As Americans debate and discuss revelations about the NSA brought on by the Edward Snowden saga — which is not going away anytime soon — it seems that the vast majority of mainstream perspectives focus heavily on the idea of privacy. Various pieces from the New Yorker, The Atlantic and others have discussed the role of the surveillance state and the insidious nature of the President’s “vast eavesdropping apparatus.” The cover of a recent issue of The Nation reads, “The End of Privacy.”
Another popular debate among the mainstream and progressive media questions effectiveness: does the surveillance state work? Does it make us safer, and is it worth the erosion of our civil liberties for ‘security’? People like Glenn Greenwald, David Cole, and Daniel Solove are right when they say the surveillance state is an infringement on our civil liberties, that it doesn’t make us safer, and that it’s not worth sacrificing privacy for security — but this discussion misses a vital aspect of the broader story. Above all, the American surveillance state reflects the ongoing privatization and enclosure of public spaces. It’s certainly important to criticize America’s “surveillance net” in the context of the decline of personal privacy and the loss of civil liberties. But it is also crucial to identify the role of contemporary capitalism in destroying public space and the centrality of public space in making true democracy possible.
The initial reactions to Snowden’s leaked information in the media establishment and general opinion polling in its aftermath showed a tacit understanding that telecommunications and the Internet are no longer a true commons. In an interview with Glenn Greenwald, Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC’s Morning Joe was visibly resistant to the idea that anything at all had changed, insisting on legalistic questions structured in defense of authority.
“But is the law broken?” she asked, ignoring the broader moral-ethical character of the issue in a context of warped legalism, where laws can secretly be interpreted and applied. “I don’t think so,” she concluded, “I think we all knew this was happening.” Pew Polling quickly showed a majority of Americans accepting NSA surveillance; larger majorities across all age groups professed to not even be following reports of phone and internet monitoring closely. Apparently contradicting trends in internet usage, younger Americans reported caring considerably less about surveillance than older Americans. Only 12% of Americans ages 18-29 said they followed the news about government tracking of email and online activity, compared to roughly a third of Americans older than 50.
As the weeks progressed — in part thanks to especially vocal (and opportunistic) Congressional opposition in some quarters — Pew recorded subtle shifts in certain features of the general mood. Strikingly, it was the first time more Americans expressed concern over civil liberties abuses than terrorism. Yet a majority still approved of NSA surveillance.
Even if these prevailing attitudes do not concern citizens, they should at least puzzle. We now know for certain that the U.S. government is actively engaging in a project to monitor and archive the entire social internet, a space we once imagined — although not without critical assessment — as free, open and commonly shared as the city square. Mobile phones are now so ubiquitous that for most people cell phone location is practically equivalent to body location. Call content can easily be accessed without warrants in a situation where the Department of Justice “has secretly interpreted surveillance law to permit thousands of low-ranking analysts to eavesdrop on calls.”
Why, then, is there so little resistance? What explains the disengagement of the youth, the complicity of broader society? Looking strictly at the NSA scandal and direct reactions concerning the violation of privacy seems to miss the larger picture. There is in fact a vibrant resistance, and youth engagement with questions of authoritarianism and the commons is deeper than ever before. But to appreciate the true scope of the struggle — and to situate ourselves within it — we need to expand our focus to the cultural and economic forces that enable communications surveillance and the increasingly fragmented society that contextualizes it.
How exactly did we get here? In the aftermath of the Cold War, Americans have seen the rise of a remarkable consumer capitalism and seemingly unparalleled material abundance concomitant with historic waves of economic suffering. These odious circumstances are anything but popular or democratic, reproducing themselves primarily through repression. The NSA, however, is just an overt apparatus, sitting astride a much subtler and more insidious regime of social fragmentation that makes it possible.
Advertising and public relations play a key role in our consumer capitalism, bridging the gap between decades of stagnating wages and capital’s inherent need for constant growth in production and consumption. In the context of strict economic rationality, we should not be buying an increasing amount of the increasingly rarefied goods available for purchase (the vast majority of the American population that has seen no real economic gains for a generation). But advertising spending per capita in the United States (consistently the largest ad market in terms of total spending) has increased to $876 dollars for every man, woman, and child — the highest per capita in the world — to urge us to overcome this basic sensibility.
Providing the means to participate in this irrational system has been the boom in easily accessible consumer credit. As late as 1980 the growth for median U.S. household income was on par with that of credit card debt per household. Today, credit card debt is growing at 1,200% the rate of household income.
On the production side of this immense and hollow diversification of commodities are the firms producing these increasingly irrelevant goods. Companies today are exceptionally specialized, from the biotechnology research facility that studies particular strands of the soybean genome to the Silicon Valley startup that lets us chart our sleeping schedules; the cinnamon bun chain store to the mobile phone screen protector industry. Within these environments, the pressures of stagnant incomes and chronic underemployment have pushed Americans to work more than anyone else in the industrialized world.
Pulling these pieces together, a rough sketch of the American worker in the crosshairs of the surveillance state begins to come into focus. The growing irrelevance of the commodities we produce has surrounded us with colleagues we relate to in increasingly fragmented and obscure ways. Combined with the unparalleled magnitude of “work life,” the effect on social life has been withering. The few hours we have left at day’s end, that precious window where finally we might relate to other humans as humans — rather than business partners, employees or employers — are instead largely devoted to reproducing the strength for another day’s work.
One character from The Beautiful and the Damned, Siddhartha Deb’s moving portrait of a rapidly shifting, neoliberalizing India, offers a particularly striking assessment of social life across societies. Chakravarthy “Chak” Prasad is an Indian-born engineer who moves back home from Illinois to enjoy the fruits of uneven development. Deb introduces us to him as he builds a million-dollar house in the newly imported phenomenon of the gated community. In passing observation, Chak astutely outlines what he considers the primary divide between India, what he calls a “high-context” society, and the U.S., a “low-context society.” Reflecting on his time in the States, he observes that American social life is largely appointment-based. People make appointments and keep them; interactions are largely centered around the reason people have been brought together — “low-context.” In “high-context” India (at least the old India quickly fading as the skyscrapers rise), social interactions are less structured, more unplanned and fluid.
These qualitative differences in the texture of social life can be extended across the broader divide between societies that have not yet fully neoliberalized (many in the global South) and the industrialized North. The efficient fragmentation of economic and social interactions carries both unique costs as well as advantages. Under a “Freedom to Choose” low-context regime, what seems distinctly available is choice and personal control over the quality and duration of interactions. A person becomes highly “customizable,” able to pin down with fair certainty the acculturation they will receive. We are generally not subject to the unforeseen impositions of a sociable neighbor or rambling roadside philosopher.
At the same time, important things are lost. A fluidity of being escapes us; life becomes hopelessly transactional. We are anxious about acting inappropriately in particular environments. More problematic is the acting itself. The need to behave in distinct and different ways at work, in school, at yoga class, on a date at the bar, induces a psychosis of constant performance. In airless transitory space — the elevator, the train, the city sidewalks — we are “alone together” in a crowded but lonely world. Yale sociology student Esther Kim observes how in these spaces people exhibit “nonsocial transient behavior,” cultivating an active disengagement from the world around them.
In this light such careful regimentation appears more oppressive than liberating. The idea of social media fits well under these conditions. Reflecting the low-context ethos, social media allows us to carefully perform ourselves online, polishing and customizing the version of ourselves that we present to the world. Tools like Facebook are incredibly useful for managing our appointments and making new ones. Importantly, social media helps us cope with the fragmented state of social relations in a positive way, inserting small, discrete packets of unstructured social time throughout the day. It is not nearly fully satisfactory, but it stands in. The psychosis of performance remains. And relating through the internet erodes the trappings of intimacy, introducing the startling new element of technological surveillance.
In broad terms the surveillance state clearly expresses an authoritarian logic (we must trample your freedom in order to defend against hypothetical wrongdoing), as well as a sexist and racist logic. Falguni A. Sheth states,
I can hear the liberals now: “Of course, there she goes, making it all about race again.” Um, no. The NSA is making it about race/religion/ethnicity — as these are uniquely combined in the conceptual category of “Muslim Terrorists.” Other branches of the state have long established that terrorism is a unique category that, while defined race-neutrally as having to do with international or domestic political violence targeted against the U.S. government or its citizens, is almost uniquely and singularly applied to Muslims. We’ve seen evidence of this at other levels of government, as in the case of the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims (in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and internationally). Most recently, we saw this with the immediate rush to assume that a Saudi national that fled the Boston bomb blasts must have been the person who set them — before he was cleared the next day.
But it also reflects a fundamentally capitalist logic. Both government surveillance and recent attempts to create a “tiered internet” that would privilege profitable corporations over regular users can be viewed as attempts to enclose upon the social commons.
To illustrate: in his reading of English history, Marx roughly outlines three stages of the development of conditions necessary for capitalist wealth accumulation. First, the enclosure system worked to privatize communal land, turning by royal decree what was “commons,” owned by none and used by all, over to individual private owners. The second phase, the “clearing of the estates,” saw private interests expelling the peasantry from their newly-privatized land, turning the peasants’ means of subsistence into capital’s means of profit, first through the creation of sheep-walks, and then even more profitable “deer parks,” hunting grounds for the idle and wealthy. The final phase of the process was to then transform this nomadized surplus pool of labor into the industrial proletariat through “bloody legislation,” which coerced the landless into wage labor at the threat of incredibly punitive anti-vagrancy laws, effectively “closing their space” to wander.
Today, major corporations like Google and Verizon are pushing federal regulators to abandon the long-held principle of “net neutrality,” which preserves equal access to the Internet regardless of a site owner’s profitability. These firms envision instead a two-tiered system where the well-resourced can pay to have faster connections to their web services. Tiering the internet would closely mirror Marx’s account of enclosure, privileging wealth and power in what was once an egalitarian space. Large chunks of the “land” that was once totally free and open — access to the same internet shared by all — would be closed off for profit-making, expelling the rest of us to the vagrancy of a second-rate internet unless we too turn toward profit.
Government surveillance of the internet appears as a similar attempt to impose property relations on the commons. Just as enclosure destroyed the status of peasant lands in England as true commons, belonging not to the Crown but to the people, justifications of government surveillance rely on the assumption that federal authority can indeed extend to the internet. It is the State, we are told, not the people, that holds ultimate title to the digital commons.
The way in which this authority is exercised lends credence to the claim. Surveillance “keeps us safe,” the State insists, repeating ad nauseum the refrain echoing through Washington since 9/11. “Counterterrorism” as practiced through targeted assassinations and blanket surveillance attempts to preserve the violent conditions of American imperialism (wars of aggression in the Middle East, military and economic support for favorable tyrannical regimes) while eliminating its violent responses, a clear impossibility. While the government outwardly celebrates the shelling of cities as a humanitarian act, it in fact fulfills economic imperatives, ensuring the conditions necessary for profit and resource exploitation.
State surveillance attempts to enroll the entirety of the internet, the entirety of the telecommunications apparatus, toward this grand capitalist project. The programs are not consciously carried out as such, but this is the material global effect they have. Surveillance touches our daily lives primarily as an attempt to stanch terrorism while sustaining the conditions for the bombs to drop, the weapons to ship, the oil to flow and wealth to accumulate.
The same socioeconomic conditions that sustain our increased reliance on communication technologies also inform authoritarian attempts to control their use. But all is not lost. The polling and reporting on recent NSA revelations obscure the true extent of the struggle against authoritarianism and capitalist enclosure more generally by honing in on an infinitesimal pinpoint of the issue. Zooming out and appreciating the brutal economic and social factors feeding the logic of the program is a much more fruitful exercise. This is what various points of global resistance have intuitively done and continue to do. Viewed in scope, it seems myopic to rally around a specific surveillance program carried out by a specific state apparatus when their noxious economic and social foundations remain unaddressed.
So it is not surprising to take a step back and see people all over the world gathering in the commons they refuse to relinquish, from Zuccotti to Tahrir to Syntagma to Gezi. Those who resist are aided by tools on the internet freely available and commonly used, despite attempts to systematically narrow and control these avenues. These popular uprisings against authoritarianism are taking root in no more apposite a place than the public square, finding voice in the outrage against attempts to enclose common space, common economic growth, our common climate.
It is this struggle that we should emphasize, and in doing so shift our focus from the private sphere to the public sphere. Liberals berating Obama and his surveillance program in the context of the invasion of privacy — and for larger reasons connecting privacy, democracy and political freedom — are missing the bigger picture. We should be equally, if not more, concerned with the disappearance of the public sphere as a space of democratization.
Concepts of insurgent citizenship and constituent movements may help better appreciate the democratic value inherent to public space. Studying the years immediately after the American Revolution, political theorist Jason Frank presents useful ideas concerning times of democratic opening throughout history. The specific period he focuses on in the United States, the late 18th century, shows many of the characteristics of what Frank calls a constituent moment, that is, a moment when the “underauthorized seize the mantle of authorization.” Claims to speak of/for the people are well suited at such times, and they generate a political movement even though they break from the established channels of representing the popular voice.
Post-revolutionary America was a place of vibrant protest that constantly promoted the idea that ordinary people should be in charge of the political arena, not just the landowning elites. As Gordon Wood observes, “the American people came to rely more and more on their ability to organize themselves and to act out-of-doors, whether as mobs, political clubs, or as conventions.” Frank clarifies how “out-of-doors” came to encompass not only the street or the public squares but also communal activity taken outside of conventional political channels: “committees, conventions, popular juries and crowds . . . attempted to gather power from outside the political system; they were quasi-legal institutions that allowed the people to emerge and that made ‘possible a new actor collective in nature.’” Importantly, as David Graeber reminds us, these new forms of democratic organization developed in close contact with cultures traditionally communitarian and nonhierarchical in nature, such as Native American tribes and the pirate ships of the Atlantic. It is vital to note that the democratic space-creation that Frank describes occurred in the context of a historical settler colonial project and massive violence.
Frank shows how revolutionary crowds and democratic clubs created spaces of insurgent citizenship that allowed people to act without institutional authorization. Fundamental to this type of citizenship, he emphasizes, are political actions that lie outside of the traditional political realm. It requires “spaces of political declamation as well as political deliberation,” which in turn help “create an assertive and oppositional public culture.” In America’s post-revolutionary context, this oppositional public culture was pivotal in transforming public sentiment, shifting the debate toward a more popular and populist republicanism.
John Friedmann refines this idea of insurgent citizenship:
Insurgent citizenship is self-declared and voluntary. This is what defines it as being “from below,” that is, from the classes of commoners . . . Insurgent citizenship is achieved through active participation in temporary, nonterritorial political communities engaged in a dual struggle: the defense and preservation of existing human and citizen rights and the claiming of new rights. . . . To be an insurgent citizen is to be active in projects that, in the broadest sense, are aimed at the expansion of the spaces of democracy.
Many other authors have offered conceptions of insurgent citizenship that align with Frank’s ideas. Linda Zerilli describes an Arendtian, “action-centered” conception of politics, citing “coffee houses, street corners, living rooms, and kitchens” as exemplifying “how any physical space can be transformed into a political one and indeed how it is that things become public.” The work of anthropologist James Holston also focuses on spaces of insurgent citizenship: “By insurgent, I mean to emphasize the opposition of these spaces of citizenship to the modernist spaces that physically dominate so many cities today… The spaces of an insurgent citizenship constitute new metropolitan forms of the social not yet liquidated by or absorbed into the old. As such, they embody possible alternative futures.”
It should be noted — and this is an essential point — that the aforementioned characteristics of insurgent citizenship and the politicization of public space are vividly recognizable in the protests in Turkey and Egypt today. Cemal Burak Tansel observes that, in the case of Turkey, while the protection of green spaces such as Istanbul’s Gezi Park is necessary, the rapid growth of the movement against the Turkish government signifies deeper dissatisfaction with a larger political program the AKP has pushed since 2002: “authoritarian neoliberalism.” Tansel writes:
[P]rivatisation and the closure of public spaces continues as an increasing number of symbolic venues have become targets of the new construction boom. . . . The planned urban restructuring of Taksim and the destruction of Gezi Park has to be understood in the context of state-driven privatisation projects which fulfill the double enactment of surplus absorption and the closure of public spaces.
Along this line of thought, Sarah El-Kazaz argues explicitly “this is about the park,” and by focusing on the movement of the defense of the right to the city we have an opportunity to pinpoint the structural weaknesses of the Turkish regime. She claims, “The right to the city stands at the core of the political. The ability of people to decide the fate of their city, use their spaces as best fits their daily and expressive needs, feel secure in their property and receive essential services are at the heart of the relations that bind a citizenry to its government.”
In Egypt, Sharif Abdel Kouddous stressed as early as 2011 how public space in downtown Cairo had become the primary battleground in the effort to oust Mubarak. And just in the past few weeks, Kouddous noted how protesters filling Tahrir and other squares around Egypt used public space to air their grievances against Morsi.
In a much-discussed paradox, it is precisely this democratic insurgency of people in claiming their city that constitutes the sovereignty that governments cite while destroying public space. In the U.S., for example, acts of state repression are justified in legalistic terms that derive their legitimacy from the Constitution. What legitimizes this document in turn are “the people” who historically engaged in illegal acts of revolutionary violence. Appeals to legal authority collapse under the weight of this contradiction. Laws wielded as weapons against the commons again show themselves to be exercises of sheer brute force. Encampments are raided under the guise of making the spaces available for “the public.”
We should be thankful for the light Edward Snowden has shone on the American surveillance state, because with each new story the ugliness of its true scale becomes a little clearer. Taking a step back, it becomes clear that state surveillance is only a symptom of a much deeper disease. To focus simply on its immediate costs — deterioration of privacy, tactical inefficacy — is not enough. The destruction of the commons and the privatization of public space is an equal, if not much more serious, danger. As the concept of insurgent citizenship helps illustrate, these are the vital areas where democracy actually happens, where popular sovereignty takes root.
The NSA’s spying program is a single flashpoint amid the interconnected patterns of social fragmentation, economic inequality and political control that govern our lives. This broader cultural and economic perspective is crucial in understanding the full role surveillance plays in society. Our creeping loss of the commons indicates a much graver shift in social relations than the strictly individualist perspective suggests. Both personal and collective agency are stifled when the few powerful seize the spaces where we can think and reason and express our dissatisfaction, individual freedoms that collectively make mass democracy possible.
Prashanth Kamalakanthan writes on race, US foreign policy and political economy. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, and can be followed @pkinbrief.
Daniel LoPreto is Assistant Editor at Nation Books. He resides in Brooklyn.
Illustration by Eliza Koch. See more of Eliza’s work here.