Archive for June 2013

If you haven’t done anything wrong you have nothing to be afraid of

June 11th, 2013 — 8:00am

In the week of the revelations about the extent of NSA surveillance, a few thoughts about the state’s authoritarian tendency.

Edward Bernays was the first person to apply psychoanalytic techniques to what Chomsky calls the ‘control of the public mind’. Bernays firmly believed that the use of Freud’s ideas in combination with well-designed propaganda could enable the government to influence mass behaviour in order to create a better and more ordered society. His insights were developed and used by Josef Goebbels to mobilize mass support for the Nazis and later became the basis for the revolution in advertising in the 1950s spearheaded by the Madison Avenue agencies.

B. F. Skinner, father of the behaviorist school of psychology and sociology, shared many of the same goals as Bernays, but believed that the way to encourage better behaviour was not by using subtle messaging in the media, but to teach it through a series of rewards and punishments, or incentives and disincentives. His central idea was that people had no real free will or agency but that they simply responded to stimuli and that these could be tailored to suit the model of society the state wanted to create. If the government simply pressed the right buttons when people did good things and bad things, they could control the public.

Game Theory* famously developed mathematical formulae – ‘games’ – to predict how ‘rational actors’ would behave in certain scenarios, and was deeply influential in western policy throughout the Cold War (because it promised to ‘understand’ Soviet behaviour in response to Western military and geopolitical moves). And subsequently it also became hugely influential in economics and especially finance where traders often relied (and still rely) on the adages of Game Theory to predict the movement of markets.

Underlying Game Theory, especially in its economic implementations, is the ‘Rational Expectations’ hypothesis which posits that individuals are rational agents, in other words that they always, in all conditions, use the knowledge they have to maximise their own material advantage.

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, building on the work of Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky, have recently introduced a new set of behaviorist ideas which have also had a profound impact on policymakers in the US and Britain – so-called ‘behavioral economics’, or, simplistically, ‘nudge theory’. Their argument could be crudely boiled down to the idea that you could influence public behaviour with a very subtle set of incentives based on people’s natural tendency to apathy or to following the crowd.

It’s important to understand this set of ideas and the history of these sets of beliefs and their influence on politicians and legislators because they continue to shape the world we live in very strongly, especially in light of recent revelations about mass surveillance and the unprecedented accumulation of data by the NSA about citizens in the US and beyond.

Governments and intelligence agencies believe that they can control the behaviour of their citizens, and they believe that doing that is a fundamentally beneficial thing for society. They have accepted Bernays’ and Skinner’s (and Bentham’s) philosophical gambit: that that degree of control/power is good because it allows the benevolent authority to make society better for the majority, if not every citizen. All of the subsequent behaviorist refinements are simply more subtle ways of approaching the same problem. This is, at the most basic level, why governments have a tendency to become authoritarian  – because in seeking to do what they think is ‘good’ or ‘right’ they believe that the means justify the ends and therefore they must take on whatever powers are necessary to achieve their goals in the interest of the greater good.

Even relatively sophisticated students of  jurisprudence and government (here’s looking at you, Barack) don’t seem to question the ethical basis of this argument.**

As I see it, there are two strong ethical refutations of their position. The first is utilitarian – and appears in several forms, perhaps the most common of which is: “But what if the government (at some future point) is not benevolent?” Once you have taken such gigantic powers into the hands of the government, it’s hard to give them back, and if in future a dangerous or malevolent or corrupt set of rulers is elected, this could be immensely damaging.

Governments tend to respond to this argument with a relatively weak defence, along the lines of: “We live in a democracy. If you don’t like a government in future you can vote them out.” This argument fails because the very powers that the government seeks can undermine democracy and make it more difficult to oppose power in future. This is especially relevant in the current case of the NSA Prism/Boundless Informant programmes. If the state has access to all of our communications and personal information, it will be impossible to resist in future, whatever it decides to do.

The second is even more basic – and it is simply that the government has no right to arrogate any powers to itself, or any property belonging to its citizens, without first gaining their explicit consent (or that of their elected representatives) and doing so in a fully transparent manner. This argument derives from the idea of the social contract but it is inherent in virtually all post-Enlightenment theories of government. It is striking how absent this argument has been in the current debate about ‘national security’ powers and the overreach of executive authority.

If this argument is raised at all it is usually opposed with another weak response, which is really just boilerplate: “Your elected representatives have been informed about this and they have made a choice for you. You should trust them.” This is the sound of the Establishment desperately trying to get you to look away and ignore what is going on. It is paper thin. In many cases the legislators in question turn out not to have been informed, not to have had any meaningful consultation or oversight of the programmes or decisions involved, or to have been co-opted by the intelligence agencies or executive power because they believe the same things as I have set out above. In practice, judicial oversight and the power to challenge the actions of the government is weak. But in any case, what matters when such huge power grabs are concerned is that the people themselves have a chance to decide. That they are informed. Not just the lemmings who sit in Parliament or Congress and pretend to serve their interests. That is the essence of democracy and if politicians deny it they have got something to hide.

But there are also a number of scientific objections to the behaviorist world view. One of the classic attacks on Skinner was made by Noam Chomsky in his seminal 1959 review of Skinner’s ‘Verbal Behavior’ – in which Chomsky convincingly argued for a cognitive and generative model of grammar instead of a merely behavioural one and in doing so laid the theoretical groundwork for much of modern cognitive science and linguistics.

Joseph Stiglitz and others have done excellent work in the field of macroeconomics, much of it devoted to showing that the Rational Expectations hypothesis is a fallacy and that people make economic (and many other decisions) in a way that does not maximise their own personal advantage much of the time.

In other words the idea that authorities can accurately predict, much less control, public behaviour at the scale of the population seems very uncertain. So, not only are there strong objections to their attempts to do this at a philosophical level, there is a real danger that in practical terms their efforts, even if they are well intentioned, may fail and may have unforeseen consequences which are extremely dangerous.

The NSA surveillance programmes have been dismissed by some of the more jaded commentators as a fact of life in the 21st century, an inevitable and worthwhile trade-off between liberty and security in an age when everyone gives up their personal information just to join social networks. But it is not simply a question of privacy. It is really about who we give the information to and what they do with it. We should be suspicious of Google and Facebook and others and we should be better at insisting on clear rules about how they use our data (afterall, it should belong to us until we give it up). But we should be equally suspicious of government and how it intends to use the information it gathers. We should insist on extremely strong rules about the gathering and use of our data, and greater transparency and oversight.

Because if any authority can know all of our conversations, all of our exchanges and messages and all of our personal information it may be impossible to overthrow.


Update: the list of thinkers and ideas I have cited here is very cursory and subjective. But one person I left out who is also worth considering because of his deep influence on a whole generation of Neo-conservatives is Leo Strauss. Strauss taught at the University of Chicago and formed the political awareness and ideology of men like Paul Wolfowitz. One of the ideas in Strauss’s political philosophy is that the governing class should create and celebrate a mythology of the state that encourages citizens to believe in the government’s just authority and purpose. In the case of America this mythology is based on the idea of the United States as a unique country, a land of destiny, the so-called ‘city on a hill’ whose mission is to defend and spread ‘liberty’ around the world.

For Strauss, these ‘noble lies’ are a way of ensuring the citizens’ attachment to the state and their loyalty to it. And they can also help to reinforce social order. The mythology helps to explain the political structure of society and to justify it. In other words, a well constructed set of national myths is a powerful mechanism of mass control.


* there’s a very good treatment of/primer on Game Theory and its use in Adam Curtis’ series of programmes ‘The Trap’

** I wish people would stop saying that Barack Obama’s record on civil liberties is ‘disappointing’. This is patronising and implies that he has fallen short of some imaginary ideal that he set out before he was elected. If it was any other president we would be saying his record was shameful, not disappointing. Obama never promised, if you paid attention, to be anything but a hawk on national security issues, and so he has proved. So stop treating him like a child who has done badly in a Maths test.


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