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Step 66: Cybernetics & Capitalism

Cybernetics & Capitalism

Regulating a system means moderating excessive energies. Is capitalism moderating not only our desires but our rebellions as well?

By applying self-regulation theory (or cybernetic “circular causality”) we see how feedback requires a change (or correction) to maintain a steady state. When we protest and rebel, are we just offering feedback on how capitalism should alter itself to maintain its dominance? Then perhaps the answer to how to break capitalism comes from its manipulations of us: we can use the excess desire and rage to refuse participation, rather than increasing our consumptive misery.

Note: there are references to earlier podcasts on the 1-dimensional man and artificial negativity as well as our previous podcast on Circular oppositions.


part 1: cybernetics
machines, feedback, and cascades

part 2: one-dimension of capital
Consumerism’s false needs, subjecting justice to capital

part 3: deterritorialization
Deleuze and Guattari, positive/negative energy, decoding the regulation valves

part 4: reterritorialization
immediate recapture, mark fisher, refusal as lack of feedback


Step 66: Cybernetics & Capitalism

PART 1: Cybernetics

machines, feedback, cascades

Wiki-fun-Fact of the day: Cybernetics was originally dubbed “the art of self-governance” by Plato in the Republic. While they applied CYBERNETICS to the self and government in ancient times, most examples given today are of machine devices that self-regulate, the first being a water clock, and now we have engines with governors that can balance extreme forces for steady operation.   So, in short, Cybernetic machines stabilize themselves, without the need for external fiddling.

An example is a thermostat in your house regulating temperature: it senses the current temperature and reacts to maintain a steady environment.   Another type is a steam engine with a release valve when the pressure gets too high, or else the tank explodes. 

Norbert Weiner

Cybernetics as a thing was developed in the 1940’s by many people, but most notably Norbert Wiener. 

The timeline is important: post-WWI into WW2, where you had the prominence of the Frankfurt school of philosophers, they were in the midst of chaos: industrialization and ballooning capitalism caused havoc (such as the Great Depression) and on the global and governmental side, we have the devastation of WWI, increasing racism and nationalism, and the outbreak of Fascism.  So, yeah, amplifying chaos and pressure, and the need for regulation, so it is only natural they would look to machines as a model. 

The human regulates itself, such as moderating temperature to stay in homeostasis, but also in psychological terms of repression and release. In a machinic way, the input/output can be moderated and seen as cause/effect. This is reductionist, but it helps as a model when you consider how a machine must balance itself, much less when applied to a supply/demand economy.

The term cybernetics comes from “circular causality” where they talk about steering a ship and the need to continue reacting, which reminds us of our last episode, step 65, on the circular path of opposing antagonisms, described as points move around a circle reacting to each to maintain a deadlocked dance. It is dynamic, but it also provides a balanced steady state, despite its extremes. 

Of course, the more complex a system, that is the more variables at play, fluctuations can be masked as other elements react to them. So we don’t see the problem systemwide until a tipping point is hit, and from there it is a cascade of failures, which is exponential breakage. The whole point of a complex system is to buffer and regulate small changes so we don’t have a catastrophe. 

Step 66: Cybernetics & Capitalism

PART 2: One-Dimension of Capital

Marcuse’s repressive tolerance and false needs, subjecting justice to capital

Looking at Herbert Marcuse’s one-dimensional man concept, written in the 1960s, is all about the pervasiveness of consumerism shaping our lives until we lose the spirit to rebel. We can (in cybernetic terms) see that industrial capitalism produces a surplus, like extra steam threatening to explode the system, and so it must be put to use or diverted: the system must manage its excess. Enter consumerism.

Marcuse says capitalism reshapes our desire so we crave these surpluses, these “false needs”: we chase and accumulate them for social standing (that is social production as opposed to material production).

Don’t get him wrong: We may have individual natural desires for these items, but capitalism operates beyond sufficiency, beyond survival, but ironically this capitalism-enhanced excessive desire leads to monetizing basic survival. The contradiction is that the desire for excess and accumulation provokes poverty (and burning through resources) in the midst of overabundance: this is the society we produce and maintain through consumption. 

Marcuse says Capitalism short-circuits our “natural desires” or “natural repressions” into “surplus desire” or “surplus repressions”.

In this excessive desiring state, capitalism is the one-dimensionality Marcuse speaks of: it is an all-encompassing, re-shaping, and short-circuiting way of living where no alternative transcends the logic of capitalism.  

Capitalism is the ultimate justification we are subjected to. 

To give this some relatability:  Adam Kotsko says, people now argue that “workplace diversity enhances productivity,” which it may do, but the real plea of diversity is for “justice.”  We should want justice even if it comes at the cost of economic productivity.  But, in the capitalist system, under one-dimensional cybernetic management, all goals are re-inscribed, made subject to, and “translated” into the rules of capitalism. 

That is, we describe the “value of justice” in terms of productivity.  We make it into a value-add sales pitch. Which -of course- negates the plea for justice to a subsidiary of capitalism.  It makes justice something you want, but to get it you have to kneel to its abuser. 

In this way, any negativity towards capitalism is negated: it negates itself in its attempt to be taken seriously, be heard, or be implemented in our socially normalized capitalist society. 

This is how humans are re-written: the one-dimensional man is the product of a one-dimensional cybernetic management structure. This captialist totalization is the co-optation of all values under one perspective, one-dimension.

Step 66: Cybernetics & Capitalism

PART 3: Deterritorialization 

Deleuze and Guattari, positive/negative energy, decoding management

Somewhere in the seventies and eighties [[Deleuze and Guattari]] started turning out these really bizarre and exciting philosophical books, such as [[anti-oedipus]] and [[one thousand plateaus]], which in the mid-90s were required reading for any artist. I didn’t read them, but in school, I could not avoid terms like rhizome, and deterritorialization. 

In layman’s terms, the rhizome is a grass-like flat spreading rather than an arboreal, tree-like central hierarchy, which has profound implications for how we consider the world. Coming from feudalism and hierarchy, many of our structures are still top-down, not decentralized, but grasping the unique qualities of a lack of center or hierarchy is staggering. 

And Deterritorialization is *shockingly* the opposite of territorialization… but being philosophy it is not quite that simple. Much of their philosophy was influenced by cybernetic theory, so we will map the terms over.

Deleuze and Guattari were thinking in terms of processes and flows rather than static events and linear cause/effect. In cybernetic theory, the forces that modulated the dynamic system were called positive and negative energies.   Principally, you needed regulation valves (negatives) to balance out positive energy: positive energy tended to spiral out of control as exuberance and could explode the entire system. 

  • example: the steam in a steam engine was positive, or a riot in the street is positive energy, even if fed by rage (considered a negative emotion). 

Our cry for “justice” is Marcuse’s “organic negativity” against the system, that is it stems from within not from the goals of the system, so it is an alternative to the one-dimension of capital. But in cybernetic terms, the desire for justice is positive energy that must be managed, regulated, or diverted, lest it explodes the capitalist system or weakens the regulation valves.

Deleuze and Guattari considered territorialization as the negative (the confining or restraining force, the governor) that limited unchecked expansion. (This could be social norms or religious values.) This meant that to break or decode the system you would “deterritorialize” this management of checks and balances. Once the regulation is weakened, the pent-up desires would spin up the energies to break, decode, or attain release. The now “deterritorialized” was no longer identified or constrained by the limitations (or territory) previously imposed upon it. 

And naturally, you could see how imperialism and colonialism were “territorialization” through capitalist goals to contain while pilfering and exploiting the positive energies of an area or culture.  Control, manage, extract.  The same could be said of women: they are territorialized, and to deterritorialize is to break the frame attempting to contain or define you. 

So, why don’t we just break capitalist desire and management bureaucracy? Just spin up the positive energy baby, even if that means ugly vibes, let’s just rage against the machine!

Step 66: Cybernetics & Capitalism

PART 4: Reterritorialization + Refusal

As you know, that rage, that positive energy of breaking has been attempted before, and yet capitalism and management hierarchies still survive. 

The glorious predicted future of the Marxist Revolution has never arrived comrades.  Given the weight of capitalism’s contradictions, its surplus growth, and the alienation and estrangement of people, it just seemed like it would break itself or be overthrown from a purely moral standpoint. 

What mechanisms (cybernetic regulation system) maintain capitalism?

We might consider that our rage automatically establishes a binary of opposites.  This shifts things into good/evil black/white us/them, a game if you will, which captures our attention and somehow prevents us from moving beyond or through a duality.  We get stuck on the level of the binary, where we have positive energies, but they are contained and managed, limited, and used by the system… they are looping around and around, never breaking free, perhaps even empowering the capitalist machine.

Something to consider is how concepts play out in negating, or castrating, positive energies. For instance, repressive tolerance is a catch-22. To demand tolerance is to be repressive of others, a contradictory double-bind where our own Energies are inverted against us. 

Adjustments within the cybernetic system of capitalism and management allow for change (capitalism actually thrives on deregulation), so you will see change happen, but the system is dynamically and slyly balancing your new freedoms against new exploitations: maybe half the world away somebody else is paying for the cost of your newly granted freedom. And the simplistic danger of every victory invokes a NIMBY cost elsewhere, which implies you are morally bound not to act: ultimate neutering. 

Beyond the deterritorialization of Deleuze and Guattari, Mark Fisher says we have a system that immediately “reterritorializes” the deterritorialization. The positive energies we spin up as we break/decode the management system (or ideological framework) are used immediately by capitalism/management to regulate itself. That is, when the pressure is too high the system allows the deterritorialization in order to learn to re-calibrate and become more anonymous, but also -insidiously- it immediately captures, disperses, and offers a capitalist solution to your new autonomy. 

  • (For example, deregulating ((deterritorializing)) markets produce excess energies, but it is not stabilized, which leads to hoarding, fear, and social production and disparity, which implies chaos unless there is a value system that somehow channels (normalizes) the excessive abundance. I’m not an economist, but Bataille says war is one of these channels.)

In a disheartening fashion, our attacks and rebellious spirit, better show the chinks that capitalism is in need of shoring up. As discussed previously in the forms of Elvis and Che Guevara, the rebellion becomes a slogan that becomes a fashion statement: a flattened aesthetic of rebellion.  Politics as pictures has become a management tactic. 

  • As an aside, Walter Benjamin said that Fascism is “aesthetics as politics.” Once again, a flattening simulacrum where the appearance is more real, more vibrantly vital, than the original motivating values or cause. 

This is depressing, and before we move into the light, let’s consider some more unhelpful theories to map out our challenge a bit better.

Thomas Hobbes says way back in 1651 in the Leviathan he can’t see a path from the current system to the future world envisaged, the one that solves state control mechanisms, without a complete reset. 

Karl Marx predicts a future that can only come after the revolution, essentially we have to break the value system to enter a paradigm where the values of comradely care and morality can survive. 

There is a gap, a void between where we are and the place (the utopia) we can imagine, even theoretically structure. As we discussed the last episode, that gap itself is vital to our understanding: the utopia is always placed on an unreachable far shore in the distant future.   It requires an insane leap, but a leap over an impossible gap. 

 It is not the right or left antagonism we should focus on: they have been captured, and duped by their own contrary versions of utopia fueled by either more individual or collective capitalism.

Our goal is by exposing the apparatus we not only make transparent the folly but clear a path described by the left and right’s divisive excess. 

Piccone, from Step 64, said we need Marcuse’s “organic negativity”… which is a set of principles beyond the reach of capitalist logic which has the possibility to break or reorder the system. Piccone says everything inside capitalism is staged: it is “artificial negativity” or “staged simulations”. In cybernetic terms, the negative behavior (positive energy) is a huge steam whistle (feedback by a regulation valve) by which the system adjusts: by using the paths of the system (lobbying, voting, online reviews) we are simply providing feedback within the system, we are not deterritorializing. 

 Of course, the follow-up question to Piccone goes back to the utopia: Where can this “particular” organic evolution be nurtured, that is how can you slowly evolve an alternative set of values beyond the reach of capitalism? He thought it had to happen under state control, a bubble or void carved out by the state. Which sounds ludicrous, but I don’t know how else it is viably going to happen.

mark fisher

Interestingly, Mark Fisher discusses the movements of the youth carving out a bubble through participation in raves, and the spirit of avant-garde music to form collective solidarity outside of the controls… or maybe not outside, but under the radar of the major left/right antagonisms. It is creativity happening under the systemic co-optation of everything. 

Because not everything can be co-opted or captured. 

As Bataille says, society produces a surplus, and capitalism’s nature is to expand production, to increase that surplus. The system itself encourages overproduction. But perhaps, since capitalism harnesses desire, and stimulates it, perhaps we produce an uncapturable excess of libido, a surplus of desire that cannot be socially regulated. 

And might we even consider that coupled with the excessive repression generated by capitalism (that is how society attempts to channel our desires by repressing some to better release those that favor capitalism)? Wouldn’t the dynamic of excess repression invoke a disproportionate ressentiment

Interesting to consider: rather than rage against the machine and burn it all down, this drives solidarity of refusal, paradoxically birthed by the desire and rage the system programmed into us. 

It appears as malaise or apathy, it looks like aesthetics of non-participation.   Yet, non-compliance is hard for the system to co-opt: when you don’t scream out to the state to solve your problems how does the cybernetic state regulate itself? Non-action is zero feedback, a broken sensor, or a smashed camera.  It is a void, or a gap, in the all-encompassing totalization.

The narrative of passivity, laying fallow, is not exactly a superhero story, but it is a rebellion and a space to de-program the big other’s manipulations and machinations.

The next episode is on another means to break capitalism, which is the opposite of refusal: hyper-participation through Accelerationism.

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Adam Kotsko, “One-Dimensionality and the uses of Transcendance

Bataille, “The Accursed Share

Hebert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man

Herbert Marcuse: Repressive Tolerance

Mark Fisher, “Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?” (review article)

Acid Horizon, Ray Brassier on Herbert Marcuse’s ‘5 Lectures’

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