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In the new public-private surveillance state, we’re so at home with Big Brother that we’re not just passively watched–we actively display ourselves. (Photo: ‘Pong / Flickr)

Participatory Totalitarianism

We are not passive objects of the surveillance state. We are active subjects of our own YouTube channels.

According to the Chinese zodiac, the heavens circle around every 12 years. The Year of the Snake, the creature that sheds its skin to emerge anew, marks a time of great transformation. Indeed, for the last quarter century, the world has experienced three profound shifts at 12-year intervals, beginning with the Year of the Snake in 1989.

On June 4, 1989, on one side of the globe, Poles were participating in their first semi-free elections in more than 40 years, which—though few suspected at the time—sounded the death knell for Communism in East-Central Europe. Meanwhile, on the same day on the other side of the globe, the Chinese government was cracking down on the Tiananmen Square protests and ensuring that Communism would continue there as an official ideology for at least another 25 years.

"Today’s metaphor is still Big Brother—but it’s the Reality TV show, not the sinister presence of the George Orwell novel."

Twelve years later, the Year of the Snake returned, and the ground shifted radically beneath our feet once again. This time, the 9/11 attacks brought the two sides of the world together as both China and Poland threw their weight behind the U.S.-led war on terror. Poland, presided over by a former Communist who’d embraced market reforms, even went so far as to host one of the “black sites” that the Bush administration set up to interrogate suspects gathered up through extraordinary rendition. China, presided over by a current Communist who’d also embraced market reforms, used the opportunity of 9/11 to ramp up operations against separatists in Xinjiang and secure “unprecedented” counter-terrorism information sharing with the United States.

And then last year, the Year of the Snake came around again, and this time it was Edward Snowden who caused a seismic shift in our understanding of everyday reality. We thought that we’d seen through the efforts of the Communist state to control our minds and the efforts of the corporate state to control our desires. But it turned out that we really didn’t know the full extent to which intelligence services and corporate entities had invaded our private spaces. Nor had we understood our own complicity in this brave new world. It wasn’t just states like Warsaw and Beijing that had joined forces with Washington against non-state actors. We had all become informers under this new regime, whether we liked it or not.

The old metaphor for surveillance was the Panopticon: the warden, sitting at the hub of a penitentiary, could see what all the inmates were doing along the perimeter of the structure. Then came the Big Brother of the Cold War era: a state apparatus that used informers, propaganda, and interrogations to infiltrate every crevice of society.

Today’s metaphor is still Big Brother—but it’s the TV show, not the sinister presence of the George Orwell novel. In this reality TV show, the public watches what goes on inside a house fully monitored by surveillance cameras. But here’s the twist: we are both voyeurs and exhibitionists, for we have also turned the cameras on ourselves so that the surveillance can be mutual. We don’t just like to watch, like Chance the gardener in Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There. We like to be watched as well.

It’s time to update Socrates for the era of selfies and YouTube: the unwatched life is not worth living.

The novel that out-Orwells Orwell in its depiction of this new reality is The Circle by Dave Eggers, in which characters willingly wear cameras that track their every movement and broadcast to an ever-increasing number of social media followers. The novel exaggerates only slightly what we are already doing through Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, or what is being done to us through our cell phones and our credit card purchases and our Google searches.

To rein in Big Corporations and even out the inequities of Big Politics, activists have long clamored for participatory democracy. What we didn’t expect was that Big Corporations and Big Politics would team up in what I’ve previously called the “surveillance blitz” to create a new phenomenon: participatory totalitarianism.

If we look at the three seismic shifts that have taken place between 1989 and today, they all center around the state and its ability to maintain its authority in the post-modern world. In 1989, the Communist states failed in their effort to manage the economy through five-year plans and artificially fixed prices. In both post-Communist Poland and post-Deng China, the market became the arbiter of production and consumption, restricting the state largely to redistribution (with a bit more capacity for strategic investments in China). Privatization and austerity budgeting in the capitalist world also whittled away what remained of the welfare state’s ability to intervene in the economy. This was the neo-liberal victory in what had been an epic 20th-century war, though many skirmishes continue to this day and a second grand battle may yet take place in the wake of the global financial crisis.

In 2001, states faced a second major challenge from al-Qaeda, though more as an idea than an actual military force. Al-Qaeda is an unusual hybrid of the globalized and the localized. It grew out of a specific context (the mujahedeen’s attacks on the Soviet army in Afghanistan) and has taken on a different character in each national context where it has taken root (Yemen, Syria, North Africa). Al-Qaeda is a franchise not unlike McDonald’s, offering a universal product (a global caliphate) that can be adapted to the cultural preferences of local consumers just as McDonald’s sells its well-known French fries with the McAloo Tikki burger in Mumbai or the McArabia Chicken sandwich in Doha. To use the awkward phrase from academia, al-Qaeda is a “glocalized” phenomenon. It thus has represented both a global and a local challenge to the state—offering a vision of subsuming the state into something larger and, from below, attacking the state’s monopoly on violence. It’s no wonder that states as different as Poland and China found common cause in fighting against al-Qaeda.

And now, after 2013, the state is suffering yet another challenge to its authority. After the revelations of Snowden, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman and his colleagues point out, “It may not be going too far to suggest that what we still call national security has been colonized by a new nobility of intelligence agencies operating in an increasingly autonomous transnational arena.” National security, as the phrase suggests, has been the responsibility of the nation-state. But intelligence agencies, led by the disproportionately powerful NSA, have skirted the traditional mechanisms of the state to operate across borders and with little oversight. Members of Congress, even though many have branded Snowden a traitor, have pushed for changes in the way the NSA does business domestically. The leaders of Germany and Brazil who discovered to their dismay that they too have been punked by the NSA—U.S. spies listened in on the communications of both Angela Merkel and Dilma Rousseff—are also pushing at an international level for reform.

The state’s status has deteriorated over the decades. It no longer provides the “iron rice bowl.” Its monopoly on violence has been challenged by non-state actors, and many states have failed or are near failure as a result. And intelligence-gathering organs have metastasized beyond the control of the traditional nation-state in order to sift through the rapidly expanding universe of global data to stop plots while they are still twinkles in the eyes of the conspirators (shades of Minority Report).

If surveillance was monaural during the Cold War and became stereophonic in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it is now quadrophonic. It can’t be reduced to the activity of a single state or even a particular government-industrial complex. We are all now embedded in a veritable matrix of surveillance. It has become surround sound.

In the Communist era, Hungarian writer Miklos Haraszti wrote about what he called the “velvet prison.” Under state socialism, he observed, the vast majority of artists accommodated to the strictures imposed from above. “We learn to live with discipline,” he wrote. “We are at home with it. It is a part of us, and soon we will hunger for it because we are unable to create without it.”

We are at home in the new surveillance state, for we barely register all the cameras, all the targeted advertising, all the intrusions into what had previously been considered sacred private space. We are not passive objects of observation. We are active subjects of our own YouTube channels.

This is not inevitable. States like Germany and Brazil are fighting back. Organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation are fighting back. Whistleblowers and journalists are fighting back. So, perhaps when the next Year of the Snake rolls around and we are preparing to shed our skin once again, we will see a shift in the other direction—toward a new economy, a new kind of politics, a new definition of security, and a new way to interact with our fellow citizens that relies on mutual solidarity and not mutual surveillance.


© 2021 Foreign Policy In Focus
John Feffer

John Feffer

John Feffer is the author of the dystopian novel "Splinterlands" (2016) and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His novel, "Frostlands" (2018) is book two of his Splinterlands trilogy. Splinterlands book three "Songlands" was published in 2021. His podcast is available here.

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