Veteran radical journalist Chris Hedges successfully argued for the proposition that “Edward Snowden is a hero” at the Oxford Union on February 21. Of course, he is absolutely right to praise Snowden’s moral courage. But he painted a picture of a “solitary individual” standing up for his principles against a potentially all-powerful corporate state, neglecting the intention of Snowden’s revelations, which was to alert the public to the extent of NSA surveillance and engage them in discussing placing limits on it.
Prior to the debate, Hedges published an essay in Truthdig in which he writes that Snowden’s personal risk was heroic because we live in a “dual state” (using the terminology of the German political scientist Ernst Fraenkel) where “civil liberties are abolished in the name of national security. … The outward forms of democratic participation—voting, competing political parties, judicial oversight and legislation—are hollow, political stagecraft. … Those who challenge the abuses of power by the prerogative state, those who, like Snowden, expose the crimes carried out by government, are made into criminals.”
There is no denying the authoritarian nature of NSA surveillance, the vicious prosecution of whistleblowers, the outsized political influence bought by right-wing billiionaires, and killing of civilians by drone strikes. But despite the vast enterprise set up in the name of Homeland Security to suppress dissent, other whistleblowers and leakers continue to reveal what the security state is doing. Why would they do this? Only because they are not acting as isolated heroes; their bravery channels the commitment of Americans to their constitutional rights, their strong attachment to the ideal of democracy. Their moral imperatives are social, not individual.
A new report published in the German Bild am Sonntag reveals that, based on information provided by a “high-ranking NSA employee in Germany,” and not on any of the documents released by Snowden, the NSA responded to an order to refrain from spying directly on president Angela Merkel’s phone by intensifying its monitoring of other high-level officials in her government. As Glenn Greenwald points out, this means there is already at least one more NSA source prepared to risk his or her career to disclose the agency’s secrets.
It seems to me that by focusing on the authoritarian elements in the US, Hedges has prematurely written off society’s strengths. The political theorist he cites, Ernst Fraenkel, based his analysis on his direct experience of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi authoritarian rule within the German state. Comparisons of the present situation of the U.S. with Weimar, which have been made recently by commentators ranging from Glenn Beck to Noam Chomsky, overlook major differences in the two societies: principally that Germany did not have a strong democratic tradition established through a revolution against European powers.
Authoritarian trends within US society certainly exist; but there is a continuing struggle between state coercion and democratic forms of popular participation. Hedges implies that the US surveillance state is part of a self-enclosed apparatus in a polar opposition to society. But to sustain their moral authority, ideals of legitimacy also penetrate state institutions. Edward Snowden, for example, was part of the US surveillance state just as much as the heads of the CIA or FBI, but became a whistleblower because of the contradiction between his experience of the actuality of surveillance and its justification with the misuse of democratic ideals. He began to question his own role when, as Hedges himself narrates, “he had watched as senior officials including Barack Obama lied to the public about internal surveillance.”
State entities need to preserve their moral justification even when political groups within them are misusing their authority to extend their own power – if we truly lived in a dual state, for example, the Christie scandal and the Walker prosecutions would not even be publicly known.
Mike Lofgren, a former GOP congressional staff member with the House and Senate Budget Committees, gives an insider’s view of the same phenomenon, the “hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country … connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible [constitutional] state.” He writes: “In terms of its scope, financial resources and sheer global reach, the American hybrid state, the Deep State, is in a class by itself. That said, it is neither omniscient nor invincible. The institution is not so much sinister (although it has highly sinister aspects) as it is relentlessly well entrenched. Far from being invincible, its failures, such as those in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, are routine enough that it is only the Deep State’s protectiveness towards its higher-ranking personnel that allows them to escape the consequences of their frequent ineptitude.”
Moreover, as Juan Cole points out, the “Deep State” is internally divided, and much more responsive to the exercise of public political power than it appears. Cole also argues that the vast expansion of the security apparatus was a time-dependent effect of the impact of the September 11 attacks, and this influence is already beginning to wane.
The public has asserted its political power in diverse ways: Obama has had to abandon cuts to social security from his budget; had to back off from military intervention in Syria; and had to make at least a verbal commitment to NSA reform. The election of de Blasio in New York from an overt campaign against inequality signifies a marked shift in the popular mood – his new administration is already taking steps to reverse the plutocratic drive to commandeer society’s education resources.
The rapid escalation of minimum wage demands at the local level stems from years when wages have been held down and pressure on living standards has built up. Politically, the national Democratic leadership is being outflanked by a grass-roots surge of low-waged workers and community activists. Josh Eidelson reports that in Los Angeles, a City Council committee is studying nearly doubling the minimum wage for hotel employees to $15.37, while in Seattle, newly-elected mayor Ed Murray spoke confidently of a $15 minimum for the city’s public and private sector workers.
This movement and the interests of the plutocracy are on a collision course. But although the legal system discriminates in favor of corporations and security agencies are working diligently to suppress dissent, the more determined popular resistance becomes, the more likely state entities will be subverted from within. Their role is by no means settled in advance.
The state cannot rule through force alone. It would be a mistake to overestimate its strength when the American public has not been defeated or cowed, but up until now has been diverted from fighting for its economic interests by either liberal rhetoric or racism. While mindful of the dangers of a turn to authoritarian rule, we need to recognize that the society we live in is not at present a “dual state” but is in a transitional moment: the struggle for democracy is ongoing.