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One person can make a difference in the affairs of state. 21st century political civilization has become habituated to international relations as the province of mega-units in something akin to an uneasy, disturbed condition of equipoise, in which underlying structural-economic-ideological forces, prone to confrontation, have become artificially muted: a surface of politesse, seething beneath, intended to disguise national strivings for power. Not all the presumed hegemonic players are alike in composition, direction of their historical course (ascending or descending), or geopolitical strategies for their survival and/or expansion. Self-evidently, China is rising in global influence, Russia, an injured giant finding its way through a mixed political economy and withdrawal symptoms from its previous expansionist phase, and the US, though for a century seeking and frequently achieving unilateral world leadership, now seemingly a wild card, capable of anything in order to remain on top. In this setting, individuals, until very recently, did not appear to matter, at least those excluded from positions of power—the vast majority of humankind, for whom the role of passivity coincided with the rise of mass, centrally directed technologies and organization, foreordained in practice to dwarf individual identity and sense of actuation in shaping their lives.
It is, of course, too early to tell, but events of popular history in such a brief span of time, occurring nevertheless still somewhat at the periphery of power politics—i.e., Egypt, Turkey, now Brazil (which could not help but ride the momentum from these currents of change)—have reintroduced the possibility of human transcendence over reified institutions and their leadership. No, we have not entered, thus far, a New Revolutionary Age, but in the last two weeks—a sliver of time as wars and the violation of civil liberties go—America has suddenly lost face, stature, and the moral high ground it has always claimed, and stands exposed, more than in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, to the world’s and its own people’s understanding as the invader of human dignity and privacy, priceless attributes distinguishing democracy from totalitarianism. This did not begin Inauguration Day 2009, but Obama must be held responsible for the intensification of pressures whose consequence has been the attempted breakdown of the human personality.
Too strong a formulation? Everything points in support, notably the secrecy which attaches to government, a purposeful magnification of the powers of the State, as in the necromancy of unlimited reach and potency as a given, because its identity lies obscured behind layers of classified documents, and the skilled art of obfuscation. From that base of operations (one equates secrecy with “invisible,” “stealth,” the freedom to commit illegal acts, and here, the accumulation of Executive Power for its own sake, and specifically the conjunct of military, paramilitary, and intelligence dimensions reinforcing its expansion and aggrandizement), the absolutist bonds of dependence on, and belief in, the leadership is mandatory if the structural schema of monopoly capitalism in America, and its correlative needs for continued growth in order to stave off contraction and stagnation, are to succeed. Nothing can be left to chance, least of all public awareness and an acute political consciousness able to penetrate the wall of secrecy and perceive the deeds, such as targeted assassination, regime change, and the euphemistic” humanitarian interventionism,” for what they are: preliminaries for, or the actual commission of, WAR CRIMES, that which Obama and the National-Security State neither he, his advisers, the complicit Congress and judicial system, the military and intelligence communities, nor the political economy to which the foregoing are either beholden or emotionally and ideologically identify with, can countenance and still show their collective face to the world as other than hypocrites, cynics, opportunists, war-mongers and –breeders, in clinical terms, as I see it, psychopaths.
In this context, Snowden enters the picture, surprisingly aware of all that is at stake, as witness his eloquent statements about how the denial of civil liberties negates and repudiates a democratic society, and from there, recognizes the magnitude of crime associated with surveillance. An individual, alone, powerless at the outset, has spoken out, and doing so, has shaken the foundations of power. This, more than a high point in the record of whistle-blowers, though intimately related to it, marks an epochal moment in the history of American freedom—or the search for it! It mustn’t be allowed to slip by as a result of the chorus of denunciation, from POTUS on down through all the usual suspects, Democrats and Republicans alike. Snowden has raised privacy into the pantheon of constitutional rights it deserves to be, as the index of societal health and individual personhood—something all the nefarious interventions, drone strikes, CIA-JSOC missions of subversion, indefinite detentions, have sought to obliterate from the popular consciousness, and until now, partially succeeded in doing.
SURVEILLANCE is not accidental strategy, but rather the cutting edge of individuals’ self-pacification, a well-tested mechanism of social control. One hesitates to speak, then even to think; one chooses one’s associates warily, lest found on someone’s list, the all-pervasive fear of being watched, dissected, analyzed by the prying eyes of the State, now a government-empowered and –legitimated National Security Agency (and multiple other intelligence agencies, along with such legislative onslaughts as TALON, CIFA, TIAP, and don’t forget MATRIX, Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, some of which going even too far for Congress’s reactionary taste), fully capable of spying on and retrieving the most intimate conversations between people hitherto unsuspecting of eavesdropping. Hopefully, suspiciousness of government will ensue, even though practices of this nature continue, because, as political theory teaches us, democratic society and government are founded on trust, without which, there can be no social compact—and start expecting the worse.
Snowden put his finger in the dike holding back the sea of totalitarianism, itself not an inaccurate designation any longer, i.e., if one believes that civil liberties is the linchpin of its polar opposite, a social democracy based on the respect for and equal treatment of the individual under the rule of law, because what the US government has done is destroy the American constitutional-social fabric, in the process making a mockery of the law through trampling on traditional safeguards to freedom of thought and rights of association, protection from unwarranted searches and seizures, and down a slippery slope to everything from use of informers, planted evidence, “dirty tricks,” to encouragement of mutual suspicion, the breakup of radical organizations, whatever government deems central to its interests, safety, and continued lawlessness.
Snowden turned the spotlight on the forbidden territory of the dark world inhabited by the Obama administration, a reaching out of tentacles not only in America but on a world basis, as his revelations of PRIMUS and foreign communications intercepts, including wiretaps of diplomats and conferences shows. The details are familiar by now, from the Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times, to the Continental press and worldwide—a story that will not go away, given the enormity of the offense and the hypocrisy of Washington. For this reason, I believe Snowden is a marked man in Obama’s eyes, to him to be practically equated with Osama bin Laden, and therefore, being in Obama’s cross-hairs, if not through rendition (“accidents will happen”) then a direct target of paramilitary operations, Snowden is right to fear for his life and to seek asylum. At this writing, he has landed safely in Moscow, through, as reported, the cooperation of Chinese and Hong Kong authorities (creating diplomatic friction between them and the US) and will be in transit to a third country. The Damoclean sword of the Espionage Act will have to await other victims, sure to turn up in light of Obama’s obsession with secrecy and personal hostility toward being crossed. As I’ve said before, secrecy for him is insurance against being discovered for having committed war crimes.
Snowden cannot be allowed to go free, not because he divulged State Secrets, but because he symbolizes the power—may I say, sublimeness?—of truth, particularly against what he exposed as a pack of political criminals, and beyond that, exposed, through their workings, the inner springs of repression on which American society and its structure of power depend, namely, self-pacification as an overriding state of moral-political inaction of body and mind, a rejection of social protest in thought and deed, the individual subject to cues provided by acute patriotism, consumerism, and the heavy-handed militarization of Authority. That, we could see, and for some, speak out against. But this added factor, brought out by Snowden, of surveillance, gives self-pacification silent and powerful reinforcement: the fear of terrorism, itself contrived by government to justify security arrangements bordering on informal regimentation, has become transformed/extended into what psychologists would term—if only they examined consequential societal issues—the “introjection” of the entire power system in America, including its capitalist and military foundations, and the people’s own expected docility to its furtherance, goals, and ideology. That is a big burden to carry around, even if unnoticed (the test of repression’s value and successfulness to an authoritarian government), which leaves the individual naked and vulnerable to the extreme politicization of mindset designed to eschew critical thinking, and rather, glorify the State.
Domestic spying of the breadth and scope practiced by the NSA (which along with the CIA has become Obama’s Janus-faced look toward both internal and external acts of structural-political subversion) becomes the handmaid of counterterrorism, the latter, now self-legitimated through government edict thus spreading a cloak of legitimacy as well around the former. Surveillance is good! We hear ad nauseum that there must be a balance struck between security and privacy, with the former invariably taking precedence—a convenient debater’s trick because the former can be infinitely enlarged, and the latter, a straw man, toothless to boot. America’s fear of terrorism, itself a form of terrorism practiced on the people, paves the way for domestic spying on the part of Authority with impunity. Surveillance, as we are made aware by Snowden’s revelations, becomes so pervasive and institutionally entrenched (the recent exposure in the New York Times of the close relationship between the NSA and Silicon Valley confirms what he already has shown in the way the government has gained the cooperation of Google and others, our presumed agents, via the social media, of liberation) as to render one fearful, apathetic, in the face of Inevitable Technology and Big Government, that our turn may be next in the docket, the FISA Court applauding in the background, fearful, that is, that we may be suspected of ultimate subversion if we do not conform to every tenet, measure, operation, transmitted from On High.
Regrettably, America is not Brazil (assuming the mass protest has legs and, unlike the Occupy Movement, fashions programmatic remedies and develops alternative political-economic formations, not frightened away by charges of elitism because unanimity is not achieved). But perhaps I underestimate the degree of discontent in America, discontent not amorphous (of which there is an abundance), but chained to disciplined thinking and, given a deteriorating situation on all fronts, finding the courage once more to act, as was seen in the civil rights movement and segments of the antiwar movement. Authority remembers well, even when we, frequently as participants, forget, and for that reason I suggest the drastic steps of surveillance and wreaking havoc on the Constitution make perfect sense to America’s upper groups, just as using armed drones for targeted assassination makes perfect sense, because they perceive the dangers ahead, real or imagined, to the continuation of their power and privileges, the nation’s accustomed position of hegemony, and their own introjections of values skewed to their interests, including the exalted place for militarism in every aspect of American life.
Militarism and surveillance are kissing cousins, each depends on the acceptance of prescribed ORDER. That order, a supreme ideological value of an hierarchical class structure such as we have now more than ever, with wide disparities of wealth and power, has in different, though largely nonpolitical, ways been challenged for some time, yet still awaiting focus—which Brazilian ferment, still a straw in the wind, may (along with Greece and Turkey) inspire. In any event, conformity is wearing thin, given multiple sources of discontent in American culture and society, building from civil rights, protest over Vietnam, and the rebelliousness of the counterculture, to what could be but has not yet been fashioned into a recognizable adversarial force for structural-economic-social change through the brute facts and experience of unemployment, mortgage foreclosure, rape of the environment, and the endless march to war, intervention, military stockpiling, and the abridgement of working-class rights and civil liberties. There is a crack in the façade of order, as understood by ruling groups, which, despite earlier abilities to control (and even sublimate into the time-honored paths of consumerism), can no longer be tolerated, particularly because they themselves perceive America’s changing position, its relative decline, in a now-multipolar world system beyond their powers of unilateral hegemony—therefore making the demand for conformity all the more urgent and satisfying. Here counterterrorism, especially via surveillance, comes into its own, a context ideally suited to stopped ears and hushed mouths. Protection of the Homeland, above all!
Snowden blows to smithereens the pious claims of American Exceptionalism, a city on the hill made up of political demagogues, snoopers, voyeurs, mercenaries, and the scavengers in our midst, supercomputers to the ready, armed with preconceived notions of enemies lurking in the dark, a wholesale assemblage of vile operatives who are cloaked in the Flag, seemingly unassailable—until one person came along to reveal the public garbage masking itself as national security. This writer wishes him God’s speed to safety, long life, good health. The nation, whether it knows it or not, is indebted to Snowden’s bravery and moral conscience.
Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University. His new book, Eichmann on the Potomac, will be published by CounterPunch/AK Press in the fall of 2013.