The U.S. government’s persecution of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning (who came out publicly as a transgender woman after sentencing) is the latest example of a general rule: In the transitional struggle between networks and hierarchies, sometimes networks’ most powerful weapons are the hierarchies themselves. You spend a few thousand bucks to yank a network’s chain just right, and it’ll respond by doing something stupid that costs itself millions.
The bad networks do this, obviously. Al Qaeda has followed a consistent business model of goading Uncle Sam into doing utterly stupid things — a business model that never fails. AQ spent a relatively minor amount preparing and carrying out the 9/11 hijackings. In response, the United States became bogged down in two regional wars in South Asia and the Middle East that alienated public sentiment in the Islamic world, and embarked on a general policy of permanent war, torture and police statism that did irreparable damage to its reputation around the world. Entirely through its own responses to 9/11, the U.S. government has run up $1.5 trillion dollars in war debt and turned its civil aviation system into a comically totalitarian nightmare straight out of the movie “Brazil.”
Since then, Al Qaeda’s rope-a-dope policy has repeatedly paid off. Every time an AQ agent attempts another airline attack, the TSA implements a cumbersome, inconvenient and incredibly stupid policy to prevent that same tactic from ever being used again. Hijacking with box cutters? Make everybody empty their pockets of potentially lethal weapons like nail clippers. Shoe bomber? Make everybody take off their shoes. Underwear bomber? Invasive and demeaning pat-downs and body scans.
Al Qaeda has explicitly declared its strategy is no longer to maximize casualties, but to maximize Return on Investment by provoking the U.S. to impose the maximum possible cost on itself through its own stupidity. An “unsuccessful” attack is plenty successful, just so long as Uncle Stupid comes through as expected. It’s only a matter of time till some smart AQ operative figures out he can shut down the U.S. aviation system with body cavity searches by smuggling explosives in his rectum.
Although the current system of corporate-state hierarchies is ultimately doomed, if it were smart it could prolong its existence by coopting the network opposition as long as possible, minimizing conflict and instability, and extracting diminishing rents for another generation or two.
Instead, it’s responded to network attacks in a manner guaranteed to bring things to a head even faster and hasten its own death. The people running the corporate state couldn’t be doing a better job of bringing about their doom if we were writing the script for them ourselves.
Look how they respond to network attacks by the good guys. The U.S. government pursued its vindictive course against Manning to send a message to other potential whistleblowers. The problem is, those whistleblowers — among them Snowden — got the message loud and clear. What Snowden learned is, you don’t work within the system through normal channels, and you don’t play the “civil disobedience” game and take your punishment, unless you want to spend years naked in solitary awaiting trial and then be sentenced to most of your life in prison. You get the information distributed in secure places, get yourself safely out of the country, and then make your move.
The next whistleblower will do it even bigger and better, and learn from Snowden’s example. See, networks learn from their experiences. Hierarchies kill the messenger.
On top of that, the U.S. government’s draconian prosecutions of Manning and Aaron Schwartz have turned them into martyrs and created sympathy among millions of people around the world.
In its obsessive pursuit of Snowden, the U.S. alienated public opinion and national governments in most of Latin America by forcing down the Bolviian president’s plane. All of America’s attempts to conceal its real place in the world system through the illusion of “soft power,” hiding behind the UN Security Council and “international community,” were blown away by the naked exercise of the same kind of extraterritoriality the Europeans used in China a century ago.
Foreign resentment over the NSA surveillance revealed by Snowden has endangered U.S. trade deals with Europe and Latin America.
Everything the United States does, in its attempts to suppress the networked successor society, further undermine its legitimacy in the eyes of the world public or its own domestic population, spur the formation of counter-coalitions of other countries sick of the U.S. running the world, and drive mainstream public adoption of encryption to evade surveillance. In every single response to attack, the old hierarchical society further intensifies the contradictions that will destroy it.
In short, the forces of the old hierarchical order — the weary giants of flesh and steel, as John Perry Barlow described them — are hanging themselves with their own rope.
Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory.