2 October 2013

Electronic Spying: its meaning in Britain

The electronic communications of every political activist and commentator in Britain are probably monitored by the state.

The documents made available to the world in the summer of 2013 by the whistleblower, Philip Snowden, have provided proof that the American NSA and its British counterpart, GCHQ, have in tandem attempted to harvest every single morsel of electronic communication that they can. To that end, they have inter alia tapped into undersea cables, compelled internet providers to hand over the content of their servers and worked with the commercial providers of encryption to insert so-called backdoors into their software.

Many claim that we knew all this already. I do not believe this is so: we might have believed that the surveillance state had access to our electronic communication, but we did not know the ubiquity of the surveillance, nor the extent to which the US corporations were partners in the programme.

Apologists claim that, even if multiple petabytes of information are seized and stored, over 99.9 percent is of no interest to the security apparatus and is thus as confidential in practice as it would have been if it had never been seized. Yet while it is indeed true that the vast majority of electronic communication is of no interest, the point needs to be made that the state has access to a great deal of information which it should not have access to and in which it is highly interested.

If in the the 1980s I had got up and said that the Metropolitan police had planted over one hundred spies into political and other civil organisations in Britain, spies who would embed themselves into the community with false identities for decades, I would have been described as paranoiac. Yet this kind of infiltration - outdoing the Stasi of the former East Germany - is now a proven fact, with each deployed officer costing around a quarter of million pounds a year.

Let me take another example of the extent of state surveillance of people. Today, everyone who attends a political demonstration or meeting in Britain risks being photographed by so-called Forward Intelligence police and having their names entered into a database of what are termed “domestic political extremists.” No doubt, the thousands of people on these lists are divided into categories: those who merely criticise the regime in Britain in words, those who organise, those who engage in nonviolent direct action of various kinds, and so on.

Philip Snowden, a technician, has been able to tell us what and how electronic communication is intercepted and harvested. We still don’t know how it is processed and what is done with it. But it is more than highly likely that, as the state spends billions on monitoring political activists and commentators, police and security agents will select, identify, categorise and keep all electronic communications among those who are involved in, or comment on, political affairs.

Largely, the political left have resigned themselves to surveillance. We use Facebook and other social media sites and we don’t encrypt our email. Even if the security officers have access to all we say, our online searches, etc. we just shrug our shoulders. Should we?

1 October 2013

The Myth of Marxist Ethics

Marx's achievement was in constructing a new way of understanding and interpreting history, not in the discovering a new ethics.

I would argue that there is no such thing – any more than there is a Newtonian ethics or Freudian ethics.

Marx’s achievement was the discovery of historical materialism: i.e. the development of conceptual tools which help us comprehend human history. And Marx himself was of course the first to undertake such studies within historical materialism. The construction of statements of fact which result from these studies cannot of themselves create ‘ought’ value statements.

Now of course Marx himself was passionately associated with a particular politics: namely that of moving towards a communist society, an ideal which was already formulated in Enlightenment thinking. Yet there is no theoretical originality in this: all Marx did was to take the results of his sociological analysis and argue: if communism is to be achieved then X, Y and Z ought to be done and happily for him what ought to be done was what he thought was actually happening in nineteenth century society. Hence Marxist politics was born, which involved an interesting interrelation between what is and what ought to be done.

Marxist politics has however re-entered historical materialism in one sense: the choice of value-laden terminology to describe factual states of affairs. For instance, the more value neutral concept extraction of surplus value is referred to by the value-laden term exploitation, implying that the extraction of surplus value, a fact of capitalism, is morally wrong.