Twilight of the Self
The Decline of the Individual in Late Capitalism
Michael Thompson



Our age is defined by a fundamental contradiction and tension. On one hand, the basis of our modern democratic order and institutions, as well as the basis of the beliefs about who we are as persons, is rooted in a particular idea of the individual—that is, the belief that my choices, my beliefs, my ideas are my own and that the life I live is my own. On the other hand, we are witnessing a remarkable expansion of large-scale social systems that have synthesized technology, economic goals of efficiency, and surplus extraction, as well as political-administrative forms of authority. This post-neoliberal phase of society that has taken root in Western democracies operates by absorbing the individual into its own matrix, not by coercively annihilating the individual but by recircuiting its needs, desires, interests, the perimeter of its knowledge, and the depths of its imagination toward its own imperatives, logic, and goals. I believe we are perched dangerously on the historical cusp of losing one of the great cultural innovations of Enlightenment humanism: the self-reflective, ethically engaged, autonomous self.

This book proceeds from the premise that individuality, indeed subjectivity itself, is on the verge of being absorbed into the systemic apparatus of a social order rooted in large-scale regimes of normative power and dominance. On the brink of extinction is the existence of a pattern of selfhood that is capable of genuinely democratic attitudes and agency, a self that can serve as the font for democratic ideals and aesthetic sensibilities that can disrupt the cohesive institutional and ideological frameworks that shape our world—a world penetrated by reification, alienation, and powerlessness. Stated in its most succinct terms, I submit that we are witnessing the disappearance of the critical, rational, autonomous self that was once the ideal of the humanistic Enlightenment that first countered the more cumbersome systems of power of the Middle Ages. What is disappearing from our culture is a self, understood as the individual’s moral and psychological infrastructure, capable of envisioning the new, of expanding the horizons of the possible beyond what the patterned world of commodified society that seeks to enclose and envelop it permits. What is being gradually erased—indeed, what has been in the process of being erased for decades—is the idea, as well as the existence, of an individual capable of critique. Along with this is the erasure of a kind of autonomous individuality capable of positing its own ends and purposes in the world. To judge and to generate meaning for action, for obligation, for our individual and civic lives—this is the vision of modernity worth defending even more as we are witnessing the twilight of this kind of selfhood. The dynamics and trends of modern culture are fostering a new kind of self, one that is incapable of the kind of critical autonomy needed for democratic civic agency. It is a self absorbed into the edifice of an administered mass society that disables the capacity to think or imagine any alternative to it.

Some may say that such a self has never existed, that the idea of a self that was actually autonomous and critical, rooted in reason and reflection, has always been the myth of modernity. But such a position seems to me overly cynical and, to be sure, historically false. Throughout the unfolding of the modern world, the individual’s self-consciousness as a rational social agent has been at the center of the projects of modern democratic life, philosophical insights into human value and integrity, no less than the aesthetic insights of modern literature, painting, and music. Even though we may find it abstract to grasp the idea of a singular type of self that any period produces, I believe we can discern, through its various vicissitudes, a basic structure of the individual personality that can be traced over time and that changes in response to its social environment and context. The Greek world could not have produced Don Quixote any more than the world of steam engines and assembly lines could have produced Jesus of Nazareth. The structure of the self is coordinate with the kinds of social, economic, and cultural patterns that come to grip society and the values it espouses, as well as the shapes of social relations it engenders. The self is at once shaped by and a shaper of its world; it is formed by the dynamic relations that ensconce it; its specific character is rooted in the various forms of life that it occupies. I contend that recent shifts in modern society have effected a new and radical change in the self: a change that is witnessing its dissolution and degradation.

One place this shift can be sensed is in the realm of democratic politics. Contemporary democratic institutions are rooted in eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideas about rational individuality, where each of us is capable of rational endorsement, responsiveness to reasons, and persuasion. All of this seems to me to be in stark and chilling contrast to the world as it actually is: a world governed by a system that, even as it gains in scope and intensity, is also overseeing the death of the very spirit and cultural vitality that gave the modern world its self-confidence and its distinctive moral and political cast. A world where the dignity of the individual would be reflected in a robust form of social freedom, where our shared political institutions would be matched by our aesthetic and psychological explorations and enrichment of the self, a world that would hold out the possibility for a democratic order that maximizes a common good that has the good of the individual at its core—these were some of the aspirations that animated the project of modernity. Autonomy was seen as the paradigmatic self-structure for modernity. It was the specific, historically achieved structure of self-organization that enabled social norms, practices, and institutions to be metabolized by the enzyme of reason.1 Only those forms of life that had passed through the judgment of the autonomous self were to be seen as valid, rational, and free. Freedom was possible in the world once the individual moved from being a passive, role-occupying part of the whole to an active, self-conscious constitutive force in the world—an individual that not only followed the scripts available to it in the given world but also generated new ends and purposes, new forms of meaning and collective forms of life.

But these ideals and theories could not have anticipated the rapid and deep changes that affected modern societies from the dawn of the industrial era to today. The emergence of mass society had the effect of crushing the moral-political ideal of a self-governing community of autonomous individuals. Cultural modernism registered the shock of these social changes as the individual searched inward, deeper into the self and its own psychology, for the energy to compensate what was being lost in the vast machinery of modernity. But as the twentieth century came to a close, it became clear that even this activity of the individual was being eclipsed. The vision of a world where our social arrangements nourish and promote the development of the individual has been engulfed by the reified logics of acquisitive individualism. Public life has gradually petered out, replaced by a world where our identities and our former domain of privacy have been subsumed by a new digital face of capital. Indeed, what was once the realm of bourgeois privacy has now succumbed to the engineered patterns of life orchestrated by market forces and the incorporation of our inner experiences into the commodity form. In such a world, it becomes increasingly difficult, perhaps even impossible, to imagine, to think the alternative.

Previous manifestations of large-scale social systems did not suffer this same fate. The Roman world’s apocalyptic Christians or the Protestant radicals that undermined church authority a thousand years later were able to transform the cohesive system of the classical Roman world or the Catholic Church, respectively. They were able to imagine the new and to undermine the great institutional and cultural forces of their time. But these large-scale social systems have been dwarfed by our own technological, administrative, commodified world. Indeed, our culture is now marked by the desiccation of the self, as well as of society as a whole; a gradual bleeding out of the energies and motivational values that could give rise to a more democratically organized, more humane, and more individually satisfying world now plagues modern life. Ours is a culture of uniformity rather than conformity; it is a world where each has constructed the illusion of his or her own individuality and unique, authentic intrapsychic world. But, as critics as early as Rousseau were able to see, the nature of modern domination was premised on the capacity for the powerful to create within its subjects the requisite norms, values, and cultural patterns that would cement and naturalize unequal power relations.2 The security of domination relations was at issue in the modern world; neither the sword nor the guillotine would be the instrument of power but the very infrastructure of a self turned against itself. Culture and the psyche were the final domains to be conquered by the powerful in order to secure political and economic dominance. It is precisely this, I contend, that has happened in modern society, and we are currently living through its implications.

One aspect of this phenomenon is the increased unification of social, cultural, and political institutions and spheres, of the invasion and recoding of our culture by the logics of efficiency, instrumentality, and surplus extraction that have defined the trajectory of capitalism as a social system from its inception. These variables are defined more and more by the dictates of capital at the expense of other social values and purposes: of the need for profit, the production of economic value, and the defense of oligarchic wealth. At the same time, the transformation of our institutions entails their gradual isomorphism according to the banal logic of the commodity form. Capital’s incessant capacity and drive to absorb everything external to it into the realm of the market, to commodify everything possible, has finally penetrated to the level of the personality, to the psychic world within. This has had—and, I believe, will continue to have—a profound effect on the moral and political landscape of modern culture.

Add to this the increase of the alienating effects of technologically mediated relations and the shallow world of a commodified culture and we can see that the sociocultural resources that once propelled the progressive forces of modernity have in fact petered out. “So too in the world of individuals,” wrote Kierkegaard, all too presciently, in the first half of the nineteenth century, “remove the essential passion, the one purpose, then everything becomes an insignificant featureless outwardness; the flowing current of ideality stops and the life that people share becomes a stagnant lake.”3 Only several years prior, Marx had perceived the same dynamic as the resulting pathology of capitalism’s transformation of social relations and the regression of the individual stemming from alienation: “It replaces labor by machinery, but it casts some of the workers back into a barbarous kind of work and turns the others into machines. It produces intelligence, but also, for the workers, stupidity, cretinism.”4 These two insights blend into a single idea diagnosing a pathology that still holds true today: the stagnation and alienation of the self in a world that appears to us as dynamic and fluid, but is actually highly patterned and concealed, is increasingly coming to have a rigid command over its fate.

Much of my research over the past decade has focused on the problem known as reification, the thesis that the inner world of consciousness takes on the form of the rationalized, technical external world and reproduces those logics within the subjective field of the individual. This relation between the dynamics of the outer, social world and the inner, subjective world constitutes a crucial field for understanding how the status of the modern individual has been formed. Although generally thought of as a term of Marxian theory, as I studied this phenomenon more closely, I realized that the various studies on which I had embarked were converging on the following hypothesis: that the constitution of our individuality, our subjectivity, indeed the very pattern of the modern self, has been colonized by a regime of social norms rooted in heightened and intensified technical and commodified logics required for the coordination and maintenance of a social system based on the extraction of value and surplus and other needs of hierarchical social relations. Furthermore, these norms were becoming entwined with the very structure of our consciousness in a way that had hitherto been unappreciated. The very idea of the self—its functions, capacities, and status as a moral and political agent—has been transformed by the emergence of what I will call the cybernetic society.

Cybernetic society is a phase of capitalism saturated by the logic of instrumental extraction and commodification—that is, where every sphere of society, polity, culture, and psyche are extruded through a uniform deep logic of efficiency and profit maximization, as well as the attendant logics of control and organizational management that secure it, leading to a corrosion of psyche and culture. This is a society where these technical logics of organizational management and control have been able to socialize the self, making it the simultaneous object and subject of control and surplus extraction. This theory follows on the salient insight of Georg Lukács, who saw the outlines for it in the early 1920s: “the atomization of the individual is, then, only the reflex in consciousness of the fact that the ‘natural laws’ of capitalist production have been extended to cover every manifestation of life in society; that—for the first time in history—the whole of society is subjected to, or tends to be subjected, to a unified economic process, and that the fate of every member of society is determined by unified laws.”5

This has been the primary systemic drive and aim of capitalism since the first industrial plants emerged in the eighteenth century. But this older paradigm of the relation between the human and technology, between the self and the megamachine, always existed within a dualist structure where the machine’s logic was external and apparent to the self. Chilling images of the computer HAL in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey pursuing its human crew comes to mind. But today, the emergence of a new form of technology has shifted this paradigm. Now, technology has become “personalized”; it has been miniaturized and embedded within the reflexes of our own sense of self. As a result, the domains of privacy and the unconscious, previously potential reservoirs for explosive counterorganizational energies, have been packaged by the injection of the commodity form as experience, as fantasy, as the fundamental basis of our beliefs and thought. As never before, capitalism has been able to bring the commodity form not merely before our eyes but into the internal phenomenological and psychological framework of the self. The result is a profound intensification of the forces of reification on the self, a kind of hyperreification that demands a new look into the dynamics and mechanisms responsible for its production.

When I thought, at a more philosophical and technical level, about how this was all happening, I began to discover that intentional structures of consciousness are increasingly mapped out by the normative webs and prepatterned practices of a cohesive institutional world that appears, on its surface, to be diverse, energetic, and complex but that, in truth, is underwritten by a deeper logic of coordination and socialization toward economistic ends of efficiency and oligarchically organized extractive wealth. What some have referred to, after Lukács, as “reification” is actually a much deeper phenomenon infecting the deepest structures and dynamics of consciousness that shape our world-constituting and self-reflective faculties. More precisely, I came to see that the technological and cultural permeation of late capitalist society shapes norms and practices to such an extent that it has repatterned the collective-intentional rule-sets at the root of our self- and world-generating powers. The result is that the modern world is circumscribed by these deep patterns of being and that they structure an ever-widening scope of our experience—from education, culture, politics, and the intimate life of the family to the internal world of the self. If we agree that the most important achievement of modern culture has been the articulation of the individual as a distinct mode of experience, a source of rational reflection, as well as a source of affective energy and ethical care, then we cannot help but witness, today, its decline, even its eclipse.

I believe that we are witnessing a rupture in the political, cultural, and psychological strivings that characterized much of the modern period. Where the modern individual emerged out of a secularized reconception of the person that possessed an inner, self-directive capacity, the contemporary self is plagued by a lack of agency ensconced in a narcissistic sphere of self-absorption, shallow social relations, and one-dimensional subjectivity. Whereas the modern self initially emerged as a civic being, a being of conscience, the contemporary self no longer possesses the moral or psychic fortitude to stand against its socially constructed fate. It no longer can say, “Here I stand; I can do no other.” Rather, it needs the security of the group even as it passively accepts the machinations of the social order around it. The modern self is essentially isolated and without power. It feels the effects of a system of social relations degraded by the market, by commodification, by instrumentality, and by the dehumanizing consequences of the social pathologies of a system rooted in capital that has its own agglomeration rather than human benefit as its central aim.6

These shifts have occurred as a result of another set of changes that have gradually occurred as the result of macrostructural changes in the economic, technical, and administrative nature of modern capitalism.7 What we broadly understand as modernity emerged out of the fracturing of the cohesive powers of feudal patterns of power that dominated the Middle Ages. The church controlled cultural, educational, and spiritual dimensions of self and society, whereas concentrations of economic and political power were collected in the hands of aristocratic and landowning classes that sustained a stable system of extractive power over their communities. As market relations broke up these closed economic systems and Protestant movements gained cultural and political success, the stability of this cohesive power system was eroded. But even before this, papal reforms in the church from about 1000 to 1300 CE provided a new context for understanding justice. These reforms cast the individual as an entity with distinct moral status, translating this into a new legal and social status of the person: the individual was now no longer, as in the classical world, primarily a member of a group but an individual with rights and obligations, a crucial change that set the stage for the modern individual. Indeed, as Larry Siedentop notes, “Under way was nothing less than a reconstruction of the self. . . . Translating a moral status into a social role created a new image of society as an association of individuals rather than of families, tribes or castes.”8

The result of these shifts was a new way of thinking about the self and society. The rise of the individual did not entail society’s disintegration but rather a gradual displacement of communal forms of life and identification with more solidaristic forms of political cultural association and a new desire for self-governance in political, as well as individual, moral terms.9 Now, instead of a “natural” dimension of a group whole, society could be seen as a self-conscious association rooted not in tradition and custom but in principles of reciprocity, equality, and rights. Modern ideas of self-rule and civic life began to emerge in full cultural and political form in the northern Italian city-states during the Renaissance, as a more comprehensive sense of moral and intellectual importance was affixed to the individual gathered cultural force.10 The self that began to emerge between the seventeenth century and the early twentieth was therefore oriented toward moral responsibility and the importance of public life, but it was also increasingly unable to generate new forms of life and systems of meaning as technological and economic modernization outpaced it. The vitality that animated Western societies during this period was fueled by a search for a more humane social context for the development of the individual. In art and literature, politics and philosophy, this reflection on the nature of the individual and society served as a fulcrum against the awesome powers not only of throne and altar but of the newly emerged “satanic mills” and the unjust social order that spawned them.

As late as the mid-twentieth century, this picture of the self was still active and real. The economic organization of society was still under a redistributive regime that protected the basic security of individual social membership and nourished an aspirational culture for social transformation. Liberation of the self was now primarily cultural, referring to the expansion of the horizons of experience. As the psychoanalyst Hans Loewald wrote from the vantage point of the 1970s: “In modern art, literature, and philosophy; in the mood, aspirations, conduct of life of the younger generation, we see a fresh flowering of that more ancient, more deeply rooted mode of human experience which perhaps is leading toward a less rigid, less frozen, and more humane rationality.”11 The affluent society of the 1950s and 1960s unleashed a new set of aspirations and deeper human needs than the material world of suburban security and industrial consumption could offer. Technology was seen as crushing the individual, the economic drives for consumption and growth an empty, impoverished form of life. Culture, not yet colonized by the forces of commodification, was reacting to the stringent order of the bureaucratized, commodified society.

I submit that this situation has radically altered and that the self, as a source of critical autonomy and of creative, transformational desire, is rapidly disappearing, and a new, more submissive and less autonomous kind of selfhood is emerging in its place. Since the 1980s, we have been witnessing the growth of a cohesive system of social power rooted in economic imperatives that is absorbing the individual into its matrix of subordination and control. The rapidly increasing gradient of technological change has been fused to economic imperatives that have shaped a world narrowly organized around surplus extraction and mass consumption. Economic growth has become the central and, in many respects, single value orienting the dominant institutions of modern Western cultures. All other values are either to be subordinated to this more dominant value pattern or extinguished. As a result, the contemporary self lives, desires, and thinks within the prepatterned confines of this cohesive social reality.

As I see it, the self needs to be understood as more than the cognitive and epistemic structures of consciousness alone; it refers also to the affective, libidinal, cathectic, intrapsychic dimensions of subjectivity that shape the ways we validate the kinds of norms, desires, and values that grant some degree of legitimacy to the world we inhabit. The energy of our affects has much to do with the ways our ideas are shaped and organized. In this sense, perhaps the most insidious change in the structure of the self has been the transformation of desire away from objects that enhance our experience and freedom and toward the objects of the system itself. Indeed, it is perhaps more correct to say that genuine desire itself has been subverted; capitalism in its current phase of the commodification of everything, preempts desire. Each time I feel a need, a restlessness with my aloneness, I reach for a device to connect me with the prepackaged experience of the commodified world. With this erosion of desire, so, too, goes the very energy for political transformation and the capacity to think capitalism’s alternative. “The commodity’s mechanical accumulation,” writes Guy Debord, “unleashes a limitless artificiality in [the] face of which all living desire is disarmed. The cumulative power of this autonomous realm of artifice necessarily everywhere entails a falsification of life.”12 What Debord perceived in the late 1960s has itself become the dominant mode of cultural production and, as I will explore in the pages that follow, the construction of the modern self, as well.

Ours is a society that has commandeered the great developments of science and technology for economistic ends, robbing art and culture of their once-prized critical autonomy from the material ends of profit and exchange. It is a society that, above all, has undercut and stifled the powers and robustness of the individual, pressing each of us into intricately engineered patterns of being and acting. Now, the once-repressed energies of the individual unconscious have been sopped up by the commodification of desire, of the simulacra of sex, of play, of the reified oral fixations of consumption without end. As Mark Fisher once insightfully pointed out: “What we are dealing with now is not the incorporation of materials that previously seemed to possess subversive potentials, but instead, their precorporation: the pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations and hopes by capitalist culture.”13

It is in the midst of this reality, of the prepatterning of the self, that what I am calling the cybernetic society achieves its culmination. Only when the norms and values, practices and institutions of capitalist economic logics have penetrated the cultural sphere of society and the psychological structures of the individual can we speak of a truly inverted world, an elaborate cybernetic steering of the self by systems of control that manifest not as raw power but as a transformation of the relational matrices of sociality that articulate new inner impulses within the self. As a result, I maintain that we are witnessing an eclipse of the individual: the deformation of the cognitive and psychic capacities for autonomy as a critical, developmental, and creative form of agency, an agency capable of both negating the social relations and values that sustain domination and deploying the creative energies rich enough to build alternatives to them. It seems to me that there is a historicity to this phenomenon: where the nineteenth century saw the subsumption of precapitalist forms of labor and economic life, the twentieth the subsumption of political and administrative means of coordination and social control, the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries are witnessing the absorption of culture and the subsumption of the self into the imperatives of capital and the processes of accumulation. Now, all of these sectors cohere where new kinds of power and domination are fused to new forms of social, political, technological, cultural, and self-organization—the world of the cybernetic society.

The origins of this crisis of the individual are not hard to see. The neoliberal counterrevolution that began in the late 1970s, against the redistributive, social-democratic welfare state forged in the postwar era, sought primarily to unleash capital and financial speculation in order to evade redistribution but also to breathe new life into rates of profit that had fallen since the 1960s. Besides the legal-political architecture of the welfare state, it also had another barrier to overcome for the rate of profit to expand. This was the problem of the saturation of markets that plagued the 1970s. Central to this problem was that demand began to wane as the industrial production and consumption boom of the 1950s and 1960s began to weaken. There were only so many washing machines, cars, and televisions that could be purchased per household to sustain corporate profits. New markets had to be found, and new regimes of labor had to be instituted for profit rates to be resuscitated. Two trends were born from this economistic need. First was the undercutting of labor power and wages that resulted from attacks on organized labor and the spatioglobal elasticity of capital that conspired to make production both more flexible and cheaper. At the same time, new management techniques were instituted to socialize workers into a culture of the firm, displacing former coworking solidarities as labor unions shattered. Class consciousness was thereby absorbed into a more alienated, meaningless sense of identity as an employee or “associate” of the firm.14

Second was the need to jump-start consumption by commodifying essentially everything—not merely physical objects but also experience and personal identity. Consumption gradually became a means to find and to highlight one’s self-expression and identity. The alienation felt by an increasingly dominant corporate culture could only be compensated for by consuming in order to construct one’s very identity; popular, mass-produced musical experiences, the spectacles of corporatized team sports, clothing and material fashion, and, in time, wholesale self-conceptions were all becoming commodified, prepatterned experiences that could fit one’s frustrations with the legitimate dissatisfactions with modern work regimes. Work, play, sex, family life, creativity, and leisure have all been thoroughly commodified in the process—that is, transformed from activities with the potential for creation and spontaneity into organized activities that are calculable, capable of being measured, sellable, and zones for aggression and sadomasochism. As such, the fetish of the commodity morphs into a wholesale reification of the self gradually constricting the intrapsychic space once left for reflection, the experience of contradiction, and autonomy. Each new generational cohort is more totally subsumed by the elaborate fabric of commodities and, with it, the very self-consciousness that one’s sense of self, one’s very identity, is an active product of commodification.15 As Adorno pointed out, reflecting on the liquidation of subjectivity in the commodified society: “The sacrifice of individuality, which accommodates itself to the regularity of the successful, the doing of what everybody does, follows from the basic fact that in broad areas the same thing is offered to everybody by the standardized production of consumption goods. But the commercial necessity of concealing the identity leads to the manipulation of taste and the official culture’s pretense of individualism, which necessarily increases in proportion to the liquidation of the individual.”16

The two trends unleashed by the neoliberal turn in capitalist economics and culture beginning in the late 1970s mutually reinforced one another: the continued degradation of work, deskilling, lowering of wages, and erasure of class consciousness were complemented by a resurgent reengineering of desire toward consumption and a new “naturalization” of needs. It also underscored a basic hypothesis of Marx: that a declining rate of profit could coincide with a rise in the mass of profit (or surplus value). The decline in the rate of profit over the course of the decades since the 1950s has not led to a decline in either the size or the concentration of profit in class terms; what it has set in motion is a move toward rent-extraction and a transformation of labor—expanding absolute and relative surplus value—to expand extractive logics into new areas of life and to secure oligarchic control over financial capital.17 This has translated into a new cultural power for capital as it is now able to shape institutions from education and artistic production to the superfluous technological advances. Increasingly, capitalism is not only falling out of step with social need and social good; it actively shapes a self that is increasingly devoid of the psychological and motivational resources needed to democratize and transform it.

My concern in this study is with the implications of this macro trend in modern capitalism on the self—that is, on the inner organization of subjectivity that continues to shape the modern individual, especially since the advent of neoliberalism. I should say more about the technical aspects of this thesis. As I mentioned above, my hypothesis is that a kind of hyperreification is at the core of this dynamic in modern culture. As I see it, reification and modern forms of social domination occur via subtle processes of social learning that shape the web of social norms that shape our consciousness, as well as the collective-intentional rule-sets that constitute our social reality. For this reason, I have come to see reification not as an epistemic or cognitive category but as an ontological category: by shaping the normative structure of consciousness, it is able to shape the relations and practices that constitute our social reality and articulate for us a world that is fundamentally alienated and heteronomous. Reification is the way that the system is able to transform the self into an instrument of its own self-constitution. It is the very mechanism that promotes the dissolution of the individual and the incapacity for communicative, deliberative, and recognitive theories of ethics to achieve critical force. Social domination therefore needs to be seen as having both a material component—that is, resources that grant capacity to a subset of any community to be able to control the activities of others and social institutions—and an internal or normative component—the capacity to shape the institutional logics that will, in turn, socialize the consciousness of individuals.

If this is the case, then we can see that this kind of social dominance is more easily achievable on a broader scope than in any other time in human history. New developments in applied technology and the increasing concentration of global capital are combining in new ways that reach more deeply into the development of the self than any time prior in human history.18 I want to explore how the individual is in decline as a moral, aesthetic, and critically autonomous person and how the intimate forces of technologically infused regimes of management, education, work, and consumption have socialized and corrupted the powers of the self to serve as a fulcrum against the forces arrayed against it. The logic of capital, of the organizational logics of the corporation, and of organizational patterns of control is now the primer for all other institutional and cultural spheres. As Gilles Deleuze argued as the cybernetic society was being born: “just as the corporation replaces the factory, perpetual training tends to replace the school, and continuous control to replace the examination, which is the surest way of delivering the school over to the corporation.”19 As the welfare-state model of capitalism fades away, our very prospects for security have become ever more brittle. The individual is no longer a product of the conflicts and struggles of self-development but rather an overburdened entity that pulses with anxiety and its attendant coping mechanisms. As Randy Martin once observed: “After enough years of public authorities’ denials that they can take responsibility for the public good and security, people believe this to be the case and lose trust, not just in governmental but in institutional solutions (be they public or private) to social problems. Crime may be down, but insecurity is up.”20

Lest we think that this reification leads us to some simplistic uniformity of beliefs and practices, the self under the pressures of the cybernetic society not only acquiesces to the basic logics of social domination but at the same time reacts culturally against the existential anxieties the system causes. The rigid, immutable hierarchies of administrative-technical society shaped by oligarchic wealth entail the emergence of new forms of irrationality stemming from the withered self’s heteronomous need for coherence and inner direction. As Ernest Mandel points out: “the ideology of ‘technical rationality’ is incomplete and therefore internally incoherent. It completely fails to account for the spread of irrationalism, and the regression to superstition, mysticism and misanthropy which accompany the alleged victory of ‘technological rationality’ in late capitalism.”21 To go even further, consider how a new concern with identity, group-think, a susceptibility to conspiracy theories, the rise of neofascism, no less than the disorganization of progressive movements along the lines of cultural politics—all point to the modern self’s incapacity for critical autonomy and an incapacity for social solidarity in any politically viable sense and instead to a search for identity and collective effervescence with others that seek to provide an antidote to modernity’s atomized loneliness.

This is because transformations in the social matrix of our relations have been coordinate with changes in the organizational structure of the self. The age of organization and efficiency, of hyperconsumption and total commodification, of socialized technology and quantification has had a swift and deleterious impact on the psychological structure of the self. This age of hyperorganization has witnessed a cohesiveness not only between the various sectors of social reality, such as culture, economy, and polity, but also between the realm of the social and the interiority of the subject. The social patterning by techno-administrative means is also patterning the self, thereby securing the systemic imperatives of accumulation and wealth-defense that is at the heart of modern neoliberal capitalism. What I mean by this is that the cohesiveness of what I am calling the cybernetic society describes an interlocking of social spheres and institutional logics that promotes the colonization of the self. It is a mode of social life that results from the systemic dominance of culture, politics, economics, and individual consciousness by the logics of efficiency, control, predictability, and hierarchical organization. Authority in the cybernetic society is of a new variety—different from the forms of power of feudalism, traditionalism, charisma, or even rational domination, working on our inner structures of the self toward compliance rather than on force or coercion.

What I am calling the cybernetic society further refers to the various ways that modern capitalism has been able to merge the logic of efficiency, the application of technology across all planes of relevant social reality, all for the purposes of extracting surplus and managing desire and demand to stimulate consumption. But also, and just as important, it refers to the ways that organizational logics and patterns have been able to restructure what were previously independent spheres of social life—culture, economy, polity, psyche, and so forth—into an interdependently organized and self-regulating system. This feature of self-regulation is crucial: the need for capitalist forms of surplus extraction to eliminate all barriers to its accumulation regimes and provide for them a psychopolitical legitimacy and the institutions that support it. Ours is an age of the megasystem, one where the individual must be molded and shaped to reproduce the external system rather than coerced into doing so. “The new cybernetic world,” wrote Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1960s, “is not concerned with people but with ‘systems’; man becomes replaceable and expendable. . . . To the new utopians, . . . it is the ‘human element’ which is precisely the unreliable component of their creations.”22

This has been the problem for capitalist societies from their inception—namely, how to discipline labor, how to normalize consumption practices and values, and how to legitimize unequal wealth possession and possessive individualism. This is precisely the solution that the emergence of financial capital, neoliberalism, privatized networked technology, and increased oligarchic wealth have made possible: not a world where power is a matter of coercion but one where the self’s inner psychic world aspires to only that which the system itself can fulfill, a kind of self that withers in the face of manufactured and prepatterned needs and has become incapable of generating a political life built around genuine human needs and, instead, revolves around the systemic dynamics of capitalism. Indeed, central to the thesis of the cybernetic society is the idea that social systems have evolved to the point where they are able to successfully steer practically every sphere of institutional life by embedding within them the logic of capital itself. This has culminated in a kind of culture where the self no longer has any space to develop or to rework itself that is not already shaped by the commodified logic of the market and remains unaffected by its normative parameters.

At the core of this is the idea of a self-regulating social system that achieves its ends only by recircuiting the self toward a system of compliance to the norms and institutions established by the prevailing reality. The cybernetic society must reengineer the self away from any form of individuality that it cannot colonize and control; it must subsume the self, pattern its internal dynamics and character structure toward what will be most efficient, most productive for the system as a whole. It achieves this through ever more efficient means of simplifying the entrance of the self into its own framework of norms, practices, and values. Previous periods of socialization left certain structures of the self intact such as sexuality or self-expression, nontraditional forms of belief, and so on. In the postwar era, specifically the 1960s and 1970s, these became sources for contradicting the logic of the system and undermining its core legitimation logics. But the cybernetic society has been able to capture these dimensions of the self in its web of norms and patterns of culture. The creative energies and power of sexuality are attenuated through their commodification in pornography just as drives for self-expression are captured by the market’s ability to shape and organize it according to patterns it can exploit. Culture is now no longer the sphere of difference capable of undermining the system’s logic; it is now its dutiful adjutant.

But whereas the welfare-state phase of capitalism gave rise to psychological and cultural strivings for extramarket values, the cybernetic society’s economic anxiety does not permit the questioning of its fundamental values; rather, it gives rise to a culture of neoauthoritarianism and reactionary populism.23 As insecurity rises, reactionary forces gain in strength as they revitalize group mentalities and look for security within the closed walls of reactionary identities. Even progressive forces have been shaped by these logics. Today, it is the protection of personal and group identity that has taken the place of the social solidarities of the past that sought to rearrange economic power and the directive capacities of elites toward the common good. In either case, the fundamental values that bind the logic of the system together in the minds of its participants remain essentially intact and secure. This has been achieved by transforming the fundamental institutions—formal, nonformal, and intimate—according to a new set of values, new ways of organizing the organizational and psychological structures. The merging of the individual with technology and capital is captured in the new forms of personalized technology, the “device,” that serve not only to alienate us from ourselves and our relational world but also, just as dangerously, to displace an authentic, spontaneous intrapsychic domain by the universe of commodities and commodified sensibilities.24 As Albert Borgmann writes: “In a device, the relatedness of the world is replaced by a machinery, but the machinery is concealed.”25 We therefore become literal extensions, even particular embodiments, of what Lewis Mumford called the “megamachine.”

My use of the term self in this book is not to be understood in some clinical sense nor in some overly broad philosophical sense. As I employ it, self refers to more than the inner organizational structure of the cognitive, affective, evaluative, libidinal, cathectic, and volitional dynamics of a person’s subjectivity. It defines the ways that we react to the outer world, how we articulate relations with others and with the self, and constitutes the inner framework of meaning for the individual and its capacity to generate ends and purposes for itself. The self is the basic substrate that is formed by socialization via our institutional lives and serves as the background framework for our conceptions of self and world. The danger is that the self’s distinctiveness can be compromised via its absorption of external social norms and ends that it comes to see as its own. The self’s power as a critical agent declines to the extent that its own capacity to generate ends and purposes are displaced by the prepatterned forms of life that systems of social authority are able to inculcate within us.

The root of the thesis that guides this book is that the self is, in a sense after Kierkegaard, not a substance or entity but an emergent product of the way we relate to ourselves or, as he put it, a “relation that relates to itself.”26 What Kierkegaard had in mind is the sense that each of us can, or perhaps cannot, bear the relation we have to ourselves; that is, do we live the lives we self-consciously authorize, or are we living a life that has been authorized and generated by others? My exploration of the defects of modern subjectivity take this insight as crucial; that is, the modern self is under threat of extinction by the social logics that seek to incorporate it into their own schemata. The robust, autonomous self possesses dimensions that are angular to the prevailing reality; it has the capacity to reflect on the conditions of its own existence, to be able to cognize and judge both self and world. The autonomous self is not separate from the world; it is embedded within it, but it has the reflective capacity to think about the world as an object of thought and to judge it. But under the pressures of what I am calling the cybernetic society, the self is being collapsed into the one-dimensionality of the imperatives of the systems that ensconce it, and instead of possessing the ability to cognize the world in objective terms, it merely extends that world further, unable to sever itself from its given logic.

In this sense, a self, as I see it, is the articulation of a relation to oneself: how one conceives of oneself, how one cognizes and imagines oneself, determines what the substance of one’s life actually is. Defective states of selfhood are therefore those where the relation one has to oneself has been disrupted and colonized by external ideas, conceptions, values, norms, and imaginative schemes. The twilight of the self, as I am calling it, is the result of this disruption in self-relating: it is the smothering of what would otherwise be a self-reflective, critical self that has been saturated by the inculcation of external normative schemes. Seen in this way, autonomous selfhood is a selfhood where the relation one has to oneself is self-consciously self-authorizing. But for this to be the case, the conception one has of oneself must be grasped ontologically; that is, such a self must be able to understand that one is relationally and practically embedded with others. This does not mean that we are dissolved into the relations we have with others. Rather, it means that, even in my own private states, I am always affected by others and affecting them; who I am is the product of the ensemble of current and past practical relations to others.

Power and domination are therefore crucial in this sense because, particularly in modern societies, they operate by infiltrating the self and reorganizing this self-relation. Their efficacy is measured by the extent to which they are able to organize our own ends and purposes for the ends and purposes of others, for the projects, the intentions, and the desires of others. The self loses its potency and enters the phase of twilight the more that it ceases to be in critical contact with its own capacity to posit ends and to call into question the collectively sanctioned goals of the community as a whole. For this reason, domination requires our compliance, and its effects on our social relations also starve the self of its relational nurturance, its need for developing in tandem with others in solidaristic forms of life that are generated and authorized by us. Perhaps more to the point, domination constricts the self’s capacity to emerge in its fullness and robustness; the higher the coefficient of domination within any society, the flatter, the more underdeveloped the self will become as its relation to itself and the world becomes increasingly determined by external dynamics and forces.

It is important to emphasize that the self is always formed and always exists in relation to others, that it is not static or in some way a black box from which our agency can emerge. Rather, it is always in formation and in reformation. The more that the self is rooted in external logics, norms, and values, the less potential for change will be possible and the more one’s agency, one’s ego, will become an extension of those external forces and interests. In this respect, the “ego” represents the core agency of a person and is itself patterned by the ways that self and other relate and create matrices of meaning and value. In this sense, the self is the crucible for the relational dynamics of any society. What is important about the modern idea and the moral status of autonomy is therefore not its Cartesian or Kantian cognitive isolation from relations but, rather, its more Rousseauian and Hegelian cast, its ability to judge the very matrices of self and other of which it is a part—to critique, from an internal point of view, the forms of social being that interlace with the self.

This insight means calling into question the ways that political consciousness and praxis have changed in recent decades. Whereas the nineteenth century witnessed strikes and protests driven by individuals with a desire for material justice and equality, by the real needs and interests, and the 1960s and 1970s were characterized by an idealism to deepen democracy, today’s youthful protesters post selfies on social media, the spectacle of protest compensating for inner frustrations, a need to be part of a crowd, a need for the thrill of sensation that crowds out the deeper structures of injustice and inequality that actually pervade their world. Whereas a new form of sociality was being born in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one rooted in a new conception of the individual and solidaristic association, the parallel process of the massification of society was also proceeding in tension along with it. The individual was being lost in what Georg Simmel referred to as the “tragedy of culture,” where anomie and alienation are more prevalent than solidarity and community. As time has gone on, even mainstream social science has picked up on the severity of this problem with the idea of the loss of “social capital.”27 But, however we measure and think of the problem, it continues to register in the ways that the individual has lost status as a moral and aesthetic resource against the dominant trends of uniformity and the patterned world that technological administrative capitalism has solidified.

My basic thesis is that the dominant tendencies of modern society can be explained by understanding these social shifts via a theory of the cybernetic society: a phase of social development marked by social relations that have displaced the organic forms of community and mechanical forms of solidarity that characterized earlier phases of social reality and replaced them with one rooted in efficiency, control, and conformed socialization. The values that permeate this world were once the object of critique and struggle; they were once the conscious antithesis of the Enlightened, humanistic forces of progress and democratization. They resisted the transformation of a society from one that was constructed for the common interest to one that was to be for the benefit of elites. But power now is primarily a matter of compliance: compliance to the coordinating norms and values that constitute the social order itself—that is, to the systemic regimes of activity that ensure the production of surplus and secure wealth-defense. These new forms of power are embedded in our cultural world and in the schemes of development that shape our norms and practices. As Aldous Huxley presciently noted: “In the light of what we have recently learned about animal behavior in general, and human behavior in particular, it has become clear that control through the punishment of undesirable behavior is less effective, in the long run, than control through the reinforcement of desirable behavior by rewards, and that government through terror works on the whole less well than government through the non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women and children.”28

Where thinkers such as Foucault saw a disciplinary society that carved up different institutional spaces—the school, the prison, the clinic, the asylum—as being distinct, enclosed spaces with their own logics of closure and discipline, cybernetic society unites the different spheres of society through the permeation of instrumental and administrative rationalities and positing ends of efficiency and profit that create a dynamic of isomorphism among what were previously discrete social spheres. Discipline now becomes displaced by the logic of organizational management, where it is not so much the discipline of the subject that is of importance but the maintenance of a system of control since now the technical and cultural means are available to ensure that the system itself will be able to socialize and normalize its own reproduction without immediate fear of a legitimation crisis or revolt. Now that “the factory has given way to the corporation,” as Deleuze argues about the nature of a society of control, “the family, the school, the army, the factory are no longer the distinct analogical spaces that converge toward an owner—state or private power—but coded figures—deformable and transformable—of a single corporation that now has only stockholders.”29

At the phenomenological level of the self, these structural and functional imperatives slip out of cognitive grasp and are experienced in the form of shredded social relations, shallow, narcissistic or overweaning family life (or its malignant obverse of abuse and neglect), the ever-present weight of competition for education, employment, and a futile search for satisfaction and security. Even more, the increased alienation is compensated for by more consumption and more identity-construction to prop up the empty self. Political life is either totally dismissed and absent, or it is a field in which to lose the self. Demonstrations no longer have organized, politically viable aims but vague moral aspirations whose participants receive psychic jolts in the form of collective effervescence rather than genuine solidarity and sober political realism in the service of real social transformation. The demise of the self as a critical agent, as an entity capable of autonomous reflection and motivation, has given way to one that is stuck in the groove of a system that seeks to steer it. This is what is at the heart of the cybernetic society: a cohesive, isomorphic pattern of social spheres that steers the individual through the normative transfiguration of consciousness and praxis. The root of the word cybernetics is the Greek word to “steer” or to “pilot,” as a ship; it refers to a system that is able to control and govern its various parts not through coercion but rather according to the logic of the organism; it is a mechanism that has taken on the status of an organism, where the parts that constitute the whole lose their own vitality and their own self-direction and take on their roles in uniformity for the system’s imperatives.

This dimension of the problem leads me to the second thesis that I put forward in the pages that follow—that of what I am calling the subsumption of the self, by which I mean the mechanisms by which the self becomes incorporated into the self-regulating matrix of social norms and practices that erode critical autonomy. I take the concept from Marx, who talked about the process of the “subsumption of labor,” whereby the practices of labor were first absorbed (subsumieren) by the logic of capital (or what Marx referred to as “formal subsumption”) and then, in time, labor would itself be transformed by that same logic (what he termed “real subsumption”). Marx describes this process as a “mode of compulsion,” a drive that is “not based on personal relations of domination and dependency, but simply on differing economic functions.”30 In this sense, what comes to compel and dominate the structures and practices of labor are no longer personal forms of domination and control but rather subordination to a systemic logic dictated by the quantified movement of profit accumulation. Marx argues that capital is able to transform the practices of labor and embed them within the logic of capital—of the efficient maximization of exploiting labor—and in the process transform them into something new; a new ontology of labor emerges, one that can only have further alienating consequences on the self.31

The subsumption of the self transposes this process onto the mechanisms of socialization that shape the intrapsychic organization of individuals. It entails a repatterning of the normative structures of consciousness and the very intentional capacities of the individual according to the logics of capital and the administrative apparatuses that encode it in our various institutions from economy to polity to culture. This repatterning occurs when the social schemata that are formed by these logics serve as the background conditions for the self: for one’s desires, the conceptual grids we use to mediate the world, and the forms of meaning and value that they communicate to us. This means that, in contrast to older theories that held to an automaton model of the reified individual, the subsumption of the self that occurs in the cybernetic society preserves the illusion of autonomy by embedding within consciousness the very desires and aspirations that can be filled by the system itself. It is the totalization of the false totality: the envelopment of self into the very machinations of the economic imperatives of total commodification. Everything from musical production, education, values, ideas about what is good, beautiful, and so on, are part of the highly textured fabric of the commodified world. The self is no longer in tension with this world but has been consumed by the system of things that it will consume in turn.32

This degrades the self’s sense and capacity for spontaneity and autonomy just as it suffocates the development of alternative imaginaries to the dominant structures and norms. In this sense, I want to broaden the application of this thesis by Marx to understand how the individual comes under the socializing pressures of the patterned system of norms that are internalized by the social system as a whole. Just as Marx’s theory of the subsumption of labor explains the way that labor itself comes under the quantitative reshaping of the commodity form, how the qualitative dimensions of skilled labor are transformed into quantitative dimensions of wage labor, so, too, with the self: the capacity for autonomy, for shifting our practical perspective on the world, now becomes compromised. The goal of subsumption—both of labor and of the self—is to make its object more manipulable, more apt for control and prediction. The self that undergoes the process of subsumption has had its generative mechanisms for cognition, judgment, and affect patterned according to the needs of the system. Reification now reaches its apex, and the consequences on self and society have been nothing short of catastrophic.

All of this means that a decidedly different paradigm for autonomy and the self needs to be considered if a critical philosophy of the present is to proceed, and this is the last thesis that I seek to develop in this book. I think that a conception of autonomy as critical agency is possible only once we are able to develop a kind of thinking that takes into account the properties of our relations with others and the purposes for which those relations are organized. Critical cognition needs to be able to think in terms of a critical social ontology—that is, according to the ways that the social forms of life we inhabit are designed, how relations are structured and the ends or purposes toward which my practices and norms are organized. Autonomy needs to be understood not in the Kantian sense of the private, self-legislating conscience thinking in formal or procedural terms. Rather, it must be able to undermine and explode the powers of reification by immanent critique—by counterposing pathological social forms with those that would enhance social freedom. Only once we begin to ask about the ways that our social world is constructed—how the dependent relations displace interdependent ones or how the pursuit of common goods are pushed aside for private advantage—will the edifice of the cybernetic society begin to crumble. The individual can only become a critical agent once again when it is able to have in view its own socially embedded essence, when our feeble “I-consciousness” transforms into a “we-consciousness.”

A reconstructed concept of autonomy as critical agency therefore seeks to expand our ideas of what individuality means. Contrary to liberal approaches, we must see that autonomy is a capacity of the self to reflect on the collective, associational world of which it is an integral part. It is a capacity to think through what kinds of associations, institutions, and goods that we as a society should commit. To think as an individual in an expanded sense, to have the requisite self-conception of oneself as a relational, cooperative being ensconced in collective practices that realize common purposes and ends, means to be autonomous in a critical sense. For it is only in this sense that the self possesses what we can call a rational form of self-consciousness. This way of thinking about our autonomy also, in the way that I am conceiving it, dialectically expands and enriches what the concept of association actually means. Only autonomous selves can articulate and sustain forms of sociality imbued with solidarism and common purpose—forms of association that are self-conscious of their practices, relations, and purposes and seek what is common to enrich each member of the association. In contrast, our culture seems to be moving either toward an anomic atomism, on the one hand, or a tribal conventionalism, on the other. Autonomy is, as I will seek to argue, the central concept needed for a revitalization of democratic politics, culture, and psychology.

Only once we shift our ontological perspective toward a self-understanding as sociopractical beings will we be able to properly grasp the degree of pathology that infects society and self and continues to plague our culture. Only a revitalized conception of autonomy will be able to reinvigorate forms of critical consciousness, make resonant once again the place of judgment in an age of control and conformity, and serve as a fulcrum against the power of reification. Autonomy is therefore not an irrelevant category, as misled latent postmodernists or falsely self-confident intersubjectivists would have us believe. Rather, it is the font of any critical form of judgment and any democratic expression of politics. A reconstruction of what autonomy means and why it is important entails moving away from the procedural, Kantian paradigm, which is rooted in postmetaphysics, and instead assuming a model that can once again grasp the ontological features, dynamics, and potentialities of social cooperation and the kinds of relations, ends, and purposes toward which rational, democratic selves should be committed. This idea picks up on the project, first undertaken by thinkers like Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx, among others, to provide the basis for a new kind of solidarity rooted in individual reason but also the essence of human life as interdependent, reciprocal, and essentially relational.

In this sense, the key problem of modern society has continued to be that of the danger of losing our grip on our own capacity for self-direction and individual, as well as collective, self-determination. The truly autonomous, rational self cognizes its own interdependence on others; it seeks the cultivation of common goods because they are a source of the individual good—an individual good that, in turn, can cultivate a social world where a free way of being can become concrete and not remain merely noumenal but become ontological. We cannot understand these ideas outside of the concept of power and how it has been changing since the end of the twentieth century. Alienation means, at its most fundamental level, the shift from being a causal agent over one’s life and social world to being a mere plaything of the forces of others. It means surrendering the most potent power we have as individual agents: that of the capacity to dissent, to disobey, to refuse in order to build something better, something more humane and more rational.

Tapping into this crucial energy of autonomous individuality is crucial if democratic vitality is once again to reanimate modern politics. Now, more than ever, we are confronted with forces that seek to fit each of us into a grand pattern of being, to manage and engineer not only our institutions but also our inner thoughts and desires, the very essence of our subjectivity. Or perhaps it is more correct to say that the forces that make up the cybernetic society must negate the power of spontaneous intelligence and the critical force of individual reason. Against this, each must struggle and encourage each other to do the same in order to resist the strong pull of cybernetic social systems. “I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind,” John Steinbeck boldly proclaimed in the middle of the twentieth century, “for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.”33


1. Robert Pippin aptly describes the nature of the ideal of autonomy seen from the vantage point of the eighteenth century: “Most generally construed, such an ideal simply expresses the oldest classical philosophical ideal: the possibility that human beings can regulate and evaluate their beliefs by rational self-reflection, that they can free themselves from interest, passion, tradition, prejudice and autonomously ‘rule’ their own thoughts, and that they can determine their actions as a result of self-reflection and rational evaluation, an evaluation the conclusions of which ought to bind any rational agent.” Robert Pippin, Modernism as a Philosophical Problem (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 12.

2. Elsewhere, I have tried to flesh out and formalize Rousseau’s important insight into the cultural and psychological dimensions of domination for contemporary theory. See Michael J. Thompson, The Domestication of Critical Theory (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).

3. Søren Kierkegaard, A Literary Review (1846; London: Penguin, 2001), 54.

4. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, trans. Tom Bottomore (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1961), 97 (translation modified).

5. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 92.

6. As Charles Thorpe has pointed out: “The isolation and powerlessness of individuals is a corollary of the autonomous power of systems: financial, technological, and military.” Charles Thorpe, Necroculture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 10 and passim.

7. Philip Cushman makes a similar argument: “The postwar era has been deeply influenced by psychology, oriented toward youth, focused on liberation, and obsessed with consumption. It has been driven by the culmination of two quintessentially American trends: the promise of individual salvation through the liberation of the self and a twentieth-century strategy based on the avoidance of economic stagnation (and thus a second depression) through the manipulation of consumption. The two trends joined forces to create a new dynamic, a striving for self-liberation through the compulsive purchase and consumption of goods, experiences, and celebrities. . . . The predominant self of the era, the empty self, is the engine that makes is all run.” Philip Cushman, Constructing the Self, Constructing America: A Cultural History of Psychotherapy (New York: Da Capo, 1995), 210–11.

8. Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (London: Penguin, 2014), 238 and passim; Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (London: Allen and Unwin, 1944), 81–103. Also see the important philosophical discussion in Volker Gerhardt, Selbstbestimmung: Das Prinzip der Individualität (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1999), 120–30; and Louis Dumont, Essays on Individualism: Modern Ideology in Anthropological Perspective (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 60ff.

9. J. B. Schneewind points out that “the new outlook that emerged by the end of the eighteenth century centered on the belief that all normal individuals are equally able to live together in a morality of self-governance. All of us, on this view, have an equal ability to see for ourselves what morality calls for and are in principle equally able to move ourselves to act accordingly, regardless of threats or rewards from others.” J. B. Schneewind, The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 4.

10. It should be emphasized that this trend culminated in Protestant liberalism. But in this development, it became obvious that the construction of the individual was to serve communal ends rather than generate its own purposes in the world. As such, a seed of heteronomy already existed at the origins of the liberal project. As James E. Block insightfully points out: “The very task of modernity, of Protestantism and liberalism, was to constitute entirely novel—largely majoritarian and participatory—forms of collective authority and legitimate process by which inclusive ends were to be formulated, societally institutionalized, and individually integrated. These were to take the form . . . of the open economic market, participatory political processes, voluntarist religious institutions, and community social norms. The result, which shattered traditional hierarchical civilization, was the Protestant-liberal civilization of modernity with its distinctive agency forms of authority, selfhood, and institutional organization.” James E. Block, A Nation of Agents: The American Path to a Modern Self and Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 23–24.

11. Hans W. Loewald, Psychoanalysis and the History of the Individual (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978), 15.

12. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone, 1994), 44–45.

13. Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (London: Zero Books, 2009), 9.

14. Even the ideals and values of the bourgeoisie have themselves been gutted by the intensification of capitalist dynamics. As T. W. Adorno observed at the dawn of the cybernetic society: “Whatever was once good and decent in bourgeois values, independence, perseverance, forethought, circumspection, has been corrupted utterly. For while bourgeois forms of existence are truculently conserved, their economic precondition has fallen away. Privacy has given way entirely to the privation it always secretly was, and with the stubborn adherence to particular interests is now mingled fury at being no longer able to perceive that things might be different and better.” Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (London: Verso, 1974), 34.

15. As James O’Connor observed from the vantage point of the early 1980s, when this phenomenon was first emerging: “Object fetishism included invidious distinction, emulation, symbolic determinations, and the ‘ceremonial character,’ but also that specialized ‘ceremonial needs’ were ‘naturally’ construed in terms of their capacity to be satisfied in the form of commodities. Needs acquired a ‘naturalness,’ which belied their social origins in capitalist accumulation, uneven and combined development, and, above all, class and social struggles.” James O’Connor, Accumulation Crisis (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984), 160. Also see the discussion in Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood, The World of Goods: An Anthropology of Consumption (New York: Routledge, 1979).

16. T. W. Adorno, “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Continuum, 1982), 270–99, 280.

17. See Joseph Stiglitz’s discussion of rent-seeking for a non-Marxian, yet critical, account of modern capitalist logics in his The Price of Inequality (New York: Norton, 2012). For a more trenchant discussion of the origins of these logics, see Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1975), 377.

18. Cf. Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), 219ff.

19. Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59 (1992): 3–7, 6.

20. Randy Martin, Financialization of Daily Life (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), 109.

21. Mandel, Late Capitalism, 504.

22. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications (New York: George Braziller, 1960), 10.

23. See the important discussion in Samir Gandesha, “‘Identifying with the Aggressor’: From the Authoritarian to Neoliberal Personality,” Constellations 25, no. 1 (2018): 147–64.

24. Anita Chari has pointed out in her study of reification that “the dominance of immaterial labor in contemporary capitalism points to a change in the position of subjectivity within the capitalist mode of production. As immaterial labor has become dominant within production, the production of subjectivity has taken on a direct role in the processes of capitalist accumulation. More and more features of social life become productive for capital: styles, forms of communication (Twitter, Facebook, smartphones), communities, affects, and desires.” Anita Chari, A Political Economy of the Senses: Neoliberalism, Reification, Critique (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 133.

25. Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 47.

26. See Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death (London: Penguin, 1989).

27. See Georg Simmel, “On the Concept and the Tragedy of Culture” (1911), in The Conflict in Modern Culture and Other Essays, trans. K. Peter Etzkorn (New York: Teachers College Press, 1968), 27–46. Note also the popular work of Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001).

28. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (New York: Harper and Row, 1958), 3.

29. Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” 6.

30. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: Vintage, 1977), 1021 and passim.

31. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri gesture toward what they call the “subsumption of society” by capital. As they see it, from the vantage point of the 1990s:

Postmodern capitalism should be understood first, or as a first approximation, in terms of what Marx called the phase of the real subsumption of society under capital. In the previous phase (that of the formal subsumption), capital operated a hegemony over social production, but there still remained numerous production processes that originated outside of capital as leftovers from the precapitalist era. Capital subsumes these foreign processes formally, bringing them under the reign of capitalist relations. In the phase of the real subsumption, capital no longer has an outside in the sense that these foreign processes of production have disappeared. All productive processes arise within capital itself and thus the production and reproduction of the entire social world take place within capital. The specifically capitalist rules of productive relations and capitalist exploitation that were developed in the factory have now seeped outside the factory walls to permeate and define all social relations—this is the sense in which we insist that contemporary society should now be recognized as a factory-society. (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, The Labor of Dionysus: A Critique of the State-Form [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994], 15)

Also see Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 255ff. But this view is insufficient to explain the richness of the transformation of the social and self-structures of the cybernetic society rather than a “factory-society.” As I will show, we need a more expanded grasp of the ways that social rationality, capitalist production, consumption regimes, and intrapsychic self-states are organized to fully explicate the pathologies of the present.

32. As Cornelius Castoriadis observes:

A new anthropological type of individual emerges, defined by greediness, frustration, generalized conformism. . . . All this is materialized in structures of massive weight: the mad and potentially lethal race of an autonomized technoscience, consumeristic, televisual, and advertising onanism, the atomization of society, the rapid technical and “moral” obsolescence of all “products,” “wealth” that, growing nonstop, melts between one’s fingers. Capitalism finally seems to have succeeded in fabricating the type of individual that “corresponds” to it: perpetually distracted, zapping from one “pleasure” to another, without memory or project, ready to respond to every solicitation of an economic machine that is increasingly destroying the planet’s biosphere in order to produce illusions called commodities. (Cornelius Castoriadis, “Done and to Be Done,” in The Castoriadis Reader, ed. David Ames Curtis [Oxford: Blackwell, 1997], 361–417, 415)

33. John Steinbeck, East of Eden (New York: Viking, 1952), 132.