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Edward Snowden and Obama’s global prison

Edward Snowden and Obama’s global prison

There’s more than deep irony in the ongoing Edward Snowden saga and not least because he, an American citizen, is requesting asylum in Russia, China, Nicaragua and Cuba, to name just four countries from where people used to run away to the United States to enjoy America’s freedoms.


That Americans have chosen to stay away from the streets to protest not just the treatment that is being meted out to Snowden, a fellow citizen, but, more importantly, the kind of state they are living in, that state’s claims of respecting individual rights notwithstanding, is deeply instructive and troubling.

States are states, despite the vexing question in political science literature about where to place it; what exactly is its nature and essence, et cetera? It’s a deeply problematic concept and has, not without reason, been problematised. Even so, there is a broad acceptance that large collections of peoples require an organising principle which gives birth to the idea of a state with a sovereign. Over a long period of time the idea of a sovereign has evolved, with sovereignty resting, ostensibly, in the people and their choices rather than in a single person, a monarch or a dictator.

Yet, in essence, not much has changed apart from the mechanisms in and through which power is exercised. The wars for survival, pelf and territories fought by the monarchs are now fought by modern states, including democracies, in the name of the people, on their behalf, and for their protection — just like Athens did. And from what we have seen since World War I, democracies, in combination with what physicist Ralph Lapp called the tyranny of weapons technology, have killed as many, if not more, people than those disposed of by totalitarian regimes.

The paradox reigns supreme. If an organising principle is indeed needed to streamline a collection of people, then the principle must also be protected — as much from external enemies as from internal dissenters (I use the term very broadly). Protecting the people also means harming them if and when the need to do so arises. We are assuming here, for the sake of the argument, that states in fact seek to act in the interest of the people and are free from other problems like lying leaders, ambitious bureaucrats and entrenched interests that create their own interplay.

How must the people be protected if not by protecting the organising principle which, as should be obvious, begins to take a life bigger than the people themselves. If the greatest good for the greatest number is the benchmark, then it becomes relatively easier, albeit no less problematic, to determine who to harm for the protection of others. Bentham’s panopticon was the idea of a penitentiary designed in a way that would allow guards to observe the inmates without their being able to tell whether or not they were being monitored. Michel Foucault built on the idea his differentiation of the culture of spectacle and the carceral.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault opened the discussion with the public punishment being meted out to Damiens the regicide and takes us through 293 pages to the birth of the prison and the idea of the carceral, “the disciplinary form at its most extreme, the model in which are concentrated all the coercive technologies of behaviour. In it were to be found ‘cloister, prison, school, regiment’.”

The school and the regiment are the more menacingly oppressive aspects. In the modern world, they work outside a penitentiary as effectively as they are supposed to inside a one. They are grounded in the idea of the acceptable and the accepted behaviour for a human being in all his/her incarnations, Auden’s Unknown Citizen who must be free because “Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard”.

The modern state, with help from technology, has created a carceral where we are all being watched. But we are happy. The democratic states — forget that democracy is as much a myth as the free market — give us a sense of rule-based system. There are shopping malls, much to consume, nice cars to drive, credit facilities, fascinating hand-held gizmos, compatibility across digital platforms, smart television sets, Google, Facebook, et cetera. Life has never been better. The state resides somewhere and its wars, in the case of the US, are fought elsewhere. Killing can be done from the safety of a shack in Nevada. “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd”.

The panopticon Bentham sketched in the late 18th century has come to pass, not in the form of a secluded penitentiary but in the form of a modern state with global outreach. The things that make life easy for us are the very things that keep us in and help the guards watch us without our knowing that they do.

US President Barack Obama says states need information and it’s the job of the intelligence agencies to do what the NSA has been doing. He is not entirely wrong. Lack of perfect information has always been a problem in decision-making. States, organisations, individuals: we all need information. But where Obama is wrong is in not wringing his hands and saying that the world has a problem: we need information but we have also reached the dangerous point where states can look into everything. The paradox has kicked in and the American intelligence personnel — Snowden is an example — as well as Obama himself are both the operators of the panopticon and its victims. If you try to do the Snowden on the state, the state will crush you. In the age of information, we also have information and resource asymmetry.

The drivers are not threats, perceived for the most part. Technology is driving the state and the state is perpetuating itself in the interest of the peoples that it now threatens to destroy if they fall out of line. The average American is happy, Snowden languishes in the transit lounge of a Moscow airport, Obama avoids the tough questions, technology drives interest and the mode of war and it continues to ensnare people in an ever-expanding panopticon.

Will this change? No. Will it get worse? To that, perhaps Edgar’s aside in King Lear is instructive: And worse I may be yet. The worst is not/So long as we can say “This is the worst”.


This article was previously published in The Express Tribune



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