It is important to be clear. Does the public take the revelations of the data-mining scandal as an affront to their liberty? Presumably many, perhaps even most, do. But life is so full of affronts about which one would be an utter fool to imagine that one can do anything. The automated recordings through which one so often has to pay one’s bills, arrange an appointment, or try to get information (even whom to speak with to get that information) are an affront. The endless passwords, PINs, and the like are an affront (and are also, by definition, recorded on corporate databases). The ubiquitous CCTV cameras in city centers, a great many of which were installed well before the Sept. 11 attacks as crime-prevention and traffic-control measures, are an affront. And of course, all the petty and not so petty inconveniences and impositions of the post-9/11 world — from the preposterous demand that one show ID when entering not just a government building but almost any office building in America, to the shameless slovenliness and rudeness of Transportation Security Administration employees at every U.S. airport — are flagrant affronts. Even if the long war against the jihadis were to end tomorrow with total victory for the United States, can anyone seriously suggest that any of these measures would be lessened, let alone canceled?
The great myth of the past 25 years may be empowerment through technology. But the great truth of the past 25 years has been the rise of the surveillance state, which grows stronger every day — both because of technology itself and because of the control that states and huge corporations have over the technology that people depend upon and love. On one level, everyone knows this, but whether it’s because they believe themselves to be immune or because they simply never imagined that the surveillance state had become so all-encompassing, the elites seem to have been particularly surprised and therefore indignant over the scope of the NSA’s spying, the ardor with which governments have defended these practices, and their foaming rage at having to defend them in public at all. “This is the way the world ends,” T. S. Eliot famously wrote in his great poem The Hollow Men, “not with a bang but a whimper.” Welcome to the post-democratic world. Oh, and by the way, you’ve been living in it for quite some time now.
Rieff is on to the opiate-of-the-masses question, and it has already been answered in the affirmative. What governments don’t yet seem to get (or care about) is the self-inflicted wounds they are making, cultivating huge and growing resevoirs of distrust and cynicism. Society as a whole is being infected and governance will become ever more fraught thanks to the overreach, arrogance, and lack of self-control on the part of elites. As always, liberty will have to find the hidden nooks and crannies through which to flow, slowly wearing down the rocks of state power and control.