The impending expiration of the USA Patriot Act is a matter of intense focus among civil libertarians; Rand Paul’s filibuster has been in the news, along with petition drives pressuring Congress not to vote for renewal. But it doesn’t really matter: Even if the legislation expires, the NSA will carry right on with domestic surveillance almost exactly the same as before. The executive branch claims the right to apply a “secret interpretation” of many statutes passed by Congress that permits it to violate their plain meaning based on an esoteric reading known only to itself. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court will almost certainly rubber stamp bulk data collection even without USA Patriot, based on the executive’s bare assertion that it’s “necessary” to protect the “national security.” And loopholes in earlier legislation can probably be stretched to allowed continued surveillance as well.
So long as the physical means of surveillance continue to exist at Fort Meade, the NSA and other federal spooks will spy on us just as long as they feel like it.
Anarchists frequently argue that lobbying to change the law is a waste of time and effort. As Charles Johnson has written (“Counter-economic Optimism,” Rad Geek People’s Daily, Feb. 7, 2009),
If you put all your hope for social change in legal reform … then … you will find yourself outmaneuvered at every turn by those who have the deepest pockets and the best media access and the tightest connections. There is no hope for turning this system against them; because, after all, the system was made for them and the system was made by them. Reformist political campaigns inevitably turn out to suck a lot of time and money into the politics—with just about none of the reform coming out on the other end.
But the sheer cost and effort of agitating to change the law doesn’t even take into account that what the law says is irrelevant if the executive arm of the state ignores it. We’ve seen the same thing with police forces suggesting they might just keep enforcing drug laws even in cities that decriminalize pot, and cops who continue to beat up and arrest people for recording police in the performance of their public duties — regardless of laws that say it’s perfectly legal.
For that matter, some of the most important things the state has done for decades, and continues to do, are already illegal on paper. Look at the intersection between the CIA and other American security organs, the international drug cartels, and the major global banks that launder the drug money. The sale of criminalized drugs is a primary source of money the US security apparatus needs to fund death squads and torture sites, and support coups around the world — just look at the marketing of crack cocaine on the streets of Los Angeles to fund the Contras’ terrorism against the people of Nicaragua.
The US-backed Northern Alliance was able to replace the puritanical Taliban as the government of Afghanistan because it allowed the cultivation of opium poppies — a major source of income for impoverished rural Afghans — in the territory it controlled. After the US installed the new regime, Afghanistan became the opium center of the world.
States exist to serve economic ruling classes. Trying to capture the apparatus of the capitalists’ state and reform the system is a losing game. In any case, with liberatory technologies like cheap, small-scale production machinery and networked communications, and the kind of convivial associations for mutual aid and cooperation (described by Kropotkin) which existed before the state suppressed them, we have no material need for any function the state provides. The state is only important insofar as it can stop us from building a networked, self-managed post-capitalist society amenable to human values. And that threat can be met far more effectively and cheaply by bypassing the state’s enforcement capabilities and then ignoring it, than by participating in the political process to obtain permission to build the kind of society we want.