The Logic of the Surveillance State
by Ian Welsh
2013 June 9
The problem with surveillance states, and with oppression in general, is the cost. This cost is both direct, in the resources that are required, and indirect in the lost productivity and creativity caused by constant surveillance. Surveillance states, oppressive states, are not creative places, they are not fecund economically. They can be efficient and productive, for as long as they last, which is until the system of control is subverted, as it was in the USSR. We forget, in light of the late USSR’s problems, that it did create an economic miracle in the early years, and tremendously boost production. Mancur Olson’s “Power and Prosperity” gives a good account of why it worked, and why it stopped working.
Liberalism, in its classic form, is, among other things, the proposition that you get more out of people if you treat them well. Conservatism is the proposition that you get more out of people if you treat them badly.
Post war Liberalism was a giant experiment in “treat people well”. The Reagan/Thatcher counter-revolution was a giant experiment in “treat people worse”. The empirical result is this: the rich are richer and more powerful in a society that treats people like shit, but a society which treats people well has a stronger economy, all other things being equal, than one that treats them badly. This was, also, the result of the USSR/West competition. (Treating people well or badly isn’t just about equality.)
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 outcompeted 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.