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Totalitarian Paranoia in the Post-Orwellian Surveillance State
Posted on Feb 10, 2014
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
The point of no return in the emergence of the corporate-state surveillance apparatus is not strictly confined to the task of archiving immense pools of data collection to be used in a number of illegal ways. It is in creating a culture in which surveillance becomes trivialized, celebrated, and legitimated as reasonable and unquestioned behavior. Evidence that diverse forms of public pedagogy are sanctioning the security state is on full display in post-Orwellian America, obvious in schools that demand that students wear radio chips so they can be tracked. Such anti-democratic projects are now also funded by billionaires like Bill Gates who push for the use of biometric bracelets to monitor students’ attentiveness in classrooms. The normalization of surveillance is also evident in the actions of giant Internet providers who use social messaging to pry personal information from their users. The reach of the surveillance culture can also be seen in the use of radio chips and GPS technologies used to track a person’s movements across time and space.
At the same time, cultures of surveillance work hard to trivialize the importance of a massive surveillance environment by transforming it into a source of entertainment. This is evident in the popularity of realty TV shows such as “Big Brother” or “Undercover Boss,” which turn the event of constant surveillance into a voyeuristic pleasure. The atrophy of democratic intuitions of culture and governance are evident in popular representations that undermine the meaning of democracy as a collective ethos that unconditionally stands for social, economic, and political rights. One example can be found in Hollywood films that glorify hackers such as those in the Matrix trilogy, or movies that celebrate professionalized modern spying and the government agents using their omniscient technological gizmos to fight terrorists and other forces of evil. What is lost in the culture of surveillance is that spying and the unwarranted collection of personal information from people who have not broken the law in the name of national security and for commercial purposes is a procedure often adopted by totalitarian states.
The surveillance state with its immense data mining capabilities represents a historical rupture from traditional notions of modernity with its emphasis on enlightenment, reason, and the social contract. The older modernity held up the ideals of justice, equality, freedom, and democracy, however flawed. The investment in public goods was seen as central to a social contract that implied that all citizens should have access to those provisions, resources, institutions, and benefits that expanded their sense of agency and social responsibility. The new modernity and its expanding surveillance net subordinates human needs, public goods, and justice to the demands of commerce and the accumulation of capital, at all costs. The contemporary citizen is primarily a consumer and entrepreneur wedded to the belief that the most desirable features of human behavior are rooted in a “basic tendency towards competitive, acquisitive and uniquely self-interested behavior which is the central fact of human social life.”
Modernity is now driven by the imperatives of a savage neoliberal political and economic system that embrace what Charles Derber and June Sekera call a “public goods deficit” in which “budgetary priorities” are relentlessly pushed so as to hollow out the welfare state and drastically reduce social provisions as part of a larger neoliberal counter revolution to lower the taxes of the rich and mega-corporations while selling off public good to private interests. Debates about the meaning and purpose of the public and social good have been co-opted by a politics of fear, relegating notions of the civic good, public sphere, and even the very word “public” to the status of a liability, if not a pathology. Fear has lost its social connotations and no longer references fear of social deprivations such as poverty, homelessness, lack of health care, and other fundamental conditions of agency. Fear is now personalized, reduced to an atomized fear that revolves around crime, safety, apocalypse, and survival. In this instance, as the late Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith once warned, modernity now privileges “a disgraceful combination of ‘private opulence and public squalor.’ ” This is not surprising given the basic elements of neoliberal policy, which as Jeremy Gilbert indicates, include the:
Under the regime of neoliberal capitalism, the expansion of government and corporate surveillance measures become synonymous with new forms of governance and an intensification of material and symbolic violence. Rather than wage a war on terrorists, the neoliberal security state wages a war on dissent in the interest of consolidating class power. How else to explain the merging of corporate and state surveillance systems updated with the most sophisticated shared technologies used in the last few years to engage in illicit counterintelligence operations, participate in industrial espionage and disrupt and attack pro-democracy movements such as Occupy and a range of other nonviolent social movements protesting a myraid of state and corporate injustices. This type of illegal spying in the interest of stealing industrial secrets and closing down dissent by peaceful protesters has less to do with national security than it has to do with mimicking the abuses and tactics used by the Stasi in East Germany during the Cold War. How else to explain why many law-abiding citizens “and those with dissenting views within the law can be singled out for surveillance and placed on wide-ranging watch lists relating to terrorism.”
Public outrage seems to disappear, with few exceptions, as the state and its corporate allies do little to protect privacy rights, civil liberties and a culture of critical exchange and dissent. Even worse, they shut down a culture of questioning and engage in forms of domestic terrorism. State violence in this case becomes the preferred antidote to the demanding work of reflection, analysis, dialogue and imagining the points of views of others. The war against dissent waged by secret counterintelligence agencies is a mode of domestic terrorism in which, as David Graeber has argued, violence is “often the preferred weapon of the stupid.”
Modernity in this instance has been updated, wired and militarized. No longer content to play out its historical role of a modernized panopticon, it has become militarized and a multilayered source of insecurity, entertainment and commerce. In addition, this new stage of modernity is driven not only by the need to watch but also the will to punish. Phone calls, emails, social networks and almost every other vestige of electronic communication are now being collected and stored by corporate and government organizations such as the NSA and numerous other intelligence agencies. Snowden’s exposure of the massive reach of the surveillance state with its biosensors, scanners, face recognition technologies, miniature drones, high speed computers, massive data mining capabilities and other stealth technologies made visible “the stark realities of disappearing privacy and diminishing liberties.” But the NSA and the other 16 intelligence agencies are not the only threat to privacy, freedom and democracy. Corporations now have their own intelligence agencies and data mining offices and use these agencies and new surveillance technologies largely to spy on those who question the abuses of corporate power. The emergence of fusion centers exemplifies how power is now a mix of corporate, local, federal and global intelligence agencies, all sharing information that can be used by various agencies to stifle dissent and punish pro-democracy activists. What is clear is that this combination of gathering and sharing information often results in a lethal mix of anti-democratic practices in which surveillance now extends not only to potential terrorists but to all law-abiding citizens. Within this sinister web of secrecy, suspicion, state-sanctioned violence and illegality, the culture of authoritarianism thrives and poses a dangerous threat to democratic freedoms and rights. It also poses a threat to those outside the United States who, in the name of national security, are subject to “a grand international campaign with drones and special operations forces that is generating potential terrorists at every step.” Behind this veil of concentrated power and secrecy lies not only a threat to privacy rights but the very real threat of violence on both a domestic and global level.
As Heidi Boghosian argues, the omniscient state “in George Orwell’s 1984 … is represented by a two-way television set installed in each home. In our own modern adaptation, it is symbolized by the location-tracking cell phones we willingly carry in our pockets and the microchip-embedded clothes we wear on our bodies.” While such devices can be used for useful applications, they become dangerous in a society in which corporations and government have increased power and access over every aspect of the lives of the American public. Put simply, “the ubiquity of such devices threatens a robust democracy.” What is particularly dangerous, as Boghosian documents in great detail, is that:
The dynamic of neoliberal modernity, the homogenizing force of the market, a growing culture of repression and an emerging police state have produced more sophisticated methods for surveillance and the mass suppression of the most essential tools for dissent and democracy: “the press, political activists, civil rights advocates and conscientious insiders who blow the whistle on corporate malfeasance and government abuse.” The neoliberal authoritarian culture of modernity also has created a social order in which surveillance becomes self-generated, aided by a public pedagogy produced and circulated through a machinery of consumption that encourages transforming dreams into data bits. Such bits then move from the sphere of entertainment to the deadly serious and integrated spheres of capital accumulation and policing as they are collected and sold to business and government agencies who track the populace for either commercial purposes or for fear of a possible threat to the social order and its established institutions of power.
Absorbed in privatized orbits of consumption, commodification and display, Americans vicariously participate in the toxic pleasures of consumer culture, relentlessly entertained by the spectacle of violence in which, as David Graeber, suggests, the police “become the almost obsessive objects of imaginative identification in popular culture … watching movies or viewing TV shows that invite them to look at the world from a police point of view.” It is worth repeating that Orwell’s vision of surveillance and the totalitarian state looks tame next to the emergence of a corporate-private-state surveillance system that wants to tap into every conceivable mode of communication, collect endless amounts of metadata to be stored in vast intelligence storage sites around the country and use those data to repress any vestige of dissent. Whistle-blowers are not only punished by the government; their lives are turned upside down in the process by private surveillance agencies and major corporations who increasingly work in tandem. These institutions share information with the government and do their own spying and damage control. For instance, Bank of America assembled 15 to 20 bank officials and retained the law firm of Hunton & Williams to devise various schemes to attack WikiLeaks and Glenn Greenwald, who they thought was about to release damaging information about the bank.
Some of the most dreadful consequences of neoliberal modernity and cultures of surveillance include the elimination of those public spheres capable of educating the public to hold power accountable, and the dissolution of all social bonds that entail a sense of responsibility toward others. In this instance, politics has not only become dysfunctional and corrupt in the face of massive inequalities in wealth and power, it also has been emptied of any substantive meaning. Government not only has fallen into the hands of the elite and right-wing extremists, it has embraced a mode of lawlessness evident in forms of foreign and domestic terrorism that undercuts the obligations of citizenship, justice and morality. As surveillance and fear become a constant condition of American society, there is a growing indifference, if not distaste, for politics among large segments of the population. This distaste is purposely manufactured by the ongoing operations of political repression against intellectuals, artists, nonviolent protesters and journalists on the left and right. Increasingly, as such populations engage in dissent and the free flow of ideas, whether online or offline, they are considered dangerous to the state and become subject to the mechanizations of a massive security apparatuses designed to monitor, control and punish dissenting populations.
For instance, in England, the new head of MI5, the British intelligence service, mimicking the US government’s distrust of journalists, stated that the stories The Guardian published about Snowden’s revelations “were a gift to terrorists,” reinforcing the notion that whistle-blowers and journalists might be considered terrorists. Similar comments about Snowden have been made in the United States by members of Congress who have labeled Snowden a traitor, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat; John McCain, an Arizona Republican; Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican; and House Speaker John Boehner, as well as former Vice President Dick Cheney. Greenwald, one of the first journalists to divulge Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s secret “unaccountable system of pervasive surveillance” has been accused by Rep. Peter King of New York along with others of being a terrorist. More ominously, “Snowden told German TV ... about reports that U.S. government officials want to assassinate him for leaking secret documents about the NSA’s collection of telephone records and emails.”
As the line collapses between authoritarian power and democratic governance, state and corporate repression intensifies and increasingly engulfs the nation in a toxic climate of fear and self-censorship in which free speech, if not critical thought, itself is viewed as too dangerous in which to engage. The NSA, alone, has become what Scott Shane has called an “electronic omnivore of staggering capabilities, eavesdropping and hacking its way around the world to strip governments and other targets of their secrets, all while enforcing the utmost secrecy about its own operations. It spies routinely on friends as well as foes.” Intelligence benefits are far outweighed by the illegal use of the Internet, telecommunication companies and stealth malware for data collection and government interventions that erode civil liberties and target individuals and groups that pose no threat whatsoever to national security. New technologies that range from webcams and spycams to biometrics and Internet drilling reinforce not only the fear of being watched, monitored and investigated but also a propensity toward confessing one’s intimate thoughts and sharing the most personal of information. What is profoundly disturbing and worth repeating in this case is the new intimacy between digital technologies and cultures of surveillance in which there exists a profound an unseen intimate connection into the most personal and private areas as subjects publish and document their interests, identities, hopes and fears online in massive quantities. Surveillance propped up as the new face of intimacy becomes the order of the day, eradicating free expression and, to some degree, even thinking itself. In the age of the self-absorbed self and its mirror image, the selfie, intimacy becomes its opposite and the exit from privacy becomes symptomatic of a society that gave up on the social and historical memory.
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