The conspicuously nonsensical efforts by President Barack Obama and NSA spy chief Alexander to assure Americans massive corporate-government spy operations had prevented terrorist attacks were supported by only a few easily disproved lies. More broadly, the history of recent decades has government spy agencies hiring ‘private’ companies to carry out the activities they are legally prohibited from carrying out. This makes government assertions regarding spying on citizens a game of three-card monte—the testimony of government officials is calculated to be irrelevant to actual activities.
In a narrow sense the implied purpose of the spy program that remains—political-economic domination and control by corporate and government technocrats, suffers from the internal paradox of too many spies having too much spying power. In the effort to ‘monetize’ information gathered through spy operations, which good capitalist will forego using spy capabilities against competitors? Which bureaucratic climber will forego the advantage of catching his / her competitor in flagrante delicto with an under-aged prostitute? Which political Party will forego certain knowledge of the strategies of its ‘competitor?’
But internal paradox doesn’t mean the spy programs aren’t incredibly dangerous—left unstated is why the corporate state feels the need to surveil and control the populace? And like the surveillance technocracy, from the Bill Clinton era to today, Wall Street has gotten absolutely everything it asked for—deregulation, increased leverage, bankruptcy ‘reform,’ freedom from legal culpability, rights of predation through Federal supercedence of local laws, and of course, large and ongoing public subsidies. The result, following its near self-immolation in 2008, is a larger, more inter-connected, and ultimately more fragile financial system than existed before its wish list was fulfilled.
While the idea of ironic justice—the consequences to Wall Street of the next financial meltdown or corporate-government spies turning on one another, has a certain appeal, actual human lives are finite and the unwinding, following from history, will cause harm and misery in inverse proportion to existing social power. The (rapidly) disappearing middle class is evidence of the consequences of political passivity. The (rapidly) disappearing concept of freedom from corporate- government intrusion into, and intermediation of, all social relations is another. And the well-sold notion of corporate-consumer ‘partnership’ is seeing its political fruition as the telecom and Internet companies to whom paying large monthly bills was previously seen as a virtue reveal themselves as child-hipster fronts for unimagined totalitarian power.
That Mr. Obama has apparently lost some of his competence at lying, as illustrated by his domestic spying apologetics, has consequences beyond incrementally awakening the perpetually zombified ‘dismal center’ that constitutes his base. How many fewer citizens this week still imagine a political leader from either Party ever acting in the public interest? How many more charismatic charlatans—Party hacks acting in plutocrat interests against those of the citizenry, can successfully manage the fifth, sixth, seventh… terms of the George W. Bush administration? Americans have always had a genius, possibly our dominant skill, for creating better iterations of bullshit, but how many more times will we dance in the streets, as occurred in Cambridge, MA upon Mr. Obama’s election, knowing the infrastructure of the spy-murder state remains intact?
Put another way, at what point does the abject refusal of the American people to act politically become a liability for the corporate state? It was the relative balance of political-economic power Franklin Roosevelt achieved with the New Deal that saved capitalism from itself. And it was the internal and external threats to the political-economic order that led the plutocracy of that day to give a little to keep a lot – the wisdom to do so was not self-generated by corporate titans and financiers. With all of the political institutions of today dedicated to giving the plutocracy—financiers, corporate executives, and their partners in technocratic totalitarianism, what it wants, where is an FDR to tell it what it needs?
And where does this leave the internal contradictions of the existing corporate-state? Wall Street is a bigger and ‘better’ finance-bomb just waiting to go off. How many more times will a stock market crash leave the citizenry fearful not saving Wall Street is more destructive than saving it? Corporate executives are ever more effectively impoverishing their customers to pay themselves. At what point is the inflection hit where executive self-enrichment leads to diminishing returns for even themselves? And where does that leave a political leadership that perceives itself immune from political retribution because it can always find personal redemption by moving to the ‘private’ sector? Again, the ironic justice of corporate-state cannibalism leaves contrived and real dependencies—the mutual dependence of citizens and corporate state institutions, to drive us down a totalitarian path until a functioning political economy can be recovered from the ruins.
The role of Internet companies in developing the technocracies of totalitarianism provides a different shade of irony. Current framing has the government forcing tech companies to comply with government demands they provide ‘private’ data. But who incubated these tech companies from infancy, delivered products developed in government labs for them to commercialize, subsidized the ‘math and science’ curriculums in their support, subsidized the building of the telecommunications infrastructure on which tech depends and winked and nodded at fraudulent employment schemes to underpay immigrant labor in their service? More directly, who subsidized these companies as they grew? And fundamentally, who built the Internet? From the bowels of the Pentagon to the playground idiocy of Silicon Valley, there exists nary a tech millionaire or billionaire not by degree living on the people’s dime.
So far this framing posits the single direction of government subsidizing tech for its own nefarious intent—paying for the privilege, but extracting its due in blood. But what commercial genius lay behind convincing several generations of children, the dependents whose psychologies aren’t yet developed by history and experience to beware the intentions of cynical technocrats bearing toys, that delivering their life-secrets to self-serving capitalists would leave them safe? Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs thought nothing of using the advantages of history and strategies of planned destitution to squeeze those making ‘his’ computers for everything he could take. The major Internet companies span the globe to find captive workforces to labor in slave conditions to program their technologies of global domination, or more likely, the latest moronic ‘app’ that notifies one of the need to use the toilet. These are the capitalists and capitalist enterprises bravely standing between ‘the government’ and totalitarian intrusion? And who, exactly, do they run to to protect their privilege?
Were ‘the government’ in control, why would all of ‘its’ power and resources be dedicated to making the lives and bank accounts of this technerati, public largess dependent financiers, and the sociopathic tools occupying executive suites, so remunerative and comfortable? There is tension, no doubt, between the self-interest of plutocrat tools in government and their plutocrat masters—the largest neighborhood of the largest houses I ever saw being built was in suburban Washington, DC at the very height of the most recent economic calamity. But given the theorized power of government, why don’t self-interested bureaucrats take what the plutocrats have for themselves? This question is for my friends with anarchist and libertarian tendencies. As Lenin had it, and the late Hugo Chavez understood, the way to restrain totalitarian government is to restrain capitalist imperialism. The NSA and CIA are but tools, aspects, of imperialist capitalism.
Framed differently, it requires improbably separating method from purpose to argue ‘private’ and government data mining and statistical analysis developed from the symbiosis of government and business serve fundamentally different purposes. ‘Private’ data collection and use, e.g. stores that use ‘store cards’ to track and analyze customer purchases, is intended to provide economic advantage. Given the NSA can only give implausible and absurd explanations for why it tracks and uses similar data from the citizenry, what possible explanation, aside from mindlessly squandering public resources, is possible than to gain political advantage from it? Again, if the claim they’ve interrupted terrorist plots is demonstrably bullshit and bluster, what use value does the data they’re collecting have?
If giving self-interested sociopaths—the definition of successful capitalists, everything they wanted the roaring twenties and debt-fueled 2000s would have led to self-sustaining economic outcomes. But they led instead to financial and economic crashes. The move to consolidate political-economic power through the technocratic corporate state is likewise leading to increasing political dysfunction. One of the only political leaders in the U.S. with retained credibility, Barack Obama, appears to be losing his ability to serve as front for plutocrat interests. And technocratic overreach is leading to increasing skepticism of the corporate state nexus. The right-wing revolution started in the 1970s worked by demonizing government to the benefit of global capital. With both government and capital losing credibility, technocratic control and police repression are the tools remaining to sustain corporate state power.
The capacity for FDR style rejuvenation of Western capitalism probably existed when Mr. Obama first entered office as President. The crisis of confidence the financial meltdown and related Great Recession initially caused, if used in conjunction with the delivery of public resources, provided the opening for reframing government as the solution to unstable—and destabilizing, unfettered capitalism. The problem of leadership was, and remains, Mr. Obama and Congress are tools for narrow plutocrat interests when restoring political-economic stability requires understanding plutocrat interests, not serving them. Even were a competent leader to arise, a modern day FDR, the question of what historical opportunity remains is prominent.
The existing corporate state, complete with the infrastructure of totalitarian surveillance and control, is currently one step removed from full-blown fascism. The prevailing wisdom is the corporate-state technocracy has capabilities derived from economic interests overtaking the mechanics of modern democratic governance. This view requires isolating the technocracies of surveillance and control from changes in laws and interpretations of laws designed to consolidate political-economic control behind walls of impermeability. It also presumes the locus of totalitarian control is singularly political when by all evidence the state serves plutocrat (economic) interests. The willingness of top spy agency officials to openly lie about agency goals, intentions and practices suggests perceived vulnerability by those at the top. As history has it, perceived vulnerability by those in power is not necessarily fact and misplaced perceptions rarely lead to socially constructive outcomes.
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York. His book, “Zen Economics,” will be published by CounterPunch / AK Press in 2014.