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Garret Keizer on Privacy and Class. September 14, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Capitalism, Class, Economy, The Left.
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I’m never entirely surprised by the rage that enters into discussions of public versus private sectors, particularly from those in the latter. Having worked in that area for a large portion of my own working life the lack of autonomy in many jobs is something that – again having direct experience of same – is enraging. That that energy – understandable as it is – tends to be channelled towards attempting to pull others down (as exemplified by a comment the day before yesterday) rather that pushing everyone’s situation upwards is a depressing indictment of how orhodoxies aren’t simply economic but are broader and more constraining…

And in a context where the vehicles for shifting employments from one situation to another – the unions, are both enfeebled (or non existent) in the private sector, or can appear unconcerned with the situation of private sector workers, and add to that a suspicion of unions and the means for positive change are limited. Worse again one could argue that the best opportunity that unions had to ameliorate this in the private sector, the period of social partnership was simply blown by them. And of course it’s not just the workplace because this goes far beyond that.

Which brings me to an interesting podcast from Slate with an interview by the excellent (and Scottish) June Thomas with Garret Keizer who was discussing the issue of privacy in reference to his book on the same topic. What was telling was how explicitly Kezier positioned this in the context of class.

I just made a short check list of a whole bunch of things that people of certain classes can afford and people of other classes can’t. Not only does one’s privacy depend in some ways on ones class but one’s enjoyment of the private life that privacy protects can also depend on class. So you can talk about having the right to privacy that is protected by the Fourth Amendment that guarantees some protection against warrantless searches of your house but what if you don’t have a house, what if you’re sleeping under a bridge or what if you do have a house but you have to work three jobs just to pay for the mortgage. So you have an abstract theoretical right to privacy but your actual experience of the things that cause us to regard privacy as a value is extremely limited.

Again I think it is possible (and necessary) to draw that much wider and to reconfigure privacy as part of that broader area of autonomy’. Simply put in our societies privacy and autonomy are curtailed by economic position.

If one sees this starkly in the workplace in terms of power dynamics, it is also evident in every part of life, from the domestic space – where one lives, the nature of the accommodation (even to the issue of how much space there is from the neighbours or can one hear them through the walls>), interactions in the public sphere – and in particular with ‘services’, both public and private and so on and so forth.

Comments»

1. GM - September 14, 2012

What is surprising about “privacy” not being equivalent to “possession of a house”? “Free speech” doesn’t give anyone the right to a TV appearance either. Hardly an earth-shattering revelation, is it?

This tired old trick is used to confuse freedom and material abundance, giving everyone a supposed “right” to similar levels of physical wealth. I must have seen it a thousand times by now.

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WorldbyStorm - September 15, 2012

Ah what a cynic, eh?

Material abundance? No. That’s projection on your part. A decent standard of living yes. And in that respect freedom = same.

And to be honest your comment shows how partial your concept of freedom actually is, and how rhetorical. Freedom is not merely about the opportunity or potential but about the actuality, and in this case the actuality of being able to be away from interference/interruption of others. That is predicated upon certain minimum standards of living. In the absence of that freedom is meaningless.

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GM - September 18, 2012

From the perspective of Ireland just a few hundred years ago, the standard of living which everybody in Ireland experiences today, and which people in most countries of the world experience, is unimaginably wealthy, more than just a “decent standard of living”. From the perspective of anybody who lived then, we are all therefore completely “free”. So what, is the logical purpose of your subjective definition of “freedom”, except to agitate for wealth equalisation?

“to be away from interference/interruption of others” – you are suggesting that people deserve their own private accomodation. Unfortunately, private accomodation is a scarce good and your only solution is to force some people to give it to other people!

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WorldbyStorm - September 18, 2012

All definitions of freedom are subjective. And a thousand years from now the definitions of a ‘decent standard of living’ will be – one hopes immeasurably better than they are today. But the idea that we are all more free today because of living standards – and particularly in a global context is incorrect. There are vastly more people on this planet today than there were then, and many of them, perhaps the majority, live in very bad to appalling conditions and where the gap between those with most and themselves is opening up so fast their prospects look poor at best.

To be honest I think individual human beings probably do deserve private accomodations and societies should do all they can to assist that. I’m kind of big on the individual.

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2. GM - September 19, 2012

My definition doesn’t change depending on what century I’m in. I can apply the same definition no matter what the circumstance. If your definition is changing all the time, and especially if is contingent on the sort of extraneous factors which make historical analysis impossible, then it is a bad definition.

That was the purpose of the point I made. The idea that we are all more free today because of living standards is indeed incorrect. However, you tied your definition of freedom to living standards and that was your mistake.

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WorldbyStorm - September 19, 2012

Socio-economic factors are an aspect of freedom. Class position and the relationships within and between classes are an aspect of freedom. These factors change over time but that doesn’t alter the fundamental point.

None of this is contentious. None of this is particularly startling.

It is your unwillingness to accept this that is telling. But then again you’re the person who says that….

The labour market is very inefficient, but I’m sure you’d agree it’s not so inneficient that people have no control over what they earn.

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GM - September 20, 2012

They might not be contentious at a Communist Party think-in, but there are plenty of us who think that Marxist class analysis is completely false. I’ve explained why I think that defining freedom according to living standards is wrong.

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WorldbyStorm - September 20, 2012

I didn’t tie my definition exclusively to living standards (for which read a broader economic context). I made it clear that freedom is a function of multiple variables when I noted that “Freedom is not merely… but about… “ There was an ‘also’ implicit in that sentence before the ‘about’ and after the ‘merely’. But I think on a conceptual (and actual) level freedom is largely meaningless unless it can be realised and part and parcel of that is a lived environment (in the broadest sense of the term environment) where one can exercise autonomy. If one works in a sweatshop or is ground down by poverty that’s clearly impossible, but even for those in quite ordinary everyday work/domestic contexts their degree of autonomy is hugely limited. I’d hazard a guess that on this planet at present only a tiny fraction of the global population has anything approaching genuine autonomy.

I think that’s a problem because that population is composed of individuals one and all. I want to move to a position where all humans are in a position to exercise their autonomy to the fullest realisable degree and to the greatest possible extent.

BTW, cheap crack about CP think-ins.

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GM - September 20, 2012

That’s a very admirable goal, WbS, but it remains relative to specific historical or geographical contexts, if not purely to living standards. Even someone working 10 hours a day in a sweatshop for an hourly wage is in a far better position to exercise their autonomy than someone who lives in a pre-Industrial society, scavenging for berries and trying not get eaten by wild animals.

I really don’t have a huge problem with connecting freedom to living standards. I do it myself naturally, for example when I say that having a car gives someone greater freedom. It’s just that it muddies the arguments when we confuse this type of freedom with the logically distinct type of freedom signifying the absence of aggression from other human beings (e.g. early American settlers wished to escape religious persecution, to be free to practice their religion as they saw fit).

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3. ejh - September 20, 2012

Even someone working 10 hours a day in a sweatshop for an hourly wage is in a far better position to exercise their autonomy than someone who lives in a pre-Industrial society, scavenging for berries and trying not get eaten by wild animals.

This is not remotely as self-evident as you appear to believe, not least because “scavenging for berries” was not really how people lived then, and the wild animals tended to be on the other end of the eating.

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GM - September 20, 2012

I would say it’s self-evident because the person in a sweatshop, unless they are a prisoner, can choose to go and live in the wilderness whenever they want. The person who lived before the birth of industry could not choose to work in a factory.

And sorry, you’re right that humans were the apex predator 🙂

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ejh - September 20, 2012

I would say it’s self-evident because the person in a sweatshop, unless they are a prisoner, can choose to go and live in the wilderness whenever they want. The person who lived before the birth of industry could not choose to work in a factory.

This is a rather different proposition to the one you were previously atttempting to defend.

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WorldbyStorm - September 20, 2012

Well it surely doesn’t make any sense to try to draw a comparison between living standards between those in contemporary sweatshops and hunter gatherers and say that drawing that comparison is a valid indicator of freedom and say that making a comparison between someone in a sweatshop and someone in an advanced capitalist state is not a valid indicator of freedom (or between people within those advanced capitalist states).

That seems far from a consistent and coherent definition or indicator of ‘freedom’. A bit self serving to be honest.

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GM - September 20, 2012

WbS: I was using your defition of freedom when I drew that comparison.

My basic point is that there is a critical distinction between freedom as material wealth and freedom as the absence of violent aggression from others. You seem to disagree with this idea because your notion of freedom is tied in with class analysis, so that to accept such a distinction would be problematic.

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WorldbyStorm - September 20, 2012

But the absence of violent aggression from others as a definition of freedom is far too reductive. It takes into account absolutely nothing else about a lived environment. If one is starving to death one – by your definition – would be free, right up to the point of death. That makes absolutely no sense.

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GM - September 23, 2012

WbS: If you wish use the word “free” to mean “not hungry” or similar, again, that’s up to you.

In a political context, however, it’s dangerous. Using the example which I mentioned earlier, I tend to think of car ownership as something which is connected strongly to personal freedom. Does this mean that I think that everyone deserves a car? No it doesn’t.

In a political context, the danger of a vague, subjective definition of freedom which suggests food, shelter, privacy, education, a means of transport etc. is that it then gets tied up with a correspondingly vague, subjective, quasi-ethical notion such as “everyone has a right to be free”. You end up with the modern situation where it is seen as a moral necessity for taxpayers to be responsible for cigarettes, alcohol, TV subscriptions, rents on expensive properties, clothes and Christmas presents for “the poor”. And maybe it is true that all of these things are a moral necessity, but we won’t get there with fuzzy logic.

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4. GM - September 20, 2012

How?

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5. RosencrantzisDead - September 20, 2012

I think your conception of freedom is rather confused and contradictory, GM.

You assert that a person in a sweatshop is a greater position to exercise their autonomy than a barbarian who scavenges for berries and must dodge wild animals. But this flies in the face of practically every liberal theorist for the past 500 years.

You then posit that a sweatshop worker could leave his employment and go live in the wilderness, thus exercising his autonomy. But why would a sweatshop worker retreat to a place where you assert he will enjoy less autonomy than were he to remain in the sweatshop? Is a choice of prison equal to freedom?

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WorldbyStorm - September 20, 2012

Logically there are other flaws. I wonder how feasible it would be in the 21 century to live off the land in the way hunter gatherers did, even in – say the far East (I know this is in part a thought experiment, but it’s not exactly seamless).

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GM - September 20, 2012

@Rosencrantz: I was temporarily using WbS’ definition of freedom. Sorry for being unclear.

Using my own preferred form of language, I would say that the person who has the choice of working in a sweatshop or scavenging is economically better off than the person whose only choice for survival is to scavenge, not more free.

It matters because some people use the word freedom to describe other things such as access to education, shelter, transportation, etc. It’s not a crime against logic to use freedom in this way because it is a crime to confuse the different meanings or not to accept that the distinction exists.

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GM - September 20, 2012

Last sentence: It’s not a crime against logic to use freedom in this way BUT it is a crime to confuse the different meanings or not to accept that the distinction exists.

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WorldbyStorm - September 20, 2012

Not wanting to be rude but you’re continually misrepresenting my definition of freedom (and by the by reifying your definition while providing no legitimation for it).

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RosencrantzisDead - September 20, 2012

Looking up the thread, I think it is you who first claimed that WbS was misappropriating the word ‘freedom’. You seem to have resiled from that position now, but you were certainly asserting it up-thread.

If I can put words in WbS’s mouth, he is saying that lack of property acts a constraint on an agent and this constraint prevents them from doing, becoming or achieving certain things. This means that the agent lacks freedom. You may disagree with WbS’s conception of freedom but denying that what he is talking about is freedom is incorrect.

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WorldbyStorm - September 20, 2012

That’s precisely what I’m trying to get at RiD. Nicely put.

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GM - September 21, 2012

Like I said, I don’t mind if people want to sometimes use the word ‘freedom’ to mean a lack of property. However, it should also be acknowledged (as per the other thread) that the lack of property is a function of choices we make as well as of factors outside of our own control.

If somebody will only define freedom as lack of property, will fail to acknowledge the widely understood definition of freedom as the absence of aggression from others, or refuses to accept that there is any distinction between being poor and being a slave, then I have to question their motives.

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RosencrantzisDead - September 21, 2012

But no one was saying any such thing. Someone was talking about one aspect of freedom. It was this aspect that you took exception to. If you are claiming that it was statements like these that compelled you to post, then I would ask that you re-read the OP and the comments. Otherwise you are attacking a straw-man.

And the choice issue is not an argument over freedom; it is an argument over whether a restriction on freedom is justified.

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6. smiffy - September 20, 2012

Sorry for the confusion, but what exactly is GM’s definition of freedom? Is it simply the extent to which one is (or is not) subject to the “aggression of others”? If so, surely that’s a freedom entirely rooted in one’s economic/material position.

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WorldbyStorm - September 20, 2012

And that’s the central question. But the essential contradiction is that s/he recognises that as regards hunger/gatherer as against sweatshop (since s/he believes the latter is more ‘free’ than the former), but not sweatshop as against anything else contemporary..

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EWI - September 20, 2012

There are sociopaths who use ‘freedom’ in the sense of “completely untrammelled property rights”.

Among other things, such people have been known to therefore argue in defence of the concept of owning a person – usually in the sense of owning your wife, children and employees – but sometimes the literal, old American South kind i.e. slavery (unfortunately, I’m not kidding here).

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WorldbyStorm - September 21, 2012

In fairness to GM I’m sure he or she wouldn’t go quite that far, but there are huge problematics about the contractual aspects of some libertarian thinking in terms of labour which seem to me to lead to indentured labour. But I think that’s part of a broader issue of not seeing the woods for the trees in terms of economic contexts and power relationships.

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