Power Relations: Where the personal becomes political

an interview with Amedeo Policante, by Lorant Kiss

Many young people feel trapped in social media. It is a widely recognised feeling that Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat somehow make you addictive – more than this, it’s equally widely recognised that they make you depressed. How could we, as individuals, liberate ourselves from such structures that make us addicted and depressed?

Let me start from the idea of addiction. I think here we have a fundamental ambiguity. What do we mean when we say “I’m addicted to Facebook”? The notion of addiction has always been thought as an excess of desire. You’re addicted when your desire is so excessive that you cannot control yourself, you are no longer in power of yourself, but instead, you become a slave of the drug –  or in this case, of a digital platform – that directs your actions.

On the one hand, there is something profoundly terrorising for us as modern subjects. Through our modernity, liberal thought tells us that we are free subjects; addiction, be it to social media, impedes us from recognising ourselves as autonomous or independent subjects. On the other hand, I think, in a sense, there is something almost liberating in this experience of addiction. It is liberating in the sense that we liberate ourselves from what – to a very large extent – is a liberal myth, the myth of independence and autonomy.

Because to a very large extent, we are, in fact, exposed to powerful forces outside us. And obviously corporations have a huge power in that. Addiction today is everywhere, and it is largely manufactured and embedded in platforms in a very organised and planned way. There is a ubiquitous danger of all of these capitalist structures, from gambling corporations to Facebook to the appeal to our passions and our desires in order to direct us and govern us as consumers. But there is also a potential for a liberation, in the sense that this myth of power may help us  realise that we are in fact not free, we are not autonomous subjects, that freedom has to be struggled for materially in our relationship to these powerful forces. Addiction in that is a very interesting issue.

The way addiction is treated today is very personal. If you are addicted to a drug, you can cure it by taking certain pharmaceuticals or going to a psychoanalyst. If you take the psychoanalyst’s definition of addiction, it is defined as a disease, a disease of the mind. But addiction is largely a problem between yourself and the world. What is an important task for us today is to rethink addiction as a social and political issue: as something that is obviously personal, but also inevitably profoundly related with the way in which a platform like Facebook is built and designed, the way in which contemporary capitalism appeals to our desires in order to sell us commodities with the profound sense of isolation and despair that is related to our neoliberal individualised lives.

So, how do we liberate ourselves from that? I think the only answer is that our real liberation can be achieved only socially and politically, and what needs to be resisted is exactly the idea that you can attain an individual liberation from these. 

Art by Radu Carp

The climate change debate contains an interesting debate over the priority of structure and agency. Many people try to recycle and follow the “think globally, act locally” lifestyle, however some theorists warn that this is not enough and the problem is not mainly in people’s mentality but in the global economic structure, as 20 firms are behind the third of all carbon emissions. What is our personal responsibility: trying to reduce our ecological footprint and consume less, or protesting and actively promoting global changes and the deconstruction of the capitalist system?

I think this is a fundamental question about our relationship to power: to what extent can we think of ourselves as independent, autonomous agents that can transform the world through individual actions? And to what extent, instead, are we already captive in the structures of power that determine what we think and what we do in the world? 

Giving a straightforward answer is a little bit of a leap of faith. You will have some people taking a structuralist position, saying that freedom is always an illusion and you will have people taking a classical liberal position saying that the world is first and foremost built by individuals and structures of power are just the sum of individual actions. 

But what is interesting is exactly the way in which our individual experience is really constituted at the point of juncture between our objective experience of autonomy in our everyday life, the impression that we can change our behaviour, the way in which we act in the world, and our equally real experience of  impotence, our real experience of addiction, our real experience of hetero-direction, the real experience of being always moved by powers outside us and beyond us. 

Going back to the question of the environmental crisis, the interesting thing is, today even very powerful actors, like the World Economic Forum, have somehow already gone beyond this structure-agency distinction. If you take neoliberal programmes to resolve the environmental crisis, their solution has to do with changing, transforming individual incentives.

How do we solve the fires in the Amazon, that we saw raging in the forest during the summer? The neoliberal idea is that we need to give a different set of economic incentives to  people so that they will have a material interest in preserving the Amazon, rather than cutting it down in order to sell the land or to start plantations in the territory.

So in that sense, neoliberal governance already goes beyond this alternative between structural and individual causes, recognising that individual behaviour, individual actions are largely shaped by incentives and a set of incentives given by the market are variables that can be tinkered in order to obtain a certain behaviour. Whatever we think in terms of larger philosophical problems, living in a neoliberal society today, we are governed through these continuous manipulations of incentives, and therefore, there is no alternative between individual actions and structural change, as these two are always imbricated together. In order to act differently at the individual level, we need a different structural policy. 

The most popular discourse which criticises the mainstream ideology is the progressive leftist discourse. Since Marx, one of the axioms of this tradition is that “social being determines individual’s consciousness”. Leftist theorists generally do not want to create metaphysical frameworks to describe social reality and ontology. What do you think, is it necessary to create a large, metaphysical framework to reshape the relationship of human and nature, or can that project be successful grounded on a materialist ontology?

Once again, if we start from our individual everyday experience, here, we have an ambiguity. On the one hand, it seems intuitively true that our consciousness determines the way in which we act in the world. On the other hand, it also seems the way in which we experience the world in our everyday life is largely determined by our material everyday interactions with the world. And I think whatever we think of the primacy of consciousness over materiality in that debate, politically what seems important to remember is that, in the end, the only way that we can even transform our consciousness is through material practices. I come from a Catholic country, but even the experience of prayers, the most spiritual experience, is first and foremost a material experience. You have to put yourself in a certain material environment and you have to work with your body in a certain way in order to pray. 

The only way that we have in our everyday life to transform our consciousness and to change our social relations and our relationship with the world  is through material action. I am a materialist in that sense, and I am interested in thinking about the way consciousness arises from our material everyday engagement with the world. I think a materialist ontology is not necessarily an alternative to a metaphysical understanding of consciousness, but rather, if you take, for example, poet Walt Whitman, you can see it very clearly, that materialism can be profoundly spiritual. We do not have to pose a straightforward opposition between materialism and metaphysics; we can do with a metaphysical materialism. 

One big event of 2019 was the debate between Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson. Thinkers like Peterson talk about dominance hierarchies within society, referring to the analogy of the animal world and evolutionary psychology. Do you think that this narrative may be too simplistic, or could it be reconciled with a Foucauldian framework where power is dispersed in society, and the subject is a creation of power relations?

There is a fundamental contrast between the way in which Foucault thinks about these things and how Jordan Peterson thinks about these things. One of the main points of Jordan Peterson, or of people thinking in the framework of evolutionary psychology in general, is to naturalise power relations. And to a certain extent it is the question of whether power relations are rooted in fundamental, natural inequalities between men and women or racial inequalities – if our political and social world with all its inequalities is essentially a mirror of nature. 

And that is actually very appealing especially for a right wing discourse, because it excuses and naturalises power relationships. What is important for me in the works of Foucault is the fact that they aim precisely at denaturalising power relations in showing that even power relationships that may seem absolutely natural are in fact rooted in historically contingent structures of power. So I think what the Foucault – Peterson difference boils down to is a very different understanding of the lessons to be drawn from someone like Charles Darwin.

 For someone like Peterson, I think, Darwin, or the theory of evolution, is always invoked in order to naturalise power relations. Instead, I think there is a different Darwin that we can take inspiration from – the Darwin who Marx took inspiration from – who tells us exactly that nature, in the end, is just a crystalisation of historical processes. What appears as natural disparity of power is in fact the crystalisation of a certain historical process. And I think this is not just a theoretical problem about how we should read Darwin, as a natural philosopher, or almost like a post-human philosopher, but also has to do very importantly with our contemporary politics. 

When we look at something like race and racism, the danger with the framework taken by someone like Jordan Peterson is to naturalise racial inequalities and justify them as being rooted in something always already embedded in different bodies. There still are, for example, big debates concerning, for example, intelligence and its relations with racism, and I think instead what Foucault allows us to think of is how racialised bodies are produced historically. 

It is through the power relations that we are inscribed in our bodies and live in a society surrounded by different bodies that have different gradients of power. These differences in power should however not to be naturalised, but problematised: how does this difference in power become inscribed in our bodies? In this sense, Peterson and Foucault represent a very different thinking in how the power embodies.

The #MeToo movement was regarded as a project that contributed largely to the emancipation of women. Did the public discourse really serve women empowerment or it was just a flash in mainstream media?

I think the Me Too movement has been, and continues to be, very important – not for rhetorical reasons, but because it contributes to problematizing a very common sense way in which we think about our position in the world. Traditionally, in thinking of ourselves as liberal subjects, we make a distinction between the personal and political, between work and free time. In our everyday experience at work, for example, we are part of a hierarchical structure, like a corporation, and we are exposed to relationships of power within it, but this does not limit or change the fact that we are free outside of work. So the fact that we are exposed to hierarchical power structures at work is not in contradiction with the fact that we are free in the sexual sphere.

And I think that the Me Too movement really problematised this, showing the way in which power relations do in fact surround us much deeper than that, that today even something like sex is profoundly shaped by power relations. So, in this sense, Me Too continues to be a profound and potentially revolutionary movement, and continues to bring forward what has been a fundamental struggle of the feminist movements for many years, that the personal is political. What happens at work, what happens also within the realm of the house or within the realm of the oikos, is always already political – something that Aristotle for example was very adamant to keep separate in the distinction of the oikos and the polis

That being said, there is, of course, a real risk that this revolutionary potential may be killed and something like the Me Too movement, like other revolutionary movements, may be reduced to a flash in mainstream media if the question is reduced to a moralistic discourse about private individual actors and producers acting in a bad way.  Instead, I think, what we have to continue struggling for is to maintain Me Too, just like the environmental movement or the movement for mental health, open to be political movements that concern more generally the structures of power of society and our position in those structures of power.

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