State Capitalism in the Information Age

On March 27th, 2013,  I published a response to Bruce Schneier’s CNN article which started out by criticising the conflation of Internet and State in its title (“The Internet is a surveillance State”). Bruce Schneier has for several years been one of the most insightful commentators on online security, however we, at telekommunisten, were struck at the despairing tone of this recent high-profile post, and in full appreciation and respect for his work, endeavored to analyse the problem from a materialist/political economist position if only to offer Bruce, and some of his readers who are despairing in the same way, some possible modalities for hopeful engagement with the problem of ever intensifying surveillance.

My article was far from perfect, but, even Bruce Schneier conceded it had some “interesting points.”    (see second update at the bottom of the post). I think it was most successful in elaborating the causal link the interests of capital and the intensification of surveillance whether by private or state entities. Indeed, every state dominated by capitalist interests cannot but begin to treat its citizens as value-producing workers, the logic of value extraction/productivity must eventually prevail and, as I explained in my post, surveillance technologies, honed for the factory and office come to be applied generally to all socially necessary activities. The regime of performance standards, promising to drive down costs in time and resources for the purveyance of essential social practices, whether in the home, in the street, or at a workplace, provides the opening whereby surveillance technologies are permitted to become intimately part of everyone’s life.

Critics might claim that such efficiency is in itself a ‘good thing’ and that the problem is that massive surveillance is abused by unscrupulous ‘bad apple’ companies and governmental elements. Students of capitalism will note, however, that any innovation in techniques of efficiency is inevitably employed to drive down to the bare minimum, the amount the productive sectors of society have at their disposal to sustain their productivity.

In other words, downsizing, outsourcing, precariousness, unemployment and the consequent promotion of industrial surveillance and control industries needed to dissuade and suppress the resulting social upheaval are compelled by implementation of new technologies of productivity under capitalism. Therefore the so-called ‘abuses’ are rather natural outcomes under dominant capitalism, which is why they not only go unpunished but are sustained and promoted by the state.

Instead of despairing at the onslaught of surveillance, I suggest it would be more productive to look at the deep links between the imperatives of capitalism and the contemporary collusion between large web-based communications companies, the security industry and the state. The flood of public funds into the communications and security industries also means the rise of pervasive surveillance technologies in society, under dominant neo-liberal economics (e.g. the public deficit myth)  entails a redistribution of wealth and power.

Bruce Schneier, in his comments (thanks for linking to us Bruce!) somewhat ambivalently attempts to dismiss my notes by setting up what Dmytri correctly terms a straw man argument that I “have no problem with state surveillance”. This point is irrelevant, since I argue that surveillance industries are a necessary outgrowth of dominant capitalism and therefore, jurisdictions dominated by capitalist interests will necessarily come to employ these on a massive scale.  In Europe we see more examples of how capitalist drives can be mitigated by social considerations at the state level, but these are only maintained as a matter of principle against the overweening pressure of capitalist actors.

The state is not homogenous. There are certainly elements of state apparatus which are opposed in various ways to the ascent of security-industry influence on public affairs. I explained in my article why such opinions will be marginalized. It doesn’t matter whether one has a ‘problem with’ state or other surveillance or not.  The massive incursions into our private sphere Bruce bemoans are not the result of overzealous bureaucrats or of “bad apple” industrial actors, they are central to the productivity model of a highly hegemonic state dominated by capitalist concerns.   The only effective opposition possible to today’s ever-intensifying onslaught of so-called security procedures and surveillance industry in civic life will have to fundamentally and radically challenge the legitimacy of the effective dominance of capitalist modes of production.