Communist Semantic Drivel, The Good Parts. w/ @schneierblog

My Telekommunisten colleague Baruch Gottlieb wrote an excellent, considered response to Bruce Schneier’s recent essay, “The Internet is a Surveillance State.” While Baruch shares Schneier’s concerns about the increasing prevalence of surveillance on the internet, the focus of Baruch’s response is to investigate the political and economic origin of this. Baruch explains that although Schneier is certainly right about this state of affairs, he misses the mark on the political aspects of it.

Acknowledging the essay, Schneier posts a somewhat unusual reply:

“This Communist commentary seems to be mostly semantic drivel, but parts of it are interesting. The author doesn’t seem to have a problem with State surveillance, but he thinks the incentives that cause businesses to use the same tools should be revisited. This seems just as wrong-headed as the Libertarians who have no problem with corporations using surveillance tools, but don’t want governments to use them.”

Now, if Baruch wishes to comment on this, he will, so I’m not going to engage to much with either Schneier’s essay, or Baruch’s response to it, rather I would like to comment on what is implied in Schneier’s response above.

First of all, it should be obvious that the second part of the comment, claiming that Gottlieb is somehow a champion of State surveillance, is very obviously a straw man argument, which Schneier enthusiastically tears down with an irrelevant dismissal of “Libertarians.” A red herring.

And yet, remarkably, these are not the only logical fallacies in this short paragraph, for Bruce also deploys a tidy out-of-hand dismissal, using the term “semantic drivel,” and while not explicit, even the label “Communist” appears to be imply a guilt by association. So, a straw man, a red herring, an out of hand dismissal and perhaps an ad hominem, all in just a few sentences!

I don’t want to single Schneier out here, Bruce is a brilliant and insightful commentator and analyst. Who among us has not blustered on occasion when we’ve felt indignation?

What’s interesting to me is the source of the indignation.


What is causing Schneier to act-out in this fashion? I suppose the answer lies in the fact that despite the fallacious dismissals, Schneier notes that “parts of it are interesting.” This communist semantic drivel has some good parts! Something stuck a chord.

I’ve never met Bruce, but when smart people are overcome with indignation and bluster, it’s usually because they feel threatened. They feel unsure, and this feeling makes them defensive, makes them lash out.

I don’t believe that Bruce is threatened by Baruch’s response itself.  But rather, there is something in it which challenges, his world view, and his sense of place in the world.

Baruch’s essay recalls Schneier’s closing comments, as a point of departure: “Welcome to an Internet without privacy, and we’ve ended up here with hardly a fight.”

Baruch, citing EFF, The Open Rights Group, and others, notes that we certainly have fought! You can add many others to that list, including Schneier himself. We have fought! We have fought and lost.

In order to understand the reasons we have fought and lost,  you need to address the structure of wealth and power in our capitalist society, which is what Baruch tries to do, and I wont expand on that here, it’s all there in his essay.

Schneier, perhaps, is not quite as ready to admit we’ve lost, that he himself has lost. This might explain the amnesia, refusing to remember the fight at all.

I hope his indignation is a sign his amnesia is passing, and he’ll soon be ready to confront the true cause of his disappointment with what the Internet has become. Once the initial revulsion and indignation passes, he may realize that the antagonist he is searching for is capitalism, not the laziness, stupidity or apathy of “we,” the masses, who supposedly neglected to fight, or the critical “semantics” of communists.

The problems he so expertly describes result from the profit motive itself.


  1. Carol McGuigan

    Yes, it’s disappointing when otherwise articulate people become flippantly defensive rather than responding in a more considered way. I felt that Baruch, by unpicking that lazy shorthand many of us have started using ie that the net is a surveillance ‘state’, helpfully exposed the crucial category error which is important to note. I read it as a caution to be accurate with language especially when writing or talking about something involving the control or use of something related to power structures. It seems that Bruce is applying a ‘so what?’ reaction to something pretty essential, especially when these definitions become so bandied about to become commonplace. In relation to Bruce’s view of the weakness of the *fight* against this corporate capture of our attention, information and connectedness, I can partly see his point in that the fight certainly took place in the savviest of sectors but people like me, for example, walked into the honey-trap like Hansel or Gretel, dazzled by the connectivity and cute graphics. We’re only just waking up. Having said that, I think maybe Bruce won’t admit perhaps how much of a fight was necessary and that it requires more of an ideological shift than he could countenance, hence his use of communist as slur.

  2. Cavoyo

    On the topic of “Welcome to an Internet without privacy, and we’ve ended up here with hardly a fight:” Schneier forgets the battle over SOPA and PIPA in the US. Congress was going full steam ahead, completely ignoring the EFF, the Free Software Foundation, and other similar groups protesting the bills. But when Google, Wikipedia, and a bunch of other tech companies came out against it, US politicians got weak in the knees and voted against the bills.

    This month, Congress voted on CISPA, a similar Internet surveillance bill. However this bill is focused on national security instead of IP infringement. The EFF et al. protested it again, but this time the tech companies didn’t care. And guess what? It passed. If this doesn’t show Gottleib’s point, I don’t know what does.

  3. James

    While I agree with the overall argument that the incessant surveillance is intimately tied to capitalist production, I would argue that the state, or at least the security apparatus, has an independent momentum that propels it to engage in widespread surveillance independently of the wishes of the capitalist corporations.

    The state does not reproduce itself via capitalist production, notwithstanding that is has been, since the rise of capitalism, necessary for it to align its interests with that of capital. It reproduces itself via taxation rather than through the direct extraction of surplus value. This is a pretty old model, one which long predates the capitalists’ stature as the ruling class. (I argue this at length here:

    Which is a roundabout way of saying that the state, or at least the security apparatus in the larger countries, has its own momentum towards surveillance. Whereas capitalist corporations mostly want to spy on their own *workers*, the revealing factor of the Snowden revelations was the extent of the surveillance on pretty much the entire population of the planet. And state surveillance occurs in non-capitalist states, as in the late, lamented USSR, which indicates it occurs independent of the link to capitalism.

    The dependence of the state on the entire population induces a structural dynamic of population-wide surveillance that is of a different order to your run of the mill capitalist corporation.

    I would imagine total surveillance would be an immense cost to even large corporations, one which they would prefer not to incur. Obviously, the Google/Facebook business model is structurally similar to the needs of the state but I would argue that this is a new phenomenon, although it could well be a harbinger of things to come.

    Apple’s business model, to take another behemoth, is selling hardware and isn’t really dependent on deep surveillance, the way Facebook’s or Google’s are. Presumably, as Apple integrates more and more of those cloud services the tendency to move towards surveillance will deepen, as with the location tracking in iphones and such like. But at the moment, I’d imagine their *workers* are vastly more on the receiving end of their watchful eye than their *customers*. Nor sure I’d say the same for the very sinister Google and Facebooks of the world.

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