In a famous essay, Deleuze suggests that our society has moved beyond Foucauldian disciplinary power to a more fluid “control society,” where the various sites of disciplinary control merge into a modulated network of interlocking sites of power, the primary technique of which is access control. As Deleuze notes, the move is “dispersive,” and “the factory has given way to the corporation.” Hence, “the family, the school, the army, the factory are no longer distinct analogical spaces that converge towards an owner – state or private power – but coded figures – deformable and transformable – of a single corporation that now has only stockholders.” (6) The most vivid image of such a society he attributes to Guattari, who:
“has imagined a city where one would be able to leave one’s apartment, one’s street, one’s neighborhood, thanks to one’s (dividual) electronic card that raises a given barrier; but the card could just as easily be rejected on a given day or between certain hours; what counts is not the barrier but the computer that tracks each person’s position – licit or illicit – and effects a universal modulation” (7)
This thesis has been most widely applied to surveillance and security and is easily evidenced by things like NSA “don’t fly” lists and the number of passwords one has to generate online. That said, I would like to suggest here that, at least in one respect, we’re moving past the control society. Or, perhaps, we’re seeing the truth of the control society in an unexpected way. One feature of the move from the dungeon to the panopticon is regulatory efficiency: it costs a lot less to get people to police themselves than to coerce them with brute force. The move to control is similarly efficient in that multiple, closed panoptic systems are much less efficient than a more modular arrangement where panoptic technologies are (as Foucault said they would be) completely diffused into society and work together, rather than separately.
What we see now is that control itself is economically inefficient, because it misses an opportunity for accumulation. Capitalism is not about denying access to something you want; it’s about extracting resources from you as a cost for getting access. This isn’t just a point about desire; it’s also a logical consequence of complete subsumption: if there is no outside to capital, then it makes no sense to say that anyone is ever really denied access. From an economic point of view, such control-as-denial always involves deadweight loss of social value in that there are those who would like access, and for whom access would be socially efficient in some way, but who get locked out by control mechanisms that are insensitive to how much those people really, really want access.
What does this mean? It means that waiting as a technique to modulate access is the step after control. In a recent piece on Alternet, Michael Bader reminds us of the staggering amount of time we spend waiting for non-responsive corporate entities; the “your call is important to us” messages that we hear when on hold are the paradigmatic example. All this waiting presents an opportunity. As Deleuze repeatedly pointed out, capitalism is also characterized by its ability to create striations and stratifications. The system could thus be expected to produce indefinitely many versions of access, with immediate access on one end of the spectrum, and endless waiting on the other.
Such a continuum presents a good example of price discrimination. Price discrimination will be best-known to most of us from the purchase of airline tickets. Want to fly tomorrow? Well, then you’ll need to pay a lot. Willing to buy a non-refundable ticket? That can save you some money. Willing to buy way in advance? Good, that can save you too. Did you buy that cheap-o, non-refundable ticket three months ago? It’s never too late to upgrade! Want an aisle seat near the front? It’s only $68 more! As far as the airline is concerned, each ticket needs to be priced at exactly the amount the customer is willing to pay. Anything less presents lost revenue for the carrier because the customer would have been willing to pay more than she did. Anything more also presents lost revenue for the carrier because the customer wouldn’t have bought the ticket (but somebody else might: hence the airlines also limit the number of tickets available at certain price points).
Price discrimination, in other words, is a textbook example of the neoliberal theory that the best way to organize markets is by the price mechanism, where individuals signal how much they value something by their willingness to pay. As a general matter, you offer superior products to those willing to pay for them, and inferior ones to those who want the product but aren’t willing to pay for the superior one. Two things we know about the price mechanism are that it systemically favors “productive” claimants over “consumptive” ones, and that it also systematically favors rich consumptive users over poor ones. Let’s take the second point first. Wait time becomes something that can be priced; the less you want to wait, the more you pay. Tired of waiting in traffic? Pay a toll to drive solo in the HOV lane! Tired of waiting on hold? Use our convenient online site! Tired of waiting for this blog post to load? Upgrade to faster internet! Tired of waiting to see your doctor? Buy a concierge plan! Of course, the poor don’t have personalized physicians, good broadband internet, or the cash to pay extra to drive solo in the HOV lane, and so they are disfavored and made to wait longer and for more things than the rich.
And how does waiting favor productive claimants over consumptive ones? As Bader points out, our corporate overlords could easily deliver better, more timely service to everyone. But they’d have to spend more money, which would ultimately result in a lower shareholder value. There are all kinds of reasons why short-term shareholder gain is a terrible metric for evaluating business performance, but here just note that it serves as the ultimate prioritization of the “productive” investor (not even wasting time with commodities; our shareholders are realizing M-M’ as the fundamental rule of finance capital), whose ROI is systematically prioritized over all the consumptive users who have to wait for their returns.
So this is the hypothesis: although we have grown accustomed to thinking about how contemporary capitalism is based on making everything move faster, capitalism also wants to force you to slow down, in order to then let you self-select into stratifications based on your willingness to pay to speed back up. We are moving into a please-hold iteration of control. Slowing down isn’t always going to be resistant (though Spandau Ballet might), because it’s also a form of primitive accumulation: you are dispossessed of either your time or your money to an equilibrium point where you’re either priced out or unwilling to pay more to go faster. That is, control is about modulation, and the lie that “we are experiencing an unexpectedly high call volume” is a perfect example.