How To Think About The Origins Of The American Surveillance State

slaveryMatt Stoller on understanding that the United States was birthed as a surveillance society:

American political surveillance is older than the republic itself.

Think about it this way. Slaves were controlled in a largely totalitarian society, even before the American Revolution, and this lasted until the Civil War. This society involved radical restrictions on peoples’ ability to read, travel, work for pay, trade, own property, marry, and not be physically and mentally abused. At the core of slavery was an aggressive need for control, it was the mother of all totalitarian surveillance cultures. This surveillance didn’t just involve slaves, but surveillance of those who sought to free slaves via such institutions as the Underground Railroad.

After slavery and a brief interlude of Reconstruction, sharecropping and segregation took its place, and sharecropping was enforced by a reign of terror by both legal institutions like local police and commercial monopolies of credit, railroads, and farm supplies, and extra-legal institutions like the KKK.

Finally, in the early 1900s, we get to the establishment of the FBI and the ACLU, as well as the creation of public relations, propaganda, and the entire advertising culture. This was kicked off or accelerated by mass consumption and World War I, and the development of fingerprinting and photograph techniques. The next big leap forward was the computerization of records, in the 1960s, and the reaction against the civil rights movement with COINTELPRO and so forth. But political surveillance, it’s important to remember, is part of the fabric of American culture, and always has been.

6 Comments on "How To Think About The Origins Of The American Surveillance State"

  1. 1captainhooker1 | Mar 5, 2014 at 3:03 pm |

    Funny he doesn’t even mention the Puritans whose elders and “Visible Saints” roamed the streets looking for evidence of wrongdoing. They even viewed the geographic spread of their own colony with dismay because it meant that it would be harder to keep a watchful eye on each other.

  2. BuzzCoastin | Mar 5, 2014 at 4:52 pm |

    obviously a very old problem
    hence the 4th & 5th amendment
    the telegraph created the ability to surreptitiously survail communication
    how could they resist the temptation?
    the automobile created the police state
    by necessitating so many cops to control
    monkeys driving fast moving machines
    with cargos of explosive liquids
    911 created the lockdown state

    • Simon Valentine | Mar 5, 2014 at 5:29 pm |

      boil’m in the pot, they’ll be almost as good as infinite typing monkeys
      the answers will be found by few and interpreted by more
      a research state, they said
      as they became the enigma machine’s soul trap

  3. Thurlow Weed | Mar 5, 2014 at 6:48 pm |

    Interesting essay. The author does not say that economics were at the root of slavery, he says a “need for control”, which sounds a little like a psychological diagnosis, but that wouldn’t be wrong, either.

  4. So sharecropping is surveillance? The ACLU is surveillance?

    Huh? You don’t even make sense.

    Grasping at straws. Poor article. You didn’t really make your point.

    You probably should have stuck with the topic of “people have always been assholes”. What you include would be sufficient to support that thesis, if you removed the ACLU, who fight for peoples’ rights.

    (People who don’t understand the value rights they disagree with don’t understand that the ACLU does this and often ignore all the times the ACLU helps you.)

    Basically, people who pick on the ACLU may as well be slaveholders, because it takes the same type of asshole to come to such a conclusion.

    Maybe you’re an asshole too.

  5. Tchoutoye | Mar 5, 2014 at 11:25 pm |

    Would have been more interesting if the article gave more detailed examples of how the early surveillance was implemented.

Comments are closed.