Two, Three, Many Snowdens!

Rightists like David Brooks and former UN ambassador John Bolton, are, predictably, going ballistic over Edward Snowden — not only over his leaks, but over everything he represents to the society they identify with. By unilaterally deciding to leak documents, Brooks writes (“The Solitary Leaker,” NYT, June 10), Snowden has betrayed the “respect for institutions and deference to common procedures” necessary “for society to function well.” And Bolton denounces (“Bolton: NSA Leaker Bolton is Guilty of Treason (interview),” 89 WLS June 10) as “the worst form of treason” Snowden’s alleged belief that “he’s smarter and has a higher morality than the rest of us … that he can see clearer than other 299,999,999 of us, and therefore he can do what he wants.”

Brooks and Bolton may as well hold onto their pearls. It’s gonna be a long ride. It’s no accident that so many of the leakers and hackers figuring prominently in the news in recent years — like Chelsea Manning, Aaron Swartz, Jeremy Hammond and Edward Snowden — have been twenty-somethings. It’s also no accident that the American public is so polarized by age in its attitudes toward Snowden. Among older folks, those who regard Snowden as a hero are heavily outnumbered by those who consider him a traitor. But for those under 35, the proportions are reversed: 70 percent of those 18-34 believe Snowden “did a good thing.”

The reason is that the younger generation, for the most part, has grown up with a fundamentally different attitude toward institutional authority and rules than their parents — let alone their grandparents. And they’ve grown up with an extremely different attitude toward information freedom and transparency.

Although the postwar “Consensus Capitalism” compact was already starting to erode when the Boomers came of age, those Bolton’s age and older still grew up in the lingering afterglow of a culture in which it was expected that (for middle class whites, anyway) if you were loyal to the institution it would take care of you. That meant forty years’ employment by one company was the expected norm for most white and blue collar workers, and blue collar workers could expect productivity-based wage increases along with their job security. The so-called Hard Hat support for Vietnam and the security state, to whatever extent it was real, reflected this loyalty to the institutions that had “taken care of them.”

Not so for this generation. They’ve grown up in an environment in which it’s just expected that institutional employers, whether government or corporate, will do to them whatever they can get away with, then spit them out when they’re done. New graduates may spend years in unpaid internships living with their parents, then move on to a lifetime of working through temp agencies or on stringer contracts. That latter is what Snowden did. These people aren’t cynical — just realistic. The pay and benefits they get from institutions that view them as glorified toilet paper just aren’t enough to rent — let alone buy — the 1600 cubic centimeters inside their skulls. They aren’t under any illusions they’ll be taken care of. And if loyalty is the price of loyalty, they owe their employers bubkes.

The percentage of under-35s who think Snowden did a good thing is about the same percentage of young people who, despite years of “anti-songlifting” propaganda in the public schools and colleges, accept file-sharing and information freedom as a fact of life.

These are not people who believe “the rules” governing institutions are made for the benefit of “all of us,” or that information is secret for a good reason. These are people who believe those in charge will screw them over without thinking twice, and that secrecy exists mainly to hide the dirty stuff those in authority are up to.

But the entire system depends on this generation for its grunt work. The post-industrial, informational model of corporate capitalism depends heavily on what McKenzie Wark called the “Hacker Class.” Even in authoritarian institutions like the NSA, the cubicles are riddled with the kind of people who, like Snowden, would have Electronic Frontier Foundation stickers on their laptops. The Hacker Class is governed largely by its own set of mores, largely corresponding to Pekka Himmanen’s “Hacker Ethos.” They include an increased desire for autonomy, a blurring of the lines between work and play, a belief that a “good hack” is its own reward, and a strong resentment of interference by pointy-haired bosses.

So we can expect a lot more leaks on the Manning and Snowden scale in years to come, and a lot more doxings on the scale of HB Gary and Stratfor. The system is creating its own gravediggers.

Two, Three, Many Snowdens!

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory