The Hit Man’s Dilemma (lite)

“Don’t take this personal, it’s just business”

My essay is about the tension between the impersonal conditions of social life and the persons who inevitably carry it out. This relationship is poorly understood, perhaps never more than now, when the difference between individual citizens and business corporations operating on a scale larger than some countries has become obscured. My starting point is a legendary remark made in a movie by a professional killer to his victim, “Don’t take this personal, it’s just business.” But, according to my favorite American dictionary, a “person” is “a living human being” and what could be more personal than taking his life? Perhaps the hit man is referring to his own attitude, not to the effect. Killing people is a matter of routine for him, a “business”. Why should business be impersonal and, if it is, how can that be reconciled with the person who practices it?

Ideas are impersonal, human life is not. So, at one level, the issue is the relative priority to be accorded to life and ideas. Because the encounter is live and therefore already personal, the hit man has to warn his victim (and perhaps himself) not to take it so. It would seem that the personal and the impersonal are hard to separate in practice. Our language and culture contain the ongoing history of this attempt to separate social life into two distinct spheres. This is the core of capitalism’s moral economy; and gangster movies offer a vicarious opportunity to relive its contradictions.

At the heart of our public culture lies an impenetrable confusion of people, things and ideas. We no longer know how to act or in what context of mutual interdependence. The feminists were right to insist that the personal is political. The political too is often necessarily personal. But, if we relied on persons alone to make society, we would be back to feudalism or its modern equivalent, criminal mafias. There must be impersonal institutions that, at least in principle, work for everyone, regardless of who they are or who they know. We have never been more conscious of ourselves as unique personalities; yet the impersonal engines of society lie far beyond our grasp. What place is there for the humanity of individual persons in the dehumanized social frameworks we live by? This is the hit man’s dilemma and it is ours too.

In exploring the historical relationship between human personality and impersonal society, I focus on the institution of private property. This has somehow evolved in only a few centuries from being a source of personal autonomy in a citizen commonwealth to becoming the means whereby a few huge business corporations seek to dominate world economy. Meanwhile, property has shifted its main point of reference from things to ideas; having once been “real,” it is now crucially “intellectual.” This development is related to the revolution in digital communications. Radical reductions in the cost of transferring information through machines have injected a new dynamic into human relationships. The current crisis over “intellectual property” is closely linked to a transformation that is pulling society towards a global frame of reference. Modern corporations rely on extracting rents from property as much as on profits from direct sales; and, as the saying goes, ‘Information wants to be free’, meaning that there is consistent downward pressure on prices for information-based goods and services. The social effort needed to maintain high prices in a world of increasingly free production and reproduction is what drives the conflict highlighted by this essay.

More and more we buy and sell ideas; and their reproduction is made infinitely easier by digital technologies. This has led to a world war, launched by transnational corporations with the full complicity of some governments, to privatize the cultural commons. Across the board, separate battles are being fought, without any real sense of the common cause they share. These concern: music; the moving image; language, literature and law; the internet; software; GMOs; pharmaceuticals; and academic life. The idea of “intellectual property” lends a spurious conceptual unity to what has been described as “information feudalism.” This “culture war” is one aspect of a broader shift in world production from West to East which will only be accelerated if western governments grant their corporations the rigid controls they seek. The central contradiction of neo-liberalism is that this attempt to establish a new kind of global command economy uses digital technologies that favour a more decentralized networked form of society.

From the 1860s onwards the leading industrial countries adopted a system of national capitalism, the management of accumulation and markets by central bureaucracies. Faced with unruly urban populations, big money made an alliance with the traditional ruling classes to secure unequal contracts between owners and workers, sellers and buyers, lenders and borrowers. The problem then and now is, how do you make people pay up? New legal frameworks were devised granting to corporations both limited liability and the private property rights of individual citizens. In its heyday, national capitalism was able to police this confusing situation in the interests of large-scale bureaucracy. But in the last 25 years, transnational society has seen an escalating conflict between the most powerful bureaucracies in the world and dispersed coalitions of networked activists.

My question is, How is democracy attainable unless each of us can determine our own personal responsibility in a world driven by unknowably remote impersonal forces? We need a new humanism that meets the measure of our common humanity. This humanism must work through the impersonal institutions of money and machines, not against them.

The moral dilemma in politics, law, and business

Morality concerns the principles of good behavior, what we ought to do. Although it is possible to express “the good” abstractly as a rule – “always be kind to children and animals” — morality can only be expected of persons who face the choice to be good or otherwise in complex situations that cannot be reduced to simple rules. What politics, law and business have in common is that they define “the good” in a collective sense. A group must be protected from subversion, disorder or loss and this more general good may require leaders in particular to sacrifice personal morality to that impersonal end. It costs too much if people must always be forced to do what you want. It helps if they can be persuaded to do something because they believe it is right. Often that means believing that a leader is a good person. It is not easy in practice to separate the impersonal ends of society from their personal instruments.

When society is organized through depersonalized rules, as ours has been for a century or more, the normative exclusion of personal judgment as a force for good or evil provokes a permanent moral crisis. It is hard to discuss this crisis using the methods of impersonal social science, although that hasn’t stopped some from trying. Here I draw principally on works of fiction, especially movies, since they are designed to give dramatic expression to this very question. But I will also refer to Max Weber’s historical sociology. I start with Company, an Indian film about organized crime in Mumbai.

The crisis of this movie comes when Mallik, the big boss, tries to limit his reliance on Chandu, a young lieutenant he has plucked from nowhere. He delegates a hit to Chandu, the assassination of a politician, that he decides to abort for operational reasons. Mallik moves swiftly to have Chandu killed; but, thanks to the friendship of their women and the mobile phone, he escapes and civil war breaks out, spreading as far as Nairobi. The resulting mayhem fragments the Company and lends strength to their enemies, including the police. Towards the end, someone says, “whatever’s happening is the fault of the business, not one man.” But, of course, the business can only operate with one big boss or it fragments into impotence, as in this case. Chandu hands himself over to the state and tells Mallik. “I am about to do what I think is right. If you suffer any losses, don’t take it personally.” Don’t take this personal, it’s just business. But actually this is Chandu’s attempt to salvage morality from the mess. The hit man’s dilemma is between morality and politics.

Chandu embodies this contradiction. He is a classic individualist, in a long line of American westerns and gangster comic strips, the loner who doesn’t believe in justice unless he does it himself. He considers official society to be as corrupt as he is, but less honest; and in any case he is excluded from it. Chandu meets his match in the clever and basically decent policeman, Sreenivasan. The latter knows the police can’t be effective if they always stay within the law. The law doesn’t measure up, but it is all we have if we are not to be subject to rule by the mob. Morality is what we ought to do, the law is what we can get away with. The lines between official politics, the law and crime are blurred in practice, but the public prefers to believe that they are separate.

One recurrent jingle chants in Hindi “Yes, it stinks, but it’s business.” Gangster movies allow us to see society from outside the self-protective cocoon of law, bureaucracy and business that the middle classes normally inhabit. Moreover, by evoking normal capitalism, the gangster “firm” offers a metaphor for its dark side. Tony Soprano crosses the thin line between hoodlum and suburbanite many times every day. Impersonal society in its official guise can be just as immoral as criminal enterprise, except that thieves have personal lives and morality of a sort, whereas abstract impersonal norms have no room for morality at all.

Company’s series of human catastrophes hinges on an objective contradiction, the one Max Weber identified with patrimonial bureaucracy. The origins of impersonal government lie in the king’s use of palace organization to assert his independence from the feudal barons. He recruits to his own staff individuals who owe allegiance solely to him. But distant officials are pulled towards asserting their own independence of him by their reliance on local resources. If any of his henchmen get too big, they might try to take his place. Relatively stable forms depend on institutional rules for checking this structural contradiction.

Most of Shakespeare’s history plays and tragedies hinge on this tension between human personality and impersonal institutions. How can a holder of high office reconcile his public role with being just a man? If feudalism was a mess and basically unjust, what is the role for human personality in a more equal and universal social system? Is it possible to move beyond kingship and mob warfare to a genuinely democratic society? His Elizabethan audiences sat on the edge of their seats, knowing that the future of their own Tudor state was at stake in the drama. When Hamlet asks “To be or not to be?”, he is posing the dilemma that forces some people to choose to be human or inhuman, personal or depersonalized, often as a matter of routine. Shakespeare dug deeper into this issue than anyone has since. The world has changed less since then than we sometimes think and the dialectic of personal and impersonal agency is just as strong now as it was then. Stories about gangsters, both medieval and modern, remind us that the moral dilemmas of political life have not gone away.

Impersonal society as a modern project

The twentieth century was built on a universal social experiment. Society was conceived of as an impersonal mechanism defined by international division of labor, national bureaucracy and scientific laws understood only by experts. Not surprisingly, most people feel ignorant and impotent in the face of such a society. Yet, we have never been more conscious of ourselves as unique personalities who make a difference. So we experience society as personal and impersonal at once, despite the huge cultural effort that seeks to separate the two. “Business” lies at the heart of the matter.

The hit man lives in a society where normal business often requires the suspension of ordinary humanity – sacking an employee, calling in a loan, evicting a tenant. We might be tempted to take such losses personally, but the carrier of the message is merely an instrument of economic logic, “the bottom line.” We are taught that the payment of money makes a huge difference to a transaction. Why? Wage labour became the norm in nineteenth century Europe. This led to an attempt to separate the spheres in which paid and unpaid work predominated respectively. The first was objective and impersonal, specialised and calculated; the second was subjective and personal, diffuse, based on long-term interdependence. One sphere is a zone of infinite scope where things, and increasingly human creativity, are bought and sold for money, the market. The second is a protected sphere of domestic life, where intimate personal relations hold sway, home. The market is unbounded and unknowable, whereas the bounds of domestic life are known only too well. This duality is the moral and practical foundation of capitalist economy.

All the efforts of economists to insist on the autonomy of market logic cannot disguise the fact that businesses relations have a personal and social component, particularly when the commodity being bought and sold is human creativity. Where does the social pressure come from to make business impersonal? Weber had one answer: rational calculation of profit in enterprises depends on the capitalist’s ability to control product and factor markets, especially that for labor. But human work is not an object separable from the person performing it, so people must be taught to submit to the impersonal disciplines of the workplace. The war to impose this submission has never been completely won. So, just as money is intrinsic to the home economy, personality remains intrinsic to the workplace, which means that the cultural effort required to keep the two spheres separate is huge. We, who have submitted to this confusing paradigm of division, often accuse others of backwardness for refusing to acknowledge its force. The word we use is “corruption.” But, as Chandu insisted, the rhetoric that separates formal organization from informal practice might well be less honest than an open acknowledgment of their interdependence.

Private property: a short history

The idea of personal agency in market situations is closely tied to that of private property. Private property is the ability of an individual owner to command exclusive rights over something against the rest of the world. We assume that, once we have bought an item, we can do what we like with it. The state secures the market exchange, but in a remote way that does not ordinarily impinge on our consciousness. Private property law was originally seen as a means of protecting individual citizens from the arbitrary power of rulers. But in the last century and a half national governments and corporations operating on a transnational scale have acquired these same property rights. Far from shoring up liberal democracy, private property in this latter guise favors a totalitarianism that requires personal identity to conform to the needs of impersonal institutions. Where did this state of affairs come from?

If a business owes more money than its assets are worth, the original investors are personally responsible for the debt. In 1580, Queen Elizabeth I granted “limited freedom from liability” to The Golden Hind, a ship owned by Sir Francis Drake in which she was the largest shareholder. This meant that, if the enterprise incurred large debts, investors were limited in their liability only to the amount of their initial investment, leaving creditors to pick up the rest. In fact, the returns on this low-risk investment were 5,000 percent and the queen was well-pleased. This business model underlies the modern corporation. World trade was then dominated by the Dutch; so Queen Elizabeth granted a charter in 1600 to the East India Company, a group of merchants and aristocrats based on the City of London. Over the next two centuries this grew to a considerable size without ever losing its close ties to national government.

By the 1770s, however, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. Dutch traders and American smugglers were by-passing the company’s monopoly to sell cheaper tea to the small businesses supplying the lucrative American market. The Tea Act of 1773 gave the East India Company exclusive rights to sell tea to the American colonies, exempted it from taxes levied on exports to America and granted a tax refund on 17 million pounds of tea then stored unsold in England. This substantially increased the company’s profitability (the King was a major stockholder) and allowed it to undercut the many small businesses retailing tea in America. The Boston tea party was the result.

Thomas Jefferson saw three main threats to democracy — governing elites, organized religion and commercial monopolists (whom he referred to as “pseudo-aristocrats”). It is hardly surprising that he was keen to include freedom from monopoly in the Bill of Rights. But, mainly thanks to his Federalist opponents, that particular clause slipped through the cracks of the constitution. From then on corporations sought to win the constitutional rights of individual citizens for their businesses. This campaign built up momentum after the Civil War, when the railroads were booming. The Fourteenth Amendment of 1868 sought to guarantee the equal protection of the laws to former slaves, by making illegal discriminatory provision of public services. The railroads began suing states and local authorities for enacting regulations designed specifically to control them, on the grounds that this created “different classes of persons.” The corporations could afford to keep coming back to the courts until they won. And eventually they did, in the 1886 Supreme Court decision concerning Santa Clara County vs. the Southern Pacific Railroad.

The railroad was being sued by the county for back taxes, but its lawyers claimed that the company was a person entitled to human rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. There is some dispute over the authenticity of the record, but this judgment opened the floodgates: in the following quarter-century, of over 300 Fourteenth Amendment cases considered by the Supreme Court, almost all were brought by corporations claiming the rights of natural persons, only 19 involved African Americans. Today, if a town wants to protect its small shopkeepers by denying Walmart the right to open a superstore there, it will risk facing an expensive lawsuit brought to defend the corporation’s constitutional rights as a person.

We still think of private property as belonging to living persons and oppose private and public spheres on that basis. But abstract entities like governments and corporations can also hold exclusive rights in something against the world. At the same time corporations have retained their special legal privileges, such as limited liability for bad debts. We are understandably confused by General Motors having the same rights as any living person, while being exempted from responsibilities imposed on the rest of us. This constitutes a major obstacle not only to the practice of democracy, but also to thinking about it, especially since most intellectuals uncritically reproduce this very confusion.

Not only has private property evolved from individual ownership to corporate forms, but its focus has also shifted from “real” to “intellectual” property, from material objects to ideas. This is partly because the digital revolution has led to the economic preponderance of information services whose reproduction and transmission is often costless. As with corporate personhood there is sleight of hand involved. If I steal your cow, its loss is material, since only one of us can benefit from its milk. But if I copy a CD or DVD, I am denying no-one access to it. Yet corporate lobbyists use this misleading analogy to influence courts and legislators to treat duplication of their “property” as “theft” or even “piracy.” It is ironic that the United States, born in an act of resistance against corporate monopoly, should now be imposing the same thing onto the world through an intellectual property treaty linked to access to the American market.

The Digital Revolution

What matters in this world is money, machines and people, in that order. Our political task is to reverse the order. But most intellectuals know very little about any of them, being preoccupied with their own production of ideas. We need a new humanism appropriate to a world dominated by the impersonal power of money and machines. The hit man’s dilemma comes from experiencing the world as a conflict between his inner subjectivity and the objective conditions of his social role. His sense of himself as a good person inside contrasts with what he does outside. Fiction (novels, movies, plays) normally does a better job of capturing this tension than the writings of professional thinkers. Moreover, the audience enters the plot imaginatively in a way that allows for the free interplay of subjectivity and history in microcosm. We want to integrate the inside and the outside, the personal and the impersonal, but the idea of a moral politics combining them often seems unattainable. How is human communication evolving in the context of the digital revolution and does that favor the integration we seek or the opposite.

We all enter this extraordinary time with a bundle of advantages and drawbacks. I take pride in a facility for writing coherent e-mail messages at a pace somewhere between a letter and a phone-call. Yet I also know that communicating through keyboards will soon be replaced by audio-visual methods, thereby removing one more link between the book and the screen. My academic colleagues are still fighting the war against television, refusing to allow one into a living room designed to show off their books. It’s all relative. Face-to-face exchanges, instead of being displaced by telecommunications, take on an added value when we spend the working day in front of a computer screen. Simple pursuits like reading and conversation, which used to be taken for granted when they monopolized our means of communication, can be approached in a more analytical and creative frame of mind, now that there are so many other ways of acquiring and transmitting ideas. I have a virtual office, my lap top, to accommodate a life of movement; but I was forced to recognize the value of my own memory when it was stolen. Each of us experiences the digital revolution in our own way; yet there are changes taking place that affect us all.

The digital revolution consists of rapid changes in the size, cost and especially speed of machines capable of processing information. The world economy is being transformed once more by radical reductions in the cost of producing a basic commodity, in this case the transfer of information. There was a time when commodities traded internationally were things extracted from the ground and services were performed locally in person. Now the person answering your business call could be located anywhere in the world and a growing number of service jobs are exposed to global competition. Vast profits are to be made in entertainment, education, the media, finance, software and all the other information services. But the digital revolution poses specific problems for accumulation since there is continuous downward pressure on prices in this sector arising from the ease of copying proprietary products.

The cheapening of the cost of information transfers affects long-distance market relations. Money was traditionally impersonal so that it could retain its value when it moved between people who might not even know each other. It was an instrument detached from the persons who use it. Bank credit on the other hand has always been more directly personal, being linked to the trustworthiness of individuals. The idea that transactions involving money are essentially amoral comes from its impersonal form, but until recently, in most societies, the bulk of economic life was carried out by people who knew each other and were able to discriminate between individuals on the basis of experience. The transition to impersonal economic institutions came suddenly. People were used to engaging with shopkeepers personally; and each purchase took place under particular circumstances, involving variable price, quality and credit terms, all of them based on the specific relationship between trader and customer. It was a shock to encounter goods identified by little white cards with non-negotiable prices on them. Fixed prices came just over a century ago from the first department stores, where customers dealt face-to-face with assistants who had no power to negotiate. That power rested with owners and managers who were now removed from the point of sale, unlike the small shopkeeper. The main imperative of management was to control subordinates; and this ethos stretched back to the production lines as well as outwards to an anonymous market of consumers whose tastes were manipulated by public advertising.

The era of mass production and consumption may be ending as a result of cheap information transfers. It is now possible to attach a lot of information about individuals to transactions at distance. For example, keeps a record of every book I have bought from them and they make recommendations for new purchases on this basis. This is similar to the small bookseller who reserves a book for a favorite customer, but it all takes place anonymously at distance. Some firms are already moving towards a system known as Customer Retail Maintenance (CRM) based on data banks that know no limit in scope. This enables them to target buyers who generate above average revenues. Nowhere has this process gone further than in the market for personal credit. The number and variety of customized financial instruments now on offer is growing exponentially. It is not quite the same as bespoke tailoring, but the trend is to restore personal identity to what were largely impersonal contracts. For many people, this has introduced new conditions of engagement with the impersonal economy. It will be some tim before its social effects are known, but digitized commerce has already spawned a war for control of the value generated by sales of information-based commodities. The slogan of this war is “intellectual property rights.”

Intellectual property

Our world resembles the old regime of agrarian civilization, with unequal power shared between enforcers and rentiers. We are now witnessing the triumph of that “pseudo-aristocracy” of commercial monopolists that Jefferson once saw as the main danger to liberal democracy. If classical political economy’s slogan of free trade was aimed at dislodging traditional feudalism, we have to get our minds around the current situation in which feudal principles are being applied to “free markets” in the name of spreading liberal democracy around the planet.

The phrase “intellectual property” seems to have been invented by Lysander Spooner. He was an old-fashioned liberal philosopher of the sort that flourished in the mid-nineteenth century. If you haven’t heard of him, it may be because he wanted to restrict use of his words without permission or payment. The American civil war buried that libertarian moment of individual creativity and launched a new phase of corporate capitalism that has come to its full maturity in the neo-liberal world economy today. A drive to privatize access to culture has led to a “second enclosure of the commons”. This latter-day enclosure movement also rests on confusing ordinary individuals with highly centralized corporations.

The rise of intellectual property is recent, but its origin lies in the Berne Convention on international copyright of 1886 (the same year as the corporate personhood decision!). The World Intellectual Property Organization was formed in 1967 and n 1994 the World Trade Organization introduced the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (known somewhat ironically as TRIPs). The enactment of TRIPs is an unprecedented attempt to make US-style intellectual property law mandatory for all countries participating in global trade.

American publishers routinely ignored British copyright from the beginning and the United States was slow to sign international agreements on the subject. It only joined the Berne Convention in 1989! When the Southeast Asian “tiger” economies began their drive for modern growth in the 1960s, they did not respect international copyright, tacitly sanctioning the cheap reproduction of American textbooks that their people could not afford otherwise. With their educational expansion achieved, these “pirates” joined the Berne Convention in the 1990s. But by then the issue had shifted from books to music, movies and software. The US tried out its new recipe for globalization of intellectual property law when Ronald Reagan introduced the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act in 1983. This initiative established the principle of linking trade rules to intellectual property and in the 1990s the USA entered bilateral treaties with many countries enforcing acceptance of TRIPs through the threat of exclusion from the American market. Many countries also signed bilateral treaties exempting US citizens from future prosecution for war crimes. Here then we have the means of a new American empire – military force, mercantilism and intellectual property

The first sector to feel the full implications of the digital revolution has been recorded music. The feudal barons of the industry may have already lost the war against free peer-to-peer exchange of music files. The movie industry is at a more critical stage. Here the main studios have generated huge revenues from sales of video or DVD copies and the Moving Pictures Association has been leading the drive to fight “piracy.” This campaign is technical as well as legal, with machine modification playing a central role in restricting the options of users. A century ago, film-makers went West to Hollywood to escape Edison’s East Coast monopoly. Pioneers like Walt Disney exemplified the frontier mentality of the industry then, lifting much of his first Mickey Mouse cartoon from a Buster Keaton movie without attribution. Now the Disney Corporation lobbies for the extension of copyright laws and uses litigation to protect its private ownership of images and words that would have been in the public domain until recently.

The market for software is crucial to the struggle over intellectual property. Software consists of disembodied machines, recipes of pure information that achieve their effects through a variety of material forms (hardware). Since reproduction of these recipes is virtually costless, their exclusive ownership as commodities is difficult. Even so, the Microsoft Corporation has built one of the great modern monoplies for its Windows system by licensing software whose source code is kept secret from the public. A movement has arisen to challenge this strategy of commercial command and control, Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS), which is itself divided between those who oppose selling as such and those who accept money payment as long as users have access to the source code and can modify and reproduce it with acknowledgment. These initiatives accept the need for legal protection though such instruments as the General Public License (GPL) and the Creative Commons license.

FLOSS has one great advantage over the monopolists. It can pool the talents of tens of thousands of software engineers, both amateur and professional, whereas Microsoft relies on its customers to discover problems through trial and error. Moreover, FLOSS licenses are less restrictive and this has made open source software attractive to some of the industry leaders. IBM has now embraced Linux and is helping Lula’s Brazilian government to convert the public sector to open source software. Microsoft’s business methods are notoriously predatory, as in the browser war with Netscape that led to anti-trust law suit. Although America still dominates market share, the digital revolution is diffusing faster than any previous communications technology.

The corporations rely on the laws and policing powers of venal governments to maintain artificially high profits and rents in fields stretching from entertainment to the chemical industry. It is questionable whether the USA can impose its own strategy on the rest of the planet. Just as Edison’s monopoly was once circumvented by Hollywood, the contemporary shift of economic power to Asia exposes the cracks in this American bid for empire. It’s an old story, the dynamism of small entrepreneurs versus monopolies protected by state power. The Americans have been there before and their own ideology fuels resistance to the corporate takeover.

The Crisis of the Intellectuals Revisited

Lindsay Waters, humanities editor for Harvard University Press, has claimed that the current explosion of academic publishing is a bubble as certain to burst as the dot com boom. His essay is a warning to academics, in the face of the corporate takeover of the university,

“….to preserve and protect the independence of their activities, before the market becomes our prison and the value of the book becomes undermined…. The commercialization of higher education has caused innovation in the humanities to come to a standstill.”

Publishing, he says, has become more concerned with quantity than quality and “the drive to mechanize the university has proved lethal over the last three decades.” Waters’ jeremiad for the humanities is based on sound evidence, but his analysis of the reasons for their decline puts the blame on money and machines, so that his call for resistance to university administrations has no practical basis in contemporary social and technical conditions. If we want to promote humanism, we should ask what historical conditions make our initiative possible and why we in particular might succeed.

In 1993 Anna Grimshaw and I published a pamphlet, Anthropology and the crisis of the intellectuals. We placed anthropology’s compromised relationship to academic bureaucracy within the general crisis facing modern intellectuals, as identified by C.L.R. James in American Civilization. For James there was a growing conflict between the concentration of power at the top of society and the aspirations of people everywhere for democracy to be extended into all areas of their lives. The struggle was for individual freedom within new and expanded conceptions of social life (democracy) or a fragmented and repressed subjectivity stifled by coercive bureaucracies (totalitarianism). The intellectuals were caught between the expansion of bureaucracy and the growing presence of people as a force in world society. Unable to recognize that people’s lives mattered more than their own ideas, they oscillated between an introspective individualism (psychoanalysis) and service to the ruling powers, whether of the right (fascism) or left (Stalinism). As a result, the traditional role of the intellectual as an independent witness standing for truth had been compromised. The absorption of the bulk of intellectuals into bureaucracy as wage slaves and pensioners not only removed their independence, but separated their specialized activities from social life.

The solution to our dilemmas requires new patterns of social engagement extending beyond the universities to the widest reaches of world society. This in turn depends first on acknowledging how people everywhere are pushing back the boundaries of the old society and second on being open to a universality that has been driven underground by national capitalism and would be buried forever if the current drive to privatize the cultural commons is allowed to succeed.

Waters was right to call for a humanist revival. But this should be through the medium of money, markets and machines, not despite them. In my recent book on money, my first idea was that the cheapening of information transfers as a result of the digital revolution might allow the impersonal economy of the twentieth century to be “repersonalized,” by attaching more information to individual transactions and potentially granting individuals greater control over work, consumption and credit. But I soon realized that a personal economy would return us all to the world of gangsters, both medieval and modern. We need new impersonal norms capable of standardizing social interactions where the nation-state can no longer reach – law, money, education, technology and so on. Our task is not to replace impersonal society with personal life, but to discover new ways of combining them.

The hit man’s dilemma is to be human or inhuman. It is a dilemma shared by kings, generals, presidents and CEOs, when they contemplate the human cost of an action undertaken on behalf of some collective interest. Our ability to curb the high-handed behavior of the powerful has been deeply undermined by a legal culture granting business corporations the rights of living persons. The liberal revolution against the old regime sought to grant free citizens equal (and therefore impersonal) rights in society. This hinged on the difference between individual persons and impersonal institutions. Such a separation was intrinsic to the rise of modern capitalism, as we have seen. But capitalism took a bureaucratic turn in the late nineteenth century, when the legal distinction between real and artificial persons was collapsed. Subsequently the forces moving society became so impersonal that most people lost any sense of their own responsibility for common affairs. This gave some intellectuals an excuse to promote anti-liberal ideologies, drawing on the same confusion of people, ideas and things that was now normal in economic law.

Today the stronger states and transnational corporations ride roughshod over human rights and international law itself in the name of the “free market.” The struggle to subvert this creeping “information feudalism” must take place at many different levels. We might, for example, re-examine the metaphysics of personal agency and the impersonal conditions of its expression. Such an enquiry should be explicitly historical. For indifference to history allows the heirs of America’s anti-colonial revolution to reinvent the corporate monopolies of absolutist monarchy in the name of liberal democracy. If the Europeans can’t see through this, perhaps the Chinese, Indians or Brazilians will.

In John Locke’s terms, we must deal with the semantic criminals who pollute our public discourse with their dissembling words. These are the hired spokesmen of the economic criminals who aim to hijack the machine revolution for their own immoral ends. As for the notion that there is a difference between the operational standards of legal and illegal businesses, well, nobody believes that any more, do they? Yet we also accept the claim that plutocracy is in the general interest. Perhaps it takes a Watergate to explode this doublethink and reveal the dishonest premises of contemporary society.


The formal conclusions of this essay are consistent with late Durkheim. Every human being is a unique person who lives in society. We are therefore all individual and social at the same time and the two are inseparable in our experience. Society is both inside and outside us; and a lot rides on our ability to tell the difference as well as to make a meaningful connection between them. Society is personal when it is lived by each of us in particular; it is impersonal when it takes the form of collective ideas. It is therefore just as damaging to insist on a radical separation of individuals and society (or of life and ideas) as it is to collapse the difference between them. Modern capitalism rests on a division between personal and impersonal spheres of social life. The institution of private property initially drove a conceptual wedge between our individuality and an active sense of belonging to society. Indeed the latter was made invisible or at least unreachable for most of us. But then private property assumed the form of public ownership by large business corporations and even governments. It then became convenient to collapse the difference between personal and impersonal spheres in law, leaving a general confusion between the rights of individual citizens and those of abstract social entities wielding far more power than any human being. The consequences for democracy are disastrous.

Max Weber, writing a century ago in the full spate of a bureaucratic revolution powered by machine industry, saw no social force capable of resisting a highly centralized version of impersonal society. For us, looking back at the twentieth century, bureaucratic capitalism has evolved to a highly mobile form operating on a global scale; while national bureaucracy and its industrial base seem to be an endangered species. Before public bureaucracy is killed off, we need to ask how the hopes it once embodied might be preserved, if only as an institutional alternative to the transnational corporations now dominating world economy. For all my criticisms of corporate monopolists, I believe that some economic functions can only be performed by corporations at this time and that capitalism’s historical mission to bring cheap commodities to the human masses is still far from complete. So progressive capitalist firms can take a leading part in dismantling the resuscitated old regime that calls itself “neo-liberalism”.

The digital revolution has speeded up human connection at the world level. Society now takes a number of forms – global, regional, national and local. We need new impersonal norms to guide our social interactions in such a world, as long as the significance of individual personalities is recognized. The stage is set for a new humanism capable of uniting these poles of our existence. The word “humanity” contains within itself the elements of our predicament and their potential synthesis. It is a collective noun, a moral quality and a historical project for our species. We are still primitives; but eventually we, the people, will make society on our own terms, if we master the means of its development, machines and money. In the course of doing so, we will encounter immense social forces bent on denying the drive for a genuine democracy. My essay has aimed to clarify who the sides and what the stakes are in this struggle for world society.

But there is more to it than class war. Somehow, in the last decade or two, the idea of government has been replaced by public talk of “governance” in acknowledgment that responsibility for maintaining social order has shifted from the nation-state’s monopoly. Even more recently, this talk has taken a distinctly ethical shift to a focus on “good governance”. This means moral behavior on the part of persons holding office and it constitutes a revival of Durkheim’s agenda as a solution to Weber’s gloomy prognosis for the legal rationality of bureaucratic domination. It speaks to a genuine desire to fill the gap between politics and morality left by impersonal society. The remarkable strength of religious feeling in America and its Islamic antithesis is not an anomalous hangover from the past, but rather evidence of the need for meaningful connection when the secular state’s grip on society has been weakened. It was never strong in the USA to start with. If science is the commitment to know the world objectively and art the means of expressing oneself subjectively, religion was and is a bridge between subject and object, a way of making meaningful connection between something inside oneself and the world outside. For a time it seemed that science had driven religion from the governance of modern societies, but the search is on now for new forms of religion capable of reconciling scientific laws with personal experience. Kant’s cosmopolitan moral politics offer one vision of the course such a religious revival might take. It turns out that the hit man’s dilemma contains the seeds of a general human crisis.

A summary of Keith Hart The Hit Man’s Dilemma: or business, personal and impersonal (Prickly Paradigm, Chicago, 2005)

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Category: Anthropology | Economy | World