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You can’t trust *them*: governments and secret societies as malignant forces

The gov­ern­ment that is a threat to its sub­jects, or even openly hos­tile to them, is one of the more deplor­able recur­ring facts of his­tory, and one that has been an import­ant topic for a great many thinkers in the past. Also in coun­tries that have enjoyed a rel­at­ively high degree of peace and safety intern­ally, the threat of a gov­ern­ment or ‘the sys­tem’ being party to atro­cit­ies has proven real. For this reason, among oth­ers, one will always find a cer­tain level of dis­trust among cit­izens of their own gov­ern­ment. Des­pite the out­ward appear­ance of striv­ing for some form of col­lect­ive wel­fare, people are always wary of whether these inten­tions are sin­cere or not.

The gov­ern­ment as an actual threat or oppressor of its people has been a recur­ring theme in mod­ern lit­er­at­ure as well. George Orwell’s Nine­teen Eighty-Four is per­haps the most fam­ous example, hav­ing given us con­cepts like Big Brother and cri­me­think, which are com­monly used as ref­er­en­tial con­cepts even out­side the dir­ect con­text of the book. Ray Brad­bury’s Fahren­heit 451 is a com­par­able novel of ideo­lo­gical sci­ence fic­tion. In both works, the gov­ern­ment act­ively seeks to assert its power over its sub­jects by lim­it­ing their access to inform­a­tion and know­ledge. Big Brother’s Ing­soc party is the more thor­oughgo­ing of the two, with its abso­lute con­trol over national media and his­tory (“He who con­trols the past con­trols the future. He who con­trols the present con­trols the past.”), extend­ing even to lan­guage itself, with News­peak inten­ded to let people think only in con­cepts approved of by the party. Com­pared to this regime, that of Fahren­heit 451 is rel­at­ively benign, being con­cerned mainly with the ban­ning and destruc­tion of books as car­ri­ers of unwanted and dan­ger­ous know­ledge. What both gov­ern­ments have in com­mon, though, is a hos­tile atti­tude towards the autonomy of its cit­izens.

The under­ly­ing premise seems clear: the gov­ern­ment is more than the sum of its mem­bers, who are all cit­izens them­selves, after all. Rather, it attains an abstract will of its own, the will to power, which leads to a per­man­ent struggle with its sub­jects, who hold more of it, the more autonom­ous they are. The inten­tions behind this will to power may be benign: a gov­ern­ment that seeks to rule strongly because it believes it holds the solu­tions to people’s wel­fare and safety, a view that has been expressed many times, for example in Thomas Hobbes’ clas­sic Leviathan. How­ever, it is equally pos­sible (and in many his­tor­ical cases proven real) that a gov­ern­ment seeks to rule strongly merely as a means to ensure the greater wel­fare of its own mem­bers and lead­er­ship. Dic­tat­or­ships in the mod­ern world often prove to be of this kind, but there is no a pri­ori reason why this can not extend to to dif­fer­ent struc­tures of gov­ern­ment.

For cit­izens, at least, it is not always easy to know which of the two inten­tions one is deal­ing with, whenever a gov­ern­ment seeks to extend its con­trol over some new area of soci­ety which was pre­vi­ously more lib­er­ated. Cur­rent issues include cam­era sur­veil­lance in pub­lic spaces, ran­dom strip searches, bio­met­ric pass­ports, mon­it­or­ing of ana­logue and digital com­mu­nic­a­tions… the list goes on. The main argu­ments heard from West­ern gov­ern­ments regard­ing these issues are based upon the present­a­tion of the benign inten­tion: these meas­ures will increase the safety, and there­fore the wel­fare of its cit­izens. How­ever, such meas­ures could eas­ily be turned to other uses by a gov­ern­ment, should it feel so inclined. The actions of cit­izens can be mon­itored and there­fore con­trolled to a greater degree, which causes a shift of power in the sense dis­cussed above.

Another factor of uncer­tainty is pre­cisely which ele­ments in a gov­ern­ment have bad inten­tions, and which have good. It might be pos­sible for a pub­lic fig­ure­head such as a pres­id­ent to have per­fectly good inten­tions, as well as a great level of trust among the popu­lace. How­ever, such a fig­ure might be con­trolled by more insi­di­ous parties without being aware of it, for example by being fed false inform­a­tion by has staff and advisers. This pos­sib­il­ity plays a large role in con­spir­acy the­or­ies and dis­course about secret soci­et­ies that are thought to be the real power behind the throne of the world.

The lack of cer­tainty about a gov­ern­ment’s real struc­ture and inten­tions is expressed in the sci­ence fic­tion nov­els men­tioned above, but also in other media and dis­courses. The vast body of fic­tional and non-fic­tional work about secret soci­et­ies and con­spir­acies is a mar­ket unto itself, one that taps into the fas­cin­a­tion and fear that many people in the West­ern world pos­sess. Per­son­ally, I plan on tak­ing a closer look at a com­puter game, namely Deus Ex [wiki]. The game, a first per­son shooter/stealth game with a futur­istic Earth set­ting, is steeped in this dis­course about the rela­tion between cit­izens, gov­ern­ments, secret soci­et­ies, ter­ror­ist fac­tions, and even vast arti­fi­cial intel­li­gences. In an enter­tain­ing way, it man­ages to couple pop­u­lar dis­courses based on an inher­ent fear of secret powers with inter­act­ive reflec­tions on how to deal with issues of gov­ern­ment, con­trol of intel­li­gence net­works, and basic levels of human free­dom.

If it’s to become a decent art­icle, I’ll have to some read­ing on some of the ori­ginal writ­ings con­cern­ing the secret soci­et­ies rep­res­en­ted in the game (the Illu­minati and Majestic 12, to be pre­cise), as well as on the more gen­eral polit­ical issues sur­round­ing the rela­tion­ship between gov­ern­ment and its cit­izens. Some of Noam Chom­sky’s polit­ical works, par­tic­u­larly Man­u­fac­tur­ing Con­sent come to mind, and per­haps some­thing like The Hacker Crack­down by Bruce Ster­ling. Another import­ant issue is the reflec­tion on uncon­trol­lable risk, a factor that I believe plays a role in both gov­ern­ments’ attempts in gain­ing power to ensure safety (against ter­ror­ists, for example), and cit­izens’ fears about gov­ern­ments that might turn out to be malig­nant forces. In a way, both parties seem at times unable to trust each other, and have reas­ons to view each other as uncon­trol­lable risks. And of course, I might want to fin­ish play­ing Deus Ex and its sequel again, a pro­cess which is under­way at the time of writ­ing.

If any new thoughts arise, you’ll find them here, and be on the lookout for that in-depth ana­lysis of Deus Ex.