Kyborg 25: SOS9

Continuing yesterday’s thoughts on autonomy and power and its deep transformation. In my part of the world, power is hierarchical, ritually encoded but sporadic. When I am in front of a superior, I bow my head, talk softly and do what I am told. However personal authority has a very short half-distance - the further removed I am from my superior, the less likely is it that I am under his command.

Personal authority is an inefficient (if not immoral) and unstable way to run a modern society, for outcomes are too dependent on individuals - we want the processes of governance to be automatic.

Note the close etymological relationship between autonomy and automatic - one suggesting freedom and the other suggesting mechanical uniformity.

In contrast, the liberal citizen doesn’t submit to authority - they’re equals after all. Instead, they voluntarily accede to the order of power, digesting it and making it their own. That voluntary accession is far more robust, manufacturing consent at a scale that can’t be done through submission.

I was noticing the power of voluntary consent earlier today when I was in a Zoom call with some people in the USDA (US Department of Agriculture - don’t ask me why). The mid-level bureaucrats in the call were uniformly bright, articulate, well informed and their command over the facts and arguments would have been perfectly at home in an academic seminar. I am guessing many of them had advanced degrees, if not PhDs.

It’s precisely because autonomy and ownership are so prized that being stuck in a ‘bullshit job’ is considered an emptying out of one’s existence.

Comparing the technical and professional competence of the USDA bureaucrats with its lack that I would expect in their Indian counterparts, it struck me how each one of them represented themselves as autonomous individuals and were treated by others as such - even the one undersecretary in the call deferred to the opinion of the far more junior person in their domain of expertise.

And yet, every single one of them was a spokesperson for a neoliberal, market driven approach to food systems. Conformity with person ownership of what one conforms to is that much more powerful than conformity driven by my being the inferior of the person who’s demanding I conform.

The modern technologies of the self - education, socialization, promotions and paychecks are a vast and subtle machinery of control and autonomy. Here’s another way of saying the same thing: the control apparatus of advertising & propaganda aren’t a perversion of freedom; instead our idea of freedom makes sense only when it’s being actively shaped by the forces of control.

Just as representative democracy makes sense only when there’s a party apparatus (which is controlled by elites, corporations etc) which decides who gets to stand for election. The architecture of this system showcases autonomy in the foreground while there’s control in the background. No conspiracy needed.

I will end with two core questions:

  1. What are the various points of tension between freedom and control in the absence of divine authority or a hierarchical society?

  2. How can the state or other social institutions help us see people as people? Can our ontological essence as ‘human beings’ be revealed by the state?