Totalitarian Paranoia in the Post-Orwellian Surveillance State
By Henry A. Giroux, TruthoutThis 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.
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.
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.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:
privatization of public assets, contraction and centralization of democratic institutions, deregulation of labor markets, reductions in progressive taxation, restrictions on labor organization, labor market deregulation, active encouragement of competitive and entrepreneurial modes of relation across the public and commercial sectors.
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:
as government agencies shift from investigating criminal activity to preempting it, they have forged close relationships with corporations honing surveillance and intelligence-gathering techniques for use against Americans. By claiming that anyone who questions authority or engages in undesired political speech is a potential terrorist threat, this government-corporate partnership makes a mockery of civil liberties. … As the assault by an alignment of consumer marketing and militarized policing grows, each single act of individual expression or resistance assumes greater importance.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.