Surveillance as ‘Solution’

In his book, To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov called the predominant contemporary technocentric politics, ‘solutionism’. Surveillance may be one of the best contemporary examples of this trend, at least many surveillance technologies are promoted as a technological solution to some problem whose roots are in way ‘technological’ but social and economic, and therefore whose resolution, equally, must be social and economic.

What got me thinking about this (again) was a little puff-piece in the Ottawa Citizen today, which presented panoramic thermal imaging as the ‘solution’ to the monitoring of the US-Canada border. Now, in recent history the formerly largely unguarded US-Canada has not really presented much of a problem to anyone. However, post-9/11 paranoia has recast the border as a source of threat, not least because of the widely believed myth that some of the hijackers entered the US through Canada. Whether propagated deliberately or through sheer ignorance, this myth has served to harden the US-Canadian border for ordinary people, and especially people of colour, at the same time as the economic liberalization of North America proceeds ‘beyond the border’ (to use the name of the Obama-Harper initiative).

However, the piece in the Citizen isn’t about security as such, but about drugs, and largely marijuana trafficking. This, let us not forget, is at a time when the failures of prohibition are increasingly recognised, when the Organization of American States has published a major report arguing for the decriminalization of the illicit drugs trade in order to better regulate it, and when Canadian police themselves don’t really bother with enforcing existing laws when it comes to marijuana, and Uruguay and several US states have actually voted to legalize it. Surveillance on this context is a ‘solution’ not only to a ‘problem’ that is essentially a legal artifact but one that is a counter-productive and pointless waste of resources which leads to the unnecessary prosecution and demonification of many people.

Where this comes back to 9/11 is that the war on terror has served to ‘securitize’ a lot of these social problems. It does matter that a particular law is ineffective and on the way out, the trade in illegal drugs is bundled together with terrorism and other threats under the rubric of security, and therefore the border is ‘insecure’*. In this context, the manufacturers are able to step forward with technological ‘solutions’ and rather than being laughed out of town, or condemned for overreacting, they are taken seriously by the media and policymakers.

*it should be noted that this process didn’t start with 9/11: ‘narcoterrorism’ was a catchword in US policy in South America for some time before. As Armand Mattelart has argued, in these counter-insurgency operations carried out under the banner of the war on drugs, we see the beginnings of many of the tactics that have become more widespread since 9/11.

At the Camara dos Deputados

I had a great meeting at the architecturally stunning Camara dos Deputados (the Brazilian equivalent of the British House of Commons or the House of Representatives in the USA), which almost made up for the fact that it was the only one of the three scheduled interviews that I had arranged that actually went ahead… it really does look like I will have to come back.

The parliamentary buildings in Brasilia, originally laid out by Lucio Costa. The Camara dos Depuados, by Oscar Niemeyer, is to the left.
The parliamentary buildings in Brasilia, originally laid out by Lucio Costa. The Camara dos Deputados, by Oscar Niemeyer, is to the right.

This meeting took place in the Comissao de Direitos Humanos e Minorias (the Commission for Human Rights and Minorities) and was with Federal Deputy and committee member, Pompeo de Mattos, the secretary of the Commission, Marcio Marques de Araujo, and Hebe Guimareas-Dalgaard, who works in the International Relations office and who served as translator.

The meeting covered all sorts of background issues around security in Brazil, and concentrated on Deputado de Mattos’s specialities in this area, which are in justice and drug-trafficking issues. Again, I won’t do more than summarize a few immediately important things here. There was a lot of talk of police corruption and some hair-raising stories of the ways in which military police officers in particular has become involved in selling equipment and ammunition, and of course the autodefesas communitarias that I have mentioned before. Interestingly though, it was the deputy’s opinion that the military police, despite having a ‘culture of violence’ inherited from their role as enforcers of the military dictatorship, were less corrupt (in an everyday way) than the civil police. The latter are even lower down the police food-chain and correspondingly more poorly paid and equipped.

The inadequacies of the civil police has led many Mayors of larger towns and cities to introduce so-called ‘Municipal Guards’ – basically private security given some official status. They have few powers but are basically there to increase the visibility of security, a kind of prophylactic community policing. The problem is however that the official police and the massive private security sector are thoroughly intermixed already. Many officers moonlight as private security guards, which leads to all kinds of conflicts of interest.

Deputado de Mattos was certainly not obsessed with the inadequacies of the police however. Serious and organized crime associated with drug-trafficking paralyzes the everyday life of poorer areas of large cities in Brazil. Despite the fears of the rich over crime, it is the poorest that suffer most. He described the drug gangs as being the major obstacle to any positive change in Brazilian cities. However he didn’t see any militaristic solution – fighting a war against the drug gangs would only lead to more violence. The only solution to the problems of both crime and the poverty from which it emerges is social inclusion. The favelados must be provided with the same opportunities and infrastructure as everyone else. The need schools, hospitals, transport, and so on. Programs like Bolsa Familia, however well-intentioned, make no fundamental difference, he argued – contradicting, as most people with whom I have talked have done, the assessment of external organisations like the World Bank.

However providing such opportunities is not easy, and not just because of the costs. The drug-gangs actively resist any attempt by the state to introduce services, to the extent of intimidating or even killing construction workers. And this shouldn’t be in any way romanticized as some kind of popular resistance of the poor to the imposition of unwanted state interference – this is an attempt to maintain the rule of fear and violence. Somehow, one can never get away from the security issue in Brazil.

Leaving the Camara dos Deputados, looking past the parliamentary buildings up towards the Esplanada dos Ministerios, with all the government Ministries lined up in identical blocks.
Leaving the Camara dos Deputados, looking past the parliamentary buildings up towards the Esplanada dos Ministerios, with all the government Ministries lined up in identical blocks.

(Thanks to Deputado Pompeo de Mattos, who as you will see if you check out his website is quite a character. He is fiercely proud of his southern ‘gaucho’ roots, and writes poetry to that effect. He is also – and I don’t say this very often of politicians – a genuinely nice guy. Thanks also to Marcio Marques de Araujo and to Hebe Guimares-Dalgaard without whom the meeting would have been impossible).