We all remember President Obama’s smiling face, full of hope and trust, when he repeatedly delivered the motto of his first campaign, “Yes, we can!”—we can get rid of the cynicism of the Bush era and bring justice and welfare to the American people. Now that the United States continues with covert operations and expands its intelligence network, spying even on their allies, we can imagine protesters shouting at Obama: “How can you use drones for killing? How can you spy even our allies?” Obama looks back at them and murmurs with a mockingly evil smile: “Yes we can…”
However, such simple personalization misses the point: The threat to our freedom disclosed by whistle-blowers has much deeper systemic roots. Edward Snowden should be defended not only because his acts annoyed and embarrassed the U.S. secret services. Their lesson is global; it reaches far beyond the standard U.S. bashing. What he revealed is something that not only the United States but also all the other great (and not so great) powers—from China to Russia, from Germany to Israel—are doing, to the extent they are technologically able to do it. His acts thus provide a factual foundation to our premonitions of how much we are all monitored and controlled. We didn’t really learn from Snowden (or from Manning) anything we didn’t already presume to be true—but it is one thing to know it in general, and another to get concrete data. It is a little bit like knowing that one’s sexual partner is playing around—one can accept the abstract knowledge of it, but pain arises when one learns the steamy details, when one gets pictures of what they were doing.
Back in 1843, the young Karl Marx claimed that the German ancien regime “only imagines that it believes in itself and demands that the world should imagine the same thing.” In such a situation, to put shame on those in power becomes a weapon—or, as Marx goes on: “The actual pressure must be made more pressing by adding to it consciousness of pressure, the shame must be made more shameful by publicizing it.” And this, exactly, is our situation today: we are facing the shameless cynicism of the representatives of the existing global order who only imagine that they believe in their ideas of democracy, human rights, etc. What happens in Wikileaks disclosures is that the shame, theirs and ours for tolerating such power over us, is made more shameful by publicizing it.
[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on August 13th, 2013. (full text).]