‘Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next-door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?’ At the 2012 Conservative Party Conference, this evocative image was used by the Chancellor George Osborne to establish a political dividing line.footnote1 The worker or the sleeper: whose side are you on? At the 2013 conference, Osborne followed this with a policy requiring the unemployed to visit a Jobcentre every morning, as a condition of receiving benefits. This punitive approach only makes sense—given the shortage of vacancies—when viewed in the context of a government cracking down on slumber and restfulness. The re-moralization of unemployment that is underway in Britain casts the jobless not so much as drunken delinquents, as the Victorians depicted them, but as insufficiently alert or awake.

It is an interesting piece of rhetoric which appears to confirm the thesis at the heart of Jonathan Crary’s essay and lament, 24/7. Sleep, he argues, is our last bastion of otherness and refusal, in an age of always-on-everywhere media, accumulation, surveillance and management. And for this reason, sleep has been targeted by various technologies and regimes of power. He introduces this proposition with a series of disturbing examples of how a war on sleep is being waged: by scientists seeking a cure for tiredness, military interrogators using sleep deprivation as a form of torture, and engineers hoping to overcome night-time by putting reflective mirrors in space. Less violently, the era of smartphones and ubiquitous digital surveillance means that we now dwell in a world of constant monitoring and visibility, in which ‘sleep mode’ has come to refer to a machine that is becalmed but not actually switched off. Gilles Deleuze’s claim, that the Foucauldian society of panoptical and periodic ‘discipline’ has been usurped by one of synoptical and permanent ‘control’ hovers in the background here. The signifier ‘24/7’ is used to capture this syndrome in all its relentlessness, its limitlessness and its sheer awfulness. But what exactly does the term represent?

Crary’s answer draws on a somewhat unstable amalgam of Marxism, Web 2.0 Kulturkritik and, of course, Foucault–Deleuze, along with a Weberian critique of rationalization as having escaped any meaningful human purpose or control. Briefly, 24/7 represents the ‘constant continuity’ that Marx identified in the Grundrisse as crucial to the capitalist circulation process. But it has taken 150 years for this temporal order to fulfil itself on a world scale—‘the accelerations of an always globalizing capitalism only slowly imposed themselves on social and individual life.’ Technologies of social control appeared for the first time in the mid-nineteenth century, in the context of management; yet by 1900, Crary points out, only a tiny proportion of the globe was fully enmeshed in capitalist relations. The Second World War brought giant strides towards a homogeneous global present, forging a new alliance between science, the military and multinational corporations, and new paradigms of communication and control; yet large areas of social existence retained pre-capitalist rhythms. By the 1960s, ‘everyday life’ (in Lefebvre’s sense) was becoming increasingly colonized (in Debord’s) by consumption and ‘organized leisure’, with tv playing a crucial transitional role—millions spending their evenings huddled before ‘flickering, light-emitting objects’, subjected to uniform modes of duration and narrowing sensory response. The 1980s saw a fresh assault on everyday life, corresponding to ‘the shift from production to financialization’ and the ideological offensive of neoliberalism: the individual was now redefined as a ‘full-time economic agent’.

But perhaps the most decisive moment in this trajectory occured in the early 1990s, with the penetration of the home computer and internet into everyday life. Accelerating rhythms of consumption coincided with the increasing integration of time and activity into forms of ‘electronic exchange’, involving intensified surveillance and manipulation—the ‘formation of malleable, assenting individuals’, potentially plugged into capital’s circuits 24/7. For Crary, this is the moment when Foucault’s disciplinary society, which still permitted some areas of ‘unadministered life’, takes on the features of Deleuze’s control society, through the ‘global system of auto-regulation’, ubiquitous monitoring and non-stop circulation enabled by networked technologies. Facebook, Twitter et al constitute ‘strategies of disempowerment’, ‘mandatory techniques of digital personalization and self-administration’, through which one ‘passively and often voluntarily collaborates in one’s own surveillance and data-mining’. Multivalent forms of social exchange are reduced to habitual sequences of solicitation and response: one’s bank account and one’s friends are managed through identical machinic operations. Real-life activities that do not have an online correlate ‘begin to atrophy, or cease to be relevant’.

Published before Edward Snowden’s revelations, this critique is strikingly prescient. Crary is scathing about claims for the liberatory potential of electronic networks—‘even among the plural voices affirming that “another world is possible”, there is often the expedient misconception that economic justice, mitigation of climate change and egalitarian social relations can occur alongside the continued existence of corporations like Google, Apple and General Electric’—and berates activists for ‘voluntarily kettling themselves in cyberspace’, sitting targets for police surveillance. But if most creaturely needs—hunger, thirst, sexual desire, friendship—have been monetized, sleep remains the obvious anomaly: ‘the stunning, inconceivable reality is that nothing of value can be extracted from it’. Crary aspires to reanimate Romantic approaches to reverie and the dreamworld: sleep offers both a refusal of the ‘constant continuity’ of the global present and—with its promise of awakening—‘a rehearsal of what more consequential beginnings might be’.