A Short History of Big Brother

— interview with Christian Parenti

CHRISTIAN PARENTI IS the author of Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slavery to the War on Terror (Basic Books) and the earlier Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis. He is currently reporting from Iraq for The Nation. Suzi Weissman, an editor of Against the Current, interviewed him on her program Beneath the Surface on radio station KPFK (Pacifica in Los Angeles), November 10, 2003. Many thanks to Walter Tanner for the transcript, which is abridged for publication here.

Suzi Weissman: I just wanted to start out by telling the listeners, this book is about as contemporary as it gets. One of the best quotes, I thought, was on the back from Mike Davis who said:

“The bad news is that a surveillance society of Orwellian menace is already here. The good news is that Christian Parenti has written a brilliant field guide to understanding and subverting it.

“This is not a book in the bio-terror genre, whose purpose is to induce fear, but to understand how fearmongering is being used to keep us down ...”

You go all the way back to public executions, looking at the function of instilling fear in a population and then going into the beginning of policing and ID cards. What made you want to do that, and how was that important in understanding the topic?

Christian Parenti: Partly I just wanted to trace back one of the basic technologies of routine, everyday surveillance, because the book is about routine, everyday surveillance, not special police investigations – which, of course, depend on an infrastructure of identification and registration and record keeping even to function.

So, I sort-of traced the origins of the ID card that everyone carries; and the first people to carry something like an ID card were slaves, who had to carry written passes every time they traveled. When they escaped there were wanted posters put out for them. These posters had what you might call basic biometric information: descriptions of the fugitive.

Then, of course, there was also resistance – slaves were constantly rebelling and escaping, and in their resistance they were using the technologies that were applied against them. In other words, they were learning to read and write, and they were forging passes and documents that were intended to control them – but in the forgeries, the slaves used these documents and this information technology to subvert the system and to resist the system.

Long story short, where does surveillance come from? It comes from the same place that all social control comes from, which is elite power and the challenge to it. I think sometimes there is this misperception that elites who dominate this or any society just invent this stuff because they want and like to have levels of control. But that’s not how it really works – elites are constantly being pressured from below and from the crises that their systems create.

There is this dialectic of resistance and social control. Under capitalism, the crisis of the constant threat of overproduction and economic collapse, and of constant rebellion either formally or informally, is pressuring elites in both the government and the private sector to innovate ways of better intimidating, controlling and confusing people.

S.W.: In every chapter of this book you show the method and then how the method itself led to the means to subvert the method. But the other part is to show again (you did this in your last book too) how class conscious the ruling group in this society is, much more so than the workers and everybody else in society. So they’re always looking for potential disorder and finding ways to control it. They are always two or more steps ahead.

As I was reading your book I kept thinking about how sometimes people who consider themselves progressive make the facile statement that this is merely a fascist society. I have argued that fascism wasn’t really necessary here because the system had the consent of most people. Mike Davis used to argue, in a way, that the level of surveillance even made fascism unnecessary.

C.P.: I think that consent and surveillance are very intimately connected. And I would agree with you that I don’t think it’s useful to call America a fascist country, primarily because there’s this question of demobilization.

Fascism is a right-wing imitation of socialist social movements, and it’s based on mass mobilization, and a false theory of revolution. This system is based on mass demobilization, and it is very, very different; it may be politically orthodox, and have very violent, awful, racist elements to it, but it confuses things to call it fascist.

But anyway, how does surveillance create dissent? I think one of the main ways it does that is by getting us to police ourselves to the point where we don’t even realize we’re policing ourselves. Also, the implication in accepting each new technology of surveillance is that the rules and laws of the society which are bolstered by surveillance are (made to seem) totally legitimate and infallible, and of course they are not.

That’s what reading history is all about: One realizes how many laws have been in fact totally immoral, and thus hopefully we can see our current regime of laws and also workplace and school rules as absolutely always needing to be challenged, and questioned, and interrogated.

A culture of total obedience, produced by a culture of near-total surveillance, would be an absolute disaster for traditions of disobedience, protest and social progress in the United States.

S.W.: You start with the slaves and the revolt that was inherent in the system of slavery, but also in your book you point to areas where immigrants were used to divide the workforce, because the ruling class knew they could divide by creating an anti-immigrant hysteria. And you talk about the shameful role of the early labor movement in that too, with regard to the Chinese immigrant workers

C.P.: By the time modern ideas we know, the photograph, some kind of biometric identification and identification numbers were in full effect, you have its first application at a nationwide level by the federal government against the Chinese. They’re the first people who had to submit to a really draconian surveillance regime of carrying ID’s and being interrogated.

From 1882 to 1943 the Chinese were not allowed to enter the United States, with a few exceptions, but in fact what happened was a huge circumvention of this set of laws, and this was called the paper son’s industry.

It was a trans-pacific, underground trade in false identities that involved breaking into government files, stealing dossiers, translating them into Chinese, switching photographs, and getting people back-and-forth across the Pacific from California to China.

S.W.: So was this the beginning of forged documents and fake ID’s?

C.P.: Well, it wasn’t the very beginning of forged documents because that always existed; but it was another instance of this kind of hacking, essentially, of breaking into the ruling class’s information technology and rewriting the code politically and resisting.

S.W.: So you see fraud as organized resistance?

C.P.: Well, it is ... I try not to romanticize it, I’m not saying that all criminal endeavor is really, underneath it all, rebellion; it’s not that simple at all. There was a lot in the paper son’s industry that was very exploitative and just criminal, and a lot of innocent people, a lot of innocent Chinese migrants, were hurt in this.

There was also an element that was resistance, organized resistance. In the paper son’s industry, you had an interesting link between fraud and organized political resistance. There was a boycott in 1904 of U.S. goods in China, which prevented the government from instituting fingerprinting.

They were going to start fingerprinting the Chinese, which would have really made the whole process of forging these documents much more difficult. It was through organizing on both sides of the Pacific that they finally intimidated Teddy Roosevelt himself into agreeing to drop that aspect of the identification regime against the Chinese.

There was also a mass refusal to register in the late 1890s, so there was an interesting mix of the overtly political and, shall we say, inherently political but also problematically criminal.

S.W.: But there’s also always been this kind of libertarian streak in the United States, including this hallowed right to privacy that people either imagine or want to enforce, and a resistance to having ID cards at all, or fingerprinting. Have they overcome that now because of 9-11?

C.P.: It’s a good question. It almost seems like certain elements in this privacy debate take on a theatrical angle, and I think this national ID is one of those. A lot of members of the political class who don’t do anything for protecting privacy, speak out about the idea of a national ID card.

Well, why is it that people are ready to get up on their hind legs about that? Partly because there already is a de facto national ID card, it doesn’t seem like it would be a real big breakthrough. In fact, the use of the social security number and the driver’s license number creates a national ID number.

Interestingly, the social security number’s use in this fashion was legislated de facto by the private sector in the early 1960s after decades and decades of trying to create a national ID, efforts led by Hoover and the banking industry, which had been constantly defeated.

S.W.: And I think you mention in the book, too, that the labor movement was frightened about a national ID. They liked the Social Security Act but they felt that the social security number would give the government a way to track labor organizers and militants and then do something about them.

C.P.: Exactly. They had that fear because one of the earliest uses of photography and fingerprinting was to facilitate blacklisting. So what happened was that the banking industry just said, very publicly: Look, no one gets services unless they give us their social security number. And of course we are all free to not have bank accounts and to not participate —

S.W.: We just can’t function, though, without them —

C.P.: We’re politically free but materially bound.

S.W.: In one of the themes of your book, you start out with this horrendous description of the public execution, which makes your blood crawl. Then you talk about torture in different ways, but I think the implication is that surveillance gets rid of the need for torture. Is that right?

C.P.: Yes. That’s really a discussion of Foucault that I open with – a short, hopefully lucid discussion – because his ideas are very useful in understanding how surveillance works. Basically, it’s about getting us to police ourselves.

He discusses this shift, in his book Discipline and Punish, from public execution which was about terrorizing the body, to this new regime of control that was about imprisoning people, observing them, and subjecting them to subtle forms of discipline that look more humane but are actually just more effective because what they do is they get the errants to control themselves and transform themselves.

S.W.: Which is much more useful because as you say, even in those horrible public executions it carried the risk that the people watching them would advance onto the platform and save or kill the person being tortured, whichever was more humane at the moment.

C.P.: The crowd was essential in the power mechanisms of public execution and they didn’t always play by the rules, they would rewrite the script and hijack the show.

S.W.: As you know, I’m a student of the Soviet Union and the Stalin era which really perfected surveillance. The method of social control was to enmesh the average citizen in a series of documents that followed him everywhere and to keep that person standing in lines and going from one bureaucracy to another, and never to know exactly which file was following him where.

He had to have it at work and at home, and for movement in and out of the cities, and even though it may not have originally been intended as a method of social control, that’s how it functioned. And I’m always amazed when I’m looking at what we’re doing. Since the end of the Cold War, we seem to be just making a switch with the Soviet Union.

We’re adopting some of their worst bureaucratic excesses, and the difference between our bureaucracy and theirs is that ours is rigid and theirs was malleable – you could always find your way around it. But you can’t here.

C.P.: And ours is increasingly computerized and therefore more effective. But there is still noise and there are blind spots – the problem of junk-in, junk-out. The more and more information that these systems take in, the greater and greater risk that they miss the information they really need. They miss the needle in the haystack.

But what you’re describing is endemic to nation-states and modern jurisprudence at a certain level. I have a Kafka quote from The Trial which describes exactly this thing about the file that’s out there, tracking you somehow. It can drop away, you can think that you are free of it and then someone will take up the dossier again and you’re suddenly held accountable to these real or imagined deeds in the past.

Another thing about our bureaucracy here is that a lot of it takes place in the private sector. What I focus on primarily is not government programs, but the way in which cheap computing has created an infrastructure of surveillance almost by mistake or by default.

So when you use your credit card, you’re creating records of where you are in time and space, of what you’re doing.

All those records are easily stored for a very long time, can be bought and sold, and are in fact bought and sold and aggregated and disaggregated in all sorts of ways. Increasingly, that’s where the government gets its information. It’s not from spies and special cameras, but by buying information on the open market.

Who’s Watching and How

S.W.: With that, let’s move into the present and the fear and what’s probably going to be selling your book the most, which is this ubiquitous spying that is fragmented, as you say, and commercialized as you just mentioned.

A lot of people go along with it because they think the bar codes really are just going to track the bargains that they want and/or alert them to these bargains. With online shopping, a lot of people are very worried about cookies, and you go into all of this, the bar codes, the magnetic, what do you call it, the magnetic strips? So talk about some of the methods today that give this overall picture of how we are being watched all the time.

C.P.: The crucial thing, I think, is that so much of participating in this decentralized, digital form of routine surveillance is so convenient. That’s the main reason we do it. So we trade our privacy for convenience, and don’t often know where all these records end up.

But what you have are firms like Axion, which keep records on 200 million Americans. Essentially what Axion does is try to buy all the information it can that’s linked to your driver’s license number, your social security number, your address. And it’s constantly in as real-time as possible, updating this information to then sell – to detective agencies which subscribe to these databases for really big money; to the federal government; to marketers that might not want to know so much about you, Suzi Weissman, but about college professors who buy lots of books, what else do they buy, how can we market to them.

S.W.: Is it innocent like that? Is it just commercial or are they also selling their list back-and-forth, forming a total picture for someone to use?

C.P.: It’s definitely the input for state projects of surveillance. The fantasy which was embodied in the Total Information Awareness system, this idea that Poindexter wanted, was to essentially get access to all this fragmented kinds of information in real time.

That was shot down – but restructured along racist lines, so it’s now the Terrorist Information Awareness system which is only going to focus on people who weren’t born in the United States, primarily people of color and from south Asia and from the Arab world.

But you have subtler – let’s not say subtler, but smaller – versions of this in the private sector. There are systems out there, one company and software called Rentsafe that keeps tabs on tenants and creates profiles of tenants that landlords can – I hesitate to say this over the air, lest landlords start doing this, but many landlords already blacklist. I have an example from Seattle of a tenant organizer who was blacklisted.

You have the government program CAPS, too, “computer assisted passenger screening” for airlines that feeds off not government investigations so much as all of this informational detritus from routine commerce.

S.W.: And you talk about even the EasyPass tolls, that in fact, again, is a convenience for people who are commuting. But?

C.P.: But you pay for that convenience by handing over records of your comings and goings to any number of authorities. The problem is that, going back to the airline screening, this stuff gets used in highly political ways.

We already have examples of peace activists being kept off of airplanes, not because the people at the gate are prejudiced against them, but because a computer has labeled them as dangerous, and they’ve been labeled as dangerous because they are political dissidents. That’s the way this kind of information can get used.

You can read radical books, give money to radical radio stations on your credit card; this gets known, you fit a profile – not that people should not give money to radical radio stations ...

S.W. (laughing): Right, right ... like this one.

C.P.: But we need to be very, very aware of the fact that the government is not always beneficent, employers are not always beneficent, that there are such things as police criminality and politicization of government bureaucracy. Political dissidents will and are going to be targeted by this stuff. That needs to be made unacceptable.

Illusory Freedom

S.W.: You titled your book The Soft Cage. Just what is the soft cage?

C.P.: I use it as a metaphor for the kind of control exercised by routine surveillance. It’s not the hard cage of imprisonment and policing and being jacked up against the wall or thrown in a cell, but it’s all a type of social control that feels very soft because you’re free.

For example with the social security number, you’re free not to have a bank account, except that you actually have to, and so it feels comfortable but you are nonetheless enmeshed in helping to build a system of accountability and social control and intimidation.

S.W.: Is the United States the most advanced at watching its citizens? I think you mentioned that there are features in Great Britain that are even worse.

C.P.: I’m not really clear on the exact ranking of all industrialized countries, but in the United Kingdom. They definitely have as much of this as we do.

In Europe you find a different attitude towards a lot of this surveillance, because it’s linked to some real benefits from the social welfare states, so the view of the state is as a helpful institution. And there are, in fact, real benefits that come to European citizens in exchange for some of this information. But I think all industrialized countries are moving in the same direction.

S.W.: Well, I know you use a lot in discussing health care and health care delivery and sharing of information about health, but there is the underside of that as well because the state gets to know more about you.

But I was thinking as I was reading about the ubiquitous cameras everywhere that are sold, as you said in your book, for your protection. So, you know, God forbid you might be accused of stealing, the camera can tell; but I was thinking as well, when you go through a red light now there’s a picture taken, I mean you can’t really fight the ticket, and the ticket’s really expensive. Some neighborhoods even wanted to use surveillance cameras to stop this so-called home invasion, and residents said well maybe that’s a bit much, to watch all of our comings and goings.

C.P.: That’s good ... and the thing I argue in this book is not that this or that instance of surveillance is so problematic, but the whole picture is very problematic because this is a political society, as witnessed by the grocery strike going on right now.

The nature of politics is that both sides play unfair. We’re all grown-ups here, we can talk about this: Workers who are not paid enough money by their employers steal from their employers to survive. Strikers, when they can, when things get rough, sometimes sabotage the equipment of their employer.

Union activists won’t say this, and they often don’t want it to happen, but it happens. And employers do the same to workers and to union members, and so if there’s total transparency at the workplace and in society, what happens is that the powerful parties get a tremendous advantage over everyone else. Right?

Landlords play dirty, tenants play dirty, and we don’t want all the power to go to the landlords so that they can blacklist us for organizing rent strikes and whatever else might go along with tenant activism.

Workplace Control

S.W.: You also mention the new Taylorism at work. Can you explain a little bit about how surveillance at work is used?

C.P.: In two ways. Primarily it’s to create a culture of minute accountability where every worker constantly feels not productive enough and therefore works harder and harder. It’s also used to rout out individual workers who are leading struggles.

In terms of the first form of surveillance, one example is on meat processing lines, this system of green light, yellow light, red light. The workers who are gutting chickens or whatever can put on the yellow light if they feel the line is going a little too fast, and they hit the red light if it needs to stop because there’s a problem, and they hit the green light if everything is going fine.

So what happens? What do managers do when they’re looking at a line of these, do they want everyone on green? No, they want everyone on yellow, they want everybody basically working right to the point where they’re almost about to hit the red light and shut the line down because the line is moving too fast.

That’s an example of how surveillance, making the work process transparent to managers, leads to a culture of intensified work to the point of injury, quite frequently, in meat processing. Then you have examples of union activists who are held accountable to technical violations of the rules that can be seen because of computers, but the real issue is that they are, in fact, union organizers – but it’s illegal, I would remind people, to fire someone for union activity.

S.W.: Yet you point out that, I think like 25 or 50,000, I can’t remember the exact figure – are fired.

C.P.: Fifty thousand is what the AFL-CIO says. How exactly they know that is another question, but that’s the number they give, and I think it’s credible.

S.W.: Did the Patriot Act and its inducement of fear change the picture or just enhance it?

C.P.: It didn’t change things technologically, but it radically lowered the thresholds, the efforts that the federal government has to go through to get access to all this information that’s out there.

Previously investigators would have to show some sort of probable cause to get at some of these records, like your driving records from EasyPass. Now, under the Patriot Act, they can get essentially what are administrative warrants.

They don’t have to prove anything to a judge, they automatically get the warrant and they automatically get access to this information. This applies to telephone records, to tapping the internet, also to searching people’s homes and not telling them, and all of the traditional methods of investigation.

S.W.: What’s the resistance involved here and are we seeing it?

C.P.: I think we’re beginning to see it. I think the resistance is not to accept surveillance as kitsch and funny, and to problematize it and demand that there be firewalls created around these types of information. It’s not that we don’t want these records – we do want health records, we want educational records – we just don’t want them bought and sold and used against us.

ATC 109, March–April 2004