Reinventing Privacy – Reinventing Ourselves, Research Time, 05/04/2016

Antonio Negri, of all the thinkers I’ve read, probably casts the biggest shadow over my slowly-in-progress book of political theory, Utopias. As far as the straight critique of government and political institutions goes, he and I are fellow travellers. 

At this point, aside from reading the occasional rant on my blog, when someone wants to know more about where I stand on a lot of foundational political issues, I tell them to read Negri. He’s seriously onto something. Let his ideas sit with you. They’ll change your mind about at least a few things. 

He's really onto something, you know.
This is what I tell my friends in the New Democratic Party as well. We’re wondering, in the light of our recent national election defeat and heading into the party convention in a few days, where to go from here. How to remix the roots of Canadian social democracy for the Trudeau era.

Start with Antonio Negri, I tell people. In casual terms, that shit’s the future.

The major message of Negri’s political thinking that I carry into my own work is that globalization is a serious conceptual game changer in how the fundamental concepts of politics work. 

It doesn’t rob states of power – anyone who’s had a police or military apparatus blow up them or their communities knows how powerful they still are. But globalization makes new political rules that are completely foreign to the way sovereign states work. And those new rules have power. 

Think about a distinction so old and ubiquitous, we often don’t think it could be any different. The distinction of private and public. In the same sense that public services became synonymous with state-administered services. And what’s private is the realm where the state isn’t morally allowed to interfere.

The private sphere is the part of each of us that’s purely for me as an individual. Not in a literal sense – the private sphere usually includes my family, my friends and personal networks, my own property. It’s the territory around each of us that we map out always in relation to ourselves.

The private realm is our Earth, at the centre of Ptolemy’s crystal spheres. 

For sovereign states to be democracies, they need a barrier between private and public. Society must have two absolutely distinct realms – the space of an individual’s freedom and the space where the state can exercise control. As long as we’re free from the state, we’re absolutely free.

But there are such powerful capital flows across the world today that going to work in a supposedly free contract – paid according to local standards and a working day of an average local length – can oppress you. 

The equivalent of a few dollars for a 14-or-more hour working day – life is a poverty trap. All this while you’re contributing to the largest fortunes of the world in, for example, major clothing companies. You’re shut out of the true wealth of the world.

Understand that economic subordination – with its roots in networks of capital flows, and not in the direct orders of any monarch, military, or bureaucracy. Understand that it’s just as oppressive to live in that kind of poverty trap as it is to live under a secret police regime. 

They are simply different machines that crush your spirit – the spirit ends up crushed in either one. Our political thinking needs to change radically to reach all the implications of understanding oppression as any set of circumstances that crushes human spirit.

We all know now the scale of power and capital the world's
richest people control. States are mere tools to serve the
wealth of the world's most wealthy individuals. There is
no public and private for a global economy's oligarchs.
Economic injustice should be prevented. But we can’t rely on the state for this because we know that it’s basically just a giant machine of military authoritarianism. That’s what centralized states were designed to be in the first place – the world’s most efficient command structure.

So we need to focus our political activism and (most importantly) thinking to prevent economic injustice by changing the system of economic relations around the globe. Without relying on authority structures like states to do it with armies and police.

Political philosophy that’s just about the proper realm of state action and the proper realm of privacy – about where states can and can’t command – won’t come to grips with this. There are no commands; there are communication networks, capital flows. Oppression that doesn’t come from orders backed by a gun, but deals backed by deeds of ownership.

Politics can’t be only about each of us and the proper boundaries of our individuality, of the realm proper to ourselves, anymore.

Coming to grips with the nature of globalized society and economy would have the same social shock – and similarly transform how we conceive of ourselves and the world – as the Copernican Revolution. A Copernican Revolution for our entire self-conception.

Where have I heard that before?

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