Tag Archives: control society

Moscow’s pandemic in the not-so-smart city. Part 3: Surveillant Assemblage

In our third blog post of our book chapter, on which these posts are based, we turn the next part of our chapter where we discuss theories of surveillant assemblage.

Haggerty and Ericson proposed a theory of surveillant assemblage in 2000 in the British Journal of Sociology. This develops Deleuze’s control society ideas: human bodies are abstracted “from their territorial settings, … separating them into a series of discrete flows. These flows are then reassembled in different locations as discrete and virtual ‘data doubles’. The surveillant assemblage transforms the purposes of surveillance and the hierarchies of surveillance, as well as the institution of privacy.” Like Deleuze, emphasis is on the seamlessness, continuity, and ability of the system to ‘modulate’ itself. However, the Moscow case gives cause to inject a note of reality – in our chapter we write about ‘a collapse of upravliamosti [manageability]. The Moscow QR assemblage demonstrated the relative powerlessness of the digital overseer precisely because it was itself a hybrid assemblage of ‘technocratic phantasms of City Hall, infectious viruses, disobedient bodies, dependent taxi-drivers, at-risk-of-infection police-officers,  masks and gloves, different kinds of smartphones, unstable apps, electronic passes and their print-outs, crashing platforms, and financial penalties.’ In reality we observe interruption, discontinuity, and detuning as the attributes of technosocial control.

In a much more recent Deleuzian approach, Mark Andrejevic proposes three defining characteristics of automated surveillance: operationalism, environmentality and framelessness. In each case Andrejevic highlights how these supplement Deleuze’s insights because they illustrate how the control society reveals the post-representational character of surveillance. The capacity for the semi-autonomous system of control to pre-empt or predict is key to this movement. But, this is only possible by virtue of comprehensive monitoring in a multi-scalar way – i.e. of populations and individuals in a defined shared environment. The Moscow case is interesting as it stretches this task to the most ambitious frame, possibly even exceeding that attemped in China – for Moscow has arguably freer mobility. Operationalism refers to the capacity of the system to respond to inputs; environmentality – to the way the system is able to adjust the context of action; framelessness – to the limitless potential for the system to granulate data collection. Andrejevich rightly notes the antipathy towards (or perhaps better, the absence of) the political, and the de-subjectivation of the person or human in the logic of his elaboration of control society. Operation replaces deliberative action in a way that inevitably results in perilous technoutopian thinking. Green (2019), like Andrejevic, sees the problem of the control society in the unstated assumptions about the conflict in deliberation about the embedded values in technology. In what is now a staple critique, all operationalisations of control efface what are at root political decisions about the value of outcomes and the relative value of citizens – whether prioritizing car flow over public transport, or marking ethnic minorities as a higher risk for criminality. 

However, again, we return to the reality of Moscow – where in the QR saga the checking of codes, like the enforcement of masks, develops into a simulacrum – it masks reality. A great example being police-officers using broken scanners to pretend to scan QRs, or tapping random numbers into a device whose interface is broken. In the last part of our chapter, we analyse the Social Monitoring app in Moscow introduced at the end of April 2020. Both infected and close-contacts were required to observe ‘self-isolation at home’ and to install a mobile app after having been photographed. Notoriously, the app started sending out push-notifications to the isolating, demanding uploaded selfies at all hours of the day and night, seemingly at random. The selfies were supposedly uploaded to a server of City Hall. Failing to provide a selfie, or leaving one’s apartment resulted in an automated fine  of 4000 rb. Those isolating reported push notifications a minute apart and cumulative fines for infractions sometimes reached 80,000rb. In our chapter we summarise the IT specialists’ assessment of the security and coding flaws in the SM app – how it was cannibalized from a completely different monitoring system, to its coding and resource bloat, to its insecure transmission and storage of personal data (via Estonia to private German servers)

In May, Evgeny Danchenkov, of ‘Glavkontrol’ reported that 216 million roubles of fines had been imposed. Every third app user received a fine, although City Hall claimed that only one in nine did. The vast majority of fines were not due to real infractions: geolocation was inaccurately recorded, face recognition didn’t always work – all things one would have predicted. Internet defence communities were formed to fight the ‘SM terror’ and a class action lawsuit prepared, while the authorities talked of the need for ‘social responsibility’. Ekaterina Shulman predicted an integration of sanitary surveillance and the security services and the emergence of Rospotrebnadzor (Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights)* as an independent political security structure within the Russian state. That looks less realistic now, although certainly it enjoyed exercising power over areas of life not previously its purview. Agamben’s updated argument about a permanent state of exception is worth consideration (the ‘worst possible scenario’ dictates a regime of political rationality regardless of reality). This may help when we analyse how agencies like Rospotrebnadzor are unwilling to give up powers granted once there is no public health logic in their enforcement of the ‘obligation of health’ as a condition of mobility – like their monopoly on third country entry points to Russian airports, for example. Many will have heard of Europeans being turned away at the border with Russia (the point of entry being an international airport) because they flew via Amsterdam instead of Paris. Even now in late 2021, airlines are at a loss at the complexity of the rules on testing, isolation and third-country entry, to the degree that in my last trip to Russia, I was handed a phone by check-in staff in Copenhagen to ‘negotiate’ my entry to Russia with border control at Sheremetyevo. My pretty straight-forward itinerary, visa- and vaccine-status was ‘illegible’ to Finnair staff.

A further post will follow on our chapter. In the meantime, consider purchasing the Russian-language book linked to at the top of the post and supporting our co-authors’ and editors’ work. There are many other interesting chapters in the work.

*Note: Rospotrebnadzor is currently claiming the right to define the level of antibodies in the blood that ensure protection from Covid with a view to extending its remit in the issue of Covid passports to those with high antibody counts. Rospotrebnadzor is not part of the Ministry of Health but reports direct to the Russian Government and employs over 100,000 people. Since 2014 the agency has regained significant powers to collect informal economic rents.

Moscow’s pandemic in the not-so-smart city. Part 2: Social monitoring and prostheses of control

In the second part of our book chapter, on which these posts are based, we turn to a description of the steps the Moscow government made at the beginning of the pandemic. The Russian pandemic ‘began’ in Moscow. Perhaps out of admission of the Russian state’s low capacity, perhaps out of cynicism, the federal centre ‘delegated’ to the regions responsibility for measures against Covid. Certainly part of the logic was to preserve the austerity politics the centre has pursued for some time; from the perspective of today, Russian fiscal expansion to cope with Covid has been among the smallest proportions of GDP in the developed world.  For example, one of the early ‘responses’ was a capped 8% loan to a limited groups of SMEs – hardly comparable to the significant support in some other complex and service-orientated economies. Now problems are emerging with a promised 3% loan cap for small businesses. The GDP deficit never even reached 5% during the pandemic and is now back in surplus (compare this to the immediate fiscal response in Anglo-Saxon countries that was nearly 10% of GDP). The refusal to make use of fiscal ‘space’ by the government in 2020-21 is not only criminal, but economically illiterate. Poverty rates have risen by around 10%. For the first time I’ve encountered beggars in even the smallest towns.

The implementation of QR codes made Moscow’s response in 2020 famous, but the first use of these was actually in Kazan. From 15 April 2020, QR codes in Moscow were required for internal movement. In reality though, the limits on mobility without the use of codes was hazy – taking out rubbish, walking pets 100m from residence all allowed Muscovites to test the practical limits. Of note is the enrolment as ‘police’ of Moscow’s taxi drivers – now required to check QR codes of their passengers, as were turnstile controllers employed by Moscow Transit Authority. By the end of April, a ‘social monitoring’ app was imposed on the infected to enforce ‘home quarantine’.  The ‘mask-glove regime’ was introduced in May 2020 and is absurdly still in force as of November 2021, although since summer 2021 I have rarely seen anyone in transit wearing gloves. Interestingly, the full regime seems to be only enforced in one of the higher-end shopping chains.

In the chapter version of our research, we reflect on the Moscow authorities’ attempt to emulate China’s fangkong system of public health surveillance. We also contrast the Russian ‘Social Monitoring’ system with Singapore’s horizontal TraceTogether system, and Seoul’s use of mobile and banking app data to track individuals. Arguably, Moscow’s system was most similar to China’s Alipay Health Code, although the latter was both more sophisticated and less transparent in operation. The Moscow Social Monitoring app was plagued by bugs and ‘dirty’ code, seemingly slapped together in just a few weeks and was a far cry from the initial promises by City Hall that a system like Seoul’s personal data aggregation was planned.

What can we learn from re-reading Deleuze’s 1990 ‘Control Society’ essay? This is a post-institutional look at control. Deleuze pessimistically sees Foucault’s governmentalizing (the ‘sovereign’ person learns to love the policing of herself) as transient. Using the metaphor of a corporation, Deleuze foresees control as continual adjustment via the codifed ‘dividualization’ of information about people (did he read Marilyn Strathern on the quiet?). Deleuze anticipates how technology can create a kind of double of an individual based on her data trail – and that this trail can enable control mechanisms via real-time exploitation of data – what Deleuze and Guattari call a ‘universal modulation’. Presciently, Deleuze also sees this logic as destroying the rationale for traditional state institutions (why do we need a hospital or public health system based on evaluation of evidence and research, when an algorithm can be pre-programmed to optimise health outcomes on the basis of a simple risk calculation? Do you take a particular diabetes or asthma drug, asks the algo? Then your mobility card is automatically blocked when R-reproduction reaches a certain point). Judgement is suspended on the basis of simple big-data calculations of relative risk.

But what does the imperfect implementation of this logic look like in the case of Moscow in 2020? On 15th April, QR codes for essential journeys were supposed to be available for download from the City Hall website, but immediately the site was shown to crash repeatedly under the demand. The embedding of QR codes into the existing digital infrastructure of ride-hailing apps also failed ‘due to the providers not yet having found a way of doing this’. What we observe is an interesting example of improvisation based on using old tech for new purposes – a 2015 app from the Transit Authority was repurposed for use in hand-held tablets by law-enforcement personnel. Enormous queues at Metro stations formed, giving a fundamental insight into technology-led surveillance policy, one that is not so different from elsewhere: almost no ‘real-world’ contingencies were really considered. For example, what was the lone Rosguard officer supposed to do with someone whose code didn’t work? It became clear that only the first link in the chain was considered. The sight of law enforcement telephoning for advice and their superiors having no response was repeated over and over.

In late April 2020 the QR was finally linked to individualized travel cards (noting that these are a small minority of cards in use – the majority being anonymous cards that you can load with credit). Despite this advance, police did not change their protocol – they still required a barcode or QR and did not have the capacity to read the travel card’s Covid validity. The much admired private sector was no better. The Yandex taxi app is a sophisticated piece of flexible software allowing you to tell the aggregator whether your driver is wearing a seatbelt, has good taste in music, etc, and allows you to leave a tip or not. In our chapter, we discuss the potential for this IT giant to have assisted City Hall’s control society. It did aggregate its own data about Covid risk using geolocation data and published it publicly. But this was not integrated into the City’s response and clearly City Hall feared the dilution of central control.  In the next part of our chapter and in the next blog post tomorrow, we discuss the relevance of theories of ‘surveillant assemblage’.

From authoritarian neoliberalism via the control society to surveillance capitalism? (Part V in a series)

taped off play area in Moscow in spring 2020

This is the penultimate in a series of posts on ‘everyday’ political economy. The long read is now published here.

I ended the last post by talking about a long-term and ongoing phenomenon – the way SEZ’s offer a devils bargain to Russians and how they burn through labour. Another finding from my work that is as true today as 10 years ago is that many workers who ‘fail’ in the SEZs, more often end up in the ranks of lumpen, surplus populations undertaking everyday ‘microproletarian economies’ (Gago 2017:19). In this sense, the most marginal part of the Russian population takes on the task of maintaining the dynamism of what Verónica Gago has called  ‘neoliberalism from below’. There may be a space within this dynamic to resist exploitation and dispossession but this itself becomes a ‘foundation for an intensification of that exploitation and dispossession’ (Gago 2017: 11).

Ovsyannikova (2016) criticizes Matveev for using the term neoliberalism to Russia in part because she believes the social state trumps any deregulatory momentum. She cites labour protections and (from the perspective of 2016) lack of pension reform as examples. However, empirical evidence shows that employment protection in Russia is ‘poorly observed’ (Gimpelson et al. 2010) to put it mildly. Pension reform did go head, despite enormous opposition and prior commitments to indexation were diluted to the point that in the future it is likely the universal element will be replaced by means-testing. Ovsyannikova argues that ‘monetisation of welfare benefits’ was overdue because of underfunding and piecemeal in execution.  However she ignores how monetisation closely matches patterns of welfare residualization elsewhere which are key to the austerity politics of the World Bank and other international institutions (see Wengle and Rasell 2008: 749).[1] Monetisation also contains within itself the key logic of ‘choosing’ deserving groups and making them ‘responsible’ citizens (Kourachanis 2020).

As Simon Shields (2019: 657) notes in the Polish case, family-focussed welfare reform can act as a form of ‘neoliberal social innovation’ by appropriating the micro-scale of social reproduction as a further space of responsibilization (of benefits linked to parenthood, upbringing, domestic work) and privatization (of former entitlements such as pre-school childcare). In addition, the diffusion through welfare states of conditionality is a key plank in neoliberal reform because it realises a critique of social rights on both a discursive and structural level (Pieterse 2003, in Bindman 2017). Eleanor Bindman also reminds us of the genealogy of responsibilization in social policy stretching back to Soviet ideas around welfare provision.[2] Julie Hemment (2009) points out that in the Russian case rhetorical concessions to a social state are not matched by policy – if anything, they serve as a cover for accelerating change. Even a generous interpretation of the remnants of the social state reveals extreme conditionality, narrow and patchy coverage, and tokenistic, piecemeal provision in cases of extreme social distress.[3]

The retreat of the social state is nothing new and not peculiar to post-socialist states. However, as the thesis of authoritarian neoliberalism proposes, during periods of crisis contingent necessity results in incoherence or heterogeneity of the state bureaucratic function. This merely underlines its punitive or delegative relations to the individual. The state’s response to Covid-19 in Russia and its similarities and differences to core states are instructive. First, a knee-jerk authoritarian lock-down followed by a hurry to delegate responsibility back to the individual and downplay both the social costs and state responsibility. Russia, like other neoliberal developed economies, offered very limited income support for livelihoods, especially among the self-employed and poor. This affected not only lumpenized informal workers like taxi-drivers and construction workers, but also the burgeoning ‘freelancer’-precariat white-collar workers – an important category in Russia, as elsewhere where there is high ‘human capital’[4] but structural barriers to SMEs beyond micro-entrepreneurialism. As Andrey Shevchuk (2020) points out – labour processes that are negotiated via digital platforms in the ‘gig’ economy emphasise tight algorithmic control and a loss of autonomy because the platforms actually disguise incorporation of workers into ‘shadow’ corporations. This also divides up labour into small parcels which has a wider influence via spillover into other domains of work. For the purposes of our argument, work for ‘shadow corporations’ intensifies both punitive monitoring and self-exploitation at the point of production.

Covid-19 only accelerates this aspect of neoliberal authoritarianism; digital transformation enables a ‘control society’, long predicted by Gilles Deleuze (1990). Alone among European nations, in early 2020, Moscow’s government pioneered a technological system of surveillance quarantine (Orlova and Morris 2021) [pdf in Russian. I will blog this Russian article later].  While ultimately unsuccessful, and quickly giving way to broader (neoliberal) pressures to re-open the economy regardless of public health risks, the Moscow experiment illustrated the tendency of control to shift from a focus on the disciplined, directly observed body, to a new order of domination. Personal data processing as a semi-autonomous system entails both the deactivation of agency and its reactivation through incorporation of the person in their own data flows (where choices about what images we view online and what products we buy are then fed back to us to reinforce existing behaviour).

Of course digital governance apriori assumes a set of political values to be ‘inputted’ into any algorithm which can then make judgements of value as to the conduct and movement of real individuals, just as the data attached to persons themselves can become another ‘fictitious commodity’ to further marketize social domains that previously resisted incorporation (Haggart 2018). The term ‘surveillance capitalism’ (Zuboff 2015) is often focussed on individual privacy rights, and monopoly capitalism in general, rather than the implications of data commodification for individual behaviours observable via the everyday political economy, hence my preference for the broader term authoritarian neoliberalism.

The nascent Russian control society (which will possibly develop along the lines of the Chinese ‘social credit’ system) illustrates the potential further reinforcement of self-monitoring and inscription in one’s micro-social actions of neoliberal logics. Moscow serves as a suitable test bed for the further expansion of such technologically integrated systems of governmentality in the ‘democratic’ countries – for example Face Pay is being enthusiastically rolled out in the metro. Micropayment systems via phone are almost more obligatory among the immigrant and marginal populations than among the Moscow middle-class. I could entertain with a long anecdote of how a few days ago I tried in vain to pay in cash for a 3-hour taxi ride (five thousand rubles, or around £50). The Kyrgyz driver really didn’t want the cash because it was so much easier to facilitate remittances and ‘store’ of value electronically for him within his ethnic community… in the end I had to give the cash to an aquaintance who then transferred money to my Rakhimon. But, let’s end it there for now.

Next week I will post the conclusion to this series.

[1] It should be acknowledged that there is more diversity in the World Bank’s thinking nowadays.

[2] See also Bockman and Eyal 2002 for a discussion of East Europe as its own ‘author’ of neoliberal policies.

[3] For example, the one-time payments for families in 2020 and 2021 during the Covid pandemic, and the varying levels of prenatal payments have not addressed Russians’ unwillingness to plug the demographic gap – itself a symptom of precarization. An example of the perniciousness of the logic of means-testing is the evidence that a third of Russians do not know they are entitled to benefit payments of some kind. https://www.gazeta.ru/social/2021/02/18/13483658.shtml

[4] Noting that the very concept is an elision of ‘labour processes’ and relations in service to neoliberal ideology (Mirowski 2019: 14). Freelancers as a proportion of working-age population in Russia is high by European standards at 14% compared to 4% in the UK.  https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4730809.