Saturday, July 18, 2015

Neo-Imperialism and the nature of power: surveillance, Edward Snowden and democracy

The author recently wrote an article documenting the rise of surveillance in modern society, and how this coincided with the rise of the internet and the widespread use of CCTV. When the Edward Snowden revelations were revealed to the world two years ago, the extent to which the USA (and its Anglophone partners, especially the UK) were gathering masses of information across the globe was astounding. In the article mentioned above I alluded to the "public" rationale for this level of surveillance (The War On Terror etc.), but also to the - more likely - "private" reason: they do it because they can.

This is not to say that these people in government are "evil". It is more down to the simple human nature of those with their hands on the levers of power. The capability exists to know almost everything there is to know about people; therefore, not to use it would seem almost like a abrogation of government's instinct to do what it can to control events.

The modern nation-state is a creation of law. It took centuries for autocratic societies to be transformed into nation-states where those in power were held in check by an objective set of laws. Britain was one of the first nations to achieve this basic principle. The USA took this principle to (for the 18th century) its logical conclusion, by creating a state based "on laws, not men". Since then, other nations have improved this concept further. It is no surprise that the nations with the most stringent application of rule of law are also the most stable and the least corrupt. Therefore, any government that follows these principles consistently (i.e. is not a corrupt dictatorship) is bound by the law of the land in its actions. But where does surveillance fit into this?

"Spycraft" has been a feature of governments for centuries, and more sophisticated  - and intrusive - techniques were developed as the technology became available. Fast forward to the end of the Second World War. The USA and the British Empire had won the war, but now faced the threat of Soviet Russia. Thanks to a quirk of geography, many of the world's telecommunications cross the Atlantic between the USA and the UK. This meant they also had the capability to intercept a large volume of the world's telecommunications. Faced with the threat of Soviet Russia, the USA and it's English-speaking partners (The UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) created the "Five Eyes": a secret surveillance network. While those within the "Five Eyes" network worked together, all other countries' communications were effectively declared "fair game" - which included other NATO allies. All this was kept secret from the outside world, until it was cracked open by Edward Snowden.

As the adage goes "information is power". While these governments are bound by their own laws. we also have seen those laws easily modified in times of crisis and war. Freedom (of expression and privacy) and the rule of law is not permanent or set in stone once it has been created. These things can be rolled back. The 9/11 attacks and the War On Terror saw the US government and its Anglophone allies grant sweeping powers of surveillance over their own citizens, as well as others all across the globe. The "rule of law" that was meant to be there to check the excesses of government, was being bent to the breaking point. It would take a great deal of legal trickery to demonstrate that what the US government was doing did not break its own constitution. In the UK, where the "rule of law" was a more flexible construct given the lack of a written constitution, the government were able to do even more.
While terrorism was the official justification to their respective parliaments, in reality the surveillance covered everything from hoovering up the browsing habits of Europeans, to bugging the phones of European leaders. Again, for what possible purpose could this serve to the "War On Terror"?

The meaning of Neo-Imperialism

In reality, these techniques and the widespread use of spycraft on allies and enemies alike showed that the Anglophone spy agencies were really using the technology in whatever way they could, within the (hazy) constraints of the law. Governments are as fallible and as hard-wired to over-reach as the rest of us; the same can be said for companies. Like any ordinary person, given the chance the government will do whatever it thinks it can get away with.

This is the meaning of what we call "Neo-Imperialism". In the 21st century, the world is a place of a number of different centres of power, with alliances here and there, each vying for control. In such a setting, where things seem so uncertain, "information" truly is key. The irony is that the two most significant geo-political events of the last five years - the Arab Spring and its aftermath, (with the subsequent Civil War in Syria and the rise of ISIS) and the crisis in Ukraine and Russia's schism with the West - happened without the west (and the "Anglophone alliance) having a clue about what was about to happen.

An intervention in Libya is called a "failure of Neo-Imperialism", while a non-intervention in Syria and the rise of ISIS is likewise called a "failure of Neo-Imperialism". Neo-Imperialism is about using the modern instruments at the disposal of the world's most powerful governments to try and control events.
We talk about "soft power" and "hard power". The USA uses both. Under George W. Bush, "hard power" was the instrument of preference, supported by "soft power". Under Barack Obama, the emphasis seems to be reversed. The UK was recently shown to be at the top of the world table in its successful use of "soft power". Given its lack of a serious military budget, it is no surprise that the UK uses more indirect methods to get what it wants. It charms and cajoles; it submits and threatens where necessary.

The British Empire may well be a thing of the past, but Britain is still an "empire" in all but name, at least in terms of the way carries out its world affairs, as well as many of its affairs at home. While we are in the 21st century, many nations are still run in a pseudo-feudalistic way. Neo-Imperialism is really just a variation on the world politics of the late 19th and early 20th century, but with modern technology allowing for other techniques to be used for the same ends.

The first half of the 20th century saw the rise of totalitarian states in Russia and Germany. Today, the idea of such a nightmare returning seems thankfully remote. However, while few would see the use of surveillance as "authoritarianism" in the classic sense, the insidious nature of this power is what makes it so easy to ignore. Comparatively few people are truly concerned; they are not aware of it happening, as they would have been in the times of the Nazis or the Soviet Union.
Again, this demonstrates the changed nature of the state: whereas before the state wanted you to know that you were being watched, these days it is done (or was, until Edward Snowden) without public awareness.

As said before, it is easy to understand why governments do it; with the technological capability there, the temptation is too strong to resist, so excuses are created for its use. This technology may seem benign to many but, as with rule of law, these things are prone to change. Governments are masters of "threat management". With the rise of the symbiosis between government and business, accountability and oversight can quickly become lost.
This is the neo-liberal orthodoxy that has ruled the roost in the Anglosphere for the last thirty-five years.

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