Democracies Under Pressure. Authoritarianism, Repression, Struggles

The articles

Capitalo-Technocracy: Fifty Shades of Surveillance

, by Khrys

On a Marseille wall, a street art piece illustrates the constraint of freedom of speech through constant mass surveillance. Credit : Caroline Weill (CC BY SA)

Since Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013, it is no longer possible to deny the existence of a global surveillance system set up by the NSA. Alliances between governments (such as Five Eyes - an alliance of the intelligence services of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States) make it possible to circumvent legislation protecting individual rights and to carry out extremely detailed social network analyses on their own citizens. France, not to be outdone, boasts of its own expertise in intelligence techniques, an expertise which it is very happy to export, particularly to Africa. [1] Conversely, it can use the services of foreign companies, particularly American ones: a few weeks after the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher, Palantir established a subsidiary in France and signed a contract with France’s intelligence agency DGSI.

“Democracies” like the United States, Great Britain and France develop and use the very same type of tools to control their populations (facial recognition, biometrics, drones, large-scale surveillance and data collection, etc.) as the authoritarian regimes of China and Russia and Middle Eastern dictatorships. How did it come to this?

First of all, it should be stressed that these governments are not, strictly speaking, democracies. They never have been. The concept of “representative democracy” is already, in itself, a negation of the notion of democracy. [2] Our western “democracies” are in fact oligarchies, some of them quite similar to police states. [3] Our “representatives” are those of the prevailing system, and, in the capitalist system (since, over the last two centuries, capitalism has become the world’s prevailing economic system), power lies with money. A typical example is that of France, where the mainstream media (which play a major role in swaying elections, as evident from France’s last presidential vote, and, more generally, in engineering the public opinion) are owned by a dozen billionaires. [4] We might also point out how representatives of investment firm Black Rock were welcomed like royals at the Elysée Palace at the time of the pension system reform. [5] Yet, a notch above the French media moguls who facilitated the current President’s access to power, are companies such as Cambridge Analytica. In addition to laying the groundwork for Brexit’s victory in Great Britain, the company helped get Donald Trump elected, by targeting populations of “undecided” voters and bombarding them with fake news, nudging them over to the right.

The industrial revolution and the development of corporations operating at a supranational level have led to the development of ever more powerful technical tools for calculating, managing and disseminating information (computers, databases, telecom networks, etc.): a computer is at once a storage tool (a machine which we use for organising things), a filing tool (we talk about files, stored in folders) and a calculation tool – everything you need to run a company or a State. With these new tools, well-established “management”, [6] intelligence-espionage and advertising techniques [7] have taken a quantitative and qualitative leap in both the collection and processing of data. This has resulted in the population being controlled (whether through manipulation or through coercion) on an unprecedented scale. There could have been no Big Data without Big Databases and no Big Brother without Big Tech.

By way of comparison, the NSA currently has access tonine times more information than Stasi did. The German security service, subject to an embargo by Western countries, continued to file material files in material folders up until 1989, the same period that Tim Berners-Lee was inventing the Web... Indeed, computing remained the quasi-monopoly of Western capitalocracies for a long time [8] (let us mention, in passing, the infamous role of IBM during the Second World War, whose punch-card technology made it possible to “manage” not only Japanese-American internment camps but also Nazi concentration camps...).

The capitalist system, today’s great global winner, had to continue following its internal logic: maximising ever more profits, always looking for new means of growth. From the 1970s onwards, the oil crisis that marked the end of the post-war economic boom triggered a search for new resources. There followed a new “gold” rush: that of personal data, with the gradual emergence of [data extraction [9] and analysis techniques.->https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_data] The latest technological gadgets with their increasingly short lifespans (since, in line with the sickly ideology of endless growth and of unstoppable progress, there is always a need for something new) are the first “data aspirators” (think of smartphones and “personal assistants”, cars (before long), and generally all the “connected objects” that we try to convince ourselves that we absolutely can’t live without). The end of anti-monopoly policies in the United States, which coincided with the boom of digital and Internet technology, opened the path for today’s tech giants. [10] Although we tend to put all the blame on the latter, we should instead focus our critique on the (capitalist) system that produced them. [11]

When a corporation begins to have a sufficiently strong hold over a population, a network or a market, governments naturally turn to that corporation to get the information they need (for example, NSA has direct access to data stored by tech giants; France has approved the roll-out of “black boxes” on the networks of web hosts and operators). New surveillance tools thus offer the dual potential for both economical and political exploitation. In both cases, the aim is to perpetuate a system through control (perpetuating growth, perpetuating power).

It is the logic of capitalism to seek out ever more profit, and it is the logic of power to seek out ever more power. There is a kind of gravitational force when it comes to money so that, without the proper safeguards, its tends to end up in fewer and fewer hands – the safeguards slowly but surely lifted. [12] This, as well as the changing face of capitalism (large shifts in technology and the use of increasingly powerful tools) has led, in recent years, to a dramatic surge in both data and surveillance: more data implies more surveillance, more storage and analysis capacity, and the development of techniques that encroach more and more on people’s privacy.

Now that a (dark) overview of the general picture has been given, let’s come to the sore point: is it really all that bad? After all, what could be more “normal” than to pay a small price for all the wonderful technology that is constantly improving our daily lives, especially since the information obtained through surveillance makes it possible to both improve and enrich our “user experience” and have more control over a company or a country, and thus manage it better?

A simple way to answer this question would be to go and ask (for example) environmental activists [13] or Uighur people. But let’s try a slightly more in-depth analysis, both at individual and collective level, of the short-term and long-term consequences of mass surveillance.

As personal data becomes a source of profit, individuals become at the same time subjects and objects, consumers and consumer products – consumers and consumed. The individual is no longer seen only as an individual, but also as a prototype, with the aim being to predict behaviour, and thereby to refine techniques of targeting and influence – of consent or addiction.

The extraction of personal data means that people are constantly overexposed: illuminated from every sides, observed from every angles, they lose their shady corners, and consequently their depth (a painting without shadows is a flat painting). One gets used to surveillance, to being transparent – whether through the see-through windows of open space offices, or through the “one-way mirror” screens behind which we constantly telework (even without a keylogger) for corporations that monitor us through trackers on their websites or through intrusive operating systems. As the information obtained through personal data collection can have very serious consequences in terms of employment, credit and insurance, etc., this results in a normalisation of behaviour, even when you don’t live in a country with an authoritarian regime, such as China. People end up literally making a show of themselves, especially on social media, in order to maximise “rewards” (likes, “friends”, etc.) and polish their social graph. [14] This requires an ongoing personal investment, especially as social media use addiction-enhancing techniques to keep people on their platform for as long as possible (cf. the concept of an “attention economy”, which considers the time and attention of consumers as a scarce resource in a context of abundant supply).

The consequences are a loss of depth, a loss of time, and also a loss of complexity, because digitalisation implies a simplification of the individual, ensuring they can be easily slotted into boxes. The next step is to encourage individuals to simplify themselves and the content they produce so that it can also be categorised (for example, “good” articles, those that will be correctly referenced by Google’s search engine, will have to comply with a certain number of criteria). This results in an impoverishment of content, both in form and substance, and to the fragmentation of individuals. We are no longer treated as human beings, but rather monstrous assemblages providing a necessarily reductive and distorted image of ourselves. This process of fragmentation has accelerated with the physical isolation of individuals: the contactless society created by the Covid pandemic has resulted in a situation where people are increasingly shut away in their own filter bubbles. All this data is processed by algorithms, which are actually not very intelligent, and all the more biased because they are mostly developed by a male, white, generally affluent subset of the population. Yet these same algorithms are said to know more about us than those close to us and even more than we know about ourselves. They are, therefore, able to both influence our behaviour in significant ways, and decide whether we should be “punished” before we’re actually found “guilty” – as when algorithms compute how probable it is that we would default on a loan, suffer from a disease or commit a crime.

However much we try to control our digital identity, there are some categories of data that remain largely unmodifiable, such as health data (particularly valued by insurance companies and employers) or sexual, religious, political and ideological orientations (which, depending on the country you live in, can put you at risk). One may discover that one actually has a lot to hide (even in France, the “country of human rights”, where worrying legislation on this subject has recently been introduced under the guise of public security).

These trends are all the more worrying because personal data can very easily fall into the wrong hands: be it the hands of far-right activists in Germany retrieving police files; of an abusive spouse (there is a plethora of tools to spy on computers, smartphones and online activity); of “hackers” exploiting the numerous security loopholes in connected objects (surveillance cameras, voice assistants, etc.); or when large databases are accessible in cleartext (or almost) on the Internet, due to inadequate security, which can then lead to blackmail to prevent the data from being further disseminated...

But whatever the downsides of these gadgets that we pay a fortune for and whose lifespan gets shorter and shorter (due to planned obsolescence), there is no question that we stop producing them. That would be like wanting to stop progress! Of course, as the narrative goes, these are only temporary problems that technology will eventually solve (the argument behind the idea of “technological solutionism”) – just as it will solve the problem of nuclear waste and global warming.

When it comes to control, the Internet is like the icing on the cake. It has set routes and nothing else: hence few possibilities to escape. This is why the digital realm is, in theory, [15] much easier to control than the physical realm (one only has to control the routes). All the more reason to intone the mantra of technological TINA (“there is no alternative”): forced digitalisation, increasing “dematerialisation”, moving the centre of production further and further into people’s personal space (all the better to know you with !). The Covid pandemic is a case in point: in just a few months, it has resulted in widespread remote working and distance learning. This has provided the ideal conditions to impose remote surveillance techniques on a vulnerable population.

After the carrot of new technological gadgets which have got the population used to the idea of surveillance, making us accept it as, if not normal, at least inevitable (TINA!), if we wish to enjoy the benefits of progress, we are now beginning to feel the stick. As soon as a sufficiently large majority of the population is converted, [16] the technology can be imposed on others – who, if they choose to refuse it, automatically become suspicious: could it be that they have something to hide? [17] This results in a situation where the “black sheep” who refuses to comply with the system is increasingly excluded and stigmatised: for those without a Facebook profile, without a smartphone, or even without an Internet connection, daily life is becoming increasingly difficult. We must find an answer to the “digital divide”! The system thus decides who is or isn’t part of society, with the aim of making it harder and harder to slip through the cracks, so that ultimately there is no escape. In China, paying with a smartphone is already on its way out: the latest trend is facial payment technology, which requires linking your bank account to your biometric data.

As the system’s flaws become increasingly visible (global warming, massive increase in inequality, depletion of the planet’s resources, destruction of landscapes and ecosystems, etc.), resistance is also growing. But forcing through policies is one of the characteristics of the new neoliberal regime. There are no longer any negotiations, and a crisis is the best time to act: laws can be passed through fast-track “emergency” procedures (due to a pandemic or due to terrorism).

An Electronic Frontier Fondation campaign illustrates the mass awareness of mass surveillance. Credit : EFF (CC BY 2.0)

All of this results in an intensification of control. But it also results (and obviously both go hand in hand) in escalating disequilibrium. One of the consequences of attention economy tactics is an increasing amount of extreme content, which, due to filter bubbles, fuels separatism, extremism and conspiracy theories of all kinds. On top of this, the disastrous management of crises (which is what logically happens when social structures, such as hospitals, assistance organisations and education, are left to fall by the wayside) results in a situation where a large chunk of the population experiences a loss of meaning and understanding in the face of the apparent [18] inconsistencies of their leaders (and supposed representatives). The Covid pandemic is again a case in point: in France, hospital beds were being reduced even in the midst of a pandemic.

“Fascism is not the opposite of democracy but its evolution in times of crisis”, said Bertolt Brecht. Periods of crisis are what neoliberalism likes best. There is always concern that our tools might fall into the wrong hands: but what if that were already the case? At a time when some in France are openly praising Pétain, it might be a good time to ask this question.

So, what should we do? It should be clear by now that the problem is systemic: we must therefore seek to build solutions based on alternative systems.

New technologies may lock us into surveillance, but they can also give us extremely effective ways to fight back, particularly in terms of “sousveillance”: if power is control, in a “democracy” control must be exercised by the people.

Today we are witnessing a shift in this respect: with the widespread use of the Internet, the development of “pocket-size” tools (smartphones, Gopro cameras, etc.) and live streaming platforms, anyone can now film, photograph, report and broadcast content instantaneously on a relatively large scale, which challenges authorities’ usual propaganda techniques. Never before has police violence been so apparent (even though it has been around for a very long time); [19] never before have the dominant media been so overwhelmed by the myriad of voices on social media, reflecting all sorts of different backgrounds. As the Internet has become the primary source of information nowadays, it is proving difficult impose official communication. Invisibilisation and censorship are becoming a real challenge due to the Streisand effect.

On the other hand, the noose is tightening. In France, for example, there is an increasing sense that the state is clamping down on people’s freedoms. Laws are being passed in an effort to regain control over this formidable realm of free expression that is the Internet (“hate” speech and online anonymity, very strict content moderation rules on platforms, attacks on the encryption of instant messaging or end-to-end encryption, etc.). [20] The current debate around the right to film law enforcement officials is symptomatic of these developments: it’s hard to understand how such a question can be asked in a “democracy”. [21]

As well as fighting legal battles, which can limit some of the damage and prompt new robust safeguards (and there have been some noteworthy victories, for example, the global data retention case [EU Court of Justice, October 2020] or, more recently, the case on drones), it is of vital importance to build alternatives to corporate platforms and networks. Their goals are purely economic and, therefore, in spite of all their ethical statements, they often have no interest in protecting individual rights, freedom of information or freedom of expression – as recently illustrated by the increasing tendency of platforms such as Facebook or Twitter to go down the road of censorship.

One of our goals should be to increase the number of possible routes, in order to reduce “choke points” in the network and thus censorship through internet shutdowns. We also need to have better collective control over them. We need to fight for the development of networks built and managed by and for the people (Freifunk, Guifi.net, FFDN, etc.). We need to protect ourselves on existing networks (Tor, Tails, encryption of communications, etc.). We need to develop independent media (financially independent, in particular), federated and interoperable social networks (such as Mastodon), alternative platforms (such as PeerTube) and hosting services that aren’t based on a for-profit model, but rather on solidarity, neutrality and knowledge sharing (CHATONS).

Generally speaking, we need to build viable alternatives to the dominant system through a process of “swarming”, creating a critical mass for change: community networks (community-supported agriculture, cooperatives), mutual assistance and sharing associations (GULL, repair cafés, hackerspaces). The driving idea is to reclaim control, both individually and collectively, of one’s environment, one’s food, one’s Internet connection, one’s data, one’s computers and one’s devices.

It’s really about building a resistance: [22] a resistance against a sick system that is collapsing and becoming even more dangerous. We are at a point where many of the things we are fighting for are converging: we are fighting for our freedoms and for the right to live lives that are more than just work or mere survival; we are fighting for the rights of each and every human being; and we are fighting for the protection of the planet, and its fauna and flora. We must assert a collective and independent outlook, rebuild confidence, and stop relying on elites completely cut off from reality, whose dogmas are increasingly unreliable. We must do away with the dictatorship of growth and progress at all costs. We need to reconsider our values and ask ourselves what really makes sense over the long term. We need to develop popular education techniques that challenge the dominant ideology (ritimo network, “conférences gesticulées”, [23] etc.). We need to invent new forms of resistance and be flexible in the way we take action. We need to go beyond the narrow boxes that we are being asked to fit into. We must refuse to to be confined to a virtual existence. We need to reappropriate the tools, and use them to our advantage. We need to share our experiences and draw inspiration from others (Catalonia, Black Panthers, Greece, Rojava, Chiapas, etc.). We need to show that there are other ways of doing things, and make these ways visible whichever way we can (protests, websites, tags, articles, posters, videos... even umbrellas! [24]).

One thing is certain. We can’t afford to lose.

Notes

[1French small business Amesys stands accused of being complicit of torture in Libya after providing the Khadafi regime, from 2007 onwards, with a surveillance system to spy on the Libyan population’s communications ; same situation in Egypt.

[2In the 18th century, “democracy” was a disparaging term, almost equivalent to “anarchy” (which still remains disparaging for many): see for instance Francis Dupuis-Deri’s book Démocratie : Histoire politique d’un mot.

[3“A political regime focusing on controlling the population, at the expense of individual freedoms”, according to the French Wiktionary.

[4Agnès Rousseaux, “Le pouvoir d’influence délirant des dix milliardaires qui possèdent la presse française”, Bastamag, 05/04/2017.

[5See the excellent Arte documentary film Ces financiers qui dirigent le monde – BlackRock.

[6See Johann Chapoutot’s excellent work Libres d’obéir – Le Management, du nazisme à aujourd’hui, Gallimard, 2020.

[7Arte’s documentary film Propaganda – la fabrique du consentement is a must-see on this subject.

[8The Apollo Guidance Computer probably helped the United States win the race to the Moon against the USSR...

[9Extractivism, which inevitably leads to resource depletion (either human or environmental), is one of the key features of capitalism. It is no accident that the term “mining” and that of “proof of work” are used in cryptocurrencies techniques.

[10“Tech was born at the moment that antitrust enforcement was being dismantled.” (Cory Doctorow, “How to Destroy ‘Surveillance Capitalism’”, OneZero).

[11In Christophe Masutti’s terms, “We have reached a decisive point where any critique of surveillance is necessarily a critique of capitalism.” (Affaires privées, p. 313).

[12“What is neoliberalism? A programme for destroying collective structures which may impede pure market logic.” (Bourdieu, Le Monde diplomatique, March 1998). See also the very inspiring analysis by Subcommander Marcos, published in Le Monde Diplomatique in August 1997: “La quatrième guerre mondiale a commencé”.

[13Environmental activists have been the victims of almost as much repression as anarchists in recent years. This is because both dare challenge capitalism’s underlying ideology, the worst “thoughtcrime” imaginable.

[14Hubert Guillaud, “Comprendre le graphe social”, Internetactu.net, 28/09/2007.

[15Fortunately, even if the territory is defined by the routes that go through it, these are not always recorded on maps…

[16This is something that is important to consider when one accepts a new, potentially intrusive technology (connected watch, Fitbit bands, etc.). There can be consequences not only for oneself, but potentially for the rest of society as well.

[17Remember here that since personal data are the source of unlimited revenue, anything hidden is by definition a loss of profit (and of control).

[18Although, if the ultimate goal is not good governance but rather to use the crisis and the stupor that follows to destroy social rights, our rulers are actually proving quite coherent.

[19See Mathieu Rigouste’s book, La domination policière : Une violence industrielle, La Fabrique, 2012.

[20Parallels can be drawn between contemporary legislation and the “lois scélérates” (villainous laws) in France at the end of the 19th century: see the very interesting book by Raphael Kempf, Ennemis d’État, La Fabrique, 2019.

[21Although, as we have seen, we do not actually live in a democracy. So there is some logic.

[22See the podcast based on the book Full Spectrum Resistance.

[23The “dramatised lecture” is a concept and popular education tool created by Franck Lepage.

[24Think of Hong Kong’s 2014 “Umbrella Revolution”.

Commentaires

President of the French Data Network (FDN) [fdn.fr] and of the Parinux GULL [parinux.org], which hosts the CHATONS Bastet [bastet.parinux.org], Khrys publishes a weekly web review on the Framablog [framablog.org]. See: https://khrys.eu.org/