Obama’s Attack on Privacy

Fascism like ice cream comes in many flavors, and for ruling groups the taste is refreshingly good. We have a POTUS for whom privacy and civil liberties, mouthed ad infinitum (indeed the more violated, the more praised), are archaic if not also despicable rights which must be curtailed in the name of National Security. Freedom is inverted on its alleged behalf, the upshot in America a campaign of surveillance by government on the people wholly violating principles and professions of democracy. Today, vanilla, as in spying, eavesdropping, recording, storing of bulk data; tomorrow, strawberry, as in the manipulation and depersonalization of the people, preparatory to shaping a mental-set favorably inclined to a social footing of permanent war, hierarchical business, financial, and industrial structure, and an ideological regimentation which glorifies the State as the protector of the selfsame privacy and civil liberties which have been degraded and demolished as the condition of peace and justice. The day following, butter pecan… Nirvana, under capitalistic-militaristic realization. (Flavors may differ according to particular historical development and location, but the totalitarian paradigm in which the public is subordinated to Higher Powers of supposedly their own creation nonetheless holds, the Good Humor Man being Dr. Strangelove in disguise.)

Not a pretty picture, but not an exaggeration either. Fascism stripped of the concentration camp and the gas chamber (which were not ends in themselves, but implementing mechanisms for achieving the “greater good” of Order, Power, National Security) has thus far displayed a systemic uniformity whether Germany and Italy in standardized form or now America, underlying structural sameness as the others but gilded to suggest liberal humanitarianism: to wit, the interpenetration of business and government, more specifically and accurately, Capitalism and the State. Capitalism possesses its own internal organs of repression, classically, the wages-system, but more apt, the framework of income distribution and its correlative perquisites of status and recognition, fluidly translated into power; how much greater, then, its contribution to the hierarchical features of the State, embodied in its militarism and pursuit of war, expansion, glory! I am speaking therefore of partnership at the highest levels, separable spheres of interest, influence, and power which by necessity become integrated, fashioned into one, to service the requirements, and maximize the strengths, of both.

Interpenetration sounds harmless enough, a normalization of political structure and culture which had its capitalistic antecedence in the system of mercantilism. (Maurice Dobbs, “Studies in the Development of Capitalism,” remains a classic on the subject.) In America, we early become exposed to the folklore of 19th century laissez-faire capitalism and the glorious, pacific Open Door, when in reality US international trade, combined with expansionist-interventionist features, has made the label and what it describes so misleading (here William Appleman Williams to the rescue in several studies), which provides the basis for modern capitalism in America, a paradigmatic incipience of structural fascism this early in America.


Why? Because under Theodore Roosevelt we see the foundations of the Capitalist State, not as mere neo-mercantilism, but in hegemonic struggle for world supremacy, a gradual linkage of economic and political power, initially effected by, and symbolized by, the marriage of the Roosevelt administration, chiefly its Bureau of Corporations, and the House of Morgan, the framework of government-business détente to encourage monopoly capitalism as the source of national power and, for TR, navalism, in the form of the Battleship Navy (or Great White Fleet). From that time forward, we have parallel systemic lines of development melding into convergence: the monopolization of the industrial structure (and the centralization of banking ownership) on one hand, the militarization of national power whose ancillary purpose has been commercial-financial global penetration (euphemistically, non-colonial imperialism) on the other, a robust mix to ensure establishment of a Business Polity, hierarchical in class structure, patriotic in ethos, an emphasis on political-cultural regimentation to hold the pieces together, notably, deferential/assimilative labor and the inculcation of military purpose and values defining social welfare.

Gabriel Kolko, in exposing interpenetration on the domestic side, in “Triumph of Conservatism,” and Howard K. Beale, in his writings on Roosevelt and the rise of America to world power, in foreign policy, together define—though seldom synthesized—the context in which the partnership of Capitalism and the State both is actively sought by the leadership of the respective spheres of power and confirms what Marxian analysis somewhat imprecisely terms structural tendencies assigned to each realm (the state, however, more the creature of capitalism, than as having relative autonomy in order the better to serve in stabilizing, protecting, and expanding capitalism). Interpenetration requires and internally generates ORDER, a natural seed bed for ruling groups—their presence ensured given the hierarchical structure of advanced capitalism—to cement alignments with their counterparts, political and military elites, so that an integrated formation, ready for whatever comes, whether international-capitalist rivalries or socialist revolution, has appropriate military anchorage.

In this light, Obama is symptomatic of next-stage American capitalism, that which followed after the New Deal and emerging out of the World War II context of a changing global power structure, himself not quite a blip on the historical radar, but neither, obviously, a world-class statesman (for good or ill) and rather predictably if not slavishly following in the footsteps of his immediate predecessors. War, intervention, covert operations, deceit and mendacity in his relations to the American people, opacity in the conduct of government, all follow from the active and further construction of the National Security State, which, under its wing, capitalism and regimentation flourish perhaps like not before, in tandem and seemingly harmless because largely unnoticed, given urgency via the dictates of counterterrorism, and swallowed in the abyss of technology and its presumed apolitical neutrality.


In the immediate setting, Obama’s Technology Summit at Stanford, February 13, we have a microcosm of the foregoing brought up-to-date, in which advanced capitalism and the national-security state form complementary units of the American variant of fascism, the progression toward a state of repression in which consumerism, conquest, and pressures directed to patriotic conformity play a part as the winning combination, like a narcotic, lulling the populace to sleep as depredations are committed in their name. Thus, Obama in his Stanford address calls for the partnership of government and technology companies for the purpose of “information sharing,” except that now this example of interpenetration is working in reverse. The companies, led by Tim Cook of Apple, are fighting back, much to White House displeasure, something which Obama is not used to, especially in a carefully arranged Summit to show off agreement between the principals. Cook, preceding Obama to the podium, implied that the technology companies would not wash the government’s dirty laundry.

In a setting surprising to many, Silicon Valley was showing backbone, Cook, in particular, upholding the value of PRIVACY as an antecedent right of the American people. (Before going further, I must make two points: in fact, technology companies until now were fully complicit in government plans of massive surveillance, and such surveillance per se smokes out Obama’s platitudes about seeking to safeguard the privacy right, an utter untruth though one of his main talking points at Stanford.) Cook’s brief speech, as reported in the Guardian by Dominic Rushe (Feb. 13), directly challenged government efforts to weaken the companies’ encryption policies, veritably a last defense in protecting privacy. Rushe writes, Cook “warned of the ‘dire consequences’ in sacrificing the right to privacy in an impassioned speech on Friday as Barack Obama sought to repair a deep rift with the technology industry.” Billed as a “White House-organised cybersecurity summit,” its purpose, “fostering greater cooperation—and sharing of private information—with Silicon Valley,” had less to do with security than bulk data collection, aka surveillance, (mine, not Rushe), Cook saying bluntly, “technology companies had a duty to protect their customers.”

This may not be a watershed moment, but so seldom does one find interpenetration breaking down that this is cause for celebration, an influential segment of corporate capitalism rejecting government largesse/protection through refusing to enlist in its militaristic paradigm of national security. Perhaps a passing fancy, in which Apple will be brought back into the fold (it’s too soon to know), but what I find encouraging is the possible role of technology as a progressive social force, even if administered under capitalism, in which defense of privacy becomes, and becomes realized as, the irreducible condition for doing business, thereby sending shock waves throughout society. Can America absorb the respect due privacy, a contagion of integrity having widespread ramifying implications, from corporate behavior and social relations to the value system? The assault on privacy and civil liberties under Obama suggests the tacit recognition and understanding of their subversive nature, an inner freedom of thought and belief, not necessarily mediated through an epistemological screen of capitalist institutions, that could lead to the basic questioning of the social order. Surveillance does not grow on trees, it is a response to the fear of political-social change.

Rushe notes further, “The highest-profile tech executive at the meeting, Cook said privacy meant the difference between ‘life and death’ for many people.” This assertion of fundamentals has been finally flushed out by Obama’s outrageous conduct, whether as drone assassination (the ultimate violation of privacy) and regime change, or simply here, ubiquitous signs of a Police State through domestic spying. Here call it what one wants, blowback, chickens coming home to roost, or the results of the Snowden revelations (perhaps finally coming into full view) but the Cybersecurity Summit had clearly backfired. Again Rushe: “Cook’s remarks arrived as many in the tech community have expressed concerns about government attempts to weaken encryption—standards for protecting the privacy of data online. In the wake of revelations from the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, Apple and its competitors have moved to strengthen encryption and faced a backlash from government officials.” I am pleased to observe a chipping away at the Liberal Icon: “The leaders of Apple’s fellow giants in the tech industry—including Facebook, Google and Microsoft—were not in attendance at the White House summit, in a sign seen by many as a snub to the president.”

But here is Cook (generalizing from his own personal outing), moments before Obama: “’We still live in a world where all people are not treated equally. Too many people do not feel free to practice their religion or express their opinion or love who they choose. A world in which that information can make a difference between life and death. If those of us in positions of responsibility fail to do everything in our power to protect the right of privacy, we risk something more valuable than money. We risk our way of life.’” One doesn’t expect such authentic eloquence from a business leader.


I credit Obama his nerve. Before the summit he announced new rules of cooperation (interpenetration), and stated at Stanford: “We have to work together like never before to meet the challenges of this information age…. When people go online, they shouldn’t have to forfeit the basic privacy we’re assured as Americans.” Yet the main challenge is to escape the totalitarian saturation of recording, monitoring, and storing our very words. (FBI Directory Comey declares, “Criminals and terrorists would like nothing more than for us to miss out,” the McCarthyite analogue of anticommunism, in which the protection of privacy makes one a criminal or terrorist.) Before returning to the events at Stanford, let’s go back four months (Oct. 16, 2014) to see something more of the orchestration/build-up of the White House use of cybersecurity to advance a broadly-conceived counterterrorism agenda having more to do with the US geostrategic position in world politics than with Protecting the Homeland, and at home, introducing social docility to keep capitalist development on track as well as habituation to the notion of permanent war. I refer to Spencer Ackerman’s Guardian article, “FBI director attacks tech companies for embracing new modes of encryption,” (Oct. 16, 2014), time enough to plow the fertile ground of scare tactics.

Whoever thought that ENCRYPTION would be a cause célèbre in the effort to preserve liberty? The FBI, whether under Hoover or Comey, is hardly expected to champion privacy and civil liberties, and so the reporter begins: “The director of the FBI savaged tech companies for their recent embrace of end-to-end encryption and suggested rewriting laws to ensure law enforcement access to customer data in a speech on Thursday.” Poor Apple, being singled out: “…data encryption such as that employed on Apple’s latest mobile operating system would deprive police and intelligence companies of potentially life-saving information, even when judges grant security agencies access through a warrant.” If the reference is to the FISA Court, one can say without fear of contradiction that it never met a search warrant it didn’t like, and warrantless searches were hardly beyond the pale. Speaking at Brookings, Comey said, “’encryption threatens to lead us all to a very, very dark place.’” Heaven forbid, one where rights are protected from omnivorous government (mine, of course).

Too, I credit Comey’s nerve: “’Are we no longer a country that is passionate both about the rule of law and about their [sic] being no zones in this country beyond the reach of the rule of law? Have we become so mistrustful of government and law enforcement in particular that we are willing to let bad guys walk away, willing to leave victims in search of justice?’” As for respect for the rule of law however, “Comey acknowledged that the Snowden disclosures caused ‘justifiable surprise’ among the public about the breadth of government surveillance, but hoped to mitigate it through greater transparency and accuracy.” Ackerman is none too hopeful: “Yet the FBI keeps significant aspects of its surveillance reach hidden even from government oversight bodies. Intelligence officials said in a June [2014] letter to a US senator that the FBI does not tally how often it searches through NSA’s vast hoards of international communications, WITHOUT WARRANTS, for Americans’ identifying information.” (caps., mine)

Because I take Comey as prototypical of administration thinking (more smarts than Brennan, not quite up to the caginess of Rice), I’d like to linger a moment longer, specifically, with Trevor Timm’s Guardian article, “The government wants tech companies to give them a backdoor to your electronic life,” (Oct. 17, the next day). My award for opening sentence: “The FBI chief’s call for ‘clarity and transparency’ on surveillance wouldn’t be so laughable if the government wasn’t so aggressively secretive.” Timm writes, “FBI director James Comey wants a US government-mandated backdoor into your iPhone and your Google account. But Comey doesn’t want to call his proposed privacy invasion a backdoor. He doesn’t understand how it would work. And he expects everyone who has been horrified by the NSA’s mass surveillance to just sit back, weaken their personal security and trust that the government will never abuse it.” Timm doesn’t mince words. Pointing out that “Comey is currently on a media blitz,” in which he portrays encryption as facilitating terrorism and rendering law enforcement helpless in apprehending the bad guys, he adds that Comey, “like the NSA, sees encryption for the masses as the enemy—not the type of tool that keeps your medical and bank records safe. He was on 60 Minutes this week calling Apple and Google’s decision a threat to national security, and on Thursday, he gave his first major speech as FBI director, which focused entirely on the dangers of people controlling their own security.”

Comey wants Congress to pass legislation (one wonders, almost why bother in light of FISA’s permissive attitude, except that a show of legitimacy is essential to liberal totalitarianism) which mandates “that all tech companies build backdoors—or ‘lawful intercept’ capabilities, as the government likes to call it—into all their systems, so there will always be a technical hole in the system that the FBI can exploit to read your emails if they hand the company a court order.” Once more, this is four months ago, time enough to build the official campaign against the companies’ encryption practices. As for why his call for “clarity and transparency” on surveillance is a farce, the FBI, hiding its “surveillance capabilities from the public,” then makes “law enforcement sign non-disclosure agreements as they hand out invasive new spying technology. Not surprisingly, he wants “the ‘Post-Snowden pendulum’… to swing back in favor of the government, neglecting to mention Congress has passed literally zero laws reigning in government surveillance.”


Obama hides behind the fig leaf of cybersecurity when what he really wants is governmental powers to strip away all protections to Americans’ civil liberties and right to privacy, or if not “wants” then works to that end via the powers entrusted to NSA and FBI (regrettably, all but overshadowed by NSA), and that of other intelligence agencies as well as the alacrity with which he employs the Espionage Act. In reporting his Stanford address, the Guardian seems well ahead of the curve in recognizing the threat to privacy. Rushe, in the first of two articles, “Obama responds to hacks and Silicon Valley with ‘emerging cyber threat’ plan,” (Feb. 13), as a run-up to the address. “The White House,” he writes, “announced an executive order to encourage information-sharing between the private sector and the government ahead of [the Summit].” Stating in January that the Summit would bring together a wide assemblage of interested groups “to make sure that we work through these issues in a public, transparent fashion,” Obama underestimated how well others saw through him, Zuckerberg (Facebook), Page and Schmidt (Google), and Mayer (Yahoo) all “declin[ing] to attend, according to the companies.” The tech firms “are still smarting” from the Snowden revelations and “have clashed with Obama over their ability to publicly report on the government surveillance requests.”

Somehow innocuous labels make everything right. Obama’s plan: “The executive order encourages the development of ‘information sharing and analysis organizations’ (ISAOs) that will act as focal points for private sector companies to share information with each other and government….” And we have the White House’s assurance that there will be “’strong protections for privacy and civil liberties,’” because “agencies collaborating with ISAOs” will through “their senior agency officials” see to it.

Rushe’s second article, “White House warns tech world that Sony-style hacks ‘could become the norm,’” a beautiful scare-tactic to force companies into line with government dictates on surveillance, we see, with cybersecurity, the fig leaf become the Maginot Line–we are standing on the ramparts to protect all of us (using the Sony hacking to good effect): “’There’s only one way to defend America from these cyber threats, and that is government and industry working together—sharing information—as true partners.’” Yet, USG’s push “for partnerships on what it has dubbed the ‘defining challenge of the 21st century’ [whatever happened to terrorism?] has “triggered fresh concerns from privacy experts.” And well it might. (mine) Particularly since Obama, three days before, had Lisa Monaco, his “top counter-terrorism adviser,” announce “the creation of a new federal agency to oversee cybersecurity, the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center,” which would “coordinate intelligence from the FBI, NSA and other intelligence operations”—duplication in the intelligence community, I would query, or greater centralization at society’s expense? Gabe Rottman, ACLU’s legislative counsel, had similar concerns, “both the information-sharing proposal and the director of national intelligence overseeing multi-agency investigations that will predominantly concern the information of private citizens.” (Monaco told the Summit that we are at a “’transformational moment,’”—always the sucker punch for clamping down—and hence: “’The government and the private sector frankly have to work together. We’ve got to be in lock-step.’”

We might go back to Executive Order 13636 (Feb. 12, 2013) which authorized information-sharing, a Framework of Cybersecurity (“Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity”) that already contained the elements of last week’s Summit, i.e., a backdoor way of ensuring capture of the companies’ data holdings. But in one sense, the critics who see redundancy (or overkill) in the CTIIC , are right, for when a government sets out to undermine and make a mockery of privacy and civil liberties, legitimacy, more executive orders, more agencies, are not strictly necessary. Massive surveillance will do very well, thank you. For what are current practices but a cloak for internal subversion—for what else can one call the government’s spying on its own people? Here encryption becomes the unlikely battleground for the preservation of civil liberties, the purpose of the Conference, to break down encryption barriers.

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

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 pollackn@msu.edu.