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Using Secrecy to Shield Executive Crimes

The Carpet-Bombing of the American Mind

by NORMAN POLLACK

USG (we have become a nation of acronyms, my sentimental favorites being NSA, CIA, JSOC, POTUS, the more acronymic the more  sinister, dangerous, anonymous, lacking in accountability) thinks—and acts—big, no selective application of surveillance to individuals under well-defined principles and regulations, but total saturation so that the exercise becomes more than itself, more than information-gathering to detect real and potential subversion, as problematic as that may be, and instead, an exercise in thought control, intimidation, a process of internalized restraint to achieve an acquiescent citizenry, willing to accept, and thereby cementing its complicity in, the illegal application of force and power on those who have been declared enemies, domestic and foreign, of the State.  This saturation of surveillance (in many ways analogous to the Big Lie technique, the greater the scope and practice, the more receding from view, as though, wrapped in secrecy, until now, standing on its head traditional concepts of liberty and freedom growing more distant and difficult to recognize) insidiously erodes the foundation of social justice by raising the individual’s fear of detection of his/her thoughts, the moment they even border on political-social criticism, as somehow unworthy of a now self-imposed standard of patriotism.  We jump through hoops, apparently satisfied that we have made peace with an all-powerful government whose mantra is, “we have struck a balance between security and privacy,” all with knowing-wink that security is fully intended to trump privacy, the latter merely a liberal rhetorical convenience to ease the way to abject conformity disguised as the normalization of consumerism and identification with the purposes of the nation’s political-economic-military leadership.  Exceptionalism filtering down, on condition of good behavior.

The Snowden Revelations, highly deserving of capitalization, tear the cover away of incipient American totalitarianism, a structural-ideological condition seemingly unstoppable of actualization in light of the prevailing and historically developing configuration of power-interests centered on the militarization of an advanced-capitalist formation merging wealth concentration and, for its security (the security that really counts on the part of elite groups!), an aggressive foreign-policy design featuring the acquisition of markets, investments, raw materials on advantageous terms in a global order in which capitalism itself as a universal system is meant to flourish, free from the threats of alternative modes of modernization, including socialism, and in which the US maintains supremacy as the single world leader enforcing the ground rules of international conduct and domestic  tranquility (i.e., nonrevolutionary, nay, nonradical behavior).  By that token, surveillance at home (and abroad) is inextricably bound up with intervention, both driving forces for making American capitalism work, and integral to that, giving permanence to an hierarchical social system organized according to class-differentiations of wealth, status, and power, in the name of market fundamentalism.

Jump, Fido, jump, and the biscuit is yours.  Swooshing up metadata is the operant formula of achieving “security,” deserving of quotation marks because its opposite is true, not freedom from fear or anxiety, but fear and anxiety writ large, with personal knowledge of the self an open book to government agents, inspectors, officials, all custodians of public virtue and therefore, social control.  Our leadership is time-tested, having gone through an educational process of pleasing, and satisfying the concerns of, Vested Interests (thank you, Veblen, a century ago, for delineating the structure of power and its ideological complexion), so that in climbing the political ladder their respectability is assured, especially a thorough disconnect from the people they are presumed to serve.  Surveillance bespeaks not simply contempt for privacy, but contempt for the human identity individuals seek to fashion, the one chance they have, in their lives, the act of living, before they die.  Taking this away, in the name of a Greater Good, whether the promise of protection or the invitation to cheer on military triumphs, reeks of duplicity, the double-talk of freedom and servitude, one as cover for the other.

Obama is skilled at that.  He has fine-tuned the machinery of government to assure that secrecy is the shield behind which Executive Power continuously expands, chiefly in the construction of the military and intelligence communities’ growing integration of purpose and operation, yes, the National-Security State, to become institutionalized on a permanent basis, the armed drone for targeted assassination as, according to the planning of he and John Brennan, the type form for binding future administrations to an acceptance of the doctrine of permanent war.  There will always be enemies, always be terrorists, even if they happen to be ourselves, dissidents at home, whom, through surveillance, find themselves on hit lists constantly updated as standard procedure for legitimating the climate of fear and acceptance of war.  That eventuality may seem far off, yet can be, and is being, done with impunity abroad, which augers poorly for erecting civil-liberties defenses at the water’s edge.  Lawless conduct and norms have a way of metastasizing, precedents for barbarism (whether Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, multiple cases in Latin America) established in one place spread as malignant growth reaching all the way to, here, the US body politic.  Surveillance, secrecy, deceit, punitive treatment of whistleblowers, are the rational steps of incipient totalitarianism on-the-march, to hide its sins of commission (war) and omission (failure to address poverty, unemployment, climate change, business and banking regulation), a combination of failed, indeed, treacherous, leadership, unbeatable, so long as surveillance continues.  Snowden is our David, in the fight against Goliath, where the overwhelming preponderance of force, subterfuge, the machinery and practice of thought control lie all to one side.

However, to be intimidated by that, is to hand the victory over to quite disreputable figures, with the military and big capital guarding their back, without a fight, nothing which would please them more and the System over which they preside.  Surveillance is no ordinary stratagem of control, but a pathological desire (what I term elsewhere, “voyeuristic fascism”), sadistic in inspiration, to terrorize all with whom one disagrees, seeks to exercise superiority over, or, worse still and above all, derives pleasure in the hurt and depersonalization of others—usually, though not recognized by the perpetrator, as hatred of the self.  In this case, an almost structural-historical self-hatred, compounded of the emptiness of life under consumerism, and the buried guilt of atrocities committed in the name of freedom.  No wonder the official attitude toward Snowden; the Augean stable needs a thorough cleaning out, from POTUS to Pentagon to so-called regulatory agencies to Congress to the judicial system to paramilitary operations, to all the beneficiaries of surveillance and secrecy.

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.