You might as well be hung for death
As breaking a machine–
So now my Lad, your sword unsheath
And make it sharp and keen-
We are ready now your cause to join
Whenever you may call;
So make foul blood run clear & fine
Of Tyrants great and small!–
From the Luddite song, “Welcome Ned Ludd”
Ludd, Hypermidernity and neo-totalitarianism in times of COVID-19
Tomás Ibáñez (El Lokal, 01/05/2020)
A little over two centuries ago, back in 1811 and for the next five years, England was the scene of a powerful social revolt known as the Luddite Rebellion – in allusion to its eponymous protagonist Ned Ludd – that destroyed part of the novel textile machinery whose installation eliminated jobs and condemned part of the population to misery. Thousands of soldiers were necessary to quell the insurgency that, far from obeying technophobic motivations, was framed in the workplace and sought to oppose the most damaging consequences of the “progress” of capitalist exploitation.
Today it is essential to “reinvent” this type of revolt, displacing it from the sphere of merely economic demands to the more directly political sphere of the struggles for freedom and against the newly minted totalitarianism that for some time has been in the process of being established, and that finds in the present COVID-19 crisis abundant fuel to accelerate its development.
To displace it from the economic sphere does not imply dismissing capitalism as the main enemy because the new type of totalitarianism to which I refer constitutes an absolutely fundamental element of the new capitalist era illuminated by the enormous technological innovation that was, and continues to be, the digital revolution.
As happened with the Luddites’ Rebellion, this essential revolt does not rest on technophobic motivations either, but has the demand for freedom and autonomy as its principal spur, from the clear awareness that, if we do not succeed in stopping the progress of the new totalitarianism, then the possibilities of struggle and resistance against domination and exploitation will either be nullified or reduced to insignificance.
It is superfluous to recite here the ensemble of surveillance instruments and procedures that are already functioning on a large scale, or that are beginning to be implemented; the information in this regard is abundant and is available to everyone. The account of the struggles taking place against the expansion and generalisation of social control is also dispensable. These are well known and range from hackers’ actions, to the sabotage of 5G antennas, through the practices of leaving the phone at home and weaning oneself off its use, to more collective activities consisting of building local networks and communities.
However, it does seem to me opportune to emphasise the continuity that underlies the changes experienced by the economic system, at least in the West, as scientific reason created the conditions for technologies, in the hands of producers and artisans, to change into technologies whose use exceeded the size and capacities of local communities and groups, and to thus be integrated into both the larger-scale production system and state power structures.
It is this close link between scientific reason, technologies and economic and political power structures that runs through the entire history of Modernity and capitalism and that accounts for a Hypermodernity where the digital revolution strengthens the link between the three entities that I mentioned. This drives a transformation of capitalism, now turned into digital capitalism and surveillance capitalism, moving towards a new type of totalitarianism in the political sphere. Unlike previous totalitarian regimes, it is the subjects themselves who constantly provide, through each and every one of their behaviours, the elements that make their integral subjection possible. It is our own life that nurtures the control and standardisation devices in an environment without any exteriority, that does not have repression but incitement as its first tool.
COVID-19 has encouraged the development of sophisticated social control measures thanks to the demand for biosecurity brought forth by the population’s fear of biological risks. What happened since the declaration of a pandemic and the subsequent declaration of a state of emergency by the the Spanish State, leaves little doubt that a large part of the population not only would not oppose, but would willingly accept being watched and willingly submit to the imperative of self-monitoring to prevent the disease.
The coronavirus also anticipates the more than likely succession of new pandemics of similar or greater danger. Biological risk is of course part of the human condition itself, but its probability of occurring and its consequences are favored by current living conditions: huge crowds of people crowded into gigantic cities, a globalisation that fosters constant and rapid commercial exchanges on a planetary level, means of transport that favor incessant population flows, reduced investment in public health services and, of course, environmental degradation.
It is worth underlining that the last of the factors I have cited is just one more, and probably not the most important, among those favoring pandemics. This does not mean that environmental risks should not be struggled against, but excessive focus on them can help mask the greatest and most immediate threat linked to biological risk, and divert attention away from the advances of neo-totalitarianism, obviating that, if we cannot stop the totalitarian threat that is being driven by biological threats, we will not even be able to continue fighting against the degradation of the planet.
Some forty years have passed since Michel Foucault put forward the concept of biopower to characterise the new modality of governmentality articulated by neoliberalism, and it seems that the management of life, biosecurity, and the control of the populations that he then referred to have come to occupy a preferential place on the agenda of digital capitalism typical of our Hypermodernity.
The new totalitarianism has at its disposal the entire arsenal of social control provided by digital technology, while that same technology opens up the immense field of genetic engineering. If we relate biological risks, biopower, digital capitalism, biotechnologies and neo-totalitarianism, it is easy to see that one of the effects of pandemics will consist of predisposing populations to accept, sooner rather than later, biogenetic interventions to make us “resistant” to coronaviruses and other viral plagues. That will not happen tomorrow, of course, but in a distant dystopian future when transhumanism will make possible the “rational” modification of the human species. I have said “distant”, but at the rate at which things are going, that future may not be so far away if we do not manage to turn things around.
Fortunately, the long history of humanity teaches us that there have always been pockets of resistance and unyielding energy that have known how to promote practices of freedom even in the most inhospitable situations. It is these practices and the struggles that they encourage that allow us to harbor a certain optimism … despite everything.