[iDC] The difference between privacy and anonymity

Brian Holmes brian.holmes at aliceadsl.fr
Tue Sep 29 09:00:31 UTC 2009

john sobol wrote:

> to my mind, the stance that you celebrate in the Tiqqun  
> writings, Brian, while entirely suitable for a self-centred teenager,  
> is not really a mature perspective that recognizes life's  
> complexities or the more subtle forms of human agency. 

Well, for the record I don't celebrate them, I just mention them as the 
latest expression of a concept and practice of de-individualization that 
has appeared and been acted on in Europe over the last fifteen years at 
least. There is a link between Agamben, who wrote in Tiqqun, and the 
younger members of the group who went on to write The Coming 
Insurrection and get themselves arrested by the French police. Although 
I never personally had much to do with any of them, or even particularly 
liked their writing, I do find it intriguing that young people should be 
inspired to revolt by philosophical concepts -- concepts which, by the 
way, were particularly influential during the past big wave of social 
activism in France in 2006, when millions of young people protested 
against new flexible labor laws.

It so happens I am reading Marcuse's Eros and Civilization right now - 
one of the inspirations for the events of May 68, when protesters 
carried placards reading "Marx Mao Marcuse." It seems to me that in the 
present age of the "less lethal weapons" that Paul Miller just posted 
about (a number of which I saw in action at the RNC in summer '08) one 
of the things that this country really needs is a youth revolt against 
our increasingly oppressive social order. Maybe we could in fact learn 
something from those young Europeans? Maybe both philosophy and art have 
a political value as sources of the desire for a better life, and of the 
courage to refuse the one that we are being offered? I thought so around 
ten years ago, that's why instead of getting older and wiser I 
participated in and wrote about the collective-name movements in my 
early forties, while my peers were getting their tenure in the 
universities. If you are curious to read some stories about it (but it's 
still fairly theoretical I'm afraid) check out the title essay of the 
book I mentioned:


In reply to Jodi, yes, my intention is to look into a prepolitical, 
fundamentally aesthetic dimension of social existence from which new 
forms of organized solidarity can arise. And I do agree that temporary 
outburts of resistance are not really that important. But the reason I 
do not believe in the sheer communist invocation of collectivity or 
commonality (the choice of words matters little imho) is that the 
communist invocation is inoperative, the solidarity is not happening. 
There are real reasons for this, forms of social and affective control 
which render former modes of political organization obsolete. The major 
one, which obviously long predates the kinds of digital media we talk 
about on this list, is the bureaucratization of the workers' movement in 
the core countries, and the transformation of struggles for workers' 
autonomy into negotiations over wages, which in their turn function as 
consumer spending to prime the Keynesian pump of meaningless production 
that can only be stuffed down our throats by manipulative advertising.

I referred in an earlier discussion to James Boggs' 1964 book, The 
American Revolution, which has a lot to say about the dead end that the 
workers' movement had come to as early as the postwar period. You cannot 
just reverse this kind of historical development by invoking 
collectivity, not of the old working-class variety anyway. What we have 
in the USA, and increasingly in Europe as the social-democratic and 
socialist parties fade away, are nationalist and racist working classes 
that have been successfully manipulated into defending their privileged 
place on the world labor market - or rather, into defending the 
increasingly false perception that they have a privileged place... Now, 
why does that kind of ideology work? Why could Bush command the popular 
support he got for his insane policies? The answer is historical, it has 
mainly to do with capitalism's successful neutralization of the 
working-class movements in the core countries. So, while Marx remains a 
great philosopher and there is a lot to be learned from the many 
different attempts at establishing communism, there is almost nothing to 
be gained by just exhorting people to act collectively - or by harking 
back to the good old days of the communist party, social democracy, the 
welfare state, etc.

Now, we could also consider what are called the middle classes, whose 
numbers have risen with the expansion of white-collar labor of all 
kinds. Earlier on this list we considered the very interesting idea 
(offered by Jodi in one of her texts) that the American middle classes 
are afflicted by denied guilt for having abandoned the institutional 
solidarities of the welfare state, which had largely created those same 
middle classes by helping working people to rise out of ignorance and 
destitution through education, health care, decent lodging, access to 
leisure and culture, etc. I think that is a very insightful idea that 
explains certain things about present-day middle-class behaviors, but 
one that should not cover up two key things. The first is that students 
in the 60s and 70s (the future middle classes of the 80s and 90s) were 
largely right to revolt against the bureaucratic capitalist structures 
that had already largely ruined the welfare state. And the second thing 
not to forget is that the organized conspiracy of this country's elites 
that led the same middle classes down to abandon their parents' and 
grandparents' solidarities -- a conspiracy which, after some 40 years, 
is finally becoming understood (still by only a small minority of the 
population) under the heading of "neoliberalism." (By the way, just saw 
that Philip Mirowski has come out with a useful edited volume of source 
texts establishing the genealogy of that concept/conspiracy).

Social control is real, that's the problem. It is organized by elites 
and imposed on the different classes, regional groups, ethnicities etc. 
There are many forms of it. I am claiming that one of them, which has 
been layered onto and has partially superseded the Fordist-Keynesian 
mode of control I mentioned above, is the new hyper-individualization 
stimulated by electronic media, within the context of the fast-moving 
economic regime known by the regulation theorists as flexible 
accumulation. There is ample evidence that this hyper-individualization 
has been going on since the 1980s, and while the idea of celebrity 
subjectivities sounds quite interesting in the social-media context, it 
surely does not cover all the ways we are individualized by 
surveillance, consumer seduction, speculative investment, etc. I have 
written a great deal about such things, which I will not repeat here.* I 
have also participated in activist experiments that aim precisely at 
overcoming such barriers to political organization. And once again, I 
don't think you will get anywhere by just telling flexible individuals 
that they should behave collectively! The question of activist 
aesthetics is how to open up new feelings and concepts of solidarity 
among the increasingly precarious middle classes of which most of us on 
this list are a part -- feelings and concepts which are perhaps 
comparable to the historical ones forged in the course of the workers' 
movements, but necessarily different. However, I am not at all sure my 
ideas and attempts have been the right ones, so I am quite interested to 
hear others. Plus, the question of the marginalized and excluded classes 
and their relations to the forms of social control could and definitely 
should be raised...

best, BH

*For the most relevant texts:


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