Selling dictatorship

Liberal opinion has been outraged by the disclosures about US and UK electronic surveillance. Yet the most unpalatable revelation is that, in an unregulated capitalist economy, liberal democracy is always threatened with authoritarian regression.

Rod Jones
23 January 2014
Poster of Edward Snowden

Liberty's new poster boy: Edward Snowden, NSA whistleblower. Flickr / jsound. Some rights reserved.Anyone who has seen the film The Lives of Others, about life in the German Democratic Republic before the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, will be able to put in context the comparison by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, of the practices of the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US with those of the Stasi, the all-powerful secret police of the dictatorship in which she grew up.  What prompted the comparison were revelations by the American whistle-blower Edward Snowden about mass surveillance of mobile-phone calls and internet traffic in joint operations by the NSA and its UK counterpart, GCHQ. Merkel’s outburst is surely an instance of a politician speaking more truth than intended or advisable.

Liberal opinion in Britain has been rattled by these disclosures. Even as they spelled out the principles that must be re-established to oversee state surveillance—privacy, accountability, proportionality, transparency and an agreed framework of understanding—some journalists seemed to doubt this was possible, believing that somehow, because of what they had discovered, there was no going back. In `The days of believing spy chiefs who say “Trust us” are over’, the Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins struck a typically anxious note: ‘Expecting the west’s arcane democratic institutions to police the new digital power of the states is to build a sandcastle against a tank. Yet they are all we have. Parliamentarians who discover they have been deceived by the spies must howl blue murder as they are doing in America but not in Britain.’ One gets a clear sense here not only of betrayal but of the reluctance of politicians to do anything about it and the limited means of redress available to those who might be persuaded to take a stand.

The degree of political complacency in the UK is astonishing. When the chair of the Home Affairs Committee at Westminster, Keith Vaz, asked the Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, if he loved his country, we knew the game was up: the implication was that if you did love your country you would not be releasing all this classified information. When it comes to ‘national security’, politicians adopt a see-no-evil policy—trusting the security services to get on with it by not asking any awkward questions and always giving them the benefit of the doubt, especially in the circumstances of the ‘war on terror’. The parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee gave what was widely seen as a soft ride to the chiefs of MI5, MI6, and GCHQ when they recently appeared before it.

If it were to be admitted that GCHQ had not been out of control, as liberal opinion seemed to suppose, suspicion would then fall on the UK government that surveillance programmes like Prism and Tempora had been carried out at its behest and in full knowledge of what had taken place. Luckily, since neither the prime minister, David Cameron, nor the home secretary, Theresa May, have been hauled in front of the Home Affairs Committee or the ISC they have been spared the difficult decision to shop the security services or save their own skins—or own up to the whole affair. Since Cameron has conspicuously failed to put the boot into GCHQ, and given his deafening silence on the whole surveillance debacle, we can only assume that he was running the show all along.

Of course, the government claims that the UK security regime in this country is second to none, in terms of the legal safeguards for individuals from unwarranted intrusion by the security services. But since these only apply to content and not to metadata and since meta data now enable the security services to find out everything they need to know about individuals, these safeguards governing access to content are, effectively, redundant. Little wonder that the NSA likes working with the UK because it has such a ‘light-touch’ regime governing surveillance.

Inbuilt tendency

A Guardian editorial (December 21) argued that the NSA-GCHQ operation targeted the most unlikely individuals and organisations simply because they had the capacity to do so: ‘We are spying not because we need to or should but because we can.’ In the same way, the offer of virtually unlimited power to liberal-democratic regimes makes its use almost inevitable. As far back as 1944, Karl Polanyi recognised that since force and authoritarianism underpinned and prosecuted the liberal utopian vision it was destined to be frustrated by authoritarianism and even outright fascism. In other words, liberal democracies have an inbuilt tendency or disposition towards executive dominance and even dictatorship, because of the intrinsic and instrumental attractions of the exercise of power.

How is this being sold to us? First, through the paradox of security.

Its advocates argue that we must defeat our ‘enemies’ because they pose a threat to our way of life, externally and internally. Unfortunately, so the argument goes, we can only do this by depriving society of some of the freedoms we are pledged to defend—indeed, the greater the threat, the more extensive the freedoms which must be forfeited.  Plainly, for governments who would wish to exercise such power, the temptation to exaggerate or even fabricate threats and create a permanent state of emergency must be very great. So was the cold war everything that we thought it was? And when the Berlin wall came down in 1989 was it just a coincidence that it was quickly followed by the First Gulf War—opening chapter of the enduring ‘war on terror’?

Little wonder that the NSA likes working with the UK because it has such a ‘light-touch’ regime governing surveillance.

Secondly, this transition can be eased by the globalisation of capital, with its drive towards privatisation, deregulation of finance and refeudalisation of the commons. As inequality increases, means are required to order populations, as Toni Negri said in a speech ten years ago in Zürich, in an increasingly insistent and heavy manner. The dismantling of the welfare state requires a concomitant expansion of the security state—in law, in policing, and in the increasingly ‘disciplinary’ character of social policy.

Thirdly, it can be promoted through what Antonio Gramsci called ‘organic intellectuals’—those who articulate the interests of particular social classes—whose watchword is expediency. Their loyalty to the bourgeois order is never in doubt because they will always accommodate themselves to the most repressive of new circumstances, projected as a lesser evil, on the understanding that to do otherwise would be nothing less than irresponsible. Accordingly, in line with the direction of travel required by the state, the deliberative norms of liberal democracy, with their lengthy and cumbersome processes of participation, consultation and negotiation, are now up for review. The dynamics and inbuilt instability of capitalist production and the increasing speed of commercial transfers, together with the increasing speed of war, are likely to overwhelm and undermine the protracted processes of liberal decision-making. So these need to be replaced by more appropriate, authoritarian forms of executive action, based on the permanent state of military and economic exception in which we now find ourselves. In short, democratic forms need to become leaner and more resilient—which is to say less democratic.


The draft report earlier this month from the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs on the disclosures about mass surveillance condemned the whole affair `in the strongest possible terms’, arguing that the activities of the NSA and GCHQ appeared to be illegal. The committee rapporteur, Claude Moraes MEP, condemned the ‘chilling’ way journalists working on the stories had been intimidated by state authorities. Snowden will testify to the parliament by video link from Russia in the coming weeks, in spite of vigorous opposition from the US and British Conservative MEPs.

As one might expect, the draft report put forward a raft of proposals to safeguard privacy, civil liberties and media freedom. Moraes also condemned the way the Guardian had been forced by the UK security services to destroy (one copy of) its Snowden files. And he described the detention at Heathrow of David Miranda, the partner of the former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, as ‘an interference with the right of freedom of expression under article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights’.      

Unfortunately, the UK government appears to be preparing to withdraw from the convention, though this would imply withdrawal from the Council of Europe, to all of whose 47 members the convention applies—maybe as a prelude to withdrawing from the European Union as well. Unencumbered by such safeguards, the increasingly authoritarian character of modern UK politics in particular could perhaps more easily be sold as a regrettable, and then sensible, then useful and even a desirable necessity. UK citizens owe it to Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and the Guardian newspaper to reject such an offer. 

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