The global elite and the surveillance state


Ian Welsh on his web log made observations that I find hard to accept, but impossible to disprove.

Liberalism, classic and modern, believes that a properly functioning “freer” society is a more powerful society, all other things being equal.  This was, explicitly, Adam Smith’s argument.  Build a strong peacetime economy, and in wartime you will crush despotic nations into the dirt.

If you want despotism, as elites, if you want to treat everyone badly, so you personally become more powerful and rich, then, you’ve got two problems: an internal one (revolt) and an external one: war and being out-competed by other nations’ elites, who will come and take away your power, one way or the other (this isn’t always violently, though it can be.)

The solution is a transnational elite, in broad agreement on the issues, who do not believe in nationalism, and who play by the same rules and ideology.  If you’re all the same, if nations are just flags, if you feel more kinship for your fellow oligarchs, well then, you’re safe.  There’s still competition, to be sure, but as a class, you’re secure.

That leaves the internal problem, of revolt. The worse you treat people, the more you’re scared of them.  The more you clamp down.  This is really, really expensive and it breaks down over generations, causing internal rot, till you can’t get the system to do anything, no matter how many levers you push.

What is being run right now is a vast experiment to see if modern technology has fixed these problems with surveillance and oppressive states.   Is it cheap enough to go full Stasi, and with that level of surveillance can you keep control over the economy, keep the levers working, make people do what you want, and not all slack off and resist passively, by only going through the motions?

The oligarchs are betting that the technology has made that change.  With the end of serious war between primary nations (enforced by nukes, among other things), with the creation of a transnational ruling class, and with the ability to scale surveillance, it may be possible to take and keep control indefinitely, and bypass the well understood problems of oligarchy and police and surveillance states.

via Ian Welsh.

My gut reaction to this post is that it is paranoid, even though it fits all the facts.  But it certainly is true that there is a tiny and increasingly powerful global elite which feels increasingly connected with each other and decreasingly connected with the rest of us.  It is true that the rise of this global elite coincides with the rise of the secret and lawless power by governments.  It is true that, in the name of national security, there has been a crackdown on dissent of all kinds.   It is true that increasingly militarized local police forces act as if they expect some kind of revolutionary uprising.

What I find hard to accept is that all of this is intentional.  The reason I find it hard to believe is that I judge others by myself.   I have done bad things in my life, but, at the time I did them, I had to be able to justify them in my mind.   In my mind, I imagine the ruling class thinks the same way.   I imagine they honestly think that they are the creators of wealth and jobs, and that all the rest of us are parasites on them.   I imagine that members of the secret national security establishment honestly think they are making the nation more secure.

But maybe not.  Maybe they are aware of what they are doing and don’t care.   Maybe I should think about sociological and psychological studies that indicate that the holders of wealth and power on average have a sense of entitlement that makes them feel exempt from the rules that apply to everyone else.  Maybe I should think about the classic definition of the paranoid—one who lacks the normal person’s ability to diminish awareness of reality.

In the end, it doesn’t matter.   What goes on in the minds of the elite is unknowable and irrelevant.   All I can judge is the probable consequences of their actions, which I think Ian Welsh judges correctly.

Click on The Logic of the Surveillance State for Ian Welsh’s full post.

Click on How the Government Targeted Occupy for an example of what he was talking about.

Click on The Rise of the New Global Elite for a portrait of global elite by Chrystia Freeland in The Atlantic Monthly.

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