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<nettime> The Hitman's Dilemma
Keith Hart on Fri, 19 Nov 2004 23:02:16 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> The Hitman's Dilemma

I am writing a short book of 30,000 words for Prickly Paradigm Press 
of Chicago (www.prickly-paradigm.com). It's title in /The Hitman's 
Dilemma: on business, personal and impersonal. /I enclose below the 
table of contents and first chapter. I will soon start a blog focused on 
writing this and another book in the works, T/he African Revolution 
/(Polity Press).


But first I thought I would solicit feedback from the nettime list which 
has provided me with much nourishment of the ideas I explore here.

Keith Hart

1. 'Don't take this personal, it's just business'

2. The dilemma in fiction

3. The digital revolution

4. Private property

5. Business, personal and impersonal

6. Culture war: an overview

7. Culture war: from Hollywood to Bollywood

8. The crisis of the intellectuals

9. Rethinking the person in an impersonal world

<>Chapter 1

'Don't take this personal, it's just business'

You have probably heard the one about the deconstructionist mafioso who 
made someone an offer he couldn't understand. Well, this essay is about 
how social life hinges on the impersonal conditions for personal agency, 
a relationship that most people no longer understand, if they ever did. 
I use as my starting point 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 hitman is referring to his own attitude, not to 
the effect. Killing people is a matter of routine for him, a 'business' 
('the occupation, work or trade in which a person is engaged'). 
Presumably also personal choice might enter into it: he might know the 
victim and enjoy ending his life. More likely, an ethos of detachment 
makes the work easier, but probably not without some emotional cost. Why 
should business be impersonal and, if it is, how can that be reconciled 
with the person who practices it'

Let's explore this tension a bit further. 'Personal' is defined as 
'relating to a particular person, private; concerning a particular 
person's private business interests; aimed pointedly at the most 
intimate aspects of a person; relating to the body or physical being; 
(law) relating to moveable property'. So privacy seems to be intrinsic 
to whatever 'personal' means, but what makes it particular can be either 
mental or physical and it seems to include rather than be opposed to 
business. 'Private' in turn carries a freight of meaning: 'secluded from 
the sight, presence or intrusion of others; intended for ones exclusive 
use; confined to the individual, personal; not available for public use, 
control or participation; belonging to a particular person, as opposed 
to the public; not for public knowledge or disclosure, secret; not 
appropriate for public display, intimate; placing a high value on 
personal privacy.' To complete this round of definitions, someone or 
something is 'particular' when they are 'separate or distinct from 
others of the same category, group or nature'. It is in the nature of 
persons to be particular, or, in Blake's words, 'General Forms have 
their vitality in Particulars, and every Particular is a Man.'

Apparently, keeping that distinctiveness poses problems for which 
privacy offers a potential solution. This is especially so when we are 
confronted by 'the public' and, confusingly, by 'business' also, even 
though it expresses 'private' interests. Business is supposed to be 
'impersonal': 'lacking personality, not being a person; showing no 
emotion; having no personal connection.' But businesses can be persons 
too. In law, a 'person' is 'a human being or an organization with legal 
rights and duties'. There are therefore real and artificial persons; and 
business corporations are the only organizations treated like individual 
citizens in law. Others such as churches and political parties, for 
instance, are not. And this right was won at a particular moment in 
history, the late nineteenth century. Since then, it has become more 
difficult to draw the line between living persons and abstract social 
entities that are much bigger and potentially longer-lasting than any 
human being. I will argue that our political and intellectual culture 
has become confused as a result, undermining the prospects for a genuine 
democracy and reinforcing rule by a remote oligarchy.

No wonder the hitman is muddled. Business is supposed to be impersonal 
despite being usually transacted between persons as an expression of 
their private interests. Worse, there is no difference in law between 
Walmart and you or me, so why shouldn't a killer claim impersonal 
reasons for inflicting bodily harm on another person' It's all in the 
mind, after all. 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 
hitman 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. Here is a violent 
criminal claiming a detachment that would grace a bank manager. It is 
ludicrous, but then perhaps the two types of business are not as far 
apart as we are encouraged to think.

In this essay I will explore the historical relationship between human 
personality and impersonal society, focusing on two key aspects. The 
first is 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. The question of money's 
role in society is obviously central to this; and indeed we will 
discover that money payments are often thought to render relations 
impersonal in capitalist societies. 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 my 
second concern, the revolution in digital communications that has begun 
to shrink our experience of distance in human relationships. For surely, 
what makes communication personal is when it takes place in the here and 
now, 'face-to-face'. But radical reductions in the cost of producing and 
transferring information through machines have injected a new dynamic 
into our relations, invoked by expressions like 'virtual reality'. And 
so the current crisis over 'intellectual property' is closely linked to 
a transformation that is pulling society towards an increasingly global 
frame of reference.

Business, especially of the hitman's kind, is always personal at one 
level and impersonal at another. The trick is to learn how to manage the 
tension between them. Moreover, his 'business', the work of criminal 
gangs, is based on highly personal ties of loyalty to 'families' and 
systematic resort to violence outside the law, in principle the opposite 
of the bureaucratic universe where most of us live and work. We know 
that modern business corporations have been granted the same legal 
status as living persons. And so, just as the gangster thinks of himself 
as a professional businessman, it turns out that corporations are quite 
capable of behaving like gangsters, with equal contempt for human life.

What the hitman would like his victim not to take personally is a 
contract, an impersonal act performed for money, but one intended to 
inflict personal injury. His business is violence, which is supposed to 
be the antithesis of modernity. The hitman is both modern and a residue 
of feudalism, of an age when men ruled in very personal ways through the 
threat of violence. Yet he cloaks himself in the language of 'business'. 
It is confusing, but then our times are confused. Maybe there is less 
difference between our times and those that preceded them than we would 
like to think. For this reason, Shakespeare, whose plays offer his 
extended reflections on the emergence of the Tudor state out of 
feudalism, has much to tell us about the tension between living persons 
and the impersonal offices they must fulfill.

The hitman's dilemma is to be or not to be human, whether or not to give 
an idea, 'business', priority over life. So what does it take to be 
human' Rousseau claims in his Second Discourse (on inequality) that the 
two fundamental drives of human beings, which we share with the higher 
animals, are self-interest and compassion. The first says that each 
individual has a direct personal interest in self-preservation. The 
second is the Latin form for the Greek 'sympathy' and its equivalent in 
Germanic English is 'fellow feeling'. He believed that our 
self-interest, a solitary quality, is moderated by an instinctive 
feeling of sympathy for others, mainly for others like ourselves, but 
also perhaps for other living creatures in general. He added a third 
human universal, the drive for self-improvement, and explained the 
progressive trend of history as its consequence.

So we are isolated individuals who take part in a society that links us 
to the rest of humanity in one way or another. Each of us then, in order 
to be human, must learn to be extraordinarily self-reliant. I call this 
'the toothbrush syndrome' ' who will brush your teeth if not yourself' 
We also have to learn to belong to others. This isn't easy and it often 
appears to us that the two principles are in conflict. Much of modern 
ideology emphasizes how hard it is to be individually self-interested 
and at the same time socially responsible, even compassionate, to be 
economic as well as social, we might say. Under these circumstances, 
when culture is set up to expect a conflict between the two, it is hard 
to be both. There are societies in history that have encouraged the 
unity of public and private interest. Our hitman does not live in one of 
these, however, since he must separate 'business' from fellow feeling in 
his work.

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 generally 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.

These are quite abstract issues, but they take on a more concrete 
significance in the historical context of the digital revolution and 
contemporary transformations of world economy. The fight is on to save 
the commons of human society, culture and ecology from the encroachments 
of corporate private property. This is no longer principally a question 
of conserving the earth's natural resources, although it is definitely 
that too, nor of the deterioration of public services left to the 
mercies of privatized agencies. The age of information has raised the 
significance of intangible commodities. Increasingly we buy and sell 
ideas; and their reproduction is made infinitely easier by digital 
technologies. So the large corporations have launched a campaign to 
assert their exclusive ownership of what until recently might have been 
considered shared culture to which all had free and equal access. People 
who never knew they shared a common infrastructure of culture are now 
being forced to acknowledge it by aggressive policies of corporate 
privatization. Across the board, separate battles are being fought, 
without any real sense of the common cause that they embody:

1. Music. File-sharing of popular music, harbinger of peer-to-peer 
exchange between individual computers, pits the feudal barons of the 
music business against our common right to transmit songs as we wish.

2. The moving image. The world of film, television and video is likewise 
a site of struggle sharpened by fast-breaking technologies affecting 
their distribution and use.

3. Language, literature and law. In many ways, our ability to draw 
freely on a common heritage is being undermined by the aggressive 
assertion of copyright, .as in the reproduction of case law or the claim 
of copyright in normal words by businesses.

4. The internet. What began as a free communications network for a 
scientific minority is now the contested domain of giant corporations, 
governments and an army of hackers.

5. Software. The free software and open source movement, setting Linux 
and the said army of hackers against Microsoft's monopoly, has opened up 
fissures within corporate capitalism itself.

6. GMOs. The shift to manufacture of food varieties linked to 
proprietary chemicals and seeds has introduced a similar struggle to 
agriculture in the context of growing public concern about genetic 

7. Pharmaceuticals. The big drugs companies try to ward off the threat 
posed to their lucrative monopolies by cheap generics aimed at the Third 
World populations who need them most.

8. The universities. The slogan is 'intellectual property rights' and 
the culture of the academic intellectuals themselves has undergone a 
shift from communal sharing to private ownership of ideas.

These developments have their specific origin in the 1860s and 
subsequent decades, when the liberal revolutions of the 17th to mid-19th 
centuries gave way in the leading industrial countries to 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 Lockean 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 
developments in the last quarter-century, leading to the emergence of 
increasingly powerful transnational actors, have made this increasingly 
difficult. That is why we are now witnessing what might otherwise seem 
absurd corporate encroachments on public culture.

The crux of the matter is the shift from an 18th century moral politics 
of persons acting within institutional frameworks (as envisaged by the 
writers of the US constitution) to one where personal and impersonal 
agency have been merged, to the detriment of our ability to distinguish 
between living individuals and abstract social entities. This last is 
the metaphysical ground for rising lawlessness and imperialism, even 
fascism, on the part of transnational corporations and national 
governments taking their lead from Bush's USA. Effective resistance to 
privatization of the cultural commons requires us to revisit the entire 
modern history of capitalism. At the same time, production is being 
relocated in Asia, so that the increasingly strident efforts of the West 
to control the 'neo-liberal' world economy are opposed by the rising 
economic power of the East. It will be necessary also to mark the 
differences as well as the similarities between America and Europe in 
this respect.

The organization of the essay is as follows. I begin in Chapter 2 with 
the dilemma of personal agency in impersonal society as we encounter it 
in fiction ' novels, plays and movies. Here I juxtapose West and East, 
gangster flicks from Hollywood and Bollywood, historical tragedies by 
Shakespeare and Kurasawa, to show the universal contradiction between 
the conduct of public institutions and the living persons who embody 
them. Chapter 3 sketches the defining feature of our moment in history, 
when a digital revolution in communications has speeded up the formation 
of world society as a single interactive network, mainly as a network of 
markets. This leads in Chapter 4 to a short history of private property 
from its modern origins in the liberal revolutions of 17th century 
England to the instrument of corporate global domination it has become 
today. The shift in emphasis from 'real' to 'intellectual' property is 
the main theme of this section. Chapter 5 outlines the attempt to 
construct separate spheres of personal and impersonal relations in 
modern capitalist economies and the confusion arising from the collapse 
of the legal distinction between living persons and business 
corporations. Chapters 6 and 7 address the world war for the cultural 
commons outlined above, first in general and then through a case study 
of the film industry. Hollywood is where it is as a result of evading 
the restrictions imposed by Edison's east coast monopoly a century ago; 
now it seeks to impose its own monopoly on the 'piracy' rampant in Asia 
and elsewhere. In Chapter 8 I revisit the crisis of the universities and 
of western intellectuals in general which launched Prickly Paradigm's 
predecessor imprint, before concluding in Chapter 9 with some 
reflections on philosophy and politics as they bear on the main question 
addressed here. How is democracy attainable unless each of us can 
determine our own personal responsibility in a world driven by 
unknowably remote impersonal forces' What is at stake is the urgent need 
for a new humanism that meets the measure of our common humanity

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