John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and a faculty adjunct at Cochise College. His most recent book is Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.
Despite persistent efforts by the US media to cast Edward Snowden as a traitor the affair has managed to expose not only abusive surveillance practices but also (even) the supportive role of strange bedfellows in these practices.
Consider first the tech giants. Silicon Valley's leaders project an image of support for market freedoms and open communication. And they trumpet the growth of high tech as the key to the restoration of our democracy. This image is, however, historically inaccurate and hides the role of the major tech giants today.
The telecom industry grew out of government funding and support for computers and the Internet. These companies in turn have enabled government intelligence agencies to solve some of their thorniest intelligence problems. We have here, then, an incestuous relationship with ugly consequences for a democratic citizenry.
In a recent post in her "Naked Capitalism" blog Yves Smith points out that such government surveillance plans as the infamous PRISM "depict the major telecom and technology players like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo as 'partners'. That's no misnomer... If you think ordinary customers are all that important to them, given that most of the markets they compete in are oligopolies, I have a bridge I'd like to sell you... The NSA, and the Department of Defense in general, have long been sponsors and funders of advanced technology. Need we say DarpaNet?... The NSA is an important customer and validator of tech products."
Companies like Google tout cooperation with government. Smith cites Google CEO Eric Schmidt's recent claim in The New Digital Age: "What Lockheed Martin was to the 20th century, technology and cybersecurity companies will be to the 21st."
Smith adds: "If the technology companies were really concerned [about customer privacy], lobbying dollars would go a hell of a lot further than money spent in quixotic fights in the FISA star chamber. But where has Silicon Valley been spending its money?" From a June 2013 story in the Atlantic: So far the fruits of Google's lobbying efforts have resulted in a huge win in an anti-trust case, but the company has even bigger plans...Google is working on updates to the Electronic Communication Privacy Act that pesky bill the government uses to justify spying on your Gmail without a warrant."
Smith also highlights the (most omit) ominous aspects of these revelations:" The extensive cooperation between commercial companies and intelligence agencies is legal and reaches deeply into many aspects of everyday life,... Company executives are motivated by a desire to help the national defense as well as to help their own companies."
I draw several conclusions from these disturbing revelations. US politics has long been characterized by a mindset that political theorist Bonnie Honig, drawing on the work of the late Michael Rogin, labels countersubversive: "That mentality casts the United States not as a political actor enmeshed in political conflicts with a concrete history, but rather as a hapless victim of alien monsters who appear inexplicably out of nowhere, who might be hiding anywhere, and whose threatening actions justify extreme, often mimetic, (re-)actions on our part."
She quotes Rogin: "Both the postwar Soviet Union and the radical labor movement of [the 1910s] posed genuine threats to dominant interests in American society, although the nature and extent of those threats are a matter of controversy. .. But the countersubversive response transformed interest conflicts into psychologically based anxieties over national security and American identity. Exaggerated responses to the domestic Communist [we could now say Arab] menace narrowed the bounds of permissible political disagreement and generated a national-security state." Indeed, we should say that linking labor to national security issues plays a major role in the defeat of welfare Keynesianism and the later hegemony of neoliberalism.
Perhaps the strangest revelation so far from the Snowden affair is the role of our erstwhile enemy in dismissing or denigrating his principled exposure of government lies and abuses. In his first response to Snowden's request for political asylum, Russian president Vladimir Putin demanded: "He must stop doing work aimed at harming our American partners, however strange that may sound coming from my lips." Putin, like the US corporate media, seemed to feel no need to explain just how Snowden's disclosures had harmed his "partner." Though Putin has now granted Snowden temporary asylum, his long term situation remains quite tenuous. Apparently, however much these national security states may see their opposite numbers as threats, each uses these threats to defend their own abusive bureaucracies, practices and secrecy from their own citizens.
Today, spy agencies all over the world, both whether governmental or private, accumulate reams of personal data with which they can denigrate or disrupt any dissenting politics, regardless of how nonviolent. And here in the US with the especially close ties between private corporations and the national security state, an already strong tendency among elites to identify all anti-corporate dissent as inherently violent and destructive will only intensify.
Even citizens who proclaim they "have nothing to hide" will lose the stimulation and challenge of a venturesome culture and politics. Eventually, denied any outlet and opportunity to express and refine with others, those creative thoughts themselves may no longer come.
Finally, so much for both classic laissez faire and countercultural hopes for American democracy. The former, most notably Milton Friedman, argued that free markets and capitalist development nurtured freedom of speech and thought. Not only do markets often require the coercive power of the state in order to form, once formed they hardly ever remain free. Corporate power grows in tandem with and through government. And the state is then called upon to join other institutions in helping to shape workers, consumers, church goers, the poor and so on to fit "the roles" the system has defined for them. this is an imperative of neoliberalism, not one of its side effects.
That's is one reason it is hard today to remain aloof from politics. But for those who seek to do so the message is just as clear. If the Internet has progressive possibilities, their realization will not be automatic. Today a countersubversive culture nurtures and is nurtured by an evolving alliance of high tech giants, government bureaucrats (whom Smith calls securecrats), the older more established military industrial complex and powerful private corporations that benefit from close ties to the state, including especially the oil and investment banking community.
If the most repressive outcomes are to be avoided, the best course might be an evolving counter-coalition that would emerge from moral and historical critiques of and alternative to the countersubversive tradition. In Emergency Politics, Honig argues that the very focus on the question of the rules that should govern declarations of emergency and the protections that can be revoked in emergencies reinforce a notion of sovereignty as unitary and top down. Thus they "marginalize forms of popular sovereignty in which action in concert rather than institutional governance is the mark of democratic power and legitimacy." Unitary and decisive sovereignty committed to its own invulnerability is "most likely to perceive crisis where there may only be political conflict and to respond...with antipolitical measures."
The best answer lies not merely in challenging the constitutional status of this surveillance state but in building a political coalition that embodies the forms of popular sovereignty of which Honig speaks. This would include labor, consumer and environmentalist critiques of and alternatives to the role of the state and markets in fostering inequality. It would be attentive to the possibilities and risks of the social media and the limits of its own interventions in these. The coalition might advance more democratic forms of enterprise and media as well as decentralized and more sustainable forms of energy production and transportation. And in an era where hyper nationalism erodes so many democratic impulses, cross border initiatives in the interest of widespread access to an open Internet with robust privacy protections would be paramount. (Let's hope that) Edward Snowden's travels (in a world dominated by the state passport and surveillance system) helps to highlight the stake citizens of many lands have in a democratic Internet but a more exploratory and democratic polity.