The Logic of the Surveillance State
I don’t have a lot to say about Prism, it’s nothing that I find surprising at all. I would have been surprised if they weren’t doing this. That does not, of course, mean that they should be doing it. Basically, assume you’re being watched at all times. That does not mean a human being is watching you, but assume that an algorithim is watching your behaviour, and will flag you if your pattern of contacts seems suspicious. Once you are tagged, assume that everything you’ve done online, and most of what you’ve done in the real world if you’re in most major metropolitan centers, can be back traced. As pattern recognition becomes better, this will become even easier to do, and, indeed, automatic. The online and the offline will be linked together.
Again, this is nothing I didn’t believe was already happening, which isn’t to say that proof isn’t a nice thing to have, for all the dullards with their heads in the sand, who refuse to believe the obvious till it becomes as obvious as a boot stomping their face, over and over again.
This feeds directly in to the nature of our society, both domestically in Western countries and internationally. Our society is fundamentally unjust, as the charts in the Failure of Liberalism post make clear. It is fundamentally unfair internationally, and much of the so-called progress of the last few decades has been a mirage (for example, Indians now live on less calories a day than they did 40 years ago.) The women being raped, and the men and women being butchered in the Congo are killed because of how we structure the international economy, and the people who die in factory fires, likewise.
Surveillance states aren’t uncommon at all. Chinese and Japanese history are full of curfews, and people having to carry papers at all times, and restrictions on travel, and so on. The late Roman empire was, in certain respects, a surveillance state. Of course the USSR was, East Germany was, and indeed, many European countries, even today, require citizens to carry and show papers.
The problem with surveillance states, and with oppression in general, is the cost. This cost is both direct, in the resources that are required, and indirect in the lost productivity and creativity caused by constant surveillance. Surveillance states, oppressive states, are not creative places, they are not fecund economically. They can be efficient and productive, for as long as they last, which is until the system of control is subverted, as it was in the USSR. We forget, in light of the late USSR’s problems, that it did create an economic miracle in the early years, and tremendously boost production. Mancur Olson’s “Power and Prosperity” gives a good account of why it worked, and why it stopped working.
Liberalism, in its classic form, is, among other things, the proposition that you get more out of people if you treat them well. Conservatism is the proposition that you get more out of people if you treat them badly.
Post war Liberalism was a giant experiment in “treat people well”. The Reagan/Thatcher counter-revolution was a giant experiment in “treat people worse”. The empirical result is this: the rich are richer and more powerful in a society that treats people like shit, but a society which treats people well has a stronger economy, all other things being equal, than one that treats them badly. This was, also, the result of the USSR/West competition. (Treating people well or badly isn’t just about equality.)
Liberalism, classic and modern, believes that a properly functioning “freer” society is a more powerful society, all other things being equal. This was, explicitly, Adam Smith’s argument. Build a strong peacetime economy, and in wartime you will crush despotic nations into the dirt.
If you want despotism, as elites, if you want to treat everyone badly, so you personally become more powerful and rich, then, you’ve got two problems: an internal one (revolt) and an external one: war and being outcompeted by other nations elites, who will come and take away your power, one way or the other (this isn’t always violently, though it can be.)
The solution is a transnational elite, in broad agreement on the issues, who do not believe in nationalism, and who play by the same rules and ideology. If you’re all the same, if nations are just flags, if you feel more kinship for your fellow oligarchs, well then, you’re safe. There’s still competition, to be sure, but as a class, you’re secure.
That leaves the internal problem, of revolt. The worse you treat people, the more you’re scared of them. The more you clamp down. This is really, really expensive and it breaks down over generations, causing internal rot, till you can’t get the system to do anything, no matter how many levers you push.
What is being run right now is a vast experiment to see if modern technology has fixed these problems with surveillance and oppressive states. Is it cheap enough to go full Stasi, and with that level of surveillance can you keep control over the economy, keep the levers working, make people do what you want, and not all slack off and resist passively, by only going through the motions?
The oligarchs are betting that the technology has made that change. With the end of serious war between primary nations (enforced by nukes, among other things), with the creation of a transnational ruling class, and with the ability to scale surveillance, it may be possible to take and keep control indefinitely, and bypass the well understood problems of oligarchy and police and surveillance states.