John Wolfe: "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the NSA"


The recent leak of NSA documents by Edward Snowden has confirmed what nearly everyone has long suspected about the extent of the surveillance conducted by the U.S. Government. The public reaction has been predictable. 
On the one hand, many are outraged. This outrage is interesting in itself. It cuts across the nominal political affiliations dividing society, uniting libertarians and leftists, as well as significant fractions of mainline Democrats and Republicans. On the other hand, supporters of the current administration have deployed rhetoric which, although it for the most part falls short of outright defending NSA activities, seeks to minimize the importance of the leak. A rather unsystematic and impressionistic survey of internet chatter about the case reveals two main strategies of minimization. One is the pose of the jaded cynic. Those who are upset by the contents of the leaked information will be told that everyone has already known about this for years, and asked why they are so upset now. This is uninteresting, and ignores the distinction between well-founded suspicion and undeniable confirmation. The second strategy is to ask what the difference is between the recently revealed government data mining, and the corporate surveillance we have all endured for years. After all, we have become accustomed to, if not exactly comfortable with, extremely elaborate and invasive data collection and synthesis from the likes of Facebook, Google, and even our local supermarkets for years now. What does it matter if the government gets in on this game? This objection, unlike the first, deserves some examination.

It is certainly true that we have been always been surveilled by internet providers, marketing departments and others well into the past. However, I would argue that something markedly different is going on here. What we have is nearly complete, real time, identifiable data on everyone. It was disturbing enough to know that this data was collected and utilized by various corporations. But this kind of polycentric surveillance is different from having all of this data funneled into one central authority, an authority controlled by the entity that deploys the more violent forms of power in our society.


To restate the above in a slightly different way, there is a qualitative difference between being surveilled by a thousand petty authorities, often acting at cross-purposes, and having one major authority collect nearly all of this data. The very centralization is significant in its own right. However, the petty authorities and the central authority have different agendas. As pernicious as corporate surveillance was and is, it really was not about us. What Wal-Mart and CVS wanted to accomplish was selling more of their products and the data collected on individuals was merely instrumental. What Google and Facebook want is to increase their profits, and they want to hawk the data the collect to people who want to sell more things in order to do this. Their activities are merely avaricious, not malicious. What the NSA and its associated agencies want to accomplish is about us. They are policing the general population. Gathering as much data on individuals as possible is itself the purpose.

 It is sometimes additionally said by liberal defenders of these programs that since we are just dealing with surveillance, rather than grosser “rights violations” there is little to worry about. Observation is not control. However, this is a naïve view. We have known better for years. One of the central insights of Foucault's work, particularly Discipline and Punish, is that observation itself functions as a system of control. Under surveillance of any sort people are understood, and come to understand themselves, not as agents but as sites for the generation of data. Under this self-understanding people come to internalize the surveillance, deploy it against themselves. More simply, if one knows that they are always under observation, they will alter their behavior accordingly. Now if this kind of surveillance is a form of control, then to call these NSA programs "totalitarian" is not the least bit hysterical—it is to pay attention to the conventional meaning of the word, namely the use of state power to control every aspect of life.

What is most remarkable here is the ways in which corporate giants like Verizon and Google simply rolled over and acceded to the government's demands. Make no mistake, this was clearly against their individual business interests. Google, for example, has constructed its public image as a defender of internet freedoms, with, for example, their staunch opposition to CISPA. All these companies do international business, and to run the risk of being revealed as effectively agents of the U.S. government is to risk the worst kind of damage to reputation and profits. We have become used to a situation where civil government becomes a puppet of corporate interests, yet here we see the reverse, corporations placing themselves at the disposal of the government for no clear gain.

Now, of course, we have witnessed a stream of carefully worded denials from the companies concerned and assorted government spokespeople who attempt to assure us that the extent of surveillance is not what the leaked documents indicate, and the cooperation of the named companies is far more limited. There may be an element of truth to this, but, at the same time, we must realize that of course this is what they would say. When interpreting secret and sinister activities, one must give more weight to the documents that the actors wish you hadn't seen, rather than to the polished presentations they want you to see.

So, on the face of it, we see a major integration of corporate power into the state in a way which creates a new totalitarianism. The question then becomes, what does this mean for the left. I argue that, counterintuitvely, this is very good news indeed. 

Traditional leftist theory always centered around the state. Whether the objective was reform, seizure, or abolition, the state was always the main target. However, since at least the time of Marcuse, and accelerated by the failures of the May '68, leftists have come to regard the formal apparatus of "the state" as irrelevant. We have come to analyze the exercise of power in terms of broader systems of power. Herbert Marcuse, for example, made a monolithic, homogenizing entity known as “Advanced Industrial Society” the central actor in his story. Foucault spent his entire career elaborating a theory detailing the ways in which a decentralized power not vested in any one individual or group shapes everyone in a society. When one is fighting a system so broad, the options are limited. “The state” can be pressured or seized, “Advanced Industrial Society” cannot.

Such a totalizing system leaves only two options. One may settle into a sort of quiescence, as Marcuse and his Frankfurt School compatriots seemed to do at their worst moments, or one may seek alternative forms of resistance. I think here of those currents within Occupy who regarded the primary purpose of the protests as “modeling a new kind of society” and showing people that “another world is possible.” Of course, few people were impressed by a “new kind of society” centered around sleeping on pavement and relying on the largesse of others for food. Theatrical strategies such as this seemed doomed from the outset. 

However, now, at least in the U.S., the state seems to be reasserting itself as the central organ of class power, which is an event of historical significance. The means of this reassertion is the apparatus of "security" in general, and surveillance in particular. The other organs of bourgeois power, the multinational corporations, are submitting themselves again to the formal apparatus of the state, at this point, only behind closed doors, but it may become more explicit in the future.

We may still lack a suitable unified revolutionary subject, but our enemies have conveniently reunified themselves. As consolidation in one side of a conflict tends to lead to consolidation of the other side, we have every reason to hope for greater popular unity. So let's get back to targeting the state while the opportunity is ripe.

(Reblogged from BAMF)

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© 2013 Economic & Social Justice Reality Report | Views expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editor, Editorial Board, ESJRR, or WPRR.
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