The Promise of Cosmopolitanism and the Potential for
Resistance in the Global Network Society
The networks that make up the global network society follow a logic of exclusion (Castells, 2013, p.25). As networks are continuously in competition with each other, whereby they compete over the efficiency with which they can carry out their program, they face the necessity to continually adapt to changing circumstances. Because they operate on a binary logic of inclusion/exclusion of nodes, in order to maintain their dynamic character, networks can never be all-inclusive. Financial networks, business networks, military networks, media networks – they all require some degrees of freedom for their program to function (Castells, 2013, p.26).
Networks operate within a space of flows, and thus transcend geographical borders (Castells, 2010, p.459). Exclusion from a network, therefore, should not be visualized as a line on a map that separates those within from those without1, but rather as a mesh that hovers above the space of places from which one “drops” in and out. This process of exclusion appears as a technical process that becomes insignificant as one increases the scale. Castells (2013) remarks, for instance, that “when nodes become unnecessary for the fulfilment of the networks’ goals, networks tend to reconfigure themselves, deleting some nodes, and adding new ones. Nodes only exist and function as components of networks. The network is the unit, not the node.” (p.10).
I propose, however, that there is a mechanism on the level of the node that is vital to the functioning of the network, making the node – contrary to what Castells implies - anything but insignificant. The dropping in and out of networks requires, I suggest, a willingness on the side of the actor comprising the node to participate in the network. This introduces contingency in the operation of the network as the network comes to depend on the willingness of the excluded to participate in the network when they are needed. Networks are generally capable of dealing with contingency; if one option is not available, there are still many others from which to choose. I argue, however, that the contingency introduced by the necessity of the willingness to participate is an existential threat to the network because it is shared among all nodes in the network. As more actors comprising nodes come to refuse participation in the network, the network becomes less efficient, and ultimately becomes unable to compete with other networks. Networks thus need to reduce this particular contingency by actively creating the willingness to participate through an affective infrastructure.
In this essay, I show how global capitalism in particular plays a vital role in the elicitation of the willingness to participate by means of what I call “the promise of cosmopolitanism”. I begin by explaining the link between the willingness to participate and capitalism by drawing on Foucault’s concept of modes of subjectivation in the context of the early years of neoliberalism. Thereafter, I derive a general model by which capitalism produces its subjects that applies to both human and non-human actors. Finally, I show how the promise of cosmopolitanism is a mode of subjectivation under global capitalism aimed at eliciting the willingness to participate. I end on a hopeful note, showing how among the processes described throughout the essay, there continue to be avenues of potential resistance to the mechanism they engender.
Modes of Subjectivation in the Context of Networked Capitalism
The global capitalist system that has developed over the last fifty years has arguably been defined by neoliberalism, which must here be understood as a political rationality which has an active role in the production of certain kinds of subjects (Lemke, 2001, p.201). The politico-social sphere is submitted to an economic rationality, whereby the state, reduced in its function to the service of the market, creates the subject as an entrepreneur-of-the-self through governmentality-processes (Brown, 2005, p.42). Governmentality here refers to Foucault’s conception of government as a continuum whereby the individual becomes subject such that it comes to govern itself through technologies of the self (Lemke, 2001, p.201). The state can then govern by acting on the conditions of acting themselves instead of on the body of the subject.
The entrepreneur-of-the-self is, however, only a particular version of the capitalist subject, arising under the determinate conditions described above. Can we imagine the capitalist subject without the state and in doing so arrive at a general form of the subject of capitalism2? As a revolutionary mode of production, capitalism has few constants. Two, however, are as Anna Tsing (2017, p.133) suggests, omnipresent: alienation and accumulation. Alienation is the process by which people, plants, animals, and things become removed from their life-worlds and form self-contained units. These self-contained units allow for scalability, the construction of infinite needs, and thereby the concentration of capital as power which allows further concentration – accumulation. Of these two constants, alienation is arguably the more useful for understanding the subject of capitalism, as accumulation is primarily the concern of the capitalist and thus of the few. Alienation, however, is common to both sides of the capital relation. It would be too simple to call the subject of capitalism any alienated subject, however. Rather, it is the process by which the subject of capitalism becomes alienated that matters here. To define this process, it is necessary to consider, for a moment, the opposite of alienation: entanglement.
From Entanglement to Alienation: Human and Non-Human Becoming-Subject
The alienated subject of capitalism, contrarily, is characterised by predictability, which is a requirement for scalability. This is because the smooth expansion of a project requires its elements to be oblivious to the indeterminacy of encounter with difference (Tsing, 2017, p.38). Becoming subject to capitalism, then, entails a movement from entanglement to alienation, from the embedded to the self-contained unit. Surplus-value generated within assemblages can thereby be appropriated without having to deal with the messiness of indeterminate encounters in what Tsing (2017, p.63) terms “salvage accumulation”. The movement itself, however, requires acts of translation that negate entanglement and make inventory. While in practice, these can be as simple as the application of a barcode to a product, acts of translation gain more complexity when considered in relation to networks, whereby a single entity comes to function as representative of an entire network (Callon, 1986, p.25), as in the case of the various participants in multinational supply-chains.
At this juncture, I would like to give my own example of such a translation process. Specifically, I will describe the becoming-subject of coniferous trees in the region around the city of Bratsk in Russian-Siberia. It will be necessary to start from a historical perspective: with Perestroika in the late 1980’s, as export restrictions on timber were gradually reduced, the Russian timber industry became increasingly export-oriented (Liang et al., 2016, p.515). At the same time, China began to adopt open-trade policies, leading to a greater integration of the centrally governed Eastern Russian and Chinese economies (Narins, 2015, p.687). However, a supply-chain relation between the two countries only truly came into being with the introduction of China’s 1998 logging ban, which prevented logging activity in natural forests along the Yangtze river (Tsing, 2017, p.189) – appropriating surplus-value from forest assemblages had all of a sudden become much more difficult in China.
Why supply chains? Supply-chains are the reaction of global capital to national environmental or labour protections. They allow different forms of capitalism to co-exist and are thus an important attribute of flexible accumulation (Tsing, 2017, p.70). Top firms, with their headquarters mostly in what we call “the West”, can, through multiple layers of sub-contracting, concern themselves entirely with the financing of their operation and do not need to worry about the conditions of production. When China banned the logging of its natural forests, international supply chains were created and logging operations were sub-contracted to Russian timber companies. Because Russia contains 50% of the world’s coniferous forests, the Russian state began to face increasing pressure from international environmental groups to prevent the decline of its natural forests, however. The timber harvest thus became a balancing act between satisfying the Chinese demand for timber and preserving ecological diversity. Logging was finally regulated and subjected to an export tax (Narins, 2015, p.694).
When cornered, however, salvage capitalism reacts by spawning economic diversity. Apart from expected reactions such as an increase in illegal logging activity, coupled with smuggling activities along the Sino-Russian border (Vandergert & Newell, 2003, p.304), some small-scale logging operations discovered that the adoption of an elemental strategy could provide them with any amount of timber they wished to harvest: fire. The use of forest fires in forestry activities is no new thing – records show that Native Americans regularly set fire to the underbrush of the forests in the North-Western Cascades in the US to make picking berries off the ground easier (Tsing, 2017, p.196). What is new, however, is that fires became as much a method for harvesting timber in Siberia as for navigating relations to the state. By deliberately setting low fires in the forests, root systems and dense outgrowths are burned away while the tree trunks themselves stay mostly intact. When the fires burn away, the remaining trees are only loosely held in place. The loggers then approach regional governments for permission to clear the area of the trees, since they pose a hazard of falling onto roads and people. Regional governments play along, seeing it a convenient way to surpass the restrictions imposed on their economic development by the government in Moscow (Narins, 2015, p.687). Anatoly Kotlobay conveniently states in her report for the WWF:
“The customer will be issued a felling ticket for the performance of cleaning cuttings with the selective tapping of 100% wood on the site, even though most of the trees there may be quite healthy and only slightly damaged by fire. The logger, without paying a single kopeck to the state, gets for his disposal a considerable amount of first-rate wood.” (Kotlobay, 2002, p.8).
Fire, in this case, is the translation process by which entanglement is negated. Entanglement, in this case, exists in two senses: Materially, in the root networks that anchor the trees to the ground and the rest of the forest, and systematically, as it does between the trees, the loggers, the regional and the national government. By setting fire to the forest, then, the trees become the self-contained units that capitalism needs for the making of inventory – and who would stop the loggers after the fires have been set? Once their roots are burned away, the trees have no other use than to be sold as commodities. Before they can be sold to Chinese manufacturers, however, they must undergo one more translation process through which evidence of the entanglement of the trees with the fire is erased. For this purpose, the logs felled through the fire-method are brought to processing plants close to the Chinese border, where they are cleaned and cut into boards based on the Chinese customs officials’ expectations (Vandergert & Newell, 2003, p.305). In this second step, translation between capitalist forms thus takes place, erasing all evidence of practices that may be unacceptable to any party further along the supply-chain.
What is exemplified here, then, is how an entangled subject becomes a subject of capitalism through the negation of its entanglement – but it also shows that this process affects both humans and non-human species, both ecology and social interactions. Can we therefore speak of this process as a mode of subjectivation? Answering this question conclusively will require a return to human life-worlds and their practices of meaning-making.
Characteristic of the network society is that it leads to a fragmentation of traditional societies (Castells, 2010, p.459). This fragmentation is the result of the relation between the global nature of the social structure and the local nature of experience; while the space of flows is the basis of the organization of power and function (Borja & Castells, 1997, p.42), the space of places is where human experience takes place (Castells, 2013, p.25). The fragmentation of societies occurs when the logic of exclusion/inclusion of networks is mapped onto the local/global divide. Participation in a network may then enable subsistence, but it does not provide meaningful connection. Although in rare cases, the entirety of a local community may participate in the same network, in which the space of flows then aligns with the space of places, the shifting nature of networks makes this arrangement ever more precarious (Borja & Castells, 1997, p.102).
Next to the fragmentation of societies, I suggest that the exclusion/inclusion-local/global combination also produces a psychological fragmentation. Contrary to what the earlier example of coniferous trees may suggest, the movement of becoming-subject to capitalism is never complete, both in the temporal sense and in the sense of being all-encompassing. In the negation of entanglement, there is always something that escapes the making of inventory. That which escapes can lie in something as simple as the memory of past entanglement or it can consist of new entanglements that are formed through the first act of negation. The memory of past entanglement is captured well by Harney and Moten’s idea of bad debt:
“We seek […] bad debt which is to say real debt, the debt that cannot be repaid, the debt at a distance, the debt without creditor, the black debt, the queer debt, the criminal debt. Excessive debt, incalculable debt, debt for no reason, debt broken from credit, debt as its own principle.” (Harney & Moten, 2013, p.61)
Bad debt, for Harney and Moten, is the mutual indebtedness of entanglement that escapes financialization. Contrary to debt tied to credit, it cannot be forgiven, only forgotten “to be remembered again” (Harney & Moten, 2013, p.63). The subject of capitalism thus always finds itself between entanglement and alienation, going through the negation-machine over and over again yet always emerging from it incomplete. We truly do find ourselves in “peri-capitalist sites”, as Tsing (2017, p.63) has termed it, although we may do better to speak of a universal peri-capitalist mode of existence in the global network society – we are always at the periphery of capitalism without ever crossing entirely to one side.
At this point, it is suitable to ask about the role of consent in the constitution of this peri-capitalist mode of existence. The ‘negation-machine’, as I previously called it, can hardly be compared to Ford’s Model T assembly line with its moulds, presses and welding rods. Having left the disciplinary society behind for the control society (Deleuze, 1992, p.4), today the subject itself takes care of all the work. Having thus arrived again at Foucault’s technologies of the self, it is time to return to the promise of cosmopolitanism.
At one point of her book The Mushroom at the End of the World, Tsing (2017, p.99) recounts her own experience growing up as a Japanese-American in the post-war climate of the United States of America, and compares this to the experiences of East-Asian mushroom pickers who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s. While she remembers her family having to go through a process of coercive assimilation wherein “Americanness” was an ideal that had to be lived up to for fear of FBI surveillance, any assimilation at all was foreign to the East-Asian immigrants. Many having found themselves displaced by wars waged by foreign nations in their home countries, the immigrants had but to utter the code-word “freedom” (and show their hatred of communism) to the Americans to be granted citizenship (Tsing, 2017, p.104). Yet what “freedom” did these immigrants have to endorse? True, the cosmopolitanism the immigrants had been promised by the Americans had been granted – they could keep their traditions, their ways of speech, their cultural practices – but in exchange they were also expected to accept the “freedom of enterprise” of the neoliberal mode of regulation. Left to fend for themselves, thus, many of these immigrants found themselves impoverished in anonymous cities, without place, without direction – eventually turning to mushroom picking in the wilderness of the Oregon forests. Whereas the coercive assimilation of Japanese-Americans always left the inner potential for resistance, under the promise of cosmopolitanism, everything was left to the immigrants – at the price of that very potential for resistance.
1This is not to imply that this visualization is always inaccurate. Networks form through interaction between social actors, and as they are thus historical products, they can mirror historical spatial divisions. An example here is the division between the “Global North” and “Global South”, which can be seen as the legacy of colonial Europe.
2Readers may notice the syntactical turn taken at the end of this sentence – it serves a distinct purpose. Speaking of the “subject of capitalism” instead of the “capitalist subject” allows us to transcend the anthropocentric connotations that come with the latter. Establishing the general form as that of the subject of capitalism instead allows for the inclusion of ecology, which will prove useful later.
3That assemblages bear some similarity to networks is no coincidence - both are ways of describing associations. Nonetheless, they differ in many ways. Two examples will illustrate this comparison: A similarity between networks and assemblages is their definition by their program (Castells, 2013, p.20), or in the case of assemblages, by their productive character (Parr, 2010, p.18). Yet while networks, once established, maintain themselves though the efficient pursuit of the execution of their program, assemblages are always at once stabilized and carried away by the movement towards territorialization/deterritorialization.
The second example I would like to give here concerns the analysis of the two. Assemblages can only be understood in their relation to the body and the incorporeal transformation of the body (Parr, 2010, p.18), whereby nodes in networks are ‘black boxes’, constituting the smallest components of the units of analysis (Castells, 2013, p.20). In relation to entanglement then, the analysis of assemblages assumes entanglement, whereas network-analysis does not consider it beyond possible switching functions of a node.
Brown, W. (2005). Edgework: Critical essays on knowledge and politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. vii-x, 37-50.
Borja, J., & Castells, M. (1997). Local & Global: Management of Cities in the Information Age. London, UK: Earthscan.
Callon, M. (1986). The sociology of an actor-network. In M. Callon, J. Law, & A. Rip (Eds.), Mapping the Dynamics of Science and Technology (pp.19-34). London: Macmillan.
Castells, M. (2010). The Rise of the Network Society. Cichester, UK: Blackwell Publishing.
Castells, M. (2013). Communication Power. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on Societies of Control. October, 56, 3-7. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/778828
Harney, S., & Moten, F. (2013). The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. New York, NY: Minor Compositions.
Kotlobay, A. A. (2002). Illegal Logging in the Southern Part of the Russian Far East: Problem Analysis and Proposed Solutions. WWF Russia.
Lemke, T. (2001). ‘The birth of bio-politics’: Michel Foucault’s lecture at the Collège de France on neo-liberal governmentality. Economy and Society, 30(2), 190-207.
Liang, S., Guo, S., Newell, J. P., Qu, S., Feng, Y., Chiu, A., & Xu, M. (2016). Global Drivers of Russian Timber Harvest. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 20(3), 515-525. doi:10.1111/jiec.12417
Narins, T. P. (2015). Dynamics of the Russia-China Forest Products Trade. Growth and Change, 46(4), 688-703. doi:10.1111/grow.12108
Parr, A. (2010). The Deleuze Dictionary: Revised Edition. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.
Puar, J., Berlant, L., Butler, J., Cvejic, B., Lorey, I. & Vujanovic, A. (2012). Precarity Talk: A Virtual Roundtable with Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, Bojana Cvejić, Isabell Lorey, Jasbir Puar, and Ana Vujanović. TDR: The Drama Review 56(4), 163-177.
Read, J. (2009). A Genealogy of Homo-Economicus: Neoliberalism and the Production of Subjectivity. Foucault Studies, 6, 25-36.
Tsing, A. L. (2017). The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Vandergert, P., & Newell, J. (2003). Illegal logging in the Russian Far East and Siberia. International Forestry Review 5(3), 303-306.