Surveillance, Dissent, and Imperialism


The Inner-Outer Dialectic of US Imperialism

There are many ways that imperial expansion abroad can tie in with the socio-economic conditions and political relations that primarily pertain to the domestic sector of the imperial state. On the other hand, it is not worth overemphasizing the separation of the “domestic” and “foreign,” a fact widely recognized by international relations scholars for at least a few decades, if only because they observed such facts as foreign trade policy being conditioned by domestic production and consumption, as well as the growing regulation of domestic political and judicial structures thanks to a state’s participation in various international treaties and conventions. “International law” itself is an ambiguous entity for this reason, given that states’ ratification of international covenants usually means that those covenants acquire the force of law, domestically, and join if not supersede a national body of laws.


Adding to the complication of perceiving and distinguishing a “domestic” from the “foreign” sphere of US imperialism, are phenomena such as the construction of ideologies of expansion, deep insertion into a global political economy, and the realization that while we may know where the US begins territorially, we cannot say exactly where it ends in cultural, political and economic terms. For my purposes I distinguish between a National United States of America (NUSA) and a Globalized United States of America (GUSA). NUSA is a simple reference to the current political geography of the US, filled in by places that can be specified with geographic coordinates, inhabited by people in relatively dense relations with one another. It is what Clifford Geertz once called the “the world around here” (Geertz, 1996, p. 262). Most of the inhabitants of this NUSA are referred to as “Americans,” or Americans in waiting. GUSA is not so neatly geographic, but it can still be found and seen, concretely. GUSA’s existence can be observed (in no particular order of importance) in the adoption of US consumption patterns and standards by local elites around the world; the existence of a transnational capitalist class, a large part of which is US-educated; military leaderships formed by funding and training by the US military; political parties funded by the US and often led by people who spent some time living and studying in the US, and who adopt the US as a model; upper-class neighbourhoods, districts, and gated communities; and those whose life patterns, choices, and personal orientations have been seriously influenced or remade by US cultural imperialism, in a process commonly referred to as “Americanization”. All of these are merely a paltry few examples of the ways in which domestic and foreign ought to be seen more as a continuum, either among imperial centres, or those subjected to imperialist domination. Therefore, when we (Kyle McLoughlin below, myself here) speak of the domestic part of US imperialism, we are simply referring to what happens in NUSA, without making any claims about the real or imagined “domesticity” of the NUSA.

The Iraq War, the Power of the State, and Social Control

In speaking of the “inner dialectic” in connection with the process leading up to the US invasion of Iraq, David Harvey argued that “the only thing to prevent the political annihilation of the Republicans was the intense solidarity—verging on a nationalist revival—created around the events of 9/11 and the anthrax scare” (2003, p. 13). Drawing on Hannah Arendt, on how the ever-present prospect of war guarantees the permanence of the state (2003, p. 16), and acts as a check against the cacophony of private interests, Harvey argues that 9/11 “provided the political opening not only to assert a national purpose and to proclaim national solidarity, but also to impose order and stability on civil society at home” (2003, p. 17). The events that followed were constructed by ruling elites in a manner that would permit the state to accumulate even more power. A “new sense of social order” could be imposed at home, where “criticism was silenced as unpatriotic” (Harvey, 2003, p. 17). Harvey concludes that, “this relation between the internal and external conditions of political power has played a significant if largely hidden role in the dynamics that have fuelled the conflict with Iraq” (Harvey, 2003, p. 17).

Surveillance and Dispossession

While evidence of an inner-outer dialectic of US imperialism could not be adequately exhausted even in a catalogue running for a thousand pages, it is one particular respect that it becomes especially relevant to what follows below. The relevance of the inner-outer dialectic here has to do with the tensions and conflicts unleashed by capitalism at home and the means applied to suppress opposition, along with the tensions and conflicts created abroad by the export of capital/capitalism, and then importation of either modified or newly innovated techniques of repression that were applied abroad. As Adam Hanieh (2006) explains, there is an intimate connection between neoliberalism and imperialism–the new imperialism then is essentially a militarized neoliberalism garbed in the rhetoric of rights and humanitarianism. The accumulation of capital that begins at home, by trampling on workers’ rights and depressing wages for example, thus generating tensions and conflicts at home, leads to overaccumulation which requires productive outlets abroad. The export of capital, or even capitalism as such, generates further tensions and conflicts abroad, which are “managed” via military enforcement. At both ends surveillance is a necessary part of that enforcement. It therefore is fruitless to continue to vent opinions about how the National Security Agency violates Americans’ “civil liberties” and represents an “invasion of privacy,” as if the aim of the NSA was to merely cheese off a lot of American Internet and cell phone users, to exercise power simply for the sake of it. Instead there is a definite logic and it is tied to questions of class, exploitation, capital accumulation, and repression (which includes “counterinsurgency”). However, thus far, the popular narrative in the media, and among many so-called cyber activists, has been the superficial libertarian one, concerning the “rights of individual citizens” and the “checks on the power of government”. They continue to miss the point.


State Surveillance and Police Militarization

Adventure abroad in the name of security has a way of coming home, Kyle McLoughlin observes in his recent chapter, “The Prying Eye and the Iron Fist: State Surveillance and Police Militarization”. He argues that the “defence of the homeland” is undergoing a process of transformative militarization. The “strategic vision” set forth by George W. Bush in 2001 can apply, and has applied equally to the domestic security policy of the US government. Threats to the stability of the state and its economy are not tolerated, to the extent that political assembly and mobilization against American military adventures have become more dangerous as law enforcement adopt a militarized approach towards policing.

ppu3State security agencies, McLoughlin shows, revolutionized by the demands of the War on Terror, in 2008 identified the “Republican National Convention–Welcoming Committee” (RNC-WC) as one of the most significant threats to the proceedings of the convention because of a conflation of non-normative or radical political opposition with that of terrorist activity. Political behaviour outside of those practices acceptable to authority—such as authorized marches that obtain permits, or pressuring one’s representative to effect legislative change—is identified and prosecuted as a threat to national security, McLoughlin explains. As he further points out,

“These domestic campaigns are, unsurprisingly given the rhetoric of the war metaphor, waged like the missions abroad using an extensive network of intelligence operatives to gather information on potential threats, whether real or imagined, which are in turn eliminated by the aggressive tactics of a police force equipped for a domestic insurgency.” (McLoughlin, 2013, p. 88)

While state suppression of radical political dissent, protest, and organizing are nothing new in the US, McLoughlin argues that, “the attacks on the World Trade centre on September 11, 2001, catalyzed the development of a militarized security state” in at least two respects. One involves the transfer of military equipment to “civilian law enforcement” agencies, with direct material transfers from the Department of Defense, and the second is the expansion of the state surveillance and domestic intelligence gathering apparatus, which has been a constant feature of news reports since the start of the Snowden leaks in the summer of 2013. With reference to this second aspect, McLoughlin discusses the role of intelligence “fusion centres” that combine agents of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the CIA:

“Fusion centres aggregate data received from state, local law, and federal enforcement agencies, the Department of Defense, as well as private corporations. Content gathered includes suspicious activity reports created by law enforcement, passive or soft data generated by internet and cell phone use, as well as information gathered through proactive surveillance operations. Through fusion centres, analysts create threat profiles based on data trends and surveillance reports. This information is then passed on to investigatory and enforcement elements for follow-up and execute pre-emptive action against supposed threats to national security.” (McLoughlin, 2013, p. 89)

As one expression of the inner-outer dialectic discussed above, McLoughlin points to the blurring of boundaries between local police and its enforcement of internal security, and the military which was formally designed for defense against external threats:

“Blurring the two functions of each body is indicative of the state’s militarist ideology. Militarist doctrine emphasizes using overwhelming, violent force as an accepted and effective solution to problems; the implementation of this ideology is the process of militarization.” (McLoughlin, 2013, p. 90)

The formal state logic that binds this inner-outer dialectic is expressed in terms of “national security”. Just as the political leadership of the state utilized the argument of “pre-emption” to launch the attack against Iraq in 2003, so the state applies proactive suppression against domestic activists. Indeed, the phenomenon of arresting would-be protesters, before there is even any protest of any kind, is something that we also witness in Canada and the UK, even as they preach about “respecting the will of the people” and keeping hands off protesters to even democratically elected governments in Ukraine and Venezuela. Clearly, protest is understood by the political class in the West not as “freedom of expression” and “freedom of assembly,” but rather as destabilization–and they confirm this in the manner in which they finance and organize protests abroad, while suppressing home-grown ones.

Recognition of this should impose a special burden on domestic political dissent in the US, if it recognizes that what it is fighting is another front of US imperialism itself. To the extent that they acknowledge and seek to combat this, they deserve all of our solidarity.

Human Terrain Mapping Comes Back Home

McLoughlin’s chapter goes into depth about paramilitary policing units and fusion centres, and focuses on the case of the RNC-WC in 2008. This is part of an ongoing research project and we are glad to feature some of it in the latest volume of the New Imperialism series (see below). It certainly serves to contextualize even more recent phenomena such as the application of derivatives of the US Army’s Human Terrain System in “domestic law enforcement”. For a few years now, one of the arguments advanced on this site is that one of HTS’ more insidious and least commented upon functions was domestic counterinsurgency, especially with respect to: (a) the attempted pacification of academia by recruiting social scientists into counterinsurgency and psychological operations; (b) gathering sympathetic corporate media to further foster the militarization of nationalist thinking in the US; and, (c) keeping domestic anti-war, let alone anti-imperialist, dissent at bay by rationalizing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and turning these into lucrative opportunities for enterprising outliers and established contractors. However, as Roberto González’s research further showed, HTS itself first emerged out of domestic counterinsurgency operations in the US, particularly from the late 1960s with the concept of a “human terrain” mentioned as such in a report by the US House Un-American Activities Committee, specifically with the aim of quashing the Black Panther Party.

And now HTS has returned home:

First there was a bit of prediction, contained in the publication in 2010 of Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism. As a Guardian reporter wrote in commenting on the book: “what’s happening in Baghdad and other contested or occupied cities – not just the surveillance, but the militarisation too – is going to happen here”.

The second glimpse we had of HTS coming home, in 2011, came from announcements by CYBERCOM, the Pentagon’s new “Cyber Command,” and corporate defense contractors in the US that indicated they were releasing new tools for mining social media, that involved applications of human terrain mapping.

The third demonstration of this re-importation of human terrain mapping for domestic surveillance, surrounded the revelations of the work of the CIA, under none other than General David Petraeus (mentor and sponsor of HTS itself), in conjunction with the NYPD. These revelations surfaced in a series of published reports, also in 2011 (see here, here, here, here, and here, for just some examples), along with leaked documents from the NYPD (here, here, and here).

The fourth set of examples of the use of HTS as a model for domestic counterinsurgency had to do with revelations that the shale gas/fracking industry was adopting the model to conduct psychological operations against communities resisting fracking (source1):

Anadarko Petroleum Corporation’s Public Relations Chief Matthew Carmichael, a military veteran himself, recommended that all natural gas industry PR professionals read the “Counterinsurgency Field Manual,” formerly the official doctrine of the US military. “Download the US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual because we are dealing with an insurgency. There’s a lot of good lessons in there and coming from a military background, I found the insight in that extremely remarkable,” remarked Carmichael. (source2)

Matt Pitzarella, from the company Range Resources, boasted of the methods employed in Pennsylvania to break the resistance of locals concerned about the effects of hydraulic fracturing on their living environments:

We were particularly concentrated at Range with setting up a proactive initiative vis-à-vis the local population. […][A communications official] has got people interested in the idea of turning to other economic and industrial sectors, namely, the Army and Marines. We have several guys from PsyOps (the nickname used to refer to psychological warfare operations in the U.S. Army) who work for us at Range, because they’re particularly comfortable with global issues and local governments. […] [They spent a large part of their time] assisting the understanding of the of psychological warfare operations that the Army has put in place in the Middle East. Which has been hugely helpful in Pennsylvania. (source1)

The fifth set of incarnations of HTS at home were made public more recently, with the LAPD adopting human terrain mapping: “Typically, geospatial intelligence is most commonly linked to defence and the military. While this may be true, more and more civilian organisations are utilising the power of geospatial information to radically improve their abilities. Unsurprisingly, the police force is one such area getting involved”.

The blurring of the domestic and foreign, home and away, the outside and the inside of nations, in the limitless transnational battle space: Stephen Graham


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EMERGENCY AS SECURITYEmergency as Security: Liberal Empire at Home and Abroad

Edited by Kyle McLoughlin and Maximilian C. Forte

Montreal: Alert Press.



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