Thoughts on ‘Snowden,’ Ideological Capture, and Freedom

Could be that man could be that one / an avalanche of fathers that kill you with snakes with beliefs which are the inventions of snakes / here’s an eye and here’s an eye / this one watches you and this one watches you / you feel that you are watched when you are private / and even when you are not private you cannot choose your audience / you feel that everything you do is pornography…you got an eye on your hooligan and I know your breadbox is on fire and the panties was oozing milk / but the tracks on your arms talk right into the walkie-talkie / squad cars fall right out of the sky to see it / angels of hysteria / tattletale virgins with nothing to tell whistle in their once bright ear / where now just bricks fly / where once was a bird or two / oh mama get me a plane ticket outta here / oh mama put me on a bus / oh mama get daddy outta jail / how come the hole in the roof isn’t big enough so I can fly out but it’s big enough so the rain can get in? / and I saw you in the picture and I saw you in the picture and I’m not too young or too dumb to know what you was doing in the picture / I saw you in my clouded heart. ~Steven Jesse Bernstein

Many thoughts have been swimming in my head since watching Oliver Stone’s Snowden. At the time I started writing this, it was at about 56% with critics on the Tomatometer; now it’s a little above 60%, with reviewers split between people who thought it did justice to it’s subject, and those who found it was an underwhelming, or cloying experience. This disparity seems to match the different reactions people had to the actual events that made Snowden, the individual, a household name. Many people responded to the revelations about the NSA’s spying on civilians with a jaded shrug, and even those of us who followed the story with interest have probably not given these issues the sustained attention it has deserved.

This has a lot to do with the way that our culture has changed in the so-called information age. In an era where more and more of our daily interactions function as “content” for the social media apparatus, where more and more aspects of our lives are being monetized by the increasingly sophisticated algorithms of high-powered tech capital, the concerns of civil libertarians over how personal information is being collected and utilized may already seem as old-fashioned as someone complaining about industrialization or the private enclosure of land. Get over it, seems to be the response (albeit in deed more than in word) of a large plurality of people to the public gripes of the holdover privacy advocates. As Henry Giroux wrote in Counterpunch, the emerging “selfie culture” suggests that the surveillance state and information capital have not merely changed the ways we communicate, but have led to an emergent culture that has become more adapted to a world without privacy. “While selfies may not lend themselves directly to giving up important private information online,” he writes, “they do speak to the necessity to make the self into an object of public concern.”

What this new politics of digital self-representation suggests is that the most important transgression against privacy may not only be happening through the unwarranted watching, listening, and collecting of information by the state. What is also taking place through the interface of state and corporate modes of the mass collecting of personal information is the practice of normalizing surveillance by upping the pleasure quotient and enticements for young people and older consumers. These groups are now constantly urged to use the new digital technologies and social networks as a mode of entertainment and communication. Yet, they function largely to simulate false notions of community and to socialize young people into a regime of security and commodification in which their identities, values, and desires are inextricably tied to a culture of private addictions, self-help, and consuming.

What we’re seeing on the internet today is a far cry from the heyday of sites like Indymedia, the anarcho-leftist social network that was used to organize the protests of the World Trade Organization way back in ’99. This is undoubtedly due to the outsize role that concentrated capital, buttressed by the security state, has had over the development of the web’s streamlining capacities. When our portals of communication are developed by billion dollar corporate enterprises, it should not surprise us to find that these networks are structured in a way that reinforces a corporate mode of behavior, and we begin to think more like consumers than citizens—a far cry from the cyberpunk horizontalist ideal that characterized the philosophy and popular conceptions of the web in the 90’s. Under the consolidating custody of venture capital, this new technology hasn’t really democratized information so much as blurred the distinctions between corporate and public expression, causing us to live in a blizzard of “crowd-sourced” content, “curated” and recycled by the content industry.

Competition and Ideology

These developments connect us to a shared experience, but in a compartmentalized, isolated way. The massive amount of information we have access to has caused web users to filter the media they consume in a maximally discriminating way, which tends to reinforce their preexisting worldview. Whenever I “get political” on social media, there’s an awareness that what I’m going to say will seem beyond the pale to at least half, potentially, of anyone within range of what I’m saying. This is, of course, a function of politics itself: in the competitive spaces of political debate, people tend to coalesce into distinct groups, in such a way that if you think in that other way, you’re that kind of person. Yet this tendency is amplified in places like Facebook and Twitter, where people’s viewpoints get herded into sharply distinct ideological spaces, and the M.O. is to be terse, ironic, and reactive. Twitter in particular, a network where even one’s own posts can be weaponized against oneself, is the purest example of what social media does to people: it magnifies our differences in a way that limits the ways we are able to be different, by gradually reducing us to the most obvious and predictable aspects of ourselves.

Again, this is in some respects just a duplication of the calcifying effects of “normal” politics, albeit in what is, supposedly, a more spontaneous way. Traditionally, when a loose group of people begin to identify as, for instance, White or Christian, in a political context, their personal values become articulated as a property of the larger entity they are associating with. Their views are thus linked to a perceived consensus which becomes a core piece of their identity, and this “consensus” is also in large part shaped in reaction against competing or adversarial groups. Hence, the values that make someone a conservative are, in no small part, shaped in reference to the things that liberals believe, and vice versa. The conservative movement in the US over the past few decades has exhibited a particular genius of this sort of identity politics—a fact which, regardless of the individual reasons used to support such views, is the overriding reason conservative Christians tend to support violent global conflicts, working class whites are virulently opposed to the welfare state, and so on, among a host of issues that are largely transcendent of their own experiences or self-interests.

Lacking a better term, Orwell saw this ideological calcification as a kind of nationalism which segmented people into various “nations,” or ideological movements, of Catholics, Communists, Zionists, and the like, each of which conceive of their respective group as being “beyond good and evil,” and who tend to “recognize no other duty than that of advancing its interests”—words which, no doubt, bring to mind the fascist and totalitarian movements that blazed in the past century. The nature of totalitarianism is, in fact, bundled into this kind of categorical thinking, which is the basis of all ideologies and movements: any ideology, if conceived in an unconditional or absolute sense, ultimately seems to conclude with making human individuality and human life irrelevant, rendering it as if our “plurality had disappeared into One Man of gigantic dimensions,” as Hannah Arendt wrote of totalitarianism.

Because extremist movements developed out of the inner tensions and inherent hypocrisies of society, rather than from some alien object or from a vacuum, understanding these problems is of vital importance, since, as Arendt notes, “the true predicaments of our time may assume their authentic form—though not necessarily the cruelest—only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.”

Manufactured Consent

“Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals,” writes Arendt. These individuals are isolated in the sense that they have lost the ability to have any meaningful intercourse with life. Every aspect of their life is incorporated into a regime which prevents the performance of any “task that exists for it’s own sake,” (a formula used by Himmler in creating the SS). This is the way of life of the chattel slave or the person in forced labor camps, a life of lonely isolation which can occur “in a world whose chief values are dictated by labor, that is, where all human activities have been transformed into laboring.” Lacking in the agency required for creative expression and engagement, in any means of self-definition, one person becomes interchangeable from the next, and is reduced to a type. The tribalism that results from this, where existence is sharply segregated along racial and national lines, seems to be a hallmark of concentration camp and prison life.

“I didn’t have to be taught the rules of prison society, particularly in regard to racial segregation, because they are so ingrained in just about every aspect of prison society that they seem instinctual,” wrote Jeffrey Sterling, a CIA whistleblower who is serving 3½ year sentence. “Even though there is no official mandate, here, I am my skin color.” As Sterling says in the article, the racialized way of life that he has experienced is not isolated to prison: “What I see in prison is sad, but what I’m seeing from prison is worse.”

It certainly seems like we are more socially fragmented than ever before. One of the causes of this, I think, is that we don’t live in conditions that provide a sense of agency or personal sovereignty for the average person. The world is getting smaller, more crowded, with less of the free time or space available that one needs for personal development. These developments have been overseen by a political and economic elite who are, above all else, motivated to consolidate power and wealth and maintain existing power structures. As more communities and peoples become “superfluous”, with respect to existing power arrangements, and as political and economic power only becomes more concentrated, even the “productive” member of society must get the sense that her value as a human being is not unconditional but based, increasingly, on her legal and professional status: as the member of a nation or race, or as an entrepreneur, business owner or salaried worker.

Essentially, we are defined, in a totalizing way, by our relationship to capital and the state. There are no spaces free enough from the control of private capital and the state’s monopoly of violence to allow for alternative frameworks of definition to develop—that is, to free us from the system’s oppressive logic that is excluding more and more categories of people from it’s constituency. In such a society, the only “freedom” is located in the spaces behind locked doors, or through the capacity of private or anonymous communication provided by technology. Yet rather than making us more free, information technology has only broken down these barriers of privacy, penetrating the only free spaces we were allowed, with the surveillance state and myriad private entities harvesting and commodifying our personal interactions.

The implications of this have been largely absorbed by a culture of online voyeurism and exhibitionism wherein we are communicating and consuming media in more publicly accessible ways, and where the public shaming and harm of people you don’t like—posting “revenge porn” of an ex, “doxing” someone’s personal information, or even contacting a person’s employer to get them fired—is becoming disturbingly commonplace in many circles. The fact that people in the free world, without prompting, are beginning to imitate the sort of behavior and mindset of those in authoritarian regimes at the very least demands further study.

Whither Snowden?

“Why was Snowden’s leak a global event?” Asks Charles Mudede, rhetorically, in The Stranger.

Why does it even matter that the NSA is reading our e-mails or texts or whatever? Most of us really have nothing to hide. Most of us are no more interesting than the next person. Most of us begin and end with how we present ourselves on social media. Indeed, [Snowden’s girlfriend,] Mills says exactly this to Snowden in the movie: She’s not worried about the NSA entering her computer and looking at her files because all they will find is an average person.

People who didn’t like the movie most likely hold this view—that the average, “uninteresting” person has no particular reason to be worried about the surveillance of citizens. And ostensibly, most people don’t. The typical American, it would seem, is more likely to be forced to resign from their job for some off-color Facebook posts than to be put on some government watch list. But as I have been trying to illustrate, there is reason to suspect that the average person’s experiences in the private sector, in a culture often characterized as neoliberal, may not be entirely unrelated to the neoconservative movements within the state.

The reason Ed Snowden was concerned about his lack of privacy was, on a personal level, also related to his employment and demands of conformity. In the film, the Snowden depicted by Joseph Gordon Levitt begins as a patriotic conservative who gradually comes to realize that his values are incompatible with his occupation, and that, contrary to his preconceived notions, it is precisely his credentials and ethical integrity that makes him incapable of performing his job, that makes him ultimately a traitor, and even a terrorist, in the eyes of the state. He realizes, almost too late, that he was not in the service of a nation or some other unifying principal, but a vast, bloated mercenary apparatus with no purpose other than the endless reproduction of itself, whose only interest is in transforming the world into an expanding index of targets—a world comprised only of threats and potential threats.

Under such a regime, which is based on reducing people to objective qualities, to be free is to become insubordinate, someone to be deprived of rights. The architecture of such a world is perhaps best described in the works of Kafka. Unless it somehow finds a way to regulate it’s excesses, this system will inevitably become unable to sustain it’s inherent contradictions. What is remarkable about Snowden and the other figures that have become martyrs of this system is that they have found a way through the paradox, forfeiting their conditional freedom through the performance of one pure, unconditionally free act.

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