There is an opinion piece in The Daily Telegraph (UK) today by Alasdair Palmer, which argues that it is the incompetence and human fallibility of the UK government rather than any lack of desire which prevents an Orwellian surveillance state from emerging in the UK. It is hardly new but it’s an attractive argument, one which I have used before and which we used to a certain extent in our Report on the Surveillance Society, and one which draws on the deep well of cynicism about government which has long characterised British politics.
However there are a number of problems with the argument. The first is whether it is really true. A totalitarian society does not have to be competent in the sense of having correct information, in fact one of the central messages of Nineteen Eight-Four is that ‘truth’ is a product of state control in such societies. This was obvious in the case of Stalin’s purges. The accusations made against individuals did not rely on the accuracy of the accusation but on the very fact of accusation, something brought out very strongly in Orlando Figges’ recent book, The Whisperers. In the UK in recent years we have seen some elements of this. It doesn’t matter for example, whether someone really is a terrorist, the word ‘terrorist’ is just redefined in law and practice to encompass that person. New terms are invented to describe quasi-crimes (like anti-social behaviour) which come to have the force of ‘crime’ and become the focus of state surveillance activity. And I have shown how the recent arguments over photography in public places show a genuine totalitarianism in the attempt to define the limits of the collection and interpretation of visual images. It doesn’t matter how competent the state is at carrying out its desires here. The very fact that it defines what is acceptability in this way can create a new ‘normality’ and a ‘chilling effect’ on protest and resistance – which makes such activity even more essential.
The second problem is the idea that incompetence protects us. It didn’t in Soviet Russia and it doesn’t today. The government’s uselessness in handling data harms people. The loss and leakage of private personal information can lead to real effects on people’s lives: information theft, fraud and so on. The loss of trust in those who control information also has knock-on effects on those organisations that genuinely rely on personal information to provide essential services and care: education, health services, social work etc. A loss of trust caused by failed repression leads to a generalised loss of trust in government and in other people: it damages social trust. It is perhaps because British people have such a low level of social trust anyway that we expect things to fail.
The third problem relies on the first two and is the idea that state incompetence is enough to protect us. Of course it isn’t. Cynicism is no basis for thinking of, and creating, a better society. Do we want to live in a society where our only protection is the fact that state is structurally or contingently unable to create a totalitarian situation even though it continues to try? I certainly don’t. The emergence of surveillance societies, competent or otherwise, requires the imagination of alternatives – including greater democracy, accountability, transparency, and regulation and control of both state and corporate organisations in our favour – and political action to demand and create those alternatives.
A faith in failure is simply a form of nihilism.