“Social credit” surveillance is not just China’s future. It could be ours.
By Gary Scarrabelotti
The ABC’s China correspondent, Matthew Carney, recently delivered a chilling report on mass surveillance in communist China, Leave no dark corner.
Carney described Beijing’s plan to monitor all China’s citizens, to award them “social credit” according to their behaviour and to reward or punish them on the basis of their scores.
“Those … with top ‘citizen scores’ get VIP treatment at hotels and airports, cheap loans and a fast track to the best universities and jobs.
“Those at the bottom can be locked out of society and banned from travel or barred from getting credit or government jobs.”
According to an official party document, quoted by Carney, the system will
“… allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”
“Social credit” surveillance, however, is not just China’s future. It could be ours.
You and I are being watched and evaluated, here and now, by corporations of global reach such as Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Yahoo and more. They do it for commercial reasons. But that’s not all.
As Australia’s recent same-sex marriage debate illustrated, big business has its social and cultural agendas and is ready to back them with corporate muscle.
Business confidence in itself as a bearer of universal “values” – superior to the home-and-hearth instincts of “low information voters” and workers – has intensified globally since the election of Donald Trump but no more than among the leadership of America’s Silicon Valley tech giants.
It wouldn’t be a great step for these ethically engaged behemoths to enter into alliances with the leading political echelons of liberal-democratic states to implement surveillance and “social credit” systems designed to ensure that only “politically correct” citizens can “roam freely” under western skies.
An alliance, in fact, has formed already – and this at the initiative of lib-dem states preoccupied with meeting their national security and intelligence objectives.
I wrote here about how these same corporations have already become indispensable to the USA’s surveillance operations against international and domestic targets.
Countries linked to the US by the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing pact – the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – seek both to leverage off the American system and, as far as local conditions permit, to emulate it. So, a surveillance system ‘with Anglosphere characteristics’ is already in place. It only needs to be recalibrated to focus on you and me.
What, then, is driving the convergence between state national security interests and avant-garde cultural allegiances in the boardrooms?
The question prompted me to re-visit the most important book published so far this year: Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed.
Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen; Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2018; pp. 225.
This is not a read-and-forget book. It won’t let you. Close it up, put it down; this book keeps tugging at your thought-tails. The power of its argument, its far-reaching conclusions, shake the foundations of settled convictions. Deneen proceeds, however, not by bruising logic or soaring rhetoric, but by a measured, fluent, incremental exposition carried forward on a long-meditated reflection about the meaning of modernity.
Patrick Deneen is a professor of political philosophy at Notre Dame University (South Bend, Indiana). He traces the emergence of political liberalism from Niccoló Machiavelli, via Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and John Stuart Mill, to its apotheosis in the US Constitution and to the working out of its principles in American education and cultural life, in social structure and citizenship, in the economy and technology.
His core argument is this:
“Liberalism has failed – not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded. As liberalism has ‘become more fully itself’ … it has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims yet realisations of [its] ideology … launched to foster greater equity, defend a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity and … expand liberty, in practice [liberalism] generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation and undermines freedom.”
Will over virtue
In short, liberalism is a revolutionary political philosophy that ends, faithful to its own logic, in oppression. It happens because liberalism rejects the classical concept of freedom – which calls for the exercise of “virtue” for the “common good” – in favour of a radical liberation reached by abolishing, as far as possible, all restraint upon the individual doing whatever he wills.
To privilege, however, will over virtue and the individual over the common good demands, ultimately, the creation of a Leviathan state to protect society from the unstable explosive materials upon which it has been was founded.
The book’s most powerful chapter is “The New Aristocracy.” Here Deneen argues that the founding liberal intellectuals understood clearly their intentions and the long-run implications of their philosophy – and that was to replace the aristocracy of the old regime with a new aristocracy while leaving inferior social orders in place.
In this regard, Deneen maintains, Locke was clear and Mill explicit. The objective was not to release the masses from the shackles of “custom” and oppressive “opinion”, to use Mill’s terms, but rather to untether from received wisdom and patterns of behaviour only a “small minority”: people endowed with superior powers and qualities who, on account of their “genius”, were best fitted for government, for trade and commerce, for diplomacy and war and, significantly, for conducting “experiments in living.”
So, freedom was not for the masses, but for an elite bold enough to go where no man dared before. And that, says Deneen, is where we find ourselves today: locked inside a brave new, inherently fissiparous, world created by liberal political theoreticians.
Which brings us back to the question about the convergence between the state and the boardrooms. My conclusion from reading Deneen is that the lower orders in our ‘lands of the free’ must inevitably come under surveillance lest Leviathan and its righteous ruling caste should fail of their purpose. And that is to preserve their freedom of action.
There is a great deal more that could be written about Deneen’s extraordinary book – a work that has been received with great seriousness and widespread respect in the States, a thing remarkable given the high-octane antagonism that plagues public life and has poisoned the academy.
If Deneen is right about America, then Australia has a problem. We are an outpost of cultural empire engaged, under the promptings of a similar intellectual lineage, upon the same social experiment, as that being undertaken in America and, more broadly, throughout the whole of the West. It would be astonishing if Australia could manoeuvre itself out of the fatally flowing mainstream and stand aside from the coming crisis: a war of all against all.
Despite its modest, pacific (and, for some, disappointing) conclusions about what to do, Why Liberalism Failed is so devastatingly critical of our society and its institutions that, years from now, people might well look back and say that this book was the most important since The Communist Manifesto.