Defintions: Privatization, again.

This week I’m reading and teaching Kristin Ross’s mind-blowing, award-winning book Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture. Although the book deals with France in the 1950s and 1960s, it is also quite rich in generating theoretical insights which could be applied more broadly. Ross effortlessly balances empirical cultural study with critical theory, spinning off a new critique of modernity that is rich in particular historical details, much like Walter Benjamin’s work.

One of her key theoretical concepts is “privatization,” by which she means not the private control or ownership of resources, but a certain kind of alienation, individualism, even solipsism, a withdrawal into oneself. She writes:

The movement inward – a whole complex process that is in some ways the subject of each of my chapters and that Castoriadis, Morin and Lefebvre all called “privatization” – is a movement echoed on the level of everyday life by the withdrawal of the new middle classes to their newly comfortable domestic interiors, to the electric kitchens, to the enclosure of private automobiles, to the interior of a new vision of conjugality and an ideology of happiness built around the new unit of middle-class consumption, the couple, and to depoliticization as a response to the increase in bureaucratic control of daily life (p. 11).

Hence, privatization here refers to an overdeveloped sense of privacy, a withdrawal into one’s private home, private thoughts, into one’s subjectivity and individuality. This is a political problem just as much as is the question of who owns your mp3s, your sewage sludge, or any other resource. Ross begins to spell out the political consequences of the idea by riffing on Castoriadis again. Privatization

…emerges when a society’s most important characteristic becomes its success in destroying the political socialization of individuals, such that one experiences public or even social matters not only as hostile or foreign but also out of one’s grasp, unlikely to be affected by one’s actions (p. 106).

This use of the term “privatization” can thus help us to understand why Americans are so hung up on home ownership, why they love their cars so much and hate ‘politics’ so much. It can help us see the personal, individual, subjective consequences of capitalist society’s obsession with privatization. It links up in nice ways with already familiar sociological terms like “bowling alone” and “the lonely crowd.” It connects readily with Habermas’s well-known worries about the decline of the public sphere.

What value could we get out of such a concept? What does it matter if what is being privatized is not our commodities, our possessions, our resources, but rather our time, our space, ourselves? Ross’s brilliant book brings these questions to light, questions which seem eminemently useful, in a new way, for our project on this blog.

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5 Comments on “Defintions: Privatization, again.”

  1. P Says:

    So, it seems we are adding a particular psychological model of privatization wherein the relationship of owner-to-owned somehow crowds out (i.e., delegitimizes) other relationships, such as that of co-citizens.

    I wonder how we could apply Ross’ notion of privatization to notions of family. For example, the middle class contraction of family governance (child care, etc.) from the community level to the nuclear level – that is, to the family that lives inside one’s private space – seems relevant.

  2. pizzapelsa Says:

    Ross is already right there with you! The construction of a normative family – middle class, nuclear and, in American terms, suburban – is key for her sense of privatization. The non-public, non-political, non-communal society she critiques is built of individualized households.

  3. John Green Says:

    Thanks for this. Hadn’t encountered Ross’s work before.

    It’s interesting that this privatization occurs at the same time as, or perhaps a little before, the commercialization of the emotions and intimate life, particularly as outlined in the works of Hochschild and Gorz, including the extension of the cash nexus into the private sphere, such as child care, care for the elderly, home helps and so on. Not only is the public sphere pared back so that citizenship dissolves, but the self is also reified into a series of services.

    • pizzapelsa Says:

      Thanks for joining the discussion, John!

      I think your point about ‘outsourcing’ the kind of care-taking activities that would otherwise take place between family members is a really interesting one. When we hire people to work in our homes, we are, as you put it, bringing the cash nexus into the household. Here, something ‘public’ comes into our homes in ways Ross’s analysis can’t account for. The public re-enters the home not in the form of politics (what Habermas might call ‘genuine’ publicness), but rather through the market, the commercialization of the private sphere. With the political public sphere so deflated lately, the only form of publicness left outside of the home is the marketplace. In some sense, we can welcome outsiders into our domestic space only by hiring them.

      • P Says:

        So in this context is privatization essentially the same as commodification? Because the latter is what we’re talking about in terms of the commercialized outsourcing of familial relationships, etc., right?

        I guess the major question I’m trying to get at is whether the dynamics between “public” and “private” are running parallel and/or perpendicular with the question of what is salable.


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