Michael Novak’s “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism” is one of the foundational texts defending our political and economic system. It influenced me for the better, I think, when I read it in the years after its first publication, and it still has currency today. A 2017 Amazon review calls it an “outstanding book to help modern society understand that Capitalism is not an ‘evil force of repression’ but a valuable economic method of exchange.”
The wording of that review raises an important question. A century after the Bolshevik Revolution — its legacy untold Soviet penury and death — how does collectivism get a pass while capitalism must be defended against the charge that it is the “evil force”?
Part of the problem may be the rhetorical choice in defending a system by a name that originated to describe avarice. In our recent report, “The semantics of ‘surveillance capitalism’: Much ado about something,” Neil Chilson and I survey the history of the word “capitalism.” We use a wonderful document, Fernand Braudel’s “Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century, Volume II: The Wheels of Commerce.”
“Capitalist,” Braudel tells us, began to see usage in the mid-17th century, describing rich people as such — never favorably. Louis Blanc used the term “capitalism” in an 1850 polemic against Frédéric Bastiat, taking a term of odiousness against rich people and making it an ideology.
Many people still think “capitalism” implies rule by the rich, or a society operated in service to wealth. I think our system of free trade and individual rights, including property, is meant to serve the many. Where markets appear to serve the few, one can usually find something warping their operation toward concentrated benefits.
But the phrase “surveillance capitalism” makes the most of capitalism’s broadly negative implications, combining it with “surveillance,” which sprung from the Reign of Terror in France. It is a potent meme.
“The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power” is the 2019 book by Professor Shoshana Zuboff that coalesced critics of trends in business and technology (cheaply summarized as “Big Tech”). “Surveillance capitalism” is probably a better meme than a book. Amazon reviews offer some savagery. The book is “a mess, looping back and repeating [itself] in very unhelpful ways, dallying in purple passages and twisted metaphors, making up clever-sounding ‘concepts’ (like ‘division of knowledge’) and actually failing to pick out the key aspects of the issue.”
Our paper tries to rescue the “surveillance capitalism” concept and book from their polemical form and overheated rhetoric. We pick out three characteristics of modern markets that use personal information and give them serious consideration.
One is the concern with “commodification,” the treatment of things once separate from commercial culture as commodities to be bought and sold. There are and should be spaces online and off that are not overrun by marketers, we believe.
Zuboff also says that personal information is “extracted” from people when they go online. It would be concerning if modern business practices “dispossessed” consumers of information about themselves, but consumers are generally sharing personal information subject to contract.
The power imbalances implied by the phrase “surveillance capitalism” have some validity, we believe. Consumers struggle to apprehend how personal information is collected, stored, shared, and used, so they may overshare relative to what would be best for them. But this weak power imbalance will diminish over time. What we are seeing today is nothing like the advent of totalitarianism in the early 20th century. The many skeptics of “surveillance capitalism” may not realize they are aligning themselves rhetorically with Zuboff and her belief that Google is an inchoate enslaver of the masses as threatening as history’s worst despots.
Neil and I argue that the truer threat to people is in an area where the power imbalance is clear and lasting. That is the relationship between government and the private sector. When governments come calling for personal information, sometimes great masses of it, there is no need for rhetorical excess. Imprisonment and violence are literally behind the demand, and the demand is often purposefully hidden from the citizenry. Recognizing property rights in personal information would help rectify that imbalance through the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.
Are people wrong to see the worst in “capitalism”? I think so. But it’s not the best word either. I can do more to change the language of advocates for our system than to change the minds of everyone who might hear them. I recommend substituting out “capitalism” and including another term. There is far less coherence or threat in “surveillance individualism.”