Public and private under late capitalism



A guest post by Ian Stone

Edward Snowden will now have to traverse the globe looking for a country in which to hide. The irony is that whether or not he is arrested, if he finds a sympathetic territory or not; in exposing the biggest encroachment on civil liberties yet known, he has wholly surrendered his private life, perhaps for the rest of his life. What Snowden’s whistleblowing revealed was that the US was tapping citizen’s phones, that GCHQ was operating as an extended arm of the American operation, and that the US had been extensively monitoring the Chinese Government. To many of us, this was not particularly a surprise. Technology is sufficiently sophisticated now as to allow for such large scale monitoring operations-though it is likely that the scope of such a thing would mean that only aspects of the monitoring could be effectively targeted. The argument we are then expected to follow is that we have nothing to worry about if we are good citizens, or in the case of the UK, subjects.

What then, does it require to be a good citizen? The answer is not, as has been the case for centuries, merely a good producer, but is increasingly a good consumer. The main linkage between the US and UK is their vast trade empires. Witness the lightning cultural exchanges of the fifties and sixties, where Music and fashion trends had no sooner captured the imagination of one of the territories than they were sweeping across the other. The Beatles returned the compliment of Elvis, the West Coast Psychedelic movement had spawned the British musical equivalent, which within a year had been somewhat subsumed by and assimilated into Carnaby street fashion. The journey from dangerous teenage rebellion to sanitised product has not always been as quick, but it has unfailingly happened. All innovative music and fashion with any whiff of popular appeal has quickly been repackaged , modified and managed as commercial product.

As western societies became affluent (for some, at least) in the Sixties, leisure time became a significant portion of the life of aspirant working class youth for the first time. Since the OPEC oil crisis of the mid-seventies the trend of increased leisure time has somewhat reversed. In the ever more frequent recessions, those in work have been expected to work increasingly longer hours, and especially so in the age of computers and mobile phones, to take their work home with them, into the private sphere. In the UK, for those not in work, the job centre requires the use of a computer as a stipulation to make applications. Those without a job and without the means to buy a Private Computer are then expected to use a computer in the Public Library. Such institutions are being cut by the hundred in the age of austerity. Thus, as the UK economic crisis deepens, and the policies of the coalition worsen it, those without a Private Computer are effectively shut out of the job market.

Meanwhile, those who are able to access the net are met with a whirl of mediated options. Here the public and private sphere criss-cross and coagulate. The internet’s earliest innovation was the email-a private message that could be exchanged between private individuals but, by extension, between organisations and institutions. Public web forums where users shared their private thoughts also were an early method of communication-in the days before Social media as we know it now, these were very popular. Human administrator/s could manage the content of these forums, in an arbitrary and subjective manner-nevertheless, they acted as a sometimes authoritarian reminder of a repressive society. The value output of the use of emails was confined to the time they saved for businesses; the value output of social forums in monetary terms was perhaps little better than nil.

Then came social media proper, in the shape of Facebook et al. The market has steadily encroached into this area of leisure time-the sites themselves really just glorified social forums. The surplus value generated by users is in large part down to the information they impart-from this the sites generate a user profile that proffers suggested likes. Before long the users interests are showing patterns of behaviour that can be sold onto market researchers and advertisers. There is no real way of measuring what this means in terms of exchange value, but it is unarguably immense as over a billion people use Social Media worldwide. In using these invasive forms of market profiling, Capitalism can not only track your every movement, it can profit from your most private thoughts.

Capitalism now more than ever works on the premise that it requires your full ideological commitment. This is absolutely essential when austerity bites hard. Witness the recent Coca-Cola accumulation ploy that taps into the realm of the private. Named ‘friends’, this campaign is designed to make you buy your own name, which is emblazoned on the Coke bottle. This will, of course, be an instant hit with children, who will want to ‘own’ their identity. If they have a group of friends, they can also ‘collect’ their friends’ names. For adults, the buying of the bottles may be more subliminal and reactive. Such conditioning has been going on for some time, consider the ‘I’m in meal deal’ supermarket sandwiches that scream at us from their packaging, lest we forget to buy something to go with the sandwich. Here the personalisation shapes the character of the product. This very directed method of accumulation is only one of many strategies that modern Capitalism employs, but it appears to be a significant one, as consumers declining purchase power means that Capitalists are continually looking to optimise their profit in ever more targeted ways. The Coke bottle naming is a confident ideological play-there is some sense that the naming will act as a psychological trigger.

In such volatile times, where Capitalism lurches from one crisis to another, sometimes the proverbial carrot is not sufficient to maintain jurisdiction over the realm of the private. The stick is being increasingly used. We can see this where the realm of the private encroaches on  perceived State business-witness Bradley Manning’s terrifying treatment at the hands of the State for his whistleblowing over Iraq war secrets. Dispatches on Channel 4 this week revealed that the State has a long history of maintaining the private realm in the way that it sees fit, to the extent of sending in Undercover Police to infiltrate activists groups, and disrupt the possibilities of the communal. Such state interference has seen an alleged campaign to smear the Lawrence family, while they were trying to secure justice for their murdered son Stephen, as well as the devastation of numerous young women’s lives through the alleged abuse of their trust and bodies by Policemen who established relationships with them under false pretences to gain info, then disappeared.

Capitalism famously maintained its division of labour, as Engels explained in Family, private property and the state partly through the maintenance of established family roles. The family is appreciably more discursive in its formulations now than it was then. This poses an ideological problem for Capitalism. The Tories have attempted to negotiate this by advancing Heterosexual marriage as the ideal, while paying lip service to other formulations (mindful that possibilities for reproduction of labour will be as great in Gay and Trans relationships as greater adoption rights are granted).

The division of labour is also maintained through the separation of private lives along racial lines and cultural ghettoization. This has been broken down increasingly over the last fifty years, though the evidence that Capital is still prepared to assert coercive force against the integration and peaceful co-existence of Black and White is plain for all to see in its actions against the Lawrence family.

Technology is now also posing a threat to the traditional division of labour model. We have seen how social media was a factor in unifying the forces of the Egyptian Revolution. Hackers and whistleblowers now mean we know more about the inner realm of Capitalism than ever before. Revealing secrets about Capitalism undermines its sheen of invincibility. It could be the beginning of the puncturing of the dream of Capitalism, a break in its transmission of false consciousness to the millions. From such small acts, far-reaching changes are possible.

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