Peer-to-Peer Subjection During COVID-19: Detention from Below and Border Abolitionism

With the outbreak of COVID-19, mechanisms of mass surveillance and data extraction through platform capitalism have escalated. Tracing apps, drones, and digital platforms are just a few among the many technologies that have gained center stage in the media and in public debates across the world. The hypothesis that these might remain in place and be normalized after the end of the pandemic is not just a worry but, as Naomi Klein has recently stressed, a very likely scenario. In fact, this trend, exacerbated by the pandemic, appears in continuity with Gilles Deleuze’s idea that “what counts is no longer the barrier but the computer that tracks each person’s position” (7). However, if we consider the modes of power and control that have been (and still are) at stake to manage populations during COVID-19, is surveillance the most salient aspect to consider? How have the relationships among citizens, as potential plague spreaders, changed during the pandemic?

This piece shifts away from an exclusive focus on control as surveillance towards more subtle and horizontal forms of coercion and policing that I term peer-to-peer subjection. This latter refers to different modes of policing that are mutually enforced among peers—e.g., among workers, among citizens, among students, among refugees. Peer-to-peer subjection relies on the individuals’ internalization of monitoring and disciplinary activities that are then exercised not upon themselves but towards other individuals who are peers from a social, legal, or economic standpoint. Peer-to-peer subjection, which is further enforced by technologies and apps that facilitate horizontal communication, pushes individuals to engage in unpaid labor—policing others—and enables a wide acceptance of control since it is not exercised from above nor is it narrowed to self-discipline: it requires a pro-active participatory governmentality (detention from below), and it is enforced by policing the others through horizontal mutual coercion.

Drawing attention to peer-to-peer subjection entails rethinking practices of collective refusal and resistance. While mass surveillance might be the target of direct criticisms and attacks, and people might enact tactics of silent or declared obfuscation, an active refusal of peer-to-peer surveillance is by far more difficult to envisage. Indeed, the possibility of defusing and interrupting mechanisms of horizontal and mutual coercion does not depend on a direct confrontation with watchdogs, nor on a straightforward rejection of hierarchical control. Rather, precisely because it shapes our way of being with others and turns out to be a gratifying recognition of one’s own social status—as a citizen, as a worker, as a migrant—peer-to-peer subjection and the unpaid labor that it involves are very ingrained in people’s behavior.

In The Undercommons, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten contend that “the imposition of self-management becomes imperative” today in the form of an “invitation to governmentality” (54-55). Similarly, some scholars have pointed to self-management as a form of soft control and shown that it is key to neoliberal governance. However, peer-to-peer subjection should not be equated with self-management: rather, what characterizes peer-to-peer subjection is the coercion generated by policing oneself and others, while, in turn, accepting being policed by others. At the same time, such horizontal coercion cannot be fully analyzed via Deleuze’s understanding of control societies; indeed, it involves taking into account forms of subtle and invisible violence. Instead of thinking of control as modulation or as a diagram of power that follows disciplinary societies, peer-to-peer subjection intertwines disciplinary mechanisms (as both self-disciplining and disciplining of others), data extraction, and mutual incitement to contribute to one’s own governmentality.

In order to unpack the functioning of peer-to-peer subjection, it is important to take into account a related mechanism of control through the active participation of individuals: detention from below. By detention from below I mean the injunction that state institutions, as well as non-state actors, address individuals, asking them to participate in their own governmentality and, by doing so, de facto enforce their subjugation—or in the case of migrants, their confinement and detention. In fact, the injunction to contribute to one’s own governmentality renders modes of subjugation and exploitation more participatory and less arbitrary. The wide spread of the “feedback rationale,” which is both an injunction and a possibility for individuals to provide feedback about their being subject to control, consists in knowledge and data extraction activities. In fact, unpaid labor and reinforcement of control are both at stake in detention from below. Importantly, detention from below is not implemented without consensus and, in fact, questions about the extent to which individuals agree to participate are quite pointless: people are coopted because they are willing to be, as long as their unpaid labor is remunerated in terms of active participation in governmentality. Unlike peer-to-peer subjection, detention from below does not necessarily involve mutual coercion, but, regardless, it entails active participation by individuals in modes of population control. Detention from below intersects with peer-to-peer subjection insofar as individuals internalize the need to perform unpaid labor by policing themselves and others.

The tracing apps that have been launched on a global scale to fight COVID-19 will serve, according to the UK government, to “unlock our freedom.” That is, being traced is presented by states as the necessary condition for getting freedom of movement back. Such a rush to technology as a way to restore freedom has been critically discussed in the media from the point of view of the ethical-political implications that tracing apps engender—in terms of surveillance, data privacy, and control.

However, I suggest a critical analysis of digital tracking systems could not be narrowed to issues of surveillance and privacy: it must entail investigating the dynamics of subjection and subjectivation that are unfolded and the modes of control beyond surveillance that they reinforce. In this respect, peer-to-peer surveillance has initiated the progressive normalization of acts and conduct introduced in the name of public health.

It is important to clarify that peer-to-peer subjection is by no means a novelty of the pandemic. In fact, it is a mode of control over and among individuals that is largely at play in many fields and that shapes professional and social relationships. However, the governing of citizens during the pandemic has shed light on the key role of peer-to-peer subjection in instilling horizontal coercion, predicated upon the interiorization of some to-do daily acts–such as wearing masks even while walking or cycling, staying home, or abiding by the two meters social distancing rule—which are enforced by people blaming and policing others. This has been particularly the case in some countries, like Italy, that implemented a strict lockdown obliging people to provide a written justification if they had to leave their houses and sanctioning those who violated the emergency measures.

Yet, the policing of the population has been sustained during the two-month lockdown and even after that, not only through direct state surveillance but also through the cooperation of the citizens.

In fact, during the lockdown, many people have policed and filmed neighbors who did not respect the disciplinary restrictions imposed by the government, reporting violations to the authorities or posting videos on social media. However, in critically analyzing the popular consensus for control and citizens’ engagement in peer-to-peer subjection, we should not fall in the trap of the “state of exception” narrative. The point is not that these are exceptional measures per se. Rather, despite their (protracted) temporariness, it is not much of a gamble to say that these modes of “policing from below” will shape and alter social relationships: your neighbors today might be “corona spreaders; when the corona crisis is over, they might turn into irresponsible citizens. And you might too: peer-to-peer subjection is based on mutual suspicion and on the pleasure of monitoring and reporting illicit behaviors.

Thus, peer-to-peer subjection is something worth examining precisely because it tends not to be perceived as coercive by those who enact it and, simultaneously, produces pleasure as well as complicity. Ultimately, as Foucault contended, power produces pleasure; we should add that policing does as well. As Deleuze famously stated, there is “no need of fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons” (4). Therefore, we might ask, which weapons could be mobilized for unsettling peer-to-peer subjection? The subtle and pleasant coercion enacted through peer-to-peer subjection sheds light on widespread forms of sociality predicated on mutual suspicion. In fact, there is much more at stake than tactics for dodging surveillance and refusing control: the multiple power “holds” over lives requires we turn horizontal coercion into transversal alliances against extraction and exploitative cooperation.

The governing of populations during the pandemic amplifies and scales up modes of peer-to-peer-subjection, and it unfolds the centrality of knowledge and data extraction activities. Thus, instead of asking if our freedom will be unlocked and if mass surveillance will proliferate in the aftermath of COVID-19, we should disjoin “common good” from forms of sociality and cooperation that generate a widespread digital hostile environment. Peer-to-peer subjection, I have shown above, is particularly difficult to defuse and resist, as it is based on people’s participation and mutual control. This mechanism of policing oneself and others has gained center stage during the lockdowns to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Nevertheless, if, on the one hand, peer-to-peer subjection can barely be resisted, on the other hand, peer-to-peer subjection is not necessarily a totalizing mode of control that leaves no leeway for anti-policing actions.

The Black Lives Matter movement that spread in the US and across the world after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020 has interrupted and challenged relationships predicated upon peer-to-peer subjection. Indeed, by putting at the core the unequal exposure to death of racialized subjects, the movement shifted the focus from mutual policing towards the recursive production of racialized hierarchies of lives during the pandemic. Anti-racist mobilizations not only refused peer-to-peer subjection. Rather, the call for defunding the police has boosted an abolitionist perspective as a political horizon to challenge and dismantle racialized power relations. (See Angela Davis or Ruth Wilson Gilmore.) More precisely, such a project can be designated as border abolitionism, meaning a series of political practices apt at unsettling the racializing bordering mechanisms that underpin both state surveillance and the policing of oneself and others. In fact, due to the ingrained work of peer-to-peer surveillance, border abolitionism undoes the reproduction of racialized differences that make it possible to transform our peers into bodies to police. “Do not become enamored of power,” Foucault reminds us in the preface to Anti-Oedipus—a good starting point for disjoining the production of the common good from the desire to police our peers.




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Martina Tazzioli

Martina Tazzioli is a lecturer in politics and technology at Goldsmiths. She is the author of The Making of Migration: The Biopolitics of Mobility at Europe’s Borders (2020) and Spaces of Governmentality: Autonomous Migration and the Arab Uprisings (2015) and is co-author with Glenda Garelli of Tunisia as a Revolutionised Space of Migration (2016). She is co-editor of Foucault and the History of Our Present (2015) and Foucault and the Making of Subjects (2016). She is co-founder of the journal Materialifoucaultiani and a member and on the editorial board of the journal Radical Philosophy.