Technology has recently made surveillance by governments more effective than ever, but it was the Fascist and Communist states in the twentieth century that turned surveillance into high art. Chief among their innovations was to hand over the work to their own citizens. The Bolsheviks, and their heirs who came to power in postwar Europe, made a virtue out of mutual spying. In his Memoir of a Revolutionary, the ideologue-in-chief of the Yugoslav Communists, Milovan Djilas, justified the practice:
Supervision of our private lives was essential if we were to have a new party and a dedicated membership. It didn’t mean constant surveillance, but rather the right to supervise whenever the party’s interests were threatened, interests for which we leaders stood and which we defended in the name of the entire membership.
The right to supervision! The right to surveillance! It sounds sinister now, but it went without saying at the time that the Communists could not have maintained the esprit de corps and internal organization necessary to defeat the forces of European fascism without it. For Djilas and his fellow partisans, surveillance was a necessary means for advancing the proletarian cause. They therefore made a habit of ideologically X-raying one another’s interiors, much as the revivalists of the Great Awakening scrutinized each other’s souls.
For liberal states, by contrast, spying was almost always a limited project—and, generally speaking, liberal regimes have not succeeded in convincing their citizens to report on one another. (Hoover was a better survivor than the NKVD’s Lavrentiy Beria, but his rate of collection paled in comparison.) Even apparently innocuous data collection initiatives like the census have a complicated history. In 1939, Dorothea Lange could take a photo of an Oregonian lumberjack displaying the tattoo of his social security number on his bicep, proud to be collected and counted. Half a century later in the Federal Republic of Germany, crowds of thousands, still worried about a police state, protested the census and the collection of information as basic as their home addresses. Today the dominant mood is neither pride nor anger but apathy, whatever newspaper columnists would have us believe. Liberal societies have gathered quantities of data beyond the dreams of the most ambitious Communist bureaucrat—yet protests have been comparatively mild, and few have chosen to withdraw from the online portals where most of the spying gets done.
Mass indifference on the part of those who feel they have nothing to hide is only one major obstacle to liberal states rededicating themselves to the division between private and public spheres. Another is that, even among those who actively oppose the surveillance state, there exists little inclination to specify what privacy is actually good for. Indeed, privacy seems to have become such a naturalized sacred right in the liberal imaginary that it no longer seems necessary to make a new positive case on its behalf. Even some of the most vocal opponents of surveillance—Glenn Greenwald, Dave Eggers, Rand Paul—have tended to reflect our confusion about the value we place on privacy in contemporary society, combined with a surprising lack of interest in how it came to be considered such an important value in the first place. Yet we need to know just what it is we love.
The root of the word is of little help: it derives from the Latin privare, to deprive. In the Roman Empire, honor fell to the vir publicus—the public man, someone honored for his service to Rome—not a privatus, a private individual, without any claim to status. The nullifying flavor of the term has mostly vanished in English, except in the military where the lowest rank is still “private.” Originally, “private” designated that a solider was not a nobleman but a mercenary or a slave, who could be bought and sold.
Just as the Germanic tribes left the Roman public man in ruins, so their descendants during the Reformation emphasized private conscience and a personal relationship with God over the Church-mediated religion of papal Rome. But a more straightforward idea of privacy, also still familiar to us, was popularized as the result of the confrontation between Europeans and the peoples of the New World. When Bernal Díaz entered the city of Tenochtitlán in 1519, he made special note that the barbarians did outdoors what the Europeans did in private. It was partly out of the need to justify new global hierarchies that, by the eighteenth century, a proper understanding of “privacy” was seen as being a precondition for the distinguishing virtue of “civility.”
It was not until the eighteenth century, however, that privacy began to take on the significance that it has for today’s debates. For European elites following Rousseau, privacy was associated less with civility than with a new and more amorphous moral imperative, now known as authenticity. In his political philosophy, Rousseau imagined a society in which individuals could legitimately subsume their private interests, but he considered actually existing society to be a mostly corrupting influence on the individual. In his famous work on education, he prescribes his philosophical guinea pig, Emile, more than a decade of isolation in order to fully develop his capacities before entering into marriage and society. Yet in his Confessions—the first great modern tell-all—Rousseau also provided a model for how to “share” one’s authentic private experiences with the public. The result was a surge of vapid diarists, all anxious to prove that they too had a singular inner life.
The Age of Authenticity was also the age of the modern novel—another genre for which Rousseau’s contribution was transformative. His Julie, read by some as his most persuasive articulation of the ethics of authenticity, was the best-selling book of its century in Europe. French novelists of the next century were left with no choice but to reckon with it. One of Flaubert’s great insights was to see that vapidity itself did not mean an absence of genuine feeling. When Madame Bovary’s lover Rodolphe becomes bored by his mistress’s clichéd outpourings, it is not her but him that Flaubert condemns: “He did not distinguish—this man of so much experience—the difference of feeling beneath the sameness of expression.” It’s a distinguishing mark of “modern” humans, in any case, that we feel the need to prove that our inner life is not hollow. Later novelists continued to play variations on the theme: Proust and Joyce could get away with writing about the minutiae of private life in part because of their mock-epic style, which carried their quotidian freight to philosophical destinations. A more radical risk has been taken by Knausgaard, who has forsaken the safeguard of style altogether: the Norwegian raises the stakes of authenticity by telling his story in the most artless sentences possible.
But what is the link between the cult of authenticity and the sort of privacy that works toward the social good in a liberal polity? From one perspective, the widespread retreat among artists and philosophers into the caverns of the self was a testament to the fading promise of Romantic politics; having failed to transform Europe in the wake of the Age of Revolution, they would have to rest content with transforming their inner selves instead.
At the same time, there was one slice of eighteenth-century society that did attempt to create a bridge between privacy as a self-oriented value and privacy as a precondition for the effective reform of society. This was the cult of Freemasonry. The Masonic associations were seedbeds for the revolutionary tumult that would eventually bring down the ancient regimes of Europe. Their lodges, shrouded in secrecy, were thought to allow space for the development of the moral authority they needed to question the state. A pamphlet from a German lodge in 1859 states that the private lodges do “what neither the state nor the church can. [They] will increase and spread inner virtue and probity.” But they were also meant to protect those who wanted to think and organize against the prevailing politico-economic order without being crushed or infiltrated in advance.
The Freemasons shared with Rousseau the belief that society at large was tyrannical and judgmental; but although they advocated a temporary isolation, the aim of that isolation was ultimately not to transcend society but to improve it. The criterion for exemplary democratic citizenship among the Masons became the ability to leave the pressures and the eyes of society for a period, think through one’s own interests as well as society’s, and then return a more sovereign citizen, better able to contribute to the common good. The Masons saw themselves, like Rousseau, as undertaking nothing less than the construction of a new man, but this would be a person who did not define himself against politics. A moral citizen who possessed the required skills for bettering the commonweal through the democratic art of persuasion: this was their goal.
Today’s liberals often conflate the self-fashioning privacy of Rousseau and the more publicly oriented privacy of the Masons—for instance, here is Glenn Greenwald, at the height of the debate over the NSA surveillance program:
We all need places where we can go to explore without the judgmental eyes of other people being cast upon us. Only in a realm where we’re not being watched can we really test the limits of who we want to be. It’s really in the private realm where dissent, creativity and personal exploration lie.
On the one hand, Greenwald presents privacy as necessary for the internal development of the individual in the Rousseauean mode. On the other, he names it as a place for the development of “dissent” in the political sense that would have been more familiar to the Masons.
To tie together these two kinds of privacy can be productive; Pussy Riot was at least partly effective in passing off political critique as spontaneous art. But to think that dissent flows naturally from creative expression, or always overlaps with it, is to miss what is actually being threatened by developments such as the President’s Surveillance Program. It is safe to assume, that is, that the NSA has little interest in suppressing our inner creativity—it may, on the other hand, believe it has good reasons for tracking our “dissent.” This means it is most acutely in its public-oriented sense that our privacy is currently under attack—at least from the government. (Google and Facebook, which have more of an interest in aggregating and shaping tastes and desires, are another matter.)
One might argue that public-oriented privacy is already well ingrained in modern liberal thought and upheld in our laws. Indeed, one of the more durable insights of Millian liberalism is that it is in the long-term interest of an evolving polity for citizens to have a place to think beyond it unmolested. But the exception to the rule—the state’s right to defend itself against those who wish to agitate violently against it—has always been vulnerable to exploitation. It is possible that many of the current social movements that require the most privacy to advance—the growing collection of student debt-strikers preparing coordinated actions on the internet, for instance, or the Chicago artist Leo Selvaggio’s URME Surveillance project, which provides customers with 3-D masks of Selvaggio’s face that can trick facial recognition cameras—will be infiltrated by the state before they fully enact their protests. When it comes to creating the kind of pressure on our public institutions that goes beyond words, it is this kind of privacy—the privacy which provides cover for groups to organize and plot different social futures—that is the most in need of defenders from the rest of the public, whether they agree with them or not.
Image credit: Andrei Roiter, “Surveillance Camera.”