Symi 2014: All power corrupts and the development of this power will corrupt us totally, by Anthony Barnett

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Two of the great themes of the Symi seminars since I have been privileged to attend the seminars in 2005 have been citizen empowerment, especially by making a reality of participative and deliberative democracy and trying to follow and analyse the consequences of corporate capture of power globally, and its dire consequences for the environment. Both of these themes are a response to the weakening of the traditional, twentieth century state with its mass parties and commitment to welfare.

This commitment means that the Symi seminars are distinguished by their engagement with the modern world. Unlike most socialist ventures, George Papandreou has ensured that the Symi conversations are not locked in the past. Thus the progressive potential of the Internet for the development of democracy and a true “demos” has been welcomed and embraced.

Now, however, since Edward Snowden revealed the scale of official surveillance, we can see that the darker, undemocratic side of the nation state has been modernizing itself – with a vengeance. We can no longer debate the development of citizen participation as a positive thing. We have to confront that fact that America’s NSA aided and abetted by the UK’s GCHQ especially, but also by other intelligence service around the world, is seeking to record and store the totality of all electronic records and communications, indexing their content through databases of our metadata, then record the data about our data: the who, to whom, where, and when of all transactions.

It seems unbelievable, and being of a skeptical disposition I interviewed General Hayden, who was in charge of the NSA during 9/11 and oversaw the creation of its domestic dragnet in the USA at Bush and Cheney’s instruction. (You can read it here.) I then met with William Binney, who as the head of the technology team, actually developed the NSA’s capacities to download bulk data and then resigned when he felt it was adopting totalitarian methods of the kind he had witnessed in the Soviet Union, which he knew well from having spied on it for many years. (His interview is here.) He explains how they are going about it, and now further revelations in The Intercept leave little doubt. It is not that the agencies have already “mastered the internet” to use a phrase of GCHQ; it is that they intend to if they are allowed.

Anyone concerned with creating more democracy faces an immediate question; participation is rendered useless in a regime of total surveillance that undermines self-government. The nation state – certainly its underside – is fighting back and we therefore have a new fight on our hands: how to stop the creation of a surveillance state?


There are two things we have to investigate, debate, and attempt to understand

First, the profound nature of the transformation unleashed by the micro-chip that is turning production as well as communication upside down. Regular people without institutional power and privilege can give voice, articulate views, share knowledge directly about their interests, professions and music, and organise, locally or across the world. And by organise I don’t just mean in the usual, if far from unimportant ‘nuisance’ sense of defending local interests or petitioning against outrages, or even blowing the whistle as Snowden has done so courageously. These were possible within analogue politics, but I also mean organise economically in ways never before possible. The change now underway is substantive as well as profoundly procedural. Together this threatens representative democracy (always an elite project) with the prospect of actual democracy: it is becoming possible to conceive not only of government of and for the people but also now by the people. The opportunity to co-create our own self-government holds out the prospect of our becoming more human, as we as a species internalise our digital twist.

However, this also means we have an epochal fight on our hands, and if we lose, may end up enslaved to the worst side of our nature.  The forces being unleashed by the environment of cyberspace, within which so many of our transactions are unavoidably articulated in what Rosemary Bechler has dubbed “the internet of relationships,” also provokes existing power structures to renew themselves. They say the danger is terrorism. Terrorism is indeed a danger. But for them its threat has a welcome familiarity justifying their desire for more power to look after us. In system terms the possibility of actual democracy is far more alarming than terrorism, for who then would be in control?

Second, this is the threat that most concerns vulnerable vested interests. Even though they do not lack figures of integrity, they flourish today thanks to methodical greed, love of power, and concentrations of wealth and influence. This regime of interests is responding in fast and in ultra-intrusive ways to update and secure itself. Privilege and celebrity benefit from new technology all the more for being already well funded and organised. Naturally they defend the system as a whole to re-preserve their superiority. This does not point towards fascist style mobilisations, or reaction as we have known it. Rather, a bureaucratic thoroughness means that the administrative state, in cooperation with corporate interests, threatens to undermine our freedom, liberty and democracy, however limited these achievements may have been. We are sleepwalking into despotism.

For the internet is like another domain, in the sense that the land, sea, air and outer space are domains. Not incidentally, the United States military set out to achieve what it called “full-spectrum dominance” as space became a military domain in the 1970s and now applies the same attitude to the internet. Its peculiarity as a domain is that it is man-made. Almost all our relationships, from financial transactions to lovers’ texts, have a digital form. They make ripples. Like the movement of air when we speak or a wave in the water when we swim, these traces can be traced. But in the case of digital ones, they are themselves the actual signals rather than the physical form of a sign, and as signals can be mirrored and reproduced and even enhanced without weakening the original.

This means that everything, everything, in the electronic domain can be recorded. Once recorded, it can be stored. Once stored, it can be reproduced. It is not real-time surveillance we are now discussing therefore, as we have known it. The threat is not that you are being tracked at this moment or spied upon. It is that at any time in the future anyone with the power or connections to so enquire, can access what you once said, did, watched, texted, and where you went (which is continuously recorded via your phone), and with whom you spoke, shared a location, or communicated with, and whom they then communicated with, at any time in the past. The threat is that nothing you have done will be hidden from anyone with the capacity to know – should they wish to find out in the future.

All power corrupts and the development of this power will corrupt us totally.


Anthony Barnett

June 2014