How the Surveillance State Protects
the Interests Of the Ultra-Rich
By Sarah Jaffe, AlterNet, August 29, 2011
In the aftermath of the riots that rocked London this summer, the Conservative prime minister’s first response was to call for a crackdown on social networking.
Despite data collected by the Guardian showing a strong correlation between poverty and rioting, the government denied that its brutal austerity policies contributed to the desperation and rage of its young people. A researcher found that the majority of rioters who have appeared in court come from poor neighborhoods, 41 percent of them from the poorest in the country—and 66 percent from neighborhoods that have gotten poorer between 2007 and 2010.
Of course, we don’t have widespread rioting or in the US yet. But even at a relatively calm, peaceful protest in San Francisco, Bay Area Rapid Transit shut down cell phone towers in the subway system in order to stymie a mass action planned after another shooting by a BART police officer. (It was the police killing of a young man that kicked off London’s riots as well.)
The techniques that were roundly decried by Western leaders when used by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak against his people’s peaceful revolution are suddenly embraced when it comes to unrest at home. Not only that, but techniques honed in the “war on terror” are now being turned on anti-austerity protesters, clamping down on discontent that was created in the first place by policies of the state.
Glenn Greenwald noted this connection in a recent piece, writing:
“The last year has seen an incredible amount of social upheaval, not just in the Arab world but increasingly in the West. The Guardian today documented the significant role which poverty and opportunity deprivation played in the British riots. Austerity misery — coming soon to the U.S. — has sparked serious upheavals in numerous Western nations. Even if one takes as pessimistic a view as possible of an apathetic, meek, complacent American populace, it’s simply inevitable that some similar form of disorder is in the U.S.’s future as well. As but one example, just consider this extraordinary indicia of pervasive American discontent, from a Gallup finding yesterday.”
That Gallup finding was that only 11 percent of Americans are content with the way things are going in the country.
Greenwald’s point, that the surveillance state is actually designed to protect the interests of the ruling class, is supported by Mike Konczal’s point, in this July piece:
“From a series of legal codes favoring creditors, a two-tier justice system that ignore abuses in foreclosures and property law, a system of surveillance dedicated to maximum observation on spending, behavior and ultimate collection of those with debt and beyond, there’s been a wide refocusing of the mechanisms of our society towards the crucial obsession of oligarchs: wealth and income defense. Control over money itself is the last component of oligarchical income defense, and it needs to be as contested as much as we contest all the other mechanisms.”
Social networking sites are considered wonderful boons to commerce as long as they’re collecting user data to be turned over to advertisers; but when Twitter or Facebook are used to coordinate protests or send warnings about police to fellow activists, they’re suddenly dangers to civilization that must be stopped. And a young activist whose only crime was downloading journal articles from behind JSTOR’s paywall to make them available to all faces 35 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines.
While corporations and banks collect data on all of us, they strongly oppose revealing any of their information to the public, even when they’re quite happy to spend the public’s money. As Bloomberg pointed out in a piece titled “Wall Street Aristocracy Got $1.2 Trillion in Fed’s Secret Loans”, information is just now coming to light about how much money was lent to Bank of America and Citigroup by the Federal Reserve back in 2008.
Bank of America might be breathing a sigh of relief this week, as a breakaway WikiLeaks member told Der Speigel that he had destroyed 5 gigabytes of information from the troubled bank. Daniel Domscheit-Berg claimed that he destroyed the data in order to make sure the sources would not be exposed. Julian Assange had claimed this winter to have damning information on the big bank, but held out on releasing it.
But just the threat alone was enough to send BoA to web security firm HBGary—or so we found out when hacker collective Anonymous broke into HBGary’s files and found a file that contained a plan to take down WikiLeaks, including attacks aimed at reporters and bloggers like Glenn Greenwald.
Whether it’s government secrets or corporate secrets, the response is the same: more surveillance, more crackdowns on civil liberties, more arrests. As Greenwald notes, Democratic National Committee Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz is sponsoring a bill that would require Internet service providers to keep logs of their customers’ activities for a full year. MasterCard and Visa shut down donations to WikiLeaks back when the information coming out was mostly just embarrassing to the government; the crackdowns on hackers and other techno-activists show the other side of the symbiotic relationship between the national security state and its secrets and corporations and their secrets.
As a burgeoning international protest movement takes shape, opposing austerity measures, decrying the wealth gap and rising inequality, and in some cases directly attacking the interests of oligarchs, we’re likely to see the surveillance state developed for tracking “terrorists” turned on citizen activists peacefully protesting the actions of their government. And as U.S. elections post-Citizens United will be more and more expensive, look for politicians of both parties to enforce these crackdowns.
Despite growing anger at austerity in other countries, those policies have been embraced by both parties here in the States. Groups like US Uncut have stepped into the fray, pointing out the connection between the tax dodging of banks like Bank of America and other corporations and the slashing of the social safety net for everyone else. The new protest movements are led not only by traditional left groups like labor unions, but a generation of young, wired activists using the Internet for innovative protest and revolutionary activism.
Paul Mason of the BBC calls them “the graduates with no future”, and here as well as around the world they have no future—youth are unemployed at nearly double the rate of the rest of the US population and many are laden with student debt, networked, and increasingly in touch with others around the world even as they feel disconnected from the political process here at home.
Laurie Penny wrote of how they’ve been treated in the UK as they fight desperately against the government’s austerity agenda:
“The Metropolitan Police have made their priorities extremely clear. Up to 200 officers have been devoted to hunting down students and anti-cuts activists, knocking on the doors of school pupils and arresting them for their part in demonstrations against education cutbacks that took place nine months ago. Thirty UK Uncut protesters are still facing charges for their part in a peaceful demonstration in Fortnum and Mason, footage from the police recordings of which shows some dangerous anarchists waving placards in the foyer and batting a beach ball over a stack of expensive cheese. Up to 300 activists have been arrested so far, in a joint operation that has already cost the taxpayer £3.65m. By contrast, only eight man-hours were spent in 2009 investigating the allegation that feral press barons were being permitted to run what amounted to a protection racket at the Met.”
As J.A. Myerson explained at Truthout, the revolutions and protest movements around the world in the past year have expressed solidarity with one another, with Egyptians sending pizzas to protesters in Wisconsin’s capitol and the spread of direct action anti-austerity tactics from the group UK Uncut to its spinoff here at home. Americans thrilled to the sight, via Al Jazeera livestream, of Tahrir Square, packed full of peaceful resisters, standing firm in the face of violence. Twitter and Facebook didn’t create the revolutions of the so-called Arab Spring or the protests rocking Europe, but they’ve provided a way for the world’s youth to communicate tactics and exchange ideas.
Matthew Stoller also called attention to the rise of Internet activism, not just the type of social media organizing that can call attention to a protest within hours or even minutes but the “hacktivism” of groups like Anonymous and the work of WikiLeaks in revealing the secrets of the ruling class, and how they connect with the ground protests and labor actions in places like Egypt or even Spain and Greece.
Anger is growing in the US at a stagnant economy, ongoing policies that favor the rich, and little to no help for anyone else. So far we haven’t seen the kind of mass protest that’s hit Europe, let alone the revolutions of the Arab Spring, but if things don’t get any better, the country should prepare for social unrest.
And if that happens, expect more peaceful activists to get caught up in the web of the surveillance state.
Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.