Sunday, June 09, 2013

I stole this from the recent Crooked Timber thread
Read the whole thing.

Martin Bento 06.09.13 at 12:43 am

One of the problems with invoking a “police state” as the endpoint of this is that people think they know what that looks like – East Germany or Chile under Pinochet – and that is not where we are likely to end up. Look at the FBI under Hoover. In many ways, it behaved as the apparatus of a police state – large-scale monitoring, punishing, sometimes framing or executing dissidents, keeping blackmail files on politicians. But to claim the US was a “police state” in the classic sense during this period would be gross exaggeration. Within the US and similar countries, the secret police apparatus seems to operate within a sort of Coase boundary – doing only what it does best (in the judgment of the elites, with the secret police themselves being a division of the elite that gets a weighted vote), rather than having its active finger in everything. The police state is instantiated when needed, but is not omnipresent and does not interfere with the ordinary rule of law, nor with the uneasy compromise between democracy and plutocracy that is the “system”, unless the stakes pass a certain threshold, which they typically don’t. So the police “state” is, in a sense, not the “state” nor the “society” itself, but a floating domain within the society where the rules can be suspended at the will of the elite. Of course, if you can choose when you get to break the rules, they are not really rules for you, but they may appear to be so in everyday matters.

Now technology enables this always potential police state to be omniscient without being omnipresent in the sense that its presence can actually be felt. This has always been a holy grail – to observe without transforming what you observe. In the communist societies, huge swathes of people were employed to surveil the rest, which meant the fact, general nature, and many times specifics of the surveillance could not be kept hidden. It relied on too many agents of highly imperfect competence, honesty, and loyalty. To some degree, the watchmen could be watched or at least detected. Now we face the prospect of a police state that will always be watching, but only be active when the stakes for the elite are high. It will be much harder to muster opposition to such a thing and it will not necessarily look like a classic “police state”, making it much easier for opposition to be characterized as “paranoid”, especially as the police state will almost always be merely potential – even when instantiated, it will recede to a potential state as soon as possible.

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