In this chapter I will explore the genealogy of the psychic investment of ‘capitalism’ through the process of capitalization[i], which I describe as a ‘technology of micropractices’. These practices are most visible in the outworkings of the operation of mass media, advertising and the culture of consumerism and represent the culmination of a deeply ambivalent tradition in Western thought that has resulted in a profound ‘breach of faith toward everything that is’.[ii] For Apffel Marglin and Bush it is this breach, first articulated by René Descartes, that not only enabled unprecedented levels of human control and manipulation of the social and natural world but also lies today behind a deep alienation and meaninglessness. Since the sixteenth century, ‘control’ has been a key strategic value informing the explosion of technological development associated with the rise of the European West and its influence over other parts of the world. Hershock notes that what we refer to generically as ‘technology’ is actually a particular family or lineage of technologies that has arisen and been sustained through a complex of political, social, economic and cultural forces focused on the value of exerting control over our circumstances to enhance felt independence. This strategic value has delivered military and ecological destruction on a scale hitherto never attained, having co-evolved with and serviced the rise of the modern nation State[iii]. Writing from a Buddhist perspective, Hershock notes that although we remain related to others and to our environment, the prevalence of control fosters a dichotomous perspective on that relationship – a splitting into the objective and subjective – that facilitates treating our relations with others as either actually or potentially instrumental:

No longer intimately continuous with all things – that is, related internally – gaps open in what I can attend or hold in careful awareness. By ignoring what intimately connects who “I am” with what “I am not”, I render myself liable to being blindsided – subject to accidental or fateful events of the sort that cause the experience of trouble or suffering. Asserting independence through exercising technologically mediated control almost paradoxically renders us subject to new vulnerabilities.[iv]

Hershock believes that the single most important long-term cost of convenience and control – in the context of the availability of global commodities – is an overall erosion of relational quality resulting in a mounting incapacity for appreciation and contribution. He observes an overwhelming trend in contemporary commodity consumption practices in the compression of the temporal and spatial scope of consumption that it mimics a digital transition from not having to having – a transition that disallows any complex, improvised relational ground being navigated or any qualitative shift in relationality being initiated and sustained. Noting considerable implications for the nature and dynamics of the public sphere, he describes the market valorization of convenience and choice as signalling both a general narrowing of our horizons of personal responsibility and, over time, a severe compromise of relational capability and attunement. Each act of commodity consumption marks a smooth and efficient paving over of opportunities for developing the complex attentive and relational skills associated with contributory virtuosity. And, in the process of handing ourselves over to the purveyors of expertly designed and manufactured goods, services, knowledge products, and meaning, we are rendering ourselves increasingly in need of expert, globally mediated, care. Degraded environments, then, are inseparable from degraded consciousness, in a dual pattern of degradation that at once devalues what is experienced and lowers experiential quality. Hershock goes further and suggests that the colonization of consciousness is in many ways a more critical threat to our possibilities for realizing truly liberating environments than is the depletion of soil, the fouling of our rivers, lakes, seas, and skies. The mass media have become the primary system through which the attention economy manages to be a net producer of dramatic entropy or situations in which no matter what choices we make, they will not ultimately make much of a difference. This has among its salient effects the conservation of an uncontested space for the perseverance of liberal individualism and an ontological bias towards existents rather than relationships. To counteract our dramatic impoverishment and attentive atrophy, he commends the direct cultivation of appreciative and contributory virtuosity. Hershock looks to the cultivation or rehabilitation of a form of freedom understood as virtuosic skill in improvising meaningful interdependence. Desire, then, need not be solely viewed as a source of frustration arising from self-centred attachment or craving. Rather, with cultivation, desire can become a crucial factor in the immediate realization of an unprecedented responsiveness.[v]

At the heart of the dilemma outlined here is a decisive break in our understanding or appreciation of the ethical (under the sign of modernity), a break that has serviced the growing gap between our collective ability to discuss the ethical and devise effective strategies. These envisaged strategies would contribute to the cultivation of embodied micropractices consistent with the translation of our recognition of ‘ecological boundaries’ into demands for consistent lifestyle choices and practices for the great transition.[vi]

Foucault believed that a moral code per se is inadequate. For an action to be ‘moral’ it must not be reducible to an act or a series of acts conforming to a rule, a law, or a value. There is no moral conduct, for Foucault, that does not also call for the forming of oneself as an ethical subject; and no forming of the ethical subject without ‘modes of subjectification’ and an ‘ascetics’ or ‘practices of the self’ that support them.[vii] In the course of his work, Foucault makes clear that the modalities of self-formation are always potentially prescribed. In his work on Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison[viii], he discusses ‘biopower’ as the normalizing power of disciplinary practices that write the law into the body. However, in the later work, Foucault holds open the prospect for self-formation that cannot be reduced to the possibilities of normalizing power such as that exercised by the institutions of capital. He insists on the possibility of reflective modification of the sensibility of the self by the self, positing that there is no self without discipline, no discipline that does not also harbour opportunities for the arts of the self, and no effective ethics without such an aesthetic project. For Foucault a moment of freedom survives within subjectivity after all, at least when it is not reduced to a purely intellectual formation. Foucault resignifies freedom by locating it in relation to a historically situated rationality and a recalcitrant body. He tries to find a way to speak of the moments of individual self-direction that persist inside disciplinary power and to do so outside of a Kantian vocabulary. To engage ‘the limits that are imposed on us’ is, says Foucault,[ix] at the same time to ‘experiment with the possibility of going beyond them’. [x]

For Bennett, sensibility or refinement of new assemblage of sensible primorida, while culturally encoded and temperamentally delimited, is still educable to some degree. Like the code dimension of ethics, techniques of sensibility-formation are concerned with governing and refining behaviour. The difference is that these techniques respond to subtle norms of admirable behaviour and thought; they address the question of which modes of perception and which styles of comportment, and not simply which actions, are most laudable. She posits that this refinement might even make for a more resilient and careful approach to ethics. [xi]

[i] J. Nitzan and S. Bichler, Capital as Power: A Study of Order and Creorder (Routledge, 2009).

[ii] M. Boss, A Psychiatrist Discovers India (Oswald Wolf, 1965), at 102-121, cited in F. Apffel-Marglin and M. Bush, ‘Healing the Breach of Faith Toward Everything That Is: Integration in Academia’ (2005), available at <;.

[iii] J.C. Scott, Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale University Press, 1998)

[iv] See P.D. Hershock, n. 2 above, at 90-91.

[v] See P.D. Hershock, n. Error! Bookmark not defined. above, at 132. See also, P.D. Hershock, Liberating Intimacy: Enlightenment and Social Virtuosity in Ch’an Buddhism, (State University of New York, 1996); and P.D. Hershock, n. 2 above.

[vi] The New Economics Foundation, The Great Transition: A Tale of How it Turned Out Alright (New Economics Foundation, 2009).

[vii] M. Foucault, ‘An Ethics of Pleasure’ inJ. Johnston and S. Lotringer (eds.), Foucault Live, (Semiotext(e), 1989), at 266, cited in J. Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics  (Princeton University Press, 2001), at 144-146.

[viii] M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, (Vintage Books, 1995).

[ix] See J. Bennett, n. 14 above, at 150.

[x] Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?”, in Foucault Reader, 50, cited in J. Bennett, n. 14 above, at 146.

[xi]  Ibid., at 150.

[i]A call for a new political economy of attention: mindfulness as a new commons


Peter Doran


Our corporate culture has effectively severed us from human imagination. Our electronic devices intrude deeper and deeper into spaces that were once reserved for solitude, reflection and privacy. Our airwaves are filled with the tawdry and the absurd. Our systems of education and communication scorn the disciplines that allow us to see. We celebrate prosaic vocational skills and the ridiculous requirements of standardized tests. We have tossed those who think, including many teachers of the humanities, into a wilderness where they cannot find employment, remuneration or a voice. We follow the blind over the cliff. We make war on ourselves.[ii]

(Chris Hedges, 2012, Nation of Change, Tuesday, 10. July. (




How has the culture of capitalism – its psychic investment in colonizing our attention – compromised our collective ability to respond meaningfully to the challenges of sustainable development? There is an emerging consensus that consumerist excess and the media complex of consumerism are bad for us, environmentally, socially and psychologically. This chapter will present an argument that we may have underestimated the way in which our immersion in the ‘social logic’ of capitalist consumption actively constrains our attempts to understand and respond to the ecological crises at both a personal and political level – and that both dimensions of our response are bound together. To make the case, I look to Peter Hershock’s work, drawing on China’s Chan Buddhist philosophy for intimations of a worldview that challenges the West’s over-commitment to forms of ‘control’ in favour of a need for the cultivation of mindful and careful awareness – and an offering of unconditional attention.

In the stunning American movie, Detachment (2011), substitute teacher, Henry Barthes, drifts from school to school, classroom to classroom. During a one-month assignment in a failing public school Barthes finds a connection to the students and teachers who are all, in their own ways, experiencing a deep loss of connection, and negotiating a world so bereft of love and attention that they have become –in a way – invisible at work and at home. Screenwriter and former public school teacher, Carl Lund, has Barthes deliver a speech in his class room during a pivotal moment in the film:

Henry Barthes: How are you to imagine anything if the images are always provided for you? Doublethink. To deliberately believe in lies while knowing they’re false. Examples of this in everyday life: Oh, I need to be pretty to be happy. I need surgery to be pretty. I – I need to be thin. Famous. Fashionable. Our young men today are being told that women are whores. Bitches. Things to be screwed. Beaten. Shit on. And shamed.

This is a marketing holocaust. Twenty four hours a day, for the rest of our lives, the powers at be are hard at work dumbing us to death. So, to defend ourselves, and fight against assimilating this dullness into our thought processes, we must learn to read. To stimulate our own imagination. To cultivate our own consciousness. Our own belief systems. We all need these skills to defend, to preserve, our own minds.

Detachment (2011)

The nature of modern mass mediatized capitalism poses a direct threat to well-being at the most subtle levels of human experience: attention and intention. In so doing, a fertile ground is being prepared for a popular denial of the world’s ecological predicament, and innate faculties for personal and collective resilience are being undermined. In the words of Peter Hershock[iii], through the consumption of mass media (as well as other commodities), attention is exported out of our immediate situation:

This compromises relational depth and quality, effectively eroding presently obtaining patterns of mutual support and contribution, and triggers further and still more extensive commodity consumption. As this recursive process intensified beyond the point at which all major subsistence needs have been commodified, consciousness itself is effectively colonized. The relational capabilities of both persons and communities atrophy, situational diversity is converted into circumstantial variety, and the very resources needed to meaningfully respond to and resolve our suffering or troubles are systematically depleted.[iv]

In his book on Capitalist Realism, which opens with a chapter entitled, ‘It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’, Mark Fisher observes that over the past thirty years, capitalism has successfully installed a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including health care and education, should be run as a business.[v] Similarly, Bourdieu and Wacquant have described a ‘planetary vulgate’ that has taken hold in all advanced societies – a vocabulary replete with references to ‘globalization’ and ‘flexibility’, ‘governance and employability’, ‘underclass’ and ‘exclusion’, ‘new economy’ and ‘zero tolerance’. Multilateral environmental negotiations on the environment and climate change have their counterpart vocabularies informed by the neoliberal paradigm, including, inter alia: ‘consumption and production’, ‘corporate social responsibility’, ‘flexible mechanisms’, ‘economies in transition’ and ‘green growth’. For Bourdieu and Wacquant, the diffusion of this new planetary vulgate – from which the terms ‘capitalism’, ‘class’, ‘exploitation’, ‘domination’, and ‘inequality’ are conspicuous by their absence, is the result of a new type of imperialism whose effects are all the more powerful and pernicious in that it is promoted not only by the partisans of the neoliberal revolution who, under cover of ‘modernization’, have tried to remake the world by sweeping away the social and economic conquests of a century of social struggles, but also by cultural producers (researchers, writers and artists) and left-wing activists who still regard themselves as progressives. Comparing it to ethnic or gender domination, the authors believe that cultural imperialism is a form of ‘symbolic violence’ that relies on a relationship of constrained communication to extort submission.[vi]

The upshot has been a series of highly constrained debates at the UN-sponsored negotiations that have unfolded since the first Rio ‘Earth Summit’ (UNCED) in 1992 that take the form of a disavowal, when it comes to acknowledging that our well-being is now staked on our ability to address the all-consuming technology of capitalism and its active colonization of a new frontier that reaches into our experience of self and other, mind and nature. As Žižek has described,[vii] capitalism relies on a structural disavowal based on an overvaluing of individual belief – in the sense of inner subjective attitude – at the expense of the beliefs we exhibit and externalize in our behaviour. So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange – settling for an ironic distance. This corporate sponsored rupture, summed up in Saul Alinsky’s observation that ‘most people are eagerly groping for some medium, some means by which they can bridge the gap between their morals and their practices’,[viii] goes to the heart of the debate on well-being, redefining prosperity, and sustainable consumption. For the choices that confront us are not merely about our relations with the world and others. The choices must also embrace a much older conversation about our relations with the self.


[ii] C.Hed ges, 2012, Nation of Change, Tuesday, Viewed 10. July 2012. (

[iii] P.D. Hershock, Buddhism in the Public Sphere: Reorienting Global Interdependence (Routledge, 2006).

[iv] Ibid., at 86.

[v] M. Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Zero Books, 2009), at 17.

[vi] P. Bourdieu and L.Wacquant, ‘Neoliberal Newspeak: Notes on the New Planetary Vulgate’, 108 Radical Philosophy (2001) at 1.

[vii] Cited in M. Fisher, n. 4 above, at 13.

[viii] Saul Alinksky, Reveille for Radicals (Vintage Books, 1969), at 94.

22 September 2015

Nobody gets up in the morning and says to herself: ‘That’s a fine day to accelerate climate change and put the world on course for concentrations that are unprecedented in human history.’

Nobody – at least I hope – gets up in the morning and celebrates the fact that we are living through the sixth great mass extinction of species and plant life on earth. Indeed, just last week the WWF reported that due to pollution, industrial fishing and climate change, we have killed off half of all marine life in the past four decades.

Welcome to the age of the ‘Anthropocene’. We humans – you and I – are now the decisive agents of change in the Earth’s planetary and atmospheric systems.

Welcome To The Anthropocene

The age of the Anthropocene marks a critical threshold on humanity’s journey on Earth.  Collectively and individually we have provoked an unprecedented existential experiment that will test our ability to align the future of our institutions, behaviours and practices with the dynamic unfolding of the earth’s systems.

The signs are not good.

Johan Rockström and his team at the Stockholm Resilience Institute have identified a set of nine planetary boundaries or thresholds that define humanity’s safe operating space on earth. A number of critical thresholds are already being breached:

  • Climate change
  • Loss of biodiversity
  • Land system change, and
  • Altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorous and nitrogen)

Two of these critical thresholds, namely climate change and biosphere integrity, are what scientists call ‘core boundaries’. Significantly altering core boundaries will drive the earth towards a new state, with all of the unpredictable consequences that will herald.

Closer to home, politicians and sectoral interests may deny that we play a significant role in global ecological change, even as we continue to celebrate our historic role as the cockpit of the industrial revolution. However, there is plentiful evidence that Northern Ireland plays a significant role due to systemic failures in environmental governance in areas such as planning, oversight of farming practices, and environmental crime. [Not to mention our home-grown and climate change denial industry].

Our democratic system falls short in many ways, including its performance on environmental governance. We do not yet live in an ‘Environmental Democracy’, one rooted in the idea that meaningful public participation is critical to ensuring that land and natural resource decisions adequately and equitably address citizens’ interests. At its core, an Environmental Democracy involves three mutually reinforcing rights:

  • The right to freely access information on environmental quality and problems;
  • The right to participate meaningfully in decision-making; and
  • The right to seek enforcement of environmental laws or compensation for harm.

Protecting these rights, especially for the most marginalized and vulnerable should be the first step to promoting equity and fairness in sustainable development. Without essential rights, information exchange between governments and the public is stifled and decisions that harm communities and the environment cannot be adequately challenged or remedied. Establishing a strong legal foundation is the starting point for recognising, protecting and enforcing environmental democracy. This is a particular challenge in a clientelist system built on consociational government, wherein loyalties to sectional interest become embedded within informal party and governmental networks.

The need for a New Environmentalism

The challenges for environmental campaigners are also significant. There is a growing consensus that traditional campaigning is not working, especially when it comes to single issue approaches. Parts of the environmental NGO community in Northern Ireland has also struggled to retain an effective degree of autonomy due to funding structures and collaborative networks.

Demorah Doane, a former Director of the World Development Movement has observed that environmental groups are often fighting u-turns by government on hard ought policies, such as those on renewable energy supports. Similarly, anti-World Trade Organization campaigns have simply given way to yet another multilateral threat to democracy in the form of the Transatlantic Trade Partnership. Campaigns succeed in short-term wins but the overall direction of travel remains the same.

It seems there are three main reasons why campaigning is failing:

  1. “The Thin Yes”

Many of the so-called wins in recent years have failed because they haven’t been coupled with a long-term shift in values. In the mid-90s, Shell’s sinking of the Brent Spar was seen as a transformative event in the life of the company, a shift away from doing harm, to being a responsible corporate citizen. Today, Shell is drilling for oil in the arctic.

Micha White, one of the founders of the Occupy Movement, has also expressed his doubts. In a recent interview, he said: “Occupy was a perfect example of a social movement that should have worked according to the dominant theories of protest and activism. And yet, it failed.” Instead, he thinks we need to address the issue of belief. “What I am proposing is a type of activism that focuses on creating a mental shift in people. Basically an epiphany.”

  1. Campaigning can’t tackle a system

Doane observes how campaigns often need a clear ask e.g. a demand for a new law. What is needed, more often than not, however, is systemic change. But complexity doesn’t lend itself to campaigns, though some have tried.

  1. Combat v collaboration

Thirdly, Doane notes that as campaigners, we often know the buttons to press to get short-term wins. Usually this involves anger, using words such as “stop” this or “save” that. But campaigners also need to find ways to engage, either directly or indirectly, while maintaining their values. Long-term change won’t happen solely through protest. It will also demand forms of collaboration, including with the private sector.

Eco-System Change = Systems Change

There is an emerging consensus among agents of transformation that we need to move towards a more systems-oriented analysis and strategy. Otherwise, we may never effectively answer the question that is put so bluntly by Otto Scharmer and his colleagues at MIT:

‘Why do our actions collectively create results that so few people want? What keeps us locked into old ways of operating? And what can we do to transform the root problems that keep us trapped in the patterns of the past?’

Scharmer describes three fundamental disconnects in our decision-making systems, both governmental and corporate. They are ‘ecological’, ‘social’ and ‘spiritual’.

The ecological divide manifests in symptoms like environmental destruction.

The social divide manifests in increasing rates of poverty, inequity, fragmentation and polarization.

And the spiritual divide shows up in increased rates of burnout and depression, and in an increasing disconnect between GDP and people’s actual wellbeing.

Scharmer has called for a three-fold revolution: with a transformation of economic thinking [capitalism] at its heart. He has called for a shift in our economic system to an ‘eco-centred’ rather than ‘ego-centred’ paradigm, or move towards a systems perspective. This would entail an inversion or turning current practices inside-out when it comes to the individual, the relational and the institutional.

By individual inversion, Scharmer is referring to opening up our thinking, feeling, and will so that we can act as instruments for the future that already wants to emerge. He is calling for techniques that help us to interrupt habituated thinking and behavioral patterns so that we can be truly present to those trends that are calling for a new response. Another writer, Peter Hershock, describes the shift from one of technocratic ‘problem solving’ to one of ‘predicament resolution’. Predicaments demand more than technology and software, they demand a complementary shift in values, culture and knowing.

Scharmer’s relational inversion means opening up our communicative capacities and shifting from a focus on conformity and defensiveness to generative dialogue, so that groups can enter a space of thinking together, and collective creativity, and flow. This implies genuine listening, being present to diverse perspectives, and an openness to co-authoring the future, often by trial and error or creating safe ‘landing spots’ for experimentation.

Finally, institutional inversion means opening up the traditional geometries of power that re characterized by centralized hierarchies and decentralized competition, and a refocusing of institutions around co-creative stakeholder relationships in eco-systems that can generate wellbeing for government. Indeed, governments – re-imagined as ‘partners’ and ‘platforms’ must begin to adopt some of the logic and practices associated with the internet and digital commons.

The Emerging Commons of Collaboration and Open Government

The emergence of the Open Government Network and associated conversations is one of a multitude of signs that the world anticipated by Scharmer and others is already emergent.

In Northern Ireland there are new conversations around all three of the transformations or inversions that Scharmer anticipates: individual, relational and institutional. Some of the conversations have been provoked by a new energy in civil society in response to the brokenness of our political or elite institutions, and the accompanying poverty of language and spirit. In the midst of our fixation with the party gaming of our governance institutions we have, perhaps, lost sight of the deep spiritual poverty of the language that now imposes itself on our public discourse. The institutionalization of inter- and intra-communal competition has locked all of us into a paradigm of scarcity, which tracks – almost precisely – the language and calculus of neoliberalism.

Simultaneously, civil society is reaching out to emergent global conversations because our brokenness is not unique to the institutions of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. What we have in Northern Ireland is a context-specific expression of political failure…..but there are echoes within our dilemma that have a universal dimension, including the confrontation with neoliberal forms, the hollowing out of citizens and the retreat of the State.

For glimpses of transformation on all three fronts in Northern Ireland, consider:

  1. Individual: The vast numbers of individuals engaging in forms of ‘askesis’ or body-mind work (yoga, tai chi, martial arts, mindfulness, therapies), and alternative knowledge systems drawing from non-Western philosophical influences. The influence of these practices for appreciation of nature and a newfound appreciation of of our intimate ‘interbeing’ with natural systems should not be under-estimated.
  2. Relational: Alongside and perhaps because of the political blockages at elite level, there has been a proliferation of sponsored ‘societal conversations’ and reflection on ‘new narratives’ as individuals and organizations respond to a deep sense of the disconnect between elite political discourse and our lived experience. There is an emergent but palpable demand by citizens-led ‘hack’ into our decision-making processes that will release a new commons of collaboration and generosity.
  3. Institutional: The individual and relational inversions will require a reciprocal set of transformations at the level of our institutions. Demands for a new style of ‘partnership’ or ‘enabling’ governance, alongside co-production, are part of a new language that has been picked up in the work of the Carnegie-School of Law Roundtable on Measuring Wellbeing.

A Beginning

The Open Government revolution is one critical part of these global and local conversations that carry the seeds of a systemic transformation.

The Open Government ethos will be central to the realization of ‘environmental justice’.

It is interesting to note that ‘back to the landers’ communities in the United States were among the first to see a social use of the Internet and created early “virtual communities’ such as The Well, which influenced digital culture. Environmentalism and ecology were important inspirations for the Digital Commons revolution – which you can see from the language and terminology: ecosystems.

For over twenty years I have worked with the International Institute for Sustainable Development at the UN-sponsored negotiations on all the main Multilateral Environmental Agreements. The IISD’s reporting services is a virtual organization dedicated to working with UN Secretariats to bring unprecedented transparency, in real time, to international negotiations. We were pioneers in making use of the Internet to make this new level of transparency possible, disseminating our reports and analyses from the formal and informal exchanges.

What we have learned, however, is that ‘information’ alone is not sufficient.

A new ethos of participation and civic engagement will require a whole new style of government and a re-animation of civil society for effective engagement in decisions on: spending, legislation, and policy delivery.

Information and openness is a first step.

With the rise of the digital commons and commons-based collaboration across international networks, we are at the earliest stages of a timely transformation in the possibilities for a democratisation of governance and economic decision-making.

We are witnessing the emergence of a movement that envisages parts of government adopting the ethos and operating principles and practices of the Internet (e.g. blockchains), acting as a platform for collaboration and co-production:

  • Permissionless: highly decentralised, responsive;
  • Open: inclusive, facilitative of peer to peer predicament resolution and collaboration, and
  • Generative: from problem solving to predicament resolution (ethics, values, and technology combined)


See Otto Scharmer’s work at:

Deborah Doane, 2015, ‘The Protest Movement is Failing: It is Fighting the Same Old Battles With the Same Poor Results’: Accessed: 19 September 2015.

Rockstrom, Johan, et. al., 2015, Planetary Boundaries. See the work of the Stockholm Resilience Institute:

Nipun Mehta is the founder of ServiceSpace (formerly CharityFocus), an incubator of projects that works at the intersection of volunteerism, technology and gift-economy.Writing in Open Democracy (28.01.15) he – characteristically – puts his finger on the tensions invoked by the new langauge of the ‘gift economy’ once it becomes embedded within the discourses of the prevalent culture of economic transaction and consumerism.

He leans towards an alternative language of  (see below) ‘gift ecology’ to imply a ‘more intricate interplay of relationships that generate diversified – sometimes immeasurable – value’.

The shift is more than linguistic. It also implies a shift in our orientation to the world and other…a shift that Mehta describes as ‘rooted in selfless action’: ‘We have to transition from me to we to us, with the understanding that the small self is best served when it can let go to the bigger ecology.’

Research, he suggests, indicates that such a shift cannot be taught. Compassion cannot be taught…’but we can create the conditions for it to arise naturally’. In that sense, we cannot manufacture such a world or a culture. It has to emerge by tilling the soil and sowing the seeds, trusting that qualitatively different interconnections will ripen in an emergent ecosystem.

Mehta writes:

Looking at the trajectory, I now wonder about gift economy. Over the last 15 years, ServiceSpace has helped popularize the modern iteration of that idea. Smile Cards, Karma Kitchen and more. The essence of gifting is to give with no strings attached. That kind of giving creates relationships that are deep enough to facilitate a circle of giving — A gives to B, B gives to C, and C gives to A. It’s not just enough that A, B, and C are connected, but they have to be connected in a way that everyone trusts in a pay-forward interconnectivity. Only generosity can create that kind of economy. So if this phrase goes the way of its predecessors, if the unchecked momentum of economy overrides the gift, we will have cheapened the idea of generosity.

As Viral recently pointed out, gift ecology is probably a more suitable word. Economy reduces value into a few focused dimensions, whereas ecology implies a more intricate interplay of relationships that generate diversified — sometimes immeasurable — value. When we give freely, we naturally build affinities with recipients and over time, and create deep ties that form the basis of a gift ecology and a resilient society.

Of course, such an ecology is rooted in selfless action — which requires a significant inner transformation. In the deeper recesses of our mind, where the dominant pattern is to operate from a very narrow notion of self, we have to transition from me to we to us, with the understanding that the small self is best served when it can let go to the bigger ecology. A lot of research suggests that, for instance, we can’t teach compassion but we can create the conditions for it to arise naturally. In that sense, we can’t manufacture such a world or a culture. It has to emerge. We simply till the soil, sow the seeds, water the plants, and then trust the interconnections of the ecosystem to build its trees as the time ripens.

The Political Economy of Attention – Mindful Commons and Wellbeing

 When everything counts, of course you have to count everything! 

The drive for more comprehensive measurement is entirely consistent with the biopolitics of neoliberalism and ‘cognitive capitalism’.

In the meantime it is being lauded as part of the ‘Beyond GDP’ and wellbeing agenda.

Cognitive capitalism and the widespread substitution of governmentally by a culture of consumerism signals the near perfection of the absorption of the citizen-subject into the powerful material and cognitive circuits of production, as an expression of ‘Capital as Power’. Insofar as the corporate mediated art of driving consumption now drives ‘just-in-time- production, the imperative of the market is to colonise and [en]close the cognitive circuit or site of potential resistance that is the mind and attention disposition of the citizen.

This achievement signals the triumph of technology as understood by Heidegger. Consumerism as a culture and epistemology is the perfection of a Cartesian world view that posits the ‘subject’ and the ‘object’ [the world] independently.

The Closure of the Western Mind

Underlying Heidegger’s claims is the profound observation that modernity represents an exhaustion of ‘revealing’, a closure or epistemological enclosure that quietly insinuates…there is no more to be said. This is the root of the ‘end of philosophy’ discourse too.

Technology, materialised in consumer culture and extended latterly by neoliberal biopolitics and ‘consummativity’ (Luke, 1999) is the perfect ideology.

As a perfect ideology, it is, of course, invisible as such and appears (is presented) as ‘the way “things” are. This closure of the Western mind must now be met with an attempt to reach beyond this philosophical movement/moment to:

  • (i) Produce critical insight and knowledge of this closure as a function of capital as power;
  • (ii) Re-situate knowledge in practices that re-establish the life enhancing continuities between ‘relations’ to the self/body/ecology and an understanding of the closures enacted by capitalist and neoliberal logics that now colonize and ‘hollow out’ not only the State (in the name of freedom) but also hollow out the ‘self’ or the possibilities of the self as narration.

The Axis of Wellbeing: Subjective and Objective Approaches


Michel Foucault described the relationship with the self as the first moment of opposition, in the context of biopolitics. Behind his observation, of course, was a deep interest in practices of askesis in the Greek and Christian traditions. He pursued this interest in a more contemporary setting by visiting and practising in the Japanese Zen tradition in a monastery, reflecting on the future contribution of the tradition to European thought. Faucault’s intuition anticipated the depth and complexity of the relationship between ‘care of the self’ (e.g. in practices such as meditation allied to Buddhist and Christian ethics) and the structural determinants of ‘wellbeing’. In the ‘attention economy’, resistance and awareness are no longer strangers. Care of the body/mind is a source of insight more than ever today because our minds and bodies are colonised by the dominant matrix of Capitalist culture. Its contemporary expression as ‘algorithmic’ enclosure pursued by Neoliberal biopolitics, which targets all of life – human and non-human – for translation into ‘standing reserve’ for systems of consumption and production. These systems, in turn, have come under the ownership and control of dominant Capital so deeply enmeshed in inequality and exclusion that only a mediated form of ‘inverted totalitarianism’ (Wolin) could possibly sustain the illusion that such a world is either acceptable or sustainable on any measure.

Wright on Desire

Contemporary debates on the pitfalls of subjective or self-reported measures of ‘happiness’ are retracing steps that have been rehearsed by writers such as Lacan. According to Wright (2013) Lacan in his seventh seminar in particular, L’ethique de la psychoanalyse (1959-60) he engages very carefully with the eudaemonic theme within Western philosophy and moves toward an explicit politicization of conceptions of happiness, and a related recognition of the dangers of positive psychology and happiness studies.

Wright (2013) review of Lacan’s critique of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in Seminar Vll traces an important rupture that was first identified by Freud in the history of philosophical ethics. He does this in four steps:

Firstly, Aristotle inherits from Stoicism a foundational separation between appetitive desire and moral reason, between the passions and rationality (which Christianity would subsequently re-elaborate through practices of asceticism). For Aristotle, moral reasoning only begins once the realm of desire (the ‘hungry ghosts’, in Buddhism) is overcome.

Secondly, according to Wright (2013), with desire supposedly bracketed out, moral reason is conceived by Aristotle as the compass that orients a disciplining of the body and the psyche in good habits, character-building techniques, and practices of self-improvement, which in combination help the individual to adapt to his or her rightful place within a purposive reality. Virtue becomes a consciously willed conditioning of comportment, always in subservience to the single sovereign good.

Wright (2013:30) adds: ‘For almost two thousand years, moral philosophy proceeded largely under this Stoic diremption between the passions and moral reason. Moreover, following Decartes, it tended towards a conflation of consciousness and reason that displaced the field of sexuality, especially as unconscious, from that of the ethics of the good life.’

Thirdly, if Aristotle’s philosophical discourse centres on the notion of truth – the rationally arrived at truth of the sovereign good – it has something in common with psychoanalysis, which is likewise oriented toward truth. Yet it is not the same truth that is at stake: where philosophical truth is universal and conscious, psychoanalytic truth is singular and a product of the unconscious. Lacan (2008, cited in Wright 2013, p.30) has noted that the truth sought in psychoanalysis in a concrete experience is not that of a superior law. If the truth that is sought is one that frees, it is a truth that will be sought in the hiding place in the subject. It is a particular truth, pertaining to the most particular of laws, even if it is universal that this particularity is to be found in every human being.

Wright (2013, 30) notes the importance of this distinction:

‘If the collision of neoliberalism managerialism, self-help culture and the happiness industry is enabled by a common vision of the subject as in fact an object defined by its responsiveness to external techniques and environmental conditioning in predictable and therefore unrealisable ways, psychoanalysis, by contrast, exposes the properly subjective particularity of desire, and thus what we might call – in deliberate contravention of the aspirations of hedonic utilitarianism – ungovernable specificity.’

It is with this ungovernable specificity that the ‘self’ must come into relation as the first point of insight and resistance.

Wright (2013) concludes, fourthly, that this ethics of singularity enables Lacan to undertake a move similar to the Marxist one in exposing the particular socioeconomic conditions behind philosophy’s ‘universal’ claims.

Unlike the avant-gardists and other critical thinkers of the 20th Century, Lacan challenges  call for the drive to ‘liberate desire’ from repressive bourgeois culture. He follows a different line, arguing in Seminar Vll, that the more desire has supposedly been liberated, “the more we have, in fact, witnessed a growth in the incidence of genuine pathologies.” (Lacan, 2008, p.4).

Wright adds: ‘Lacan’s structural approach to perversion ensures that, though polymorphously perverse in essence, desire is not to be understood as the kind of unfettered libidinal freedom which early psychoanalysis seemed to promise in its opposition to social repression, which some radical thinkers such as Marcuse turned into a liberatory anti-capitalist political theory, yet which neoliberalism and consumerism subsequently adapted and adopted as its own hedonistic credo.’ (Wright 2013, 32) As Slavoj Žižek has insisted, far from repressing us, the contemporary super-ego enjoins us to enjoy, relentlessly and to ever-greater degrees.

Far from being a natural biological instinct that we could indulge fully if only social repression were lifted, psychoanalytic pleasure, according to Wright (2013) involves a desire for an object that is constitutively rather that contingently lost. Moreover, reality from a psychoanalytic perspective is not an objectively external realm where empirical objects meet our instinctual needs or do not, but a kind of compensatory fantasy projection in which we seek symbolic  objects that we hope might make good this primordial loss. Lacan concludes that human desire is simply not organised around the pleasurable satisfaction of bodily needs of the rational pursuit of universally shared goals.

In Translation: East Meets West Meets East

The Western philosophical (including psychoanalysis as critique) tradition has struggled to square an ethical project that reconciles universal claims (Aristotle, Decartes, Kant) with the need to fully integrate the life of ‘desire’ and the body/mind.

This is precisely the departure point for a Buddhist ethics allied to practice: the Buddhist inquiry identifies but does not seek to overcome ‘desire’ through practice and cultivation….in turn the Buddhist practices have encountered and entered into dialogue with the West’s discourses of universal social justice and human rights. Each set of traditions identifies a possibility in the other to address a blindspot or gap in the other’s orientation and insight.

As Žižek has pointed out many times, far from repressing us, the contemporary super-ego enjoins us to enjoy, relentlessly and to ever-greater degrees. With the rise of mass consumerism and the perfection of the art of public relations and advertising (borrowing directly from the legacy of Freud via Edward Bernays) ‘libidinal freedom’ a la Marcuse and others has been co-opted and fully integrated into capitalist circuits of production and consumption under the neon sign of neoliberal consumerism.

Zen and Chan Buddhist teachings, in particular, seem to meet Lacan where he points out that far from being a natural biological instinct that we could indulge fully if only social repression were lifted, psychoanalytic pleasure involves a desire for an object that is ‘constitutively’ rather than ‘contingently’ lost. Moreoever, reality from a psychoanalytic perspective is not an objectively external realm where empirical objects meet our instinctual needs or do not, but a kind of compensary fantasy projection in which we seek symbolic objects that we hope (in vain) might make good this primordial loss: as Lacan succinctly puts it, “we make reality out of pleasure” (Lacan, 2008, p.278 cited in Wright,2013, p. 32).

Wellbeing: a new arena of struggle 

To consider the central role of ‘attention’ and critical understanding of biopolitical regimes as a key mediator of ‘wellbeing’ understood as an emergent field of struggle over autonomy, freedom, and sustainability. [This implies, among other things, overcoming the dichotomy between ‘care for the self’ and our understanding of power structures (notably capitalist or neoliberal ontology: Capital as Power).

An interesting feature of this thesis is the contribution of non-Western thinking about ‘askesis’ or ‘practices’ entailed in care for the self….as potential moments of radical resistance and insight into the contemporary operation of power – the colonisation of attention, understood as a ‘new enclosure’ of the subject/citizen within global circuits of production-consumption.

Measurement of Wellbeing:

  1. The first question must always be ‘why are we having this conversation’;
  2. Why has our collective attention (as academics, policy communities, governments) fallen on this imperative.
  3. There is an institutional narrative that privileges the ‘policy community’ as the author of the various ‘measurement’ narratives, and which secures ‘our’ place as the sovereign author of the attempt to capture that which lies beyond ‘GDP’ in order to construct or capture (for government) those elements of ‘life’ that constitute the non-economic or irreducible components of wellbeing.
  4. There is another way to examine the history of measurement, of course. One that reverses our sense of ‘authorship’ and ‘ownership’ of the imperative, if you like.
  5. This approach begins with a historical approach to ‘capitalism’ and the dynamics of capitalism as they have evolved and adapted to ‘limit’ conditions such as ecological limits (‘externalities’ and the need to internalize those ‘externalities’). When capitalism internalizes those ‘externalities’ (constructions), of course, they are incorporated and monetized. Consider for example the current discourse of ‘valuing nature’ and ‘ecosystem services’. (cite UN figures: value of nature).
  6. Such is the historical approach taken by Moulier Boutang:
    1. Cognitive Capitalism
    2. Also a process of internalizeing ‘externalities’ (pollination)
    3. This process is also about measurement: a feature of structural transformations in capitalism
  7. To understand the structural transformations that are part of the current phase of capitalism we must undertand the way in which ‘value’ is now created and the way in which ‘capital as power’ entails control over much more than labour/factors of production when it comes to producing value:
    1. Capitalisation:

Cognitive Capitalism and Capitalist Restructuring

What does accumulation measure? CSP rejects any claims that there is an underlying determinant of value. Rather financial qualities – or the emergent construction of a pricing process – that translates qualities into quantities.

What are the qualities of accumulation?

How are the qualities of accumulation measured?

The measurement of accumulation is distributed. The pricing process is inter-subjective with multiple centres constructing the price.



Health, Culture and Society Volume 5, No. 1 (2013) |

It is at this point that Michel Foucault’s concept of ‘biopolitics’ can help us to understand the seemingly seamless translation of the discourses of ‘wellbeing’ and ‘flourishing’ into myriad aspects of contemporary life. Biopolitics emerged as a theme in the last of Foucault’s 1975-1976 Collège de France lectures, gathered under the title ‘Society Must be Defended’ (Foucault, 2003). It also appears, briefly, at the end of the first volume of his History of Sexuality, published as La Volonté de savoir also in 1976 (Foucault, 1998). It is only in the 1978-1979 Collège de France lectures however, that he comes to situate ‘The Birth of Biopolitics’ in relation to its accompanying political framework of liberalism and then neoliberalism.


  • Part of Foucault’s work on the transition between sovereignties:

Foucault on ‘biopolitics’ (Course Summary):

Biopolitics (origins in the 18th c. – the rationalization of the problems posed to governmental practice by phenomena characteristic of a set of living beings forming a ‘population’: health, hygiene, birthrate, life expectancy, race…(Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, 2008, 317)

Franco “Bifo” Beradi, The Soul At Work (2009):

  • “With the word biopolitics, Foucault introduces the idea that the history of power is the story of the living body being modeled by deeply mutational institutions and practices, capable of introducing behaviors and expectations and indeed permanent modifications in the living…(187)…(Neo)Liberalism is a political programme whose purpose implies the inoculation of the enterprise principle to every space of human relations:
  • Privatization and the fact that every fragment of the social sphere was reduced to the entrepreneurial model freed economic dynamics from any tie, be they political, social, ethical, juridical, union or environmental.
  • “…the more liberal deregulation eliminates any legal ties within production and the juridical person is freed from regulations, the more living social time is caught in linguistic, technological and psychological chains. (Beradi, p.188)
  • For Foucault biopolitics is a process of internalization: economic chains are incorporated in the physical and linguistic sphere once society has been freed from any formal rule. The question of freedom becomes ‘biopolitical’.
  • [‘Unpublished Sixth Chapter of Vol.1 of Marx’s Capital, refers to ‘formal subsumption’ (juridical) and ‘real subsumption’, the latter meaning that workers’ lifetimes are captured by the capital flow, and souls are pervaded by techno-linguistic chains. (cited, Beradi, p.188)
  • “The introduction of pervasive technologies, the computerization of productive processes and of social communication enact a molecular domination upon the collective nervous network. This is the domain of the dead object, the commodity, which objectifies human activity reducing it to a cognitive automatism.” (p.188)
  • Main Point: The translation of the ‘subject’: “Neoliberal

Wellbeing articulated as biopolitics:

Shift the analytical interest from state/population policy/governance to economic or capitalist strategies that take as their object the preservation or enhancement of vitality and wellbeing (neoliberal capitalism and changing concepts of life).

Lemke (Lecture):

Biopolitics to Biocapital:

Biotech innovations and biomedicine provoked new expectations. This vision has been taken up in ambitious action plans by OECD and EU.

The economy will soon transform itself into a ‘bio-economy’ (OECD to 2030) (OECD)

EU Commission stressed that a knowledge based bio-economy to strengthen EU competitiveness, protect environment and support renewable materials.

Central to this is stimulation and creation of new markets.

Capitalism and the life sciences: biocapital (2006) Biopolitics and Marxist critique of political economy. The emergence of the biosceinces marked a new phase of capitalism. The constitution of biocapitalism can be met through two perspectives.

Two models of sovereignty. On the one hand, there was the older model based on monarchical absolutism as exemplified in the king or queen’s power to “take life or let live” (Foucault, 1998, p.136). This model had already been partially displaced in the late eighteenth century by an “anatomo-politics of the human body” (Foucault, 1998, p.139 and Foucault, 2003, p.243) which, thanks to industrialization and intensifying European imperial competition, had begun to concern itself with rendering populations disciplined for work, and economically productive.

  • The key point about the ‘biopolitical’ is the engagement by governments (in an essentially economic project) in forging citizens and communities for industrialization and intensifying European imperial competition and the perceived need to render populations disciplined for work, and economically productive.
  • On the other hand however, Foucault maps the emergence of a distinct “biopolitics of the population” or even “of the human race” (ibid.) which is a “matter of taking control of life and the biological processes of man-as-species” (Foucault, 2003, pp.246-247). The key distinction between the two types of sovereignty therefore is that while disciplinary modes wielded the power of death over life, biopolitical modes assume the power to directly measure, produce, control, and regulate life itself. (p. 26)
  • While the anti-psychiatry movement (with which Foucault was associated) already recognised in the 1960s the disciplinary power behind the psychiatric label ‘madness’, today we should isolate in the much broader category of ‘mental health’, deployed well beyond the psychiatric institution, an intensification of these biopolitical modes of social control that colonise our sense of self. (p.26)
  • In the era of biopolitics health becomes the ideal (utilitarian) measure of its success:
  • “Now, in the 21st century, the elasticity of ‘health’ has enabled biopolitical forms of regulation to enter the very pores of contemporary selfhood, especially when discursively linked with happiness.” (p.26)
  • Foucault’s ‘Birth of Biopolitics’ lectures (2010):
    • Foucault explores two ideas of freedom:
    • Freedom in a certain revolutionary tradition has been conceived as a ‘natural possession’ endowing the subject with the right to overthrow a tyrant or despot (Locke);
    • Secondly: Foucault has identified a latter tradition of freedom as utilitarian and Anglo-American wherein freedom has been with regard to the government” (Foucault, 2010, p.42; cited in Wright, p. 26). In this latter tradition, the free market becomes the site of the exercise of this freedom as well as being the supposed mechanism of distributive justice. (Wright, p.26)
  • “Thus, if classical liberalism aimed to limit the power of the state, neoliberalism has succeeded in figuring this limitation as one specifically vis-à-vis its capacity to intervene in the planning, regulation or steering of the market mechanism. When the state interferes, claim neoliberals, it disrupts the market’s delivery of human happiness and wellbeing. [PN: so we get the rhetoric of the ‘nanny state’ as a subtle attack on the supposedly over-bearing interfering State].” (p.27)
    • In an interesting anticipation of the debates on the ‘enabling state’, Foucault has documented the retreat or eclipse of the state as understood in the old Weberian sense, that is the retreat of the state understood as the seat of power as such, but one component in a more complex and fluid dispositif of technologies of governmentality that would include private ‘providers’ .” (p.27) [Or in the language of ‘Outcomes’: contributors to the life opportunities of citizens, including private, non-governmental and governmental stakeholders].
  • Wright: “As Foucault presciently observes, this neoliberal dispositif ‘takes on the task of continuously and effectively taking charge of individuals and their wellbeing, wealth, and work, their way of being, behaving and even dying’ (Foucault, 2010, p.63).”
  • For Wright it is obvious that we should view Happiness Studies as an outgrowth of this neoliberal tradition that takes wellbeing as its object, precisely as it wrests that object from the hands of the ‘nanny state’ in order to monetize it. (p.27)
  • “Neoliberalism could be said to translate Benthamite utilitarian welfarism out of the Keynesian welfare state of the mid-20th Century and into a competitive health and happiness market emerging in the 21st” (p.27)


  • It was American neoliberalism that obliterated any remnant of classical liberal paternalism, moving decisively towards market fundamentalism. It dis so by extending economic modes of reasoning to traditionally non-economic dimensions of life, such that nothing, from birth to death and everything in between, could any longer escape the grid of fiscal intelligibility.


  • Echoing the image of the pollination: Mills suggests that American neoliberalism [form which the British Conservatives have adopted ‘compassionate conservatism, and translated this into their current attack on the Welfare system]…is, in Foucault’s words, “a general style o thought, analysis and imagination” (ibid, p.219)… “a whole way of being and thinking […] a type of relation between the governors and the governed much more than it is a technique of governors with regard to the governed.” (p.218, ibid, Foucault, 2010)



“It is this 360 degree extension of economic logic to traditionally non-economic dimensions of life, right up to the reinscription of both felt selfhood and the legitimate remit of the state, which helps us to understand Happiness Studies, the concept of flourishing, and the kind of subject they interpolate.

  • Foucault found at the core of American neoliberalism a subject conceived according to the theory of ‘human capital’, that is, as a nodal point in an overall input-output system. According to Human Capital theory, any investment of time and money inbuilding an individual’s skills and capacities – whether technical, emotional or cognitive – must increase the aggregate output in an economically measurable way. (p.27)
  • Foucault recognised the consequence that ‘all the problems of healthcare and public hygiene must […] be rethought as elements which [may] or may not improve human capital’ (Foucault, 230).
  • Beyond the mere absence of illness, health becomes an investment in a productive population.
  • This focus on humans as input/output devices [wherein the circuits of production and consumption are perfected, completed, joined up], amenable to training and (self)improvement, clearly opens the way to an alliance between neoliberalism and behavioural psychology, of which managerialism might be seen as one particularly pervasive consequence (see Fitzsimons, 2011) (cited in Mills, 2013, p27)



In his Flourish (2011), Seligman sets out the relationship in very clear terms: “positive emotion does much more than just feel pleasant: it is a neon sign that growth is under way, that psychological capital is accumulating. (2011:p66) (cited in Mill, p. 27)

Psychological capital today comes under the encompassing heading of ‘resilience’, a term that has been noted (see Neocleous 2013, Chandler 2013) now pulls together an array of claims, “from adaptation in corporate organizational cultures to risk management in security studies, from back-to-work schemes in occupational health to infrastructural capacity-building in transnational development.” (see Mill’s blog, referred p. 28)

Example from the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills: wellbeing

A 2008 report funded by the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – re-defines wellbeing as ‘mental capital’, with the author’s breezily asserting that “The idea of ‘capital’ naturally sparks associations with finance capital and it is both challenging and natural to think of the mind in this way.” (see mental-capital wellbeing executive summary) (cited in mills p.28)

Wright argues that “This translation of welfare into forms of fungible capital is playing a pivotal role in the dismantling of the National Health Service in the UK, subjecting it to cost-benefit analyses that ultimately only benefit the neoliberal state, and its goal of “privatized social policy” (Foucault, 2010, p.145). “

Wright goes on to dsicuss Lacan on the ‘Bourgeois Dream’ of Happiness

  • parallels with the cognitive capitalism critique that must begin with an understanding of psychology and power:

A key transition:

The productive nature of consumption (52): consumerism is the driver….

“The inscription of digital technical tools is so strong that the evolutionist current in economics comes to proposed a new distinction for goods and servies into three types of inputs:

  • hardware (the physical layer);
  • software (the logical layer); and
  • the wetware (the cerebral or living layer) (p.53)

Markers of cognitive capitalism ((p.50-52):

  • 7: we are witnessing a revolution in sequences of production, and therefore in the division of labour and its components.



[The global media complex, encompassing all forms of electronic audio, visual and text-based platforms, stands at the heart of the ‘cognitive economy’…..These are the platforms that constitute the ‘mediascape’ where many of us now live our lives in terms of their command of our time and attention]

For the Chan Buddhist scholar, philosopher and social theoriest, Peter Hershock, the mass media have played a profound role in embedding modern and market values throughout the contemporary lifeworld. (p.121, 2012)

“In addition to being a primary connective tissue between the public and private spheres, mass media have been instrumental in bringing about the commodification and commercialization of the most intimate and social dimensions of human need:

  • sensory stimulation
  • shared meaning making
  • identity construction and reinforcement, and
  • a sustained sense of belonging. (p 121)

Media history has exemplified both the value-laden nature of all technologies and the modern bias towards the values of autonomy and control.

“Technologies emerge as a function of complex systems of material and conceptual practices, embodying and deploying particular strategic values.” (p122)

As technological phenomenon, mass media cannot be effectively and critically engaged solely in terms of the information content they transmit. Mss media nd information and communications technology (ICT) more broadly also encompass the extraction of raw materials needed to manufacture ever-changing tools, the mareting and servicing of these tools, the “worlds” to which they provide access, the needs they help to instill, the changes they forster in communication practices and legal institutions, shifting patterns of global capital investment and exchange, and increasingly dense capacities for controlling the content and velocity of lived experience.” (p.122)

Comparing it to the splitting processes that have led to the release of energy from fossil fuels and from plutonium, Hershock observes that the post-modern, market- and media-facilitated splitting of community through which attention – the most basic form of human energy – is systematically “mined” and “released’ into global circulation. (p131)

Contemporary mass media and the communication tools through which they are being accesed grant nearly miraculous capacities for choosing and controlling what we experience, when, and with whom. In doing so, however, they promote an understanding and practice of community in which belonging is interpreted as essentially a function of choice, not commitment. (p.133) [Variety not diversity]


He cites the work of Michael Bugeja (2005) who fears that coming to view identity and community as fundamentally elective and spatially distributed will work against emotional and relational maturation:

“The digitization of identity and community – their subjection to an on/off, binary logic of liking/disliking, wanting/not wanting – is not only conducitve to fragmentary dynamics of the sort that can result in increasingly virulent fundamentalisms, but also to a radical attenuation of what we might call relational bandwidth.” (p.133)

The Advent of the Attention Economy


The dynamics of the global economy over the past several decades suggest that what is quite distinctive about the present era is the emergence of complex interdependencies that make possible what Georg Franck (1999a) described in a seminal article as the “capitalization of attention”. (cited on p 134)

Claims for the economic centrality of attention:

Goldhaber, 1997

Franck, 1999

Hershock, 1999, 2006

Davenport and Beck, 2002

Prescient and early article was by Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon who prediceted that the production and dissemination of information would eventually “consume the attention of recipients.”

Franck considers the attention economy to have always been a functional element in the social and economic organization of human societies, but one that has rapidly grown in centrality and overall importance from the era of modern industrialization onward.

The ontology of economics: rethinking

Hershock believes that the epochal shift from industrial capitalism to ental capitalism and from a material to an attention economy mandates rethinking the logic and ontology of economic processes; a rethinking that entails focusing explicitly on the ontological priority, not of independently existing things, being and processes but of relational qualities and discourses. (p.135-136)

Key points:

If have begun making a transition from industrial to mental capitalism, and from a material to an attention economy, we must ask how the attraction and retention of attention are – or are not- linked to the rising inequities that the global economy is apparently generated with respect to income, wealth and opportunity: (p.141)

  • Mass mediation effects an industrial extraction and export of attention energy;
  • The cumulative result is accelerating capital accumulation at industrial centres and the relative exhaustion and relational impoverishment of developmental peripheries.
  • “Seen from this perspective, the most deleterious effects of mass mediation do not lie in the program content being consumed as continuously as possibly by the global majority. The most profound and wide-reaching effects of mass mediation are the export of attention from consuers’ immediate environments, where it is crucial for maintaining local relational ecologies, and the resulting breakdown of these ecologies, which serves in turn as a recursively amplifying stimulus for the continued growth of the non-attention economy.” (p. 142)
  • “..the most prevalent and relationally powerful effects of mass mediation derive from how effectively it extracts and exports attention from our homes, schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, and communities. Time spent consuming mass market media is time not spent attending to the needs of one’s family, home , neighbourhood, or local community.

Heidegger and Technology: (Thiele, 1997, Polity, Vol. 29, No. 4)

For Heidegger, technology belongs to the realm of ‘revealing’, and so, to the realm of ‘truth’.

His departure point is the Greek concept of ‘producing’ (poiesis) and its german translation, ‘Hervor-bringen’ or ‘bringing forth’. Technology must be understood as a way of revealing, a way of bringing froth what was concealed.

The mode of revealing of modern technology is not the same as poiesis. The revealing associated with modern technology has the characeer of a setting-upon (Stellen), or challenging forth (Herausforderung) (Heidegger 1962, p.16).

Heidegger use the term Gestell meaning to ‘enframe’ to denote the special kind of revealing that constitutes the essence of modern technology.

Lucena explains:

“…modern technology’s revealing challenges nature in such a way that everything in it appears as stock, as a ‘standing reserve’ arranged to be ordered. Modern technology makes us see the whole reality as mere resources to be unrestrictedly used, as consumer good stripped of any intrinsic condition. Nature becomes, then, a gigantic gas station [Heidegger, 1959, p.20)” (p.104, Lucena)

The danger is not in the technology itself. Heideger’s concern is the distortion of human nature and subsequent los of meaning that results from technicity, that is, the technological style of life – not the destruction caused by specific technologies.

“The greatest danger lies in its essence, in its way of revealing, and this is shown in two ways. On the one hand, modern technology leads us to see other human beings only as ‘human resources’ that can be used as we wish. On the other hand, it leads us to establish a demanding and controlling relationship with the world surrounding us (nature in particular) that hinders a more adequate access, richer and deeper, to reality. “ (Lucena pp.104-5)

In Heidegger’s words, the essence of technology “threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call for a more primal truth”. (Heidegger 1962, p. 28).

“The real danger, “ writes Lucena, “is that the technological comprehension of the world becomes the sole way to relate to things and to other human beings; and, simultaneously, it remains hidden the very fact that technology unconceals Being in a particular, limited and exclusive way. The danger is, all in all, that everything appears as a technological problem: that calculative thinking is accepted as the sole possible way of thinking: that nature, politics, culture, and ideals become objects available for consumption.” (p.105, Lucena)

[Moreoever, merely applying ‘control’ in order to overcome the predicament of technology simply applies the same rationality, extends its power. “The control of technology, if possible, would leave us submitted to the unilateral imposition of Gestell.” (p.105, Lucena)


For Heidegger the predicament invites a new orientation.

“It is not, according to him [Heidegger], a task for the thinker to give such responses. He says only that by meditating about what still remains unthought we can prpare the disposition to wait for some absent god. Before asking what we shall do, we had better ask ourelves how must we think….The best attitude to be adopted is one of releasement, serenity, composure, detachment.” (p.113): so that our use of technology is accompanied by freedom so that we may let go of them if we want to . To be able to say yes and no at the same time to these devices.

For Heidegger modernity is the age in which the will to power becomes autonomous and seks only the dominance in itself. It is the age that consolidates the separation between object and subject, and turns the subject into the centre and measure of everything. (p.117, Lucena)

So our relationship with the things is reduced to the representation of objects. The present time, characterized by the dominance o technology, follows this wao to its very end. The object disappears and is transmuted into standing reserve.

“modernity shows, then, its real face: it si the age of technological nihilism.” (p.118, Lucena)


The politics of attention point us back to Foucault’s final project:

For McGushin, Foucault’s final works contain two important moments that sum up the beginning of a respone to the political economy of attention (biopower):

  1. The diagnostic moment
  2. The etho-poetic moment

McGushin explains:

First, discourses about the ‘individual’ and about the truth of the self are always linked to the functioning of disciplinary power, normalization and biopolitics;

Second, talk about the self is “meaningless’ in the sense that these discourses tend to replace the political and ethical meanings of the question.

See McGushin book for CENTRAL QUESTION

Attention and Power:

  1. Hershock
  2. Loy
  3. Foucault
  4. Moulier Boutang
  5. Zizek
  6. Kindle edition….
  7. Soul
  8. Gabor Mate – addiction

Some links

  1. The rats – addiction experiment

Haari and research on rats: addiction

  • Attention (attenuation of our lifeworld: loneliness, hyper-individualism
  • Disavowal as a way of life: we cannot influence our environments so we must live with a kind of obligatory cognitive dissonance: we are invited to fracture the road from ‘head to heart’ by disavowing the pathologies of our systems (capitalism) while remaining immersed and dependent on their offerings.
  • The lonely rats….
  1. Scharmer/Mehtu (Gandhian inspired ‘giftism’ – intention) – subject/object construction (modernity)
  2. The Stone TedX – Deeper Materialism
    1. Attenuation of attention (192, Hershock, Reinventing the Wheel)
  3. Capitalization of Attention: Georg Franck (1999a) –

The monetization of Attention

Capital As Power

Foucault: Askesis and Critique

Wellbeing and Resistance


Wright, C. (2013) ‘Against Flourishing: Wellbeing as biopolitics, and the psychoanalytic alternative’, in Health, Culture and Society, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp.20-35.