Intrusive state

The book analyses the role of technology in perpetuating the terror of surveillance, which is threatening to drown the world of freedom.

Published : Jun 22, 2016 12:30 IST

As we now know, the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States is continuously engaged in gathering the phone “data” of every American and stacking it away for any eventuality that might arise in the future. Working against all norms of jurisprudence, the U.S. national security state remains “legitimately” above board, blatantly pursuing acts of social control through surveillance without the repercussions of prosecution. The new kind of terror of surveillance is becoming the means of punishing people and threatening to drown the world of freedom.

Surveillance, albeit an act of violence against one’s privacy, is a means to advance the power of the state. Fascist surveillance has become a severe case of domestic terrorism. It is in the face of the government’s overbearing stance that its intrusion into the affairs of its people has to be diagnosed. In such circumstances, living at the frontline of imagination becomes a crime. Edward Snowden is one clear example from recent times.

This is at the heart of David Lyon’s book, which gives full credit to Snowden who is behind the battle between the totalitarian state and dissidence, between right-wing tyranny and the diversity of rational thought and individual privacy.

In such circumstances, living in confrontation with the state apparatus is tantamount to being labelled as anti-national. This is what Snowden has been accused of.

True to the concept of fascism, the interrogation of state policy becomes treason in the Orwellian sense, where free thought and debate are anathema.

The utopia promised by the government of Oceania (Great Britain) in Orwell’s prophetic novel, 1984 , written in 1949, is reminiscent of a story narrated at a conference in Moscow in the early 1930s, where Andre Malraux, the novelist, caused a certain disquiet by asking: “What happens in a classless society when a streetcar runs over a beautiful girl?” To this, the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, who was pulled out of his sickbed and brought to the conference, argued: “In a planned and classless, and hence perfect society, a streetcar would not run over a beautiful girl.”

In order to understand the logic of totalitarianism, one would have to see the reasoning behind Gorky’s statement that points unmistakably towards the machine-like consistency of the oppressive mindset. Such an over-organised system represents the elimination of history and the onward march of free human thought for the smooth and untroubled running of the state apparatus. Criticism is disallowed by a leadership that has at its disposal advanced surveillance technology, the “thought police” that incarcerates or eliminates any “thought criminal” guilty of Snowden’s “crime”.

Across the world, from San Francisco to Shanghai, video surveillance, interception of electronically transmitted information, mobile phone tracking and use of hidden microphones have become endemic techniques that insidiously disregard the social right to confidentiality. As the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman points out, there are “countless other big and small panopticons”, resulting in the death of privacy and dissent.

As Hannah Arendt, an American political theorist, argues, the state ensures not just the transformation of the outside world but also the very dysfunctionality of the unpredictable nature of human creativity and its spontaneity. In Orwell’s novel, it is O’Brien, an agent of the thought police owing complete loyalty to the Party, who explains to Winston, the protagonist, the unending process of victimisation that can appease the ruling class so as to give it an assurance of its immortality. The state manipulates the rebirth of Winston, turning his rebellious old self into a faceless believer. He is dehumanised as effectively as the public in another dystopic novel of those times, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World .

Huxley’s “terror of science” works in collaboration with Orwell’s “science of terror” to produce a subservient world of paralysed individuals engulfed by the collective neurosis that disallows any “eccentricities” of critical thought, thus levelling the world into an enormous system of control and compliance.

Such an abysmal picture, visualised ironically by Huxley, envisages material progress all right, but as one enormously dangerous to human creativity. In this world, no prodigies or rebels can ever be born. It is a world of the “hatchery” in which human beings are “manufactured” at various stages of arrested physical and mental development. In 1984 , the dream of socialism is distorted purposely by those who assume power in its name.

Orwell’s “Big Brother” finds parallels in the modern state and its authoritarian apparatus, replete with lawlessness, which was by “whistle-blowers” such as Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond and Edward Snowden. They revealed that their government lied about its intelligence operations, illegally spied on millions of innocent people and collected data from every conceivable electronic source to be stored and potentially used to squelch dissent, blackmail people or just intimidate those who fight to make corporate and state power accountable. Orwell’s warning, like Snowden’s, was intended to shed light on the horrors of totalitarianism, the corruption of language, the production of a pervasive stupidity, and the endless regimes of state spying imposed on citizens in the mid 20th century.

David Lyon, who directs the Surveillance Studies Centre in Queen’s University, Canada, makes a case for civil rights in a world of metadata and mass surveillance. In 2013, Snowden revealed the anti-democratic work of NSA that used the Internet and the mobile phone to keep a tab on the affairs of the public under the excuse of “internal security”. His exposure of the present-day Big Brother becomes an incentive for each freedom-loving individual to question the nexus between the state and the profit-seeking corporate world that now has technological innovations to infiltrate into our private affairs. The lure of big data has far-reaching implications for a democratic polity.

The post-Snowden years have seen new technologies enhancing surveillance to the point of exposing us to the danger of losing our grip over our day-to-day private affairs. Surveillance, as Lyon writes, “has seeped so far into the very arteries, the capillaries of culture, that it is often seen as an unquestioned requirement of modern life”.

Such a realisation is the only antidote to surveillance. Our definition of surveillance relates to the sense of the self as much as it does to the idea of democracy. The very control over our communication infringes on our civil liberties. Interestingly, in a world that seems to be open to all kinds of knowledge with the overpowering dominance of the World Wide Web, our access to it depends on surveillance which either disables or permits access to what we should or should not know. Our entitlement is, therefore, to limited knowledge. Paradoxically, with the increase of transparency of each one of us, the transparency of institutions continuously decreases. Snowden attributes this to state control, which smothers free speech and raises questions of our fundamental rights and the external management of our visibility.

The discourse around Snowden’s “treason” is to oppose espionage and the various social media companies that unethically aid in the process of sharing data with the state in spite of the trust that a common man bestows on them. The very activities we engage in daily become the ingredients of the data collected by the companies and NSA. Such data mining is done by dipping into the fibre-optic transcontinental cables and implanting spyware into them. It must be understood that such a cyberspace of surveillance is not insubstantial; it is the solidity of these digital communications which is stored in cables running from Toronto to Talwandi, from New York to Nagpur. The movement spearheaded by Snowden is now attempting to comprehend how this espionage takes place and the way in which corporate capitalism combines with the global narrative of surveillance. They are collaborating towards a cultural imperialism where the conspiracy of providing information is only a camouflage for the real intentions of complete domination and control.

This revelation has come to us after the Snowden affair; it is he who has given clear evidence that was previously only suspected. No attention was paid to surveillance earlier. There was no coherent way of thinking about police or consumer surveillance until Snowden came along. These are public issues that affect all of us and need a collective unified response. The threat to democratic life is at stake if we do not heed Snowden’s warning. In fact, Lyon is of the view that it is really not surveillance but the way we understand public interest and democratic practice that matters.

Snowden’s revelation has brought him enormous praise for an act that has huge implications for the transparency of democratic systems. Was it not Richard Rorty who commented on the ills of the modern state emerging from the culture of secrecy observed in political affairs? There would probably be a world of conceivable peace and openness if there were no classified documents.

We need to understand that the power of the state and the media persuade the public to collude with the policies of the government. In such a world, it is difficult to network without institutional control. Our subjectivities are completely in subservience to the structures of technological dominance, military violence and ideological legitimation. But one thing has become clear after Snowden’s dissident act: the hour has come to oppose all such excessive oppression through serious political action.

There are no neutral intellectuals. Each individual must take a position to counter the fascist turn in democratic politics. It should be clear that, like Snowden, we all live online and indeed, there really is no place to hide. But we as freedom-loving individuals are adept at bringing a concurrence between the structural and the active. The future is not foreclosed, and as long as there is critical inquiry, there is hope. As Howard Zinn, the historian and social activisit, once said: “We are supposed to be thinking people. We are supposed to be able to question everything.”

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment