‘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. 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’.

In 24/7, then, extreme cultural pessimism goes hand in hand with minimalist notions of resistance. For Adorno, this resided in music or, less still, in a scream; for Marcuse, it was a blunt ‘absolute refusal’. Is sleep really our generation’s equivalent? Can the ‘outside’ now be found in a form of living unconsciousness? There are empirical and historical reasons to suspect not, grounded in certain distinctive elements of post-1968 capitalism that Crary scarcely acknowledges at all. Whether these are a basis for hope or for even greater despair is a moot point. Firstly, there is a rapidly expanding mode of government and management today, which might be dubbed the ‘wellness’ agenda. This concerns corporations and governments alike, and responds to the fact that psychosomatic problems of obesity, depression, anxiety and inactivity now represent a profound obstacle to greater productivity and social efficiency. The question, for policy-makers and managers in the West today, is not simply how to extract more time and energy from people, but how to sustain minds and bodies in a state of fitness. This is a delicate balance, in which sleep and rest must be nurtured with care. When Crary argues that ‘there has ceased to be any internal necessity for having rest and recuperation as components of economic growth and profitability’, he overlooks the medicalization of employee relations since the 1970s, which has forced managers to become acutely aware of the impact work has on bodies, minds and—increasingly—brains. His argument also ignores the medicalization of relations to the self, as individuals monitor and reflect on their own tiredness, wellbeing and energy levels.

Managers in post-industrial workplaces are terrified of employee stress, a term that was scarcely heard of until the 1960s, but had become a major concern for Human Resources professionals by the 1980s. Stress, at its simplest, is the way an organism responds to any excessive demand. Overwork and over-exertion are now problems internal to the calculus of post-industrial management. Admittedly, where labour is standardized and easily replaceable, the fear of worker ‘burn-out’ is sadly absent. But where human capital is being exploited, the need to keep individuals fit, healthy and happy is recognized as a problem for business, by everyone from the World Economic Forum on. And that requires good sleep, as part of a suite of therapeutic interventions to maintain mind and body. A 2011 Harvard Medical School study calculated that sleep deprivation cost us employers $63bn a year in lost productivity. A number of firms now offer professional advice on rest to employees, drawing on a new consultancy circuit of ‘sleep and wellness’ expertise.