"If Bentham's project [the Panopticon] aroused interest, this was because it provided a formula applicable to many domains, the formula of 'power through transparency.'" -- Michel Foucault, "The Eye of Power," 1977.
"[...] Democracy is premised on the conviction that no one can be at home in a place where it is presumed that are no secrets, that all reality is transparent, that all people are the same." -- Greil Marcus, "Pennsylania at the End of the Twentieth Century," 1998.
"The objective of the Patriot Act [is to make] the population visible and the Justice Department invisible. The Act inverts the constitutional requirement that people's lives be private and the work of government officials be public; it instead crafts a set of conditions that make our inner lives transparent and the workings of the government opaque." -- Elaine Scarry, "Acts of Resistance," Harper's Magazine, May 2004.
The widespread and rapidly increasing use of surveillance cameras for the purposes of "security" and law enforcement is not something that is taking place in isolation, on the margins of society, or as an after-thought, though many people seem to think so. Take, for example, New York Times architectural critic Herbert Meschamp, who writes in "Echoes of '68 on Columbia's Campus" (Sunday Arts & Leisure section for 24 October 1999) that the surveillance camera in Columbia University's new Lerner Hall "insinuates a sinister presence into the entire composition." Note that, for Meschamp, the "entire composition" -- an abstract space, designed by Bernard Tschumi, that is defined by sheer glass walls -- isn't "sinister" until the surveillance camera is added; and that the "sinister presence" is added by "insinuation," not by direct expression. The camera in Lerner Hall has, in Meschamp's words, "a symbolic as well as a practical function," but it seems that "ornamental" is closer to the architectural critic's meaning than "symbolic." Contrary to Mike Davis -- who writes in City of Quartz (1990) that "one observes an unprecedented tendency to merge urban design, architecture and the police apparatus into a single, comprehensive security effort" -- the camera for Meschamp is an add-on, something not really part of or essential to the composition itself.
But, to us, the proliferation of surveillance cameras is directly connected to the very essence of capitalist society. Generalized video surveillance brings into visibility the sinister and repressive essence of spectacular capitalism. To prove our point -- and to advance and enrich the practical struggles of the Surveillance Camera Players -- we need to advance and elaborate upon a theory of surveillance, the foundation of which will be the concept of transparency. It is the demand for and imposition of transparency that unites the apparently isolated spectacle of video surveillance with the general capitalist spectacle.
To advance a theory of transparency, one must, unfortunately, first clear the air of the stench of the widely and well-reviewed piece of shit entitled The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? (New York: Addison-Wesley 1998), which was written by David Brin, a science-fiction novelist and staunch defender of capitalism and the State. "When [capitalism] works, under just and impartial rules," Brin said in an on-line interview in 1998, "the free market rewards agility, hard work, and innovation, just as it punishes the stock prices of companies that make too many mistakes" [emphasis added]. As we've pointed out elsewhere, capitalism's "rules" are transparently unjust and totally "partial," and only work for the rich and powerful. Indeed, to speak of capitalism's "rules" at all is to ignore and deflect attention away from the essential irrationality of capitalism, especially of such fundamental capitalist institutions as the division of labor, bureaucracy, and commodity fetishism.
As for the modern State, Brin takes a position quite similar to that taken in Reg Whitaker's peculiar book The End of Privacy: How Total Surveillance is Becoming a Reality.
A weak government is not a guarantee of freedom [Brin says.] It is a guarantee of chaos that will be followed by tyranny. What we need is a strong government that is totally subject to scrutiny so that every mistake that they make will be pounced upon.
Though we find ourselves in complete agreement with Brin's assessment of "a weak government," we find it appalling that anyone would prefer more poison to less, rather than no poison at all. Our position is that, if there is anything "we" the People need, it is the abolition of any external governing body, and the instauration of universal self-government, so that "scrutiny" of the actions of others is totally unnecessary and can be completely dispensed with.
Typical of someone well-conditioned by capitalism and its State, Brin's attitude towards both the widespread use of surveillance cameras and the emergence (imposition) of "the transparent society" is utterly passive.
Cameras are proliferating like locusts [Brin says, using a peculiarly Biblical metaphor]. In Britain they've tied in face-recognition systems to scan pedestrians in search of wanted criminals. Nothing you or I do will stop this. No law will prevent it. Banning the cameras will only drive this technology underground and ensure it's monopolized by some elite group.
To prevent "monopolization," Brin would have us do nothing and allow surveillance technology to proliferate and be used by everyone against everyone else. "Nobody ever thinks of the reciprocal transparency solution to these problems and that's taking cameras and shining it back on them," Brin says, his metaphor suggesting that a surveillance camera -- apparently an active projector rather than a passive receptor of light -- "shines the light of truth" upon whomever it is focused. "The light of truth" will, in Brin's words, "force" the "gossips and patricians" to be "polite" and "courteous" -- force being the operative word here.
We are going to have to learn something we knew in the old villages, and that's courtesy [Brin says]. For our own safety's sake. We aren't going to be able to hide anything. We'll be safe because our enemies won't be able to hide anything either. But does that make it pleasant if everybody knows everything? The only thing that will make it pleasant is if we grow up a bit.
But "reciprocal transparency" -- using surveillance technologies to surveill the surveillants -- is no solution at all. Quite obviously, "reciprocal transparency" simply gives up on and denigrates the fight to defend and reiterate our constitutional rights to free speech and anonymity, and to protection from unreasonable searches of our persons. Furthermore, "reciprocal transparency" is clearly irrational and a doomed strategy: justified in the name of preventing the total surveillance of all by a small minority, "reciprocal transparency" inaugurates the total surveillance of all by all. The "solution" of "two-way transparency" or "omnidirectional surveillance" -- like the Cold War "solution" of mutually assured destruction -- is in fact the generalization of the problem (the war of all against all) to the point of universal crisis. There is and will be nothing "safe" or "pleasant" about the transparent society, that is, the universal destruction of the rights to privacy, anonymity and free assembly: it will be nothing other than the mass murder of social life.
Not surprisingly, Brin doesn't offer a clear definition of "the transparent." Starting fresh, we take "transparent" to mean the following: 1) pervious solid objects that do not scatter light or prevent its direct transmittal; 2) people or statements that are without deceit or pretense; 3) behavior or speech whose hidden intention or nature is obvious and easily detected, despite deceit or pretense; and 4) behavior or speech whose meaning is clear and easily understood. That is to say, "transparency" is a physical property of certain objects, as well as a metaphor for a jumble of conflicting human qualities or behaviors (honesty, bad lying, and clarity or "rationality"). Quite obviously, context of usage will determine a lot: there can be honesty (clarity of intention) without clarity of expression; clarity of expression without clarity of intention; and lying (opacity of intention) without detection (clarity of perception).
But, in all this, there is the underlying assumption that neither obscurity nor opacity is to be trusted, even if they are in fact not "hiding something bad"; "hiding" is "bad" in and of itself. In other words, directly transmitted light (or meaning) is bright, clear and "truthful," and "darkness" (obscurity or opacity) is dull, stupid and "false." Let us call this underlying assumption the ideology of transparency. We should note that, like (pure) silence, (pure) transparency -- or pure, unscattered light -- does not exist. There are in fact only relative degrees of transparency: every object, even air or clear glass, scatters a little light or prevents some of its direct transmittal. Thus, part of the ideology of transparency is the denial of its relativity, and the irrational belief in and insistence upon absolute transparency.
The relevance of the ideology of transparency to the use of surveillance cameras is easy to see: figuratively speaking, the cameras render transparent any and all walls and other obstacles that stand between the surveillant and the space he or she wishes to surveill (which we define as "observe continuously for the purposes of direction, supervision and control"). There is a clear, though metaphorical, "sight-line" between the hidden surveillant and his or her target. The most-advanced surveillance cameras can literally "see through" and render transparent heavy rain, darkness and such opaque solid objects as clothing. Thus, both literally and figuratively speaking, surveillance cameras intend to make everything not only "visible" but transparent, as well. If you are not transparent -- if you are clearly doing something unfamiliar and "unpredictable," if you are transparently hiding from or doing something obscure or opaque in front of a surveillance camera -- you are immediately suspicious, even guilty, of non-compliance. Ultimately, surveillance cameras are designed to render transparent to the surveillant's eye the purposes behind and meanings of every physical movement, indeed, the very thoughts in someone's head: are these law-abiding thoughts? or are they the thoughts of someone who is about to break the law or who has already broken the law?
Here George Orwell's nightmarish 1984 remains relevant, 50 years after its publication. For Orwell dreamed that Big Brother would rule using a combination of three very modern techniques: video surveillance (the "Telescreen"), physical coercion ("Room 101"), and both detectable and undetectable mind-control. (We all remember The Thought Police and the illegalization of "thought-crime," but we all too easily forget that, as O'Brien tells Winston, seven years before Winston "first" committed thought-crime, O'Brien planted in his mind -- without Winston's knowing it -- the phrase "We will meet in the place where there is no darkness"). Except for the architecture of the city (see below), Orwell envisioned transparency being imposed at all levels: the walls of the room that Winston rents from the old shop-keeper are transparent to the gaze of the (hidden) Telescreen, and Winston's suppressed fear of rats is transparent to O'Brien, who uses it against Winston in Room 101. There is "no darkness" anywhere in Big Brother's Oceania; it has been banned and forcibly removed in advance.
In our society, there is "no darkness" -- or, rather, there is "less darkness" -- in part because the mass of people have been conditioned to "voluntarily" make themselves transparent to the gaze of all. As demonstrated by certain works by Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard, the Catholic Church (specifically, the institution of confession, which has become generalized throughout "Christian" culture), and "reality-based" television shows, respectively, inculcate and reward the adoption and internalization of the notion that it is both moral and healthy to routinely render oneself transparent (to either the eyes of God or the eyes of the camera). No one should be "hiding something," no matter what it is. Everything must be publicly confessed, no matter how banal or reprehensible. There is something suspicious -- something morally offensive -- about people who, in David Brin's words, refuse to stop "cowering in the cool shadows offered by city life," people who will neither become completely invisible nor stop being obscure and opaque. "Bad guys like to hide in the shadows," says Rob Siegel, executive vice president of marketing at Pixim, a Calfornia company that makes an image sensor that has the benefit of wide dynamic range, or the ability to capture an image whether there are bright or dark spots in the picture; "Dynamic range brings out the images in the shadows or those that are obscured by glare of the sun" (San Jose Mercury News, 6 January 2003).
In this regard, there is substantial interest in the content (and not just in the form) of "reality-based" television. Under-rated as a TV critic, Jean Baudrillard long ago pointed to the emergence of transparency -- he preferred to call it "simulation" -- in the 1970s reality-based television show that documented the wrenching everyday life of the Loudes, a "real family." Explicitly arguing against Orwell's foregrounding of physical coercion and his assumption that Big Brother's gaze would be resisted by deceit, evasion, and stealth (symbolized by Winston's secret diary), Baudrillard insisted that the masses were actually people like the Loudes, who needed no coercing, didn't resist, kept no secrets, and were in fact quite willing to be surveilled round-the-clock and have their private lives made transparent to the voyeuristic eyes of the entire TV-watching world. To control the masses, Baudrillard argued, the State no longer needed either surveillance cameras (the Telescreen) or the spectacle (as the term was used by Guy Debord and other members of the Situationist International to designate a form of capitalist society in which material wealth has become so accumulated and concentrated that the ruling classes, in order to divert attention from the necessity of a social revolution in keeping with society's new wealth, waste some of that surplus wealth in "spectacular" ritualized public displays of participation). To Baudrillard's eyes, the masses had internalized the functions of both surveillance camera and spectacular monitor: the two merged into a single simulacrum of reality, a "hyper-reality."
Baudrillard's 1970s work reminds us of a very important insight, one that is similar to the central insight of Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism: people want to be rendered transparent ("famous"), even if they realize that it isn't in their best interests. The problem is not intellectual befuddlement or "false consciousness," but repressed desire and biologically-grounded authoritarian character-structures. But Baudrillard was wrong about surveillance cameras and ritualized spectacle, both of which have remained necessary as forms of State control of society. Indeed, these two tools of power have become ever-more relied upon since the 1970s. As Orwell understood, these two tools are closely related, a fact which in part accounts for their effectiveness. Surveillance cameras or the Telescreen (enforced transparency) accompany and balance the daily "Two Minutes Hate" broadcast (the spectacle of the transparency of Emmanuel Goldtstein's guilt). If they are not properly conditioned by the spectacle, people will not accept the imposition of transparency; without the imposition of transparency, people will not derive any satisfaction from spectacle.
To briefly pursue a tangent: This does not mean that we are perfectly comfortable with the situationist concept of spectacle, despite our use of it in certain contexts. (The concept of spectacle was also elaborated by Georges Bataille and Antonin Artaud.) As the situationists defined and identified it, the spectacle is (paradoxically) a giant obscurity, an immense blind spot or opacity. Despite its literal and figurative "visibility" -- its obsessive visualization (representation) of life -- the spectacle is essentially a mechanism of distraction, deception, diversion and dissimulation: Le monde n'est qu'abusion. Debord repeatedly likens the spectacle to Freud's dream-work in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899):
So long as the realm of necessity remains a social dream, dreaming will remain a social necessity [Debord writes]. The spectacle is the bad dream of modern society in chains, expressing nothing more than its wish for sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep. [Emphasis added.]
A pretense to a type of X-ray vision rules here. To the "interpreter" (Freud or Debord), the dream (individial or social) is, despite appearances, not opaque and is not lacking clarity of expression. The dream (or spectacle) is transparently the work of the unconscious (or political economy), and the content of the dream itself, again despite appearances, is transparent (it is a wish). There is no opacity or contradiction in the spectacle being both "bad dream" and "the guardian of . . . sleep" if you believe, as Freud did, that all dreams -- even or especially bad dreams -- are in fact wish-fulfillments, and that the primary wish that they all fulfill is the simple wish (the expression of the basic biological need) to continue sleeping.
The problem here is that, while Freud's subject was actual (literal) sleep, Debord's "sleep" is metaphorical: in the spectacle, people are encouraged to act as if they are in a dream, though they are in fact wide awake, and need to be "awakened" to this fact. Thus, Debord has both inherited a problem from Freud (the one identified by Wilhelm Reich, i.e., Freud's concept of "wish-fulfillment" doesn't examine the socio-historical nature of the creation of wishes and the desire for their fulfillment), and caused one on his own (the metaphorization of sleep turns a deep psychology into a surface one that has no understanding of the biological function of dream-spectacles). Debord doesn't help us when it comes to answering this fundamental question: if the spectacle is "bad art," then why do people continue to find it biologically satisfying (and not just temporarily diverting)?
To return to our point: because of the mirror-like relationship between surveillance and spectacle, "reality-based" (transparent) television hasn't simply grown in popularity since The Loudes: it has come to dominate and re-define television. "America's Funniest Home Videos," "MTV's Real World," "The Jerry Springer Show" and others far too numerous to name depend upon, not celebrities and professional actors, but ordinary people who are happy to expose their private lives to the global video confessional, even if they know that they are being ridiculed and laughed at. Such other popular "reality-based" television shows as "RealTV," "Cops," and the myriad versions of the "Caught on Tape" theme -- the opposite of shows about real events that use re-enactments as their content, and thus retain a degree of opacity -- have also completely dispensed with celebrities and actors, and rely exclusively on footage of ordinary people that has been recorded by either other "private" citizens or police departments. A carnival of constitutional-rights violations, these shows horrify and disgust everyone except those who irrationally fancy themselves to be better, more knowledgeable or smarter people because they, unlike those idiots who have been "caught" doing stupid things and are now being publicly displayed, know that everyone is being surveilled at all moments, and that "there is no more privacy." How do they know this? Because they themselves are the surveillants of themselves!
Paradoxically, the desire to "participate" in the spectacle of "reality" -- an irrational desire born of a society that is based upon passivity, spectatorship and non-intervention -- is so strong that people are willing to destroy whatever human reality their lives had in order to become "famous." A growing number of people -- most notoriously American high school students -- commit spectacular crimes (murder/suicides) so as to appear on the news, "be famous" and thereby "participate" in the transparent reality of the spectacle -- when, tragically, it is in fact as impossible to "participate" in transparent reality as it is to breathe in a vacuum.
You will readily understand why people will go to any lengths to get in the film to cover themselves with any old film scrap . . junky . . narcotics agent . . thief . . informer . . anything to avoid the hopeless dead-end horror of being just who and where you all are: dying animals on a doomed planet. -- William S. Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded, 1962.
Ironically, this rush to make oneself famous at any cost takes place within the same spectacular culture in which a great many celebrities are fighting to re-gain the personal privacy they gave away when they themselves became famous! The celebrities have realized something that the celebrity-wannabes are not psychologically prepared to understand: when you play a role on television or in the movies, that role -- that character's structure -- will be transparent (will have no psychological depth, will have a two-dimensional "clarity" and will be motivated by obsessions so narrow as to be completely unbelievable). This is especially true when it comes to "bad guys," the mentally ill, "perverts" and criminals of all kinds. On such very popular "reality-based" fictions as "LA Law," "Hill Street Blues," "Law & Order," and "NYPD Blue" -- note that few such fictions deviate from the theme of crime-and-punishment -- tautology rules. Mentally ill people do unexplainable things "because they are crazy" and "perverts" do unmentionable things "because they are sick." Police officers or district attorneys are obsessed to an unhealthy degree with prosecuting sex offenders because they themselves are victims of sexual abuse and want to "heal." Precisely because of their transparency, these utter failures of logic, psychological understanding and character development are good TV.
As a result of being routinely, even systematically confused with the transparent roles that they play -- and finding that this confusion clearly reduces, distorts and even endangers their humanity -- celebrities now speak out against the very transparence (the systematic spectacularization of private life) that makes them successful as actors in the first place! The politicians, too: like the celebrities, whom they've been imitating since the early 1960s, the scandal-plagued politicians want exactly what the public doesn't want: privacy, time in the shadows of anonymity.
Quite obviously, not every ordinary person wants to be visible to the point of becoming transparent. Indeed, a great many people both cherish their own privacy and are totally uninterested in the private lives of politicians and celebrities. Unfortunately, even if there are no surveillance cameras present and even if one is neither a confessor nor an exhibitionist, it is increasingly difficult to be opaque in our society. A great many people, even those who actively try to protect their privacy, routinely have their rights to privacy and anonymity violated by any number of parties that thrive on a constant input of data, information and intelligence (police investigators, credit bureaus, market-researchers, businesses, government agencies, secret services, industrial spies, reporters, voyeurs, curiosity-seekers, stalkers etc. etc.)
The invention and proliferation of computers and computerized-networks have obviously exacerbated the problem, even brought it to the point of crisis. Every day newspapers carry accounts such as this one, which was published on 2 November 1999.
WASHINGTON (AP) The company behind wildly popular software for listening to music on computers [RealNetworks Inc. of Seattle] is apologizing to consumers amid complaints that its program secretly collected details about the listening preferences of millions of its customers [...] More than 12 million people use the software, which puts it among the world's most popular programs for listening to CDs and digital music on the Internet. A security expert, Richard M. Smith of Brookline, Mass., found that the software secretly transmitted to the company's headquarters details about which music CDs each customer listens to and how many songs he copies, along with a serial number that could be used to identify him. RealNetworks insisted it never stored the information, which would have been lucrative for marketing purposes. "We made a mistake in not being clear enough to our users about what kinds of data was being generated and transmitted," said Rob Glaser, the company's chief executive. He said officials "deeply apologize."
And so let us be as clear as we can: transparency is in fact rarely consensual, and is most often forcibly and secretly imposed. One only learns about its imposition when it is too late, and from people who add insult to serious injury (here, by claiming that they never stored the very valuable information that they risked so much to obtain). With these ideas in mind, let us now expand our discussion of the ideology of transparency to include its role in architecture, business law and world trade.
A great deal of contemporary urban architecture (the Glass Court in Columbia's Lerner Hall, for example) has become similar in appearance to the automated teller-machine facilities at banks: full of transparent surfaces, mirrored surfaces and surveillance cameras. More than simply "forms in light" (as Le Corbusier defined them), contemporary office buildings -- which are almost invariably giant squares, rectangles or triangles made of steel frames and glass walls that can easily be seen through -- are now forms of light. Here, in the spectacularization of urban architecture, the ideology of transparency attains a concrete form. The literally transparent office building -- like the "open" gridded street plan that is designed to prevent opacity in the circulation of vehicles, people and commodities -- both signifies and embodies the transparency of capitalism's designs upon and domination of the entirety of human society, all of life, the very planet itself. The absence of opacity in such streets and buildings is meant to insist that (now) nothing stands in capitalism's way. Like X-rays (or the gaze of God), capitalism knows no limits: it can penetrate anywhere and can see everything.
It is worth noting in this context that the surveilled city in We, the dystopian novel by Eugene Zamiatin upon which Orwell based 1984, is an abstract modern city made entirely of transparent glass. In 1984, by contrast, the architecture of the city hasn't been re-made to make possible and sustain the gaze of Big Brother: it has simply been allowed to age and deteriorate. Perhaps because Orwell himself knew war-time scarcity better than post-war prosperity, his novel doesn't include any hint that Big Brother might finally be successful enough to dispense with the pretense of the (phony) wars between Oceania and the two other super-powers, and use the "freed" resources to express his victory, raise the general standard of living, and "modernize" the city as a Panopticon.
In New York City (a city famous for its glittering steel-and-glass office buildings), there are buildings that -- because they are built upon a handful of massive and totally exposed pillars -- appear to be floating above the ground rather than built upon it. Quite obviously, there are rhymes here between old-style vertical monopolies and old-style vertically-oriented buildings, and between new-style horizontal monopolies and new buildings that seem to hover over the ground. The hovering buildings -- some of which are also made of steel-and-glass -- take the ideology of materialized transparency to dizzying heights: capitalism has apparently finally succeeded in separating itself from the very earth, from earth-bound human society and its mundane concerns. Capitalism has become transparently visible everywhere and yet tied to no where in particular. It's very means of support (humanity) has become transparent to the point of invisibility.
Transparency is one of the buzz-words among the international capitalist elite. In regards China, which is, to the Western mind, the most obscure, inscrutable and opaque country in the world, Daniel H. Rosen (member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Research Fellow at the Institute for International Economics, and the author of the 1999 book Behind the Open Door: Foreign Enterprises in the Chinese Marketplace), writes
Greater transparency has been a consistent goal of [on-going] bilateral and multi-lateral negotiations [on trade], and in fact much progress has been made in this regard. By keeping regulations secret, authorities [in China] could implement them as flexibly or arbitrarily as they wished. Earlier investors were willing to come to China without having full access to the [Chinese] statutes. But as the economy matured, policymakers have become more concerned with a diminishing FIE [Foreign Investment Enterprise] inclination to invest without transparency. China has had to make its rules and regulations more public as a result [...] Transparency is clearly a prerequisite for predictability and compliance. Although relationships with high-powered leaders may temporarily substitute for the predictability provided by a sound, transparent legal regime, in the long term these leaders will be gone and a new generation of regulators will take their place.
In this truly global vision, transparency is required at all levels: at the international level (that of the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank); at the national level (in this instance, China); and at the regional and local levels as well, because China, like all the other very populous countries (and China still has the biggest population by far), is actually a spectacular unification of autonomous regions, and therefore conflict-ridden. But different forms of transparency will not do: transparency means uniformity; the same transparency must exist at all levels for the illusion to work.
The creation of a global totalitarian regime of transparency has been a long time in the making and is far from complete. As even Daniel H. Rosen must remind his readers,
For 50 years, the international trade policy regime has been developed and refined, in order to bring freer trade and the accompanying economic benefits to nations. Its embodiment is the World Trade Organization (WTO), whose focus has been barriers to trade, such as tariffs, quotas, and arbitrary trade bans (e.g., those couched as spurious health concerns [sic]). The regime has been fairly successful at dealing with these impediments. Partly because tariffs are lower as a result of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and WTO, and partly because trade with less economically developed countries such as China has increased, attention is turning to the domestic analogue of the open international trade regime: domestic distribution rules, or competition policy. Ironically, although the belief that openness in international rules of trade produces rich rewards for everyone involved is almost universal [sic], openness in rules has barely taken hold domestically in many countries.
To complete the architecture of the regime of global transparence, greater efforts are required on two fronts: the international front (the furtherance of the profitably "egalitarian" goals of the WTO), and the national front (the bringing of transparent "openness" to the opaque and "under-developed" countries in South America, Africa and, of course, Asia). These efforts mirror each other. The international effort consists in the drafting, signing and implementation of such secret and extra-governmental treaties as the infamous Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). Under the MAI, which was withdrawn in 1998 after word about it was leaked and denounced, the protection of "free competition" among multinational corporations could entail the rendering transparent (the repeal) of such opaque "barriers to trade" as the United States Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars US corporations from committing acts in foreign lands that are crimes in the US, even if those acts aren't crimes in those lands, or, to quote Rosen, "China's foreign investment laws," which "might be said to deny national treatment to foreign investors by virtue of a two-track legal regime" (one for domestic firms and one for foreign firms).
The national effort consists in forcing "under-developed" countries to modernize their capitalist systems in conformity with the international regime, which, as Rosen makes clear, means bringing the laws of the opaque countries into conformity with those of the member states of the World Trade Organization. China is again the limit-case, because it "had no legal system and no law in a western sense as of 1977," says Kenneth Lieberthal, author of Governing China (1995) (quoted by Rosen). As recently as '77, China was
governed by decrees, by bureaucratic regulations, and by the personal orders of various officials [Lieberthal writes]; it had no code of law at all. In addition, many of the decrees, regulations, and so on were kept secret.
Prior to the "reform" efforts initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, the central regulatory powers or policies of the Chinese bureaucrats were informal, and thus "unpredictable," if they existed at all. And, if the bureaucracy in Beijing collected basic economic information about the national economy, it treated this information as private, not public, and only gave it out as a special service to domestic and foreign investors. There were no laws at all covering such basic areas of State involvement in a market economy as environmental protection, pollution, disputes, unions, labor laws, pensions, human rights, libel, bribes, kick-backs, favors, loans, competition, trusts, intellectual property rights, contracts, commercial disputes, appeals, litigation, arbitration, appeals or enforcement.
To modernize itself and thus become integrated into the global capitalist regime, post-1979 China has had to begin the process of passing and enforcing laws on all of these things. In other words, China has begun creating from scratch an entire legal culture, one that is almost entirely based upon a foreign model. Complicating the problem has been the fact that China has had comparably few people trained to be lawyers, judges, and legal scholars. In addition to new legal institutions and academies, China needs to create an entire class of professionals who specialize in business law.
As Rosen points out, "a certain lack of clarity is thus essential to maintaining the image of Communist officials as relevant and potent" during this great transition to capitalist transparency. Patience must be shown our "most favored nation," which in Rosen's words "does not have a suitable safety value to harmlessly vent the steam building up from civil dissatisfaction." Inevitably, there will be labor disputes, peasant revolts, regional uprisings and even large-scale "social disturbances." But the WTO and the various governments of the world must stand behind the Chinese bureaucracy centered in Beijing, even if the Communists must kill some of their own people, because only a centralized authority can bring about the creation of a country-wide transparent legal culture.
Because the Chinese bureaucracy owned so many key businesses and services prior to 1979 -- indeed, the national railway system is still controlled by the People's Liberation Army, that is, by the Chinese State -- the recently-privatized domestic Chinese firms do not, as one says in transnational capital-talk, "understand either the psychology or the imperatives of modern multinational firms." Unlike the horizontally-organized firms of the global regime, Chinese firms are "still" vertically-oriented and hierarchical. When it comes to such basic corporate elements as by-laws, legal profile, ownership structure, partnerships, obligations, pensions, management structure and lines of communication, the Chinese firms are frustratingly opaque and in drastic need of being rendered transparent to the eyes of the WTO. These firms do not reward and encourage profit-mindedness, individual merit, productivity, the work ethic, quality and other basic capitalist principles. On the contrary! They practice such obscure irregularities as redundant staffing, life-time employment, and housing for the workers and schooling for their children. In the eyes of the WTO, the Chinese capitalists, like the bureaucrats, must change totally their psychology and "corporate culture" to "survive" in the harsh light of the global economy. This "is a practical matter," Rosen quotes one of the people he interviewed for his book; "not an ideological one."
As a practical matter, the "re-structuring" of domestic economies such as those of South Korea, Mexico, Albania, Indonesia, India and Russia has been a violent, bloody, corrupt, disastrous and ultimately unsuccessful process. As part of their agreement to receive several billion dollars in loans from the International Monetary Fund, the governments of these countries have agreed to impose transparency in their respective economies, which means destroying indigenous cultures and ways of doing things, and replacing them with the international model. In every case, the implementation of IMF-driven domestic economic policies has required the wholesale adoption of foreign production techniques, firing "redundant" workers, increasing productivity and decreasing spending for social welfare programs, and gutting already-weak laws designed to protect labor unions and the environment. (These facts cannot be disputed. Even Rosen has to admit to his readers that there is "evidence that new middle classes in Latin America and in East Asia have tended not to build democracy or rule of law." On the contrary, "they often support authoritarian rulers who keep labor docile and emphasize stability that makes possible further economic growth.")
What Rosen doesn't mention is the strength, commitment and creativity of the resistance to the imposition of "re-structuring" measures in countries all over the world. Of all the groups that have been formed in the last few years to fight against the global regime of totalitarian transparence, it is the Zapatista Army of National Liberation to whom we must pay attention here, for the Zapatistas were remarkably clear when they rose up on 1 January 1994 that they were fighting both local oppression in Chiapas and the global oppression embodied by the recently-signed North American Free Trade Agreement (a WTO special). Significantly, Reg Whitaker uses the Zapatistas and the activists who obtained, publicized and organized others to protest against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment -- both of whom used the internet to "get their message of resistance out" -- to bolster his case that the "new information technologies" are not Orwellian and that they in fact accommodate "democratic" usage. But the significance of the Zapatistas doesn't lie in their visibility on the radar screens of people like Reg Whitaker. Quite the contrary! The significance of the Zapatistas lies in their masked faces, their personal anonymity, their use of dramatic and symbolic techniques in military maneouvres and battles, and their poetry and allegories -- that is to say, in their revolutionary opacity.
In the three years since the group's founding, the Surveillance Camera Players have become more and more transparent: the group's plays have become less obscure in their references and sources (indeed, a recent SCP work entitled You Are Being Watched For Your Own Safety, is neither an adaptation nor a parody of television, literature or anything else, but an original work in which all of the references are to reality); there is less emphasis on scenes, characters, costumes and choreography, and more on the content of the hand-written boards that are held up to the cameras; and the group spends more time explaining and clarifying what it does than actually doing it. All of this has been intentional and derives from the longstanding desire of the group's core members to make both the form and content of its performances as easy to understand as possible. The strategy has worked well: a story on the SCP is an easy thing for a reporter to describe to his or her editor, and an easy thing to write. As a result, a great many more people have read or heard about the SCP than have actually seen the group perform. The performances, small as they may have been, have had effects far beyond their means and original impact -- facts that seem to bode well for the group's future efforts.
Despite the group's trip to Peekskill on 23 October 1999, the SCP remain an isolated group. No groups have sprung up and adopted either the SCP's name or tactics. The only group that is doing something vaguely similar to the SCP -- and have made contact -- are the people surrounding Steve Mann, the Toronto professor who staged a "National Accountability Day" on 24 December 1998. For Mann and his students, the people who use video surveillance technology should be held "accountable" (in the legal sense) for their actions. To make their point, on 24 Dec 98 these activists used their own surveillance cameras to "shoot back" at the surveillants in Toronto and elsewhere, and then uploaded their pictures to an internet site. They intend to do the same thing this year, and the SCP, excited by making contact with another group, had originally expressed interest in collaborating on the project.
Given our conclusions about "reciprocal transparence," which is precisely what Mann and his students practice, we must cancel any involvement with "International Accountability Day" we were going to have or might have had. Whether it is practiced by capitalist hucksters such as David Brin or by "liberal" academics such as Steve Mann, "reciprocal transparence" is a fatal strategy, one akin to arming everyone in the name of fighting against trigger-happy cops. The form and content of the SCP's plays can become as transparent as they want or need to be, but the group should never use cameras to inflict reciprocal transparence on any surveillant. We don't want to make a career out of performing in front of surveillance cameras! We want to ban them, not have them used as reversable tools in a never-ending struggle for "accountability." If there is anything healthily opaque about the SCP, it may very well be our insistence that the new form of theatre we have invented is nothing more to us than a transitional form, a vechicle, a passageway to a new form of society in which we are "accountable," not for our use of surveillance cameras, but for our ability to do without them.
Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players
By e-mail NYSCP
By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998