I recently read a post criticizing, mainly, the reformist ideas of NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, by the always provocative wordpress blog, The Rancid Honeytrap. You might say off the bat, well that’s some guy sitting in his basement typing away on some computer and he doesn’t need to be listened to. I disagree. The post brought up a number of valid critiques of Snowden’s belief in surveillance reform. While I am glad that Snowden has showed, thanks to journalists who have written about the top secret or secret documents that he obtained, the extent of the massive surveillance state run by elements of the U.S. government, there is definitely an area for critique and criticism This article/post is an attempt to continue that critique, but in my own words.
At the beginning of blogpost, The Rancid Honeytrap quotes Snowden in a recent interview saying some surveillance is ok, especially if the “people say they want it”, claiming that
“…we can have people in every country make that decision because that’s what democracy is about. That’s what self-government is about…[not] making these decisions behind closed doors, without public debate, without public consent. That decision, belongs exclusively to the people of that country…I think it’s wrong of any politician, to take away the people’s seat at the table of government”
I agree with The Rancid Honeytrap that this isn’t what democracy is about, and even if all of Snowden’s premises are true, it “does not rightfully empower an acquiescent majority to vote away freedom from constant and pervasive government surveillance any more than people can.” At the same time, I think Snowden’s idea that people have such a voice in government is frankly not only absurd, but not true at all. As an April 2014 study by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin L. Page of Northwestern University concluded,
“economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence…Our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts”
Noam Chomsky noted something very similar to this back in August of last year, saying that:
“… In the work that’s essentially the gold standard in the field, it’s concluded that for roughly 70% of the population – the lower 70% on the wealth/income scale – they have no influence on policy whatsoever. They’re effectively disenfranchised. As you move up the wealth/income ladder, you get a little bit more influence on policy. When you get to the top, which is maybe a tenth of one percent, people essentially get what they want, i.e. they determine the policy. So the proper term for that is not democracy; it’s plutocracy.”
After this, Chomsky goes on to define the US as a “Really Existing Capitalist Democracy” where the public is supposed to” lend their weight every few years, to a choice among the responsible men” but they are meant to be spectators and not participants.Hey, why not add good ‘ole Chris Hedges into the mix, who has his problems as The Rancid Honeytrap and others like OLAASM know well. In his book, Empire of Illusion, Hedges writes that the idea of consent of the governed is an empty one (142-3):
“The words consent of the governed have become an empty phrase…Our nation has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations, and a narrow, selfish, political, and economic elite, a small moneyed group that governs, and often steals, on behalf of moneyed interests…The government…provides little more than technical expertise for elites and corporations…It has become the greatest illusion in a culture of illusions. It perpetuates a power and democratic ethic it does not possess. It seeks to perpetuate prosperity by borrowing trillions of dollars it can never repay…corporate power…holds the government hostage.”
Add to this the controversial but well-sourced study titled ‘Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies’ which not only talked about how collapse of human civilization, in their view can be avoided if “the rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level and if resources are distributed equitably” (1) but that “the scenarios most closely reflecting the reality of our world today” (20) are what they consider, elite-commoner societies:
“the economic stratication of society into Elites and Masses (or “Commoners”)…accumulated surplus [or wealth] is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels…Elites “prey” on the production of wealth by Commoners.” [2, 5]
Keeping what Martin Gilens and Benjamin L. Page’s study, Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges and the HANDY study said, it is incorrect to say that people have a “seat at the table of government” or can even make decisions in a supposed democracy. They can’t, especially in the U.S. The same can apply to countries like Australia, which like Canada and the UK, in the words of a leaked 2005 Citigroup memo, is a plutonomy (while also being a plutocracy or a government controlled directly or indirectly by the rich) which refers to the habits of rich consumers, rather than “the rest, the “non-rich”, the multitudinous many” which is driven by a number of factors:
“Disruptive technology-driven productivity gains, creative financial innovation, capitalist-friendly cooperative governments, an international dimension of immigrants and overseas conquests invigorating wealth creation, the rule of law, and patenting inventions…six drivers of the current plutonomy: 1) an ongoing technology/biotechnology revolution, 2) capitalist-friendly governments and tax regimes, 3) globalization that re-arranges global supply chains with mobile well-capitalized elites and immigrants, 4) greater financial complexity and innovation, 5) the rule of law, and 6) patent protection”
This memo also notes that “at the heart of plutonomy, is income inequality. Societies that are willing to tolerate/endorse income inequality, are willing to tolerate/endorse plutonomy.” Such societies, like Australia and the U.S., are what I once called states in crisis, or those states that “elites have more power in forming public policy than the general populace or at minimum put in place elite-friendly policies.”
Such ideas also invalidate Snowden’s philosophy, if you could call it that, as expressed en in the New York Times that as “long as there’s broad support amongst a people, it can be argued there’s a level of legitimacy even to the most invasive and morally wrong program, as it was an informed and willing decision” and in The Guardian interview that “the public needs to decide whether these policies are right or wrong.” The people don’t have an ability to decide if policies are right or wrong because they aren’t part of the policy-making apparatus, and their views are easily brushed aside by elites in the U.S., and likely in other countries as well. Additionally, Snowden’s trust in the thoughts of the public also forgets the fact that public opinion polls can be manipulated as the GCHQ did, deceptive, or limit “people’s sense of wider possibilities,” which limits the scope of public debate.
To some extent, The Rancid Honeytrap says that Snowden’s idea that we can “register our consent” is absurd:
“…Let’s allow for argument’s sake that it’s entirely fine for people to waive their own rights and those of their dissenting neighbors. By what means does Snowden propose we register our consent? Do we get to vote on this? Or is our consent inferred from not toppling the government when it predictably makes things worse instead of better?”
The Rancid Honeytrap writes toward the end of their piece that whistleblowers themselves are the “kind of people who get into the sort of deep, dark places from which whistles customarily get blown. Places that are uniquely attractive to patriots, ultra-conformists, imperialists and sociopaths” and that while he appreciates “their service to the truth, but with all due respect, these are not my kind of people.” It is definitely true that whistleblowers, whether Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, or Daniel Ellsberg, hold very reformist thoughts.
At one point, in the words of The Rancid Honeytrap, he rightly points out that Snowden still “insists he’s still working for it [the NSA]…[and] his only beef with the country’s gigantic security apparatus is bulk data collection conducted by that single agency.” These reformist beliefs of Snowden are deeply problematic, as the system itself could afford getting ride of “bulk data collection” by the NSA, since the surveillance apparatus at-large would NOT be dismantled. Still, those who benefit from such collection don’t want it to go away.
One Juice Rap News segment back from September 2012, almost ten months before Snowden revealed himself to the world, encapsulates the wholistic nature of the mass surveillance of the surveillance state, which has a 1984-ish vibe when the host, Robert Foster talks to General Baxter, who represents the state/military establishment/intelligence establishment all in one:
While there is good criticism in the rest of The Rancid Honeytrap‘s post, my take on it will have to wait for another article, another time, another day. Sorry to say.