insurrection paradox

There is one argument against spying-upon-everyone programs like those of the NSA & pals that I haven't heard suggested elsewhere. It has to do with marginalized people's totalitarianism-sensors.

John Ross' book Unintended Consequences is an odd beast. It's not a mainstream title, but as a rough 20th century history of guns & aviation, plus a political cautionary tale, it's interesting. Its philosophical apex is given around the 40% mark of its near-800 pages:

"Exactly, Mr. Hagner. Hobbes' Leviathan is just one more scholarly justification for forfeiting your rights and allowing yourself to be subjugated by the State. Learned, reasoned, articulate, and wrong. Thomas Hobbes has merely—Mr. Bowman," the professor said suddenly, "you are shaking your head. That usually means you disagree with something that's been said. What is it?"

"Professor Arkes, I don't disagree with the basic principle, but it's not enough just to say, Totalitarian regimes are wrong, so don't let the State enslave you'. That's like saying, 'Don't get sick'. The important question is, when do you know it's going to become enslavement? When is the proper time to resist with force?"

"Please elaborate, Mr. Bowman." Henry took a deep breath.

"The end result, which we want to avoid, is the concentration camp. The gulag. The gas chamber. The Spanish Inquisition. All of those things. If you are in a death camp, no one would fault you for resisting. But when you're being herded towards the gas chamber, naked and seventy pounds below your healthy weight, it's too late. You have no chance. On the other hand, no one would support you if you started an armed rebellion because the government posts speed limits on open roads and arrests people for speeding. So when was it not too late, but also not too early?"

As an answer, the character proposes the point where people are about to forfeit their future ability to resist. Whether this could occur by corruption of the judicial system / police, disarming the citizenry, martial law, suppression of effective elected power, or whatever, is not exhaustively speculated in the story. Thank goodness that we're not close to any of these hereabouts, isolated examples to the contrary notwithstanding.

But an uncomfortably close trigger could be the sort of comprehensive surveillance that is becoming public knowledge, where governments (and not just the USA's!) routinely ingest approximately all telephone, location, internet, and even postal traffic into computers. Edward Snowden's leaks, certain famous works of fiction, and mathematical analysis make some of the risks obvious. But consider it from the point of view of a patriot who is looking for signs of the slide of her nation toward totalitarianism. She may consider that her ability to resist is about to disappear, if her personal privacy is lost. After all, if one can't communicate securely, one can't organize. If such people exist, I hope they stay calm while waiting for these surveillance programs to be rolled way back, or adequate security technologies developed/deployed to work around them.

The whole line of thinking suggests a peculiar irony that a free nation's government may want to keep in mind:
In order to make insurrection unnecessary, one must keep insurrection possible.

fche Wednesday 31 July 2013 - 8:54 pm | | politics

four comments


I wonder how gun control plays into. Personally I think guns are overrated in their ability to keep western governments in check since they generally only come into play in times of extreme peril.

In general the pro-gun crowd seems more supportive of the surveillance state, I wonder if this isn’t because they think their guns keep insurrection possible, so they’re willing to grant the state more power. Would a less armed public be more fearful of their government’s power?

aaron, - 03-08-’13 01:44

“pro-gun crowd seems more supportive of the surveillance state”

I don’t think that’s actually true. There exist overlaps and political alliances, but those folks who go about this topic philosophically from the collectivism-vs-individualism point of view are definitely not supportive of the surveillance state.

Frank, - 03-08-’13 07:09

I agree there’s a lot of people who are pro-gun and anti-surveillance (and I think that’s a solid philosophy), but the public debate is usually dominated by partisans, and the US politics puts both surveillance and gun rights on the right.

aaron, - 07-08-’13 17:10

Given the unprecedented and shocking extent of the recent disclosures, and the broad congressional dissent, I could not fairly paint any political party as pro-this-kind-of-surveillance.

Frank, - 08-08-’13 20:29
(optional field)
(optional field)
To prevent automated comment-spam we require you to answer this silly question.
Remember personal info?
Small print: All html tags except <b> and <i> will be removed from your comment. You can make links by just typing the url or mail-address.