Craigslist as Anti-Village.

June 5, 2009

Via the League of Ordinary Gentleman, I am reminded why I am not a Lockean:

Many social critics tend to set sail from a critique of money, believing that if only we could get rid of that, all would be well. Craigslist, by contrast, has no issue with money. The point of most classified ads, whether they involve selling your old hard drive or offering to strut around in a dominatrix outfit, is an exchange of money. But what clearly matters to Newmark is that this exchange should not be mediated by corporations or institutions. “A lesson that it was hard for [me] to learn,” Newmark told Charlie Rose, “was that people are good and trustworthy and moderate.” Craigslist is Newmark’s vote of confidence in that lesson.

When you look at it in this way, the reason to keep all those sleazy ads on Craigslist becomes clearer. The free choice of sexual partners and practices and positions and everything else sex-related is just as much a part of the “let individuals connect in their own way” mission of Craigslist as the other ads. In the galaxy of sex ads, the ones for “erotic services” that have had state attorneys general up in arms, and to which Phillip Markoff responded, occupy a special place. They are not a sideshow but the ultimate example of what Newmark seems to want to accomplish. The point of the ads is that anyone at all can post one, and they allow the sex-for-money transaction to happen without the “escort service” demanding a cut.

You can think of that as the perfect metaphor for the Newmark worldview. Bad things don’t come from what two individuals decide to do together. They come from the institutions that stand between them. The problem, in Newmark’s world, is not prostitution. The problem is only the pimp.

I’ve been pondering rights a great deal recently and this article eerily sums up the core of my admittedly half-baked thinking on the subject.  In particular, it highlights how the centrality of rights to our moral discourse intersects with a society-wide acceptance of conflict as the substance or potentiality of non-contract commitments.  As rights-holders, we refuse to be bound by commitments to unchosen institutions, since they carry the potential for exploitation, tyranny or the limiting of personal horizons. As an alternative model, we take personal choice and the institution of contract as the dominant mode of organizing life.  However, in order for this to be a workable system (or for enough of us to believe it workable) we are bound to a second condition, namely a belief in the innate goodness of our fellow rights holders; the threat of fraud must be minimal in order for schemes of non-coercive contract to operate successfully, or at least, we must assume it even if, as we’ve seen so powerfully in the last year, our neighbors are crooks.

Craigslist embodies both the humanistic optimism and the institutional antipathy of this culture to a rare degree, and as Newmark has said on several occasions, does it in for reasons that are plainly not profit driven.  Craigslist is the ultimate Lockean mission: introducing rootless individuals to each other for whatever purposes they might possibly agree upon, far away from intermediary (and ultimately bad) institutions to which they previously were bound. And the problems it causes reflect that fact: the rash of killings in the last few months should be enough to remind everyone that, yes, not everyone who says they have a free couch really has a free couch.

And of course, everyone knows this. We understand (via the first condition) that conflict is lurking behind every corner, which is why as much as Craigslist is about friendly trust, it is also about anonymity, omission, and sometimes deceit. In the absence of the daily encounter, we are driven to a create a reserve of self, a series of barriers intended to keep friendly strangers as strangers, involvements to a minimum, and exploitation (or violence) at bay.  Craigslist thus creates selves which are as wrapped in mystery and intentional ambiguity as they are benevolently self-interested, more or less the reverse of the village’s close acquaintance between knowledgeable and flawed neighbors.

That the era of Craigslist should also be the era of shameful lending practices should thus come as no surprise.  Both are founded on a vision of humanity whose optimisms and pessimisms are oriented in precisely the wrong direction, and as a result build systems of traders, brokers, partners, and prostitutes in which fraud (personal and financial) is both feared and practically unavoidable.

EDIT: I want to pause, acknowledge and appreciate that I’m writing this under a pen name. Yeesh.


11 Responses to “Craigslist as Anti-Village.”

  1. Will said

    Interesting stuff. I would add that given the volume of commercial and personal interactions on Craigslist, the frequency of violent or otherwise unpleasant confrontations is surprisingly low. A few isolated nutjobs isn’t the same as a wave of degradation, so maybe the success of Craiglist validates Lockean optimism after all.

  2. HC, vis a vis unchosen institutions, it’s not potential for exploitation, it’s the certainty. Abuse of power is certain because we are human, and not one of us is to be trusted with unconstrained power.

    I have been discussing this thing about rights with John at Upturned Earth. I asked him, and I ask you – what would a system of laws look like that did not contain rights?


    • H.C. Johns said

      Well, I’m certainly not suggesting that rights should be done away with. I’m merely suggesting that the entail a set of cultural consequences which are pretty unsettling, Craigslist being an institution that captures that very well.

      But I do want to challenge the notion that unchosen institutions are necessarily authoritarian. What do you think of the family? The village? Languages? Cultures? Your body? All of these are given before we emerge as actors on the political stage, have political implications, and are necessary for the persistance of society, yet they are not based on contract. They are based, depending on your sensibility, on fate or contingency, and form the foundation for civic order. And yet its precisely these kinds of non-contractual obligations which liberalism inevitably calls into question.

      • HC, the family is not authoritarian? It is exactly authoritarian, at least up until the time of our majority or such earlier time as the law permits. The key is that there are legal constraints upon the power of family. So to be clear, it is unchosen institutions without constraints and without exit that should be feared – always.

        As for all the other institutions you names, all those can be chosen – not at birth, because we purely contingent then, but after, yes.

        What kind of obligation do we owe our culture, language, village or body?

        HC, I am not necessarily disagreeing with your post, I am interested in why the concept of rights seems to be such an issue in some conservative circles.

        In this much I do disagree – Craigslist is no more prone to attract violent neighbors than anywhere else in the world. In terms of danger, statistics show that we are most at risk from people we already know, including our family members.

        Which is not to suggest that it is a good thing to put ourselves in any greater risk.


      • H.C. Johns said

        There are legal constraints upon the power of the family because it risks becoming authoritarian, yes, but those are not the substance of the family, nor is is the family’s destiny to be authoritarian. The point is that the substance of the institution is not articulated as a set of rights but as a series of tacit obligations, unseen assumptions, and affective relations which work to shape the character of those living under it. Yet this is the kind of thing that is impossible to frame under rights. (Hope this clarifies why I’m hitting away at this point.)

        The point I’m trying to make with craigslist is NOT that its dangerous. It’s actually pretty safe. My point is rather that it drives us to build anonymity and deceit into the social fabric in ways it hasn’t been before. And that this constitutes a social ill.

  3. […] take on l’affaire publius (background here). And speaking of Internet anonymity, H.C. Johns has recently been on the case, riffing off of this entertaining Craigslist article. He was also kind enough to mention an old […]

  4. “The point is that the substance of the institution is not articulated as a set of rights but as a series of tacit obligations, unseen assumptions, and affective relations which work to shape the character of those living under it.”

    I think I begin to see where you come from. I will think on it more.

    Thanks, HC.


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