Surveillance Capitalism Vs. The Surveillance State


John Gray is an emeritus professor of European thought at the London School of Economics. Previously, he was a professor of political thought at Oxford University and a visiting professor at Harvard and Yale.

The parallel movement toward universal surveillance in Eastern and Western societies reveals a remarkable convergence in thinking. For all the rise of populism, the United States and much of Europe continue to defer to ideals of individual rights and freedoms that derive from liberal thinkers such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Alongside official assertions of the uniqueness of Chinese civilization and the value of Confucian ethics, Chinese President Xi Jinping governs China by reference to ideas derived from the West.

In addition to the ideas of Karl Marx, those of the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham are echoed in official Chinese doctrine. Though the two are quite different thinkers, they are both committed to an Enlightenment project that elevates reason and progress over tradition and that condemns the communities of the past as closed, static, inefficient and repressive. Only by leaving them behind can humankind be truly emancipated and social wellbeing maximally promoted.

The paradoxical fact is that while East and West are devoted to Enlightenment ideas of human emancipation, they are in practice adopting similar systems of omnipresent surveillance. In each case, the logic of Enlightenment values has led to increased social control. This movement has accelerated owing to the threat posed by the coronavirus. The argument for surveillance has been given practical urgency by the need to monitor the health of the population and thereby protect it from infection.

In Western countries, globalization and rapid technological change have dissolved the communities that grew up around industrial centers in the past. As these communities have crumbled, the systems of informal monitoring by neighbors and peers that maintained order within them have ceased to be effective. High levels of labor mobility have had the same effect. A lifelong commitment to a single company, industry or vocation is nearly impossible when the division of labor is in continuous flux. Thus, neighborhoods and workplaces do not enforce norms of behavior through informal social controls to the extent they used to.

“The logic of Enlightenment values has led to increased social control.”

As a result, we are seeing an increased reliance on technologies of surveillance. For example, front-door cameras now protect homes from burglars, and internet-connected videos inform absent residents when packages are delivered and whether they are tampered with. Free to pursue our personal goals, we rely on machines to give us the security we took for granted when we worked and lived in functioning communities.

The irony is that Western capitalism is animated by an individualist ethic. It is no longer the superior productivity of capitalism in the West that is touted as its chief virtue. In many areas where China is forging ahead — machine learning and biotechnology, for example — such superiority can no longer be taken for granted. Instead, the advantage of Western capitalism is held to be its promotion of personal freedom. The dissolution of communities by turbocharged markets is not, in this view, a social cost but a positive gain. Liberated from attachment to any particular place, human beings in a post-industrial economy can become the autonomous individuals celebrated in liberal theory.

Of course, things have not quite worked out this way. As the late nineteenth-century French sociologist Émile Durkheim perceived, the flipside of free-floating autonomy is anomie — a society without any authoritative norms. Pried from closed communities, many people suffer from pathologies of isolation and purposelessness. Family breakdown, drug addiction and mental illness become widespread and increasingly normal. In these conditions of social disorder, surveillance technologies are surrogates for the communities Western capitalism has destroyed. Ubiquitous video cameras replace the prying eyes of neighbors. The price of individualism has proved to be the loss of privacy.

“Surveillance technologies are surrogates for the communities Western capitalism has destroyed.”

Here, China is not very different. Throughout the last century, social structures have been repeatedly shredded by events. The near-breakdown of the Chinese state under the pressures of local warlords and Japanese invasion, Mao’s ascent to power, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, together with vast population movements required by industrialization on a state-capitalist model, have razed traditional communities. It may have been this process of destruction that made possible the economic advance of the past several decades.

When John Stuart Mill attacked China for sinking into a condition of “stationariness” in his 1859 essay “On Liberty,” he revealed the limitations of his liberal philosophy. He attributed the progress of Western countries to the way they prized individuality. He warned that if it ceased to do so, Europe would “tend to become another China.”

It did not occur to him that an unprecedented period of economic progress could be a byproduct of war, anarchy and dictatorship. Western liberals who expect that China will eventually converge with Western liberal norms share Mill’s limited vision. They have also failed to notice the decline of these norms in the West.

“Ubiquitous video cameras replace the prying eyes of neighbors.”

As economic growth slows down, China today resembles Western countries facing a problem of social order. It has responded by creating a high-tech version of a system of surveillance envisioned by Bentham, a British utilitarian thinker who lived from 1748 to 1832. It is unclear whether China’s intellectual elite have studied Bentham with the attention they have given to other Western thinkers. But Bentham’s idea of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” is often cited in official discourse, and China’s creation of a social credit system (which punishes individuals if they deviate from norms of civic behavior) has many features in common with Bentham’s project of a universal Panopticon.

While the Panopticon is remembered as a plan for an ideal prison designed so that inmates would be under close observation at all times, Bentham intended it to be a model for social institutions of all kinds. Workhouses and factories and schools and hospitals were to be reconstructed on similar lines to facilitate omnipresent observation and behavior modification.

The goal of the Panopticon was to maximize social efficiency and general wellbeing. Personal freedom was not entirely sidelined, since Bentham allowed that where they were the best judges of their own interests, individuals could be left to their own devices. But liberty came behind collective goals in his utilitarian philosophy. In this regard, he was aligned with other Enlightenment thinkers of his day, who looked to intelligent despots to promote the cause of progress. Bentham himself made a long visit to Russia in the hope of converting the empress, Catherine the Great, to his ideas and implementing versions of the Panopticon project under her auspices.

Luke Guyer for Noema Magazine

Nothing came of his visit, but it is significant in showing that the Enlightenment values the West has exported to non-Western countries have not always been liberal. Though it may have acquired some distinctively Russian features, Lenin’s Bolshevism was recognized by him and others as continuing a current in Enlightenment thinking about democracy that went back to the French Jacobins. What Russia absorbed from the West were illiberal Enlightenment values.

The same is true of the system of universal surveillance being constructed at the present time in China. Like Bentham’s Panopticon, its goals are partly pedagogic. The social credit system not only enforces norms and punishes violations of them, it also teaches and instills them. The aim is to internalize them in the population until they become habitual. The purpose is not just to discipline the population but to remodel it. Here one can detect a point of continuity with the Maoist project. The end-point envisioned is a transformation of human psychology.

Many will describe this as a totalitarian project, and they are not mistaken. Since it involves punishment with no prospect of legal remedy, it blurs the distinction between state and society in a way definitive of totalitarian regimes. Attempting to remodel human subjects by the use of all-pervasive state power, it fits another key test of totalitarianism.

“The price of individualism has proved to be the loss of privacy.”

At the same time, the Chinese experiment in surveillance is not altogether different from those being undertaken or contemplated in the West. Many major Western companies are using new technologies to monitor and punish behavior they regard as antisocial. Users can be banned for life from Airbnb without being told why or any possibility of appeal. Uber and WhatsApp have similar policies. Life insurance companies base premiums on information they gather from social media posts. Though implemented by private corporations, the effects of surveillance on this scale are not radically different from those of China’s social credit system.

For a strand in the prevailing version of liberalism, there is nothing wrong with monitoring a citizen’s behavior if the result is to promote social progress. As expounded in their bestselling 2008 book “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness,” the “libertarian paternalism” of Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein envisages remodeling the choices of citizens in order to secure outcomes that are better in terms of collective welfare. Like Bentham, Thaler and Sunstein assert that much of human behavior should remain in the sphere of private freedom. But like him, they set no clear limits to the authority of government in determining the area of intervention. It is not difficult to imagine the “soft paternalism” they advocate morphing into a “soft totalitarianism” in which no aspect of human behavior would be exempt from social engineering. Mass surveillance is the inner logic of a “nudge” society.

This is important, for it points to a gap in Shoshana Zuboff’s immensely (and rightly) influential recent book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” For Zuboff, the motor driving mass surveillance is capital accumulation. Big data companies use the information they mine from their users to commodify personal experiences and increase their own profits and those of companies to whom they sell this information. In effect, this is an application of Karl Marx’s theory of surplus value to knowledge-based industries in Western countries.

“The end-point envisioned is a transformation of human psychology.”

But mass surveillance can serve purposes other than capital accumulation. In the West, it can serve a paternalistic type of liberalism. In China, it can operate as a virtual version of direct democracy. China’s ruling elites can use social media platforms, such as Weibo and WeChat, to discover and satisfy the needs of the people. At least this is how the use of social media to monitor opinion is sometimes represented in official Chinese circles.

Clearly, however, mass surveillance can also be used simply as a tool of state power. Producing a more complete picture of society and individual behavior than was possible before, it can enable the creation of a state more invasive and repressive than any that has existed in the past. The prospect is darker than that imagined in George Orwell’s “1984.” In Orwell’s dystopia, much of the population was left unobserved. In the future that is unfolding, no one — except possibly a tiny elite — can escape surveillance.

It is not only the misuse of surveillance technology that could lead to this result. The ruling Enlightenment philosophies in East and West point in the same direction. In both cases, an illiberal strand in the Enlightenment shapes political thinking. In China, illiberal Enlightenment ideas have been imported from the West. In the West itself, Enlightenment liberalism has taken an illiberal turn. Neo-paternalist “nudge” theories are part of a wider shift in which social progress is prioritized over individual freedom.

“Neo-paternalist ‘nudge’ theories are part of a wider shift in which social progress is prioritized over individual freedom.”

Online searches for incriminating statements by individuals judged to be reactionary in their attitudes is an example. Academics and public figures are now at risk of losing their livelihoods if they violate what are judged to be progressive norms. Used to purge public life of these individuals, social media enables the construction and enforcement of intellectual and political orthodoxy. The key point about this kind of repression is that it is enforced not by the state but by civil society — companies, universities and media outlets.

Mass surveillance has been explained in economic terms as a requirement of contemporary capitalism. Credit scoring is necessary if loans are to be efficiently allocated, for example. It has also been attacked as an Orwellian instrument of tyranny. No doubt it is both of these things. There is a deeper logic at work, however. In China as much as in the West, contemporary capitalism requires the dissolution of traditional communities and ways of life. Ensuing anomie creates an endemic condition of social disorder, which surveillance serves to contain. At the same time, new media and methods of surveillance are being used to inculcate the behaviors and attitudes demanded by a progressive conception of citizenship. For example, monitoring how people dispose of their household waste or observe traffic regulations can be defended as part of an attempt to promote social and environmental responsibility.

The rise of surveillance reflects more than the needs of fragmented societies in the East and the West. It also expresses what these societies regard as their principal achievement: the prospect of progress for all of their members. Enlightenment projects of human emancipation demolish traditional social structures without creating any functioning successors. Omnipresent surveillance, a technical fix for social disorder, is a surrogate for the communities a post-Enlightenment world has destroyed.