Sunday, August 25, 2013

Uprising in Egypt - Connecting the Internet and muscular liberalism in the mess of global political economy

The theory I proposed in Uprising: The Internet's Unintended Consequences, was that proletarianization is characterized by the unregulated circulation of information on the Internet. This was and is somewhat naive, given what is now known about Internet security thanks to leaks from Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, Wikileaks, Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian newspaper and the United States Government's National Security Agency (NSA). NSA Home Page

Everything we submit and see is surveilled, regulated and monitored. The NSA makes this its goal as an institution of the US Government.

The NSA's mission is to "protect US national security systems and to produce foreign signals intelligence information." It has been doing this since Cyber War was first put on the public policy agenda, back in the mid-1990s. I was first alerted to the concept of cyber war by a colleague at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who worked closely with the US military.

Since that time my assumption has been that my work, my movements as an alien and US resident and my communication is surveilled as a matter of course. No surprises there.

Putting more detail into the theory of unregulated information circulation means that while on one hand the Internet offered a public interest kind of freedom to see everything, as long as it could be digitized, on the other hand the Internet offered government and its institutions ways to keep track of everyone through their electronic communication. This "freedom" is now obvious, while earlier it was in an opaque, "black" or unknown public territory - of which there are many. The current context is simply this:  the Internet operates strictly within the domain of US national security.

This is and was the freedom of the Internet - the dystopian present's answer to the utopian past of emancipation through the information cornucopia. The ubiquity of total surveillance in the US and beyond, brings to mind the 2006 German film, The Lives of Others, because that film portrayed everyday surveillance in the last years of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as a totalizing invasion of every human action, Everyone was an enemy of the state, or at least suspicious. With minor legal adjustments, everyone using the Internet is now a suspect. Indeed, the case can be made that even curiosity will result in punishment - this is the argument from The Who's guitarist Pete Townend, who was arrested and charged with child pornography use. He was curious. (The end of curiosity is a subject for another time).

Which brings me to the current and ongoing crisis in Egypt. The Arab Spring has been sprung because the Moslem Brotherhood and their allies in Hamas and elsewhere - democratically elected governments by the way - are obvious and known through surveillance of their communications. Of course, I can only follow press reports on how the NSA and other security organizations capture Internet traffic and assume that the righteous determination of the US to oppose non-Western political forces has run its own race, outside the jurisdiction of the US Government and the republic's legal institutions, such as the courts.  

This leads into the messy business of tolerance in political theory. What will the west, primarily the US, accept in elected governments? There are thresholds. These thresholds are ill defined, until such time as they matter. In the 1930s little was done to stop the Nazis and the Spanish fascists headed by Franco. Yet much was done to stop the communist movement in Russia from 1917. Why stop communism but not fascism? Recall that the US entered World War 2 after it was attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941, and claimed the victory over the Nazis while in the three years prior, it stood by as millions were sent to their deaths. (Imagine the difference in discourse if we conflated those Jews, Gypsies, trade unionists, socialists and gays killed in Nazi concentration camps with the Russians killed by the Germans? We know that Churchill and the British Government were not too worried about the Nazis attacking the Soviets... )

More recently the Rwandan genocide, or the massacre of Muslims in Bosnia - took a month of Sundays to prompt interventions by the west. Does religion and skin color determine the response of liberalism? If Muslims and communists are being killed and if black Africans are being killed, don't worry about it. Is that how our government's think?

Our government's still think in ways that are at best predetermined. Today, the Internet provides total information that feeds that predetermination. In the past, an action may have been deniable, as diplomats and spies on the ground were relied  upon to find out an opponent's position or intention. Then report back with some nuance, time for rumination. Internet time is real time, but the decisions seem eerily in line with earlier history.

Who has come to the defense of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt? Enter more messiness in global politics and the challenges facing liberalism, the hegemon of political economy. The roots of liberalism as a political force are not without their contradictions. Using surveillance to snoop on the world's Internet population, on governments and any institution deemed worthy of interest is an action considered to be acceptable in defense of liberalism. Think about it! This is a paradox that needs a lot more thought. Internet surveillance then military interventions against elected governments by the west take place in defense of tolerance - liberalism's key philosophical claim.

Look at this comment from Joshua Hersh in a piece from The New Yorker 17 August 2013.

"...Mohammed Aboul-Ghar, a seventy-three-year-old academic and politician who has been a leading figure in Egypt’s liberal establishment, and now represents one of the most confounding elements of the country’s current crisis: the wholesale alignment of old-guard liberals with the military."
Portrait of a Cairo liberal as a military backer

The key paradox of liberalism: interests that close down liberalism as practiced at the ballot box.The Internet will give the west more and more information, offering more opportunities for muscular liberalism that is sclerotic in the way it embodies tolerance. There is something wrong with this picture... will the flow of information help us understand what to make of global political economy and act accordingly? Or is that moment beyond us? If surveillance is the only game in town and drones - another Internet tool - are the preferred option, who dares stand up to this liberalism?