PRISM and Hannah Arendt

As the news of Edward Snowden’s actions and their implications were first blowing through the world, I happened, by chance, to pick up a copy of Hannah Arendt’s essay Lying in Politics. It’s a short treatise on the delusional nature of imperial decision-making during the Vietnam War years, based on her reading of the Pentagon Papers. In it, Arendt charts how the United States establishment’s use of the lie to secure its self-perceived geopolitical interests became a form of self-delusion and a detachment from reality.

This delusion stemmed from two fundamental errors that infected the rest of the policy-making process. First, ‘the dangerous myth of omnipotence’ – that is the failure ‘to understand that even great power is limited power’. Second, ‘an utterly irrational confidence in the calculability of reality’. This double arrogance, of power and mind, led to policy-makers and national security advisers ignoring data that did not match their theory. And the rest is history.

Arendt concluded that only courageous whistleblowers leaking information to a free press in the face of a hostile government could save the Republic – but this presumes an audience of citizens organised enough to act collectively against the national security apparatus.

Reading the memos in the Pentagon Papers, Arendt wrote that she had the distinct impression that ‘a computer’ rather than human decision-makers had been let loose in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. In forty years, that computer has grown exponentially more powerful and spread across the globe to watch us. What if, however, a whistleblower leaked conclusive evidence of the most comprehensive surveillance program in history and there was no organised collective reaction on the part of the citizenry?

This is where we find ourselves today – in the space between action and reaction.

Given that, we need to reflect on what PRISM says about the ability of the global elite, as it is presently structured, to govern. This is distinguished from whether the elite ought to govern or how they should govern. We need to have a frank discussion about whether our network of rulers have so detached themselves from reality that they can no longer engage in a process of rational decision-making to ensure the long-term prosperity, even survival, of their various nations.

What scares me about PRISM isn’t that we are left naked in all our imperfections before the omnipotent global Empire. It’s what the program says about those who stand behind it.

Never before has any one group of elites have had access to so much information about those they rule. Yet no matter how much data flows through PRISM, it cannot encapsulate the totality of reality – it can only ever, as its name itself suggests, present a refracted version of the real thing. It is this refraction that layer upon layer of operatives and advisors interpret for their superiors. At each step of the reporting chain, reality becomes more distorted, more manipulated – and, as Arendt wrote, ‘the only person likely to be an ideal victim of complete manipulation is the President of the United States’, for his experience of the world is filtered by a phalanx of advisers.

Moreover, that phalanx comes with a set of preconceived theories about the primacy of American empire, corporate power and perpetual growth. In such an environment, unprecedented access to data means a greater ability to find that which already matches your theory. A network of corporations, lobbyists, think tanks, politicians and defence analysts and contractors now have access to the raw material necessary to construct any case which they deem to be in their own interests. Under such a volume of data, the contradictory elements of reality become easier to ignore.

What we are left with is a class of elites using a refracted version of reality to justify the theories and systems that ensure their continued dominance. The problem is that this system has grown so large and complex that it threatens the continued survival of the societies that support it. The basic facts of life – or, rather, the basic facts about the conditions necessary to support life – are ignored. To take one example, in such a decision-making process, global warning becomes both a threat to short-term profit (so that scientists warning about it must be discredited), and a strategic reality to which must elites must adapt and of which they must take advantage.

This contemporary form of delusion is propped up by a vast industry of computational power that creates an ever more sophisticated form of unreality. It will, however, never be large enough or strong enough to withstand the ‘immensity of factuality’. It remains, therefore, up to us, those outside the global elite, to grapple with reality and the basic facts of life as best we can.


Godfrey Moase

Godfrey Moase is an Executive Director, United Workers Union. He’s previously written for the Guardian, Overland, Jacobin and New Matilda.

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