Kick starting a movement against mass surveillance

Next week will see a public meeting in London discussing what we can do about the rise of mass government surveillance. Anthony Barnett outlines why this is a crucial issue, and why you should be there.

Glenn Greenwald, interviewed by Kirsty Wark/Taylormarsh.com

We are sleepwalking into despotism. Especially here in Britain. The fact of the nascent despotism is obvious. The UK state is developing systems of total surveillance to collect the metadata that maps the pattern of everyone’s relationships, movements, reading and communications. At the same time it is creating secret courts that will protect its use of these once unbelievable powers from legal challenge. The British state is not yet characterised by a modern, high-tech despotism. But undeniably this can happen and, equally undeniable, this is the direction the state is taking. The puzzle is not, therefore, whether we are so threatened but why, given that we are, there is so little alarm or objection. Why is the British public a country of sleepwalkers? What is the reason for our collective catalepsy?

For some years now Henry Porter has distinguished himself as a columnist in the Observer with his well-researched and persistent attempts to arouse the public to wake up to the threats to our liberty. Also as a novelist: The Dying Light (The Bell Ringers in the US) published four years ago is the first fictional account of government by drones and mass electronic surveillance. And also too as an audacious organiser, as I well know as his Co-Director of the Convention on Modern Liberty. Now, more or less single-handed, Porter has put together a public meeting this coming Monday, 4 November. As literary London will congratulate itself by awarding the Samuel Johnson prize in the great hall of the RIBA at 66 Portland Place, the spirit of Samuel Johnson will be with those of us below ground debating mass surveillance and supporting the editors of the Guardian and Der Spiegel as they discuss what they are exposing, why they are doing it, and how the authorities are seeking to stop them.

Join us.

The central purpose of the meeting is to start the fight back against the authorities’ attempt to close down the publication of the Edward Snowden revelations, and to do so before the attack on the Guardian, now being accused of ‘treason’, begins in earnest. Can the public be aroused to refuse submission to the surveillance state?

To achieve this the first step is to get our arguments clear and concise. How, for example, to best put the case set out with such force by Quentin Skinner in the final answer of his recent interview: that the very fact of possible surveillance itself takes away our liberty and creates self-censorship whether or not our privacy is in fact infringed. I was forced to focus on this at short notice when asked to go on the BBC’s Newsnight. The heart of the package was a gripping interview of Glen Greenwald by Kirsty Wark designed to expose him as an activist rather than an objective journalist. He emerged triumphant in a series of exchanges that have gone viral.

The experience taught me that the first line of defense of the security establishment is denial. As they see it, they do not indulge in the total reconnaissance of metadata, they are only collecting as much evidence as they can in order to identify and hunt down terrorists. Mass surveillance is just a means to this end. The innocent can relax. Their interest is only in the needle and not at all the haystack.

Speaking as part of the haystack I am willing to take their protestations of good faith at face value. I don’t think they are going about creating a Stasi state deliberately in order to identify and intimidate every single potential trouble-maker. What they do not countenance however is that this will be the consequence of their efforts. By surveying those who are not under suspicion they turn us all into suspects. Indeed innocence itself can become a liability (Why is this man not accessing pornography? Is he trying to make sure he can't be blackmailed? Better keep a close eye on him!)

It is essential to repeat and repeat again that the Snowden revelations are not about exposing how the authorities identify terrorists through the use of surveillance. No one is against focused and legally warranted tracking of criminals. What is being brought to light is the abuse of power by the agencies to spy on friends, manipulate opinion, pressure legitimate dissent and create a climate that makes us afraid even of our own private actions. 

Second, it is quite extraordinary how despite all the evidence, the British authorities presume their own integrity and rely on the public to trust them. Jenni Russell, in an exceptional piece behind Murdoch’s paywall in the Sunday Times, catalogued the recent corruption and failures of the forces of the state as they abuse their power to stitch up those who cross them or expose their incompetence. Once the capability is there it will be misused and the police cannot be trusted with it. As Duncan Campbell pointed out to a large audience in the Westminster establishment’s own think tank Chatham House,

The CIA director, Petraeus, was brought down by the FBI based on the detailed unearthing and mapping of yes, the metadata, the communications data records of who called whom from where and when that enabled them to chart the path of the relationship with his mistress, Paula Broadwell, to his humiliation and run him out of office. I don’t say that as to the purpose of it, but the capability was there and it came from Prism which is administered by the FBI.

If it can happen to him…

Nor is this danger limited to the abuse of power by officials. Snowden worked for Booz Allen, an enormous private corporation, part of a growing industrial-security complex that is recruiting from the secret services. It will seek to hollow out the security services to chase lucrative government revenue streams. Its loyalties will not be to public service and this process is, arguably, the most dangerous current threat to national security.

Why, then, the apparent complacency in the UK that more and more seems like a pathological lethargy? I’d suggest two reasons that undermine what can be called the moral self-confidence essential to a democratic society.

First, the British state in Westminster and Whitehall has subordinated itself to Washington. Paradoxically, its desire to remain an influential actor on the world stage has enslaved it mentally to the American system. Why did David Miliband when he was Foreign Secretary appear to cover up British complicity in torture? Because the revelations would have damaged the UK’s dependability in the eyes of the US – this was the definition of Britain’s ‘national security’. This embrace of and desire for American approval also runs deep across the media and is embedded in the ruling political culture. It has become a kind of disabling infantilism. When European leaders expressed fury at the US monitoring their phones and those of their aides David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband were silent. It was as if, secretly, they were thrilled at the idea that Uncle Sam would be listening in to them!

Second, we have seen an erosion of the old, informal constitutional culture and its belief in British institutions. Instead of being replaced by a democratic culture this has permitted a politics of liberty that has become grossly individualized. In a moving account of his passion for his chosen country, Tom Stoppard expressed his fears for its destiny in his recent speech accepting the PEN/Pinter prize. His list started with surveillance. But before that he described how he had been inspired by Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between ‘positive freedom’, where the state provides your necessities, and the ‘negative freedom’ of individual autonomy and thinking for oneself. For Stoppard, 'negative freedom' was the acme of liberty. Liberty, however, cannot be grounded on the absence of restraint. As Skinner has argued in his brief and devestating if diplomatic polemic with Berlin, Liberty before Liberalism, freedom is shared: the loss of another’s liberty is a threat to mine. This is not collectivism, but nor is it the market freedom of negativity.

While the negative freedom that is lauded in official British culture can thrive without a constitutional framework, the shared self-belief now needed to tame and contain the surveillance state demands a basic law, so that when we make our claims against the state we can do so in the name of our country.

In the late 1980s this argument first broke cover with Charter 88 and helped energise a Labour Party that now seems numb to the point of catatonia on these issues. The call was summed up by the slogan that we should become citizens instead of being subjects. Today, we are moving in the opposite direction - and are turning from being subjects into suspects. This humiliating form of subordination is hard to resist, however, if you do not have any means to make a claim on the state in the form of the sovereignty of ‘We, the people’. In Britain, we are subjects of a sovereignty - trapped by not having a constitution we can call our own. Now the trap is being digitalized into electronic custody.

This is why the Guardian’s stalwart publication of the Snowden revelations thanks to Glenn Greewald is a huge democratic service. We need to think through what we are learning, assess where we go from here and above all defend those who have printed and posted them. Monday evening is a rare chance to hear editors and others reflect on their case and its consequences. If you can, come along, and tell others to as well.

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About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy