[iDC] More on Peak Biopower

Martin Lucas mlucas at igc.org
Fri Jul 10 17:04:22 UTC 2009

Peak Biopower

In a recent post I postulated a potential counter-force to the  
incorporation of humanity into the global market, into the states  
that support it, a force of consciousness.  My thinking was based on  
the idea that in the same way that the global ecology is  
understandable as a closed system, where resources are being depleted  
(hence the petroleum analogy) so we could understand that there are a  
diminishing number of human beings who have not yet been incorporated  
into modern regimes of economic participation, and the kind of  
hegemonic control it uses.  In the previous post I said, “Haven’t we  
reached a point where that biopower reserve is starting to shrink?”

I also postulated a role for the variety of ‘new media’ technologies,  
many of them centered around the cellphone, as the main route to a  
connection to a global information network for an increasingly large  
percentage of the world’s population.  If one imagines that linking  
to that network, with its various capabilities for sharing text,  
images, and audio-visual material is something like access to a  
public sphere, then there is the possibility that that participation  
is ‘political’.  Since the discussion thread had roots in a  
discussion of the ‘Twitter Revolution’ in Iran, this is a reasonable  

One of the questions that the notion of peak biopower opens up is  
that of class consciousness, or at least political consciousness.   
There are several other key questions I think.  Does capitalism need  
a biopower reserve, a kind of ‘consciousness standing reserve’  in  
the same way that it needs a ‘reserve army of the unemployed’ and a  
natural resource reserve to be able to function?  Another question  
that seems key to me is one around categorization, algorithms and  
notions of the political.

Jodi Dean on another thread refers to efforts around ICT’s and  
education in the third world which seem to be ‘a factory for  
producing the subjects of communicative capitalism.’  I cant say that  
is not happening.  I referred to experiences I had, specifically  
working with an NGO with communications technologies in Africa.  But  
what I am seeing is more self-organized effort and choices. I don’t  
think these can be condemned out of hand, and what is more, it is  
possible that those subjects will be resistant ones.  Jodi also notes  
in the Recursive Publics thread, “Whether or not people take  
advantage of these publics to develop counter-hegemonic discourses  
and new political powers is uncertain, it’s not implied by the form  
of the technology, but it is enabled by it.”

I do suggest that capitalism will have big problems operating in a  
world where a majority of humanity is organized in this way, a way  
that puts larger and larger numbers of people in the position of  
market, audience, and ‘produser’  My thought is that publics will  
emerge, often from unexpected places.  Here is an excerpt of a story  
about a government mandated plan for inserting readable ID chips in  
all cattle in the US:

“ Rebellion on the Range Over a Cattle ID Plan”  (Erik Eckholm, NYT  
June 28, 2009)

My main beef is that these proposed rules were developed by people  
sitting in their offices with no real knowledge of animal husbandry  
and small farms,” said Genell Pridgen, an owner of Rainbow Meadow  
Farms in Snow Hill, N.C., which rotates sheep, cattle, pigs, turkeys  
and chickens among three properties and sells directly to consumers  
and co-ops. “I feel these regulations are draconian,” Ms. Pridgen  
said, “and that lobbyists from corporate mega-agribusiness designed  
this program to destroy traditional small sustainable agriculture.”

Paul Hamby, owner of Hamby Dairy Supply in Maysville, Mo., and a  
vocal opponent of the plan, said, “It is very much an economic and  
class warfare issue. Fifty years ago,” Mr. Hamby said, “hundreds of  
thousands of farms raised hogs, and now very few players have control  
of the market. I believe one of the reasons for this plan is to  
consolidate the cattle industry.”

In other words, these are people who if one is categorizing by class  
might be small business people, petit bourgeoisie, or farmers, who  
define themselves in terms of class conflict --  a new kind of  
conflict that is very much part of the information age.  The article  
suggests very much that they see the chip ID plan as being applied to  
people next.  A key point is that these people represent the tiny  
percentage of American agriculture which is not beholden to  
agribusiness.  This is central, in the sense that they represent in  
some way an emerging ‘mode of production’ and this gives them a  
position in some way outside the corporate mode that controls most of  
US agriculture and (although with increasingly diminished success)  
food politics.

The other part of the Peak Biopower thesis is that these two  
movements, one of a world where peasants are disappearing and the  
other where global ecology is threatened are related; both affect  
global capitalism.  I believe that capitalism as a system is one that  
must be buffered to work.  It needs to be a subset of a larger world.

As reserves dwindle, the chaotic aspect of the system gets more  
so.    I used the analogy of ‘peak oil’  with its extreme price  
volatility, but we have seen the same thing with many many  
commodities recently.  The other side of this coin is that as more  
and more esoteric derivative financial instruments are developed for  
a broader and broader variety of commodities the chaos increases as  
well. In fact, the US government is actually planning a “crack down”  
on futures trading.  “U.S. Considers Curbs on Speculative Trading of  
Oil”,  NYT July 8, 2009.

On the Cusp of Shared Volition

To quote from Sean Cubitt’s post:

  “If we understand the standing-reserve as biopolitical and  
commodifying, we can add some terms: it concerns averages, and it  
concerns whole-number enumeration.  It thus misses both the  
specificity and the ’starting’ micro-conditions and so opens itself  
up to cascading chaotic and emergent structures in spite of itself.”

Chaos theory isn’t a modality of the state, as far as I, a non- 
mathematician, can tell. Mandlebrot started with cotton prices.   
Lorenz with weather patterns. It can be used also to predict orbits  
in three body systems.  Anyway, we’re talking about situations that  
are deterministic (and not completely random).

More significant for systems of control, or at least of management,  
is the search algorithm.  The current state of the art offers us, as  
users/consumers more and more sophisticated algorithms, which will  
identify our future behavior based on our past practice.  It is  
interesting because it derives information from a more active  
relationship than classic statistics, combining the large numbers of  
surveys with the pinpoint accuracy of focus groups and other  
marketing tools.  And of course, the use of algorithms is billed as a  
service to the customer.  You can imagine yourself as a well of  
subjectivity.  That subjectivity  is the final gold mine of  
capitalism in a country like the the US that has been heavily  
exploited for market potential.

Modern electoral politics are built around demographics,  issues and  
statistical assumptions.  They are also built around internet-based  

No matter how these systems function, however, they are not politics  
imagined as a liberatory moment of action.  However, while the  
algorithm is still not politics, it might occupy the indeterminate  
edge where politics meet systems of control.   Somewhere on the other  
side of the border might be people using Twitter to organize street  
demos as in Teheran.

Algorith as Capitalist Utopia

The statement behind the algorithm would have to go something like  
this:  It is possible to organize a global economy along capitalist  
lines.  We will make markets as free as possible and organize  
production and distribution by using new internet tools to arrange  
the production and distribution of goods in such a way that the  
desires of consumers are linked painlessly and effortlessly to the  
productive capacities of global industry.

My suggestion here is that as the system gets more organized and  
gains predictive power, it will become more chaotic, and less able to  
prevent the kind of chaos it seeks to avoid.

In terms of governance, the 21st century state cannot capture  
volition, although information management tools allow it to get close.

I think that the arrival of ‘peak biopower’ means more extensive  
(extensively brutal and extensively sophisticated) efforts at global  
control and management.  I also believe that it is a moment we have  
to engage with.

Marty Lucas
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