On whistleblowers, freedom of privacy, and the collapse of liberal democracy
I have a little theory I sometimes like to play with in my head – by no means illuminating – which is that strong ideas always attract other ideas, and as these pebbles of analytic gold set off on a roll they gather pace and eventually culminate in thought processes resembling nothing less than a full blown metaphorical maelstrom.
Having a gravitational force of their own would explain the lulls in creativity (lack of foundational ideas) or those saturated, golden stretches of productivity and invention (this idea that idea all these ideas IDEAS IDEAS)
It is with this childish, Shintoist musing on the nature of ideation that I want to open a post on liberalism, neo-liberalism, modern politics and matters of national security, especially in light of the recent NSA scandal. The main bullets of this discussion are shaped by two items of food for thought I was exposed to over the weekend: Alex Gibney’s new documentary ‘We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks‘, and Waleed Aly’s 2010 essay ‘What’s Right? The Future of Conservatism in Australia‘. In order to talk about the first, I’m going to begin with a spiel on the second. Hopefully this won’t take too long…
Liberalism or Neoliberalism?
The crux of Aly’s argument is that as far as coherent political ideology goes, classical liberalism has been superseded by neo-liberalism in Australian politics and indeed in all other developed Western nations.
Liberalism, as set forth by John Stuart Mill and built upon the ideas of Hobbes and Rousseau, has always been first and foremost a political ideology that holds the individual in the highest esteem. The rights of the individual to freedom of thought and speech (which means nothing if it doesn’t mean the freedom to offend), freedom of belief must be safeguarded against the majoritarian pressures of society to the extent that these expressions of individual freedom pose no harm to anybody else. Government, or the state, exists solely to maintain this protection of the individual against society and its tyrannical customs. In Australia, the tenets of libertarian belief in the classical sense have mostly dissolved. It is resurrected by politicians now and again for reasons of political expedience, out of convenience. ‘Freedom of speech’ is perhaps the most enduring legacy of this ideology in modern, everyday political language. However the freedom to belief, notably religious belief, has largely collapsed – not as a consequence of lack of constitutional rights such as wearing headscarves or congregating in places of worship – but because it is tied quite inextricably to cultural freedoms and the corresponding expectations of assimilation. Aly cites a passage that illustrates thus:
We don’t care where people come from; we don’t mind what religion they’ve got or what their particular view of the world is. But if you want to be in Australia, if you want to raise your children in Australia, we fully expect those children to be taught and to accept Australian values and beliefs.
whereby the ‘Australian identity’ is seen as a solid, non-fluid character template that can be ascertained and distributed via legal instruments such as citizenship ‘naturalisation’ tests.
A discussion into what constitutes Australian values and beliefs however, would most likely reveal these as fluid and reactionary over time, depending on the latest crisis, and more often than not, the incubation of political rhetoric and dictation by the media. As an example, see if you recognise any of these often ideological positions taken by prime ministers at different points of time:
- John Howard:”This is an assault, as much on the freedom and the values of Australian society as it is on the freedom and the values of American society.”
- Or: We are against the use of violence and acts of terrorism and will do anything to fight the War on Terror (September 11)
- We are against using terror to fight terror (after ten years of foreign occupation)
- We are against illegal immigration, we can/will/should decide who gets to come to Australia and the means with which they do it (Children Overboard)
- We do not acknowledge the Stolen Generations and special treatment for Indigenous Australians because we are one nation (before the apology)
- We are for national (indigenous) reconciliation (after the apology)
Identity politics is a boat navigating wave after wave of public sentiment, steered by the sometimes directionally challenged, sometimes unwilling or cowardly captains that are our political leaders.
Moving onto neoliberalism, which emerged victorious after the Cold War in the 1980s and has grown to dominate the multipolar, globalised world since. As a simplification, neoliberalism can be seen as a hyper manifestation of liberalism, where individuals must be allowed to pursue their own diverse ends. For this reason state interference is kept to an absolute minimum. This is an ideological imperative.
But that is where the similarity ends. Though chiefly a manual for economic activity, the custodians of neoliberalism namely Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Paul Keating took the liberty of extending it further to change existing social structures. Neoliberalism transformed cultural societies into a singular, global market society where things and people are perceived as valuable only to the extent that they are assigned market value (note that this fluctuates according to market forces). This necessarily leads to commodification of anything and everything – sex, religion, family education – the proliferation of market-based solutions to social problems, and insecurity of the mind, body and money/employment. Thus neoliberalism became not just a way of economic organisation, but also of social organisation. The state is immobilised, the individual is god, and the corporation is virtually invincible.
So that’s liberalism and neo-liberalism. But where do we live?
Strictly speaking, it would appear that the answer is neither. We live in liberal democracy – Australians, Britons and Americans all. Liberalism gives us the freedoms outlined briefly above – freedom of thought, speech, belief, movement. Liberal democracy is synonymous with economic rationalism, or the Middle Way. That may give some indication to the supposed moderation of the political ideology that governs our states today. While both Australian major political parties advocate trust in free markets and privatisation above all, they also acknowledge the role of governments to pre-empt, intervene and provide in instances of market failure – verging on Keynesian macroeconomics (in the case of the Australian Labor Party this is certainly true). As for democracy – this simply denotes a system of election that takes into account the will of the people. Take note, because this is interesting. Democracy respects the wishes of people because it is a system of rule that sees people as equal in their ability to choose leaders and policies – it does not discriminate along lines of educational attainment, ethnicity, religious or moral persuasion.
While this is perfectly fine in matters of fiscal, labour, domestic importance (it may be the only equitable way of political organisation if you want to avoid imposing ideological doctrines on the people without consultation) what does it mean for national security?
Defense of the state is a considered, two pronged endeavour: it depends on limited intelligence and also on elite decision making. This means we entrust matters of a classified nature to a small body of adept professionals trained in the science of data and threat analysis (small only in theory, in practice these circles span government networks and security corporations).
As a matter of natural conclusion, it is impossible for all such intelligence to be made public.
Julian Assange and Private Bradley Manning send the message both explicitly and implicitly that all information should be free. Should it really? Personally I cannot agree, and am sure there are many out there who draw the same conclusion. I would rather be better protected from any real threat, foreign or otherwise, and be more ignorant for it. A government charged with doing the public’s work should not necessarily make that work public.
Yet I realise there is a trade-off we must make. Governments make mistakes in war, conflict, violate jus ad bellum and jus in bello, as in elsewhere. Generals and soldiers perpetrate and condone crimes of torture, war crimes in practice if not by name. Wikileaks, through the source of Private Bradley Manning sought to expose these, to deposit this information in hands of the people, so they could make informed opinions, to then make informed decisions when voting for political parties on the basis of foreign policies. To keep government accountable. If the exposure of the Afghan and Iraq War Logs foiled security plots and spoiled diplomatic relationships, potentially increasing threat or risk to national security, that is a trade-off I would be willing to bear.
So then: what kind of checks and balances should we submit departments and organisations of national security and intelligence? This is the conversation we should have been having in the aftermath of Wikileaks and indeed now, over Edward Snowden and alleged National Security Agency (NSA) espionage.
Though nowhere near as explosive, the leaked documents about NSA ‘Prism’ and ‘Boundless Informant’ surveillance systems should be a cause for national concern.
A debate on absolutist terms is of no use here. More than ever, we need the logic of relativity. What are the trade-offs we are prepared to make here?
We value life: that much is axiomatic amongst different cultures and societies. But how much privacy do we require to live our lives with dignity, and how much is simply a matter of preference or worse, a knee-jerk reaction to ‘spying’, ‘snooping’, Orwellian paranoia? How much privacy would we be prepared to give up n return for a reasonable level of national safety? How much privacy would we be willing to surrender to prevent more marathon, parade, mass bombings, shootings? This requires introspective questioning on the meaning and value of privacy to us today.
And if we were to surrender part of our individual and collective privacy, what are the kind of dangers are we likely to be exposed to? What kind of information do we need to make these choices? How much information should we know before, during and after the launch of foreign invasion or war? Should the rights to this data be guaranteed constitutionally?
In the same way that the Treasury delivers budgets and spreadsheets every year to justify fiscal policy plans, should we have public releases of the information used by security analysts to come to their conclusions? How much security is compromised by such action, how much would ‘aid the enemy’?
The truth is, Neoliberalism is impoverished when it comes to national security: it has pretty much nothing to say on the topic of war. The best neoliberal ideology can muster on the topic is the democratic peace theory, or Thomas Friedman’s theory of Golden Arches, which posits that two neoliberal, democratic countries (both with the presence of McDonalds) will not go to war, deterred by the financial cost of disruptions to trade. This is a concept that theorises on the improbability of war; it does not address the how, why or what of war. Nor is this the fault of the ideology itself: its insight was intended (exclusively even) for the organisation of markets. This is precisely why it is a mistake for governments to take on any single ideology to serve as a comprehensive governing force.
Countries often have other reasons for going to war, reasons informed by ideology other than neoliberalism. A radical doctrine to export democracy to another, so-called illiberal country is one such reason. So if we do not operate by liberal democracy for the intents and purposes of war… then what?
And if we do not have free access to the information we may need to support a government for going to war, then can we still call ourselves a liberal democracy? If not – then what are we turning into?