Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Is state surveillance only about violating the right to privacy?

In a recent article (sent to me by an astute and observant friend) on “Totalitarian paranoia in the post-Orwellian Surveillance State”, the renowned “critical pedagogics” intellectual, Henry Giroux, dwells at length on the implications of state surveillance on the part of agencies such as the American NSA. Giroux provides a thorough analysis of the relation between what is happening today regarding state surveillance as unwarranted invasion of people’s privacy and what George Orwell’s dystopian “fable”, 1984, taught us about Big Brother-surveillance.

He also elaborates on the exploitation of the narcissistic social media culture by capitalist agencies for their own benefit – the more technophiles revel in the exposure of their personal lives on Facebook and YouTube, the more they reveal about their commodity-preferences, and are targeted accordingly. But, argues Giroux further, we are not only facing the paradox of people willingly giving up their “right to privacy” (a democratic value enshrined in the Constitution of several countries, including the US) in the context of social media mania.

It is fundamentally about the very core of so-called democracy, namely freedom or liberty, and what people who indulge their narcissism do, by simply conniving at intrusions by the state and by corporations, is to condone the arbitrary violation of their freedom. And they do it seemingly unaware of the precedent it is setting, which prepares the way for the new totalitarian state. He quotes intellectual historian Quentin Skinner at length in this regard: “The response of those who are worried about surveillance has so far been too much couched, it seems to me, in terms of the violation of the right to privacy. Of course it’s true that my privacy has been violated if someone is reading my emails without my knowledge. But my point is that my liberty is also being violated, and not merely by the fact that someone is reading my emails but also by the fact that someone has the power to do so should they choose. We have to insist that this in itself takes away liberty because it leaves us at the mercy of arbitrary power. It’s no use those who have possession of this power promising that they won’t necessarily use it, or will use it only for the common good. What is offensive to liberty is the very existence of such arbitrary power.”

It is no surprise then to find Giroux referring to state “control” several times – this is the obvious bogeyman lurking in the background – for instance where he observes: “The authoritarian nature of the corporate-state surveillance apparatus and security system with its ‘urge to surveill, eavesdrop on, spy on, monitor, record, and save every communication of any sort on the planet’ can only be fully understood when its ubiquitous tentacles are connected to wider cultures of control and punishment, including security-patrolled corridors of public schools, the rise in super-max prisons, the hyper-militarisation of local police forces, the rise of the military-industrial-academic complex, and the increasing labeling of dissent as an act of terrorism in the United States”.

I draw attention to this because people who shrug off these symptoms of edging closer to a form of totalitarianism that would make the surveillance capabilities and practices on the part of the Nazi state of Hitler’s Germany look relatively innocuous, simply forget that only one thing could prevent that, namely their own democratic capacity to resist it. Unfortunately the culture of narcissism, filtering out anything and everything which does not promote the glorification and enjoyment of the “self” (think of the meaning of “selfies”), obstructs the democratic conscientisation of the majority of individuals in the world. At their imminent peril.

I have written about Foucault’s analysis of what he dubbed the “disciplinary society” on TL before and about control through technology, but Giroux’s piece is a strong reminder that what we are witnessing today represents a significant step beyond a society of discipline through mechanisms such as Foucault’s “hierarchical observation” and “normalising judgement”, although these are still around.

What is emerging from the chrysalis of “discipline” is the butterfly of “control” – and the latter image is apt because it suggests beauty and the absence of anything dangerous. This is precisely what the narcissistic consumer society, redolent with beautiful, albeit superficial images everywhere, amounts to. It is a butterfly that is a much more sinister creature in disguise – what Gilles Deleuze, in a different metaphorical register, likened to a snake in his powerful essay, “Postscript on the societies of control” (October 59, 1992, pp. 3-7). Comparing Foucault’s societies of discipline with the new societies of control, he remarks (p. 5- 6): “Perhaps it is money that expresses the distinction between the two societies best, since discipline is always referred back to minted money that locks gold in as a numerical standard, while control relates to floating rates of exchange, modulated according to a rate established by a set of standard currencies. The old monetary mole is the animal of the spaces of enclosure, but the serpent is that of the societies of control. We have passed from one animal to the other, from the mole to the serpent, in the system under which we live, but also in our manner of living and in our relations with others. The disciplinary man was a discontinuous producer of energy, but the man of control is undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network.”

The recent film by Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) – a story based on the memoir by Jordan Belfort, who spent his time as a stockbroker/trader in an ecstasy of money-laundering and mindless, drug-“enhanced” sexcapades – encapsulates Deleuze’s “man of control” perfectly. Jordan was truly “in orbit, in a continuous network”, from the time that he discovered the ostensibly self-justifying ability of a trader, to use investors’ money in a “pump and dump” style, more for self-enrichment than for investors’ financial benefit. Having learned the lesson of the continuous circuitry linking sex, drugs and relentless, but successful “hard sell” tactics of selling stock to potential investors (not taking no for an answer) from his first boss on Wall Street, Mark Hannah, Belfort went on to establish his own firm, Stratton Oakmont (to appeal to WASP investors), becoming obscenely wealthy in the process.

Deleuze’s characterisation of societies of control bathes Belfort’s life-story in a revealing light, not only as far as its effect on his way of living and his personal pseudo-relationships (with his first and second wives, for instance) goes, but also regarding surveillance by the FBI, which eventually resulted in his imprisonment and the closure of Stratton Oakmont. When he was finally released from jail, Belfort returned promptly to the international circuits of the society of control, travelling across the world as an “expert” giving seminars on “sales technique”.

The point is that the film demonstrates the economic face of the societies of control, as well as the interface between the surveillance state and what Giroux and others dub “narcissistic culture”, so well – Belfort’s pathologically lavish, orbital, narcissistic lifestyle of unbridled capitalist excess, on the one hand, and the impossibility of escaping the electronically mediated gaze of state agencies, on the other.

What the film does not foreground, but is nevertheless always in the background, is the question of democratic freedom, which is at most apparent in what is nowadays called economic freedom. But as Giroux and Deleuze remind one, democratic freedom goes to the core of democracy, something that is easily lost on consumers and social media surfers, who never question the legitimacy of the arbitrary, ever-encroaching web of social control exercised through manifold surveillance avenues and techniques. And I repeat: at their peril.

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    • Maria

      Bert, you forgot to quote the most important sentence in Deleuze’s Postscript on the Societies of Control: “There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons…”

      Your comments on The Wolf of Wall Street made me think of the scene where Jordan shows Donnie the electronic bracelet on his ankle, which prevents him from escaping from the FBI. Isn’t this passage, below, from Deleuze’s essay uncannily apposite to this part of the movie?

      “Félix Guattari has imagined a city where one would be able to leave one’s apartment, one’s street, one’s neighborhood, thanks to one’s dividual electronic card that raises a given barrier; but the card could just as easily be rejected on a given day or between certain hours; what counts is not the barrier but the computer that tracks each person’s position – licit or illicit – and effects a universal modulation.”

    • Bert

      Thanks for reminding me, Maria! It is indeed uncanny; almost as if Scorsese has read Deleuze!

    • Brent

      When the USSR fell apart and free market democracy won the day, thousands, maybe millions of unrepentant Lefty/Liberals in the West went ‘underground’ and continued the struggle. In 20 years the seeds of their victory are plain to see where ‘statists’ i.e. big Govt interventon is best is now the ruling ‘truth’, with capitaism (a word coined by Marx not free market thinkers) is a swear word and socialism close to nirvana. This is in spite of the fact it has never worked anywhere without free market principals and democracy to control it. Big corporates are not slow/stupid not to jump on to the Big Govt band wagon, If you cant beat them join them. Brent

    • Maria

      @ Brent: You are beyond naive, believing that “market democracies” do not have the potential to become as totalitarian as the USSR was under Stalin. Have you read the article by Giroux, an outstanding academic by all accounts, and an American to boot, who is now teaching in Canada out of sheer disgust for what is occurring in the US? I’m talking about the article linked to this piece within the first few lines. Or read what Noam Chomsky, an intellectual above reproach, is writing about the situation, condemning the inexorable shuffling towards totalitarian rule in the US. I actually doubt whether you have an inkling of what is happening, for you are too blinded by your own ideological beliefs.

    • Richard

      It seems that the story is always the same, only the plot changes. In pre-Enlightenment times, power was exercised through discipline of the soul (which the only the Church knew how to effect) which then assumed the spectre of control. Protestantism was the first demotic assault on the hegemony of that particular narrative of freedom (seen in ethical terms of good and bad). Once that was demolished, and the notion of “freedom” represented itself in the guise of political power, monarchy and aristocratic control had to be overthrown in order to further “freedom”. With the rise of the middle classes and the merchant classes, itself a consequence of this change, economic power came to be seen as the new arena for the expression of “freedom” and so we witnessed the rise of Marxism and communism. In each case, the previous struggle is embedded in the new order. In each case, too, a new ruling class emerges to represent (make manifest in the old style of class or ecumenical ruler) the power structure. What has happened now is that power is vested in social media, with the means to get leaders elected or foment revolution. It is a non-national venue, and so difficult to convert into a direct power establishment in the conventional national sense. However, its effects are real enough, and so it is quite unsurprising that a great interest would be taken in it by those inhabiting the traditional loci of power, rather like the Pope would have worried about Luther or Henry VIII.

    • Garg Unzola

      Just curious who the pomo department balances the right to privacy with the need for equality? Surely, if equality is the focus, then infringing on the privacy of others an inevitable eventuality? You’d have to assess the abilities of the haves and the needs of the have nots in order to keep all the pigs equal.

      In fact, the USSR and China have been shrugging off allegations that they’ve been spying on not only private citizens in order to maintain the status quo, but also allegations of industrial espionage. It’s just part of the socialist package.

    • Brent

      Maria, please read what i wrote not what was in your mind. I am agreeing, repeat agreeing that “market democracies” DO have the potential to become as totalitarian as the USSR was under Stalin”, just disagree as to why. My why, is that thousands if not millions of Left/Liberal academics/activists have infiltated the Wests institutions, acedemic/Govt and propagandized for big Govt/statism and are winning. Lenin’s useful idiots are actually winning the war for him. Brent

    • Brent

      PS – “Noam Chomsky, an intellectual above reproach” had to guffork at that statement. Chomsky luxuriates in the benefits of a free market multi party system, basking in the naive hero worship of the chattering classes and useful idiots whislt hammering his society at evey moment but lauding the racial, one party dictatorship of Cuba, go figure. Brent

    • Garg Unzola

      No intellectual worth his salt is above reproach. Least of all those who make claims that they refuse to have second guessed.

    • Gary Koekemoer

      Bert, I resisted FB for some time, but it’s ability to enable my ongoing connections to friends and community is why I now choose to use it. I am able to follow communities I choose and receive information about causes I would never have had access to through traditional media. Today I was made aware of a solar facility in the USA. I am aware that my interests are targeted by merchandisers and that I make public to State and other interested parties with means information that I may consider private. But I never click on the ads. It is undoubtedly a selfish medium in that I also put out there stuff about me so that I can be “liked”, but how different is that from the clothes I choose to wear, the places I go for a beer or coffee or the car I drive? Would the Arab Spring have happened without social media. Social media has it’s dangers and particularly because they are so subtle, but knowing this and using it to your own advantage is the weapon I think Deleuze searches for?

    • Maria

      @ Brent: I apologize; I did not read your comment carefully enough. At the same time, however, there are some indications that you did not get the gist of Bert’s piece, such as your suggestion that “democracy” can control things. It is precisely democracy that is failing.

    • Paul Whelan

      Bert has the view that ‘history’ evinces humankind’s ongoing struggle for ‘freedom’, a benevolent idea, heaven knows, and one certainly to be preferred to the claim that ‘history’ is in fact a struggle between ‘races’ for mastery in order to destroy the ‘weak’, a view fashionable not so very long ago. The difficulty arises not so much in deciding which of the two has ethics on its side, but in judging whether there is the slightest reason to believe either.

      For if you take a view that ‘history’ is this or that, ‘history’ will surely accommodate it, since it will accommodate anything. There is, after all, no other point of reference. When the world was seen as fulfilling God’s Word, ‘history’ was there with the overwhelming evidence. When Marx decided it was actually not that at all but about a godless class struggle, the evidence was (and still is) obvious in every direction you looked. If you couldn’t see it, you must be sick. Off with you to the gulag for repairs.

      Others thought ‘history’ was about the realisation of liberal democracy, then, not that, but about the coming of the ‘new man’ or übermensch. The Second Coming remains a perennial. Some believe all the theories are only variations on the theme.

      Over to you. But be warned, Mr Chomsky, I have to tell you, does not have the answer for you anymore that the Bible.

      You must take arms against this sea of troubles and by opposing end them.

    • Brent

      Maria, I never said democracy can control things, people control things and to date the best way to assist people to ‘control’ things is free market multi party democracy. Just please do not compare democracy to heaven or nirvana, nothing peoplekind invent can meet such high standards, it is just that the system I punt does so much better than other systems – TO DATE. Bent