Making social problems your problem

Capitalism perpetually depends, as Rosa Luxemburg wrote in The Accumulation of Capital, on territories “outside itself” to remain stabilized. It must find new markets for its products, new raw materials to exploit, and new sources of labor. As capitalism has increasingly saturated the globe, these territories have become inward domains, and capitalists look to wring labor out of creative drives, the play of bodies, and friendships. Aspects of everyday life that were once “outside” capital and commodification are being assimilated as well: no spare capacity should be untapped, no social interaction should be untracked.

Privatization — another word for this quest for new territory — has two faces. The more obvious, conventional one is the selloff of public assets to private interests, as when civic and social infrastructure are turned over to profit-motivated companies presumed to be incentivized to be more competent: the sale of public lands to miners and oil and gas companies; the auction of radio-wave spectrums to tech companies and telecoms; the devolution of social security into 401(k) accounts. But the other face has begun to show itself more brazenly: new communication technologies transform private emotional processes, relationships, moments into economic resources, forms of labor or social, human, or cultural capital. Privacy itself has become privatized. And the means for this — the “smart” devices, the sorting algorithms, the clouds of big data — can be kept deliberately opaque in their functioning, trade secrets to assure continued profitability.

Technology is an ancient category that expresses itself in the ways humans find to do things. It is becoming more and more remote from “tech,” which in the popular imagination now stands for something more like magic, never to be really “unboxed,” rather than the mundane means by which we make the world function. That purported magic is invoked implicitly or explicitly to authorize all kinds of corporate takeover. The physical devices and algorithms mining data out of our privacy keep more to themselves than ever.

Old arguments for privatization would point to the state’s lack of competition. Given how tech companies seem intent on scaling to infinity, it is tempting to view their style of privatization as a synonym for monopolization. Increasingly there are fewer alternatives to their reach, or the particular character of their services, how corporate oversight transforms the social problems it claims to “solve,” becoming a pretense for reassigning what was once an issue to be tackled collectively to a matter of individual responsibility, while preserving the value of fixed capital. Some prison interface technology, for example, relieves prison infrastructure, not inmates or their families. Rather than function as a forum for addressing social concerns, the state becomes an instrument of brutality, placed in corporate hands. Technological “innovation” weaves the two together into a strain of inhumanity capable of exploiting both intimacy and suffering.

This week we look at how privatization manifests in two traditionally public services: transportation and health care.

In “Uber Alles,” David A. Banks writes about Uber and Lyft’s apparent reinvention of public bus service under their banners of their own corporate euphemisms. The reason for the word games is to reinforce the association of “bus” and public transit provision with racialized poverty, and private transportation — even when it functions exactly the same as buses — as a profitable extension of white flight.

Natasha Young in “Care Package” writes about the possibilities of automated caregiving: on one hand, new health care technologies present an alternative to a stopgap system that lets many — both those it serves and those it employs — fall through its cracks; on the other, it offloads an essential human needs to nonhuman entities, merely animating pre-existing moral failures.

It’s not inconceivable that more of us will become comfortable with increased privatization of public utilities. We’ll imagine we can choose to spend our money on the services we want, for ourselves, while seeing less tax money going to “the undeserving.” But the more public institutions are offloaded to corporations with no stake in human well-being, and private, human processes are mined and monetized by those corporations, the more societies will become less capable of coping with the structural threats and instabilities we face. Not all of us are customers, and none will escaped being consumed.


“Uber Alles,” by David A. Banks

“Care Package,” by Natasha Young

Thank you for your consideration. Visit us next week for Real Life’s upcoming installment, OUTER SPACE, featuring “frontiers” and space junk.