Thursday, June 13, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the NSA

Our first guest post, by John Wolfe.

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 na├»ve 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.


  1. Great post!

    While volunteering at WMNF on Tuesday another volunteer brought up that Qwest Communications was also asked to mine data post-9/11. When they refused they lost government contracts and it's speculated that was the final straw that made the SEC bring a suit against them for fraud.

  2. Interesting connection...

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Consolidation of power in the state, perhaps, except that 70% of the surveillance/intelligence personnel are employees of private contractors, including those monitoring other contractors, and such "search and siezure" by corporate personnel is not subject to the same constitutional limits as direct government activity. For four decades after the civil war, various presidents used the Pinkerton agency for secret operations, but that was banned by Congress after the Homestead strike. This is electronic Blackwater.

    1. Author here,

      Well, yes. For a long time the U.S. government has used "private" entities to sidestep limits on what they are allowed to do, and save money. However, I wonder whether your examples do the work you want them to. The Pinkertons and Wackenhut after them were always, at least in my circles, considered unofficial extensions of the intelligence apparatus. Not only did they depend on government contracts, but often turn out to be founded by old Company men. In the tug of war between state and corporate power, the state is clearly winning in these cases.

      With the NSA contractors, the situation is even more clear cut. (If my anecdotal sources are correct.) Unlike folk like Wackenhut, they are purely creatures of state power. They are not allowed to share their data with anyone else. Their existence is purely as organs of the state.

      Finally, there seem to be a lot more of these "contractors" then before, no?

  4. Thank you for this great piece, we are reblogging it with attribution, at

    1. Thanks for the red love.

      Just a heads up, I had some domain issues, so your link back might not work. If you could fix it, we would appreciate it. Sorry for the hassle.

  5. Firstly, I value this piece for its contribution to thinking on this issue and for seeking to go beyond the fairly simple and small selection of narratives the media has carried re: this story.

    So,here is a little comment.

    "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."

    The answer here would be to familiarize oneself with how dependent these corporations are on lucrative federal contracts. To not assist the US government most certainly *does* work against their business interests. The squaring of the circle is to both collaborate while maintaining an amount of distance to provide the famous 'plausible deniability'.

    Secondly, just because the state and the corporations are unifying does not, to me, lead to the conclusion that the opposing class will unite. As the author identifies as a Marxist, this consolidation is posited as something akin to an iron law, but is it? He misses out what these technologies can accomplish, and that is to completely atomize the general population, so we are reduced to watching in dumb horror as injustices take place, with none of us able to do anything to save the person the state has zeroed in on (much like prisoners in adjacent cells in a block, only able to raise a racket and shout empty threats of revenge).

    Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Ed Snowden, recipients of massive amounts of media coverage and support, but is there *anything* we can do, despite thousands/millions being behind these individuals and their causes, to deflect them from their fate?

    My final part is that this surveillance changes the nature of how law enforcement, the courts, and the media deal with mass uprisings in the West. Mass arrests recede and a drip-drip strategy emerges. We saw this with the London riots. The state just lets its cameras run, and afterwards, picks off the protagonists one at a time over whatever time period they wish, with the result that no public outcry really gathers.

    So, I think there is more to be said than that what has happened is 'good' because it presents some sort of opportunity. It may, but I am inclined to be more pessimistic, because knowing you are subject to massive government intrusion in your personal life didn't do much for the consolidation of the population of East Germany, and they were not contending with such powerful technologies of control. A paralysis can set in that is quite understandable, and that creates an even more passive background against which the slightest resistance stands out ever more prominently.

    Thanks for listening.

    1. And thanks for your comment.

      If I presented anything in what I wrote as an "iron law" this was a mistake. What I see is a determinate possibility. The opposition to programs like this cuts across nominal political divisions large swathes of the population see that this is not in their interest, and the support is nearly universal in the political caste. When one sees a division like this, one should throw oneself into it. Hence my enthusiasm.

  6. This use of Foucault is deeply mistaken... secret programs don't work as panopticons -- panopticons are known, which is why we modify our behavior in submission to their gaze. The NSA surveillance is not meant to be a panoptic device, it has little bearing on the production of subjectivity (no more than the already-omnipresent surveillance state), and to focus on this risks drawing attention away from its likely true purposes, which most likely resemble the "old-fashioned" repression that poor Ed Snowden will soon be subject to.

    1. Hi Gavin,

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. Now, I have a few:

      1.) Even before Prism was revealed everyone suspected it, as you note when you refer to the "already omnipresent surveillance state." Perhaps the blurring of the distinction between Prism and your OASS is exactly the thing that makes Foucault relevant here. The apparatus has become visible; it has been confirmed. In any case, we have already been modifying our behavior, as displayed by precautions such as "Security Culture" and Guy Fawkes masks. We have been aware of the invisible eye.

      2.) I'm not sure of the intentions of Prism, but its intentions have little effect on its consequences, which I think are worth considering and discussing.

      3.) Oh my, if you object to this use of Foucault, I dread your reaction to my use of Fanon on Monday. :\

    2. May I also mention that we object to any harm that comes to Snowden? I'm certain John Wolfe would agree. Our analysis is not limited to Prism and the evils of the capitalist state. We want to both point out the panoptic power of the state and be champions for Snowden.

      Again, thanks for reading.

  7. Would love to read more of this as thur the freedom of information act