Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Glenn Greenwald: No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden,
the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State

This is a book about Edward Snowden, who released a trove of U.S. government secrets, which showed how the United States National Security Agency is spying on essentially everyone in the world, including ordinary Americans. Our group considered this to be an extremely important book and we all rated it very highly. On a scale of 0 to 10 many of us gave it a 10, and our group average was 9.1, which is one of our highest ratings ever.

Kirby noted that some of the information disclosed in this book is quite alarming, but that other information is not too alarming, let alone surprising—such as that the NSA is spying on competitors to the U.S. during negotiations. But he really hated the massive extent of the government spying on individuals and the collapse of personal privacy. Kirby called it “a great book”.

Rosie said that the book is very well written. She commented that it is still unclear how much actual content in personal communications is monitored by the NSA (versus just “metadata”—who sent the message to whom, and when). She complained about the absence of an index (something which also annoys Scott).

Kevin stated that this is an important book which he recommends to everybody. It didn’t ring as many alarm bells with him because he already suspected that the government is spying on everyone—so it was not too surprising. Kevin thought that Greenwald came across at times like a “crybaby”, as when he complained “Why haven’t you published my article yet?!” But despite Kevin’s lack of surprise at the extent of the spying he still rated the book an 8.

Vicki remarked that the book started off as something of a political thriller. She said the meat of the book is in the third and fourth chapters. She remarked that she is very disappointed to see that this level of government spying on Americans has increased so much during the Obama administration.

John really enjoyed the book. He agreed with a lot of what Vicki said about it. John remarked that the Silicon Valley corporations, and the cell phone and communications companies, are all actively complicit in government spying. He considers all this spying to be massive “overreach” on the part of the government. John especially enjoyed the chapter on the psychological effects on people’s freedom from all this, something that he hadn’t really thought about before. He wonders, though, “Why did Snowden do this? Was it idealism?” John summed up: “Everybody should read this book and be aware of all this.”

Rich said that this book shows that the “two parties” (Democrats and Republicans) are really just one. “Who really is running the country?” he asks. and “How many trustworthy administrations and governments are there really?” Rich found the extent of government spying really invasive and ridiculous. He gave the book only an 8, and not a higher rating, because he already knew a lot of the material in it.

Ron agreed with everything Rich said. He added: “Maybe they don’t care about me right now, but if I ever step even just a little bit out of line it could really be bad for me!” (This illustrates the sort of psychological reactions to government spying that John found so interesting and dangerous for any real democracy.)

Scott thinks this is a tremendously important book even though it does only confirm what he already knew or expected; namely, that the NSA is determined to spy on every single communication between individuals that ever occurs in the entire world. If they are not already doing so in every case, then they are working feverishly to soon become able to do so. And this goes for content as well as metadata, no matter what they may publicly claim. Indeed, as Greenwald’s subtitle has it, America has already become a total “surveillance state”.

But the most important question is why? The answers to that are mostly not found in this book, because the author—as outraged as he is about all the spying that the U.S. government is doing—is only a liberal or social democrat. He still thinks that the U.S. can be forced by mass outrage to change its course, to embrace democracy rather than fearing and opposing it, and to become a decent world citizen rather than a vicious world tyrant. None of that is at all possible under the current world capitalist-imperialist system. There will only be ever more surveillance and ever more acting on that information by the government to suppress anyone who even thinks about opposing them. That is the first reason why they spy; so that they are in a better position to suppress.

Scott says that any exploiting ruling class, such as the “1%” in this country, is a tiny part of population, and fears the majority. To stay in power they must know what the masses are thinking, and be able to isolate and—if necessary—arrest or kill those who they deem as most dangerous to their continued class dictatorship. The notion of any real democracy scares the shit out of them, and they will never allow it while they are running society. In addition to keeping their own masses under control they are also up against the hostile ruling classes in other countries. They also need to know exactly who their enemies are there, too, and be able to deal them when “necessary”.

Scott adds that recent technological developments have made it vastly easier for tiny ruling classes to know what everyone is thinking, and to isolate and suppress those it most fears. In short, new technology supports the further development of fascism. All the talk about “spotting and apprehending terrorists” is mostly bullshit. And, anyway, those relatively few terrorists are only being generated in the first place because of the current and past crimes of the U.S. and other imperialist regimes. The real point of the surveillance state is to allow the capitalist ruling class to be in an even better position to detect and suppress all those who oppose it, even ideologically and via democratic means, and to thereby maintain their evil class in power. So says Scott.

Scott concludes that a truly great book about the surveillance state would draw these conclusions about why the ruling class finds all that surveillance essential, especially as their overall economic problems continue to worsen. But though Glenn Greenwald’s book does not begin to do that, it is still a very important book which is quite dangerous for the bourgeoisie, simply because it does such a useful job in exposing all their spying on everyone. This tends to give even non-revolutionaries the creeps, and pushes them towards a more hostile attitude toward the ruling class.

“This country gives me the creeps!” —Bertolt Brecht, writing about his native Germany in the early 1930s.

“This country gives me the creeps!” —Scott, writing about the U.S. today.

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