Towards an Atlantic Police State? (1) The War on Terror Revisited

The global surveillance regime by the United States as part of the ‘Five Eyes’ (the UK and the Anglophone settler states), revealed to the world by Edward Snowden, fits into the ‘War on Terror’. 

That war was officially declared in response to the 9/11 attacks but had been in the making much longer. Legislation to make this surveillance regime official also in other NATO countries has meanwhile been introduced. In France, the provisions of the state of emergency, which by definition is temporary, have been turned into a regular law which remains in force until revoked; in the Netherlands, a blanket surveillance law was rushed through parliament in an open vote in July 2017. It will be subject to a consultative referendum in March 2018. What is the background of these developments?

After 9/11 it was widely reported that the idea of a war that at some point would be won and over, was fading away. One Pentagon report warned that ‘no one should harbour the illusion that the developed world can win this conflict in the near future.’ The Washington Post predicted that ‘Americans will have to learn to live with a certain amount of insecurity and fear’. And not only ‘Americans’.
In this series I will argue that the War on Terror, and by implication, the surveillance regime prescribed and legitimated by it, is best understood as a ‘Strategy of Tension’ after the model best known from the Italian experience in the 1970s. There it served to prevent the Left, and the Communist Party in particular, from advancing further towards participation in government by provoking and staging violent incidents and chaos. Today the strategy of tension is aimed at the working class, or rather, the semi-urbanised, informally employed reserve army of labour. Its purpose is to control this human mass through a coercive regime in response to its alleged criminal or terrorist tendencies.

After the state capitalist turn of China and the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the USSR, the wage-dependent but mostly underemployed population grew to around 3 billion people directly exposed to capital. Controlling this vast human mass became a core issue in managing the post-Cold War global political economy. The neoliberal capitalist economy has no use for such a large workforce and as a result we are witnessing what two labour sociologists call ‘a brutal and uncompromising attack on the living and working conditions of the working class on a global scale.’ Owing to the automation of production and the simultaneous application of neoliberal structural adjustment policies, the chances of being regularly employed have been greatly reduced. The formation of the reserve army into a class for itself, a conscious subject of social relations, therefore must be prevented. The new strategy of tension serves to achieve this end. By provoking, intentionally or not, pockets of surplus humanity into violence, it imposes a permanent state of exception, allowing the ‘brutal and uncompromising attack’ to be sustained and opposition to it silenced.

The West, led by the United States and with Israel in the role of a front-line state, has a long history of developing repressive solutions for their own societies to keep the black and Palestinian populations, respectively, in a state of submission. In the War on Terror this experience is applied, for the first time, on a truly global scale. Other rulers and/or oligarchies, such as Russia’s or China’s, make no secret of wanting to join this War on Terror, but here another dimension of global political economy, rivalry between imperialist centres, cuts across a potential global coalition against the underclass. This situation resembles World War I, when the great powers clashed but nevertheless shared the common goal of beating down their own working classes.

The United States has sought to turn the fact of being home to the world’s key IT industries into a competitive advantage. They provide it with an unprecedented surveillance apparatus from which Washington seeks to obtain ‘Total Information Awareness’. On the basis of its information advantage, the United States keeps global society in a state of tension by a range of military and intelligence activities targeting ‘demographic bulges’ in the reserve army of labour. In the process, even risking or provoking acts of violence against US/Western targets is part of the scenario because this allows armed control to be imposed. A domestic politics of fear has been deployed to win public support. As the author of a study on the US assassination programme in Vietnam (the Phoenix programme) writes, its aim was ‘to drive people into a state of infantile dependence’ and project their fears on an enemy of choice; and this insight still today applies to the War on Terror.

Meanwhile in the name of weeding out ‘fake news’, the big Internet companies such as Google have changed their algorithms to prevent Left websites from popping up in searches by the public: the World Socialist Website, Global Research, and others, have already experienced sharp declines in numbers of visitors. Facebook takes orders from the United States and Israeli governments to remove accounts. Why do these large Internet companies collaborate, and why do they collaborate with these two governments specifically? That is what I intend the clarify in this series.

Kees van der Pijl

For a complete text with full references see Surveillance Capitalism and Crisis

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