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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

(Page 3)

One of the most serious conditions that enable the expansion of the corporate-state surveillance apparatus is the erasure of public memory. The renowned anthropologist David Price rightly argues that historical memory is one of the primary weapons to be used against the abuse of power and that is why “those who have power create a ‘desert of organized forgetting.’ ” For Price, it is crucial to reclaim America’s battered public memories as a political and pedagogical task as part of the broader struggle to regain lost privacy and civil liberties.”  Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, America has succumbed to a form of historical amnesia fed by a culture of fear, militarization and precarity. Relegated to the dustbin of organized forgetting were the long-standing abuses carried out by America’s intelligence agencies and the public’s long-standing distrust of the FBI, government wiretaps and police actions that threatened privacy rights, civil liberties and those freedoms fundamental to a democracy.

In the present historical moment, it is almost impossible to imagine that wiretapping was once denounced by the FBI or that legislation was passed in the early part of the 20th century that criminalized and outlawed the federal use of wiretaps. Nor has much been written about the Church and Pike committees, which in the 1970s exposed a wave of illegal surveillance and disruption campaigns carried out by the FBI and local police forces, most of which were aimed at anti-war demonstrators, the leaders of the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers. And while laws implementing judicial oversight for federal wiretaps were put in place, they were systematically dismantled under the Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. As Price points out, while there was a steady increase in federal wiretaps throughout the 1980s and 1990s, “in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the American public hastily abandoned a century of fairly consistent opposition to govern wiretaps.” As the historical memory of such abuses disappeared, repressive legislation such as the USA PATRIOT Act and growing support for a panoptical surveillance and “homeland” security state increased to the point of dissolving the line between private and public, on the one hand, and tilting the balance between security and civil liberties largely in favor of a culture of fear and its underside, a managed emphasis on a one-dimensional notion of safety and security.

The violence of organized forgetting has another component besides the prevalence of a culture of fear and hyper-nationalism that emerged after 9/11. Since the 1980s, the culture of neoliberalism with its emphasis on the self, privatization and consumerism largely has functioned to disparage any notion of the public good, social responsibility and collective action, if not politics itself. Historical memories of collective struggles against government and corporate abuses have been deposited down the memory hole, leaving largely unquestioned the growing inequalities in wealth and income, along with the increased militarization and financialization of American society. Even the history of authoritarian movements appears to have been forgotten as right-wing extremists in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Maine, Florida and other states attempt to suppress long-established voting rights, use big money to sway elections, destroy public and higher education as a public good, and substitute emotion and hatred for reasoned arguments. Manufactured ignorance spreads through the dominant cultural apparatuses like a wildfire promoting the financialization of everything as a virtue and ethics as a liability. The flight from historical memory has been buttressed by a retreat into a politics of self-help and a culture of self-blame in which all problems are viewed as “evidence of personal shortcomings that, if left uncorrected, hold individuals back from attaining stability and security.” Within the crippling “affective and ideological spaces of neoliberalism,” memory recedes, social responsibility erodes, and individual outrage and collective resistance are muted. Under such circumstances, public issues collapse into private troubles and the language of the politics is emptied so that it becomes impossible to connect the ravages that bear down on individuals to broader systemic, structural and social considerations.

Under such circumstances, historical memory offers no buffer to the proliferation of a kind of mad violence and paranoid culture of media-induced fear that turns every public space into a war zone. Consequently, it is not surprising that the American public barely blinks in the face of a growing surveillance state. Nor is it surprising that intellectuals such as Sean Wilentz can claim that “the lack of fealty to the imperatives of the surveillance community as demonstrated by Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and Julian Assange is an assault on the modern liberal state itself.” Indeed, what the new apologists for the surveillance state refuse to recognize is a history of abuse and criminal behavior by US intelligence apparatuses that were less concerned with implementing the law, arresting criminals and preventing terrorist acts than they were in suppressing dissent and punishing those groups marginalized by race and class.


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In a moving account of the use of surveillance by Pinochet under the Chilean dictatorship, Ariel Dorfman argues that surveillance not only was linked “to a legacy of broken bodies and twisted minds, the lingering aftermath of executions and torture” but also to an assault on the imagination itself, which under Pinochet’s reign of terror lived in fear that no word, gesture, comment would be “immune from surveillance.” What is to be learned from this period of history in which surveillance became central to a machinery of torture and death? Dorfman answers the question with great clarity and insight, one that should serve as a warning to those so willing to sacrifice civil liberties to security. He writes:

Who was to guarantee that someday, someone might not activate a network like this one all over again? Someday? Someone? Why not right then and there, in democratic, supposedly post-atrocity Santiago in 2006? Were not similar links and nexuses and connections and eyes and ears doing the same job, eavesdropping, collecting data and voices and knowledge for a day when the men in the shadows might be asked once again to act drastically and lethally?And why only in Santiago? What about America today, where, compared to the data-crunching clout of the NSA and other dis-intelligence agencies, Pinochet’s [surveillance state] looks puny and outdated - like a samurai sword noticed by an airman above, about to drop a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima? What about elsewhere on this planet, where democratic governments far and wide systematically spy on their own citizens? Aren’t we all in harm’s way?

America is not simply in harm’s way, it stands at the end of precipice about to fall into what Hannah Arendt once called “dark times.” As memory recedes so does political consciousness, particularly the danger that the surveillance state has posed to poor and working-class Americans who have been monitored for years and as Virginia Eubanks points out “already live in the surveillance future.” She writes:

The practice of surveillance is both separate and unequal. ... Welfare recipients ... are more vulnerable to surveillance because they are members of a group that is seen as an appropriate target for intrusive programs. Persistent stereotypes of poor women, especially women of color, as inherently suspicious, fraudulent, and wasteful provide ideological support for invasive welfare programs that track their financial and social behavior. Immigrant communities are more likely to be the site of biometric data collection than native-born communities because they have less political power to resist it. ... Marginalized people are subject to some of the most technologically sophisticated and comprehensive forms of scrutiny and observation in law enforcement, the welfare system, and the low-wage workplace. They also endure higher levels of direct forms of surveillance, such as stop-and-frisk in New York City.

The corporate-surveillance state collects troves of data, but the groups often targeted by traditional and new forms of digital surveillance are more often than not those who fall within the parameters of either being a threat to authority, reject the consumer culture or are simply considered disposable under the regime of neoliberal capitalism. The political, class and racial nature of suppression has a long history in the United States and cannot be ignored by whitewashing the issue of surveillance as a form of state violence by making an appeal to the necessity of safety and security.

Totalitarian paranoia runs deep in American society, and it now inhabits the highest levels of government. There is no excuse for intellectuals or any other member of the American public to address the existence, meaning and purpose of the surveillance-security state without placing it in the historical structure of the times. Or what might be called a historical conjuncture in which the legacy of totalitarianism is once again reasserting itself in new forms. Historical memory is about more than recovering the past; it is also about imputing history with a sense of responsibility, treating it with respect rather than with reverence. Historical memory should always be insurgent, rubbing “taken-for-granted history against the grain so as to revitalize and rearticulate what one sees as desirable and necessary for an open, just and life sustaining” democracy and future. Historical memory is a crucial battleground for challenging a corporate-surveillance state that is motivated by the anti-democratic legal, economic and political interests. But if memory is to function as a witness to injustice and the practice of criticism and renewal, it must embrace the pedagogical task of connecting the historical, personal and social. It is worth repeating that C.W. Mills was right in arguing that those without power need to connect personal troubles with public issues and that is as much an educational endeavour and responsibility as it is a political and cultural task.

Obama’s recent speech on reforms to the NSA serves as a text that demands not just close reading but also becomes a model illustrating how history can be manipulated to legitimate the worse violations of privacy and civil rights, if not state- and corporate-based forms of violence. For Obama, the image of Paul Revere or the Sons of Liberty is referenced to highlight the noble ideals of surveillance in the interest of freedom and mostly provide a historical rationale for the emergence of the massive spying behemoths such as the NSA that now threaten the fabric of US democracy and massive data on everyone, not just terrorists. Of course, what Obama leaves out is that Paul Revere and his accomplices acted “to curtail government power as the main threat to freedom.” Obama provides a sanitized reference to history in order to bleach the surveillance state of its criminal past and convince the American public that, as Michael Ratner states, “Orwellian surveillance is somehow patriotic.” Obama’s surveillance state does just the opposite, and the politicians such as Rep. Mike Ford and Feinstein are more than willing to label legitimate whistle-blowers - including, most famously, Snowden, Manning and Hammond - as traitors while keeping silent when high-ranking government officials, particularly James Clapper Jr., the director of national security, lied before a Senate Intelligence Committee.

Obama’s appeal to the American people to trust those in the highest positions of government and corporate dominance regarding the use of the mammoth power of the surveillance state makes a mockery out of the legitimate uses of such power, any vestige of critical thought and historical memory. The United States has been lying to its people for more than 50 years, and such lies extend from falsifying the reasons for going to war with Vietnam and Iraq to selling arms to Iran in order to fund the reactionary Nicaraguan Contras. Why should anyone trust a government that has condoned torture, spied on at least 35 world leaders, supports indefinite detention, places bugs in thousands of computers all over the world, kills innocent people with drone attacks, promotes the post office to log mail for law enforcement agencies and arbitrarily authorizes targeted assassinations? Or, for that matter, a president that instituted the Insider Threat Program, which was designed to get government employees to spy on each other and “turn themselves and others in for failing to report breaches,” which includes “any unauthorized disclosure of anything, not just classified materials.”

The incorrigibility of the politics of surveillance was on full display when Clapper assailed Snowden before a Senate intelligence committee hearing in late January 2014, insisting that he had done grave damage to the country and that his leaks not only damaged national security but aided terrorists groups. Clapper provided no evidence to support such a charge. Of course, what he did not mention was that as a result of Snowden’s revelations the American public is now aware that they are being spied upon by the government, in spite of the fact that they are not suspects in a crime and that governments around the world have condemned the indiscriminate and illegal spying of U.S. intelligence agencies. In a rather bizarre comment, Clapper also accused Snowden “of hypocrisy for choosing to live in Russia while making public pronouncements about ‘what an Orwellian state he thinks this country is.“71 Recklessly, Clapper implied that Snowden is a Russian spy and that he had available to him a wide range of choices regarding where he might flee following his public revelations of NSA secret illegalities. By suggesting that Snowden’s living in Russia somehow serves to cancel out his critique of the authoritarian practices, polices and modes of governance, Clapper’s comments reveal a lack of self-reflection at the agency and the lies and innuendo the NSA will engage in to deflect or justify acts of criminality that are now a matter of public record. More chillingly, the NSA’s scapegoating mechanisms come into full view when Clapper insinuated that “Snowden is conspiring with journalists, rather then acting as their source.” This is a serious accusation designed to ratchet up a climate of fear by suggesting that reporters such as Greenwald and others working with Snowden were participants in a crime and thus subject to criminal reprisals. In the end, such arguments, coupled with the blatant Washington cover-up of the scope and reach of the Orwellian/Panoptic complex, testify to the degree to which the government will resort to fear mongering to silence dissent.

Under the rubric of battling terrorism, the US government has waged a war on civil liberties, privacy and democracy while turning a blind eye to the ways in which the police and intelligence agencies infiltrate and harass groups engaged in peaceful protests, particularly treating those groups denouncing banking and corporate institutions as criminal activities. They also have done nothing to restrict those corporate interests that turn a profit by selling arms, promoting war and investing surveillance apparatuses addicted to the mad violence of the war industries. Unfortunately, such legal illegalities and death-oriented policies are not an Orwellian fiction but an advancement of the world Orwell prematurely described regarding surveillance and its integration with totalitarian regimes. The existence of the post-Orwellian state, where subjects participate willingly and surveillance connects to global state and corporate sovereignty, should muster collective outrage among the American public and generate massive individual resistance and collective struggles aimed at the development of social movements designed to take back democracy from the corporate-political-military extremists that now control all the commanding institutions of American society. Putting trust in a government that makes a mockery of civil liberties is comparable to throwing away the most basic principles of our constitutional and democratic order. As Johnathan Schell argues:

Government officials, it is true, assure us that they will never pull the edges of the net tight. They tell us that although they could know everything about us, they won’t decide to. They’ll let the information sit unexamined in the electronic vaults. But history, whether of our country or others, teaches that only a fool would place faith in such assurances. What one president refrains from doing the next will do; what is left undone in peacetime is done when a crisis comes.

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