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.