Responding to concern about PRISM and the issue of whether intelligence collaboration with the US enabled British agencies to circumvent legal restrictions, Foreign Secretary William Hague told us that “law-abiding citizens” have nothing to fear. Not only do I not wish to be the kind of person Hague thinks of as “law abiding”, more generally it is social movements that willfully break the law that are most likely to bring about change and to threaten established power and privilege. And it is just such movements, and their leaders, who are at risk from pervasive state surveillance of our communications.
The social democratic model of social change has it otherwise, of course. We line up obediently behind Miliband (or Obama, or Hollande) and, having persuaded enough of our fellow citizens to vote for a programme of progressive reform, our social-democrats then enact that very programme. That’s democracy. Except that it very rarely happens like that. What actually happens is that hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of ordinary men and women demonstrate, by their acts of lawbreaking, disobedience, even violence, that there are injustices up with which they will no longer put (I’m channelling James C. Scott here). Neither the US civil rights movement of the 1960s nor the Gezi Park protestors of today are willing just to wait for the next election and hope it all turns out right: rather they want to move the window of political possibility, to make some injustices impossible and to make some concessions inevitable. (And in our “post-democratic” age, the myriad lobbyists and corporate interests aren’t waiting either. Typically they are trying to box in all elected governments to programmes of neoliberal “structural reform”.)
So here’s the worry. Just as the FBI tried to discredit Martin Luther King, so government agencies, equipped with all the latest surveillance techniques, will attempt to damage lawbreakers in pursuit of social justice. There’s nothing new about this, just the tools to do so are far more powerful.
An eloquent community organizer? Which websites did he visit? Or, failing that, which websites did his close associates and family members visit?
An environmental activist? How come she was searching for guidance on mental health issues? Did she have an abortion? Do something that can be portrayed as less than green?
So it goes.
And once the sliming facts, the family secrets, the personal insecurities are discreetly put out there by a government agency, they can be deployed and recycled via sympathetic journalists and blogs and repeated ad nauseam on Facebook and Twitter.
And soon those who would stand up against injustice know about the price they might pay. Perhaps their employer is persuaded to let them go? Perhaps their children suffer in some way? (Remember, after 1968, the Stalinists restored order in Czechoslovakia not with overtly violent repression but mainly with “soft” threats of just this kind.) So people stay silent, conform, adapt to the facts of power. Meanwhile, on the other side, the lobbyists and corporate interests grind away at democratic politicians, with much less countervailing force.
This potential disabling of insubordination strikes me as the real worry here, rather than concerns about “privacy” in and of itself. I guess that’s unlikely to worry journalists like Joshua Micah Marshall who “basically identify with the country and the state” and think of the state as “something you fundamentally believe in, identify with, think is working on your behalf.” For such people, the struggle against injustice is – perhaps with “notably rare exceptions” – something in the past.