Workers Vanguard No. 1060

23 January 2015


Hail Edward Snowden!

Citizenfour: A Review

By A. Stevens

What compels a person to take action on his own and at great personal risk against the most deadly government on earth? Why does a so-called democracy spy on its own citizens, foreign nationals and even allied heads of state? Citizenfour is the story of Edward Snowden, a former private contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA) and the CIA who disclosed details of how the U.S. government, in cahoots with the largest telecommunications and internet service companies, spies on virtually everyone, everywhere. Those disclosures revealed Big Brother’s spy apparatus to be far greater than previously known.

Snowden used the alias “Citizenfour” to make contact with Laura Poitras, a writer and filmmaker who for years has tenaciously exposed U.S. surveillance activities. For her courageous truth-telling, Poitras earned a spot on a government watch list. Citizenfour is the third part of her trilogy about how the world has changed since September 11, 2001 under the endless U.S. “war on terror.”

Snowden’s story, which captured the front pages of newspapers across the globe in 2013, is well known. Yet it is riveting to watch it unfold in real time, with Poitras behind the camera as Snowden gives his account to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill in a Hong Kong hotel room. The film also provokes the disturbing recognition that people feel so powerless in the face of relentless government overreach that Snowden’s exposure of the NSA, which caused a tremendous stir just over a year ago, is now met with little more than a collective shrug of resignation. Worse yet is the acquiescence, expressed in the often-heard line: “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.” Tell that to the legions of fighters against class and race inequality in this country whose lives have been wrecked or snuffed out through government surveillance and repression.

Surveillance is a weapon in the arsenal of state repression. Citizenfour reveals that there are 1.2 million people on U.S. watch lists. The small city of Dearborn, Michigan, (population 96,000) has the largest percentage of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans per capita and has thus been racially profiled by law enforcement as the number two place in the country where suspected terrorists reside.

In the aftermath of the cold-blooded killing of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, where another white cop walked away with a pat on the back, it’s important to recognize the connection between surveillance and racial and political profiling. Protesters against racist American injustice need to be aware that fighters for social change in this country are put on one or another government watch list. And in a nation founded on black chattel slavery, a special place is reserved for fighters for racial equality and opponents of capitalist class rule. As James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time (1962): “People find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.”

Capitalist Decay and Attacks on the Right to Privacy

The “war on terror” has been a pretext for unfettered force and violence by the American ruling class abroad and at home, from the wars and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq to the shredding of the civil liberties of the U.S. population. In Washington’s “anti-terror” crusade, national security is the trump card to quash democratic rights. First the Republican Bush administration and then the Democrat Barack Obama seized on the September 11, 2001 attacks to institutionalize extraordinary government powers and snooping through such measures as the USA Patriot Act. These are merely the top shelf of an entire arsenal of repressive legislation that includes the 1917 Espionage Act, which has always been used to criminalize dissent and repress labor and leftist opposition to the U.S. government during wartime. Among its first and most prominent victims was Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs, jailed for his political speech and agitation against the capitalist slaughter of World War I.

Snowden is threatened with prosecution under the Espionage Act if he were to return to the U.S. from temporary asylum in Russia. Chelsea Manning, who was tortured and now languishes in Leavenworth Prison, was sentenced to 35 years under the Espionage Act. Manning was gone after for letting the world see irrefutable government evidence, documented in its own military logs and diplomatic cables, of heinous U.S. war crimes as well as the everyday depredations of imperialist domination. Snowden was inspired by Manning’s outstanding courage to step forward with his own gigantic trove of information. Curiously, Manning is not mentioned in Poitras’s film, yet it is crucial to link all current struggles for justice with the fight to free victims of government repression. Julian Assange, who published Manning’s material on WikiLeaks, is threatened with U.S. prosecution and remains ensconced in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. We demand: Free Chelsea Manning! Hands off Edward Snowden! Hands off Julian Assange!

The film does show tantalizing evidence of yet another insider with a conscience, who was inspired by Snowden to leak new evidence of U.S. government dirty tricks to Glenn Greenwald. The U.S. government has created its own security nightmare, as disillusioned idealistic servants bite back like the multiheaded Hydra and lift the veil on government secrecy.

In the salad days of its struggle against the yoke of the British monarchy’s colonial rule, the American bourgeoisie fought for the right to privacy and enshrined it as the Fourth Amendment in the original 1791 Bill of Rights. This legal protection against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government grew out of English common law, which enjoined the police or other forces of the Crown from entering a private home without an official writ. This protection was effectively nullified in the American colonies, where royal magistrates and judges routinely issued writs and warrants to allow British soldiers to ransack private homes and seize property without so much as a suspicion of crime.

The legitimization of black chattel slavery in the U.S. Constitution bespeaks the limited, conservative goals of the bourgeois-democratic American Revolution. Nonetheless, the so-called “founding fathers,” leaders from a period when the bourgeoisie was historically progressive, would be outlaws today in the period of advanced capitalist decay. America’s rulers would appear to them as King George loyalists and traitors to their own revolution and citizenry. The U.S. government has long served as the gendarme for reaction worldwide and backed the bloodiest regimes on the planet. The silver-tongued Obama intones “freedom” while shredding democratic rights at home, prosecuting more whistleblowers than all prior presidents combined and directly authorizing assassinations of U.S. citizens abroad.

It’s Gonna Take a Revolution

Glenn Greenwald’s latest book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (New York: Henry Holt, 2014), is a good read in conjunction with viewing Poitras’s Citizenfour. The same conversations with Snowden that Poitras captured on film are related in greater detail in Greenwald’s book. Poitras and Greenwald have both moved to other countries to continue their work at greater distance from vindictive and threatening American authorities. Poitras has been detained and had her notes and electronics seized more than 40 times at U.S. airports. Some of Greenwald’s colleagues in the capitalist media howled for him to be prosecuted because he dared print what the government sought to keep under wraps. In a gratuitously vicious move to torment Greenwald, the British authorities, in league with the U.S., detained and terrorized his partner and political collaborator, David Miranda, when he ferried documents from Poitras to Greenwald through London’s Heathrow airport.

Edward Snowden was compelled by his conscience to risk everything he had in life by taking a stand against omnipresent U.S. government surveillance because he thinks people have a right to know what the government is doing and a right to debate and change policy. In this, Snowden shares a moral and political compass with Chelsea Manning. We hail their courageous acts. Despite Manning’s and Snowden’s self-identification as U.S. patriots, their disclosures provide a factual basis for Marxists like us to help working people see through the stupefying fog of patriotism and democracy that is peddled by the bourgeoisie to dull the wits of those they exploit. It is going to take more than leaks and whistles to fundamentally change society. An essential precondition is the understanding that the government is not “ours,” nor can it be made into a neutral arbiter. Rather, it is part of the machine to maintain capitalist class rule, suitably disguised as an expression and tool of “the people.”

Glenn Greenwald expresses the views held by many libertarians, liberals and reformist leftists that the problem with the encroaching police state is simply that it is wildly out of control. Greenwald argues, “The alternative to mass surveillance is not the complete elimination of surveillance. It is, instead, targeted surveillance, aimed only at those for whom there is substantial evidence to believe they are engaged in real wrongdoing.” Asking capitalism’s secret police to play nice is like asking a great white shark to chew softly.

In capitalist society, where a tiny minority of the population lives off the labor of the working class, the rulers will always resort to spying, lying and violence to keep the vast majority down. Anything that challenges property rights and the racial, ethnic, religious and moral prejudices that prop up this whole capitalist system of exploitation and injustice constitutes “wrongdoing.” The liberals are blinded by lofty words like “freedom” and “democracy”—classless terms that snooker working people into believing they have equal rights in an increasingly unequal society. Any talk of achieving freedom that does not involve a struggle for the abolition of classes is simply a lie.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels explained the fundamental difference in purpose between petty-bourgeois democrats and communists in their 1850 “Address of the Central Authority to the [Communist] League.” Against a backdrop of the failed German bourgeois-democratic revolution of 1848, in which the bourgeoisie had gone over to the side of the old reactionary classes against the revolutionary proletariat, Marx and Engels observed:

“Far from desiring to transform the whole of society for the revolutionary proletarians, the democratic petty bourgeois strive for a change in social conditions by means of which the existing society will be made as tolerable and comfortable as possible for them....

“While the democratic petty bourgeois wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible…it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been forced out of their position of dominance, the proletariat has conquered state power, and the association of proletarians, not only in one country but in all the dominant countries of the world, has advanced so far that competition among the proletarians in these countries has ceased and that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletarians. For us the issue cannot be the alteration of private property but only its annihilation, not the smoothing over of class antagonisms but the abolition of classes, not the improvement of the existing society but the foundation of a new one.”