In recent years, mainstream liberal opinion has undergone two shifts that, critics often allege, pose a challenge to the operating principles of the judicial system. The first is an increasing skepticism towards principles such as due process and the presumption of innocence, exemplified such phenomena as the weaponization of Title IX on campuses and the celebration of “cancellation” as a means of enforcing ideological and behavioral standards. The second is the call for abolishing police, prisons, and other instruments of law enforcement. These goals, fringe positions not long ago, have now entered the mainstream.
The more apocalyptic opponents of these trends charge that they will lead to civilizational collapse, as “mob justice” overtakes the rule of law. An alternative, more cynical view is that they will (unintentionally) contribute to developments that have already been in the process of obsolescing the legal system, as advanced technologies automate aspects of the judicial and law enforcement apparatus. For example, the drive to abolish policing may help enable its replacement with privatized surveillance systems, a trend already underway in some places. Rather than a descent into chaos, then, the end result may be more sophisticated mechanisms of control.
These two assessments are not necessarily at odds. Instead, emergent modes of advanced technological control may incorporate, and be fueled by, the archaic social patterns associated with “mob justice,” such as reciprocal vengeance and scapegoating. In fact, there is considerable evidence that this fusion has been underway for some time. What follows is a speculative account of this trajectory by way of the work of two modern theorists of power.
In his 1990 essay “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” the philosopher Gilles Deleuze identifies the beginnings of a transition away from the “disciplinary” structures epitomized by modern law enforcement. Building upon the work of Michel Foucault, Deleuze locates “discipline” in the socio-political arrangements that took hold in the West in the nineteenth century. Under this regime, individuals were granted universal rights but disciplined by the “spaces of enclosure” they occupied at any given time: the family, the school, the factory, the prison, and so on. The microscopic regulation imposed within these spaces constituted, for Foucault, “the other, dark side” of the rights accorded by the state. In his words, “[t]he real, corporeal disciplines constituted the foundation of the formal, juridical liberties.” The state could grant freedom because it entrusted disciplinary institutions with constraining it at every point.
To grasp the current crisis of this system, consider two seemingly disparate examples: the “school to prison pipeline” and the recent transformation of Title IX. In the first case, the incapacity of the school to enforce its localized disciplinary regime leads to an adjacency to the penal system. The school becomes parasitic on the mechanisms of the harshest closed environment, the prison, because its internal regulations have ceased to be enforceable. In a parallel but contrasting manner, consider Title IX: a perceived failure of enforcement (sexual assault on campus) within a particular disciplinary space leads to a “state of exception” in which the normal expectations of due process and presumption of innocence are suspended.
Superficially, the results differ somewhat. In the first case, the school begins to address juvenile infractions more similarly to how they are treated in the “adult world.” In the second, the harshness of the enforcement mechanisms may in fact exceed those that obtain in the extra-institutional world, with the justification that the consequence is not incarceration but expulsion from that space. But the basic result is the same: both lead to punitive excesses that symptomatize the collapse of the disciplinary mechanisms specific to a space of enclosure.
Despite the controversy that has swirled around both of these developments, it is not difficult now to see how they might simply dissipate rather than ever being resolved. Both the traditional school and the brick-and-mortar university may be facing their end as the COVID pandemic accelerates the universalization of remote learning. The disciplinary procedures on which these institutions rely, based on the enclosure of bodies in space, would in this case be rendered irrelevant. This development would be in line with one of Deleuze’s expectations for the “societies of control” that, he predicted in 1990, would succeed the societies of discipline. In societies of control, he argued, bodies would circulate more freely, but be tracked at all times.
To grasp this notion, consider the prison, “preeminent instance of the closed environment” (Deleuze), lately targeted for abolition. But what if this abolition is already in progress, regardless of activist demands? Communicative devices, which are rendering in-person education archaic, may also make good on Deleuze’s prediction that the remote monitoring of location will sound the death knell of the carceral system. Writing in 1990, he had to assure his readers that “the conception of a control mechanism, giving the position of any element within an open environment in any given instance” was “not necessarily one of science fiction.” Today, every citizen carries a device that functions similarly to the location-tracking collars and ankle bracelets that Deleuze saw as the harbingers of the emergent societies of control. It’s unclear why these would not eventually make the enclosure of criminals in space unnecessary.
So far, I have pointed to ongoing trends that seem to realize Deleuze’s predictions regarding the development of societies of control. If he proves correct, activists who target disciplinary institutions for abolition or reform run the risk of contributing to processes they have little ability to control. In this way, those who believe they are liberating us from oppression could ironically end up facilitating new forms of it. Or as Deleuze puts it, what “could at first express new freedom . . . could participate as well in mechanisms of control that are equal to the harshest of confinements.”
Social media platforms are a clear instantiation of the sorts of distributed networks of control Deleuze anticipated. Simply put, they offer a certain freedom at the cost of perpetual surveillance. However, there are salient patterns of social existence within these control networks that Deleuze’s account did not foresee. These are the patterns targeted by both liberal and conservative critics of the social media platforms that are the clearest instantiations of such networks: their tendency toward mob dynamics. On the right, criticisms of these dynamics have taken the form of attacks on “cancel culture.” While many on the left have downplayed the significance of this phenomenon, they have expressed grave concern about the structurally similar phenomenon of online harassment. In both instances, although the content and severity of the attacks vary, what’s at stake is a largely anonymous mob’s exploitation of the platform’s tendency towards herd behavior to punish an individual for some perceived infraction.
To understand these dynamics, and how they interact with the modes of control these platforms enact, we should turn to a very different French theorist of the same generation as Deleuze: René Girard. Girard contrasts the modern state, with its laws and rights, not with the systems of advanced technological control poised to succeed it, but with the modes of regulating violence that predated it. The most important of these, he claims, was sacrifice. In his 1972 book Violence and the Sacred, Girard argues that “sacrificial rites . . . assume essential roles in societies that lack a firm judicial system.” The book’s thesis is that all religion is originally sacrificial at its core, and that sacrificial religion was the primary means by which premodern societies protected themselves from a collapse into Hobbesian “war of all against all.”
To make sense of this claim, we must grasp Girard’s theory of human violence. According to him, humans’ mimetic, or imitative, nature means that we desire things not due to their intrinsic qualities but because others desired them first. As a result, people inevitably come to desire the same things and come into conflict over them. For Girard, it is in this scenario that all societies face the prospect of their dissolution. Spirals of reciprocal aggression, best illustrated by the blood vendettas endemic to many cultures in periods of crisis, result from violent mimeticism: coincident desires cause conflict, and violence begets more violence via imitation. Modern judicial systems attempt to address this risk by channeling conflicts through neutral arbitration mechanisms. But the emergence of such mechanisms is a historically recent development. Girard’s claim is that sacrifice regulates violence in cultures lacking such systems.
This is the second basic building block of Girard’s theory: the scapegoat mechanism. His speculative account of human origins posits that when mimetic violence spirals out of control, a society may dissolve, or it may reconsolidate itself by displacing the violence onto a single “surrogate victim.” The divided community cathartically reunites in violent unanimity against this victim, who is expelled or murdered. Mimetic automatism, which caused divisions to proliferate, now enables realignment as the group’s multiplying internal antagonisms dissolve into its collective antagonism against the scapegoat. Sacrifice is the formalization of this mechanism. Through it, Girard claims, traditional societies used ritualized violence to maintain social unity.
Girard attributes the demise of sacrificial religion in the modern world to various factors, especially the anti-sacrificial tendencies of the monotheistic religions, but also correlates it with the rise of the judicial system. His account suggests that the simultaneous decline of Christianity and the challenges posed to the rule of law should coincide with a reemergence of both the potential for reciprocal conflict and for spontaneous conflict resolution through the scapegoat mechanism. And this, as I have argued, is more or less what we have seen unfold on the social web. In the unregulated spaces of interaction that the internet creates, we can find empirical confirmation of Girard’s basic hypotheses. First, we can see the constant tendency towards escalating conflict and rivalry. Second, we can see the tendency of such conflicts to crescendo into the mimetic coalescence of mobs against a single victim who is “canceled” or harassed.
Having sketched out these influential theoretical accounts of archaic (sacrificial) and emergent (technological) regimes of social crisis management, it remains to show how these disparate mechanisms might interact within the new power structures of our era. Real examples could detail this complementarity, but as is often the case, fictional ones may be more revealing.
The TV show Black Mirror has offered several suggestive scenarios for envisioning control societies with sacrificial characteristics. In the episode “White Bear,” for example, an amnesiac awakes to find herself surrounded by people she believes are brainwashed by a transmission. She intuits that her mission is to escape the mind-controlled mob and turn off the signal that has them in its thrall. But in the final twist, it is revealed that she is a criminal whose entire ordeal is a punishment in the form of a repeated public humiliation: her pursuers are a paying audience, in thrall not to an electronic signal but to the abject spectacle of the protagonist’s terrified flight. The episode’s vision is of a privatized prison system that doubles as a reality TV venture.
“White Bear” suggests a plausible fusion of networked control with ritualized scapegoating by way of spectacular entertainment. In the fictional scenario that the protagonist initially perceives, the people around her are victims of mass electronic brainwashing. The truth turns out to be different, but on another level, it confirms her basic sense of the situation: her pursuers are entranced by an entertainment system that monopolizes their attention with a cruel sacrificial spectacle. Punishment is no longer primarily enclosure, but exposure: it entails being the object of a degrading ritual that keeps the public in thrall to the network. Sacrificial scapegoating functions simultaneously as punishment and a means of harnessing dopamine rewards.
Another Black Mirror episode, “Hated in the Nation” imagines how online harassment could be converted into fully automated mob justice. The premise is that swarms of “Autonomous Drone Insects” have been developed to replace the declining population of bees. However, a hacker commandeers them for a different purpose. When an individual is targeted for “cancelation” on social media, the use of the hashtag #DeathTo____ activates a swarm of tiny drones, which identify the target through facial recognition and kill them. The “nanoswarm” becomes a murderous yet depersonalized manifestation of the digital mob’s animus. As in “White Bear,” integration into totalizing digital networks is linked to the revival of violent sacrificial spectacle.
As Deleuze put it, such notions are “not necessarily . . . science fiction.” The sense in which these speculative scenarios are realistic is that they capture the existing interchange between advanced systems of distributed control and the archaic social patterns of collective violence. As both episodes suggest, the control system feeds off of spectacles of cancelation and harassment to fuel user engagement: they are a powerful means of keeping users rapt to the network. Shoshana Zuboff argues that social media platforms embody “surveillance capitalism,” but perhaps the most efficacious form of surveillance is not what is applied by the managers of the platforms to users, but the surveillance we carry out on each other. That’s because behind it lurks the threat of the mob, the terror of which conditions our behavior.
Those attempting to downplay the significance of cancelation and harassment have often claimed that the real consequences of these phenomena are minimal. The victim might voluntarily withdraw from the network to avoid harassment, or have their account involuntarily suspended due to a cancelation campaign, but it doesn’t go further than that.
One might counter with the suicides have resulted from such events, but the larger point is that because of the increasing mediation of all social existence through digital networks, exclusion from them can function as social death. This social death can be conceived of in terms of archaic or emergent forms of behavioral management, but they amount to the same thing. The victim may, in Girard’s terms, be imagined as a scapegoat or homo sacer, driven out into the wilderness. Or in Deleuze’s terms, we should grasp that we are not integral individuals, but “dividuals” whose existence now takes the primary form of data sets and samples. Banishment from the platforms that generate and house those samples equates to a kind of non-existence.
In this way, the avoidance of harassment or cancelation becomes the basis of an expansive cybernetic system of self-regulation. The awareness that, at any point, one might fall victim to a spontaneous swarm of mimetic aggression, becomes part of how the control system operates. But the continued functioning of this system depends on the futility of such efforts. The shifting, arbitrary standards that determine what may trigger the mob ensure that the sacrificial spectacles will continue, which in turn, helps ensure the system’s ongoing hold on our attention.