Capitalism and Liberal Zombification

Prepared for the March 2 – 3, 2017 seminar, Theorizing (Dis)Order: Governing in an Uncertain World, organized by the winners of the 2016 – 2017 WPF Student Seminar Competition. 

One way to theorize disorder is to address the ambiguity of its impact. Many studies show, for example, that disasters have winners as well as losers. Naomi Klein’s ‘disaster capitalism’ thesis is one example.1 Emergency events can disrupt the local status quo, weakening any political or social obstacles that previously resisted the penetration of libertarian capitalism. While a useful orientation, I want to try something different. That is, to problematise the implied continuing economic virility, albeit a questionable one, that nevertheless inflects the idea of disaster capitalism. One could also include the related suggestion that unpredictability or turbulence can be specifically invoked as a medium for “…strategising global governance more generally”.2 Although cases exist, a more urgent task is to question the sense of enduring mastery that much critical theory continues to back-hand capitalism. At the same time, the idea of global governance, indeed, even its possibility, cannot be separated from such questions.

The notion of disaster capitalism has emerged against a dismal economic backdrop. Since the 1970s, the old economies have recorded weak economic growth, crippling indebtedness, expanding socio-economic inequality and the normalisation of job insecurity.3 If anything, this long-term malaise has deepened since the global financial crisis of 2008. At a time when young people lack the wage opportunities their parents enjoyed, desperate capitalism might be a better description than disaster capitalism. Rather than continuing to invoke the tired optimism of technological innovation, a fresh vantage point is required that reinstalls actually existing capitalism’s lived negativity of parasitism, violence and decay. ‘Complexity’ or ‘uncertainty‘, for example, are not newly uncovered environmental truths. Their immanence can be located closer to the ground. These concepts were politically instrumental in the transition to our computer-accelerated network economy and the libertarian demolition of the hierarchies and certainties of modernism. Those left behind in this transition have had the complexity and uncertainty of capitalism dumped upon them by capital’s more fleet and agile acolytes. The zombified reaction of the liberal intelligentsia to this new and divisive global dispensation adds to the increasingly extreme and unscripted nature of our present predicament.

I have been asked to address the production of disorder as a strategy of capitalist extraction. Disorder, however, is not a strategy of extraction per se. More to the point, accidents and disasters appear increasingly necessary for capitalism’s survival. In a surveillance society that has disavowed and designed out the possibility of critique, indeed, dismissed the veracity of human sense-making itself, avoiding system failure through entropic inertia is now critical. Strung out by the amphetamine of continuous enactment and anticipation of infrastructural collapse,4 a stage has been reached when the random contingency of the unexpected is now capital’s main life-support system. In a libertarian post-political world where critique is dismissed as personal bias, shocks and perturbation, even system collapse, are presented as natural events that maintain societal evolution through their ability to select the most resilient social, economic and personal arrangements.5 Rather than being shunned, uncertainty is to be embraced.6

This essay considers the attempts being made to create affect management environments by architecturally designing-in accidents and contingency; thus, turning the purported ‘natural’ of the social milieu into the hyper-natural of reflexive neoliberal spatial framing.7 Rather than becoming ever smarter through being repeatedly exposed to contrived accidents and shocks, however, it is argued that zombification is a more likely outcome. Two interconnected histories are relevant here. First, capitalism’s troubled relation with democracy and second, the emergence of cybernetics as a totalising metascience of the physical, natural and social worlds.

The early post-war decades of welfare-Fordism were historically exceptional. For a while capitalism and democracy appeared to be functionally aligned, thus reversing the long antipathy of the former for the latter.8 With the disintegration of social-democracy and rise of post-Fordism, however, this old antagonism has reappeared in a new form. For example, questioning the effectiveness of discontinuous representative democracy when facing continuous economic and environmental risk.9 Sites of technocratic management vested in non-elected institutions legitimised by the objectivity claims of technoscience have consequently multiplied. The democratic deficit within network society has proved a permissive site for the extraordinary and undebated advance of the cybernetic project.

As a metascience of the informatics of (dis)order, cybernetics is a sui generis mode of knowledge that uses methods of analogical transfer to discover equivalent modes of functioning and regimes of operation in otherwise different orders of reality. It represents a totalising and constitutive “technological mentality” that functions equally for the living and the dead as well as the human and non-human.10 While such different domains may not be machines ontologically, they become so analogically for the convenience of mathematics and their cybernetic reconstitution as objects of technoscience. Seen as information processing systems, cybernetics has authored constitutive leaps from the emergent and self-ordering tendencies observed in the physical and natural worlds to the human domains of economy, society and the mind. However, since these orders of reality are different, understanding them through computational analogy adds little to either grasping these differences or conceiving them in terms of inactivity or stasis. The technological mentality understands them ecologically, or how they intercommunicate and, importantly, through the dynamism of their interconnected emergence and becoming. That is, as so many functionally equivalent orders of immanence and possibility.

The relation between neoliberalism and cybernetics reflects the constitutive power of analogical equivalence. Except for limited pattern recognition, it is important for neoliberalism that humans are incapable of understanding society due to its complexity.11 However, provided that accidents are allowed to happen, this is not a bad thing. Through the price mechanism, the market functions like a computer that is able to achieve optimal resource allocation through powers of spontaneous self-organisation. That this natural computer operates outside human understanding and control is central to neoliberalism. Cybernetic’s totalising mentality is not fazed by neoliberalism’s ignorant subject. Indeed, cybernetics is the primary tool for subjugating and thus knowing this subject and, as a result, fabricating its emergence and self-becoming.12 Initially forged to surmount the limited-knowledge situations thrown up by warfare, it’s unnecessary to know a subject’s attitudes, beliefs or even conscious aims; given the mathematical equivalence authored by cybernetics between human and non-human systems, it is irrelevant whether humans have any purpose at all. More important for inferring and affecting immanent futures is the algorithmic parsing of the data-memory of their past behavior.13 The constitutive synergy between neoliberalism and cybernetics has been instrumental in transforming the democratic deficit of post-Fordism into a permissive environment for producing the one-dimensional ontologies of the ignorant subject.14

The very success of the cybernetic project, however, invites a counter suggestion. From the outset, cybernetics had the singular ability to imagine its metascientific destiny in the absence of the data and computational capacity to realise it. Following their arrival in spades, however, rather than signalling a new celebratory point of departure,15 the digital turn looks more like epistemological closure through data behavioural lock-in.16 Reinforcing the post-political or, more correctly, the hyper-political17 disavowal of critique, computational dependency bodes ill for thwarting entropic zombification. Or, as the Frankfurt School might have it, not only is the digital turn not preventing entropy, it is facilitating capitalism’s decent into barbarism.18

The forceful May ‘68 anti-capitalist critique of hierarchy, alienation and patriarchy was recouped and disarmed during the 1970s and 1980s, by the theorists, politicians and managers of the emerging network economy that consolidated in the 1990s. It was recouped as a discovery: autonomy, self-organisation and creativity are expressions of an essential human essence that, fortuitously, could be released by neoliberalism and, once in the wild, realised through personalised consumption.19 The hierarchical flattening of the new interactive Toyotarised production methods, the replacement of mass by personal consumption and the transformation of national companies into complex logistical global brands also kick started the debasement of immobility in a globalising world, increasing socio-economic inequality and spreading job precarity. Important for this great transformation was the disembedding and distancing of capitalism’s former social democratic responsibility for social protection.20 The loss of social presence took place at the same time as capitalism turned into a force of nature.[i] Like the weather, it became an unpredictable law unto itself. By the early 1980s, as an object of systematic academic study, capitalism had slipped from view. Concealed in the shadows, revisionists can disavow that it ever existed. Authored by the technological mentality, a series of analogical equivalents now totalises the mind, markets and nature, if not the universe and everything in it. While different, they are all analogically similar in their ability to transform accidents and shocks into complex emergent forms of spontaneous and evolutionary self-organisation. Disconnect from these processes because they operate below human consciousness, they can only be accessed and operationalised through the providential arrival of data and computers.

The naturalisation of capitalism does not mean a socialising role has been abandoned. While jobs for life, mortgages, company pensions and Fordism’s patriarchal home-work divide have eroded or disappeared, and the assembly lines, offices, universities and shopping malls freed of collectivist restrictions, there is still work to be done. That is, to produce the autonomous, creative and choice-demanding proletarian-consumers that these hyper-natural environments require. The new spirit of libertarian capitalism lies in its heroic uncovering of this emergent cyborg subjectivity. It resides in the resilient and technologically savvy nomadic networker adapted to, and thriving upon, the uncertainties of life in the wild. Through political nannysim, hierarchy and left ideology, this essential human essence was long buried and denied. This task of uncovering and enabling captures neoliberalism’s claim to be a radically disruptive force.22 The new economy’s celebrated freedom-expanding role has convinced the academy, for example, to disown critique and close those spaces it previously left open, in the public interest, for an artistic or philosophic temperament to position itself outside and against society.23 As a partner in the quest to free the spirit of libertarian capitalism, the academy now accepts and works within the parameters of the negativity that capitalism itself has produced.

As spacing technologies, architecture and design play important roles in shaping the interactive environments that produce complex emergent subjects.24 Given the central role of circulation and interaction in cybernetics, in order to engineer the production of dynamic project-oriented knowledge, ‘accidental’ local encounters are reflexively designed into built environments and digital infrastructure. Interactive safe-learning environments have replaced the anti-systemic function of critique. From car factories and research institutes, to shopping malls and student hubs, neoliberal architecture shares a number of anti-entropic design principles. A car factory, for example, has a single entrance through which workers and managers have to funnel as they arrive. The architectural envelope is designed to panoptically enclose the assembly line. Through the angling and stacking of floor plates, key functions, workers and managers are mutually sighted, making them visible and accessible. Bottlenecks and shared facilities are strategically located to ensue the interaction of all employees thus facilitating ‘spontaneous’ collective problem solving.25 Research institutes are similarly built around light admitting atriums. Bridges and walkways interconnect stacked floors of inward facing glass fronted offices and overlook shared open work spaces. Within these transparent and sharing environments, circulatory bottlenecks encourage ‘chance’ interactions between different researchers and project holders creating opportunities for anti-entropic networking and discovery.26

These totalising environments reflect how meshed human/non-human milieus are being engineered to produce reflexive accidents and contingencies for purposes of controlled affect management. To risk what may seem an oxymoron, such structures are examples of neoliberal planning, or rather, hyper-planning at the level of design, cognition and the unconscious. However, despite appeals to freedom and spontaneity, neoliberal architecture cannot escape the intrinsic dual-use functions of cybernetics. Besides enveloping the production of cars, research outcomes, student essays, etc, it also serves a security function. Interactive affect management infrastructures simultaneously double as environments of hyper-surveillance.   They update the panoptic principle initially associated with disciplinary societies.27 Today, interactive environments are designed to shape the desired behaviour of the outwardly self-governing subject. Key features include maximised mutual visibility, the encouragement of peer-to-peer self-measurement and, especially, contrived encounters that demand participation and the full disclosure of opinions and feelings.

As a surveillance environment alert for signs of enemies within, neoliberal spacing embraces the politics of the fold.28 The curved and pliant dimensions of the fold answer a design demand for architecture and technology that functions in a politically fragmented and socially unequal world. A fold is able to incorporate opposing orientations, planes and differences as long as they share the same curvilinear arc. As a paradigm of inclusion in situations of complexity, the fold is emblematic of the power relations within interactive full disclosure environments. In realising neoliberalism’s ‘radical’ mission to free the buried essence of human self-becoming, differences are essential if ‘accidental’ encounters are to have rejuvenating affects. Differences can be constructive, even if they are opposing, provided they lie on the same curve. To be constructive, differences have to fall within project defined parameters. Unlike the system changing May ‘68 critique, they cannot be outside or against the fold. Rather than radical change, the demand for participatory self-disclosure functions to expose and expel dissident attitudes and uncooperative behaviour while closing down possibilities for autonomy.[ii] Excepting incremental movements, neoliberal architectures of control tend toward zombifiying conformity, self-censorship and political inertia.

This essay started by questioning the proposition that capitalism expands through emergencies. To the contrary, it has been argued that capitalism now needs accidents and disasters just to maintain a steady rate of decay. The briefly described form and zombifying effects of interactive infrastructures have a wider societal occurrence than indicated here.[iii] Rather than the digital turn representing a point of departure and new beginning, the state of the world suggests that an age of ignorance and closure has already begun. When applied to questions of global governance, if anything, the concerns are more sharply drawn. Since the end of the 1990s, the trend has been for risk adverse journalists, academics and aid workers, even militaries, to withdraw from the ‘challenging environments’ of the global South into fortified aid compounds, green zones and other archipelagos of Western security culture.[iv] There they sit, watching screens, disconnected and dependent upon remote management techniques, satellite sensing and data informatics to provide automated sense-making tools to spare the effort of thinking. Meanwhile, the immobile and left behind have been abandoned to the evolutionary effects of real disasters. When you lose perspective, all type of aberration is possible.[v]


1 Naomi Klein, The Schock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2007).

2 WPF letter of invitation.

3 Wolfgang Streeck, “The Crises of Democratic Capitalism,” New Left Review, no. 71 (2011).

4 Stephen J Collier, “Enacting Catastrophe: Preparedness, Insurance, Budgetary Rationalization,” Economy and Society 37, no. 2 (2008).

5 Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilisation (London: Souvenir Press Ltd, 2007).

6 Brad Evans and Julian Reid, Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014).

7 Douglas Spencer, The Architecture of Neoliberalism: How contemporary architecture became an instrument of control and compliance. (London & Oxford: Bloosmbury, 2016).

8 Streeck, Crises

9 Anthony Giddens, The Politics of Climate Change (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009).

10 Gilbert Simondon, “Technical Mentality” Parrhesia: A Journal of Critical Philosophy 7 (2009).

11 F A Hayek, “The Use of Knowledge in Society” The American Economic Review xxxv, no. 4 (1945).

12 Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliott (London & New York: Verso, 2005).

13 Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1954).

14 David Chandler, “A World without Causation: Big Data and the Coming of the Age of Posthumanism,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 43, no. 3 (2015).

15 Chris Anderson, “The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete,” Wired Magazine: 16.07 (2007),

16 Antoinette Rouvroy, “The End(S) of Critique : Data-Behaviourism Vs. Due-Process,” in Privacy, Due Process and the Computational Turn, ed. Mirelle Hildebrandt and Ekatarina De Vries (London: Routledge, 2012).

17 Libero Andreotti, “Unfaithful Reflections: Re-Actualising Benjamin’s Aestheticisation Thesis,” in Architecture against the Post-Political: Essays in Reclaiming the Critical Project ed. Nadir Lahiji (London: Routledge 2014).

18 Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man: The Ideology of Industrial Society (London: Sphere Books, 1968 ).

19 Boltanski and Chiapello, Spirit of Capitalism.

20 Nikolas Rose, “The Death of the Social? Re-Figuring the Territory of Government,” Economy and Society 25, no. 3 (1996).

[i] Donella H Meadows et al., The Limits of Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind (New York: Universe Books 1972).

22 Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

23 Published in 1968, Herbert Marcuse’s rejectionist One Dimensional Man, is described on its cover as the “…most subversive book published in the United States this Century”. Ironically, at least in today’s more restricted and self-censoring intellectual climate, his Acknowledgments cite grants from such establishment bodies as The American Council of Learned Societies, The Louis M Rabinowitz Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council.

24 For an excellent analysis see, Douglas Spencer, The Architecture of Neoliberalism: How Contemporary Architecture Became an Instrument of Control and Compliance (London & Oxford, 2016).

25 For images of BMW‘s Central Building, Leipzig, see:

26 For the Francis Crick Institute, London, see

27 Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59 (1992).

28 Spencer, Neoliberal Architecture; Gregg Lyn, “Architectural Curvilinearity: The Folded, the Pliant and the Supple,” in Folding in Architecture, ed. Gregg Lynn (New Jersey: Wiley-Academy, 1993).

[ii] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester & Washington: Zone Books, 2009).

[iii] Nicholas Carr, 2015. The Glass Cage: Where Automation is Taking Us. (London: The Bodley Head, 2015).

[iv]Mark Duffield, “The Fortified Aid Compound: Everyday Life in Post-Interventionary Society,” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 4, no. 4 (2010); Mark Duffield, “From Immersion to Simulation: Remote Methodologies and the Decline of Area Studies ” Review of African Political Economy 41, no. sup1 (2014).

[v] Mark Duffield is currently completing a book for Polity Press with the working title The Disconnect: Capitalism, Disasters and Decay

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