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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