27 July 2012

Marxist Privacy and the escape into theory

 'The Problem of Privacy in Capitalism and the Alternative Social Networking Site Diaspora*' by Sebastian Sevignani in 10(2) TripleC 600-617 proposes a Marxist theory of privacy, alas Karl rather than Groucho.
In this paper, l examine the alternative social networking site Diaspora* from a Marxist standpoint. The investigation focuses on privacy, and contributes to a better understanding of this issue within the context of capitalism in general. First, I describe Diaspora*’s way of production by pointing out its alternative character as part of the free software and copyleft movement. Second, dominant theories of privacy related to individual control, exclusion, and property are introduced. Third, the problem of privacy in capitalism is described wherein dominant concepts of privacy will be contextualised on behalf of a critical political economy analysis that refers to the Marxian concept of ideology critique, Marx’s differentiation between a societal sphere of production and a societal sphere of circulation, and his analysis of capitalist fetishisms. Fourth, taking into account the problem of privacy in capitalism, the alternative potential of Diaspora* is evaluated. Finally, a brief outline of a Marxist theory of privacy is proposed.
Sevignani comments
Diaspora* challenges commodity production; hence, it challenges capital accumulation in the realm of SNSs. Its alternative and cooperative mode of production provides, according to ideology theory, a base for thinking about an alternative notion of privacy. I have argued that an alternative notion of privacy demands grounding in alternative material practices since the dominant notion of privacy is associated with commodity exchange. Thinking about an alternative notion of privacy instead of abandoning it is relevant and worthy as privacy, although predominantly occupied by possessive individualistic concepts such as exclusion and private property, also represents the basal human need of individuality that cannot be meaningfully denied by any alternative form of society. As far as I can see, there is no positive Marxist theory of privacy and I cannot provide one here. Marx’s focus on a negative critique of capitalism first and foremost aims to abolish social structures that inhibit human potentials and creativity. Following this tradition, Fuchs (2011b) and Allmer (2011) provide some critical remarks for a socialist notion of privacy. I tried to apply myself Marx’s negative critique on capitalist ideology and private property to privacy, following the often mentioned connection between both of the latter terms. 
However, an alternative vision of privacy must contain more than an opposition to societal relations of inequality; rather it should constructively theorise the value of privacy alternatively and based on a “social conception of individuality” (Pateman 1989, 136). It is an important theoretical task to reflect on an alternative relation between the individual and society and various approaches that take seriously the critique of individualistic privacy notions are taking this path (for instance: Solove 2008, 91-98; Cohen 2012). 
Unfortunately, these approaches do not engage with Marx’s profound analysis of capitalist domination structures. In his fetish analysis, Marx has shown that the individual, following the commodity exchange induced assumption that he or she owes nothing to society, cannot get rid of society. Society asserts itself behind individuals’ backs and predetermines their behaviour. Accepting and consciously shaping sociality would be the better option. Taking privacy as an individual claim that excludes others and is raised against society from the outset thus makes no sense at all. Privacy can only be a “societal license” (Etzioni 1999, 196). It is a collective task on how best to satisfy individual privacy needs, such as a home, being alone, silence, reflection, recreation, freedom of expression and decision-making, personal and intimate relations, trust and respect, secrecy, and protection from harm. Pure subjective control theories of privacy should be rejected. Instead, comprehensive democratic structures are required to enable individuals to effectively shape their privacy license in association with others. However, privacy is then not my property and I cannot exchange it and contract it out; it is then a collectively achieved individual value that I can only claim as a member of society. Understanding privacy as an aspect of self-possession then makes no sense. It should be conceptualised as an inalienable collective right. 
Objective notions of privacy as an outcome of conscious association are needed, and Diaspora* has practically developed one: it is based on the idea of privacy for SNS users that challenges economic surveillance. As a consequence, the idea of the exploitation of users and the commodification of data, as done by Facebook and Google+, is rejected. Contributors to Diaspora* are associating themselves consciously, not mediated by commodity exchange, but on behalf of copyleft. They have created an objective notion of privacy in and through their practices. This is vital since a basal assumption of Marx was that there would be no individuality, freedom, autonomy, and privacy as long as there is systematic exploitation and class domination in society. It turns out that what is easier to accept as a starting point for theory, i.e. a societal concept of privacy, is much harder to achieve for Diaspora*, although some consequences of this concept are already realised in Dias- pora*’s opposition to exploitation. Diaspora* provides an alternative to privacy commodification and user exploitation, but its struggle is fought out on the ideological battlefield of privacy which is not a neutral one, and is rather predetermined by possessive individualistic thinking that objectively contradicts Diaspora*’s alternative goals. Diaspora* refers to ownership and individual control exactly because these are the most powerful means of action in capitalism. I have introduced views, such as informational exceptionalism, that welcome changes in the intangible mode of production, but do not challenge capital accumulation in general. Sticking to possessive individualistic premises, albeit in terms of privacy, may ultimately refer to an immanent transformation of capitalism that reproduces the overall system rather than to a real alternative to it. 
The challenge for a Marxist theory of privacy and for alternative SNSs, such as Diaspora*, is to thoroughly disentangle privacy from private property (Goldring 1984, 321f.) in such a way that privacy neither appears as a commodity itself nor contributes to the ideological premises of commodity production and capital accumulation. A material base for such thinking can already be found in Diaspora*, copyleft, and projects of a similar nature.
The 'Introduction' by Christian Fuchs & Vincent Mosco in the same issue of TripleC offers a summary of "anti-Marxian prejudices" in communication studies and "a counter-claim that ... shows the importance of Marx for understanding society and the media critically" -
1a) Marxist Outdatedness! Marxism is old-fashioned and not suited for a post-industrial society. 1b) Marxist Topicality! In order to adequately and critically understand communication in society, we need Marx. 
2a) Marxist Repression! Marxism may sound good in theory, but in practice it can only result in terror, tyranny and mass murder. The feasibility of a socialist society and socialist media are illusionary. 2b) Capitalist Repression! Capitalism neither sounds like a good idea/theory nor does it work in practice, as the reality of large-scale inequality, global war, and environmental devestation shows. The feasibility of social- ism and socialist media arises out of the crises of capitalism. 
3a) Marxism = Determinism! Marx believed in deterministic laws of history and the automatic end of capitalism that would also entail the automatic end of capitalist media. 3b) Marxism = Dialectics and Complexity! Marxian and Hegelian dialectics allow us to see the history of society and the media as being shaped by structural conditioning and open-ended struggles and a dialectic of structure and agency. 
4a) Marxist Do-Goodism! Marx had a naïve picture of humanity’s goodness and ignored that humans are naturally selfish, acquisitive, aggressive and competitive. The media industry is therefore necessarily based on profit and competition; otherwise it cannot work. 4b) Capitalist Wickedness! The logic of individualism, egoism, profit maximization, and competition has been tried and tested under neoliberal capitalism, which has also transformed the media landscape and made it more unequal. 
5a) Marxist Reductionism! Marx and Marxism reduce all cultural and political phenomena to the economy. They do not have an understanding of non-economic aspects of the media and communication. 5b) Marxist Complexity! Contemporary developments show that the economy in capitalism is not determining, but a special system that results in the circumstance that all phenomena under capitalism, which includes all media phenomena, have class aspects and are dialectically related to class. Class is a necessary, although certainly not sufficient condition for explaining phenomena of contemporary society. 
6a) Marxist Anti-Humanism! Marx had no interests in religion and ethics and reduced consciousness to matter. He therefore paved the way for the anti-humanism of Stalin and others. Marxism cannot ground media ethics. 6b) Marxist Humanism! Marx was a deep humanist and communism was for him practical humanism, class struggle practi- cal ethics. His theory was deeply ethical and normative. Critical Political Economy of the Media necessarily includes a critical ethics of the media. 
7a) The Outdatedness of Class! Marxism’s obsession with class is outdated. Today, the expansion of knowledge work is removing all class barriers. 7b) The Importance of Class! High socio-economic inequality at all levels of societal organisation is indicative of the circumstance that contemporary society is first and foremost a multi-levelled class society. Knowledge work is no homogenous category, but rather a class-structured space that includes internal class relations and stratification patterns (both a manager and a precariously employed call centre agent or data entry clerk are knowledge workers) 
8a) Marxists Oppose Democracy! Marxists favour violent revolution and oppose peaceful reform and democracy. They do not accept the important role of the media for democracy. 8b) Socialism=Democracy! Capitalism has a history of human rights violations, structural violence, and warfare. In the realm of the media, there is a capitalist history of media support for anti-democratic goals. Marxism is a demand for peace, democracy, and democratic media. Marx in his own journalistic writings and practice struggled for free speech, and end to censorship, democratic journalism and democratic media. 
9a) Marxist Dictatorship! Marxism’s logic is the logic of the party that results in the logic of the state and the installation of monstrous dictators that control, monitor, manipulate and censor the media. 9b) Capitalist Dictatorship! Capitalism installs a monstrous economic dictatorship that controls, monitors, manipulates and censors the media by economic and ideological means. Marxism’s logic is one of a well-rounded humanity fostering conditions that enable people to be active in many pursuits and includes the view that everyone can become a journalist. 
10a) Non-class-oriented New Social Movements! New social movements (feminism, environmentalism, gay rights, peace movement, youth move- ment, etc) have left class and Marxism behind. Struggles for alternative media are related to the new social movements, not to class struggles. 10b) Class-oriented New New Social Movements! The new movements resulting from the current crisis (like the Occupy movement) as well as recent movements for democratic globalization are movements of movements that are bound together by deep concern for inequality and cla