The public debate over government surveillance that was, if not inaugurated, at least intensified by the publication of documents provided by Edward Snowden has been, in some respects, surreal and deluded. One side claims that the NSA’s mass surveillance is necessary to protect the public from terrorism, that in fact it has thwarted many “potential terrorist events.” The other side claims, with much more justification, that bulk data collection does little or nothing to protect ordinary civilians. But few commentators draw another, more subversive conclusion: government has no interest in protecting its citizens (as such) in the first place. In fact, its interest is precisely the opposite: to expose its citizens–with privileged exceptions–to harm.
Sounds absurd, of course. But consider, first, the recent historical record, which certainly does not support the idea that the U.S. government cares about protecting Americans. Exhibit 1 is the attacks of 9/11. It became a commonplace long ago for leftists and liberals to cite the White House memo of August 6, 2001 that bore the heading “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,” which was apparently ignored at the time by the Bush administration. Perhaps more damning is Lawrence Wright’s 2006 book The Looming Tower, which made it abundantly clear that the CIA and the FBI had not prioritized the fight against terrorism even after the 1993 Twin Tower bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. If one were malicious enough, one might attribute competence to government institutions rather than mere criminal bungling: perhaps the ridiculously counterproductive–from the perspective of thwarting terrorism–organization and efforts of the CIA and FBI before 9/11 were, by some twisted institutional logic, designed to make possible precisely what happened, a major terrorist event.
Another commonplace is the observation that George W. Bush’s Iraq war, far from mitigating terrorism, increased it substantially, perhaps sevenfold. This was predictable and predicted in 2003, a fact that, by elementary logic, means that the Bush administration at the very least was perfectly happy to expose American (and of course foreign) civilians to greater threats. The same logic applies to Obama’s global drone war, which apparently has killed 50 civilians for every 1 terrorist. Not surprisingly, it has fueled terrorism, and thus increased threats to Americans. (In fact, the drone campaign itself is terrorism, but here I am confining myself to the conventional American understanding of the word, as applying only to people that the U.S. government doesn’t like.)
One could go on listing such facts indefinitely. For instance, the sordid lesson to draw from the Hurricane Katrina debacle in 2005 is that protecting Americans from a natural disaster was not a priority of government at any level, at least not of the governments involved. The deplorable actions of police in the hurricane’s aftermath confirm this conclusion. The victims were treated as criminals, not people who needed and deserved protection.
In addition to ample historical evidence, one can also consider simple logic. Returning to the NSA’s mass surveillance, it shouldn’t be hard for government officials to comprehend that the more time and resources they devote to monitoring ordinary civilians, the less time and resources they are devoting to monitoring plausible terrorist threats. In fact, almost every major terrorist attack in the West during the past fifteen years has been committed by people who were already known to law enforcement. Such was the case, for instance, with regard to one of the brothers accused of the 2013 Boston marathon bombings. But the government, obligingly, was too busy spying on ordinary Americans to pay much attention to him, so he was able to carry out his attack unhindered.
But why, you ask, would it be in the interest of government to expose the public to harm? This question cannot be answered except in the context of specific historical circumstances, in this case the circumstances of neoliberal capitalism. In a society that is experiencing stratospheric income inequality, high unemployment and long-term economic stagnation, retrenchment of social welfare programs, the reality and threat of environmental collapse, and, in short, ever-greater social discontent and instability, institutional power-centers will want to increase their control over the population. As a proud plutocrat put it in a warning to his wealthy brethren, “the pitchforks are coming.” And the plutocrats, together with their government representatives, want to be prepared for that.
The question is how to justify the expansion of government’s surveillance and police powers that is necessary to keep the rabble in line. Clearly, pretexts are needed. And pretexts are provided whenever a terrorist attack occurs, especially if it occurs on American soil. This may be a virtual truism, but rarely is the implication articulated: in this respect, it is in the interest of government and the top “1%” in income/wealth for civilians periodically to be victims of terrorism. If the terrorist threat disappears, so does the useful pretext.
The “pretext” phenomenon has other dimensions. Naomi Klein discusses one of them in her famous book The Shock Doctrine, where she argues that in the last forty years, in the wake of catastrophes of whatever sort–natural, military, terrorist, economic–elites have taken advantage of popular disorientation and disorganization to force regimes of privatization upon the population. “Neoliberalism-by-blitzkrieg,” one might call it. A prime example is what happened to New Orleans after Katrina: with the public’s capacity to resist weakened, nearly all public schools were privatized. Under the pretext of education reform, “corporate profiteers and politicians have zeroed in on black communities, leaving behind devastation and destabilization,” says a spokesperson of a New Orleans community group.
So, for the neoliberal state-corporate nexus, the devastation of a particular society, including a domestic region, can be eminently useful not only in smashing popular resistance to power but also in giving elites an opportunity to ram through programs they could not have otherwise. Convenient pretexts can always be thought of.
On a more general level, the relevant principle has been stated concisely by Noam Chomsky: the primary enemy of any government is (the majority of) its own population. For the population always wants more power and economic security than it has, and it is willing to fight for it (as the history of the labor movement shows)–which entails, however, the relative diminution of the power of the rich and their political minions. This corollary explains, of course, the U.S. government’s continually savage treatment, through centuries, of workers, the lower classes, left-wing activists, African-Americans, protesters and dissidents and “ordinary people” of all kinds. They must be humiliated, harmed, killed, beaten down, made examples of if they step out of line, kept in a state of constant fear and obedience (however impossible it may be to fulfill that goal). Power exists but to maintain and expand itself; that is its raison d’être, and that is the key to understanding its every move (at the institutional, not the personal, level).
For example, if government is not always blatantly aggressive in harming its own population, that is not because it’s too moral to do so; it is because that might threaten its power, by stirring up more dissent. Concessions have to be made to the masses if in the long run they are to tolerate subordination. The appearance, and to some small extent even the reality, of protecting the population has to be maintained in order to appease the meddlesome outsiders.
None of this means that policymakers or bureaucrats or members of the “ruling class” necessarily have these intentions in mind when crafting policies or cracking down on dissent. Doubtless few are clear-headed enough. But the logic of the institutions in which they are embedded–the bureaucratic-expansionist, capitalistic, totalitarian, Panopticon-esque logic–manipulates their minds and, by some mysterious alchemy, is sublimated into rationalizations and pretexts that are usually sincerely believed in. It isn’t hard to come up with pretexts to do what is in one’s institutional self-interest. Humans are born to deceive themselves.
So, why not throw off all vestiges of sentimentalism about our rulers? Why not state the truth unequivocally: when a terrorist attack occurs, this is not a failure of government. It is a success; for now power-centers have another excuse to expand themselves, and to fear-monger, and to demonize the Other, and to make more profits from selling military and surveillance technology, and to clamp down ever more on the domestic population.
And when the police blindly brutalize innocent civilians or protesters, this is not a failure for government to correct. It is what the police are supposed to do, what they were designed to do and the main reason they exist in the first place. It is government acting intelligently, in its own interests and in the interests of its puppet-masters.
The population has to protect itself and stand up for itself, and fight for its freedom and power and security. Because the government certainly won’t.
Chris Wright is a doctoral candidate in U.S. labor history, and the author of Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States. His website is www.wrightswriting.com.”