In a highly publicised and controversial campaign which brought record numbers to the ballot box, Glasgow University students last week overwhelmingly voted NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden as their new rector in a statement against public surveillance. It might not have been a popular choice at the Daily Mail, but the campaign did attract the attention of probably the world’s most vocal critic of US foreign policy, MIT’s Professor Noam Chomsky, who agreed to give a live video address to the students in a show of support.
On Friday afternoon in a lecture theatre full of pumped up and eager young people, Skype sprang to life exposing a Chomsky looking every one of his 84 years hunched over a desk searching for his notes. Once ready for his Skype close-up however, his voice and intent were as assured as ever. In a perfectly pitched 15 minute speech, he made direct and skilful connections between global political developments and the issues affecting the staff and students of Glasgow like zero hours contracts. There was even a respectful nod to the independence debate.
On the subject of Snowden, he was unequivocal: he’d performed the highest public duty of all by revealing to his fellow citizens what is being done to them by their own governments. Back on the more familiar territory of US global domination, he talked about the way the rest of the world – with some honourable exceptions including the former ‘backyard’ of South America – had done as the ‘master commands’ and capitulated in hunting the ‘traitor’ down.
He then examined the nature of ‘security’ that the mass surveillance program actually protects. Preventing terrorism that wants to bring down the Western way of life is the public line and the only compelling reason for abdicating so much power to the security agencies: but of the 54 terrorist actions the US government claimed had been thwarted by the program, only one stood up. It could be reasonably argued that one is enough. But by any calculations, it’s unlikely to provide a full explanation or defence for the scale of investment in surveillance. Especially in the face of evidence that the US government actively engages in activities, such as the drone campaign, which inevitably generate terrorist activity at a rate the security services clearly can’t expose it.
The vast security program, Chomsky argued, is in fact about safeguarding the state and corporate interests from public scrutiny. It’s about creating an extra layer of protection for those off-radar negotiations that promote the interests of the rich and powerful – like the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement exposed by Wikileaks last year. In his words: ‘the public are an irrelevance’.
The central theme then is one with which students – all young people – are increasingly familiar; that of powerlessness. Of failed democracy and unaccountable governments. Of being left with nowhere to place trust. The kind of stuff that Russell Brand has been bugging the establishment with.
The worst part is that the root of this disempowerment is the very technology in which young people place so much faith. It’s the environment in which they conduct their social lives, and exercise the little social power that they feel they have. But, as Edward Snowden himself said in the Guardian on Saturday: ‘when we know we’re being watched, we impose restraints on our behaviour – even clearly innocent activities’. Their playground has become their prison.
As the Snowden vote shows though, young people are starting to show some resistance. Getting offline is not a realistic option – and anyway technology isn’t the enemy. So exposing and attacking the groups which are using technology to promote their own interests are likely to be the targets of growing numbers of campaigns. Chomsky’s aim is the political actors but Evgeny Morozov has been arguing for a while now that the activities of the big tech companies fall under the radar in a public discourse which labels critics as ‘luddites’ – or worse ‘killjoys’. In a culture of public scrutiny of data collection, perhaps Google’s intent to eventually own and control all of the world’s information might not seem like such a great idea.
Somehow though, amidst this rather bleak picture, Chomsky managed to leave everyone in the room feeling empowered. He made the point that even this small triumph by Glasgow University students might, along with movements like the proposed Snowden amnesty by the New York Times, just bring about the ‘unimaginable’ and have the US government re-think its position on his exile. It perhaps sounds unlikely, but, as the buzz in the room showed, it’s a hugely inspiring vision for how change might happen.
And then, with barely a wave, Chomsky was gone, leaving no time for the Q & A that the audience was promised. Following a conversation about anti-imperialism, and the power of the public to resist undemocratic government, it was difficult not to feel a little disappointed that we didn’t get to ask him the one big question on the minds of everyone living in Scotland right now.
See video here (we’ll post a better quality audio version if we get it):