Two or more decades ago I wrote an article in which I suggested that, while the collapse of our civilization would ultimately prove beneficial to the productive purposes of society, the transition would, in the short-term, not be pretty to watch. The threat to the established order would be devastating, a challenge that would elicit the most violent and desperate efforts to defend the status quo. Wars, increased police powers, the enhanced regulation of and restrictions on alternative social systems, would become the norm. A society so constituted could well be symbolized as a faceless SWAT team member shoving his automatic rifle into the face of a cowering peaceful demonstrator.
By its very nature, the established order and the state enjoy a mutuality of purpose. The state — defined as a system with a monopoly on the use of violence within a given territory — exists to maintain the interests of those desirous of resisting any fundamental change threatening to its position. The state never defines itself this way, of course. Even today, high-ranking government officials babble the bromide that their purpose is to protect the interests of workers, families, and — as a spokesman for BP recently expressed it — "the small people."
A bill quickly being whisked through Congress — while the mainstream media distracts our attentions with updates on the death of a girl on Aruba, or "remembering Michael Jackson" — would give to the president a "kill switch" that would allow him to shut down the Internet on his whim. The supporters of this measure gurgle assurances that its purpose is only to protect the nation’s "security" in the face of a "terrorist" attack. Since 9/11, Boobus has been conditioned to accept any and every intrusion in the name of resisting "terrorism," not wanting to know that it is the American government that is the major promoter of terrorism in the world. As the late George Carlin might well have expressed it, our government must fight the terrorist activities of other groups as a way of keeping its monopoly on the use of violence. Terrorism "is our job," I could almost hear him declare.
The Internet is a destabilizing force to established interests in the world. It is premised on the free exchange of information which, in turn, is an expression of the liberty of individuals to act in furtherance of their particular interests. Government schools, the mainstream media, and other institutional voices, relentlessly work to condition the minds of people to think and to act within limits that are consistent with institutional purposes. Ideas or actions that do not challenge established interests may be welcomed (if supportive of such ends) or tolerated (perhaps as entertainment). But as the institutional order continues its decentralizing collapse into alternative social systems and practices, its domination of humanity continues to weaken. The struggle confronting mankind comes down to the question of whether human beings are to be the masters of their own lives, or whether they are to remain as resources to be exploited for institutional ends.
The Internet — like the printing press before it — is not the cause of the transformations in society, but only the vehicle through which free minds can explore alternatives to the inhumane, destructive, inefficient, anti-life implications from which institutions are unable to separate themselves. The question before us is whether life is to belong to the living, or to long-revered systems that insist upon their authority to control and destroy life for organizational interests.
Those seeking to direct the state’s coercive machinery against the Internet don’t even seem to have a clear grasp of how this system operates. The legislation seeking to choke the autonomous and spontaneous life from the Internet is labeled the "Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act." Referring to it as a "national asset" suggests it is some sort of collective form of property, a thing — like a building or a park — in need of "protection." But the Internet is neither a physical object nor a place, but a process, a way of acting upon and within the world with others. To treat it as some material "thing" is as absurd as regarding evolution as a "national asset" over which the president is to be given a "kill switch." It falls into the same kind of goofy thinking as was exhibited, a number of years ago, by a state legislator who wanted to make it a criminal offense for a person to "alter one’s consciousness" (i.e., to learn).
Of course, the violent powers of the state are never directed against material things themselves, but always against the people who own them. The "war on drugs," for instance, does not criminalize drugs, but the people who use them. While speaking to the protection of a "national asset," the bill is really directed at the owners of the assets through which the Internet operates. It gives the president the power to shut down the Internet by ordering Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to comply with his edicts. Those who refuse to do so will be subject to criminal penalties. But ISPs are part of the kinds of interconnected networks that are increasingly coming to reflect the horizontal systems that so threaten the structured order. Given the creative and fruitful nature of the Internet, I suspect there will be many young people who will find effective ways to circumvent the vertical logic upon which all political authority is based. In so doing, they may create more ways of connecting to and generating a more flexible Internet that looks quite different from the one we know today. Perhaps an analogy can be drawn from the world of viruses and bacteria who, without any top-down structuring, and despite the hundreds of billions of dollars of deadly pharmaceutical weaponry directed at them, manage to evolve their own responses that not only allow them to survive, but to become even more vibrant. A reading of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds may prove instructive.
The bill’s principal author, Sen. Joe Lieberman, revealed his preferences for political despotism in telling us that "China . . . can disconnect parts of its Internet, and we need to have that here too." How wonderful! The model around which Americans are to rally as a vision is not the Declaration of Independence, but a communist state best known for its "Great Leap Forward" that led to the deaths of close to twenty million people. I can imagine the day when the American state recreates its concentration camps — in the name of "national security," of course — accompanied by Oberfhrer Lieberman’s cooing reassurances that Germany once had concentration camps, but that they were only temporary measures!
Do not allow yourself to be misled as to what is at stake in all of this. The established order is fighting to preserve its preeminence over all of humanity, and no appeals to traditional liberal sentiments or humane values, or constitutional or moral principles, will be allowed to stand in the way of this institutional imperative. Those who pay attention to what is implicit in events are quickly discovering that, regardless of the forms under which they operate, every state system is grounded in the exercise of arbitrary force. The enjoyment of its monopoly on the use of violence cannot exist alongside any principle that would limit its arbitrariness. This is why police brutalities, international war crimes, and other political atrocities will continue unabated. If state action was subject to review or reversal, its coercive monopoly would shift to such appellate agency which, in its turn, would enjoy this unrestrained power. The navet of those who look to the United Nations, or other forms of world government, as solutions to the inherent nature of all political systems, overlooks this essential point.
A state system that is fighting for its existence must be expected to regard wars, nuclear annihilation, torture, imprisonment without trials, concentration camps, destructive taxation and economic regulations, and the present Internet "kill switch" attack on free expression, as nothing more than options available for employment in its continuing war against human beings and the entire life process. The question, as always, comes down to how we — you and I — will respond to all of this.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.