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Big Brother versus liberty

Firmin DeBrabander’s philosophical musings are the checklist of a left-wing, “progressive” academic

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Privacy, what exactly is it, and what has it done for us lately? This is the subject of Firmin DeBrabander’s Life After Privacy: Reclaiming Democracy in a Surveillance Society. It has to be said the title is a little misleading. Presumably his editor at the CUP was worried about publishing yet another book on philosophy and wanted to sex up its appeal. DeBrabander is a professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and it shows.

Life After Privacy: Reclaiming Democracy in a Surveillance Society
By Firmin DeBrabander
Cambridge University Press, £19.99

Much of the book is not about the “surveillance society” and post-privacy but is rather a walk down the memory lane of thought, seeing how the individual, society and politics intermingle, from the Greeks and their agora, through Spinoza and Rousseau, to the inevitable references to Foucault.

There is this strange relationship between the right to seclusion (or at least its possibility) and liberty. For the Stoics, you found freedom internally. You gave yourself your sovereignty by indifference to the external. Thus the wise man is happy on the rack, according to Epicurus, because the tyrant can’t crack your mental fortitude.

As an American, DeBrabander throws in generous helpings of Emerson and Thoreau, and works in two of my favourite maxims. First, there is Machiavelli’s contention that there has to be some restraint on the prince’s power because men can get over their father’s death much more easily than losing their inheritance from him.

Then there’s Kant’s great “forget-about-it” line, promoted by Isaiah Berlin, that nothing straight can come from the “crooked timber” of mankind. The one major, curious absence from this Hall of Fame tour that DeBrabander conducts is Montaigne, whose essay on solitude is one of his best.

I don’t know the author, but I’m fairly sure I can guess his views on most matters

But we do get to the contemporary world. There’s a lag, often a long one, between the final edit of a text and its publication. Considering events over the last few months, DeBrabander has been rather unlucky in regard to his observations on the Chinese government: “China is engaged in less censorship than is commonly perceived” and “the Chinese government should not suppress criticism, so much as hear it and understand it — in the right way, that is, or under the right circumstances. To be specific, the Chinese government is happy to understand criticism, so long as it is not threatening — yet.”

DeBrabander seems to characterise the Chinese government as “authoritarian”. It’s true that it’s hard to know where to draw the line. Describing Xi Jinping’s regime as totalitarian might be an exaggeration; Xi probably doesn’t care if someone in a third-floor flat in Shanghai is wiping his arse with his picture. But he certainly would if the wiper bragged about it on social media. “Authoritarian” suggests to me there are some limits to the regime’s power. Xi’s easy-fit, panem et circenses dictatorship doesn’t have any.

I don’t know DeBrabander, but I’m fairly sure I can guess his views on most matters. It’s the checklist of a left-wing, “progressive” academic. Foreigners — wonderful, unless you support Donald Trump. Communists — actually not that bad.

Firmin DeBrabander is a professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art

Here’s another assessment from DeBrabander: “Communist regimes, which assiduously strove to so elevate the will of the people and realise a strict egalitarianism, took popular rule out of the picture altogether, assembling a despotism of experts.” Experts? Where did that come from? Experts in what? There certainly were talented individuals in communist regimes around the world, but their expertise lay in sycophancy and self-enrichment, not in running a country or an economy.

We arrive at Islam. “More recently, Europeans have grown uneasy with the Muslim minorities in their midst, especially when they opt for more conservative expressions of the faith.” This is the sort of statement that makes me despair about the lack of rigour and honesty in universities. So, unease with Muslim minorities is nothing to do with Muslims, generally of conservative views, blowing themselves up in public, machine-gunning audiences at rock concerts or mowing down pedestrians with trucks?

Democracy isn’t like an air-conditioning system that can be quickly and efficiently installed

Next, the mandatory Donald Trump rant. I find it hilarious that writers who see themselves as fearless, diehard champions of democracy (typically on the left) can’t handle the results of democratic elections. Whatever Trump’s shortcomings, the Democratic Party should be ashamed of itself for its mule-headed refusal to accept that it lost. DeBrabander recounts the hysteria on campus that greeted Trump’s election victory. He’s dismissive of the “safe space” students were insisting on but returns to the progressive fold in putting the boot into Trump.

DeBrabander’s argument is that most citizens are willing to make a significant sacrifice in privacy for the convenience of Amazon deliveries and other online services. (It’s something that Orwell didn’t think of, that as long as Big Brother has good feature films, the nation will be happy to have him in their front rooms.) I think most of us would go along with DeBrabander’s view, although of course there is an attempt to fight back digitally.

It’s a surprise that DeBrabander makes no reference to cryptocurrencies (some of which, however unconvincingly, boast of their privacy and “uncensorable” nature) and browsers such as Tor that are meant to hide your internet adventures. But, unfortunately, encryption, like love, tends to be perishable.

What is the support for democracy after privacy is gone or severely reduced? DeBrabander doesn’t have much to offer here. He presents a paradox: that an individual’s original thinking needs to be done in solitude, but its best fruits are the product of social interaction. So, his proposal is we need a more active “public realm”, a new agora. However, he doesn’t provide much in the way of a blueprint.

One point that he makes about democracy in a way is so obvious that it tends to get overlooked. Democracy isn’t a drug that can overwhelm anyone it encounters. Democracy isn’t like an air-conditioning system that can be quickly and efficiently installed, as we’ve had to learn in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

A democracy requires its citizens to believe in it, even if they never get round to voting. It’s above all a state of mind, a state of mind that needs cultivation and reinforcement. No one is born a democrat. The tree of liberty may occasionally need the blood of patriots, but it regularly needs the fertiliser of patience and tolerance. And, ideally, democracy benefits from a generosity of spirit, something depressingly absent from our Anglo-Saxon political landscape.

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