The Spying Game - Part 1

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The recent revelations about the extent of surveillance by the capitalist state, as exposed by the former National Security Agency operative Edward Snowden, shouldn’t really surprise us. There are certain technical innovations which are quite revealing about the way the state uses the development of technology, but in essence this latest scandal just confirms what we already know about the development of state capitalism and the paranoia of the bourgeoisie; and we can probably assume that many of the technicalities revealed have already been superseded by even more refined methods. The Wikileaks release of classified US documents three years ago, giving rise to a world-wide media frenzy, amply demonstrated that spying and lying are part of the stock-in-trade of the ruling class.

There is nothing really new about revelations that our rulers are a ruthless, murderous, Machiavellian, conspiratorial class. It would be naive for revolutionaries to think otherwise because this would directly lead to fostering illusions in the democratic state and the idea that this state would abide by the rules or operate fairly. In general, throughout history, the workers’ movement has tended to underestimate the Machiavellianism of the bourgeoisie and it has paid a great price for doing so. The enormous reach and depth of state surveillance that has recently been unmasked is thus not an exception and not really a scandal, but the true face of a capitalist society which is driven by the cancers of militarism, terrorism (for the most part fostered directly and indirectly by the major powers) and competition as well as the imperative need to use its spies, police and secret agencies as weapons of repression and oppression against the working class or any elements that come up against the system. This is just as true of the velvet-glove democracies as of the iron-fist totalitarian regimes - they are all expressions of the dictatorship of capital and they provide themselves with the tools to maintain that dictatorship, of which spying is just a part. Behind all the fuss about state surveillance, despite all the outrage and protest from left to right, these are the very principles of capitalist society being put to work and the outrage tends to cover up this reality. Spying has always been an important tool in class societies, all the more so in capitalist society and particularly a capitalist society in its decadent phase where the size and intensity of the state’s espionage machine reaches new extents and depths.

The basis and continuity of capitalism’s spying game

There are at least three factors that underlie the spying activities of the capitalist state:

- the economic competition which breeds industrial espionage - the more frantic and desperate the competition, the more so the spying around it. The recent revelations showed that this includes the NSA spying on embassies and other institutions of its so-called allies (such as France and Germany) as well as its more traditional imperialist foes;

- military confrontations and the developments of imperialism. These are unthinkable without ‘intelligence’, spying, undercover agencies at work;

- the maintenance of class domination. Class society compels the ruling class to use repression, secret police, undercover agents, all kinds of observations and spying on the working class and on any oppositions or protests. This is particularly the case with the working class, the revolutionary class in capitalist society. Here the spying had to become systematic.

To express outrage that governments, the US in the case of the NSA, or Britain in the case of GCHQ, use their spying agencies against economic or military rivals, or populations at large, is just hypocritical. The same British media outlets and liberals today bleating about a “free press” and censorship are the same ones that joined in the vilification and demonisation of the miners during their pivotal strike of 1984/5, and the same ones that repeated the state’s lying propaganda about WMD in Iraq in 2003. All countries are forced to spy and lie and there is no state, no ruling class without its secret services, machines of surveillance and undercover operations. The democratic New Zealand government has just passed a new spying bill giving the state more power over its population (Guardian, August 20), and its police and intelligence services have direct access to US surveillance networks such as PRISM; meanwhile a ‘national liberation’ organisation such as the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank has 7 different police/security bodies. This hypocrisy is also endemic to the system itself with the call from the White House last year for an international convention to regularise “consumer data privacy in a networked world” (Guardian, 27.4.13). This was just another weapon in the USA’s cyber-warfare, particularly involving China. Scandal after scandal has emerged in the countries that the US and Britain were spying on but all of them are at it. Germany’s BND intelligence agency has used “massive amounts” of daily intercepts from the NSA (Der Spiegel, 7.8.13) and they have been working closely together for decades. It’s a similar story from France whose politicians like to boast about the independence of their country. And while they are cooperating at one level, at another they are all spying on each other.

While they existed during capitalism’s rise as a dynamic system, while they even pre-date capitalism itself, spying activities take on a new dimension in capitalism’s decadence. This is because of permanent war and imperialist conflict; increased commercial rivalry and competition which also tend to overflow into the realms of military developments; and, above all, because of the need to keep a tight watch and control over the working class. Those are the main reasons why we see such a strong growth in these parasitic bodies and their activities. Even in the period of counter-revolution when the working class was more or less absent as a fighting force - indeed arising from it - came the most developed means for permanent surveillance. The totalitarian regimes of the Nazis and the Stalinists built the most secret and fearsome apparatus for spying and repression: the Gestapo and the Russian GPU. From the Second World War, where the spying activities of all the belligerents were vital for victory or defeat, these machines developed further during the Cold War where they were again intensified by technological means along with a considerable growth of the CIA and other such organisations. There are also developments in the closeness between the head of the state and the secret services. In Russia every president bar one, Boris Yeltsin (who was close to them), came directly from the KGB or their predecessors; President  Bush Senior was previously the head of the CIA and Klaus Kinkel, the former German Foreign Minister, was head of the German secret services In 1981, the Thatcher clique, which had links to the secret services, set up the shadowy MISC 57 unit, three years before taking on the miners, and secret service bosses in many Middle East countries are very close to the head of government and the forces of direct repression.

1917: Revolution

There’s an idea among some revolutionary elements, an idea that sits side-by-side with the rejection of an analysis that the bourgeoisie is an intelligent and conspiratorial class, that the police “won’t bother with the likes of us - we’re too small, too insignificant”. Such ideas are concessions to democracy which also underestimate the fact that the bourgeoisie has often been clearer about the crucial role of revolutionary organisations than the working class (See the article in WR 252 Revolutionary organisations struggle against provocation and slander’[1]). Mussolini’s secret police maintained a spy in the very small left communist group Bilan in the 1930’s and the nascent group of the ICC in France in the early 70’s was watched over by the police. These are things that we know.

Just one time in history have the real details and methods of the political police been examined and exposed by revolutionaries. This was when the archives of the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, fell into the hand of the Bolsheviks and were analysed by the revolutionary Victor Serge, which resulted in his book What everyone should know about repression (first published in 1926)[2]. In it he is clear that the state apparatus is not just a war machine for competing groups, but a machine for the repression of the exploited. This is an incredible read for what Serge describes as the “prototype of the modern political police”. By 1900, the Okhrana was organised internationally and by 1905 it was engaging in highly sophisticated levels of espionage across Russia with extensive spying networks. To keep track of all this, spies would spy on spies and spies would spy on them, and informers, secret agents, provocateurs, police spies were everywhere in Russia: “The police had to see everything, know, understand and have power over everything. The strength and perfection of their machinery appears all the more terrible because of the unsuspected forces they dragged up from the depth of the human soul”. You can see from reading the book how paranoid the bourgeoisie was about the working class, and we have had a hundred years of state capitalism since then to reinforce and refine their fears and their machines of repression.

Serge denounces “legality” and the respect for it as an element of class collaboration in much the same way as “accountability” and “transparency” - and indeed “legality” - are used around the NSA issue today. This naivety “ignores the real role of the state and the deceptive nature of democracy; in short, the first principles of class struggle”. He doesn’t at all underestimate the “powerful and cunning adversary” and from this denounces the idea of the “idyllic revolution”. In respect of the undercover forces at work today, Serge gives some considerable insight: “Police provocation is above all the weapon - or the curse - of decomposing regimes. Conscious of their impotence to prevent what is going on, the police incite initiatives which they can then repress. Provocation is also a spontaneous, elementary action resulting from the demoralisation of a police force at its wits’ end, overtaken by events, which cannot perform tasks infinitely above its capacities, and nonetheless wants to justify the expectations and expenditure of its masters”. And finally on Serge, in line with our position above: “There is no force in the world which can hold back the revolutionary tide when it rises and all the police forces, however Machiavellian, scientific or criminal, are virtually impotent against it”.

1984”: Counter-revolution...

There’s been lots of talk in the media about these leaked secrets showing how we have arrived at George Orwell’s nightmare vision of 1984 and “Big Brother is Watching You”; with some saying that we have gone well beyond it. Orwell’s 1949 book, with its story of the state overlooking every aspect of one’s life, every corner of it, was a horror story of the counter-revolution. It’s a story of perpetual warfare generated to keep the population behind the state, of the national socialism of Big Brother and the hopelessness of rebellion. The rebel hero, Winston Smith, eventually has all the spark of revolt snuffed out of him and any hope of a different society is completely extinguished. This book was a reflection of the counter-revolution, of the dark days leading up to and coming out of the Second World War when the working class seemed totally helpless, impotent and atomised vis-a-vis the state. But, in reality, even in the depths of this period of counter-revolution, even in places like Nazi Germany or the police states of the eastern bloc and the militarised democracies, there were still acts of revolt, compassion, solidarity, protests and strikes, some major, some very minor in character but all the more significant given the period that they took place in.

It’s true that today Orwell’s nightmare vision of a citizen’s every step being followed by the state is very much a reality. But we have more than enough evidence that all the state’s surveillance and all the state’s bloodhounds cannot control a population in revolt and particularly the working class. The recent demonstrations and protests across the world, even if greatly facilitated by an electronic field that can be switched off, show the potential difficulties for the ruling class. There were very strong strikes in the eastern bloc countries, Hungary, Poland, Russia in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, despite the all-pervasive nature of the state apparatus, particularly their interior ministries and their trade union spying networks. In East Germany the 1953 workers’ strikes knocked the repressive apparatus of the state, including the unions, sideways, despite its reliance on one of the biggest bodies of secret police in the world, the Stasi - an organisation that went to the extent of collecting sweat samples from people and storing them in tubes in order to identify them later. The workers’ self-organisation in the MKS in Poland, 1980, shows even more clearly how to fight state repression: the ruling class, consisting of the army, party, security services and the official trade unions, wanted to cut off the phone-line between the MKS in Gdansk and the rest of the country, i.e. the other workers’ assemblies. But the workers met up and responded with a force that pushed back the arm of repression. It was the general assemblies - where workers of several cities and towns were united and debated and decided together - which held the forces of repression at bay. The elected strike committees also used the company/union PA address system to broadcast talks between the workers and the politicians directly to the workers. This is a question of the historic course, of an undefeated working class and we have the more recent example of the self-organisation of the proletariat in China in the face of formidable state repression. Unlike the vision of “1984”, today a massive and widespread mobilisation of the working class cannot easily be contained. Thousands, millions of protesting workers, especially if centralised through general assemblies or even at well-organised and pointed demonstrations, cannot easily be corralled, let alone overcome. From this perspective we begin to understand a bit more here about the unions being the state’s police of the working class.

But if we can take heart from the actions of our class we mustn’t console ourselves with a false sense of security. In relation to the proletariat and its revolutionary minorities, there can be no doubt about the determination, ruthlessness and cold-bloodiness of the ruling class in wanting to destroy and eliminate their threat and this inevitably leads to harassment, imprisonment and assassinations, as we saw even in the heights of class struggle in Germany during the revolutionary wave of 1918/19. Deportations, the kidnapping of thousands of opponents by innumerable regimes, the pogromist campaigns against revolutionaries all bear witness to the consciousness of the ruling class. The bourgeoisie has never been nice to the working class when it dares to raise its head against capitalism in any effective manner.

The next part of this series can be read here.

Baboon 6.9.2013 (This article was contributed by a sympathiser of the ICC)