the united states of east germany


When we think about repressive states like East Germany, we often think about its explicit ideology, Marxist-Leninism. We think about the rejection of the market economy and private property. However, we often overlook its implicit theory. The theory embodied by East Germany was that socialists states are in perpetual war with its capitalist and fascist rivals. This view, that society is always at war, justified a surveillance state. The East Germans created a massive system of spying on its citizens, resulting in an infamous collection of files that recorded the lives of millions of people. All done in the name of public safety.

The East German state was rightly viewed as a massive violation of human dignity. Having one’s daily life subject to the whims of a secret police erodes our privacy. We simply don’t believe that people should be followed, recorded, or investigated unless there is at least a plausible reason to believe that someone is an immediate threat.

The recent revelations, that the NSA not only collects “metadata,” but it routinely records the phone calls of possibly up to one million people  shows that we’ve moved away from the ideal that we should be free of investigation under ordinary circumstances. It’s a clear rejection of the idea that the people shall be “secure” in their “persons, houses, papers, and effects” from unreasonable search.  The massive collection of data from private entities with whom we expect privacy, like a bank or phone company, a gross rejection of crucial legal protections. There isn’t any difference between the Federal government automatically recording all your phone calls and email and the secret police agent following you around Berlin. They both know what you’re doing.

This is all made possible by the fear of terrorism and the belief that warrantless wire tapping is the only thing that’s preventing another 9/11. This story is not much different than what the Stasi told itself as it built up its surveillance state. Let’s hope that Americans show as much spirit in the defense of their privacy as they do in the defense of their guns.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 17, 2013 at 12:13 am

Posted in ethics, fabio

15 Responses

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  1. Hear, hear.

    I fully support the impeachment and prosecution of any government official who knew of these programs and did nothing to stop it.

    Of course, this will never happen but it’s nice to dream.



    June 17, 2013 at 2:27 am

  2. Graham Peterson

    June 17, 2013 at 5:26 am

  3. I think their consistency would be more refreshing if they had been moved to do this before a Democratic president came to be the one overseeing these programs



    June 17, 2013 at 6:44 am

  4. The last line about protecting guns made me think that the NRA should mobilize its members against the NSA programs. One major point made against gun control is that a national gun registry database would allow the government to identify everyone who owns a gun. Dislike of this idea has energized quite a few gun owners to become engaged in politics. But there is no such engagement on privacy.

    If the NRA connected the dots on the gun registry and NSA program–like noting how the government could know if you had ever called a gun shop, surfed to an ammo supplier website, called a gun range, etc. and could easily identify who has guns through this method–maybe there would be some ideological consistency from the gun lobby on privacy of this kind.


    Nicholas Poggioli

    June 17, 2013 at 7:13 pm

  5. JD,

    I´m pretty fresh to conservative politics, and don´t really understand the ethos from a blood-red perspective. But you´re absolutely correct, even if the distribution of ¨getting moved to force change when the OTHER guy is violatin´ muh raaghts¨ seems pretty uniform across party lines. Xenophobia makes the world go round.


    Graham Peterson

    June 18, 2013 at 12:50 am

  6. As I am from Germany, one could make the case of “unlawful” vs. “lawful” government overseeing these programs. But I wouldn’t. Even a liberal democracy can apparently go on to violate or abuse civil rights and civil liberties,



    June 18, 2013 at 5:51 am

  7. I sometimes think sociology should have seen this coming just as economics should have seen the financial crisis coming. We have known enough enough about both the available means and the desired ends of the national security state to predict that, given enough secrecy, these sorts of programs had to be developed. Add the general background of military imperatives and corporate interests and there’s really no reason to be surprised. The revelations make for good journalism. But I think sociology should have been way out ahead of this one.



    June 18, 2013 at 7:09 pm

  8. “But I think sociology should have been way out ahead of this one.”

    What exactly are people not out in front of? Snowden has revealed strikingly little we didn’t already know from reading, for example, the March 2012 issue of Wired.

    Now, if by sociology you mean “social theory,” then yes, there is much to be done here. But otherwise, this is a story for journalists and, believe it or not, journalists are doing pretty well.



    June 19, 2013 at 12:33 am

  9. @Austen. Yes, that’s what I mean. Journalists (some of them, anyway) have been doing a pretty good job of reporting on the emerging surveillance state, just as journalists (some of them, again) actually did have their finger on some of the troubling tendencies in the financial world even before the crisis broke.

    What was lacking, in the case of the financial crisis, was a consensus among economists that current trends were unsustainable. It should have been “common knowledge” among social scientists that we were headed for disaster. But, needless to say, if that had been the case, the crisis would have been entirely averted. Bad risks would have simply been identified and avoided, bad policies would never have been implemented. (The critics among economists were in a very small minority, so the only consensus afterwards was “no one saw it coming”.)

    In a similar way, I think sociologists have been ignoring some pretty obvious signs that Western democracies are being undermined from within and are turning into what are essentially totalitarian states. As Fabio’s post shows, this is not because we lack the ability to understand. Snowden’s revelations are easily fitted into a broader comparison of the NSA with the Stasi. But that comparison was worth making in a straightforward, commonsensical way many years ago (I think it is would have been possible to make it even before 9/11, but certainly six years ago).

    A good way of thinking about this might be to consider the style in which Noam Chomsky presents his critiques of American power. He always talks as though he stating simple, obvious truths. But his views are considered “radical” (and even off-the-wall) by “mainstream” political scientists. And that, of course, is why we’re not likely to get peace in the Middle East anytime soon. Our political establishment is being educated into a different consensus, one in which the whole things is tragic, incomprehensible, a delicate balance, etc.

    And any claim to predict this sort of stuff is dismissed along with all that talk about black helicopters and comparing Obama to Hitler. No sociologist wants to be that guy, so sociology waits until it can explain it after a scandal breaks. But, like I say, it’s my view that sociology has both the empirical richness and theoretical sophistication to say, straightforwardly, that the national security state has grown totalitarian in spirit. And here, finally, it must make the important point, often forgotten, but expressed already by Tocqueville (who provides this blog’s epigraph), that no power is ever absolute. Despotism is not absolute power, but a way of administering an always relative one.



    June 19, 2013 at 6:46 am

  10. “Despotism is not absolute power, but a way of administering an always relative one.”

    Well put.


    Graham Peterson

    June 19, 2013 at 6:36 pm

  11. “Despotism is not absolute power, but a way of administering an always relative one.”

    The word ‘democracy’ could in this sentence easily replace ‘despotism,’ so I fail to see how this is “well put.” It’s actually quite shoddily put.

    As for Chomsky, his analysis is purely political. So, no, I do not think he provides a good model for sociology and sociologists. Though as an undergrad, damn I thought he was the shit.

    That said, there is little doubt that sociologists of US political structure need to play catch up on the way US democracy these days works. On that I think we agree.



    June 19, 2013 at 8:06 pm

  12. Hmm. Maybe it wasn’t clear, but the whole point of putting it that way was to say that the difference between democracy and despotism is not in the amount of power the state has but the way that power is managed. So, yes, the ability to replace “despotism” with “democracy” in this sentence, without changing its truth value, is essential to its meaning. (Whereas it would be quite shoddy if you could put, say, “quantum gravity” in there instead.)

    I think it could be easily shown that the American state has much more power at its disposal than the East German state did. And perhaps even that this power (or at least much of this power) is, for all practical purposes, more centralized than the DDR’s. This is certainly true in matters of foreign policy, but I think the case can be made that the U.S. also has better propaganda and surveillance operations.

    But this can be true without making the American gov’t “despotic”. Democracy does not depend on the absolute power of the people; it is way to administer their always relative freedom. (Or something like that.)



    June 20, 2013 at 11:26 am

  13. I just liked the phrasing because of the implicit reminder that no state power is absolute, nor the power of any monopoly generally. I like his follow up reply as well. Though I think “power” is a poorly defined concept, and is therefore difficult to measure and have a reasoned discussion about.


    Graham Peterson

    June 20, 2013 at 1:03 pm

  14. Thomas, I too liked your follow up reply, especially:

    “Democracy does not depend on the absolute power of the people.”

    This statement suggests we should temper most of the overblown response to the supposed “news” that our government (NSA) is interested in the data we citizens produce on social media.

    And I see your point better now.



    June 21, 2013 at 1:47 am

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