Towards an Atlantic police state? (2) Orwell’s ‘1984’ and permanent war

The revelations by Edward Snowden about the global surveillance infrastructure run by the United States National Security Agency (NSA) have led many to repeat the slogan from the book ‘1984’, ‘Big Brother Is Watching You’. In Orwell’s nightmarish dystopia, this is done through ubiquitous telescreens which the Party uses to broadcast lying propaganda and to spy on the people.

However, this was not just a matter of propaganda plus surveillance. These were underpinned by a perennial state of war and the accompanying state of siege. Orwell’s book was inspired by the authoritarian turn of Soviet communism under Stalin but is of much wider significance as we can see today. Especially because it contains a learned analysis of the connection between war and repressive surveillance. In the novel, the author of a fictional book-inside-the-book on this issue is an alter ego of Trotsky, ‘Emmanuel Goldstein’. Goldstein’s fictional ‘Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism’ is a source of real consolation to the novel’s protagonist, a Snowden or Manning avant la lettre and it is most topical today.

‘Goldstein’ explains in his treatise (in 1984) that contemporary war no longer is a matter of ruling groups of different countries fighting each other. ‘The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.’ By becoming continuous war in the old meaning has ceased to exist, Orwell/Goldstein concludes.

In today’s ‘Oceania’ (the Atlantic world, one of the three blocs in ‘1984’) the War on Terror certainly fulfils this role. The ‘terrorists’, al-Qaeda or any of its offshoots, is not an enemy to be defeated but an US ally from the time of the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan. After Gorbachev withdrew from that struggle, al-Qaeda became an intelligence asset for the US to be manipulated for other purposes. It also had to be watched closely because ultimately these were people who had fought Afghan communism from an ideology of Islamist jihad inspired by the anti-Western, Wahabi version of Islam of Saudi Arabia.

The organs entrusted with watching over such potentially unruly allies are the intelligence services, which also serve to connect external war (today, the perpetual War on Terror) with internal spying. In the United States spying on the domestic population was done by the FBI and its legendary director, J. Edgar Hoover. After World War II, Hoover tried to interest president Truman to let him investigate the US State Department, which Hoover claimed was infiltrated by a Soviet spy ring with top figures such as Dean Acheson and J.J. McCloy as agents. Truman did not take this serious and Hoover turned to Congress, where he found an audience in the House Un-American Activities Committee, working with young Congressman Richard Nixon and Senator Joseph McCarthy of the Senate’s Internal Security Subcommittee. This led to the episode of McCarthyism, the Communist witch-hunt that left deep traces in the American public psyche and as we can see today, in a sense prepared the US and larger Western public not only for the Cold War but also for a collective psychoses like the one accompanying the War on Terror.

At the time the technological means to spy on the population and on enemies were limited, but in 1946, Eisenhower, then still US Army chief of staff, in a report on ‘Scientific and Technological Resources as Military Assets’ advocated closer association of the army with civilian research and development. When he was elected president in 1952 with Nixon as vice-president, McCarthyism enjoyed a last upsurge before being phased out after Senator McCarthy began to accuse the US Army of communist infiltration.

However, spying on communications continued. Over the period 1947 to 1975 the NSA, under a secret agreement with three US telegraph companies, already collected millions of private telegrams sent to or from the US. 200,000 individuals were indexed on a CIA computer system and in one CIA operation, CHAOS (1967-1973), 7,200 individual US citizens and more than 100 groups were put on file.

Today, surveillance by the NSA and other services is unlimited. In truly Orwellian fashion (think of his ‘Ministry of Truth’), big Internet companies such as Google are helping with weeding out ‘fake news’ so that people will not be exposed to ‘heresy’ (‘conspiracy theory’). The companies 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 containing undesirable information. Why would they do that if not as part of an Orwellian ‘perpetual war’?

Kees van der Pijl

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

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