The American public has, for the past few months, been sporadically captivated by the legal battle unfolding between the FBI and Apple Incorporated. Since last summer, the government has been using the archaic All Writs Act of 1789 to pressure Apple to assist in criminal investigations by giving the FBI access to data they collect from devices they produce. Apple refused nine such requests before the highly publicized San Bernardino shooting in December gave the FBI an opportunity to repeat their demand in the exalted name of counterterrorism and national security. When Apple’s CEO Tim Cook denied the FBI access to an iPhone used by dead gunman Syed Rizwan Farook (who has been falsely linked with international terrorists by media sensationalists), the case took the national spotlight. In the battle unfolding in the public eye, the FBI has painted itself and the state as the only line of defense from terrorism, claiming that access to Apple’s data is essential in against terrorism. Apple, meanwhile, has assumed the role of guardian of individual privacy, pointing out that by giving the government a “master key” to their data they surrender the information of millions of innocent people (ignoring the fact that they sell similar information from every product to advertisers to better target specific consumers).
This week, as the world’s experts on government surveillance predicted, the legal battle proved to be a complete smokeshow. The FBI’s claim that it could only unlock the iPhone with a master key from Apple proved false, or at least premature, when the agency used a third-party software to access data from Farook’s iPhone (while the FBI maintains their claim that they were previously unaware of this software, this is, in the words of NSA fugitive Edward Snowden, “bullshit,” various outlets including the American Civil Liberties Union have published alternatives to the requested master key). Apple, so recently relishing the publicity they won as they fought to protect their customers’ data, has not objected in any way to the FBI’s move (despite the fact that the third-party program must give the government the virtually the same power as a master key). The battle between the world’s largest publically traded company and the world’s most powerful government has ended with an everybody wins scenario. Apple seemingly demonstrated to its customers that their data is safe and apparently maintained their integrity in the face of the overwhelmingly unpopular government surveillance programs. And the FBI gained access (that their competitors, the CIA and NSA, obtained years ago) to Apple’s apparently secure data.
Of course, there were losers who did not realize they were part of the fight. Consumers who want access to technology without their every action being logged in an encrypted server accessible, not only by predatory advertisers, but by the federal government, did not win. Child laborers in Asia, trapped into indentured servitude while building parts of iPhones for those consumers, did not win. Recently unemployed Americans near Apple’s headquarters, where economic inequality is reaching a new head, who need welfare funds that are being drained by Apple’s multibillion dollar tax evasion, did not win. Human beings who fear the further centralization of federal policing power in a state that is plunging faster and faster into the jaws of militants and fascists did not win. But all of these people were losing already, and they will lose again.
While the details of the Apple case are fascinating, in the end of the day they are useful for only one reason. Apple’s illusory clash with the FBI highlights an essential and fundamental misdirection of our capitalist empire: the apparent conflict between state power and corporate power. In fact, state power and corporate power are inseparable faces of authoritarianism. They are a united force designed to block democracy and maintain the economic status quo.
The myth of statism vs. corporatism is the essential foundation of American political thought in general. Americans who want to participate in mainstream politics must choose between two narratives: a powerful state will protect them from powerful corporations, or a powerful state creates a threat that can only be deterred by unbridled corporate capitalism. Those who accept some version of the former narrative call themselves Democrats, claiming the left wing, while those who accept the latter call themselves Republicans (even while the insurgency of religious fundamentalism in the GOP somewhat complicates the dichotomy). Unfortunately for Democrats and Republicans, neither of these narratives reflect the reality of the American political landscape. Both political parties are pro-state AND pro-corporate. When Republicans claim to attack state power, they are really only attacking the few relief programs for the poor that protect human rights while doing nothing to expand authoritarian power. And when Democrats claim to limit corporate power, they make up for it by facilitating the exportation of labor and production to subject states, only expanding corporations’ profitability and global power. And this duality makes sense; there is no difference between pro-corporate and pro-state in neoliberal capitalism.
This isn’t to say that specific corporations may not have conflicting interests with the state, or that specific politicians may not face corporate opposition. But American corporations rely on the global hegemony that can only be provided by a militant imperialist state. And the American state relies on propaganda and distraction that can only be provided by the omnipresence of corporate advertisers. While individuals in the corporate and political structures find themselves in competition, their general interests are indistinguishable. They both exist primarily to take resources from the working people who produce them around the world and funnel the largest possible portion to the tiny fraction of the population that forms the ruling class. Corporations create a framework for production and, by definition, a framework for taking their profits away from workers and into the hands of shareholders. This process is fundamentally destructive to the human rights of the world’s workers, not to mention fundamentally unsustainable and environmentally devastating. To prevent the inevitable revolution of millions of disenfranchised people, the ruling classes (as they had many times before) created our state as a capitalist dictatorship, hiding itself behind the illusion of democracy and the arbitrary two-party system. And now in the 21st century we can see the peak of this authoritarianism with an establishment whose absolute control rivals that of monarchs and fascists.
The American government has never been democratic. But the past few decades have seen an unprecedented consolidation of both corporate and political power. Wealth inequality has skyrocketed since Ronald Reagan launched the Neoliberal Era, approaching the crisis levels they reached in the 1920s when they required a Keynesian intervention to save the institution of capitalism itself. Since the 80s, major corporations have consolidated into sprawling, monopoly-wielding complexes, putting control of entire industries into individual capitalists’ hands. The meteoric rise of the financial and technology sectors, which are virtually immune to organized labor because they profit without production, also increased economic authoritarianism. Simultaneously, the government has militarized law enforcement, and switched its focus to the punishment of arbitrary nonviolent crimes, easily criminalizing huge portions of the population and using historically unmatched mass incarceration as a political weapon. And during the War on Terror, the state has vastly expanded its unregulated clandestine intelligence collection agency, the NSA, gaining dystopian access to private information around the world. Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Müller would be salivating over the American mechanisms built to obscure opposition and protect the oligarchy.
The plunge into authoritarianism by the corporate-state complex is not happening in a vacuum. For hundreds of years Western imperial rulers have exploited the natural and labor resources of the rest of the world and reaped the benefits. Today they are beginning to see the costs. The non-renewable resources of the planet (including those that form the building blocks of the modern economy) are en route to complete depletion, in the extremely short term. Carbon pollution from outrageous consumption has already shattered any semblance of predictable weather patterns, and more alarmingly, it promises to poison the ocean life that maintains our atmospheric oxygen level. Over a billion people around the world live in absolute poverty, and though the global economy grows, inequality is growing with it. And even capital itself, much of which has been artificially generated without actual production, no longer represents actual resources and will therefore inevitably collapse. Very soon, the ancient rules that have maintained the economic status quo for hundreds of years will no longer apply. When that happens, the only way for the ruling class to maintain control of their resources will be brutal totalitarianism.
In order to effect the real politics of the United States, we must acknowledge that the actual struggle in the United States is not between “liberals” and “conservatives,” not between big government and big business, not between the two political parties that maintain a monopoly on the imagined democracy of federal government. The only struggle is that between those who believe that human beings have a natural right to live in autonomy, enjoying fair and sustainable shares of the world’s resources, without fear of violence or oppression, and those whose humanity has been so obscured by the relentless pursuit of power that they would ignore that right.