Flickr/Frédéric Bisson. Some rights reserved
Snowden's disclosures about NSA surveillance, emerging in the midst of a continuing economic slump, have come at a particularly interesting time. The myth of America as the land of the free has in recent years been largely debunked by Guantanamo, rendition and the use of 'enhanced interrogation techniques' like water-boarding and stress positions. The fact that the NSA spies on everyone, everywhere is to be expected. Yet Snowden has achieved more than simply providing evidence for these acts. In sacrificing his own liberty for the sake of his fellow citizens, he has offered an alternative to the politics of fear and division encouraged by austerity.
As James Bamford's piece in The New York Review of Books notes, sales of Orwell's 1984 on Amazon increased by 6,021 per cent in a single day following Edward Snowden's recent NSA revelations. The parallels between our own ostensibly liberal, democratic societies and Oceania are stark; Orwell paints a vivid portrait of a certain kind of totalitarian state, where surveillance is ubiquitous and exhaustive, state leaders are irrationally revered and history is summarily revised.
Bamford is quick – eager perhaps – to point out that 'the US is not a totalitarian society.' Insofar as free and regular elections take place, this is true. The nature of totalitarianism, however, is not homogenous. China, lest it be forgotten, has elections. The crucial factor is the control exercised in limiting who can stand in these elections. In America, it is the vast expense involved in waging an election campaign that fulfils a similar purpose, restricting entry to the electoral process to the ultra rich. As a result, prospective presidential candidates are, depending on their party membership, either high flying lawyers or former fund managers. On the rare occasion that the Republican/Democrat duopoly is challenged, this challenge comes from the same corporate class, exemplified by candidates like billionaire businessman Ross Perot.
Whilst there are no explicit legal frameworks that dictate who can stand, the vast material wealth needed to finance a bid ensures that a certain kind of candidate is ensured to prevail. The consequence, unsurprisingly, is a plethora of leaders entirely unresponsive to public will, intent on increasing the power of the state whilst rolling back its provision of services to citizens. It is no surprise to learn that there is a vast chasm between the policies supported by the majority of the population and the policies actually undertaken by consecutive American administrations. There is mass public support for a higher minimum wage, nationalised healthcare and greater union influence. Conversely, the wealthy see the deficit as the main problem; issues like unemployment and education are irrelevant distractions. Even a cursory look shows which group influences policy and which group is summarily ignored. Of course, this phenomenon isn't restricted to the US. Rather, it is a deliberate consequence of the system.
Witness the recent change in UK law that forces wrongly fired workers to pay a fee in order to make an employment tribunal claim. This is the first time fees have existed since the measures were introduced and it continues the worrying precedent that access to justice is dependent on wealth. This government has already forced through cuts to legal aid (the Bill was defeated 14 times in the House of Lords and eventually passed on a tied vote), so it is no real surprise to see these policies supported. Add in to the mix the fact that UK inequality – the highest in the West – now ranks alongside Nigeria and a clearer picture appears. That a National Front style van drove around ordering illegal immigrants to 'Go Home' as citizens were racially profiled on the tube in London is par for the course. These things are pretty shocking, but they speak volumes about the unresponsive nature of modern liberal democracies. The only viable alternative to the Coalition under our archaic electoral system is the comically named Labour party who no longer even feign opposition to the austerity agenda of cuts.
No matter that austerity has been repeatedly and extensively debunked. It is simply accepted as a necessity, despite the fact that it patently doesn't work as an economic policy. Populations across Europe, whenever they are given the opportunity to do so, consistently reject austerity as a policy, but it is enforced all the same, regardless of the human cost. The countries forced to swallow the austerity pill across Europe are now sicker than they were before. Youth unemployment in Spain is 56 per cent and a debilitating 64 per cent in Greece.
Last time I wrote on austerity, my opposition to it was primarily moral; how could it be fair to punish the most vulnerable in society to recover from a crisis caused by the most wealthy and powerful? Now that it is objectively clear that austerity isn't working, it seems more and more evident that this is precisely the point of the programme.
For the first time on record, people have become less sympathetic during a time of recession. The insistent demonisation of those on benefits as scroungers, the contrasting view of workers as strivers, the steadily increasing acceptance of xenophobic views: all of these factors have helped coarsen the attitudes of the electorate. Mixed in with the fear brought about by austerity and the cuts, it is no surprise that people become more self-interested, fearful that their job – if they even have one - is the next to be demolished.
It is at this point that Snowden re-emerges. He is problematic for the state, for his actions are selfless, where self-interest is seen to be the only course. As much as the corporate media and politicians like to accuse him of 'defecting' to Russia, of leaking state secrets to Chinese agents in Hong Kong, the fact remains that he acted out of a love of country, not through any ulterior motive. Snowden is dangerous because, in a climate where we are told to be grateful for zero hour contracts, he left his well-paid job and his family for the sake of his fellow citizens.
The reason it is anathema to refer to Snowden as a whistleblower is the same reason that it is seen as an impossibility for US officials to denounce the recent Egyptian coup as a coup. To do so, in both cases, accepts wrongdoing. To accept wrongdoing, whilst funnelling guns to a military junta and spying on your citizens, is to accept complicity. As a leaker, a dissident, or a traitor, Snowden is an enemy of the state, but more importantly, he can be portrayed as a man motivated by self-interest.
The media can incessantly point out the irony of Snowden seeking refuge in Russia as much as they like. The fact remains that Snowden will have been aware of the Manning trial, aware that he was forced to sleep naked without pillows or sheets in solitary confinement, aware that his treatment, according to the UN, was cruel, inhuman and degrading. No rational person would submit themselves to that kind of treatment; the claims that Snowden should return to America to face 'justice' are laughable.
Patriotism, in the lexicon of power, means submitting unquestioningly to the authority of the state. It's the reason fallen servicemen are 'heroes' not 'victims', the reason that a nation is a democracy if it is 'run by the business classes'. By effectively sacrificing his life for the simple reason that he believes the American people have the right to know of their oppression, Snowden sets a dangerous precedent, redefining the nature of patriotism and offering a valiant alternative to the individualistic mindset perpetrated by austerity politics.