Beyond Security v. Liberty: Leaking in Managed Democracieson 3 April 2014
By Lawrence Quill
A recent exchange in the Boston Review concerning the case of Edward Snowden highlights the dilemma that leaking poses to advanced democracies like the United States.
Defenders of Snowden point out that whistle-blowers perform an important corrective function to the inherent limits of representative government and the imperfections of democratic institutions. A responsible press supports the activities of leakers so that the public becomes aware of genuine issues of concern. This is nowhere more important than in the case of national security precisely because so much of what goes on under this moniker is shrouded in secrecy; not all of it warranted. By contrast, critics point out that Snowden as a government employee (albeit privately contracted) broke his oath betraying secrets without exposing any illegal activity or immoral wrongdoing. By refusing to use the mechanisms in place to assist whistle-blowers he must now face the wrath of the state.
These debates reflect a concern with ‘balancing’ the demands of security against the defense of individual liberty. Yet perhaps it is time we moved beyond this, somewhat misleading, metaphor. The most striking issue emerging from the Snowden case is just how the security v. liberty dyad no longer captures the reality of a life lived, not in the shadow of Big Brother, but as part of the participatory panopticon. What the Snowden leaks point to is the changed context of life in liberal democracy thanks to a confluence of governmental and corporate interests, and a democratic culture that has embraced the dubious pleasures of social surveillance. There is good reason to think that the last ten years have seen a radical reshaping of democracy and culture in the United States and other advanced democracies that pushes the significance of the Snowden revelations beyond balancing security against liberty.
The great theorist of democracy, Sheldon Wolin, pointed out in Democracy Inc. that if democracy was defined by an equality of power and sharing in the benefits of social cooperation, then by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century it was clear that the United States had developed a more manageable version. Features of this ‘managed democracy’ included civic passivity, the abdication of political responsibility, an increase in executive authority, perpetual fear against terrorist attacks, and the threat of economic collapse. Citizens lived in a ‘schizoid condition’ both trusting of government in times of crisis, yet distrustful of those same institutions. Meanwhile, simple and uncomplicated messages were spooned endlessly across the networks: free markets became synonymous with democracy; the pursuit of military supremacy went unquestioned and energy needs were paramount. Managed democracy preserved the illusion of choice by tightly constraining the range of alternatives available. For Wolin, a manageable populace complemented ‘the political coming of age of corporate power.’
The means now available to government, the cooperation and support they receive from high-technology companies, and a demos that is broadly compliant with the surrendering of personal data (and enjoys doing so) both confirms and extends Wolin’s description of ‘managed democracy’. Critics might dismiss the revelations provided by Snowden arguing that nothing that has thus far been leaked tells us anything we did not already know. Of course, governments snoop on their populations. They always have. Indeed, it is an old dream of states to manage their publics, their movements, their thoughts and ideas.
However, programs like Prism and X-Keyscore underline a degree of cooperation between government and corporate partners that is unprecedented not because of the extent of the collusion per se, but because of the scope of the technologies and their reach into everyday life. The Internet which, for a brief period, was heralded as a tool for democracy through the creation of innumerable public spaces, electronic coffee houses and the like, has been revealed as a giant, global surveillance mechanism.
In June last year, James Cole, the deputy attorney general, reassured Congress that the National Security Agency (NSA) only occasionally made mistakes of the kind highlighted by Snowden, and the President followed up a week later by denying that government systematically listened in on anyone’s phone calls and emails. Both statements have since been proved to be false. As one leaked NSA audit showed, the NSA has overstepped its authority consistently since 2008 with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court unable to determine whether NSA responses to the Court’s inquiries are even truthful.
For scholars who study such things, this is not news. While ‘intelligence’ might be one of the most crucial areas demanding careful and responsible oversight it is also, as Amy Zegart has noted, ‘something of a political loser,’ an area that is hard to master with little public prestige attached. As a consequence, Congress routinely asks the wrong questions and the intelligence agencies are often economical with the truth, stalling the production of reports, often avoiding the inconvenience of oversight committees altogether by heading straight for the appropriations committees which control the purse strings.
The apparent unwillingness of the political class to grapple with these issues means that we will always need people like Mr. Snowden to ring the alarm bells. His disobedience is a reflection of that most problematic and irksome characteristic for governments: conscience, or the ability to judge the actions of government for oneself. Employees working for private corporations within the intelligence community for a government agency engaged in dubious activities against their own citizens face a particularly difficult time. Historically, anti-democrats have tried to eradicate similar conflicts of loyalty, aligning familial and civic obligations with religious ones. Thomas Hobbes, someone whom we might regard as the chief theoretician of managed democracies, pointed out in Leviathan that while there might have been a natural right to conscience, civil order demanded that even this be eradicated. Judging right from wrong was to be left to the government.
Critics of Mr. Snowden have repeated similar claims heralding the new era of ‘post-privacy’ as nothing to worry about. How can a low-level employee determine what is in the best interests of the nation, after all? Perhaps, and this only speculation of course, Mr. Snowden, like Chelsea Manning of WikiLeaks fame, listened too closely to what his Civics teacher taught him about American democracy in high school.
Fortunately we do not (yet) live in Hobbes’ world. Liberal democratic society is, however, in transition and the ideas that have supported and defined that society, liberal notions of freedom and privacy, are struggling to keep up. A ‘post-private’ world may be on the horizon. It is not an overstatement to say that had Mr. Snowden not revealed what he did, we would not be having this conversation now.
Lawrence Quill is Professor of Political Theory at San José State University, CA. In 2015 he will be a Visiting Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge. His most recent publication is Secrets and Democracy: From Arcana Imperii to WikiLeaks (Palgrave, 2014).
Image: Thierry Ehrmann CC BY 2.0