Apr 062012

This is the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, as summarised by Wikipedia.  Be patient, dear reader – it does have a bearing on what comes afterwards:

A vain Emperor who cares for nothing but his appearance and attire hires two tailors who are really swindlers that promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or “just hopelessly stupid”. The Emperor cannot see the cloth himself, but pretends that he can for fear of appearing unfit for his position; his ministers do the same. When the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor then marches in procession before his subjects, who play along with the pretense. Suddenly, a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but holds himself up proudly and continues the procession.

I am reminded of this story by four pieces I read this afternoon from widely differing sources.  The first was Naomi Wolf’s savage and dispiriting synthesis of how the US state is using sexually charged strategies to make people who would otherwise protest the immorality and injustice of their circumstances cower before the ever-expanding police state.  She provides many examples of the deliberate humiliations involved and I strongly urge you to read the whole of what she says, even if you feel you might not agree.  But where I would find myself entirely in consonance with her thesis is in this short paragraph towards the end:

Why is this happening? I used to think the push was just led by those who profited from endless war and surveillance – but now I see the struggle as larger. As one internet advocate said to me: “There is a race against time: they realise the internet is a tool of empowerment that will work against their interests, and they need to race to turn it into a tool of control.”

And the evidence behind this assertion?  Well, this actually, on page 3 of a post by Chris Hedges, and which I came across via Wolf’s piece:

There are now 1,271 government agencies and 1,931 private companies that work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States, The Washington Post reported in a 2010 series by Dana Priest and William M. Arken. There are 854,000 people with top-secret security clearances, the reporters wrote, and in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2011.

And this, written by James Bamford for Wired, and which in turn I came across via Hedges’ piece (the bold is mine):

[…] “this is more than just a data center,” says one senior intelligence official who until recently was involved with the program. The mammoth Bluffdale center will have another important and far more secret role that until now has gone unrevealed. It is also critical, he says, for breaking codes. And code-breaking is crucial, because much of the data that the center will handle—financial information, stock transactions, business deals, foreign military and diplomatic secrets, legal documents, confidential personal communications—will be heavily encrypted. According to another top official also involved with the program, the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break, unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also many average computer users in the US. The upshot, according to this official: “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.”

These last two articles, as with Wolf’s, also deserve to be read in full.

It is, as I said, dispiriting stuff that from the nation which proclaimed the glories of democracy and freedom in its very birth we should be exposed to these kind of behaviours and attitudes.

And that emperor and his new clothes?  Well, I don’t know about you but I surely am beginning to get the feeling that we’ve been stripped naked by the revolution that is Web 2.0.  It’s almost as if – though I’m sure it’s not really the case – the corporate agencies which work so hand-in-glove with Western governments have deliberately done all the spadework over the past five years and created a series of tools which encourage us to bare absolutely our all.  Is this bad?  Absolutely not.  If we want one day to have a more open society, all of us need to be more open.  It’s not just the politicians who should demonstrate their sincerity and frankness – the voters, their families, friends and colleagues should also sign up to this new social contract.

We do need such confidence-building measures if we truly wish to implement a more communicative society.

Unfortunately, all this generalised and now casual openness may now lead any latterday state to acquire repressive tendencies with the following consequences:

  1. anyone who values their privacy, who does not for example participate eagerly in Web 2.0-style processes or just likes to get the feeling their email content is relatively secure, can be immediately suspected of needing to hide something and therefore potentially guilty of a multitude of sins.  This conclusion is of course manifestly unfair, as some people – even under Web 2.0’s legacy – continue to be simply more jealous of their selves than others; nevertheless, any state which cares to begin to arrest its population into submission will find plenty of reasons to do so in such an environment;
  2. anyone who participates openly in Web 2.0 – social media, social networks, blogging, tweeting, online communities and any number of other tools out there – but does not manage to say the right things, as per the complex and evermore law-ridden rules of engagement which will almost certainly grow up around this whole affair, will surely find themselves falling terribly between the two stools of a notional openness on the one hand and an effective lack of human rights and common sense on the other – an awfully Kafka-like set of circumstances to find oneself in;

The long-term result will almost certainly be far more people in jail for communicating with others than in any other century in human history.  This will, in fact, be the century when the desire to communicate anything worthy of our attention runs the risk of automatically becoming a crime.


The final article which drew my attention today was a piece in Liberal Democrat Voice which included a letter from Tim Farron, the Party’s President, to members worried about the Coalition government’s plans to monitor the Internet.  In it, he said (the bold is mine):

I think you probably know my views on this matter. As a Liberal I was extremely concerned by the press reports of new surveillance powers potentially to be included in the Queens Speech.

I also agreed very much with Julian Huppert’s article on Lib Dem Voicethere must be no question of the authorities having universal internet surveillance powers.

We are reasonable people and we should be prepared to look at what will now be draft legislation with an open mind, but we should be prepared to put our foot down and pull the plug if we consider the proposals to be illiberal. We must not as Liberal Democrats fall into a position of trying to amend, unpick or apologise for a piece of authoritarian Tory policy.

Over the last couple of years we have made some mistakes, which is OK so long as we learn from them. This is our opportunity to put those lessons into practice. Britain must be more liberal and free as a result of Liberal Democrats in power, not less. The proposals as they were first set out undoubtedly cross a red line, we’ve crossed enough of those already – no more.

I’m really not too sure, though, in the light of all I’ve laid before you today, whether Mr Farron and his Liberals have any chance of stopping the juggernaut which approaches our shores.  The only solution I can see, and this in itself contains the seeds of our own destruction, is to disengage entirely with a series of systems of digital communication which are becoming so contaminated by big business, unelected representatives and security services everywhere.  But of course, as I have already pointed out, to disengage is also to generate suspicion around one’s motives.

It seems, in fact, that we can neither safely engage, disengage nor even stand mutely in attendance.  Speech, silence, agreement, disagreement – everything we might wish to do or say, or not say or do, may lead us to become tainted with the darkness of being an enemy of the state’s overarching perception of what is good and what is evil.

It seems, in fact, that in the age that communication technologies have reached their zenith, our right to communicate will become criminalised to such a degree that all communication will be a crime unless otherwise notified.

Just as any resistance to communicating in the full glare of the state’s apparatus will be equally and duly noted as a criminal offence.

And meanwhile, no citizens – not even the children amongst us – appear any longer to have the perspicacity of Hans Christian Andersen’s story to draw the fact to anyone’s attention.

Feb 152012

I am minded to ask the question because of this article Brian drew my attention to the other day:

One of our era’s foundational myths is that globalization has condemned the nation-state to irrelevance. […]

The article – well worth reading in full – goes on to argue that in the absence of a true global consciousness, nation-states are all that we can rely on.  Indeed:

The global financial crisis has shattered [the myth that nation-states are irrelevant]. Who bailed out the banks, pumped in the liquidity, engaged in fiscal stimulus, and provided the safety nets for the unemployed to thwart an escalating catastrophe? Who is re-writing the rules on financial-market supervision and regulation to prevent another occurrence? Who gets the lion’s share of the blame for everything that goes wrong? The answer is always the same: national governments. The G-20, the International Monetary Fund, and the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision have been largely sideshows.

Meanwhile, Chris summarises beautifully how, in the last fifty years, capitalism has become a force for anti-freedom:

During the Cold War, opponents of communism routinely, and not entirely wrongly, claimed to be champions of liberty. Freedom for capitalists and freedom of speech and thought go together, it was claimed. “Freedom is indivisible” wrote Bruce Winton Knight in 1952. “Economic freedom is…an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom“ wrote Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom. And back in 1944 Friedrich Hayek complained that “We have progressively abandoned that freedom in economic affairs without which personal and political freedom has never existed in the past.”

Today, though, this seems wrong. Many threats to freedom come from capitalists. The story is no longer capitalism and freedom, but capitalism against freedom. Two of the world’s largest economies – China and Russia – show that capitalism can exist quite happily without political freedom.

Whilst also quoting Nick Cohen who describes with a chilling precision exactly my perceptions of what working in a massive corporation is like:

The managers of private and public bureaucracies justify their elevated status and salaries not only by attempting to run efficient organisations (a task that is often beyond the poor dears) but by monitoring and intimidating those beneath them.

And so it is that I come back to the question at the top of this post: what if an excluding nationalism could actually become a positive force?  Not, however, a traditionally excluding nationalism – but, rather, an economically excluding nationalism.

If, through the channelling forces of a different kind of cultural identity, we could raise barricades against the rapacious actions of a latterday capitalism – a latterday capitalism which prefers to localise to their clear disadvantage the actions of workers even as, to its clear advantage, it globalises the movement of money – perhaps we could create cultures based more on a shared desire to fight the anti-freedom of planetary economics than to battle, maybe a shade dangerously, on behalf of the discrete freedoms of individual ethnicity.

In this sense, then, we could conceptualise our nationalisms around:

  1. how we do business instead of how business does us – which is to say, always attracting business on our own terms;
  2. how we define community instead of how community defines us – which is to say, creating shared spaces which are tolerant to every person but not to every intolerance;
  3. how we see the future instead of how the future sees us – which is to say, empowering the people who live under the umbrella of a nation-state rather than giving in to the inevitable currents of a ruling elite;

That a certain kind of capitalism is now the anti-freedom of us all is no longer in doubt.  The question is how we can wield most effectively the little power we have to recreate the conditions that once proudly connected good business with political freedom.

And perhaps we are too late.  For if this is no longer possible in the 19th century birthplace of corporate capitalism, and is no longer necessary in its 21st-century powerhouses, how can small people across the globe even contemplate changing anything?

Except, as this post might suggest, little by little – and nation-state by nation-state by nation-state …