Trust - in a System Built in Stone

An Interview with Saskia Sassen published at openDemocracy on October 14, 2015

If I think of major new sources (of mistrust), one key item is the new surveillance apparatus that more and more of our ‘democratic” states are implementing. These technologies have created a whole new domain: the gathering of massive amounts of information by a state about its own citizens.

Rosemary Bechler (openDemocracy Editor): We have been invited to think about the apparently widening and wide-reaching trust deficit between European citizens and their states, in preparation for a meeting in Vienna later this October (#rebuildingtrust). Might we begin by getting to grips with the sources of mistrust in our societies. Looking at the global city today, where would you locate these?

Saskia Sassen: There are many such sources, and many have long existed. If I think of major new sources, one key item is the new surveillance apparatus that more and more of our ‘democratic” states are implementing. These technologies have created a whole new domain: the gathering of massive amounts of information by a state about its own citizens.

This is not old-fashioned spying on the enemy. The logic of these all-encompassing systems, is that for our own security we first must all be suspect. This then rationalizes the gathering of data about all those who are in the territory of a country. I gather--there is no hard evidence on this available to the general public--that if you were in the United States as a tourist, you are probably also in that data set. So take a look at the list:

List of What We Know the NSA Can Do. So Far.

(Thanks to Jody Avirgan, based on Edward Snowden's Docs)

        – It can track the numbers of both parties on a phone call, as well location, time and duration. (More)
        – It can hack Chinese phones and text messages. (More)
        – It can set up fake internet cafes. (More)
        – It can spy on foreign leaders' cell phones. (More)
        – It can tap underwater fiber-optic cables. (Clarification: Shane Harris explains that there were reports the NSA was trying to tap directly into cables using submarines, but is now more likely trying to intercept information once it has reached land.) (More)
        – It can track communication within media organizations like Al Jazeera. (More)
        – It can hack into the UN video conferencing system. (More)
        – It can track bank transactions. (More)
        – It can monitor text messages. (More)
        – It can access your email, chat, and web browsing history. (More)
        – It can map your social networks. (More)
        – It can access your smartphone app data. (More)
        – It is trying to get into secret networks like Tor, diverting users to less secure channels. (More)
        – It can go undercover within embassies to have closer access to foreign networks. (More)
        – It can set up listening posts on the roofs of buildings to monitor communications in a city. (More)
        – It can set up a fake LinkedIn. (More)
        – It can track the reservations at upscale hotels. (More)
        – It can intercept the talking points for Ban Ki-moon’s meeting with Obama. (More)
        – It can crack cellphone encryption codes. (More)
        – It can hack computers that aren’t connected to the internet using radio waves. (Update: Clarification -- the NSA can access offline computers through radio waves on which it has already installed hidden devices.) (More)
        – It can intercept phone calls by setting up fake base stations. (More)
        – It can remotely access a computer by setting up a fake wireless connection. (More)
        – It can install fake SIM cards to then control a cell phone. (More)
        – It can fake a USB thumb drive that's actually a monitoring device. (More)
        – It can crack all types of sophisticated computer encryption. (Update: It is trying to build this capability.) (More)
        – It can go into online games and monitor communication. (More)
        – It can intercept communications between aircraft and airports. (More)
        – (Update 1/18) It can physically intercept deliveries, open packages, and make changes to devices. (More) (h/t)
        – (Update 1/18) It can tap into the links between Google and Yahoo data centers to collect email and other data. (More) (h/t)
        – (Update 4/2) It can monitor, in real-time, Youtube views and Facebook "Likes." (More)
        – (Update 4/2) It can monitor online behavior through free Wi-Fi at Canadian airports. (More)
        – (Update 4/2) It can shut down chat rooms used by Anonymous and identify Anonymous members. (More)
        – (Update 4/2) It can use real-time data to help identify and locate targets for US drone strikes. (More)
        – (Update 4/2) It can collect the IP addresses of visitors to the Wikileaks website. (More)
        – (Update 4/2) It can spy on US law firms representing foreign countries in trade negotiations. (More)
        – (Update 4/2) It can post false information on the Internet in order to hurt the reputation of targets. (More)
        – (Update 4/2) It can intercept and store webcam images. (More)
        – (Update 4/2) It can record phone calls and replay them up to a month later. (More)
        – (Update 6/2) It can harvest images from emails, texts, videoconferencing and more and feed it into facial recognition software. (More)

This new concept of surveillance, which exists in one or another version in many European countries as well, is a trust-breaker between citizens and their governments. Though I do think that most citizens are not aware of this. When I present the material I am going to share with you shortly to a conference of academics or well-informed publics, and ask, have you ever seen this map? – I’m lucky if one or two people raise their hand.

Far too few in the US or abroad have seen some of this. It is all in the public domain, but, I am afraid, it exists more as an abstract notion than as a vast material infrastructure and battalion of specialists.

RB: Beyond sheer digital capacity – can you give us a concrete sense of what is involved?

SS: There are well over 1,200 government organizations working on data gathering in the US. There are also almost 2,000 private companies working with top level secrecy clearance on programmes related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence. An estimated 854,000 people – nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C. – hold top-secret security clearances according to the Washington Post investigation back in 2010, a number that must have jumped. And out of these 854,000 people with top-secret clearance, the Post estimates that 265,000 are private contractors.

This is the world Mr. Snowden used to inhabit, and which led him to exit and expose it.

There are about 10,000 buildings across the US where all this full-time data gathering is taking place.

Here is the map…

Government and private surveillance agencies in the US
Government & private surveillance agencies in the US. “Top Secret America,” Interactive Maps. Washington Post, July 2010.

In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy about 17 million square feet – the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 US Capitol buildings –the Capitol being the “house of democracy”.

The government regulates everything about these infrastructures: for example, the gauge of steel in fences, the grade of paper bag for hauling away top-secret documents, the thickness of walls, and the height of soundproofed floors. All existing buildings have to be checked and new buildings have to be gone over from top to bottom before the NSA will allow even a telephone connection to be set up.

So this in good part is a system built in stone.

RB: What is peculiar about the sheer determination behind this vast project is that it is so unclear what it achieves for them. Who gains? What is it all for?

SS: Since this data gathering never stops, 24 hours a day, day after day….there is no way they will ever be able to sort all the data. Indeed the way the data gets used by the intelligence apparatus, reveals how unmanageable the data set is and how unnecessary this type of huge expenditure on tech and tech analysts is.

Because if you look at it, they basically get to “suspects” via old traditional modes, modes that are driven by prejudice—name sounds Muslim, you look Muslim, let’s go visit the data set and see all those with whom you are connected… that is how the data get used.

Who are the beneficiaries of this system? The big tech companies and the construction companies…and of course the millions of personnel who have got a job out of this…

RB: So we are talking about the impact of big data on state bureaucracy as well as corporate power, leading to what Paul Hirst once referred to scathingly as the ‘omnicompetent state’ . As applied to the UK, I remember Sir David Varney in 2006 looked forward to it as the ‘transformational state of 2020’ – where ‘Public, private and third sector partners collaborate across the delivery chain in a way that is invisible to the public. The partners pool their intelligence about the needs and preferences of local people and this informs the design of public services and the tailoring of packages for individuals and groups.’  What struck me then was that the British public seemed to have all but disappeared from this scene of ‘collaboration’. So what happens to citizenship under these conditions?

SS: Citizens are losing rights even as corporations are gaining rights. (See chapter two of Losing Control?: Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization [Columbia University Press 2015] on this loss of rights in economic citizenship). Let’s also remember that most immigrants are citizens from some country, but that too often they are increasingly treated as illegal humans. At the same time we see emerge new geographies of privilege that cut across old divides such as North-South and East-West, enabling the powerful, the rich, to move freely across the world: for many of these citizenship is not particularly necessary. If you re a rich Chinese you can become a legal immigrant in the US, with your family, if you bring in a million dollars…it may have risen a bit now. But let me say that 15 years ago, 40,000 dollars was enough! We must find better architectures for membership.

At a more foundational level  (allow me to ruminate a bit here) people, in their various incarnations –citizens, immigrants, workers, employers—should be critical actors in contesting this evolution of an increasingly removed state and an increasingly weak figure of the “citizen.” I mean “citizen” in a very broad sense…it can include immigrants who are longterm residents, whether regular or not…what matters is that they are constitutive members of a community, a neighborhood, a city, a country.

RB: When did this relationship between the citizens and the state start going wrong?

SS: Well, it all started out on the wrong foot…. I think history matters to understand the relation between the state and the citizen. The two formal subjects of liberal democratic history at its origin are property owners and workers. (This is documented in great detail in Territory, Authority, Rights, especially chapter 3[Princeton University Press, 2009]) From the start these were two foundationally unequal subjects. They were made so through law, by judges and by legislators. This has now clearly evolved into a broad range of subjects, with two extremes probably the top level professionals who are not the classical “property owner” and the return of quasi slavery and indenture of very poor workers across the world.

The fact that the advantages of property owners and the disadvantages of workers were constructed in the process of making liberal democracies and that these inequalities were constructed as legal is important for the possibility of producing a new type of rights-carrying subject.  Despite the fact that of course this inequality was present – we did have an albeit brief golden age under Keynesian policies. The Keynesian years strengthened the rights de facto and de jure of workers – the average citizen; the link was often employment, which did mean that more marginal workers were left out…women, minorities of all sorts.  But the current transformation which began in the 1980s has again taken us many steps back. Since the 1980s we have seen the strengthening of corporates and the erosion of the middle classes and workers’ rights.

RB: But we are often told that now there is little the state can do, weakened as it is by globalization?

SS: With globalization, the ‘western’ state is actually repositioned in a rather counterintuitive way. It is true that the state has lost functions since the 1980s, through policies that deregulated the economy and key aspects of borders. Much has been written about this loss of power.

But, meanwhile, some parts of the state have actually gained power because of neoliberal globalization. Ministries and agencies involved in making a denationalized operational space  for foreign firms are one example. Ministries of finance and central banks have played a critical role in creating conditions for a global capital market, which requires privileging anti-inflation policies over employment growth. The executive branch of government has gained a particular type of power from the fact that the IMF, the WTO, and other global regulators, will only negotiate with it. (See Territory, Authority, Rights, especially chapters 4 and 5).

RB: Surely the IMF and WTO are more powerful than most national governments and they pursue the interests of corporates…?

SS: Yes and No. The kind of scenario I describe above also suggests that the IMF and WTO, the big actors of the globalization literature that takes off in the 1980s, are perhaps far less significant in the new phase that takes off in the 2000, than in the 1980s and 1990s  when they were critical actors for the making of a whole new operational space and superstructure. 

Their sharp rise since the 1980s is not the transformation itself, as is so often argued. In fact, they are foot soldiers whose two decades of work enabled the destruction of older Keynesian ways of running economies… and that work is now done. And now they are falling apart – or perhaps being allowed to fall apart, since their work is done.

For instance, in 2000, after two decades of intense activity, the IMF was broke, unable to pay its full rent; it had to close some of its offices and fire staff. The WTO was in disarray as multinational corporations had actually secured a good part of the kind of ‘free-trade’ regime that they were after, so WTO was no longer so useful. We see powerful states drop WTO after the Doha round and engage in bilateralisms where they can set the terms, including the development of a new regime of investment agreements, favouring corporates against the interests of weaker governments and their citizens.

RB: The secretive nature of such agreements as TTIP must also erode trust between citizens and the state, since the state seems to be handing over the reins to unaccountable power through circumventing the will of the people?

SS: In my reading, these and so many other more micro developments are further eroding trust between governments and citizens. But also, and perhaps more consequentially, such developments have repositioned the executive branch of government (whether presidential or prime ministerial) in ways that enabled it to gain power, while the legislature got hollowed out through deregulation and privatization.

The legislature or parliament is, of course, precisely that part of the state where we citizens have our strongest standing….. So this is serious. We have very little standing with the executive branch of government. This, then, has contributed to diminish the formal role of citizens in our so-called democracies.

One of the questions I have pursued is whether the powerless can make history in a world where powerful actors have been able legally to grab more and more rights and wealth and power, while the masses of disadvantaged have grown sharply and so has their disadvantage, and where new privileged middle classes rise while the old middle classes become poorer – and it is all legal.

Examining the historical record tells us that yes, the powerless make history, but to see this we must use far longer temporalities than those of the powerful and we must distinguish between making history and getting power. Empowerment is not necessarily the outcome of making history. One way of capturing the particularity of this combination is that the powerlessness can become complex, and in that complexity lies the possibility of politics.

Powerlessness is not always elementary, the simple absence of power. What lies ahead for the powerless is a world of interconnecting networks and infrastructures, where even the rather poor, though not the poorest, can travel thousands of miles from Sub-Saharan Africa to Madrid, to Milano, to Paris, and where the most powerful countries in the world are reorienting significant components of their state in fear of these vulnerable and exhausted immigrants.

In many ways loss of trust is a recurrent condition across the ages. But besides the loss of trust, I see a more deeply structural rupture – for which I use the term “expulsions” in my new book, as a way to mark off an extreme condition, more extreme than the more familiar term of social exclusion.  I try to capture a kind of radical rupture in the tissue of membership. One question is whether this extreme condition of expulsion makes visible what is actually a far more widespread, milder version of this condition.

Together the diverse expulsions I examine may well have a greater impact on the shaping of our world, including the relation of citizens and their states, than the rapid economic growth in India, or China, that has been so much talked about. Indeed, and key to my argument, such expulsions can coexist with economic growth as counted by standard measures and the prosperity of significant sectors of the world’s population. This latter fact also easily renders the impoverishment of modest middle classes and working classes a bit invisible, as they are pushed out by the expanded spaces of prosperity and wealth in our cities. This is a pattern I had already documented in my Global City book in the late 1980s, at a time when it all looked like rising prosperity was including everyone.

These expulsions are made. The instruments for this making range from elementary policies to complex institutions, systems, and techniques that require specialized knowledge and intricate organizational formats. Some of these expulsions have been taking place for a long time, but not at the current scale. Some are new types of expulsions, such as the million households in the United States, and now increasingly in western Europe, whose homes are being foreclosed. In short, the character, contents, and sites of these expulsions vary enormously across social strata and physical conditions, and across the world.

But all of them are clearly fertile ground for growing mistrust by citizens of their state…. and together these many kinds of rupture will take a lot of work to heal.

RB: So how can we begin to restore trust between citizens and states?

SS: My aim in the answers I have given thus far was to expose and thereby map a situation that will require hard work. Importantly, what I tried to expose tells us that we cannot simply rely on our states to heal the broken tissue.

States are not going to reverse what was there from the start in our liberal democracies: the making of two deeply unequal subjects. But the fact that we exist in complex systems—which can be a positive or a negative…it depends! --- has made possible, for instance, the rise of a prosperous broad stratum of working class and middle class people. It was predicated on a mix of economic patterns, national economies and the willingness to organize to fight for rights in large corporate sectors. These and other elements enabled that organizing.

Today, in much of the west, that mix is more or less gone.

The modes of organizing will have to secure and invent other pathways. But one critical first set of steps concerns relocalizing whatever we can relocalize of ‘the’ economy. Thus one example is out with franchises. Local people who can, should start a neighbourhood coffee shop, a quick service neighbourhood restaurant, your own digital connectivity…these can all be done. Beyond economic these are also politicizing steps. And the setting up of new types of bridges with those segments of the state that are willing to assist, recognize, endorse etc.

A second one is political education: we must all recognize and claim the responsibilities of states to their citizens. If all residents of a country would make claims on what the state is meant to do, how our taxes are meant to be paid…There is a long list of these in themselves partial or minimal modes of intervention, that accumulate, and above all, and this is key, begin to mobilize people into specific alignments around specific claims.

Some parts of the state are likely to respond, to become our allies, but we will never overcome that built-in inequality that was at the birth of the liberal state. We need to gain distance from the state, even as we make claims. And the claims we make should serve a dual purpose: to get something that we need from the state and are entitled to (clean up a toxic waterway, build a new bridge, support for better pay for teachers, whatever)…. And even as we ask from the state what we are entitled to ask, we should also be developing partial autonomies from the state, for instance, through the relocalizing of parts of our economy, our communication systems etc. This is the project of becoming political actors, economic actors, with both the capacity to mobilize to make claims and the capacity towards establishing a measure of self-sufficient, partial economies – at the level of the city, the neighbourhhood, the region.