Human Rights

Spectator Capitalism: Privacy as the New Free-Trade Zone of Corporate Exploitation

Both physical and virtual commons are under attack by an increasingly powerful alliance between government and corporate power.

Photo Credit: C

This article originally appeared at, and is reprinted here with their permission.

Imagine the digital world as something like a grand apartment complex. Even though dwellers live in separate apartments, they are all connected because they all live in the same building. Now imagine that there existed an authorized government that employed countless thousands of individuals called the TESO (Thought Enforcement and Surveillance Officers) who were given a master key and instructed to enter every apartment on a daily basis. Upon accessing each apartment, the TESO would isolate and restrain or handcuff the individual apartment dweller and proceed to thoroughly search through every room and closet, inspect every drawer and cupboard, read every note, diary or document. They would do this not because the apartment dwellers were suspected of committing a crime, or because they were deemed to pose a threat to the stability of the state or society. The sole purpose of this thoroughgoing invasion into private life would be to create a PCP or pre-crime-profile. This profile would be constantly updated and preserved for easy access at a moment's notice should any future aberrant or unorthodox behavior be displayed by anyone in the apartment.

This analogy loosely drawn from George Orwell's "1984" and Philip K. Dick's "Minority Report" is disturbing precisely because it graphically illustrates how profoundly unethical, unconstitutional and illegal it would be to impose a regime of intrusive unwarranted surveillance for the purpose of gathering intelligence — not defense, counterterrorist or counterespionage intelligence, but human intelligence, as such.

We can certainly draw distinctions between different kinds of human intelligence data — between physical or digital information, descriptive or visual data, and data about the structures that contain data (also referred to as metadata). However, more importantly, what we must take note of is not the differences between different kinds of data or intelligence, but the potential that we now have for digitally warehousing and cross-referencing many levels of data for future use (either benign or malevolent).

Now it seems obvious that we should feel just as violated, just as vulnerable and just as outraged when we are being surveilled online as we would if the police came bursting through our door to look around our house or apartment for no reason other than that they wanted to collect as much information on us as possible. That we are not similarly outraged about unethical and unconstitutional surveillance practices has a lot to do with the fact that many of these surveillance devices are woven into the fabric of our consumerist culture. We cheerfully line up for the chance to be the first to buy the latest iPhone; we readily give up personal and even intimate details about ourselves online, and we feel the urge to constantly text friends and relations regarding the trivial events of the day. In all of this, there is a certain willful ignorance of the fact that digital information is accessible to anyone, and it forms a fairly intimate picture of us over time.

However, our lack of moral outrage is not merely a function of the fact that surveillance devices are ubiquitous, fashionable or appeal to what has become an excessively narcissistic culture; it is also a consequence of a very secretive and gradually more elaborate surveillance industry that we really know very little about. The exemplar here is the five-eyes alliance that has developed over time between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the United States. In each of these countries, so-called democratically elected governments have autocratically and secretly given themselves a kind of invasive power that is typically reserved for despots and dictators who rule citizens in a police state.

Fortunately, the secretive nature of government surveillance programs is not as secret as it once was. Their collective cover has been blown by Edward Snowden and become widely known through the work of intrepid activist reporters Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. The global surveillance system has been uncovered for what it is: an unnecessary, unconstitutional infringement on the private lives of citizens. The outrage is only just beginning. However, if it has become clear that public consciousness has now been raised and questions are being asked by many citizens, academics and journalists as to why such a scenario should ever be considered normal or necessary, it is very unclear whether the governments involved have been shamed into any admission that what they are doing is inherently wrong or unwarranted. In fact, there is evidence to suggest something quite the contrary: that intrusive surveillance of the private lives of citizens will continue and, in fact, become more elaborate and sophisticated. For the foreseeable future, this sort of surveillance will be woven into a powerful and complex legal-corporate matrix that will guarantee our private lives will never again be private in the way they once were.

One might be tempted to insist that the reason for this new emphasis on surveillance is a consequence of the devastating and unprecedented attack of Sept. 11, 2001. Others might argue that it is because total surveillance technologies are possible in a way they have never before been. Both of these claims have some truth. But both are also symptomatic of a much more elemental cause that goes to the heart of where we have been heading for the last 60 or so years. This elemental cause reaches beyond mere technological advancement or terrorist threat to something much more primitive and destructive: an entrenched and ubiquitous corporate capitalist system of profit and exploitation. The latter is something that can be uncovered only by grasping the continuous and relentless demise of democratic public spaces, the conversion of citizens into consumers, the need to protect and enhance the profits of a very small minority and the complete colonization of the ecosystem and any human potential for creative, life-sustaining activity. 

However, we may still want to ask here: What is the precise connection between human surveillance, the collection of different forms of data and metadata, and a system of corporate capitalism? Many have argued that the increasing push to collect private information or metadata is for the sake of our national security, and only secondarily, about commercial interests. However, this line of argument would be much more persuasive if the boundary between government and corporate interests were clear and unambiguous. It is not. In fact, as corporate capitalism becomes globalized, the distinction between government power and corporate power is all but erased.

Given this, it is not difficult to imagine that the surveillance infrastructure designed and built by powerful communications and tech industries, and implemented and enforced by way of government institutions and bureaucratic systems, would tend to serve the interests of the corporation first and foremost, with governments playing a parasitic or subsidiary role. To properly address the question of whether government or corporate interests are at the center, we need to first think about how to visualize or articulate the boundary between public and private.

Perhaps there was a time before the advance of intrusive technologies, when this boundary was easily identifiable and embraced as a necessary division between what is publicly known and shared and what is private and intimate. Privacy in this view is the indispensible space of possibility where we develop and nurture intimate relations with family and loved ones, away from public scrutiny or the prying eyes of government institutions. It is the place where we are encouraged to develop a unique sense of who we are without feeling the pressure to entirely conform to an imposed social, religious or cultural directive.  It is a site of human freedom and indeterminacy, where we are still open to transformation and still grappling with who we have been, who we are and who we want to be. Paradoxically, privacy is also a prerequisite for reflecting upon what brings us together, on what distinguishes us, but also what we have in common. This private space of reflection and contemplation is where we begin to develop a sense of thinking from the perspective of another person or of a world outside, separate from us yet intimately and necessarily connected to us. It is the origin of what we might call a private-public moral consciousness.

So why is it that many will insist on viewing the private sphere as an instrument or veil behind which nefarious individuals withdraw to engage in illegal, unethical or immoral activities? Perhaps it is partly a result of the consciousness-raising that took place in the 1960s and '70s and taught us that in unequal relations, the powerful will often use the veil of privacy to secure and expand exploitive or demeaning relations. However, we must ask whether the notion of a private sphere should be reduced to an instrument of deception. In other words, should not the private sphere be more properly and thoughtfully understood as a condition of possibility for the contemplative, and indeed for the possibility of thinking communally? Let us look again at Orwell.

In Orwell's "1984," it is thinking or reflecting on oneself or the state of the world, outside of the orthodox perspective of Ingsoc that is considered a crime — or to use Orwell's own term: a thoughtcrime.  The thoughtpolice are constantly on the watch for any sort of unusual activity, expression of incredulity at party dogma, hesitation or nervous tic that might testify to unorthodox thinking. To be orthodox is to eschew the contemplative life and internalize an embodied fear of the private as a dangerous and seductive place where crimethink  inevitably occurs. In Newspeak, (the abbreviated language of Ingsoc, or English Socialism) the pejorative term used to describe someone who indulges in self-reflection or contemplation is ownlife.

To cultivate ownlife requires that there be a private sphere where one can think outside of the world of Ingsoc or Party orthodoxy. Such a private sphere simply cannot be tolerated in a totalitarian surveillance state. It is crucial to grasp that in "1984," it is not merely the thoughtpolice who are on the lookout for unorthodoxy; it is typically family, neighbors and work acquaintances who watch each other. In Orwell's totalitarian world, a world that has abolished the private sphere, everyone is conditioned to be suspicious of everyone else, and if they inform authorities about the unorthodox behavior of coworkers, mothers, fathers and children, they are duly praised by Big Brother for being exemplary party members.  

Of course we are talking here about a fictional totalitarian world. But there are very revealing analogies one can draw that go some way to answering the above question. We do not live in a totalitarian state, but we do live in a world that is saturated by digital and real violence, brutality, suspicion and cruelty. In the last 60 or so years, we have been taught to see the human species as untrustworthy, greedy, selfish, narcissistic and paranoid. We are deluged by an entertainment industry that profits from reality shows that fabricate human emotions, and reality crime shows that depict violent and pathetic individuals (usually of color) intoxicated by drugs or alcohol or engaging in sexual harassment, molestation, theft, assault or weapons violations.

We are encouraged to revel voyeuristically in this carnival of human debauchery, and our suspicions regarding the lascivious evil that hides behind the cover of the private are thereby confirmed. Governments tell us that potential radicals and terrorists live secret lives and operate behind a private realm. Given all of this, many of the thoughtless among us have tacitly agreed that it is okay if we are all continuously watched and that the sphere of the private is something to be feared, shunned and perhaps even abolished. Of course, as Orwell's cautionary tale instructs us, if we do decide to put an end to the private sphere, then we will also — and not incidentally — abolish contemplativeness, self-reflection, friendship, solidarity, love and solicitude.

The shunning of the private sphere through the tacit acceptance of global surveillance is already in full swing. Of course, we can be made to feel partially compensated for such a loss by internalizing the propaganda of global capitalism which presses us to continuously view ourselves and the private sphere as exploitable commodities. When this occurs, the border between the public and private entirely collapses. Within the framework of corporate capitalism, where human beings are thought of as consumers rather than citizens, we need to now think of the boundary between public and private not as a wall or a fence, but as an open field or free-trade zone where privacy itself is treated as a kind of public commodity that is bought, sold or traded. If insider information and knowledge is a powerful corporate advantage, then privacy data becomes a very precious commodity.

The information about whom you talk to, where you live, what you buy, how much you spend, what prescription drugs you take, what restaurants you frequent, what hotels you stay at, what sort of clothes you buy, how much alcohol you drink, who your friends are, where you go for entertainment, what you like to read or watch on the internet, what you say to friends, family and acquaintances can all be gathered together and woven into a profile that is distinctive and valuable to the corporate capitalist. But like the pre-crime profile discussed above, this consumer profile is not merely about gathering information regarding any particular consumer activity to realize higher profits. It is also a way of mobilizing and organizing a future repository of both individual metadata and the data of whole populations that can be quickly and easily isolated, accessed and cross-referenced when government or corporate interests are in any way threatened.

It is at this security level — that is, the securing of future ownership, control and autocratic power — where we begin to see the merging of corporate and government interests. When governments tell us that surveillance is necessary for public security what they are really saying is that surveillance is a necessary step in eradicating personal privacy in order to protect the interests of private corporate tyrannies and autocratic governments from any future mass uprising or widespread political resistance. Despite this fact, there are many people who have come to think that a loss of privacy is nothing to worry about so long as "we are not doing anything wrong." Here we must recognize that thoughtless and naïve perspectives are the intentional effect of accepting totalitarian attitudes and perspectives. What follows from such an acceptance is a learned forgetfulness of the meaning and significance of the private and public spheres. Given this, what is called for is not just a reflection upon the individual loss of privacy, but a clear grasp of how an emerging multiplicity of interrelated surveillance devices, technologies and practices can work to undermine democracy while having far-reaching negative effects on the way we think and relate to ourselves, to each other and to a world community. What are some of these effects?

It is crucial to understand here that the free-trade zone of individual privacy is not merely the creation of a new capitalist commodity or the realization of an untapped potential for profit. At the human level of lived experience, the eradication of privacy also creates a widespread sense of impotence, powerlessness and apathy before powerful governmental institutions and corporate hegemonies. This state of affairs will be pivotally important in the furtherance of rampant capitalist exploitation. Why? Precisely because eradicating the private sphere is also extinguishing the possibility that individuals can act in concert to resist what is happening to them. The truth is that we discover and sustain our sense of solidarity and commonality with others when we grasp that we are unique and irreplaceable beings who need to relate to ourselves and to each other in both a private and a public way. The condition of possibility for individual reflection, for community, for acting in concert, is that the distinction between the private and the public remains inviolable. The corporate capitalist system has achieved its singular totalitarian purpose when it is able to violate the inviolable.

Copyright, Truthout.

Fred Guerin is an independent scholar with a Ph.D in philosophy who lives in La Ronge, Saskatchewan, and runs a human relations consulting business. He is editing and publishing his dissertation, "Critical and Practical Knowing Through the Ancient Concept of Phronesis" and writing an article for a volume on Aristotle with Northwestern University Press.


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