Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

Editorial: The powers that see

While surveillance may feel vast, looming and obscure, writes Michelle Zellers, it isn’t separate from the other battles we’re fighting

November 16, 2013
5 min read


Michelle Zellers is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. Based in Newcastle, she also works for a student union.


  share     tweet  

Zygmunt Bauman has explained ‘power’ as ‘the way to manipulate probabilities to increase the likelihood of desirable conduct’. If the ‘powers that see’ are to tweak our behaviour – charting the chances that we’ll believe a particular lie, or purchase a particular brand of corporate injustice to pour on our breakfast cereal – then surely they’ll need data. The entirety of our phone and email records is a good starting point.

From Edward Snowden’s revelations, surveillance appears to be expanding without meaningful limits. Such a pattern jives with what information activist groups have pieced together through years of research, thwarted information requests and occasional leaks from insiders. The scope of data captured from our network communications is staggering, as discussed in our surveillance focus this issue. In addition to getting swept up in the arm of ‘metadata’, UK activists may be handpicked for tracking by secret police, who’ve compiled as many as 9,000 individual profiles on campaigners, explains Kevin Blowe.

While surveillance may feel vast, looming and obscure, it isn’t separate from the other battles we’re fighting. We need to examine the myriad ways the oppressed have been watched and controlled throughout history so we can integrate the fight against surveillance into our existing struggles. Discrimination under the guise of ‘security’ has long been a concern for racial justice activists, who have observed how black and brown communities are targeted for extra monitoring and often violent treatment at the hands of police. As surveillance winds itself even more tightly around other pillars of injustice, from war to wage labour, more of us need to look the issue in the eye.

In a Q&A in this issue, peace activist Medea Benjamin discusses the use of drone technology for both surveillance and international assassinations. Ewa Jasiewicz highlights surveillance as a workers’ issue, speaking to trade unionists who were monitored and blacklisted by construction companies. Anna Minton and Jody Aked explore how a multi‑billion pound industry meets economic deprivation at sites of ‘high security’ social housing. And Elia Zureik traces surveillance through colonial history, from fingerprinting during the British occupation of India to biometrics at modern borders.

Last year, students at Newcastle University fought the planned installation of fingerprint scanners in lecture halls to monitor attendance. The motivation was keeping tabs on international students, reporting their whereabouts to the UK Border Agency. The resistance that emerged brought together students against xenophobia, students concerned with their privacy rights and students interested in defending the university as a public good. Faced with head-spinning webs of injustice like this one, too many of us to count have a vested interest in uniting against surveillance.

Coming together requires that we build trust: the radical antidote to a divisive, fear-mongering ‘security’ state. It requires that we get personal, recognising that surveillance operates not just above us but through us. Being under constant watch insults our dignity, leads us to keep our most important perceptions hidden, makes us suspicious of others, disintegrates the social fabric of which we are a part.

Are there things you wouldn’t talk about in front of your boss? We generally accept that it’s pragmatic to ‘watch what we say’ in the presence of people who have power over us – and could change our lives with a single decision. But where is the unwatched space, where people with power over our lives can’t follow? Personally, I would have to steer clear of my computer, everywhere I use my debit card, and the entire length of the streets just outside my flat, which are lined with cameras. I’m tempted to profess I have nothing to hide, but I won’t.

Instead I’ll reiterate that I don’t consent to being watched by the same powers that are hell-bent on denying me equality and destroying our planet. Indeed, none of us consent to this. It is not possible to say ‘yes’ when we’re not given the choice of ‘maybe’, ‘wait a second’, or ‘no’ – even in these countries we call democracies.

What inventive, subversive, explosive, transcendent possibilities won’t we dream about out loud, when we know our trusted listeners aren’t the only ones listening?

Following the Snowden revelations, many commentators of many different political persuasions were quick to declare the leaked information ‘unsurprising’. In these times, when patriarchy, war, racism and other forms of abuse march on – finding newer, sharper tools to replace their bayonets – it’s not the ‘surprise factor’ that matters. It’s the imagination factor that will lead us out of a world that has been divided, enclosed, padlocked and ‘secured’ so many times over. It’s the solidarity factor that helps us remember we have something in common with the people outside our walls. It’s the courage within us that fades, but crops back up: never easy to predict, let alone intercept.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Michelle Zellers is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. Based in Newcastle, she also works for a student union.


Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


6