There is a necessary postscript to my previous post regarding the Marxist critique of surveillance capitalism. That postscript is to observe that, in the end, a Marxist critique of surveillance capitalism is inconsistent because Marxism, when it is politically instantiated, itself relies on police-state surveillance structures. Sure, it’s not directed at manipulating people into buying stuff they don’t need, from companies they don’t necessarily like, but it is–like surveillance capitalism–directed at perpetuating and sustaining a system that, no less, works against what most people think of as liberal, democratic freedom.
This isn’t something that Marxists work overtime to hide. For example, in his book, The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Žižek writes openly of the Stalinist-era perspective that the Party–totalitarian as it was–was democratic because it functioned to represent the proletarian class.1 Like in other areas, pinning down Marx’s views on democracy and its meaning can be difficult. Of course, just because Marx thought a particular way about anything doesn’t prevent his self-styled heirs from modifying it, often beyond recognition. My point is not to go deep into a critique of Marx, or Marxism, or neo-Marxism. Instead, I want to highlight something much more broad: That whenever we think we understand what an ideologue is saying it is usually at the precise moment that we have no concept of what they’re saying.
All of this relates back to the topic of surveillance capitalism. For the Marxist, it is not that a small group of organizations are extracting data about the behavior of ostensibly free individuals and then using it in ways those individuals may not realize to control or modify their behavior. Instead, the Marxist has a problem that the data is being commodified and employed for “capitalist” purposes. As history has demonstrated over and over, and as China currently demonstrates, Marxists do not have any problem with collecting, storing, and using information to control populations. That is just so long as the information is being used for the correct purpose. Of course, the same could be said for the United States, given Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s collection of data on American citizens. The fundamental disagreement comes not in whether or not data should be collected but the purposes for which it’s being used.
This raises an idea that I have had for some years now but that I have not yet tried to communicate, in writing or otherwise. That idea is that Christianity provides the only rational basis on which to erect a belief in the freedoms of speech, expression, and information. The reason it provides the only rational basis for these freedoms is because, when it is stacked up against all of the other ideologies and worldviews, only Christianity has nothing to hide. Not only does it have nothing to hide but it models the ideal of openness and disclosure. Christianity happened within history, it lays its case out openly, and provides explanations for how these events of history ought to influence how we act in the world. People are free, of course, to disagree. And they do disagree. And that is fine, because Christianity can hold its own. Furthermore, it holds its own without using force, compulsion, or coercion. On the contrary, Christians have consistently employed the techniques of philosophy, logic, rhetoric, and literature to advance their arguments. In other words, Christianity has relied on, encouraged, and flourished within an environment with a free flow of information and speech.
Of course, there are examples in history where self-identified Christians did use force, compulsion, and coercion. My assertion here is that insofar as they did, they were acting counter to both the explicit and implicit meaning of Christianity. The same cannot be said for other worldviews and ideologies. Whatever one thinks about the Chinese surveillance state, they cannot say that it is inconsistent with the overall worldview and political ideology of the ruling Party.
I want to unpack this more, so perhaps over the next few posts I will start to sketch an outline of what I’m driving at.
- Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2008), 164-165.