Nov 192015

Some days ago I read an interview in one of Austria’s few better newspapers, “Der Standard”, where Johanna Mikl-Leitner, our current Minister of the Interior, abused the victims in Paris by one more time asking for fast-tracking the new “State Security Law”. That law was proposed by her “conservative” party and it includes about everything that totalitarian fanatics could ask for.

If you don’t know, small Austria is a federal republic consisting of nine provinces, one of them is the city of Vienna. Among the absurdities of the proposed law are the usual things like increased surveillance, the right for police and secret services to hack computers, the explicit absence of any kind of supervision by a court, strict secrecy, well, you know the catalog from wherever you live.

A charming and specifically Austrian addition to the bunch of measures that didn’t help the French (who already had them all), is the introduction of nine new secret services, one for each province, intended to protect the constitution, and thereby explicitly targeting Austrian citizens (and maybe the head of the provincial governemnt of the neighboring province, if that is ruled by another party).

I posted a comment to that interview, stating that we don’t need more secret services. What we need, I said, is more democratic control of the services that we have, more transparency.

When you think of it, transparency is a form of institutionalized distrust. I think that’s well deserved for our politicians. Anyone trusting in politicians and what we are told by governments has slept under a stone since before Snowdon, since before the banking crisis was “solved”, yes, since before the second Iraq war. Thus transparency and the strictest code of behavior for public fuctionaries seems to be a promising way to get out of the mess of corruption and to restore (or for the first time establish) a policy working in the interest of the people. Don’t ask me how to get there in a system where all decisions are made by politicians, but this big little detail is not our concern today.

And then, while I was pondering the concept of transparency for the next few days, I suddenly realized that maybe there be dragons.

It might not immediately be obvious, but in our history we have two examples of policies of institutionalized distrust. The first (and I admit I don’t know much about it) is the French Revolution. The early leaders all ended under the guillotine; as we say now, “Revolutions Devour Their Own Children”.

The second example, and that’s what I currently read a lot about, is the Soviet Union.

In the communist party we had the perfect example of total distrust of anyone against anyone else. Regardless of your achievements, one wrong word could bring you under scrutinity, most of the time followed by years in the Gulag, sometimes even by an execution.

In both situations the distrust was used by a strong leader to establish an effectively autocratic system.

Yes, Napoleon left us a number of important achievements like the Code Civil, the basis of all modern civil law, and I doubt that I would want to live in a world that had not gone through the French Revolution and Napoleon’s wars for dominance in Europe, but nevertheless, he was an insane dictator, although maybe without Hitler’s primitive bestiality.

Stalin is another, more complex case, and again I don’t know enough. We’ll get to the communists and Stalin in another post.

For now it’s important to point out that transparency can and always will be used as a way to attack political opponents. If you don’t trust anyone, everything about everyone will be collected, archived, and at one point in time it will be used.

At the moment we have a political system trying to establish maximum transparency in the most asymmetrical way: all has to be in the open about us, everything has to be secret about them. That’s clearly wrong, but even if we ever manage to reestablish a balance, the fact remains that transparency is a double-edged sword. It can enable democratic control, but it can also be abused as a terrible weapon in the hands of the unscrupulous.

I have no solution to this conundrum. Do you?

  2 Responses to “3318 – There Be Dragons”

  1. The Circle is a novel by Dave Eggers, and even though it fails as a novel, it contains interesting speculation about transparency and what it would do to people, both ordinary citizens, and those at the top of the political system. It would be like putting predators and preys in a tiny container, without any possibility for hiding.

    • Interesting. Somehow the book didn’t appeal to me and in the context of my post I didn’t think about Google. But yes, when everything is transparent about everyone, some will use it and others will abuse it. Just like it worked with EMail: we all had our addresses plainly available everywhere, we loved being able to communicate asynchronously with everyone else – and then came SPAM 🙂

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