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

America’s democracy deficit

It is reasonable to expect the democratic mechanism — the vote — to produce results which reflect the aggregated will of the electorate. In the United States this goal is rarely achieved because of the majoritarian, winner-take-all system (plurality) commonly used therein. A system of proportion representation better captures the diversity of active political positions in a society. The United States, of course, has a plurality system, and one notable feature of this kind of voting system is its propensity to produce a two-party system. Such a system limits feasible voting strategies to choosing candidates from one of the two major parties. The United States today has a party system that can be characterized as a party duopoly. Moreover, this duopoly has degenerated to such a degree that America can be reasonably characterized as an inverted totalitarianism, an apolitical system in which policy outcomes reflect an elite consensus about what is to be accomplished. The demos typically lacks the capacity to use the democratic mechanism to alter policy. It merely provides a paper thin legitimacy to whatever government holds power.

Bearing the above in mind, consider the following data from the recent election:

  • The House Republicans now have 234 seats while House Democrats have 193. As of this moment, the Republican Party has a 41 seat edge over the Democratic Party.
  • The Republican Party tallied 53,822,442 votes in the recent House elections; the Democratic Party tallied 54,301,095 votes. The Democratic Party thus generated a 478,653 vote edge over the Republican Party.

The House was meant to be the people’s chamber…. Although candidates could seek only some House seats in the recent election and the results could change, I find it difficult to conclude that the next House will actually represent the will of the people in the government.

Food for thought

Food for thought

The political philosopher Andrew Levine recently addressed the nearly lifeless condition of democracy in America. The condition he discussed hardly affirms America’s self-identification as the world’s oldest, freest and most democratic country. Yet this sour claim resonates with the experience of many, and has real material and systemic causes which cannot be separated from the institutions which self-satisfied patriots affirm without thought or irony. These causes include a duopolistic party system with nearly unscalable entry barriers; the strongly anti-democratic features of the 1787 Constitution; the vast sums of money now spent on electoral campaigns, monies which mostly spring from the coffers of the better-off, the massive corporations and the obscenely rich oligarchs; the social, economic and political powers embedded within private institutions; and the enormous size, complexity and diversity of the American social system. These factors affect the quality of American democracy, as Levine points out:

Despite what students are told in civics classes (where they still exist) and what normative theories of democracy propose, democracy in America today has almost nothing to do with rational deliberation and debate, and very little to do with aggregating preferences or reconciling conflicting interests. It is about legitimating government of, by and for the corporate malefactors and Wall Street banksters who own Congress and the White House along with an obscenely large chunk of the nation’s wealth.

The Occupy movement has driven this point home, but it was widely appreciated long before Zuccotti Park entered the national consciousness. Why then is there no legitimation crisis here in the Land of the Free? The answer, in short, is that we hold competitive elections and, for the most part, abide by their results. Evidently, that suffices.

Thanks to centuries of struggle, we are all today at some level democrats, no matter how removed our political system is from anything like real democracy — rule by the demos, the popular masses (as distinct from economic and social elites). Democratic commitments run so deep that almost anything that smacks of real democracy becomes invested with extraordinary powers of legitimation.

This is why competitive elections have the power to legitimate even regimes like ours in which elites plainly do rule a disempowered ninety-nine percent plus of the population. Competitive elections embody a shard of what real democracy is supposed to be, and that evidently is good enough for us.

The United States of America — a land with a deep and intractable legitimation deficit (due to its democracy and accountability deficit) but no legitimation crisis to speak of, a country where the well-off and powerful fear the latent power of lesser people and where the relatively powerlessers have little input into the system which governs them. Common Americans mostly obey the laws made for them while meekly meeting the needs of their betters, a feature of the American system which affirms the status quo. The public face of this paradox will be on display this election year. One need only juxtapose presidential Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to sense the absurdity of this electoral contest, the completion of which will legally but not popularly legitimize the government thus elected. We have government with only barest consent of the governed.

This condition, ironically enough, may be compared to one which could be found in the various countries which composed the Warsaw Bloc prior to the Velvet Revolutions of the late 1980s. There one could find a depoliticized and seemingly cowed population, one which endured the policies and intrigues of an elite which they could not hold accountable in any way. Only a popular refusal to submit to authoritarian governance, when coupled to the dissolution of the Soviet imperial system, put these regimes into their well-deserved graves. Neither the Tea Party Movement, the two legacy parties, the Pentagon and the security-surveillance apparatus in general nor the coequal branches of the federal government embody the spirit of the American Revolution. That is, they are not agents of radical democratization. In the United States today, that honor today belongs to the Occupy Movement, for democracy in America can be found only when it is put into practice on the streets of its cities and towns.

As a matter of fact, the Tea Party Movement, the legacy parties, the security-surveillance apparatus and the coequal branches of the federal government are committed opponents of the democratization of the American political system.

The Congress keeps on sinking down

According to Rasmussen Reports:

Just six percent (6%) of Likely U.S. Voters now rate Congress’ performance as good or excellent, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. Last month, Congressional approval ratings fell to what was then a record low with eight percent (8%) who rated its performance good or excellent.

Sixty-one percent (61%) now think the national legislators are doing a poor job, a jump of nine points from a month ago.

The demos does not care much for each party:

Most voters don’t care much for the way either party is performing in the federal debt ceiling debate. The majority of voters are worried the final deal will raise taxes too much and won’t cut spending enough.

Only 11% of voters believe this Congress has passed any legislation that will significantly improve life in America. That ties the lowest ever finding in nearly five years of surveys, last reached in January 2009. Sixty-nine percent (69%) think Congress has not passed any legislation of this caliber, a six-point increase from June and the most negative assessment ever. Nineteen percent (19%) are not sure.

And:

With divided control of Congress, neither party’s voters are very happy. Eight percent (8%) of GOP voters give Congress positive marks, compared to five percent (5%) of Democrats and six percent (6%) of voters not affiliated with either of the major parties.

The report does not reveal a population without a distorted picture of Congressional politics (“Forty-five percent (45%) of voters trust Republicans more when it comes to handling economic issues, while 35% put more trust in Democrats.”), but it may present an omen of an upcoming electoral upheaval, albeit an electoral watershed that would pass through the Party Duopoly filter.

Capital’s iron fist

After reading the transcript of Obama’s 7.11.2011 Press Conference, I would normally feel the need to say something snarky about lesser-evil voting and the ‘pragmatic attitude’ which motivates the left to throw its lot in with the Democratic Party. But there is no reason to do that now. Obama has shown himself to be such a tool that only those leftwingers who refuse to see something so plain and obvious as him would continue to support him and his party.

I suppose we can be grateful for one thing. The Democratic Party, thanks to Obama’s brutal economic project, can no longer pretend to be the party for the rest of us. It today stands tall as capital’s naked iron fist. The Republicans should stand in awe of what Obama is now proposing, of what he wants to accomplish.

Paul Krugman spits into the wind

He wrote:

The past three years have been a disaster for most Western economies. The United States has mass long-term unemployment for the first time since the 1930s. Meanwhile, Europe’s single currency is coming apart at the seams. How did it all go so wrong?

Well, what I’ve been hearing with growing frequency from members of the policy elite — self-appointed wise men, officials, and pundits in good standing — is the claim that it’s mostly the public’s fault. The idea is that we got into this mess because voters wanted something for nothing, and weak-minded politicians catered to the electorate’s foolishness.

So this seems like a good time to point out that this blame-the-public view isn’t just self-serving, it’s dead wrong.

The fact is that what we’re experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. The policies that got us into this mess weren’t responses to public demand. They were, with few exceptions, policies championed by small groups of influential people — in many cases, the same people now lecturing the rest of us on the need to get serious. And by trying to shift the blame to the general populace, elites are ducking some much-needed reflection on their own catastrophic mistakes.

Of course, one perk the elite enjoy is their status and powers enable them to avoid taking responsibility for or being held accountable for their mistakes. This accountability deficit also produces problems:

Why should we be concerned about the effort to shift the blame for bad policies onto the general public?

One answer is simple accountability. People who advocated budget-busting policies during the Bush years shouldn’t be allowed to pass themselves off as deficit hawks; people who praised Ireland as a role model shouldn’t be giving lectures on responsible government.

But the larger answer, I’d argue, is that by making up stories about our current predicament that absolve the people who put us here there, we cut off any chance to learn from the crisis. We need to place the blame where it belongs, to chasten our policy elites. Otherwise, they’ll do even more damage in the years ahead.

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