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Book review How psychopolitics is creating a society of absolute slavery

A new book gives a chilling insight into neoliberalism's insidious control of new technologies and its malign consequences, says ANDY HEDGECOCK

Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power
by Byung-Chul Han
(Verso, £9.99)

REFLECTING on the erosion of personal autonomy and political resistance, Byung-Chul Han’s latest book tackles the intersection of Big Data — the analysis of the ever-increasing volume of digital information to create value — and neoliberalism.

His previous work has explored a wide range of topics — Heidegger, Hegel, violence, erotic love, pop culture, self-exploitation, burnout, the corrosive effect of digital communication and the value of “lingering.”

So it’s no surprise that Psychopolitics is a polymathic stew of themes, ideas and philosophical approaches.

In it, Han suggests that capitalism is increasingly efficient in exploiting play, emotion and communication. By colluding in neoliberal monetisation of the aspects of life that make us free, and turning ourselves into self-exploiting entrepreneurs, we are creating a society based on absolute slavery, he asserts.

The notion of privacy is also at risk, due to a “dictatorship of transparency,” in which we watch each other via the “digital panopticon” of the internet.

The book is part of the Verso Futures series of essay length “interventions” in politics and philosophy and it’s to the credit of translator Erik Butler that such complex material is delivered in an economic and accessible style.

But the scope of the book proves a little overambitious for its 80-plus pages. In the first few chapters alone, Han tackles the development of new kinds of power, explains neoliberal domination through animal metaphors, entertains the notion of an electronic collective unconscious, considers the newly blurred lines between freedom and self-exploitation and unpicks the soul-destroying influence of the self-improvement industry.

Each segment is provocative and entertaining, but some are a little scanty in terms of explanation and context and the book would have benefited from a more thorough examination of the reasons for our devotion, in a quasi-religious sense, to our technology.

Themes are explored more fully in the second half of the book and, in one of the most interesting chapters, Han argues that Naomi Klein got it wrong with Shock Doctrine by overlooking the tendency for neoliberal psychopolitics to achieve domination by pleasing and fulfilling rather than repressing.

Other chapters consider the voluntary surveillance we expose ourselves to when using social media, the concept of “emotional capitalism” and its capacity to steer our behaviour, the pernicious co-opting of play into work and the reductive influence of powerful data analysis tools.

While some early chapters seem a little rushed and superficial, this is an informative introduction to the psychopolitical perspective and a timely exploration of the subtle manipulations of neoliberalism and its technologies.

 

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