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Edward Snowden’s Redistribution of Political Power

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If knowledge is power, as Thomas Hobbes wrote in his political classic Leviathan, then the opposite should hold as well – that is, ‘not knowledge,’ aka ignorance, amounts to ‘not power,’ or weakness. And, if this is the case, the barrier between these (knowledge/power and ignorance/weakness) would seem to be: the secret.

To be sure, knowledge and political power have been intertwined with secrets since well before the Hittites not only learned how to manufacture iron weaponry (nearly four thousand years ago), but learned to guard the formula as something akin to a state secret as well. And just as this secret knowledge was key to the Hittites’ political power in the Middle East in the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age, and was inextricable from the political and technological weakness of their rivals, so too are secrets inextricable from knowledge and political power today. As Elias Canetti put it in his Crowds and Power, “Secrecy lies at the very core of power.”

But just who, these days, are secrets (state secrets, that is) being hidden from? Who, rendered ignorant and weak by such secrets, are being ruled? And who, in turn, are ruling with the power conferred by such secret knowledge? As Edward Snowden’s disclosures revealed, the secrets collected and maintained by the NSA and other agencies were not being used to monitor and control only political figures abroad and foreign states. Beyond the particular facts and acts of mass surveillance and deception, e.g., the PRISM and XKeyscore programs, Edward Snowden’s disclosures revealed that “the people” of the United States (people taught to believe both that their consent is what legitimizes and empowers the state, and that the national security state served their interests) were not the beneficiaries of national security so much as its targets.

Rather than any professed fidelity to the law, it is because Snowden’s disclosures of these secrets shifted a tremendous amount of political power away from the holders of these secrets, and toward “the little people” of the world (diffusing what had been concentrated), that Snowden is regarded by the state and business (i.e. capital), as well as by their barking minions, as an enemy and traitor; this is why billionaires like CIA accomplice Jeff Bezos and run-of-the-mill dupes alike are lining up to threaten and denounce Snowden. Indeed, Bezos’ Washington Post, which published Snowden’s disclosures three years ago (before the plutocrat purchased this powerful public opinion-shaping instrument), just published an editorial declaring that Snowden should not be pardoned by Obama, as many are currently arguing. No, says Bezos’ paper, among others, he should stand trial for his crime of exposing widespread abuses of power. None of this, of course, should come as much of a surprise. Snowden’s egalitarian corrosion of concentrated power (which has already spurred moves toward greater transparency in the national security state), has destabilized many institutions, leaving them still somewhat off balance (that is, weakened – and, predictably, vengeful).

How will “the little people” manage to shape this de-stabilized (i.e., still fluid) political, economic, and social reality? Will the first post-Snowden US presidential election, for instance, result in the election of Clinton or Trump (both of whom, in their own ways, promise only to advance the ecocidal and homicidal policies of the national security state)? Or will we deviate from this biophagous trajectory and develop a social world that isn’t based on exploitation, war, and terror? in which the well being of all is prioritized over the destructive excesses of the rich? As the status quo continues to kill, and continues to shed popular support, and egalitarian movements gain strength from Standing Rock to India, this remains undetermined.

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Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com and on twitter @elliot_sperber

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