Archive for the ‘Liberal democracies’ Category
By Stephen Gowans
Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel “has defended German cooperation with the National Security Agency program, called Prism, and rejected any comparison between it and the invasive methods used by the Stasi, the secret police of East Germany’s Communist government.”
“The work of intelligence agencies in democratic states was always vital to the safety of citizens and will remain so in the future,” Merkel said. “For me, there is absolutely no comparison between the Stasi in East Germany and the work of intelligence services in democratic states.” The programs are “two totally different things.” (New York Times, July 11, 2013)
Note that Merkel doesn’t deny that Germany’s intelligence apparatus, in collaboration with the NSA, spies on German citizens—only that its spying is vital for public safety. By implication, East Germany’s snooping was not. She invokes democracy’s halo to justify the police state methods of democratic states (if it’s done by a democracy, it must be good) while drawing a distinction with communist states (if it’s done by a communist state, it must be bad.)
At least Merkel has gone so far as to admit that Germany does what East Germany used to do—spy on its own citizens. Western politicians used to pretend that liberal democracies didn’t do that kind of thing (though there was plenty of public record evidence they did.)
Of course, Merkel can’t say that German secret policing is Stasi-like, at least, not in its intent, because the Stasi has long been held up by anti-communists as a sui generis—a totalitarian monstrosity that could only exist in a communist society. Germany’s surveillance activities, Merkel contends, are on an elevated (democratic) plane; they’re “vital to the safety of citizens.” The Stasi, presumably, concerned itself with baser things.
However, it’s clear that all states are concerned with preventing terrorist bombings, hijackings, assassinations, and so on—terrorist activities which endanger the public and disrupt the smooth functioning of the system. This was as true of the GDR as it is of any other state.
But the definition of public safety can be very wide, and states invariably place an equal sign between “public safety” and “the established order.”
The exodus of young, working-age and skilled East Germans to the West—encouraged by the West German government—threatened the viability of the GDR’s established order, and much of the GDR’s political policing involved measures to stanch the bleeding of human capital.
West Germans who identified with the GDR and were sympathetic to its political project represented a potential fifth column which the West German secret police operated to contain and disrupt.
And yes, there was a West German equivalent to the Stasi. It was built on the foundations of Hitler’s secret police, whose operatives were recruited from the ranks of former Gestapo personnel, and which used informants, buggings and mail openings to spy on, harass and disrupt the activities of people with left-wing political views, just as the Stasi did against people who threatened the viability of the anti-Fascist workers’ state.
In the view of those entrusted with preserving West Germany’s capitalist order within the orbit of US hegemony, communists and GDR-sympathizers were threats to public safety.
The scope of secret police activities is proportional to the technology available and the severity of the threat to be contained and disrupted. The threat posed to East Germany by the larger, richer West Germany and its powerful patron, the United States, was many times greater than the threat the smaller, poorer, East Germany posed to the West—a GDR whose backer, the Soviet Union, could offer fewer resources than the United States could offer West Germany. (Not only was the Soviet Union a less affluent backer, after WWII, it carted away from its occupation zone in Germany anything of value, and East Germany disproportionally bore Germany’s costs of indemnifying the USSR for the latter’s war losses.) Accordingly, the demands on a secret police function in the GDR were much greater.
To West Germans who had no strong leftist leanings, the secret police were invisible, but their existence was always clear and menacing to the country’s communists and militant socialists. The fact that the BfV, West Germany’s political police, was part of a “democratic” state made it no less intrusive and threatening than was the Gestapo to Germans who held the wrong political views.
So, are Germany’s secret police and the Stasi two totally different things, as Merkel contends? Not in kind, but they are in degree—though the difference in degree is not in the direction Merkel would care to acknowledge. The surveillance apparatus of Germany’s unified democratic state has a more intrusive access into the private lives of its citizens than the Stasi ever had or could have had.
By Stephen Gowans
Anyone who’s shocked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations that the US state is spying on its citizens shouldn’t be. Liberal democracies have routinely spied on their own citizens, long before Google, Microsoft, Verizon and the iPhone made the job easier. And they’ve done so while denouncing official enemies like the Soviet Union and East Germany—and today Cuba and North Korea—as police states. Indeed, what’s changed isn’t the fact of state surveillance, but its scope and reach.
Writing about Canada, political scientist Reg Whitaker and historians Gregory Kealey and Andrew Parnaby note that “the police showed quite remarkable energy and zeal in spying on large numbers of citizens. (An official) commission (of inquiry) discovered in 1977 that the RCMP security service maintained a name index with 1,300,000 entries, representing 800,000 files on individuals”  at a time the country had a population of only 24 million!
Interestingly, Whitaker et al don’t call the RCMP’s security service a “secret police,” or Canada a “police state,” though a secret police force that maintained dossiers on three percent of its country’s population might be termed such by someone not so concerned about stepping lightly around the myth that liberal democracies are bastions of political freedom. (They are bastions of political freedom, but of a certain type: that which leaves private ownership of the economy firmly in place and the owners firmly in charge.)
Among the Canadians that Canada’s police state spied on was Tommy Douglas, a leader of the mildly left-leaning New Democratic Party, who served as the premier of one of Canada’s provinces. Douglas, grandfather of TV spook Kiefer Sutherland, and who is credited with pioneering Canada’s state-run health insurance program, died almost 30 years ago. All the same, the Canadian government refuses to make public its file on the prairie preacher turned social democrat politician. Disclosure, the Canadian police state insists, may reveal the names of informants, some of whom may still be alive, while deterring others from working with the political police, for fear their names may come to light in the future as informants.  Stasi informers who spied on their neighbors, workmates and acquaintances are reviled, but enmity isn’t heaped upon your neighbors, co-workers and acquaintances who are informers for Western police states. At least Stasi informers were defending a more egalitarian and humane society than the one it replaced and that has taken its place. Western secret police informers defend states that preside over growing inequality, intolerably high unemployment, a war on unions and wages, and which pursue predatory wars on foreign countries that refuse to allow the rape of their natural resources, labor and markets by the Western states’ ruling classes.
Canada’s NSA equivalent, the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), has, like its better known counterpart south of the border, been scooping up “billions of bits of information transmitted around the world in cyberspace or on airwaves.”  Canada, along with the US, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, is part of a signals intelligence community, called the Five Eyes, which spies on the other partners’ citizens and then shares the data with them to circumvent laws prohibiting domestic spying. These laws allow the major English-speaking capitalist democracies to back up their rhetoric about political freedom, while the cozy sharing arrangement among their electronic surveillance agencies frees them from the inconvenience of actually having to live up to it. And like the NSA, CSEC collects ‘meta-data,’ information on the date, duration, location and recipients of phone calls, e-mails, and text messages transmitted in Canada. Today, rather than having files on only 800,000 of its citizens, the Canadian police state has the raw material to assemble files on the vast majority of them.
Whitaker et al call state surveillance of citizens in liberal democracies political policing, which seems far more legitimate (legitimizing) than the name used to describe (discredit) the same behaviour in communist countries. When Cuban or North Korean officials place their citizens under surveillance, they’re accused of totalitarianism and police state repression, though it seems very unlikely, in light of the Snowden and other revelations, that either state can match the scope of snooping that liberal democracies can use to police their own citizens’ political behaviour.
The term “political policing” in lieu of “police state repression” sanitizes the practice when it happens in liberal capitalist states, and is sanitized again when it is acknowledged that “policing politics….has been done and continues to be done” in every liberal democracy, but that it “is inherently anomalous in liberal democracies.”  This, of course, is an oxymoron. Spying on citizens and disrupting the activities of those who challenge the established order can’t be inherently anomalous in liberal democracies if it is done in every one of them. It must, instead, be an invariable trait of liberal democracies.
But then, so too is political policing an invariable trait of every other kind of state. Whether it’s North Korea or Cuba spying on its own citizens, or the United States, Britain and Canada doing the same, in all cases, political policing serves a conservative function of defending the established order against those who would challenge it. “[T]he political police,” argue Whitker et al, “are always on the side of the political/economic status quo…. 
The difference is that political policing in liberal democracies is “an activist conservatism on behalf of capital against its perceived enemies.”  Political policing in East Germany, the Soviet Union, or today in Cuba and North Korea, is likewise an active conservatism, though not on behalf of capital, but against it, and on behalf of capital’s enemies.
It’s naive, then, for anyone in a liberal democracy who poses a serious threat to the established order to believe the state is going to let them be, free to exercise political freedoms that exist largely as a rhetorical contrivance. Challenging the established order is like going to war, and anyone who goes to war and is shocked to discover that the enemy fights back is seriously deluded about war, the state, and the nature of the enemy. All states are police states, including those most attached to rhetoric about political freedom.
In contrast, people who present no serious challenge to the state are typically indifferent to the state panopticon. They reason correctly that since they have nothing to hide, and that they identify with the state and have no inclination to challenge the class that dominates it, that the political police won’t trouble them.
Alternatively, there are people who, while they are not against the state, are in favour of reforms which would restrain the class that dominates the state from pursuing its interests to the fullest. From the perspective of the political police, these people must sometimes be subjected to surveillance to discover whether their quest for reforms is in reality a veiled challenge to the established order, and if not, to provide early warning if it metamorphoses into one. It is these people who are typically the most agitated by political policing, for inasmuch as they conscientiously keep their opposition within legal bounds and are not actively hostile to the state, they believe their privacy should be inviolable. In their view, their activities are “legitimate” (within bounds that do not seriously challenge the established order) and therefore are not fair game for surveillance. Hence, those who seriously threaten the established order know the state will spy on them, and accept surveillance as a reality of war; the apolitical are indifferent, because they know the state has no reason to disrupt their activities; while the reformers are agitated, because they’ve discovered the state isn’t neutral and may indeed disrupt activities they believed to be legitimate and legal.
British Labour MP Chris Mullen’s thought experiment, the novel A Very British Coup, explores the question of whether the British state would allow a leftist government to pursue far-reaching socialist reforms even if the government played by the formal rules. His conclusion: no. The political police, working with the United States, would orchestrate the government’s overthrow. It has typically been the case that left-wing movements that have come to power in liberal democracies either quickly abandon their agenda or actively pursue it and are replaced, as a consequence, by a military dictatorship or fascist coup. Under threat, capital shares none of the reverence for liberal democracy that moderate socialists so ardently display and believe in, to their detriment. Even Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, whose challenge to the established order within his own country was partial at best, was briefly toppled in a coup, and remained menaced throughout his tenure as president by the efforts of the United States and owners of the country’s private productive assets to disrupt his government—a government that scrupulously operated within the boundaries of liberal democracy.
Likewise, it’s naive to think that the state in communist countries will not spy on, and try to disrupt, the activities of those who seriously threaten the established socialist order, and who seek to bring about a return to a society of exploitation, or subordination to foreign tyranny, or both. To object to this practice would be to elevate abstract ideas about political freedom above freedom from exploitation, oppression, hunger, and insecurity; to make the freedom to politically organize for the creation of conditions of exploitation senior to freedom from exploitation. Objecting to the Cuban state spying on citizens who want to return to the days of Batista and US domination is like objecting to the machine-gunning of an advancing Waffen SS column. It may not be pretty, but is necessary to defend something better than the alternative.
To sum up, police state measures—the stock in trade of all states, whether of exploiters or the previously exploited—are neither intrinsically objectionable nor inherently desirable, any more than nuclear technology is. So long as societies are divided by class, there will be states, and so long as there are states, there will be political police. Political policing, like nuclear technology, can be used for good or ill, to protect or destroy, to advance or hold back. We should be for it when it’s used for good and to advance; against it when it’s not. And we should be clear too that as much as the states they revile, liberal democracies are police states, and will always be, so long as the parasitism of capitalist society produces a determined opposition to the parasites.
1. Reg Whitaker, Gregory S. Kealey and Andrew Parnaby. Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America. University of Toronto Press. 2012. p. 9.
2. Colin Freeze, “CSIS fights to keep Tommy Douglas spying file under wraps,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), February 10, 2010.
3. Michelle Shephard, “Web snooping vital, spy agency boss says”, The Toronto Star, October 23, 2005.
4. Whitaker et al, p. 10.
5. Whitaker et al, p. 11.
6. Whitaker et al, p. 12.