SMOKERS’ CORNER: THE AGE OF PSYCHOPOLITICS

Published May 26, 2024
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

There’s a consistent pattern with vlogs and podcasts on YouTube. The more they succeed in finding larger audiences, the more they become about the persons that host them. The more this happens, the more they begin to sound like self-therapy sessions. 

Nevertheless, the comments section is not always a very pleasant place and can seriously disrupt the self-therapy exercise. And then this happens: the hosts announce that they are ending their vlog/podcast because they have become disillusioned. However, more often than not, they then quickly bounce back after being ‘encouraged by the fans.’

This doesn’t happen all the time, but it is quite widespread. Increasingly, there’s also another outcome: a podcaster or vlogger switches sides after noticing that eulogising a particular ideology or personality — which they were previously criticising — can bag more views and subscribers. So, they conveniently flip.

Recently, some vloggers in Pakistan, who were once critical of a populist politician, suddenly switched sides to support him. The switch saw a manifold increase in views, ‘likes’ and subscriptions to their YouTube channels. But they rationalised the switch by insisting that they were simply on the side of democracy and free media, and were always ‘anti-establishment’ — entirely sheepish stuff. 

While psychopolitics is designed to make us feel empowered and liberated, it also makes us into digital commodities and enslaves us to our emotions

Such observations can be better understood through the works of a most astute philosopher, Byung-Chul Han. Han is a South Korean cultural theorist, who is stationed as a professor of philosophy in Berlin. He is often perceived to be a recluse of sorts.

Yet, in 2017, his book The Burnout Society quickly became an important read. It explores the human condition in an era in which, supposedly, an individual has multiple opportunities to attain economic liberation, independence and freedom of expression, and to avoid the trappings of the conventional capitalist system. 

According to Han, from the 1990s onwards, societies began being governed by “psychopolitics”, after the demise of what the French philosopher Michel Foucault had called “biopolitics”. Foucault had used ‘biopolitics’ to mean modes of controlling the human body to bolster the economics of modernity. Modernity required physical labour to fulfil its hefty manufacturing/industrial projects. To sustain this, modernity often applied ways to regulate, discipline and, if need be, punish the human body. 

However, to Han, biopolitics became a thing of the past when major economies entered the ‘post-industrial age.’ The space left behind by the retreat of industrialisation and manufacturing was occupied by the expanding service industries. This outcome was the product of ‘neoliberalism’, which softened the disciplinarian and regulative forms of 20th century capitalism with a more appealing and ‘inclusive’ form that was suited to the service industries.

Neoliberalism posited itself as a system in which the individual’s talents and wants were not hampered by overt state regulations and restrictions. People were encouraged to freely use their minds in the most creative manner to accumulate wealth. Neoliberalism looked to free the individual from the clutches and gaze of the state. Such claims proved to be mighty appealing to many — especially to people whose economic and social activities were becoming increasingly tied to the internet. 

Han, however, turns the resultant reality of the claims on its head. He asks: if indeed neoliberalism opened a whole new era of economic, political and social freedoms, then why has there been a continual increase in incidents and cases of mental illnesses? And I ask: why then is democracy facing serious challenges from demagogic populism and other strands of authoritarian politics? 

Social media sites had insisted that they had introduced “direct democracy”, which cannot be regulated or repressed by the bad old state. The sites proudly own the fact that they are businesses, but add that they have created opportunities for their users to monetise their own ventures through the sites, using an array of digital tools.

To Han, however, all such talk is basically hogwash. Because, if biopolitics were a tool to control, regulate and even punish the body in an economy that was dependent on physical labour, then neoliberal economies driven by the service industries and digital technologies are being navigated by ‘psychopolitics’ that governs minds and emotions.

A free society in neoliberalism’s context means a society not of citizens, but of consumers. On the internet, for example, people consume products shaped from notions such as ‘free speech’/unregulated expression and emotions, which supposedly lead to social, political and individual freedoms. Since most of this takes place on the internet, it is thus, apparently, taking place away from the ‘dictatorial’ gaze of the state.

It makes people feel that they have become masters of their own destiny when, in fact, they themselves become commodities. Their online interactions are digitally designed to become products that can be monetised. And these, ironically, include products that are pitched against capitalism, oppression and the evil establishment. 

This is the brilliance of neoliberalism and the psychopolitics that fortifies it. Whereas biopolitics wanted to govern the body, psychopolitics governs the mind and emotions. And it does this in a most subtle manner. In the online paradigm governed by psychopolitics, one can become whatever one wants to or, at least, how one wants others to perceive them: romantic, passionate, outraged, etc. 

One can also shape oneself as a consumer brand, positioning oneself as conservative, liberal, leftist, woke, anti-woke, extrovert, introvert, pro-Ukraine, anti-Russia, pro-Palestine, anti-Israel, et al — a human brand that can be monetised, or at least get an ego boost. 

The moment we decide to share our ‘thoughts’ and feelings in vlogs, or on Facebook, Instagram and X, we begin to be governed by psychopolitics. It is designed to make us feel empowered, liberated and purposeful. But to Han, these feelings are quickly followed by feelings of anxiety, depression and other inconvenient mental issues — a kind of hubris.

To Han, the state does not govern people the way it once used to. Thanks to the internet, people have started to govern themselves. They have become their own masters. But in doing so, they have also become their own slaves. Slaves to wants that are quietly ingrained in their minds by that (rather slippery) champion of ‘freedom’: psychopolitics.

A famous slogan by the American conceptual artist Jenny Holzer comes to mind: “Protect Us From What We Want.” What one wants is not necessarily what one actually needs. This realisation is actual freedom, or a freedom that is not steered or compelled by psychopolitics.

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 26th, 2024

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