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Totalitarian Paranoia in the Post-Orwellian Surveillance State

Posted on Feb 10, 2014

cdrummbks (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

This piece first appeared at Truthout.

Surveillance, in any land where it is ubiquitous and inescapable, generates distrust and divisions among its citizens, curbs their readiness to speak freely to each other, and diminishes their willingness to even dare to think freely.
—Ariel Dorfman

The revelations of whistle-blowers such as Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond and Edward Snowden about government lawlessness and corporate spying provide a new meaning if not a revitalized urgency and relevance to George Orwell’s dystopian fable 1984. Orwell offered his readers an image of the modern state that had become dystopian - one in which privacy as a civil virtue and a crucial right was no longer valued as a measure of the robust strength of a healthy and thriving democracy. Orwell was clear that the right to privacy had come under egregious assault. But the right to privacy pointed to something more sinister than the violation of individual rights. When ruthlessly transgressed, the issue of privacy became a moral and political principle by which to assess the nature, power and severity of an emerging totalitarian state. As important as Orwell’s warning was in shedding light on the horrors of mid-20th century totalitarianism and the endless regimes of state spying imposed on citizens, the text serves as a brilliant but limited metaphor for mapping the expansive trajectory of global surveillance and authoritarianism now characteristic of the first decades of the new millennium. As Marjorie Cohn has indicated, “Orwell never could have imagined that the National Security Agency (NSA) would amass metadata on billions of our phone calls and 200 million of our text messages every day. Orwell could not have foreseen that our government would read the content of our emails, file transfers, and live chats from the social media we use.”

In his videotaped Christmas message, Snowden references Orwell’s warning of “the dangers of microphones, video cameras and TVs that watch us,” allowing the state to regulate subjects within the most intimate spaces of private life. But these older modes of surveillance, Snowden elaborates, however, are nothing compared to what is used to infringe on our personal privacy today. For Snowden, the threat posed by the new surveillance state can be measured by its reach and use of technologies that far outdate anything Orwell envisioned and pose a much greater threat to the privacy rights of citizens and the reach of sovereign powers. He reiterates this point by reminding his viewers that “a child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all - they will never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought.” Snowden is right about the danger to privacy rights but his analysis fails to go far enough in linking together the question of surveillance with the rise of “networked societies,” global flows of power and the emergence of the totalitarian state.

The democratic ideal rooted in the right to privacy under the modernist state in which Orwell lived out his political imagination has been transformed and mutilated, almost beyond recognition. Just as Orwell’s fable has morphed over time into a combination of “realistic novel,” real-life documentary and a form of reality TV, privacy has been altered radically in an age of permanent, ‘nonstop’ global exchange and circulation. So, too, and in the current period of historical amnesia, privacy has been redefined through the material and ideological registers of a neoliberal order in which the right to privacy has succumbed to the seductions of a narcissistic culture and casino capitalism’s unending necessity to turn every relationship into an act of commerce and to make all aspects of daily life visible and subject to data manipulation. In a world devoid of care, compassion and protection, privacy is no longer connected and resuscitated through its connection to public life, the common good or a vulnerability born of the recognition of the frailty of human life. In a world in which the worst excesses of capitalism are unchecked, privacy is nurtured in a zone of historical amnesia, indifferent to its transformation and demise under a “broad set of panoptic practices.” Consequently, culture loses its power as the bearer of public memory in a social order where a consumerist-driven ethic “makes impossible any shared recognition of common interests or goals” and furthers the collective indifference to the growth of the surveillance state.


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Surveillance has become a growing feature of daily life. In fact, it is more appropriate to analyze the culture of surveillance, rather than address exclusively the violations committed by the corporate-surveillance state. In this instance, the surveillance and security state is one that not only listens, watches and gathers massive amounts of information through data mining necessary for identifying consumer populations but also acculturates the public into accepting the intrusion of surveillance technologies and privatized commodified values into all aspects of their lives. Personal information is willingly given over to social media and other corporate-based websites and gathered daily as people move from one targeted web site to the next across multiple screens and digital apparatuses. As Ariel Dorfman points out, “social media users gladly give up their liberty and privacy, invariably for the most benevolent of platitudes and reasons,” all the while endlessly shopping online and texting.7A This collecting of information might be most evident in the video cameras that inhabit every public space from the streets, commercial establishments and workplaces to the schools our children attend as well as in the myriad scanners placed at the entry points of airports, stores, sporting events and the like.

Yet the most important transgression may not only be happening through the unwarranted watching, listening and collecting of information but also in a culture that normalizes surveillance by upping the pleasure quotient and enticements for consumers who use the new digital technologies and social networks to simulate false notions of community and to socialize young people into a culture of security and commodification in which their identities, values and desires are inextricably tied to a culture of private addictions, self-help and commodification.

Surveillance feeds on the related notions of fear and delusion. Authoritarianism in its contemporary manifestations, as evidenced so grippingly in Orwell’s text, no longer depends on the raw displays of power but instead has become omniscient in a culture of control in which the most cherished notions of agency collapse into unabashed narcissistic exhibitions and confessions of the self, serving as willing fodder for the spying state. The self has become not simply the subject of surveillance but a willing participant and object. Operating off the assumption that some individuals will not willingly turn their private lives over to the spying state and corporations, the NSA and other intelligence agencies work hard to create a turnkey authoritarian state in which the “electronic self” becomes public property. Every space is now enclosed within the purview of an authoritarian society that attempts to govern the entirety of social life. As Jonathan Schell points out:

Thanks to Snowden, we also know that unknown volumes of like information are being extracted from Internet and computer companies, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. The first thing to note about these data is that a mere generation ago, they did not exist. They are a new power in our midst, flowing from new technology, waiting to be picked up; and power, as always, creates temptation, especially for the already powerful. Our cellphones track our whereabouts. Our communications pass through centralized servers and are saved and kept for a potential eternity in storage banks, from which they can be recovered and examined. Our purchases and contacts and illnesses and entertainments are tracked and agglomerated. If we are arrested, even our DNA can be taken and stored by the state. Today, alongside each one of us, there exists a second, electronic self, created in part by us, in part by others. This other self has become de facto public property, owned chiefly by immense data-crunching corporations, which use it for commercial purposes. Now government is reaching its hand into those corporations for its own purposes, creating a brand-new domain of the state-corporate complex.

Social cynicism and societal indifference accelerate a broken culture in which reason has been replaced by consumer-fed hallucinatory hopes. Surveillance and its accompanying culture of fear now produce subjects that revel in being watched, turning the practice if not the threat posed by surveillance into just another condition for performing the self. Every human act and behavior is now potential fodder for YouTube, Facebook or some other social network. Privacy has become a curse, an impediment that subverts the endless public display of the self. Zygmunt Bauman echoes this sentiment in arguing that:

These days, it is not so much the possibility of a betrayal or violation of privacy that frightens us, but the opposite: shutting down the exits. The area of privacy turns into a site of incarceration, the owner of private space being condemned and doomed to stew in his or her own juice; forced into a condition marked by an absence of avid listeners eager to wring out and tear away the secrets from behind the ramparts of privacy, to put them on public display and make them everybody’s shared property and a property everybody wishes to share.

Everything that moves is monitored, along with information that is endlessly amassed and stored by private and government agencies. No one, it seems, can escape the tentacles of the NSA or the spy agencies that are scouring mobile phone apps for personal data and intercepting computer and cellphone shipments to plant tracking devices and malware in them. Surveillance is now global, reaching beyond borders that no longer provide an obstacle to collecting information and spying on governments, individuals, prominent politicians, corporations and pro-democracy protest groups. The details of our daily lives are not only on full display but are being monitored, collected and stored in databanks waiting to be used for commercial, security or political purposes. At the same time, the right to privacy is eagerly given up by millions of people for the wonders of social networking or the varied seductions inspired by consumer fantasies. The loss of privacy, anonymity and confidentiality also has had the adverse effect of providing the basis for what Bauman and David Lyons call the undemocratic process of “social sorting,” in which different populations are subject to differential treatment extending from being protected by the state to being killed by drone attacks launched under the auspices of global surveillance and state power.

Privacy is no longer a principled and cherished civil right. On the contrary, it has been absorbed and transformed within the purview of a celebrity and market-driven culture in which people publicize themselves and their innermost secrets to promote and advance their personal brand. Or it is often a principle invoked by conservatives who claim their rights to privacy have been trampled when confronted with ideas or arguments that unsettle their notions of common sense or their worldviews. It is worth repeating that privacy has mostly become synonymous with a form of self-generated, nonstop performance - a type of public relations in which privacy makes possible the unearthing of secrets, a cult of commodified confessionals and an infusion of narcissistic, self-referencing narratives, all of which serve to expand the pleasure quotient of surveillance while normalizing its expanding practices and modes of repression that Orwell could never have imagined. Where Orwell’s characters loathed the intrusion of surveillance, according to Bauman and Lyons, today

We seem to experience no joy in having secrets, unless they are the kinds of secrets likely to enhance our egos by attracting the attention of researchers and editors of TV talk shows, tabloid front pages and the….covers of glossy magazines….Everything private is now done, potentially, in public - and is potentially available for public consumption; and remains available for the duration, till the end of time, as the internet ‘can’t be made to forget’ anything once recorded on any of its innumerable servers. This erosion of anonymity is a product of pervasive social media services, cheap cell phone cameras, free photo and video Web hosts, and perhaps most important of all, a change in people’s views about what ought to be public and what ought to be private.

Orwell’s 1984 looks subdued next to the current parameters, intrusions, technologies and disciplinary apparatuses wielded by the new corporate-government surveillance state. Surveillance has not only become more pervasive, intruding into the most private of spaces and activities in order to collect massive amounts of data, it also permeates and inhabits everyday activities so as to be taken-for-granted. Surveillance is not simply pervasive, it has become normalized. Orwell could not have imagined either the intrusive capabilities of the the new high-powered digital technologies of surveillance and display, nor could he have envisioned the growing web of political, cultural and economic partnerships between modes of government and corporate sovereignty capable of collecting almost every form of communication in which human beings engage. What is new in the post-Orwellian world is not just the emergence of new and powerful technologies used by governments and corporations to spy on people and assess personal information as a way to either attract ready-made customers or to sell information to advertising agencies, but the emergence of a widespread culture of surveillance. Intelligence networks now inhabit the world of Disney as well as the secret domains of the NSA and the FBI.

The response of those who are worried about surveillance has so far been too much couched, it seems to me, in terms of the violation of the right to privacy. Of course it’s true that my privacy has been violated if someone is reading my emails without my knowledge. But my point is that my liberty is also being violated, and not merely by the fact that someone is reading my emails but also by the fact that someone has the power to do so should they choose. We have to insist that this in itself takes away liberty because it leaves us at the mercy of arbitrary power. It’s no use those who have possession of this power promising that they won’t necessarily use it, or will use it only for the common good. What is offensive to liberty is the very existence of such arbitrary power.

The dangers of the surveillance state far exceed the attack on privacy or warrant simply a discussion about balancing security against civil liberties. The latter argument fails to address how the growth of the surveillance state is connected to the rise of the punishing state, the militarization of American society, secret prisons, state-sanctioned torture, a growing culture of violence, the criminalization of social problems, the depoliticization of public memory, and one of the largest prison systems in the world, all of which “are only the most concrete, condensed manifestations of a diffuse security regime in which we are all interned and enlisted.” The authoritarian nature of the corporate-state surveillance apparatus and security system with its “urge to surveill, eavesdrop on, spy on, monitor, record, and save every communication of any sort on the planet” can only be fully understood when its ubiquitous tentacles are connected to wider cultures of control and punishment, including security-patrolled corridors of public schools, the rise in super-max prisons, the hyper-militarization of local police forces, the rise of the military-industrial-academic complex, and the increasing labeling of dissent as an act of terrorism in the United States.

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