Combatting Surveillance Capitalism: An Orwellian Lesson in History from Ford to Google

Close scrutinization of the daily lives of workers has always played an important role in enabling capitalists to squeeze greater profits from their workforce. The relentless surveillance of employees, whether it be on the factory floor or in the workers’ homes, was something that the anti-Semitic industrialist, Henry Ford, was proud to have honed to a fine managerial art. This history is well-established. In fact, the website of the Henry Ford Museum boasts that a central part of the Ford Motor Company’s much vaunted $5 per day profit-sharing plan, which was rolled out in 1914, was that Ford “opened up the most intimate and personal details of employee’s personal, family, and financial life to investigators from the [Ford] Sociological Department.”

History, however, demonstrates that surveillance (in this case of a paternalistic variety) ultimately failed in its objective to pacify the workforce. Ford workers responded by becoming better organised. This in turn led the Ford managers to create something called the Service Department – a body which effectively served as an anti-union paramilitary arm of the Ford Motor Company. Hence especially during the mighty upsurge of trade union militancy in the 1930s, highly developed forms of espionage and violence were systematically deployed by Ford’s private army against any workers who strived to democratise their workplaces and their lives. The battle between workers and bosses continues to this day.

Professor Shoshana Zuboff’s shocking book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier (Profile Books, 2019) brings this history of corporate surveillance up-to-date, providing page after page of horrifying revelations concerning the depravity of contemporary capitalism. Most of all, however, her book codifies the dangerous shortcomings of petty-bourgeois intellectuals who rail only against selected aspects of working-class repression. So, while Zuboff’s hefty 700-page tome does shed light upon recent developments in how surveillance technologies are deployed against the working-class, she fails to provide a clear context for how these methods became institutionalised and, ultimately, how they are intrinsically linked to capitalism itself.

In charting the recent evolution of what she calls surveillance capitalism, Zuboff correctly focuses her anger upon the rise of corporate giants like Google and Facebook and their “ruthless expropriation” of behavioural surplus value which they scrape together from our online activities “for the purposes of shaping individual behaviour”. She explains:

“At its core, surveillance capitalism is parasitic and self-referential. It revives Karl Marx’s old image of capitalism as a vampire that feeds on labor, but with an unexpected turn. Instead of labor, surveillance capitalism feeds on every aspect of every human’s experience.” (p.9)

Yet Zuboff revives Marx’s theories not because she likes to engage with Marxist ideas, but precisely because she is adamant that the problem is not capitalism per se, but just its latest “rogue” iteration — surveillance capitalism. In grounding her fairy tale that “Capitalism evolves in response to the needs of people in a time and place” when it has only ever been responsive to the needs of capitalists — she repeatedly refers to the benign leadership of Henry Ford (1863-1947) as demonstrating how far things have gone wrong since his glory days of managerial insight. Zuboff would do well to read some books about Ford’s toxic legacy.

According to Zuboff’s belief in good and bad forms of capitalism, its latest form, surveillance capitalism, evokes for her the bad old times of the late-nineteenth-century when robber barons “defended their new capitalism from democracy at any cost.” She even furnishes a definition of industrial capitalism (the bad type that she says was dominated by robber barons) as a system “driven by its own inner logic of accumulation” and “profit maximization”. How this differs from other forms of capitalism is unclear.

To give her some credit, Zuboff appreciates that major reforms under capitalism were won by ordinary workers. Thus, she explains how significant reforms were attained when “we once withdrew agreement to the antisocial and antidemocratic practices of raw industrial capitalism, righting the balance of power between employers and workers by recognizing workers’ rights to collective bargaining and outlawing child labor, hazardous working conditions, excessive hours, and so on.”

But contrary to Zuboff’s claims, the move away from a bad industrial capitalism to an enlightened Ford-era form of capitalism is a myth, especially when we consider capitalism’s never-ceasing depredations against workers on a global scale. Instead the international battle for workers’ rights has always been a work in progress; a battle that has been opposed with great ferocity by all capitalists, whether their methods be the blunt ones wielded by early robber barons, or those anti-democratic techniques that were sharpened by the likes of Ford and further honed today by Google and Facebook today. Zuboff’s petty-bourgeois rendering of politics consequently leads to her mistaken conclusion that to secure a more democratic future workers must simply limit their demands for a nicer capitalism. However, reverting back to the days of Henry Ford style capitalism will, we can be sure, provide no meaningful solutions for the working-class.

What is clear is that the priorities of surveillance capitalists, like all capitalists before them, stand in direct contradiction to issues of equality or democracy; making them more democratic is not a solution, what is necessary is abolishing their entire system of oppression! Here, even Zuboff furnishes an intriguing example of how capitalist greed always trumps human need, when she highlights how Facebook has enabled advertisers to reach out to demographic audiences who were interested in questions like “how to burn Jews”. Similarly, she explains how Google has let advertisers actively seek profits from racists who have previously searched online for terms like “evil jew” and “Jewish control of banks.”

These reactionary and now profitable themes for Facebook and Google were of course first popularised in the 1920s by Henry Ford, a certain historical irony that Zuboff remains blissfully ignorant of. Yet in the same way that Zuboff ignores Ford’s commitment to both the growth of the Nazi state and to the corporate surveillance of employees, she shows the same errant disregard for the long and sordid history of state surveillance of the American public, activities which were at every step carried out in close cooperation with corporate elites.

Flowing from her petty-bourgeois perspective, Zuboff states that it was only after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 that the relationship between corporations, like Google, and public intelligence agencies truly blossomed in “the heat of emergency”. For example, she introduces the “CIA-funded” venture capitalist firm, In-Q-Tel, as “an agency experiment” that was established in 1999, before explaining that it was only in the wake of 9/11 that it “became a critical source of new capabilities and relationships, including with Google.” Zuboff refers to this relationship as surveillance exceptionalism, and thereby neglects the entire history of collaboration that existed between the state and corporate powerbrokers.

Another way in which Zuboff undertakes her own surveillance subterfuge becomes evident during her discussion of the findings of the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, a historic investigation that was launched in 1971 by Senator Sam Ervin. Herein Zuboff concludes that as a result of this investigation “US society mobilized to resist, regulate, and control the means of behavioural modification” as an “extension of state power.” What remains unmentioned by Zuboff is that this investigation did not just limit itself to examining the dangers of behavioural modification techniques, but specifically scrutinized the government’s abuse of computer surveillance, especially when directed against progressive activists and trade unionists.

In a significant oversight she fails to mention that the first day of the Senate hearings was titled “Federal Data Banks, Computers, and the Bill of Rights.” This section of the investigation unearthed the sprawling edifice of the military’s computerized domestic surveillance apparatus – which, by 1970, had already amassed 25 million files on individuals. Furthermore, contrary to Zuboff’s wrong conclusion about the positive outcome of the Senate investigation, proof that this gigantic surveillance system was actually resisted and regulated has never eventuated, and the only Bill that was introduced to bring an end to domestic military surveillance never made it past its first reading. (It is also notable that this mammoth surveillance controversy was quickly dropped off the corporate news agenda when Senator Ervin went on to serve as the chair of the Senate Watergate Committee.)

Zuboff then engages in another colossal feat of misdirection when instead of discussing Senator Ervin’s surveillance investigations she focuses on only the more lurid tales of the CIA’s behaviour modification experiments. These dark experiments included the CIA’s secretive MKULTRA project which they dedicated to exploring the realms of “mind control.” In addition to this omission, Zuboff then draws attention to the “1975 Senate investigation of covert CIA Foreign and Military Intelligence operations” which is better known as the Church Committee but does not discuss their relevant findings. This fleeting mention is again revealing, because although Watergate’s revelations are well-known in public mythology, the findings of the Church Committee were far more devastating in documenting the anti-democratic surveillance operations of the American government as exemplified by those activities undertaken through the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO).

In choosing to ignore the surveillance-related findings of the Church Committee, Zuboff thereby colludes with the state in shielding her readers from comprehending the long and repressive history of the US government — engaging in what can only be interpreted as a process of historical “rendition” (a term she coins in her own book). Discussing these historic precedents would have been particularly relevant to contextualising Zuboff’s later revelation that American law enforcement agencies are now buying-in the services of private surveillance companies: using companies like Geofeedia which “specializes in detailed location tracking of activists and protestors, such as Greenpeace members or union organizers, and the computation of individualized ‘threat scores’ using data drawn from social media.”

It must be emphasized that during the 1960s and 1970s, surveillance twinned with violent state repression of activists — including assassinations (like that of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton) — were a vital tool in the ruling-classes heightened class war against democracy. While unwilling to locate such repression in her own exposition on the rise of surveillance capitalism, Zuboff does at least acknowledge how the neoliberal creed that evolved during this era, which she says fed into the consolidation of surveillance capitalism, had “been prosecuted in the name of defeating the supposed collectivist hazards of ‘too much democracy.’” Here, on this central issue of capitalist classes aversion to “too much democracy” Zuboff refers to the Trilateral Commission’s 1975 report “The Crisis of Democracy” an anti-democratic publication whose creation was born from the elitist orientation of this think-tank’s creators and financiers, of which one leading funder was the Ford Foundation.

Harking back to Henry Ford, the Ford Foundation, which was established in 1936 by Ford’s son, is a famous ruling class philanthropic endeavour which has maintained a long history of promoting imperialist projects in coordination with the CIA, while working domestically to undermine and co-opt working-class movements for progressive social change. For example, the Foundation played a key role in attempts to deradicalize the civil rights movement, a theme that continues to the present through its ongoing interventions into the Black Lives Matter movement. So, it makes sense that in addition to funding elite governance projects like the Trilateral Commission, the Ford Foundation has been at the forefront of creating and funding the type of liberal non-profit organizations which have been active in exposing some of the excesses of state and corporate-sponsored surveillance. In this regard the most significant project that Ford has helped fund in recent years has been The Tor Project, an anti-surveillance initiative whose other most generous benefactor to date has been the US government.

The Tor Project is well-known among revolutionary socialists as providing a simple means of encrypting internal communications, thereby safeguarding organizations and activists from the prying eyes of surveillance capitalists and state intelligence agencies who would otherwise log all their phone calls, emails, and much more beside. As an aside, the US government’s own interest in Tor — whose initial protocols were developed by the military — owes to Tor’s ability to cloak the own online activities of their own intelligence agents. Although critically the government recognises that such agents are only able to hide on the dark web if enough ordinary members of the public are also using Tor. Either way, the fact that Tor has its roots within the American intelligence community does not negate its utility to activists. But this history does illustrate the urgent need for dissidents and privacy activists to find ways of funding and coordinating their anti-surveillance efforts in ways that are delinked from elite funding networks.

Zuboff, of course not being overly concerned by any political need for secrecy — and why would she — is for the most part dismissive of the protective value of anti-surveillance technologies, and so they barely get a mention in her book. Encryption and other privacy tools, she writes, “may be effective in discrete situations, but they leave the opposing facts intact, acknowledging their persistence and thus paradoxically contributing to their legitimacy.” Although arguably she should have introduced her readers to Tor, her statement is correct. As what Zuboff is highlighting are the major shortcomings of the well-funded activism of petty-bourgeois anti-surveillance activists, many of whom ultimately end up lending legitimacy to the surveillance state.

Part and parcel of these legitimation problems can be seen by the uncritical relationships (funding and otherwise) that many privacy activists maintain with not just capitalist philanthropists (like Ford) but also with the surveillance capitalists themselves. Thus Zuboff explains that on the one hand corporations like Google are happy to fund far-right lobbying groups that are better associated with the Koch brothers, like the American Legislative Exchange Council (as outlined in the 2012 report “The Googlization of the Far Right”), while pointing out, that at the same time…

“…a list of Google Policy Fellows for 2014 included individuals from a range of non-profit organizations whom one would expect to be leading the fight against the corporation’s concentrations of information and power, including the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Future of Privacy Forum, the National Consumers League, the Citizen Lab, and the Associacion por los Derechos Civiles.” (p.126)

Finally, in concluding her book, Zuboff dwells upon the words of George Orwell, quoting from his scathing review of James Burnham’s 1940 bestseller, The Managerial Revolution. This book was famously written by Burnham, a former Trotskyist leader turned-reactionary, and as Orwell surmised, the authors rejection of socialist politics led him to celebrate a future where the new managerial rulers “will eliminate the old capitalist class, crush the working class, and so organize society that all power and economic privilege remain in their own hands.”

Continuing a trend that impregnates her own book, Zuboff is apparently happy to ignore the relevant context for Burnham’s sharp political reorientation that led him to pen his best-selling ode to elitism. So in her hands Orwell’s essay is simply used to illustrate the truism that conservative intellectuals who are “in the worship of power” (like Burnham) are unwilling and incapable of envisaging future scenarios that depart from existing trends. This leads her to conclude that “Burnham’s cowardice is a cautionary tale” and that “Orwell’s courage demands that we refuse to cede the future to illegitimate power.”

This is true. But there are other important lessons that should be gleaned from Orwell’s critical review that are not highlighted by in Zuboff’s conclusion. The first is that Orwell’s courage owed everything to his socialist faith in the ability of the working-class to fight to overcome all forms of authoritarianism. The second is that Burnham’s embrace of the ruling-class’ anti-democratic ideas (including Nazism and Stalinism) made him exactly the type of intellectual who would go on to help develop America’s developing surveillance state, which he did through his work with the CIA. And one final lesson or cautionary tale that can be learnt from Burnham, which Zuboff clearly has not learned, relates to the dangers that come from the embrace of petty-bourgeois politics as an alternative to revolutionary socialism… themes that are developed in respect to Burnham and his elitist fellow travellers in Leon Trotsky’s important book In Defence of Marxism.


Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017).