A Secret Obsession: From the Province of the Cat
11th January 2018
In his important new book “How To Do Privacy In The 21st Century”, Peter Burnett writes, “The War on Privacy is lost, and states and corporations now collect more of our data than even they know what to do with. No one person or group can understand the implications of this, but there is no going back.”
He then reassuringly adds, “On our side, a new kind of activist is challenging these surveillance and data collection practises, while working to protect free expression. In doing so, these ‘hacktivists’ have been pursued by governments as outlaws, and where they have revealed the mechanisms of state secrecy, they have paid the price with their freedom.”
The privacy of an individual may have dissolved in the acid bath of Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, the GCHQ and the CIA and the digital dictatorship of cyberspace, where “our” privacy becomes “their” secrecy, but what is the difference between secrecy and privacy? Freedom of information only takes us so far – as far as the state judges it to run counter to the interest of the state or deems it fit to be withheld if the “information” it is not seen to be in the public interest. On the other hand, the privacy of the individual is a more metaphysical affair.
In a democratic society, one would hope, that privacy is not secrecy (but because we have no written constitution, only the “organic constitution” as celebrated by Edmund Burke, who can say?) because privacy is a necessary component of an open society, where the individual has a right to privacy, to their personal and spatial freedom. As states the inscription on the grave of John Keats, it could be said of this “right”, that “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”.
In Britain, as subjects of the crown, what rights do we unknowingly forgo that we cannot actively reclaim as citizens in an independent Scottish republic? Are we happy to accept, as subjects, passive obedience and non-resistance to Tory government, as the Brexit debacle would suggest, or are we activators, as citizens, of our natural rights of resistance and popular sovereignty, as the campaign for a Yes vote in 2014 indicated?
The state does not like privacy. It prefers secrecy. Privacy allows the individual to reveal themselves selectively. The state is obsessed with and driven by secrecy, which both excludes and retains knowledge and prevents revelation to the rest of the world. Privacy allows free speech in groups, where exchanges are confidential, not secret, and maintains an open society. Secrecy is the opposite. Surveillance is its weapon. The individual and group privacy is recorded, added to a data bank and then kept secret.
It is with a heavy heart that I have to admit that an open society in Scotland in 2018, as she is presently constituted, is an on-going hypothetical. Even the splendid fact checking facility of The Ferret cannot get close to many state secrets. The field of the truth now has a digital fence. The state is obsessed by secrecy and just how much we, the lave or laity, should or should not know. In December 1917 the Prime Minister Lloyd George is reported to have told C.P. Scott, the then editor of The Manchester Guardian,
“If people really knew the truth the war (World War One) would be stopped tomorrow. But of course, they don’t know, and can’t know.”
However heroic Snowden and other “hacktivists”, championed and chronicled by Peter Burnett, have been in leaking state secrets back to us and restoring in some a sense of having reclaimed our civil liberties, the fact is that in this corporate digital age we have surrendered, willingly, almost everything from our fingerprints to bank accounts, our associates, our exact location at any time and our on-going social profile. The state obsession with secrecy grinds on, crunches us up. But this can be challenged.
On a March night in 1790, on the stage of the Dumfries theatre (a forerunner to the current Theatre Royal), a certain Mrs Sutherland stood up and delivered the following address to a willing and boisterous audience of subscribers
“What needs this din about the toon o’ Lon’on?
How this new Play, and that new Sang is comin?
Why is outlandish stuff sae meikle courted?
Does Nonsense mend, like Brandy, when imported –
Is there nae Poet, burning keen for fame,
Will bauldly try to gie us plays at hame?”
The author was Robert Burns. Here was Burns on one hand issuing a challenge to the poets of Scotland to provide her stage with “patriotic” dramas and bringing an audience together to emphasis its coherent identity, and on the other hand Burns is appealing to a sense of Scotland as defined against England and for the Scots to look to themselves and not to put up with the “Nonsense” coming up over the border. Here is Robert Burns as a ‘hacktivist’ in the modern sense. But nothing modern is actually new. Like the internet activists who have bravely released surveillance material into the public domain and suffered imprisonment, castigation and exile as a result, Burns was also playing with fire. In 1790 he was working in the Dumfries excise division and was a state employee under a Tory government and, more importantly, a servant of King George III.
We may think of state surveillance as being unwarranted and unrelenting today, and it is, but also in Burns day, with Dundas’s spies and informers everywhere, and because of the evolving reality of the French Revolution, every utterance was monitored. It is easy with the onset of the internet to think of the 18th century as a backward and difficult time for communication to happen and for information to circulate, but in 1790 Scotland could boast 27 newspapers. Burns regarded news as a social activity, regularly posting on newspapers to friends and holding evening gatherings where the events of the day could be discussed. People were hungry for information and debate. By 1793 over 200,000 copies of Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man” had been sold. Even Edmund Burke’s anti-reform “Reflection on the Revolution in France”, which was published in 1790, had by 1793 sold over 30,000 copies. In relative terms Stephen Wolf’s “Fire and Fury” is small potatoes. If Burns had access to Facebook and Twitter, yes, he would have used them.
Towards the end of 1792 Burn’s wrote, joyously
“Here’s freedom to him that wad read,
Here’s freedom to him that was write!
There’s nane ever fear’d that the Truth should be heard,
But they whom the Truth wad indite!”
Burn’s, when he wrote his poem, had Thomas Paine in his mind, as the government had tried to ban his book. It is interesting to think of the current President of the United States, in a similar context, who not only certainly wasn’t the author of the book he “wrote”, “The Art of the Deal” (Tony Schwartz did the joined up “writing”) but it also very doubtful that Trump has actually read it. With the attention span of a tasered goldfish the Donald is the perfect participant and recipient of social media messages. The cyber-sharks of state and corporate power feed easily in such a shallow intellectual sea.
With Trump’s ego on the loose in America and Brexit opening the hysteria veins in Britain the middle classes are keeping their heads down, or “abjuring their democratic doings”, as Burns put it in “The Election; A New Song”. By 1793 the French Revolution had so spooked the administration of William Pitt that every criticism of the government was seen as sedition, so much so that Burns was not even free to write his thoughts out in his letters. Other eyes than those of the intended recipient read them. Such was the surveillance and so it was that Burns was a marked man, as the elite of the day strained every nerve and fibre to hold on to power and their privilege. In that regard the Tory party then and the Tory party now are exactly the same. The only difference being that in contemporary Britain secrecy and data gathering is big business for big business, not just the obsession of authoritarian governments.
As 2017 disappears like a drunk horse into hill fair of history one thing is certain: if there was ever a lingering notion that there was such a thing as an online utopia, that notion is finally no more. Even Facebook have admitted this, so you know it’s true. Every pronouncement they make about their content, in order to put themselves beyond criticism, is further evidence that we have come to the end of “something” that could loosely be called liberal. Both powerful and defensive Facebook have taken on all the hallmarks of an 18th century government. Also, they resemble the present Tory regime who put out the message that if you think the government does your head in what you actually need is more government! All these dog whistling and horse whispering Brexiteers! Are they not the ultimate in sublime messaging?
Facebook and social media has changed the way we relate to each other and to society. Quite how the post Facebook generation will “relate” to each other without holding an electronic device in their hands is anyone’s guess? Will they have to inject dopamine straight into their veins? Everybody will be addicted to everything except the truth because no-one will be able to recognise it between misinformation, garbage and urge to like, retweet and message ad nauseum. “There’s nane ever fear’d that the Truth should be heard, / But they whom the Truth wad indite!”
Two billion people currently use Facebook. 3.5 billion people are active online. That is a lot of habit. It is a huge market that corporations tap into, monitor, profile and exploit. This is the world of Apple, Google and Facebook. This is an automated tyranny.
By the Summer of 1793 Robert Burns, along with his fellow reformers, had concluded that politics in “Britain” had come to a point of crisis. Either “Sacred Freedom” would prevail and the population would be revived politically or what liberties and rights they enjoyed would be trampled into the ground by the government. I believe we may reach a similar point of crisis in the Summer of 2018.
In August of 1793 came the Scottish sedition trials in Edinburgh, where Lord Braxfield and a jury handpicked from one of the capital’s Loyalist clubs, sentenced Thomas Muir to fourteen years transportation and William Palmer was similarly sentenced to seven years. What did Robert Burns do? He wrote “Robert Bruce’s March to Bannockburn”.
“Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome to your gory bed, –
Or to victorie. –
Now’s the day, and now’s the hour;
See the front o’ battle lour;
See approach proud Edward’s power,
Chains and Slaverie. – “
This was unambiguous, plainly stated sedition, which used the Wars of Independence to comment on contemporary events. Here was a revolutionary oath straight from the French Revolution. This was not ancient nostalgia, this was modern assertion. Bruce’s soldiers are presented as a volunteer militia defending their country against invading, professional oppressors. Burns wrote other poems on Bruce and this theme but none had the immediate clarity and power of what has become known as “Scots Wha Hae”. By the Autumn of 1793 the movement for Scottish reform had gone from an argument about a constitution and had moved underground into a more revolutionary state of mind. Where, exactly, is that state of mind now? Is Scottish independence become more of a philosophical belief than a political goal?
We live in an age of accepted corporate peculation and state facilitated financial asset stripping of the poor. The freedom fighters, the “hacktivists”, as Peter Burnett so graphically shows in his book, have “been pursued by governments as outlaws, and where they have revealed the mechanisms of state secrecy, they have paid the price with their freedom.” Robert Burns, if it was not for his genius, his wit and his luck, could have so easily joined Thomas Muir in Van Diemen’s Land, chained to each other in terrible exile. What are we, in Scotland, chained to exactly?
©George Gunn 2018.
Peter Burnett will be launching his book “How To Do Privacy In The 21st Century” (Squint Books) in Blackwells Bookshop, Edinburgh on 25th January at 6.30 pm.
Image Credit: the graphic is from Social Decay by Andrei Lacatusu https://www.behance.net/gallery/52646779/Social-Decay