Monthly Archives: September 2013

Regimes of Full-Spectrum Surveillance and Whistleblowers

How should we understand the phenomenon of leaking? Can we call it a new form of legitimate resistance against all-powerful regimes of authority?

By: Giulio Caperchi

Wikileaks Logo

Wikileaks Logo

Since the NSA scandal blowout, I’ve been on the fence regarding the support of whistleblowers such as Manning, Assange and Snowden. On one hand, I praise them for finally putting the spotlight on the abuses that our institutions of authority perpetrate on a daily basis. I admire them sacrificing comfortable lives for prison sentences or lives in exile. On the other hand I’ve always wondered: who are these whistleblowers ? What set of assumptions motivate their decisions? More importantly, how do their actions influence society? (And was the leaking of diplomatic cables really necessary?)

What helped me get a grip on the debate was a comparison between two opinion pieces by two writers on the opposite ends of the political spectrum: conservative NYTimes columnist David Brooks and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. Brooks’ piece The Solitary Leaker bluntly states that Snowden has betrayed the trust of social and political institutions which support the common good and keep together a political community. Conversely, in Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange: our new heroes, Zizek argues that whistleblowers have become necessary figures in our new digital era and that every authoritarian regime should have one.

Mulling over these two contrasting opinions brought me to the conclusion that yes, whistleblowers are necessary, but also that leaking -understood as a form of resistance against unaccountable regimes of authority- is a fundamentally undemocratic form of resistance. Let me illustrate my point by briefly going back to Brooks and Zizek.

Brooks’ critique of Snowden’s moral character is based on pretty flimsy, and frankly ridiculous, evidence. Allegedly, Snowden hasn’t visited his mother in a while and he isn’t a very amicable neighbor. Harrowing evidence folks. (If you haven’t already, please take a look at Snowden’s video interview on the Guardian too see what Snowden is really like.)

For Brooks, Snowden has betrayed the cause of “open government” (as if the CIA and NSA are transparent public institutions); he has betrayed the Constitution because he “short-circuited the democratic structures of accountability, putting his own preferences above everything else” (as if the CIA and NSA would indeed be held accountable); and that by revealing the secrets he was entrusted with, he has betrayed “honesty and integrity, the foundation of all cooperative activity” (as if working for a defense contractor is a “cooperative” endeavor). His acts of betrayal, concludes Brooks, ultimately create a climate of distrust which damages the already frail bonds holding together our political society.

But Brooks isn’t an idiot, and he highlights a provocative dimension of the act of leaking. Brooks positions Snowden firmly within a growing libertarian narrative emerging across the American political spectrum. He paints Snowden as a “solitary leaker,” a victim of an atomized society which ultimately pits the naturally free individual against the leviathan nation-state in an epic David and Goliath-like scenario. More importantly, Brooks points out that Snowden acted unilaterally: his act of resistance was unmediated by political institutions and based thoroughly on his personal moral prerogative.

Zizek, on the other hand, states that the world is in dire need of more leakers. Leakers are crucial because not only do they shed light on the abuses that characterise this digital era, but because they remind us that the digital age may be informed by Immanuel Kant’s idea of the public use of reason: “the transnational universality of the exercise of one’s reason.” They keep alive the (somewhat utopian) idea of the internet understood as a free and radically transparent frontier where all kinds of debate may flourish.

Zizek suggests that not only the US, but also China, Russia and other authoritarian regimes need more leakers. The world therefore requires an organization which can protect leakers and help them spread word of the abuses they have denounced. He believes that “whistleblowers are our heroes because they prove that if those in power can do it, we can also do it.” (I make a very similar point in a previous post The Reverse Panopticon)

Between the two commentators, I side with Zizek. Albeit partially, and here’s why. If we consider the act of digital leaking as a new form of resistance against various regimes of surveillance and control (be them articulated through governmental or private institutions, -or both), we must first ask: how democratic is this form of resistance? Can I partake in its decision making? Can I decide (democratically) what and when gets leaked? I understand these are somewhat banal questions, after all the whole point of leaking is to catch institutions of authority by surprise and to then leverage public opinion. But they serve the rhetorical purpose of shedding light on the fact that what and when gets leaked is totally up to the moral prerogative of the individual whistleblower . Like Brooks states, the leaker acts unilaterally.

And here is where I agree with Brooks, the figure of the “solitary leaker” lends itself to a dangerous libertarian and manichaean narrative in which public authority (except that protecting private property) is bad, and where individual decision making (insofar as it is rational) is good. It is no surprise that Rand and Ron Paul support the leakers. It fits neatly within a political vocabulary predicated on the denial of collective decision making.

Leaking is therefore a form of resistance starkly different from that, say, of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, in which the democratic element in consensus-seeking assemblies dominated all aspects of decision making (perhaps to a debilitating point).

In conclusion, let me shed my naive democratic yearnings and talk a bit of realpolitik. Perhaps leaking is the best form of resistance to Empire we’ve got today. Assange, Manning and Snowden have indeed scared the living lights out of some of the most powerful institutions on earth. And maybe Zizek is right: at least now this awesome architecture of full-spectrum surveillance knows that if it can infiltrate every crevice of our private lives, we can do the same to it.

But let us remember that tidbits of leaked information, although painful, merely embarrass such powerful institutions. As Brooks points out, they will learn from their mistakes and tighten their grip. Let us not be naive and think that because abuses were revealed they will submit their actions to public scrutiny and accountability. After all only half of the American population disapproves of government surveillance programs.  In all probability they will act with ever more secrecy, and farther away from law.

The real solution to such abuses of power is to address the structural problems at the heart of our democratic societies, namely secrecy, inequality and discrimination. And the solution to these problems can only be more democracy: leaks and leakers alone won’t do the trick.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized