Big Government Fans Rally Around the Surveillance State

One cannot critique the surveillance state without critiquing the rest of the existing political apparatus.


If I understand Princeton historian Sean Wilentz correctly, progressives ought not to be grateful to Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Glenn Greenwald for exposing government spying because they are not card-carrying progressives. ("Would You Feel Differently About Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange If You Knew What They Really Thought?") Apparently they have either hung out with libertarians, praised or supported a libertarian, or said something sympathetic to some part of the libertarian philosophy — which cancels out anything they might have gotten credit for. (Wilentz is no stickler for consistency, since he criticizes Greenwald for taking libertarian positions now and also for making anti-immigration statements in the past. So is he too libertarian, Professor, or not libertarian enough? For an analysis of Wilentz's McCarthyite tactics, see Justin Raimondo.)

The problem for Wilentz is that when guys like these disclose that the government conducts comprehensive surveillance in ways that would have made O'Brien drool, it puts the entire progressive agenda in jeopardy. He writes,

To them, national security is not a branch of the government; it is the government, or it is tantamount to being the government: a sinister, power-mad authority.… It is impossible, therefore, to reform this clandestine Leviathan from the inside. And so the leakers are aiming at de-legitimating and, if possible, destroying something much larger than a set of NSA programs. They have unleashed a torrent of classified information with the clear intent of showing that the federal government has spun out of control, thereby destroying the public's faith in their government's capacity to spy aggressively on our enemies while also protecting the privacy of its citizens. They want to spin the meaning of the documents they have released to confirm their animating belief that the United States is an imperial power, drunk on its hegemonic ambitions. [Emphasis added.]

At first glance, that seems odd. If individuals are willing to risk their lives and liberty to reveal that the government vacuums up vast quantities of information on everyone — without probable cause or even grounds for suspicion — why do their larger agendas matter? Shouldn't progressives care about this even if they disagree with other things the leakers believe?

But it matters to Wilentz. Employing a dubious logic, he apparently reasons thusly: We have a government worthy of support because of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, and protection from "our enemies." Leaks which reveal that this government spies on us indiscriminately erode confidence in that government and, by implication, all those good things. Therefore, people with apparently libertarian motives who leak that information are to be reviled.

If you caught that bit of question-begging above, well done! Wilentz repeatedly assumes what is in dispute. For example, he fears that "the public's faith in their government's capacity to spy aggressively on our enemies while also protecting the privacy of its citizens" is being destroyed, yet he never gets around to showing that the government can do both things. He claims, without evidence, that the government is worthy of allegiance and is not "an imperial power, drunk on its hegemonic ambitions." But as Henry Farrell writes at Crooked Timber, "There's plenty of evidence both of imperialism and hegemonic drunkenness."

Wilentz commits another bit of question-begging. He says Snowden, Assange, and Greenwald share a "political impulse that might be described … as paranoid libertarianism."

Oh my! The qualifier paranoid suggests that libertarians unreasonably believe that the government may not have the best interests of regular people at heart. Wilentz assumes — without argument — that we libertarians are wrong about that. But if we're right, then paranoia is a baseless charge. So Professor Wilentz is obligated to show that we are wrong before he uses that defamatory qualifier.

He will have a tough time pulling off that feat, for throughout American history the government has destroyed as much freedom as it could get away with. As Chris Hedges sums up (in a mock Obama speech, "What Obama Really Meant Was …"),

Americans were steadily shorn of their most basic constitutional rights and their traditions of limited government. U.S. intelligence agencies were always anchored in a system of secrecy — with little effective oversight from either elected leaders or ordinary citizens.…

In the 1960s, the U.S. government spied on civil rights leaders, the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement and critics of the Vietnam War, just as today we are spying on Occupy activists, environmentalists, whistle-blowers and other dissidents. And partly in response to these revelations decades ago, especially regarding the FBI's covert dirty tricks program known as COINTELPRO, laws were established in the 1970s to ensure that our intelligence capabilities could not be misused against our citizens. In the long, twilight struggle against communism, and now in the fight against terrorism, I am happy to report that we have eradicated all of these reforms and laws.

Wilentz seems to live in fear that the baby — the welfare/warfare state — will be thrown out with the bathwater — the admitted "abuses" by the NSA. (He does not regard the NSA as abusive per se.) "Where liberals, let alone right-wingers, have portrayed the leakers as truth-telling comrades intent on protecting the state and the Constitution from authoritarian malefactors, that's hardly their goal," Wilentz writes. "In fact, the leakers despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it."

If only it were so.

Peter Frase at Jacobin makes an interesting point when he sees in Wilentz's article "an attempt to conflate the ideal of the liberal state with the existing national security state, in an attempt to force defenders of the welfare state to also embrace the authoritarian warfare state." He continues:

I think that when leftists set themselves up as defenders of government against libertarian hostility to the state, they unwittingly accept the Right's framing of the debate in a way that's neither an accurate representation of reality nor a good guide to political action.

The Right, in its libertarian formulation, loves to set itself up as the defender of individual liberty against state power. And thus contemporary capitalism — often referred to by that overused buzzword, "neoliberalism" — is often equated in casual left discourse with the withdrawal of the state.

But in the works that developed neoliberalism as a category of left political economy, this is not how things are understood at all. Neoliberalism is a state project through and through, and is better understood as a transformation of the state and a shift in its functions, rather than a quantitative reduction in its size.…

The growth of the surveillance state … clearly makes up a central part of the neoliberal turn, and is not something ancillary to it.

Aside from Frase's placing libertarians on the Right, this is good stuff. (Likewise, Wilentz explicitly places FFF on the Right, demonstrating either his poor research skills or his sense of humor.) Both the establishment Left and the establishment Right offer flawed package deals: the former's consists in the welfare/warfare state, while the latter's consists in the warfare/"free"-enterprise state. (Enterprise is not really free because the political environment is deeply corporatist.) In practice, the two are hardly different except for their rhetorical emphases. The point is to hold various constituencies in line by having them believe they must accept the whole package.

Neoliberalism is corporate statism, not the freed market. As Frase says, "it's a state project through and through." But contrary to Frase, libertarians (unlike most conservatives) know better than to conflate "contemporary capitalism" with "the withdrawal of the state," although at times many libertarians talk as if they don't. Otherwise, Frase gets it right. The welfare state, warfare state, and corporate state are of a piece. The government interventions needed to assist well-connected economic interests and to carry out world hegemony create permanent structural economic problems and hardships for the most vulnerable in society. To buy off the victims and reduce the chance of civil strife, the power elite builds an intrusive welfare bureaucracy designed to toss crumbs to the trapped population. In other words, the welfare state is a mechanism of social control made necessary by the corporate-welfare/warfare state.

So in the end, despite his errors and calumnies, Wilentz is right in a way he doesn't know. One cannot critique the surveillance state without critiquing the rest of the existing political apparatus.

This column originally appeared on the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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  1. FIRRRRRST……………..

    You are bested FOE! Quiver in fear at my display of firstienest!

  2. Oh and with respect to Wilentz….it’s a pity poor Bob Denver had to change his name and become a college professor after Gilligan’s Island ended. I always kind of enjoyed it!

  3. I presume based on the fact that there are only two previous replies that this is actually a new article, and not something regurgitated from months ago? 😉

    1. On a Sunday morning?

      1. Well, it might have been written a few days ago, and autoposted. Like Baylen’s normal Saturday morning post that didn’t show up this week. 🙁

    2. Well I had to let the dog out and couldn’t go back to sleep….where better to spend my Sunday morning insomnia than here?

      1. CH CH

        What’s missing?

        1. Why ya want to invoke the name of Cheech Marin early on a Sunday? 😉

      2. I’m on the east coast, so it’s not early for me; besides, I was enjoying Wawrinka’s defeat of Nadal at the Australian Open. 🙂

  4. I think Frase is more right than Richman, in that he calls “neoliberalism” a buzzword. To me, “neoliberalism” seems like the new word to replace “fascism” to mean “I can dismiss your political/economic ideas out of hand, just because.”

    1. His use of the word “corporatist” throughout tells me Richman doesn’t have a problem with empty buzzwords.

      Anyway, this whole way of looking at the world is entirely wrong. The modern massive state and all its perversions are entirely a democratic construction. It’s not some evil corporation or politician who’s to blame. It was created by the average guy on the street who has a whole host of opinions about how everybody should act and zero problem hiring the state to enforce them that created the welfare/warfare state.

      1. Bush-Cheney Energy Strategy: Procuring the Rest of the World’s Oil

        Democratic or corporatist?

        1. “Procuring the Rest of the World’s Oil”?

          Well they sure did a sucky job of it.

          Wait: didn’t Bush tell the other countries ‘If you like your oil, you can keep it!’

          After that he would have to take it, right?

        2. Democratic or corporatist?

          Why can’t it be both?

        3. Democratic.

          Even if I accept the premise from a website called “Common Dreams” (LOL!), all you have to do is look at the fury the average Joe responds to every time there’s a 10 cent hike in the price of a gallon of gas and you’ll understand why “Procuring the Rest of the World’s Oil” is exactly a democratic outcome.

      2. No, I disagree. Democracy only ended up this way because the Constitution allows police powers. If there were no police powers, government could not intrude like it does. And with police powers, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a democracy or not.

      3. That’s not fair. Politicians/bureaucrats are not innocently catering to the demands of your common man. But there is no good reason to think that democracy is any kind of protection against these practices. I’d use Lysander Spooner’s sentiment: if the Constitution/democracy don’t authorize these practices, they’re nonetheless powerless to prevent it.

      4. For a long time, libertarian analysts have included 2 poles: those who believe in class struggle, and those who believe in Walt Kelly’s, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” And it really does make a difference in how you approach trying to make things better, depending which model you believe. The rest of us are somewhere in between. I think some problems are the product of self-interest contention between gainers & losers, others by democratic stupidity, and most by about equal parts of each. I think those who come to either extreme in their analysis are on one pole paranoid and projecting, and on the other naive and projecting. Yeah, they’re both projecting, no typo there.

      5. Well, it’s a combination of both.

        “Powers That Be” here in the US had to contend with the system of elections and terms built in at the ground floor i.e. the “democratic” function (setting aside the “representative republic” methodology actually employed). But, over time, the PTB were able to fashion certain institutions for their own benefit, and certainly not for the benefit of the “Man In The Street”. I have seen little clamoring from the MITS for currency debasement.

        Every system of governance has the requirement to hoodwink the MITS and expand enough of the populace into the PTB club to gain enough control over institutions to perpetuate the benefits for the PTB and to see they don’t come to an end. All that is different in a “democracy” is the PTB club be some factor larger than in a totalitarian system, but not that much bigger as any system requires a chain of adherents to make the system work.

        1. Cont.

          And there it is in a nutshell. Revolution is made and won by the upper end of the “middle masses”. In the end, the PTB are a small percentage, and those in the 60th percentile (the lower middle class and the poor) are too unorganized and parochial. It is the lower end of the ministerial class and upper end of the management class that bring about change whatever the political/economic construction is. Once they are radicalized, the salad days for the PTB will come to an end. Despite the attacks made by the statist left and right, the radicalization of those who “get things done” is underway and growing.

  5. A ford roush tweaked V6 lemans prototype set the Daytona lap speed record last week at 220+ mph. A v6 engine that is 70% stock. Amazing.

  6. Frap Daddy Soso says thats not gonna happen.

  7. Wilentz seems to live in fear that the baby ? the welfare/warfare state ? will be thrown out with the bathwater ? the admitted “abuses” by the NSA. (He does not regard the NSA as abusive per se.)

    The reason people like Wilentz take such absolutist position is not different to the reason why bible literalists take umbrage when the idea the bible is not inerrant: that if doubt is cast or error demonstrated on a single part of the whole, the whole then is irremediably compromised, the foundation of everything good that stems from it is undermined. It is not simply the fact that there are people out there who are unbelievers or sceptical of the revealed truthness of this moral good, as you will always find such characters everywhere for whom we have institutionalized inquisitions (elementary school, the press, universities, et cetera); it is the fact that these people can demonstrate the inconsistencies in an unequivocal way, to uncover the man behind the curtain so to speak, that is seen by these true believers as the real threat to the foundation of their beliefs, thus it becomes necessary to demonize such people by impugning their motives

    1. Perhaps, but don’t you think that a substantial motivation behind articles like Wilentz’s is the fact the his guy Obama is taking the heat for the NSA scandal? Somehow I question whether Wilentz would be taking this position if the Snowden leaks had occurred during Bush’s term.

      1. I agree. Dems would be all over Bush for this. As would the media. But, that goes for a whole lot of things that have happened.

  8. Aside from Frase’s placing libertarians on the Right, this is good stuff. (Likewise, Wilentz explicitly places FFF on the Right, demonstrating either his poor research skills or his sense of humor.)

    So is Sheldon still pulling the whole “libertarians are leftists” thing? What does he have in common with Wilentz and Frase?

    1. the whole “libertarians are leftists” thing

      But the worst thing about the rise of the socialist movement was that it was able to outflank the classical liberals “on the Left”: that is, as the party of hope, of radicalism, of revolution in the Western World. For, just as the defenders of the ancien r?gime took their place on the right side of the hall during the French Revolution, so the liberals and radicals sat on the left; from then on until the rise of socialism, the libertarian classical liberals were “the Left,” even the “extreme Left,” on the ideological spectrum. As late as 1848, such militant laissez-faire French liberals as Frederic Bastiat sat on the left in the national assembly.

      For A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto by Murray Rothbard

      1. Bastiat sat on the left along with Proudhon.

        I think left libertarians and right libertarians both support “market anarchism”, if you will, they simply disagree on what form the spontaneous, voluntary relationships will take. Perhaps both.

        I simply consider it personal preference.

        1. Perhaps both.

          In current terminology again, the libertarian position on property and economics would be called “extreme right wing.” But the libertarian sees no inconsistency in being “leftist” on some issues and “rightist” on others. On the contrary, he sees his own position as virtually the only consistent one, consistent on behalf of the liberty of every individual. For how can the leftist be opposed to the violence of war and conscription while at the same time supporting the violence of taxation and government control? And how can the rightist trumpet his devotion to private property and free enterprise while at the same time favoring war, conscription, and the outlawing of noninvasive activities and practices that he deems immoral? And how can the rightist favor a free market while seeing nothing amiss in the vast subsidies, distortions, and unproductive inefficiencies involved in the military-industrial complex?


  9. When did Jacobins ever oppose the surveillance state or war?

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  12. The modern massive state and all its perversions are entirely a democratic construction. It’s not some evil corporation or politician who’s to blame. agree

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