The Answer to Surveillance: No Fear, No Contempt


There is a remarkable scene in Laura Poitras’ film Citizenfour, her prize-winning documentary on whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

In the film, Poitras, the investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, and the defense and intelligence correspondent of the British newspaper The Guardian, Ewen MacAskill, are all three in a Hong Kong hotel room with Snowden in the beginning of June 2013. This trio is there to meet and interview the man who will reveal, in detail, the unparalleled global surveillance carried out by the National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States.

At a moment that demands secure use of a laptop, the young American computer analyst puts a special hood over the machine in front of him. Greenwald observes the scene with the interest of a lawyer-turned-journalist, a trained litigator who is habituated to the toughness of the world. While Snowden dips under his shroud to prevent prying observers from seeing the keys he is tapping on his lap-top, Poitras’ camera captures the look in Greenwald’s face. He is near the hotel-room window, and his penetrating, scrutinizing eyes suddenly shift, uneasily and fearfully, from side to side. Greenwald is astounded that Snowden most assuredly knows that in almost any room in the world everything can be seen.

Greenwald is clearly thinking something like this: “Holy shit! This guy is for real. He’s going under that hood to type his keys because he knows that we could very well be observed right now, from above, from below, from outside the window, from inside the room.” What the viewer of the film perceives in the lawyer’s face is an acute sense, presumably new even to him, that in the world of surveillance there is no such thing as a private place. Hence the title of Greenwald’s 2014 book – No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State.

Of course, the United States government is the greatest snooper in the world for a series of fairly obvious reasons. The U.S. economy is still the largest in the world and as the premium world power since World War II, Washington has developed a National Security State of enormous proportions with more than 770 military bases world-wide and a whole series of special defense relationships with other states. The American IT sector is itself vast, while electronic technology of every kind represents the nerve network not only of the U.S.A. but also of every major power. Electronic espionage is an essential part of contemporary power politics, everywhere, but the United States also has a long history of spying on its own citizens and that was especially true during the Cold War and the period since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Surveillance today is ubiquitous and characteristic of the modern state structure wherever it exists, in whatever guise: capitalist, communist, populist or liberal democratic. George Orwell’s novel 1984, published in 1949, paints the ultimate imaginative portrait of what a society of permanent surveillance would feel like, and the panic in Glenn Greenwald’s eyes in that Hong Kong hotel room in 2013 was clearly Orwellian. Surveillance is an intrinsic part of our lives because of the kinds of political states that we live in, and Orwell’s own experience offers insight about how modern state structures are organically connected to spying on citizenry.

Orwell himself had worked in the BBC during World War Two, and he indicated that the atmosphere of a state broadcasting system was one of the key sources he drew upon to write his book. There was also a realization among dissident Marxists in the late 1930s that communism and capitalism were increasingly coming to resemble each other as forms of bureaucratic organization run by a managerial elite. The 1939 book by the Italian writer Bruno Rizzi, The Bureaucratization of the World, popularized this idea that had its roots in the sociology of Max Weber. The modern mass state, argued Weber at the beginning of the twentieth century, is based on the rational organization of resources and people, and such a state is characterized by a structure that is hierarchical, bureaucratic, and oligarchical.

In the capitalist countries of the twenty-first century, this organizational evolution shows itself both in state structures and in the large global corporations with their governing oligarchies of corporate managers. Furthermore, the heightened financialization of the last few decades enables an almost undreamt of concentration of power.

At the same time, in statist, collectivist societies, the economic and political oligarchies are institutionally fused together – and that is why state communists can so easily become capitalists, as they merrily did in Russia and elsewhere after 1989.

Against this grim prospect of universal totalitarianisms, both private and public, there are also significant global countervailing movements at work: social protests, human rights organizations, radical upsurges from below, egalitarian initiatives based on gender, ethnicity and class. Even political parties can show real vitality, since it is impossible for corporate and bureaucratic elites to maintain the innovative energy that is needed to sustain a mass society without real feedback from a lively and diverse civil society. But these healthy impulses do not set the agenda of the prevailing social order.

In 2015 there have been all kinds of respected voices warning us that we are now living in an undemocratic world. On Tuesday July 28, in a radio conversation with nationally syndicated Thom Hartmann, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter did not mince words about the United States today:

Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. And the same thing applies to governors and U.S. senators and congress members. So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favours for themselves after the election’s over.

Carter’s words remind us that oligarchy is just what that ancient Greek word means – rule by the few. Obviously, the mass of people in this kind of society is excluded from power; they are an alien crowd of lifeless subjects. They are truly other. Yet their vitality, their work, their minds are needed, so on-going monitoring is necessary. Behind the perpetual surveillance of the state and of massive corporations lies an enormous fear of the citizenry felt by the reigning oligarchs, and one of the keys to this attitude of the 21st century ruling classes is their deep contempt for the people below them.

There is a distinct odour of ancient Rome clinging to the world as it now exists, with the perpetual sportive amusements proffered to the populace, the manipulation of the crowd, the suffocating weight of militarized states and police. And the disdain of those who rule from above is palpable. Funnily enough, perhaps the best evocation of the feeling of our ruling classes comes not from contemporary writing, but from the beginning of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when the Roman tribune, Marullus, berates the working-class crowd because they have switched their affections from one oligarch – Pompey – to another, Julius Caesar himself. Marullus shouts at the cobblers and labourers in the first scene of the play: “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!” He accuses the people of being unfeeling, precisely because their sentiments have changed in ways unsatisfactory to him, and he wants to mold them to his will. He hates them but cannot do without them.

Citizens today are exactly these kinds of “things,” and in the global world, much as in Shakespeare’s play, their activity is both needed and feared. For that very reason, people in a modern state are incessantly observed, monitored, polled, checked, consulted and controlled. Digital electronics, like the financialization of capital markets, only intensifies the ability to collate and enumerate.

Metadata of every conceivable kind is the name of the surveillance game. And the driving instinct is fear – the permanent fear on the part of those above that is felt for those below, mirrored by the fear projected by those below towards those that they perceive, or can be made to perceive, as other. The rhetoric of public life is populist and the tone contemptuous. Because the various classes share the prevailing resentment, it is perfectly possible for a billionaire in the United States to run for President by deliberately insulting as many groups as possible, while always pretending, of course, that he speaks for the little man.

The key to surveillance is fear and contempt. For that very reason, Poitras, Greenwald, and Snowden are exemplary because they are so courageous in their actions. The films of Laura Poitras have been about difficult and dangerous subjects such as the war in Iraq; her documentaries have physically and politically put her at great risk. Greenwald lives with his male partner in Brazil, while at the same time carrying out a kind of counter-monitoring of the U.S and other governments. Snowden, in his Russian exile, is paying a very high price for alerting the world to covert, illicit information gathering. What all three Americans share is a common belief in civil rights and democratic liberties.

Political movements in the 21st century, I believe, will have to follow in their footsteps in order to deconstruct the prevailing totalitarianism of market and state. That means reconsidering many of the dominant ideas of the last 200 years – a tall order. But the “surveillance state” also teaches us, strangely enough, about the emotional impulses that we must not succumb to: fear and contempt.

The antidote to fear is the spiritual courage of the Poitras-Greenwald-Snowden variety: an open commitment to transparency and truth.

To avoid contempt in its many forms is equally important, because surveillance is based on contempt, and total surveillance equals total contempt. A clue to what is needed, I believe, appears in the beautiful essay written by the French philosopher Simone Weil at the start of World War II– The Iliad or a poem of Force. Weil’s commentary begins by saying that the real protagonist of Homer’s epic is the overwhelming power of force itself and the role it plays in human affairs: “Force is that which makes a thing out of whomever is subject to it. When taken to its limit, it makes a human being into a thing in the most literal sense because it turns him or her into a corpse [my translation].” The glory of The Iliad, according to Weil, is not that the poem is somehow exempt from or above force, but that the poetic vision is free of contempt: “Nothing that is precious, whether destined to perish or survive, is held in contempt; the misfortune of all is revealed without dissimulation or disdain; no man is placed above or below the shared condition of all human beings; everything that is destroyed is regretted and missed.”

What Weil admired in the ancient Greeks was the “spiritual power that allows one not to lie” – and their legacy, as she saw it, was “to not believe one is exempt from fate, to never admire force, to not hate enemies, and to not hold the unfortunate in contempt.” Her portrayal may have been idealized, but she wrote these remarks in 1939 just as fascism was leading so many millions to their deaths. If her psychology is right, then freeing oneself from contempt is all-important in the fight against fascist politics, and it is that very danger that we face yet again today.

Fortunately, countervailing movements are emerging in many different countries, frequently led by those under the age of 40. One very positive factor is that the younger generations in many countries show signs of being far more open to expressions of difference, and that openness is a major requirement for the building of political communities that can withstand the totalitarian pressures of the age in which we now live.

Finally, Edward Snowden and others are revealing the degree of global surveillance precisely so citizens may seek forms of community that are not closed and ossified. That search, of course, involves la force – the ever-present issue of power and its distribution.

But the degree of surveillance teaches us that we need to scrutinize what drives all this supervision: both the urges of those who control hierarchies outside of us, and the impulses within ourselves.

The surveillance state itself tells us part of what we need for the future.

No fear. No contempt.

Snowden’s first tweet