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Surveillance and the Erosion of Civil Liberties


Obama has been reported to be recommending the end to NSA bulk data collection. Even if true (it isn’t given the many loopholes in his proposal, especially keeping intact the FISA Court and Section 215 of the Patriot Act), it’s a little late after five years of structural-ideological imposition on the body politic, in the name of counterterrorism, a paradigm of fascistic social management, soft-glove intimidation, pressures toward conformity, all in the service of—what? It is hard to discern the magnitude of change in America over the period since World War II, Obama merely the present capstone of long-term trends of business concentration, military aggrandizement, societal alienation and false consciousness. Yet amidst gradual development of global hegemonic claims, precisely because a bastardized liberalism holds sway as the obscurantist medium, we miss the qualitative leap now taking place, a massive Rightward shift which embraces both major parties countenancing and legitimating a permanent war economy and mentality.

We’ve seen this before, the decade 1945-55 of torrid anticommunism fueling the Cold War, where Democrats and Republicans were indistinguishable from each other in advocating for super-patriotism garnished with consumerism and hostility toward organized labor. That complexion of American life has never changed, merely so grafted onto the national identity as in time to seem unremarkable, but for it to take on cumulative force, which it has, requires steady reinforcement until, as now, a breakthrough occurs. America sits uncomfortably in a world of other Powers; it wants the limelight to itself, unilateral military prowess combined with global financial-commercial leadership. Obstacles to this self-declared credo of a New Manifest Destiny clearly must be run over; hegemony does not admit of gradations, but rather calls for an all-or-nothing attitude toward internal regimentation, external conquest. To soften the image of Behemoth-like conduct, the US extends its influence and power through multinational military organization (NATO, SEATO) and international monetary and banking institutions (notably, IMF), without surrendering an iota of control over them.

Here we are, then: a half-trillion dollar (and counting) “defense” budget, far-flung missile installations and military bases, naval power massing in the Pacific to confront China, modernization of the nuclear stockpile, CIA stations as so many fingers in the pie determining the rise and fall of nations’ regimes, all synthesized, coordinated, pushing outward, movement for its own sake almost losing sight of capitalism as America’s reason for being, as though militaristic grandeur trumped the political economy making it possible. In this context, surveillance comes with the territory, part and parcel of the psychopathology of domination, as natural today as the air we breathe. Government has to be doing something to show its value as a coercive instrument, lest Authority (no longer government alone as possessing an official stamp, but transferred over to a combined ruling group which includes corporate and military elites) be questioned and the cohesion necessary to pursuing hegemonic goals weakened. Obama presides, in the case of NSA, over a self-fulfilling prophesy or bureaucratic nightmare; of course, spy on the people—how else ensure their accommodation to the status quo, their enlistment in the ranks of militarism, their absolute devotion to the System as a whole (Kafka would be proud of that capital “S”), their dedication to their own annulment as historical actors, accepting in its place the crumbs from the tables of wealth and the smile of their POTUS.

My New York Times Comment on Charlie Savage’s excellent article, “Obama to Call for End to N.S.A.’s Bulk Data Collection,” (March 25), mine, same date, follows:

Obama is the enemy of civil liberties. This latest skirmish is to give the appearance of respect for the rule of law; meanwhile little has changed. The National Security State is an affront to a freedom-loving people, which, because of their apathy and/or complicity, the American people no longer are. N.S.A. should never have been allowed; 215 of the Patriot Act is so odious, no wonder the lack of transparency of USG under Obama; the “surveillance court” is an euphemism for star-chamber proceeding, its very decisions and operations wrapped in secrecy, its judges appointed by Chief Justice Roberts, not known for dedication to the law.

Obama presides over a cesspool of lawlessness; cosmetics, esp. at this point, merely rub salt in the wound to the US Constitution. A POTUS who actively employs the Espionage Act against whistleblowers (presumably it is a high crime to reveal repression and abrogation of habeas corpus rights) and personally authorizes targeted assassination (participating in the selection of targets) is hardly to be trusted when it comes to the issue of massive domestic surveillance.

Let the citizenry sleep the sleep of indifference; in recent years the US has made significant advances in the formation, refinement, and execution of the Police State. Why be surprised? We blithely back fascists in Ukraine, support military dictatorships worldwide (Egypt the latest example), and use CIA-JSOC paramilitary operations to overthrow governments we don’t like.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at

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