracy’ per se against dissidents; yet this also does not preclude the possibilities that those in positions of power in a new ungovernable corporate government possess the same assumptions and worldviews across sectors within the professional-managerial class. The conditions of regulatory power over public discourse and what is excluded and included into the ‘acceptable’ methods of political engagement is being determined by the immense shift in how power itself operates within a network society of total simulation consuming the real; mere economic wealth or perceived (yet not entirely defined or transparent) social standing and conference of sovereign legitimacy are no longer the only markers of worth. Now pure information and access to information is the new arbiter of worth and legitimacy in the network society.16
The liberal sovereign state is somewhat retained, but digital curators now replace juridical power, legal rights, and so the barrier between business and governments inevitably blur and dissolve; formal legal constitutions are replaced by terms of service, and the digital nonplace (such as social media sites) becomes the site of all information transfer and the subject itself blown apart by the network.17 Curation, bans, the corralling of online activity through interface design, algorithm exploits, and shadow banns are now the dominant forms of governing of what was once ungovernable. As technology ushers in a new social and cultural paradigm, so the forces of internationalist corporate control must secure monopolies on public spaces that are problematized by the very dissidents these spaces offered a refuge.18
It is a point of irony that those giants of tech development and communication are taking it upon themselves to govern the virtual public space when they themselves are made ungovernable to the forces of traditional sovereign power. Through the logic of capital itself and the very framework of liberal sovereignty as citizens, the corporate hyper-citizen (‘Citizen Facebook’ for example) monopolizes market share, avoiding consequences through various tax loopholes and limits on the ‘freedoms’ infringed upon by governments towards business/citizens.19
It is not beyond the legacy media to state outright that the networks of power/knowledge conspire in the open to ensure procedural outcomes that are favorable to the existence of modern power itself. TIME magazine even recently admitted to the existence of a networked cabal of corporate and extra-governmental interests working in unison to ensure an electoral victory against Donald Trump. Published last week, the article explicitly notes that it may:
“Sound like a paranoid fever dream- a well-funded cable of powerful people, ranging across industries and ideologies, working together behind the scenes of influence perceptions, change rules and laws, steer media coverage and control the flow of information.”
The effort was crafted around channeling information flows on social media away from dissident “malicious actors spreading disinformation” that “shores up” democratic politics rather than obliterate them in a wave of corporatocratic control over the veins and channels of perception and commonly agreed-upon facts themselves. The author of the article brags about the ability of the cabal to “pressure social media companies into combating disinformation, and smear campaigns, effectively censoring dissidents out of the virtual public square,” and ends this expose on a secret cabal of NGOs, corporations and managerial class functionaries almost sardonically:
“Democracy won in the end. The will of the people prevailed. But it’s crazy, in retrospect, that this is what it took to put on an election in the United States of America.”
They must save us from ourselves.
Cover via Archillect
Footnotes1 Alonso, “About Homo Sacer”, Pg. 27. 2 Foucault, Michel. “The Docile Body”. The Foucault Reader. Ed. Rabinow, Paul. (New York: Vintage books, 2010): Pg. 183. 3 Alonso, Jaime Caravaca Morera. “about homo sacer, bare lives andabandonment: the case of transsexuality inthanatopolitics”. Enfermería: Cuidados Humanizados, Vol. 8, nº 2 - Diciembre 2019. Pg. 21-23. 4 Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer, Sovereign Power and Bare Life. (Stanford, California: Stanford University press, 1995): Pg. 71-72. 5 Giordanegro, Davide. “The State of Exception”. 6 Norris, Andrew. “Giorgio Agamben and the Politics of the Living Dead”. Diacritics, Winter, 2000, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Winter, 2000). Pg. 41. 7 Agamben, Homo Sacer, Pg. 139. 8 Norris, Living Dead, Pg. 44-45. 9 aughan-Williams N., “The Generalised Bio-political Border? Re-conceptualising the Limits of Sovereign Power”, Review of International Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4 (2009).Pg. 333. 10 Agamben, Homo Sacer, Pg. 105. 11 Alberto Romele, Francesco Gallino, Camilla Emmenegger, Daniele Gorgone. “Panopticism is not Enough: Social Media as Technologies of Voluntary Servitude . Surveillance and Society, Surveillance Studies Network”. Hal Archives, (2017). Pg.4-6. 12 Ibid, Pg. 4, 11. 13 Agamben, Homo Sacer, Pg. 148. 14 Whyte, David. The Corporate Citizen and the Sovereign Exception: from homo sacer to homo supra. Oñati Socio-legal Series [online], 8 (6). Pg.965-966. 15 Ibid, Pg. 955-956. 16 Bard, Soderqvist, “Digital Libido”, Pg. 400. 17 Bard, Soderqvist, “Netocrats”, Pg. 170. 18 Ibid, Pg. 46. 19 McChesney, Robert W. Digital Disconnect, how capitalism is turning the internet against Democracy. (New York, London: The New Press, 2013): Pg. 144-145.
Gio Pennacchietti is an artist, writer, and graduate from Canada.
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