Strange things happens when you think two things at the same time. The thought things are put into perspective, and strangenesses that pass by unnoticed otherwise become overapparent in comparison.
The question is: what happens if we think about the actually existing democracy and the actually existing mass surveillance at the same time?
In order to think these two things at the same time, we have to first think them one at a time. Thus, what follows is me thinking first the one and then the other, followed by a particle accelerator style thought smash. In order to make things easier, I've assigned numbers to these things - first the one, and so on.
1. The strangest thing about the actually existing mass surveillance is that it is seldomly used in order to catch criminals. Oh, it is rhetorically justified by words such as security and safety, but when the policy document meets the pavement, very few actual criminals have to care about it. It's not that they are not subject to the surveillance - on the contrary, everyone is - but those that man the digital periscopes are not looking at them. Other priorities, other goals, other sponsors.
Isn't it strange that we are not flooded with reports about terrorists and organized criminals being caught by the evidence gathered by the surveillance efforts? The proponents of these systems, who in times past have been keen to stress that this is what these systems were to be used for, should be all over the fact that the systems are used as intended. In one swift move, they would be able to dismiss critics with a simple statement of fact: the systems are used as intended, criminal gets their just trials, and the world is a safer place for it. In terms of PR, it would be a slam dunk - nothing wins hearts and minds faster than concrete evidence that criminals have had a hard time during your time in office.
There is no reason to believe that those in office at this time suddenly have lost their public relations acumen. They still know what they are doing, they still know what they voted on when they voted for these surveillance systems, and they still want to be re-elected. Why are they not all over this, exploiting it to the public relations maximum?
Because the systems are not used against criminals, terrorists and their ilk. They are used against Angela Merkel.
Or, to put it in more general terms, they are used against people who are not criminals or terrorists. By any stretches of imagination. One might argue that the heads of other states are criminal and terroristic by default, but it is not PR-smart to do so. Not least if you expect to maintain and develop diplomatic relations with these heads of states.
If criminals or terrorists are not the main targets of the actually existing mass surveillance - then who is?
It would be interesting to find out, to say the least. If only in order to find out what all these billions and billions of taxpayer money is spent on. Or to make absolutely sure that these systems cannot be used against anyone with mere justification of their names being mentioned on a coffee break.
Or that these systems won't become active whenever you become politically uncomfortable. By any definition of "uncomfortable".
2. The strangest thing about the actually existing democracy is that isn't always as representative as its definition suggests it to be. In theory, there are people in place at the various levels of the state apparatus to represent our wants and needs - whoever we happen to be. By virtue of us having voted these people into their offices.
The bearing thought is that the system thusly will legitimize itself. Everyone has the right to vote, and when everyone's opinion is taken in the aggregate, the result is bigger than the sum of its participants - the one vote rarely make a difference, but all votes becomes the voice of the people.
It goes without saying that this depends on as many citizens as possible voting. It becomes somewhat non-representative if large parts of the population don't vote. Which, to put in in perspective, happened back in the days when only rich people could vote. Or, for that matter, when women couldn't vote. Or be voted on.
You may or may not agree on the importance of proletarian feminist struggle. That's not important - what's important is that those who do are and can be represented.
In theory, this setup is self-legitimizing. Those who best represent the will of the voters is voted on, and the voters are represented by voting on those who best represent them. Those who govern today don't do it because they happened to govern yesterday - they have made themselves relevant to the citizens they govern, and these citizens have become relevant by virtue of this.
As you might notice, this goes two ways. The responsible politicians has a duty to represent to the utmost of their abilities, and the responsible citizen has a responsibility to vote when election day arrives. Much can be said about politicians that do not deliver - much more has been said to those citizens who do not vote.
If you want an example of this, this interview with Russel Brand is an overly obvious one. Paxmans objection is, almost to a word, "but you don't vote!". It's hard not to think that just about any line of reasoning could be swept away with these words - no matter how relevant it might be.
Legitimacy goes two ways. The system is self-legitimizing - and therefore, those who do not participate in the system are illegitimate. They do not voice their votes, and thus their voices don't count.
There are any number of reasons to not vote. Brutal political apathy is one of them. A feeling that nothing changes by voting is another. Not to mention the lived experience of the powers that be not giving a democratic shit about one's opinions, problems, issues, conditions of life or even one's literal death.
The recent years have been characterized by a general downscaling of priorities. The word "austerity" is on everyone's minds and policy documents. Everything is to be done cheaper, more efficiently, faster. If it needs money, it also needs a justification, and if that justification isn't fast or efficient enough, it's reclassified as an unnecessary expense. The combination of increased profits and lowered taxes means a decrease in the questions considered legitimate - the public sphere retreats. Withdraws. Downscales, austeres. Safety costs money - you should have begun building your personal brand fifteen years ago!
Is it any wonder people feel justified in feeling illegitimate - voting or no voting?
It is very much a political question to ask where illegitimacy lies. Is it in the individual in regards to the system - that is, is the individual a lazy scrounger incapable of getting a decent job? Or is it in the system in regards to the individual - is there a democratic problem inherent in a political system that, in no uncertain terms, communicates that it doesn't give a rat's ass about whether you live or die?
There is legitimacy, and there is legitimacy.
3. The strangest thing about thinking about both the actually existing mass surveillance and the actually existing democracy is that it's not done more often. Not least because it leads us to the question of why. Why is Angela Merkel being watched? Why are you and me being watched? Why is a nominally democratic state making every effort to put the well-documented achievements of the DDR to shame?
There might be good, legitimate reasons for this.
If we see legitimacy as something created by going through the democratic motions, then the mass surveillance is voted on by informed citizens, who made the judgment call that mass surveillance is what represents them. We have mass surveillance since we voted on the parties that implemented it, and we voted on them because we knew that they would. Democracy in action.
If we turn it on its head, we get a different picture. There is an ever increasing number of people who are no longer legitimate - be they unemployed, immigrants, of strange sexual bent, poor, uncomfortable, not normal. They disturb the prevailing order, they are foreign elements, they are stains on the social contract. They are unpredictable. And thus, a watchful eye must be kept on them at all times - order must be maintained against the constant influx of disorder. Otherwise, chaos.
The strangest thing about this picture is that criminals (or even terrorists) are not the biggest threats. They do indeed break the laws and cause disorder, but it is a predictable and manageable disorder. It can be cushioned, prevented, insured. Be shoved from the (ever-retreating) public to the ever more lonely private. Crime becomes an everyday occurrence, and it is your own fault if you do not lock your bike, door or vagina.
There are many ways of becoming an illegitimate person.
Instead of keeping an eye on criminals, the ever increasing mass surveillance is used to keep tabs on ordinary people. Unemployed people are forced to file reports on their jobseeking; those on social security are forced to subject their entire economic lives to scrutiny; and immigrants (or those who look like they might be immigrants) are forced to justify their existence to the police at random intervals. Ever more frequent and intrusive mechanisms are employed to keep the illegitimates in place.
And those who object to this are likely to meet these two responses, in tandem: "but you voted for it!" and "but vote for something else, then!".
It probably won't surprise you where these responses get their justification from.
The combination of the actually existing mass surveillance and the actually existing democracy is not a happy thought. Who is surveilled? Whose democracy? Who needs the ever expanding, ever more fine-grain systems of control that's gradually put in place? Is it a legitimate defense of the current order, or is it an ever more desperate defense of a system where more and more people are excluded and need to be defended against?
It is not a question you will get an answer to in this text. But it is a question well worth your continued pondering. One thought at a time. Then two. Then -
Originally published November 1, 2013