As I promised in my previous article for this blog, this article will focus on Edward Snowden’s recent interview for The Nation which can be read here. Specifically, this article will question Snowden’s emphasis on reformism as a solution to countering government surveillance and focus on a number of other issues he brought up in the interview.
Moving beyond Snowden has to say about the US-government-imposed exile in Russia, he first told The Nation about his concern about the “bigger picture”:
“…that the post-World War II, post-Cold War directions of societies were either broadly authoritarian or [broadly] liberal or libertarian. The authoritarian one believed that an individual’s rights were basically provided by governments and were provided by states. The other society–ours–tended to believe that a large portion of our rights were inherent and couldn’t be abrogated by governments, even as this seemed necessary.”
Snowden then went on to ask a number of open-ended questions about societies becoming more “liberal” or “authoritarian.” While what Snowden says sounds nice, I don’t necessarily agree with the underlying narrative. Rather than labeling societies “liberal,” “authoritarian,” or “libertarian,” its probably better to recognize the the recognition of individual rights was a struggle by people from numerous social movements over the years against governments and corporations. Its not like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or the Civil Rights Act of 1963 came out of nowhere. They came as a result of struggle and determined effort.
Not long after Snowden makes this point about different types of societies, he deems the United States as a “representative democracy”:
“We [the United States] are a representative democracy. But how did we get there? We got there through direct action. And that’s enshrined in our Constitution and our values.”
Firstly, I’ve always cringed at the term “representative democracy” as I feel it is completely inaccurate since the United States is a representative republic, not a democracy. Secondly, and more importantly, this type of analysis misses the fact that some people engaged in direct action, especially the disenfranchised and disempowered, to fight in the revolution and engage in social movements that created the original fabric of the United States as we know it today, during the Revolutionary War. However, there were others that did not participate, and those people are mainly the wealthy elite despite the fact that some of them were in the Continental Army structure. Beyond the Revolutionary War, those in the poor and middle classes were those who continued to create the social fabric of the United States, the rich lording over them, but not engaging in direct action per say. To say that the creation of a representative republic was enshrined in the Constitution is correct, but it misses the historical context.
This quote leads to Snowden’s argument about the “right of revolution” and civil disobedience:
“We [as Americans] have the right to revolution. Revolution does not always have to be [about] weapons and warfare; its also about the principles that we hold to be representative of the kind of world we want to live in. A given order may at any given time fail to represent those values, even work against those values. I think that’s the dynamic we’re seeing today. We have these traditional political parties that are less and less responsive to the needs to ordinary people, so people are in search of their own values. If the government or the parties won’t address our needs, we will. It’s about direct action, even civil disobedience…They [the state] put us in “free speech zones”; they say that you can only do it at this time, and in this way, and [that] you can’t interrupt the functioning of the government. They limit the impact that civil disobedience can achieve. We have to remember that civil disobedience must be disobedience if it’s to be effective. If we simply follow the rules that a state imposes upon us when that state is acting contrary to the public interest, we not actually improving anything. We’re not changing anything.”
This all sounds nice and great, despite it being couched in traditional conservatism, perhaps, but what is Snowden’s example of this working?…it turns out to be an unexpected answer: Occupy Wall Street, saying it was the last time that civil disobedience brought about “change”:
“I believe strongly that Occupy Wall Street had such limits because local authorities were able to enforce…an image of what proper civil disobedience is…the individuals who were loader, more disruptive and, in many ways, more effective at drawing attention to their concerns were immediately castigated by [the] authorities. They were cordoned off, pepper sprayed, thrown in jail…[Occupy] had an impact on consciousness [but] it was not effective in realizing change…but getting inequality out there into the consciousness was important.”
Firstly, I think its great that Occupy was used an example of civil disobedience, but I feel it is false to say it was the last time that civil disobedience brought about “change.” To give one pertinent example, think about the eco-activists working to stop pipelines across the US. Were they not successful? Are they not an example of civil disobedience working? Lest us remember what someone told me in response to my article about the climate march about civil disobedience, specifically in reference to arrests and blockades
“From personal experience, I can tell you that arrests and blockades are merely tactics, not a strategy. There has to be an overall strategy that hits the bosses in the pocketbooks and threatens a political shift. The latter is much harder to organize, require much more time and effort. It requires a lot more people, and we have to find them. Where better to find them when 400,000 show up in the same place at the same time?”
Anyway, there is no need to address Snowden’s declaration that the internet is the equivalent of “electronic telepathy,” that a “deep state” exists, or even that the revelations about surveillance are fundamentally about “liberty.” Firstly there is Snowden’s idea of “noble” self-sacrifice:
“…I’ve said this from the beginning: it’s not about me. I don’t care if I get clemency. I don’t care what happens to me. I don’t care if I end up in jail or Guantanamo or whatever, kicked out of a plane with two gunshots in the face. I did what I did because I believe it is the right thing to do, and I will continue to do that.”
While I think its wonderful that someone would engage in such self-sacrifice, it seems that engaging in this sacrifice shows that he has a level of privilege. Some people have such a poor state of affairs, especially people of color in the United States (and worldwide), that self-sacrifice for them might not be worth it since it may hurt their family’s future or their future. Snowden, is not one of those people who has such a poor state of affairs, despite the US-government-imposed exile in Russia.
What Snowden says about social movements and political action is very pessimistic and disturbing in a number of ways, as he says that now is not the time for revolution. First he says the following, which is almost a bit elitist (see the bolded part)
“…I said there are two tracks of reform…the political and the technical. I don’t believe the political will to be successful…The issue is too abstract for average people who have too many things going on in their lives. And we do not live in a revolutionary time. People are not prepared to contest power. We have system of education that is really a sort of euphemism for indoctrination. It’s not designed to create critical thinkers. We have a media that goes along with government intended to provoke a certain emotional response.”
Later in the interview, he outlines a non-confrontational way of confronting “great powers” and saying (again) that people are not ready for revolution:
“I don’t want to directly confront great powers [mega-corporations?], which we cannot defeat on their own terms. They have more money, more clout, more airtime. We cannot be effective without a mass movement, and the American people are too comfortable to adapt to a mass movement…As tensions increase, people will become more willing to engage in protest. But that moment is not now.”
What type of revolution does Snowden really want? Well, it seems that he supports encryption, saying it is a civic responsibility and duty, but more importantly, the idea of “technical reform,” but he admits that these reforms have to be uniform everywhere:
“Of course I want to see political reform in the United States. But we could pass the best surveillance reforms, the best privacy protections in the world, in the United States, and it would have zero impact internationally…But if someone creates a reformed system today–technical standards must be identical around the world for them to function together.”
This is also reflected in his statement that we wants the system “changed,” not overthrown:
“Sometimes misunderstood is that I didn’t stand up to overthrow the system. What I wanted to do was give society the information it needed to decide if it wanted to change the system.”
Once again, how does “society” get to decide it wants to “change” the system if they aren’t in the policy-making apparatus. As for overthrow, well, in a sense, society can decide that, but it is usually only a small part of society that makes such an overthrow possible.
On a completely different topic, Snowden interestingly argues that calling someone a whistleblower or hero “otherizes” them:
“As for labeling someone a whistleblower, I think it does to them–it does to all of us–a disservice, because it “otherizes” us. Using the language of heroism, calling Daniel Ellsburg a hero, and calling other people who made great sacrifices heroes–even though what they have done is heroic–is to distinguish them from the civic duty they performed, and excuses the rest of us from the same civic duty to speak out when we see something wrong…We have to speak out or we are party to that bad action.”
Near the end of the article, Snowden laughs at the idea that he is a celebrity. Here’s the exchange from the interview:
The Nation: Speaking of films, we understand that in addition to Laura Poitras’s documentary Citizenfour, a couple of others will be made about you.
Snowden: Anything to get people talking about the issues is great. I’m not a movie guy. I don’t know all this stuff that comes with celebrity. I don’t know who the actors will be and stuff like that. But anybody who wants to talk about the issues—that’s great.
The Nation: You already are a celebrity.
Snowden: People say that, but I’ve only had to sign autographs for “civ-libs” types. And I autograph court orders.
The Nation: Maybe, but you need a strategy of how you’re going to use your celebrity, for better or worse. You own it. You can’t get rid of it.
Snowden: [laughs] Well, that’s kind of damning!
The Nation: And you don’t know what lies ahead. Fortune sometimes turns very suddenly, unexpectedly.
Snowden: Then let’s hope the surprises are good ones.
Finally, in the last paragraph of the interview, Snowden expands on his “personal politics,” further explaining his “personal philosophy,” showing that he is not a radical for sure (bolding is my emphasis):
“As for my personal politics, some people seem to think I’m some kind of archlibertarian, a hyper-conservative. But when it comes to social policies, I believe women have the right to make their own choices, and inequality is a really important issue. As a technologist, I see the trends, and I see that automation inevitably is going to mean fewer and fewer jobs. And if we do not find a way to provide a basic income for people who have no work, or no meaningful work, we’re going to have social unrest that could get people killed. When we have increasing production—year after year after year—some of that needs to be reinvested in society. It doesn’t need to be consistently concentrated in these venture-capital funds and things like that. I’m not a communist, a socialist or a radical. But these issues have to be addressed.”
His views on economic policies such as than increasing employment, reinvesting production, reducing inequality seem to make him as a moderate who wants the system preserved, worrying about social unrest. I don’t know why, but this reminds me a bit of Aristotle really wanting to preserve the existing system.
I know that this article did not cover a good amount of the interview, but hopefully this article shows that Snowden is clearly a reformist, which provides more room to question what he believes and stands for. That is all.