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Totalitarian Paranoia in the Post-Orwellian Surveillance State

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Posted on Feb 10, 2014

cdrummbks (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 4)

History offers alternative narratives to those supported by the new authoritarians. Dangerous counter-memories have a way of surfacing unexpectedly at times and, in doing so, can challenge to the normalization of various forms of tyranny, including the mechanisms of a surveillance state defined by a history of illegal and criminal behavior. As the mainstream press recently noted, the dark shadow of Orwell’s dystopian fable was so frightening in the early 1970s that a group of young people broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, stole as many records as possible, and leaked them to the press. None of the group was ever caught. Their actions were not only deeply rooted in an era when dissent against the Vietnam war, racism and corporate corruption was running high but also was suggestive of an era in which the politics of fear was not a general condition of society and large groups of people were mobilizing in numerous sites to make power accountable on a number of fronts, extending from college campuses to the shaping of foreign policy. The 1971 burglary made clear that the FBI was engaging in illegal and criminal acts aimed primarily against anti-war dissenters and the African-American community, which was giving voice in some cities to the Black Power movement.

What the American people learned as a result of the leaked FBI documents was that many people were being illegally tapped, bugged, and that anti-war groups were being infiltrated. Moreover, the leaked files revealed that the FBI was spying on Martin Luther King Jr. and a number of other prominent politicians and activists. A couple of years later Carl Stern, an NBC reporter, followed up on the information that had been leaked and revealed a program called COINTELPRO, which stands for Counterintelligence Program, that documented how the FBI and CIA not only were secretly harassing, disrupting, infiltrating and neutralizing leftist organizations but also were attempting to assassinate those considered domestic and foreign enemies. COINTELPRO was about more than spying, it was an illegally sanctioned machinery of violence and assassination. In one of the most notorious cases, the FBI worked with the Chicago Police to set up the conditions for the assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, two members of the Black Panther Party. Noam Chomsky has called COINTELPRO, which went on from the 1950s to the ‘70s, when it was stopped, “the worst systematic and extended violation of basic civil rights by the federal government,” and “compares with Wilson’s Red Scare.” As a result of these revelations, Sen. Frank Church conducted Senate hearings that exposed the illegalities the FBI was engaged in and helped to put in place polices that provided oversight to prevent such illegalities from happening again. Needless to say, over time these oversights and restrictions were dismantled, especially after the tragic events of 9/11.

What these young people were doing in 1971 is not unlike what Snowden and other whistle-blowers are doing today by making sure that dissent is not suppressed by governments who believe that power should reside only in the hands of government and financial elites and that all attempts to make authoritarian power accountable should be repressed at almost any cost. Many of these young protesters were influenced by the ongoing struggles of the civil rights movement and one of them, John Raines, was heavily influenced by the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed by the Nazis. What is crucial about this incident is that it not only revealed the long historical reach of government surveillance and criminal activity designed to squash dissent, it also provides a model of civic courage by young people who acted on their principles in a nonviolent way to stop what they considered to be machineries of civil and social death. As Greenwald argues, COINTELPRO makes clear that governments have no qualms about “targeting citizens for their disfavored political views and trying to turn them into criminals through infiltration, entrapment and the like” and that such actions are “alive and well today in the United States.” Governments that elevate lawlessness to one of the highest principles of social order reproduce and legitimate violence as an acceptable mode of action throughout a society. Violence in American society has become its heartbeat and nervous system, paralyzing ideology, policy and governance, if not the very idea of politics. Under such circumstances, the corporate and surveillance state become symptomatic of a form of tyranny and authoritarianism that has corrupted and disavowed the ideals and reality of a substantive democracy.

Dissent is crucial to any viable notion of democracy and provides a powerful counterforce to the dystopian imagination that has descended like a plague on American society; but dissent is not enough. In a time of surging authoritarianism, it is crucial for everyone to find the courage to translate critique into the building of popular movements dedicated to making education central to any viable notion of politics. This is a politics that does the difficult work of assembling critical formative cultures by developing alternative media, educational organizations, cultural apparatuses, infrastructures and new sites through which to address the range of injustices plaguing the United States and the forces that reproduce them. The rise of cultures of surveillance along with the defunding of public and higher education, the attack on the welfare state and the militarization of everyday life can be addressed in ways that not only allow people to see how such issues are interrelated to casino capitalism and the racial-security state but also what it might mean to make such issues meaningful to make them critical and transformative. As Charlie Derber has written, “How to express possibilities and convey them authentically and persuasively seems crucially important” if any viable notion of resistance is to take place.

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Nothing will change unless the left and progressives take seriously the subjective underpinnings of oppression in the United States. The power of the imagination, dissent, and the willingness to hold power accountable constitute a major threat to authoritarian regimes. Snowden’s disclosures made clear that the authoritarian state is deeply fearful of those intellectuals, critics, journalists and others who dare to question authority, expose the crimes of corrupt politicians and question the carcinogenic nature of a corporate state that has hijacked democracy: This is most evident in the insults and patriotic gore heaped on Manning and Snowden.

How else to explain, in light of Snowden’s initial disclosures about the NSA, the concern on the part of government and intelligence agencies that his “disclosures have renewed a longstanding concern: that young Internet aficionados whose skills the agencies need for counterterrorism and cyber defense sometimes bring an anti-authority spirit that does not fit the security bureaucracy.” Joel F. Brenner, a former inspector general of the NSA made it very clear that the real challenge Snowden revealed was to make sure that a generation of young people were not taught to think critically or question authority. As Brenner put it, young people who were brought into the national security apparatus were not only selling their brains but also their consciences. In other words, they have to “adjust to the culture” by endorsing a regime of one that just happened to be engaging in a range of illegalities that threatened the foundations of democracy. What is clear is that the corporate-security state provides an honorable place for intellectuals who are willing to live in a culture of conformity. In this case as Arthur Koestler said some years ago, conformity becomes “a form of betrayal which can be carried out with a clear conscience.” At the same time, it imposes its wrath on those who reject subordinating their consciences to the dictates of authoritarian rule.

If the first task of resistance is to make dominant power clear by addressing critically and meaningfully the abuses perpetrated by the corporate surveillance state and how such transgressions affect the daily lives of people in different ways, the second step is to move from understanding and critique to the hard work of building popular movements that integrate rather than get stuck and fixated in single-issue politics. The left has been fragmented for too long, and the time has come to build national and international movements capable of dismantling the political, economic and cultural architecture put in place by the new authoritarianism and its post-Orwellian surveillance industries. This is not a call to reject identity and special-issue politics as much as it is a call to build broad-based alliances and movements, especially among workers, labor unions, educators, youth groups, artists, intellectuals, students, the unemployed and others relegated, marginalized and harassed by the political and financial elite. At best, such groups should form a vigorous and broad-based third party for the defense of public goods and the establishment of a radical democracy. This is not a call for a party based on traditional hierarchical structures but a party consisting of a set of alliances among different groups that would democratically decide its tactics and strategies.

Modern history is replete with such struggles, and the arch of that history has to be carried forward before it is too late. In a time of tyranny, thoughtful and organized resistance is not a choice; it is a necessity. In the struggle to dismantle the authoritarian state, reform is only partially acceptable. Surely, as Fred Branfman argues, rolling back the surveillance state can take the form of fighting: to end bulk collection of information; demand Congressional oversight; indict executive-branch officials when they commit perjury; give Congress the capacity to genuinely oversee executive agency; provide strong whistle-blower protection; and restructure the present system of classification. These are important reforms worth fighting for, but they do not go far enough. What is needed is a radical restructuring of our understanding of democracy and what it means to bring it into being. The words of Zygmunt Bauman are useful in understanding what is at stake in such a struggle. He writes: “Democracy expresses itself in continuous and relentless critique of institutions; democracy is an anarchic, disruptive element inside the political system; essential, as a force of dissent and change. One can best recognize a democratic society by its constant complaints that it is not democratic enough.” What cannot be emphasized enough is that only through collective struggles can change take place against modern-day authoritarianism. If the first order of authoritarianism is unchecked secrecy, the first moment of resistance to such an order is widespread critical awareness of state and corporate power and its threat to democracy, coupled with a desire for radical change rather than reformist corrections. Democracy involves a sharing of political existence, an embrace of the commons and the demand for a future that cannot arrive quickly enough. In short, politics needs a jump start, because democracy is much too important to be left to the whims, secrecy and power of those who have turned the principles of self-government against themselves.


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