Chomsky on state power, domestic surveillance and ‘national’ security

Writing for In These Times, Noam Chomsky offered the following observations about the kind of security sought by the security-surveillance state:

In an interview on German TV, Edward J. Snowden said that his “breaking point” was “seeing Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, directly lie under oath to Congress” by denying the existence of a domestic spying program conducted by the National Security Agency.

Snowden elaborated that “The public had a right to know about these programs. The public had a right to know that which the government is doing in its name, and that which the government is doing against the public.”

The same could be justly said by Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and other courageous figures who acted on the same democratic principle.

The government stance is quite different: The public doesn’t have the right to know because security thus is undermined — severely so, as officials assert.

There are several good reasons to be skeptical about such a response. The first is that it’s almost completely predictable: When a government’s act is exposed, the government reflexively pleads security. The predictable response therefore carries little information.

A second reason for skepticism is the nature of the evidence presented. International relations scholar John Mearsheimer writes that “The Obama administration, not surprisingly, initially claimed that the NSA’s spying played a key role in thwarting 54 terrorist plots against the United States, implying it violated the Fourth Amendment for good reason.

“This was a lie, however. Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA director, eventually admitted to Congress that he could claim only one success, and that involved catching a Somali immigrant and three cohorts living in San Diego who had sent $8,500 to a terrorist group in Somalia.”

A similar conclusion was reached by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, established by the government to investigate the NSA programs and therefore granted extensive access to classified materials and to security officials. There is, of course, a sense in which security is threatened by public awareness — namely, security of state power from exposure.

The basic insight was expressed well by the Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington: “The architects of power in the United States must create a force that can be felt but not seen. Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate.”

Indeed, power does decay when made public, and we may recall here that Huntington was a leading figure of the excess of democracy movement (1970s) which sought to rehabilitate and secure state authority after federal institutions had weathered poorly the many political crises of the 1960s. American democracy was thought to be a burden for those governing America, according to these analysts. The governors could not govern if the governed refused to affirm governmental power. Today, on the other hand, the ‘excesses’ of an energetic civil society do not trouble much America’s national political institutions. The latest crisis of American democracy has another cause:

Is there a new crisis of democracy? Certainly, the American public seems to think so. Anger with politicians and institutions of government is much greater than it was in 1975. According to American National Election Studies polls, in 1964, 76 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “You can trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time.” By the late 1970s, that number had dropped to the high 40s. In 2008, it was 30 percent. In January 2010, it had fallen to 19 percent.

With trust goes authority. When trust is lacking, when citizens no longer believe their representatives, the wielders of power necessarily find themselves placed on a slippery slope with illegitimacy sitting at the bottom of the plane. If the American democracy is now in crisis, this crisis would have little or nothing to do with democratization efforts originating from below. The crisis is not a by-product of the Tea Party or Occupy movements. Nor has it issued from anti-system tendencies within the duopoly parties or from an emerging anti-system party the existence of which effectively threatens the American political system as such. Rather, the crisis originates instead in the anti-democratic qualities which now define governmental institutions in the United States, qualities which elicit mistrust in the governed. The federal government is neither responsive nor responsible, neither accountable nor transparent. Its failures are many, sometimes obvious and often painful for its citizens as well as for others subject to its operations. It has earned the mistrust it enjoys, for it is more akin to an automaton than a place where citizens gather in order to govern themselves.

updated 3.11.2014

Work without Hope

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—

The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—

And Winter slumbering in the open air,

Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!

And I, the while, the sole unbusy thing,

Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

Yet well I ken the banks where Amaranths blow,

 

Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.

Bloom, O ye Amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,

For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!

With lips unbrighten’d, wreathless brow, I stroll:

And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?

Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,

And Hope without an object cannot live.

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge

War. What is it good for?

Benjamin Franklin once opined:

War begets Poverty,

Poverty Peace;

Peace makes Riches flow,

(Fate ne’er doth cease.)

Riches produce Pride,

Pride is War’s Ground;

War begets Poverty, &c.

The World goes round.

Nothing, as Edwin Starr told us long ago:

Quote of the day

John Stanton wrote:

The USA and European Union (EU) continue on their downward trajectory in the 14th year of 21st Century. The perpetual state of war against terror, drugs, immigrants, the press and whistle-blowers moves on uninhibited. Another war, this time named Austerity, is being waged by USA and EU leaders against the middle and lower classes. Youth are particularly hard hit with the average unemployment rate in the EU at 23 percent. In the USA the figure is 17 percent according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But never mind that.

Cutting benefits, or, rather, throwing people away, will reduce the unemployment rate and that’s good for the economy. Such is the mindset of the financier class as reflected in the comments of Joe LaVorgna, chief economist at Deutsch Bank. He noted that in the USA,  23 percent of the 1.5 million who are losing their unemployment benefits will simply exit the work force, and another 850,000, at the state level, would give up on trying to find employment. LaVorgna stated that the unemployment will drop to 6.7 percent. Yippie!

Stanton here seeming channels thoughts previously explored by Zygmunt Baumann and Loïc Wacquant. Bauman wrote (2003, p. 5) that:

The production of ‘human waste’, or more correctly wasted humans (the ‘excessive’ and ‘redundant’, that is population of those who either could not or were not wished to be recognized or allowed to stay) is an inevitable outcome of modernization, and an inescapable accompaniment of modernity. It is an inescapable side-effect of order building (each order casts some parts of the extant population as ‘out of place’, ‘unfit’ or ‘undesirable’) and economic progress (that cannot proceed without degrading and devaluating the previously effective modes of ‘making a living’ and therefore cannot but deprive their practitioners of their livelihood).

Wacquant wrote (2009, p. 303)

Punishing the Poor contends that it is not the generic “risks and anxieties” of “the open, porous, mobile society of strangers that is late modernity” that have fostered retaliation against lower-class categories perceived as undeserving and deviant types seen as irrecuperable, but the specific social insecurity generated by the fragmentation of wage labor, the hardening of class divisions, the erosion of the established ethnoracial hierarchy guaranteeing an effective monopoly over collective honor to whites in the United States (and to nationals in the European Union). The sudden expansion and consensual exaltation of the penal state after the mid-1970s is not a culturally reactionary reading of “late modernity,’ but a ruling-class response aiming to redefine the perimeter and missions of Leviathan, so as to establish a new economic regime based on capital hypermobility and labor flexibility and to curb the social turmoil generated at the foot of the urban order by the public policies of market deregulation and social welfare retrenchment that are the core building blocks of neoliberalism.

The jobless poor, the masterless men and women who live in slums, basements, shelters, tent cities and, of course, on the streets of many cities, are fated to confront a bitter death as ‘freemen’ and ‘women’ or as prisoners within the vast prison apparatus that has grown these last 50 years. They are, however, artifacts produced by capital. As such, they also comprise signs that point to the barbarism of the age. The goal of our governors: To remove them from a shared everyday life and render to them faceless.

Quote of the day

The Guardian reports that:

The White House is stepping up pressure on Congress to approve emergency measures that would reinstate payments to more than 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans who saw their benefits cut three days after Christmas.

President Barack Obama’s chief internal economics adviser appeared on two Sunday talkshows to warn against failing to reintroduce payments for those who have been out of work for more than six months – while also indicating that the benefits programme could legitimately end when unemployment rates return to “normal”.

But, what if a 7% U-3 rate reflects a new norm? What if an austerity politics combines with long-term stagnation to produce a high-unemployment economy? Will America’s natural aristocrats move to secure the well-being of those Americans less fortunate than they are? Will they reinvigorate America’s welfare state?

I would not recommend holding one’s breath waiting for the aristocrats to move on this matter.

Quote of the day

This one comes from the word processor of the late Peter Mair:

The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.

The quoted passage can be found in the opening paragraph of Mair’s Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy. Although his book addresses this phenomenon as it can be found in the Western European democracies, I believe that one can successfully argue that the epitome of democratic elections without significance lies in the United States. The last election which posed candidates that were clear alternatives to each other: The 1972 contest between Richard Nixon and George McGovern. And Nixon wins any comparison made with Barack Obama! Democratic accountability, and therefore political legitimacy, always eludes America’s national politicians, especially presidential candidates and winners. Because of this lack of accountability, it would be accurate to claim that America’s political elite represent the federal state to civil society and to America’s citizens in general. The happy relationship has these politicians representing civil society and the citizenry at large in the state. The founders did not care much for the common folk; they thus refused to constitutionally secure the direction and telos of this relationship such that it promoted representative government.

Word

This has been said before, many times, in fact, but Zach Ward-Perkins and Joe Earle say it again because economists and their paymasters cannot learn from their past mistakes:

Every year thousands of economics graduates take jobs in the City, thinktanks and at the heart of government itself. Economics is highly technical and often mathematical, and this elevates economists to a position of expertise from which they mediate economic analysis to the British public. They are the guardians of our economy, charged with its upkeep, and they play an important role in shaping political narratives around economics. Yet British universities are producing economics graduates who are not fit for this purpose.

The financial crisis represents the ultimate failure of this education system and of the academic discipline as a whole. Economics education is dominated by neoclassical economics, which tries to understand the economy through modelling individual agents. Firms, consumers and politicians face clear choices under conditions of scarcity, and must allocate their resources in order to satisfy their preferences. Different agents meet through a market, where the mathematical formulae that characterise their behaviour interact to produce an “equilibrium”. The theory emphasises the need for micro-foundations, which is a technical term for basing your model of the whole economy on extrapolating from individual behaviour.

Economists using this mainstream economic theory failed to predict the crisis spectacularly. Even the Queen asked professors at LSE why nobody saw it coming. Now five years on, after a bank bailout costing hundreds of billions, unemployment peaking at 2.7 million and plummeting wages, economics syllabuses remain unchanged.

Catastrophes such as this are what one necessarily encounters when the mote remains in one’s eye.

Quote of the day

The issue recently addressed by Alfredo Lopez is net neutrality and the work some corporations perform which is meant to undermine this practice. Those corporations are mostly the largest providers of retail broadband services to end users — that is, to common consumers. They wish to impose a model of broadband provision which mimics the model they use when providing cable television access. In other words, cable providers want to charge consumers economic rents beyond the costs and profits they now earn when they provide simple and direct internet access. The issue at stake is not only a moral-economic one, for this profit-motivated attack on net neutrality entails the existence of a power to determine who sees what while surfing the internet, when they see it, how they see it and at what cost. It is no stretch at all to claim that some cable companies wish to become censors. This is the power they want the federal government to give them. Thus, Lopez asks:

Do you trust huge corporations to protect your access to all the information you need and want? Do you trust them to protect your ability to give everyone else access to information you want to spread?

The answer, unless you routinely purchase Brooklyn Bridge shares, is “no”. They can’t be trusted with the power over your right to communicate. They shouldn’t ever be trusted with that power. And the Constitution of this country makes clear that they aren’t trusted.

To be sure, the federal government was also considered an untrustworthy source of social-moral regulation, and thus Congress was prohibited from making any “…law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These rights were soon attacked by a fraction of the Founders. The federal government still threatens to undermine these rights. Today, as we know, the private powers, as found, for instance, in the possession of some corporations, are so massive that they dwarf the powers feared by the authors and ratifiers of the First Amendment. We should fear private power too.

Quote of the day

Andrew Levine characterized Congressional Democrats thusly:

In Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Jonathan Swift has his hero say of the inhabitants of Brobdingnag: “I cannot but conclude that the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.”

Gulliver might have used those words, just as appropriately, to describe House and Senate Democrats as they mobilize to support Barack Obama’s looming Syrian War.

Yes, indeed!

I would put a photo of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) here but she is no more of a problem for anti-imperialists than the rest of her kind. She is a problem, of course. We should be clear on that point.

Quote of the day

As the United States lunges into another reckless, foolish war, we may wish to notice that:

Regardless of the trigger mechanism, the [Obama] administration seems intent on pushing through Donald Rumsfeld’s old madcap blueprint for the Middle East, which involved toppling the governments of seven consecutive countries on the way to unchallenged dominion over Arab and Persian fossil fuels. Their eyes are on the prize. The rest is detail. It seems to make little difference to the Americans what becomes of Syria, only that Assad is overthrown, and the warlord that plants his flag atop the wreckage is hostile to Tehran and is willing to viciously put down any foolhardy bids for self-determination that might emerge from the populace. After all, the U.S. has left a trash bin of fallen monuments and blown infrastructures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. If the entire Arab world is a flaming midden whose only functional entities are oil derricks, what cause for concern is that to our imperial chieftains? Let the Islamists slaughter each other on the peripheries of the bonfire while we vacuum every ounce of natural gas and petroleum from the core of the earth. (One conjures visions of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, mocking his young evangelical rival and shouting, “I drink your milkshake!”)

Jason Hirthler, author of the above, continued by pointing out that America’s “Liberals stare blankly from the sidelines while their ‘lesser evil’ does another expert impression of the ‘greater evil’.” How much blood must their standard bearer shed before they break with him and the party duopoly which runs Uncle Sam’s empire? I would guess a lot of blood as long as they can put affordable gasoline in their cars.

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