A public intellectual vs the privacy infringers

A combination of official snooping and our own self-revelation has left privacy battered and bruised. Wolfgang Sofsky wants to rescue it.

Josie Appleton

Topics Books

This article is republished from the July 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Last year the British Library introduced a bag search at its main entrance. Readers had to form a queue and file through four searchers, two on each side, who unzipped rucksacks, felt into side pockets, lifted out items and peered beneath them. The search was justified by ‘ongoing security concerns’, but the bag searchers never searched the bag properly, they just rifled, and at the end they zipped it up and said ‘that’s fine, thanks’, and you were free to enter the building.

I always thought: what’s fine? A handgun could have been easily smuggled within the folds of my swimming kit. The search seemed not to be in earnest, but instead was a search for the sake of a search, for the sake of unzipping, handling, intruding. The private individual – just any old person walking in off the street – is deemed risky, and the search an act of purification. Through opening our bags, surrendering our personal space, we are declared ‘fine’.

Such bag searches are part of a systematic attack on privacy throughout public life. The private individual was once seen as having a wall around him, which would be scaled only rarely by the authorities. He could not be searched or watched without very good reason; his possessions could not be taken away without warrants or other justificatory documentation. So long as he didn’t hurt others, his life was his ‘business’. The private sphere of the home was romanticised as the site of intimacy and genuine relationships, the space insulated from the hard calculations of the market and public life: ‘The Englishman’s home is his castle.’

The supreme bourgeois virtue has become a vice. Very few parts of our lives or our possessions are now deemed ours, inviolably ours, and not for others to be messing with. A person’s resistance to outside intervention is immediately a sign of suspicion. ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ is the maxim of the age. Only those with something to hide, apparently, would resist intrusion.

The barriers around private life are systematically stigmatised and violated. A zipped bag could harbour a weapon and must be unzipped. A closed classroom door is an indicator that the teacher is probably grooming one of his pupils. The very existence of two people alone, invisible to others, is seen as a potential abuse situation, and a third person could only be there as a watcher. Behind drawn curtains, parents, if not actually abusing their children, are certainly feeding them the wrong food or smoking in their presence.

There are growing freedom movements around these privacy issues. Campaign groups are springing up to take on council surveillance of residents, government databases, CCTV, stop-and-search measures, or the growth in powers of entry to the home. There is growing public concern about the ‘invasion of privacy’ and thousands have refused to have their details stored on the new National Health Service database, for example. Yet this movement has so far lacked a theoretical document. Privacy: A Manifesto, by the German academic Wolfgang Sofsky, could be it.

Why privacy matters

The chief achievement of this book is to explain why privacy matters. Unlike under totalitarianism, the invasion of an individual’s privacy now is not a precursor to the destruction or harming of that individual. Councils’ tapping of phone conversations is not a prelude to mass arrests and assassinations; nobody is pulled out and interrogated from the British Library bag search line. Mostly we don’t even notice CCTV cameras: at most we get an on-the-spot fine for our monitored misdemeanours, which is annoying but not life-threatening. As a result, officials – and many members of the public – ask privacy campaigners: ‘What’s your problem?’ Nobody died, nobody was hurt or imprisoned, it’s just an ID card/camera/database. ‘What does it matter?’ And so privacy campaigners are made to look like pedants making a fuss about nothing.

Sofsky explains what is lost when an individual is searched, monitored or photographed by the authorities. Searches and surveillance don’t hurt our bodies, but they do hurt our autonomy and self-possession, which are equally important.

First of all, says Sofsky, privacy provides the space where we are ‘at home’. It is ‘the individual’s fortress’, the ‘area free of domination, the only one under the individual’s control’, where we are protected from the pressures of the outside world and can be ourselves and follow our own inclinations. This is the ‘unobserved life’, where we do not have to be on our guard or justify our actions to others. The private space allows us to develop as individuals, away from the immediate demands of the world.

Sofsky outlines the evolution of the bourgeois household and the importance of each family member having his or her own room. When families lived cheek-by-jowl in one or two rooms, family members would carry their possessions around in their pockets: pockets were the limits of private space. With their own room, each family member could create their own world where they could do their own thing and be themselves. We see this in the exaggerated seriousness with which children put up football posters or paint their rooms odd colours, and also in the absolute necessity that writers have for what Virginia Woolf called a ‘room of one’s own’. John Banville explained why he wrote in a locked room high up in a Dublin block: ‘Here I am unassailable.’

Today, says Sofsky, the walls of privacy are being brought down. There are few places where we are not observed or exposed to the chatter and demands of others. He treats privacy in its broadest sense, as not just the home but as the walls around individuals in public life that give us the freedom to be ourselves. Public life has become ‘transparent’: ‘Sheets of glass expose our lives to others.’ In the workplace, personal offices are replaced with open-plan spaces visible to the street. Indeed, at the UK Natural History Museum’s Darwin Centre, professors with 40 years’ experience who had made major scientific discoveries were moved into open-plan offices, and the public could peer at them through glass windows. They were lost and unhappy, a worker there told me: research cannot occur in such conditions. A similar shift has occurred at the British Geological Survey and many other research institutions.

The second dimension of privacy is that it provides the space for the development of intimacy. ‘Only in an enclosed space could people pursue intimate relationships, express their feelings freely, and give themselves to each other’, says Sofsky. Before the bourgeois home, lovers would carry out their liaisons furtively in the garden or woods. In the intimate sphere, people can reveal fears and vulnerabilities that cannot be expressed in public. One can love without qualification or calculation, and become tolerant or even fond of a partner’s faults.

So this is what is lost when intimacy is invaded, and partners discuss their relationship problems before a studio audience or a sex counsellor urges them to spice it up and try more daring positions. They no longer relate to each other, as such, but instead look at the relationship from outside or justify themselves to an audience. They apply the standards of a third party to their home lives, which destroys any genuine understanding. As Frank Furedi observed in Therapy Culture: ‘Couples who carry out intimate communication with their counsellor end up communicating to one another in a different way.’ (1)

The third dimension of privacy that Sofsky outlines relates to private property and personal possessions, over which we have a ‘monopoly of use’. The objects we acquire are the things that mean something to us, bring us pleasure, or enable us to do what we want to do. ‘The power of disposal over things that belong only to oneself marks out one’s place in the world’, he writes. In his novel about a Soviet prison, The First Circle, Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes the prisoner’s accumulation of personal possessions as a gradual building up of personality and self-control:

‘He acquires a little frame into which he puts a photograph of his wife or his daughter; he acquires a pair of felt slippers… He even has his own needle, his own buttons which he has securely sewn on – and a couple of spare ones as well… He accumulates a pile of letters, acquires a book and is able, by exchanging it, to read every other book in the camp.’ (2)

When the prisoner is transferred to another prison he is stripped of his possessions – ‘a transfer shatters his little world like a thunderbolt’ – and he is a nobody once again, just a man in a prison uniform with ‘nothing’.

So we should worry when confiscation – in our non-totalitarian society – becomes a routine experience. A series of laws has given officials greater powers to confiscate people’s homes if they aren’t occupying them, or to force entry and confiscate property in lieu of unpaid fines. Security procedures have made confiscation part of the everyday experience of travelling. I have seen whole Hen Parties pitifully empty their collections of lipstick and foundation into the bins at Gatwick Airport, because they violated the ‘no liquids/pastes over 100ml’ rule. One official told me that Gatwick’s South Terminal alone fills 10 bins each day with passengers’ toothpaste, perfume and chocolate spread. Eurostar security confiscates knives of all kinds from travellers between London and Paris, including the pocket knifes that French men are given by their fathers and carry at all times on their person.

What is lost when these items are confiscated is more than the thing itself. There is also the violation of one’s space and self-possession. One young man who had his unopened eight-pack of lager confiscated on Brighton beach by a community support officer expressed this sentiment to me: ‘What gives them the right to take from me something that is mine?’ This is why people often shake with rage when they have to give up their things to the authorities. One 64-year-old German man drank a whole bottle of vodka – and put himself in hospital for several days – rather than surrender his personal possession to airport security.

Finally, the fourth point about privacy is that it is not just about being alone: it is also the starting point and necessary condition for all public action of any value. Without our space for personal control and the free roam of the imagination, without intimacy, without things that we call our own, there can be no public man either. ‘A life spent entirely in public’, says Hannah Arendt, becomes ‘shallow’ (3). Without a private space into which we can retreat, one can only repeat accepted ways of thinking, one can only respond to pressures rather than to dictate them according to one’s own agenda. A person dissolves into the flickering push and pull of situations. Sofksy writes: ‘Notorious conformists are people without obstinacy, without inner substance. They echo what others say and agree with everyone. They have no opinions and no memory; indeed, they seem not to have a relationship with themselves.’ For the ‘transparent citizen’, nothing is hidden, nothing resisted – and nothing created either.

Who is Big Brother?

The second key insight of this book is that the erosion of privacy comes as much from society as from the state. This is an important lesson, since there is sometimes a tendency for us defenders of privacy to pin the blame on ‘meddling officials’. In fact, the root of the problem lies not in the interfering character of public officials, but in the changing relationship between civil society and the state.

Sofsky characterises well the dynamic of state intervention, showing that it is not driven by concrete ends – for the elimination of this particular risk or that particular political tendency – but by a suspicion of any form of autonomous civic life. This is why surveillance powers are laid on top of one another and new regulation only creates the need for yet more regulation. For the state, ‘an open society is ultimately a connection of shady figures, every brain is a fount of evil ideas, every private space a dark abyss whose furthest corners must be illuminated. The subject is always suspect.’ Any area of social life that is unmonitored, independent of officialdom, is intrinsically suspicious.

Yet the insatiable desire of the state to intrude has another cause, which is the invitation from civil society. Many of these surveillance mechanisms, bans or new forms of state regulation are in fact popular. ‘The citizen longs for the authorities to take care of him’, writes Sofsky. ‘He seeks protection not from the state but rather by the state. In case of danger he immediately demands that tighter controls be imposed.’ Opinion polls find that CCTV cameras make people feel ‘safer’. The existence of the eye of authority in a bus or alleyway is a source of reassurance: being watched is not experienced as an invasion but often as a consolation. The reason for this is that people fear the state less than they fear each other. The threat is not the figure of authority but the unknown fellow citizen.

It is true, too, that people often see the state as their ally in arguments with others, and will call for practices they don’t like or don’t agree with to be banned. Debates ranging from the Middle East to religion involve appeals by the different parties for the contrary opinion to be banned. When I am campaigning against booze bans, people often respond by saying ‘I don’t drink; I have no interest in the issue’, or ‘it is horrible when homeless people drink on the park bench; it shouldn’t be allowed’. There is an assumption that the habits of fellow citizens that we find distasteful should be banned.

We have lost the civic tolerance necessary for giving others a little space, in the knowledge that they will do the same for us. We have lost the capacity to have arguments among each other rather than to call in state injunction to back us up. In many people’s minds there are ‘good bans’ and ‘bad bans’ – the good are the ones they agree with and the bad are those they do not agree with. As a result, there is no role for moral reprobation, or truth or falsehood, since every belief or custom seeks immediately to become law. ‘The state has taken over so many functions from society that, for most contemporaries, it is no longer conceivable that aid, care and prohibitions could even exist without state support’, says Sofsky.

Finally, we must note that popular culture has invented far more grotesque forms of surveillance and self-exposure than officials could ever have dreamed of. After all, we invented Big Brother, with its cameras in the bathroom and participants competing to reveal all to the point of actually having sex before millions. Councils may spy on their residents, but some residents eclipse the need for this since they have webcams in their own bedrooms anyway. There is no need for bosses to bug their workforce when they could just check out their Facebook pages. The dynamics of watcher and watched, voyeur and exposer, have become the defining characteristics of public culture and the way in which we relate to one another.

The unbearable loneliness of privacy

So the erosion of privacy is our fault, too. We have let our guards down, says Sofsky; we have stopped defending the fortress of privacy so the troops have rushed in. When there is no resistance, power fills the gaps. We find dependency easy; it is much easier than thinking for ourselves and taking responsibility for our own lives. Sofsky writes: ‘Laziness, cowardice and indifference are still the most important causes of dependency. It is not social conditions, worn-out educational systems, or the secular depreciation of old values that are responsible for the fact that people continue to doze in conformism.’

Yet this account is too hard on us. Just as the invasion of privacy is not the result of meddling officials, nor is it a matter of cowardly citizens. The root of the problem doesn’t lie in individual character, but in a shift in the relationship between civil society and the state.

One of the defining characteristics of late modern society is the weakening of informal relationships, both in the private sphere (the family and extended family) and the public sphere (civic associations). It was these networks of family and civic clubs which provided the conditions in which individual autonomy was possible and sustainable. These informal networks – outside of the state – were our source of companionship; fellow citizens who were our advisers, judges and collaborators. It is in association and contestation with other people that we become our own person: it is only in relation to others that we develop a character at all. While the bedroom in a family home is full of personality, a hermit’s retreat lacks obvious distinction: isolated from others, hermits become indifferent to themselves and lose any distinct character or will.

With the erosion of civic relationships, individuals are left more alone before the state. There is only the denuded individual and the state authority – with little in between. So it is little surprise that people start to look at fellow citizens as an unknown threat, since they no longer really know or relate to them. Little surprise, too, that they start to see the state as their collaborator, their court of appeal and source of assistance. As Ulrich Beck has observed, individualisation tends to increase individuals’ dependence on institutions and authorities: ‘Individualisation delivers people over to an external control and standardisation that was unknown in the enclaves of familial and feudal subcultures.’ (4)

As a default, the official becomes all that is left of the social, and civil society starts to be mediated only through official agencies. We can see this particularly with the institutionalisation of volunteering – long a defining feature of British civic life – and the creation of official volunteering programmes for mentoring or buddy schemes, and awards and qualifications for volunteers. Informal mechanisms of civic discipline or companionship become part of a programme or system of appointment. A surprising number of volunteers now effectively have official titles, even if the position is unpaid. Telling kids off is now not the job of any normal adult but is a specialist task carried out by the community safety coordinator, community support officer, or neighbourhood warden.

The arch self-exposer Elizabeth Wurtzel indicates part of the reason why we have stopped valuing privacy: ‘The privacy we guard so desperately is also the aloneness we want punctured so badly.’ (5) Without networks of civic support, privacy is just lonely: to have privacy is just to be a bear in a lair roaring at all-comers to ‘leave me alone!’. In these conditions, to defend our privacy becomes an extreme anti-social attitude, hating the touch and feel of the world and other people. A defence of privacy doesn’t lead us out of our predicament but traps us in it.

The way ahead

Privacy: A Manifesto is as fine a defence of individual autonomy as you will find. You feel that Sofsky is not merely defending the idea of individual autonomy but has absorbed it as an ethic into his very bones. There is not a single quote in this book, as if he has digested the works of others and reassembled them as a seamless part of his own thought. As if he has sought to be a living example of the thing he calls for.

It is in part through acute social observation that he is able to show the essential uprightness of the private and autonomous man, and the essential seediness of the voyeur or the spy. You can feel and see these people, so well does he outline them, and smell the dignity of one and the stink of the other. It is partly through capturing character types that he makes his argument. As a result, he is able to defend not the abstract concept of free speech but its living reality, showing how freedom is essential to the vibrancy of public culture:

‘[Free speech] prevents the pride of dogmatism and protects us against the temptations of self-righteousness. The feeling of one’s own infallibility is commonly based on the repression of other opinions. Without contradiction there remains only the endless repetition of the same ideas. Without a dialogue between conflicting ideas the mental world congeals into formulas and stereotypes…’

Yet I fear that the call for the reassertion of privacy is not, on its own, enough; it is not enough for us to all take to arms and defend our private castles against invaders. The transgression of privacy lies not in our personal laxity, but in the changing relationship between individuals and the state, and particularly the erosion of civic relationships.

As a result, the defence of individual autonomy should be married with a defence of civic relationships – which includes not only the family, but also forms of civic association, be it our right to protest or share a drink in the park, to leaflet or to volunteer without having to seek state permission or to act within official channels. For it is through these civic relationships that autonomous individuals realise themselves, and find companions and collaborators outside of – and in opposition to – the state. It is only within these civic networks that we can find the strength and resources to build up again the battlements of privacy.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the civil liberties group the Manifesto Club, which has been leading the campaign against the vetting database for the past three years. You can contact Josie {encode=”” title=”here”}.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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