A Discussion on Neoliberal Economic Rationality, Internet Governmentality, and Cyber Resistance

By Asif Akhtar

In a series of lectures delivered at the Collége de France between 1978 and 1979 entitled The Birth of Biopolitics,1 Michel Foucault builds on the idea of governmentality which he developed in the previous year’s lectures, named Security, Territory, Population,2 to launch into a rare discussion of the twentieth century around the range of discourses and practices converging to form neoliberalism. Here Foucault applies his genealogical method of historical analysis to what he suggests might be the dominant form of power in contemporary times. While this discussion elucidates the rationalization and implementation of a range of economic and political policies determining the organization of today’s societies, it also opens up a whole field of thematics and issues which might be considered through the analytical lens of governmentality. Tracing the historical trajectory of the development of governmental reason and techniques in the preceding year’s lectures, from their formulation in the Christian pastoral through the Middle Ages and up to modernity, Foucault also discusses a series of resistances, revolts, and insubordinations running precisely counter to the development of this governmental conduction of men. By considering these counter-conducts in relation to governmentality, certain current practices constituting forms of counter-conduct that are now developing contemporaneously with neoliberalism will become discernible.

Broadly speaking, governmentality, as understood in Foucault’s terms, may be defined as an “enlightened, reflected, analytical, calculated, and calculating” technique of exercising a specific and complex form of power in the interest of directing the conduct of men towards specified ends.3 Given the economization of politics and society through the rise of neoliberalism over the course of the past century, what kinds of subjects would a neoliberal type of governmentality be producing, and what kinds of conducts does it endorse? Here Foucault suggests that the currently pervasive form of neoliberalism, instead of being considered simply an economic phenomenon, is actually a “whole way of being and thinking,” and its fundamental subject is the “Homo economicus,” or the economic man.4 This is not, however, the man of exchange as understood by the neoclassical economists, rather this is the man of enterprise — “the entrepreneur of himself.” As understood in terms of Foucault’s theory of human capital, the economic subject invests in himself, in his own enterprise, to form a kind of “abilities-machine” which produces for himself streams of income as a worker, along with his own satisfaction as a consumer of his own exploits.5

Within this neoliberal analysis of human capital, the individual becomes an economic unit whose every action is rationally explicable through financial analyses of investment and return on capital. These economic analyses permeate far beyond the realm of the economy and towards an ever-increasing economization of life. Foucault goes on to cite examples using the theories of economist Gary Becker that suggest economic rationalizations behind all sorts of non-economic behavior such as finding a marriage partner, giving affection to children, or receiving an education.6 The economization of life in the context of today’s information age appears to be gaining pervasiveness to an unprecedented degree. And while the internet is widely held to be the harbinger of a new kind of freedom, even forms of knowledge are becoming continually financialized. Everyday exchanges of information from news-media to academic knowledge are becoming associated with recurring cash flows, and the terrain of knowledge exchanges is constantly recast within overlapping relations between producers and consumers of content. How then can we begin to conceive forms of cyber-resistance to this emerging regime of “intellectual property”, which seems to be taking a hold on everything from genetic codes to artworks?

In Security, Territory, Population, Foucault elaborates on certain forms of “counter-conducts” within back-and-forth struggles comprised of attacks and counter-attacks, forms of resistance appearing within, and specific to, the dominant regimes of governmental power operating through history. Most of this discussion is concentrated on the revolts of conduct which emerged in relation to the operation of pastoral power determining the conduct of men. These counter-conducts to pastoral power included certain forms of mysticism, ascetic practices, and eschatological beliefs that formed individual and communal behavior of those “wanting to be conducted differently, by other leaders … towards other objectives … through other procedures and methods.”7 The modern forms of counter-conducts include examples of political parties with radical agendas, rejections of medical rationality through alternative cures, and insubordinations or desertion in war.8 And while in his later lectures Foucault goes on to discuss the ways in which the emerging governmentality of economic rationalization and calculability directs individuals towards certain types of conducts, he does not dwell on the explication of behaviors that would run counter to this form of conduction. Perhaps then, we can begin to apply this frame of counter-conducts to the contemporary context of the financialization of information to draw examples of behaviors and practices which might run counter to the economic rationalization of interests.

One example of a system of relations which does not find its principle of rationalization, structure of organization, or modes of relations within the neoliberal calculus of monetized investments and returns, or in relations reducible to consumption and production, is what can be loosely called the open-source community whose origins dates back to the early 1980s. In contrast to closed-access proprietary software distributed by corporations like Microsoft, open-source software is not only distributed free of charge without discrimination between users, but also the source code behind the software is made freely available and open to any kind of modifications. “Linux is subversive,” writes Eric Stevens Raymond, author of an article which led to the formation of the Open Source Initiative and which described the operating system stemming out of the collaborative efforts of “several thousand developers scattered all over the planet, connected only by the tenuous strands of the internet.”9 These individuals involved in the process of developing the wide array of freely distributed open-source software do not work for financial gains, rather they are involved in a mutual effort to continually improve and perfect software solutions. Free software is defined as “a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software,” and as “a matter of liberty, not price.”10 The open-source community sees itself as a communal effort rather than an industry, and instead of viewing relations in terms of producers and consumers, it considers its members, developers, and users who contribute to programming software as well as to reporting errors and debugging. Help and support for novice users is also available on community forums free of charge where more experienced users answer specific questions.

Another example of what could be considered counter-conduct is that of online file sharing communities based around the exchange of a wide variety of content including books, music, films, and other forms of digital content. Files can be shared through centralized file-servers, file transfer protocols, or peer-to-peer networks. This practice dates back to the earliest days of the internet when Usenet was established at Duke University as a web-forum in 1979. As technological advances allowed better compression, a larger variety of content, and more storage and bandwidth, the sharing phenomenon grew exponentially and would soon come to be termed “piracy.” In the 1990s this became an especially controversial issue as sharing of mp3 files allowed copyrighted music content to be shared freely, digging into the profits of larger record labels. After a strain of massive lawsuits, legal action also began to be enforced in which users distributing content would be targeted at random by law enforcement agencies in order to set an example for other potential offenders. Presently, a wide range of copyrighted content is shared freely over the internet through both open, integrated forums, as well as closed communities.

While open-source is a community based development platform, file-sharing is more of an individually oriented activity. These practices are distinct and maintain their specificity. However, both these phenomena occur at the margins of the economy of online content and have their own interconnections, relays, and supports, and form circuits which are at once distinct from those of more conventional economic exchanges involving similar type of content. Though digital content is replicable, the legitimate providers of such material price these digital forms of content at values similar to the material costs of the physical versions of such content. For example, electronic versions of books are priced at the same price as bound printed books, even when a wide disparity in production costs might exist; similarly, music files are often sold at 99 cents a song, even though the individual tracks might be of different lengths, ranging from a few seconds to several minutes. Both open-source development and file-sharing can be considered to be forms of counter-conduct or cyber-resistance with respect to neoliberal economic rationality as they are motivated by a wide variety of reasons which do not necessarily pertain to specific economic modes of thinking. Rather some of the practices involved might not be entirely explainable through purely economic conceptions without stretching their limits.

Fine, would object the devil’s advocate. You describe these behaviors as counter-conducts, but do they not have their own in-built economic rationalities such as supply and demand of content and services, and do they not produce their own sets of utilities and satisfactions through the consumption of commodities? Then how are they different from the economic relations of the market which they are supposed to be going against?

While these phenomena may have some associations of exchange and while they may be producing some kind of productive value, they are distinct from the way the market economy functions. For example, the scattered set of developers contributing to the development of open-source content are not motivated toward production the same way in which market actors are in anticipation of a stream of income. As a hacker’s guide argues: “You gain status and reputation in it not by dominating other people, nor by being beautiful, nor by having things other people want, but rather by giving things away. Specifically, by giving away your time, your creativity, and the results of your skill.”11 The idea of this gift-giving culture runs counter to the income-oriented marketized rationalities which tend to dominate commercial activity.

Moreover, the dynamics of the production process of open-source software are not directed by a mode of competition between suppliers vying for a larger share of a market. Instead it is an intricate network of collaboration and coordination where tasks are divided and taken up by developers across the world according to complex techniques of project management in which the goal is not profit maximization, but the perfectibility of a common resource that is freely available. The producers of these information goods instead find their satisfaction precisely through making these goods available to all, free of cost. The users in turn play their part and prove beneficial to the process as a whole by contributing to the testing and debugging phases through valuable feedback in real-time. Also, file-sharing communities can mostly be divided into two groups of users: “servers” and “leechers” which are distinct and not co-dependent on each other. Some servers are set up on a preferential basis where they grant quicker access or allocate more spots in their sharing queues for servers, however most of them don’t discriminate and allow leechers to download content as well, regardless of how much they share. By doing so they are creating more access points for further sharing to take place and are contributing to their common cause. Supply of content here is not dictated by demand, there is no such linkage creating some veridictional equilibrium, it is a simple coincidence of interests which makes such exchanges possible.

All that is well and good, but are these digital forms of content not infinitely replicable through copying and duplication? Wouldn’t these be classified as free goods that have no economic value beyond the investment made in their production or initial acquisition? How does sharing such information constitute a logic that runs counter to traditional market relations?

Digital content may be regenerated indefinitely, but users who set up file-servers on sharing communities are actually investing their own limited resources of storage space and bandwidth, not to mention their time and efforts of organizing large libraries of information and meticulously documenting their contents for no end other than to make the content they themselves enjoy available for access by others sharing a common interest; regardless of whether they are servers or leechers. In addition, people who participate in sharing content are also taking part in illegal activity which may be punishable under law, in this regard they are actually undertaking a real economic risk which may or may not be rationally equated to the utility they might be deriving by offering their vast libraries of content and making themselves vulnerable to legal action.

Further, content sharing isn’t simply limited to material that might already exist in the real economy. Many artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers etc. make the products of their creative activity available for free acquisition as part of affiliations like the Creative Commons. This free provision of creative products should in no way suggest that the work has no intrinsic value; the material could very well be sold on the market for some kind of monetary compensation. Instead creative collaborators and those that want to offer their ideas free of charge participate in these alternate modes of licensing often share a common belief for the free availability of information and creative goods. For instance, volunteers for free information initiatives, like Project Gutenberg, dedicate hours of their time to documenting and transcribing texts with expired licenses into digital textual and audio formats so that they may be made available for acquisition and exchange to everyone.

Also, one shouldn’t dismiss the efforts of development teams that work on programming, testing, and debugging large swaths of coding. Rather than wasting their efforts, they are investing their time and energy in projects which go largely uncompensated in monetary terms, and receive no real remuneration for their efforts other than the durability of the solutions they are working toward producing. In economic terms, the opportunity cost of the time and effort that they put into providing these free services might actually be calculated in material terms to imply a kind of negative utility. Actually these open-source developers happen to be reinvesting their own human capital, acquired through real economic investments in their skills and abilities, toward ends that don’t produce immediately realizable economic incentives but simply the combined expression of a shared belief through creating functionalities that are equal to, if not better than, their propriety enterprise counterparts.

This is all very well, but aren’t corporations cutting costs, for example, by taking advantage of open-source software products? Aren’t these activists being incorporated into precisely the structures they stand against? And aren’t some of the people you claim are resisting might simply be serving their own narrow interests? Then, how are these forms of cyber-resistance actually attacking the thing that they are countering, if in fact they are even attacking it at all?

No doubt, the convergence of arbitrary self-interested behaviors like massive sharing of mp3 files might have led to the collapse of the once-towering record industry for instance, but certainly new forms have come to take its place in this digital age. Foucault describes counter-conducts as “much more diffuse and subdued forms of resistance,”12 and there need not be a necessary intentionality of resistance or attack toward a specific object in mind. In fact the individuals or groups engaging in counter-conducts may not even be aware that they are doing so while being involved in the activity. This is not what this category hinges on, rather these actions are termed counter-conducts precisely because they are not revolts in the strong sense of the word. They also are not misconducts, where this would refer to “not conducting oneself properly”; they are counter-conducts.13 And they are termed as such precisely because they go counter to a certain kind of rationality, a certain kind of direction, whereby behaviors of individuals are conducted towards certain generalizable ends by an overseeing power which seeks to manage or govern them in a reflected, calculating, and calculable manner. They embody a passive resistance, not through the intentionality of directing themselves against this power, rather through the conduction of their own behavior toward alternate ends; they run counter to the underlying logic of this kind of power. Further, they are not forms of attack from outside the specificity of this power, rather they resist from within from the margins and the peripheries of what constitutes this power insofar as they are conducted counter to it.

Historically, what Foucault discussed as the counter-conducts to pastoral power formed kinds of counter-societies expressing the exact opposite of the existing hierarchy, which led to the great revolts that allowed the social fissures and ruptures that caused the pastorate to burst open. These peripheral practices weren’t a mainstay part of Christian theology, and only over a period were “continually re- utilized, re-implanted, and taken up again” by the Church, and it is this back-and-forth struggle between conduction and counter- conduction which “finally result[s] in the explosion of the Reformation, of the great religious crisis of the sixteenth century.” Most certainly things don’t end here, for the Church comes back as a top-heavy institution after reincorporating these very disparate themes through the Counter Reformation.14 So, it is not the case that there is a power which then faces a revolt and is disseminated, and then somehow liberation is set free to take its course. No, this is certainly not the end. In fact, for Foucault, history doesn’t have a final end, and is fundamentally devoid of any underlying logic. According to him, history takes the form of struggle, of a continuation of war; of course there are struggles and lines of battle that are drawn and which continually have to be re-drawn.15 There are strategies and there are tactics, then, on both sides, which need to go through constant readjustments with reference to each other. There are continuous battles and there is constant war; freedom within this is a fragile space of privilege which needs to be negotiated and renegotiated through hard-won, all-too-fleeting victories which may never last too long.

11 Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France, 1978-1979, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

2 Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France, 1977-1978, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

3 Ibid., 71.

4 Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, 218.

5 Ibid., 225-226.

6 Ibid., 229-230.

7 Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 194-95.

8 Ibid., 198-99.

9 Eric Steven Raymond, Homesteading the Noosphere, Revision 1.2 (10 April 1998); accessed: 05/15/11; available from: http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/homesteading/cathedral-bazaar/.

10 GNU Operating System, “What is Free Software?” (2010); accessed 05/15/11; available from: http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html.

11 Eric Steven Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Revision 1.1 (21 May 1997); accessed: 05/15/11; available from: http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar/index.html.

12 Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 200.

13 Ibid., 201.

14 Ibid., 215.

15 Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings, 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 114.