conscience and the state, on the day of Bradley Manning’s sentencing
As briefly as possible, without flourishes:
Government functionaries, whether “liberal” or “conservative”, are used to thinking of individuals as mattering politically only in the aggregate; filtered by “representation” and top-down agenda-determination; as either obedient or criminal with respect to rules they took no meaningful part in formulating, interpreting, or executing; the whole thing sanctified by the myth of a social contract, but actually ensuring the participation of each individual mind through the exploitation of its universal and private interests – familial medical needs, personal weaknesses, and private narcissisms. For the state, currently, the individual is an object of blackmail, not a subject of conscience.
Conscience, meanwhile, is a matter of literature and/or religion – praised and ignored in individuals; sanctified in the private moral hand-wringing of presidents (ritual bookending of the actual uses of power); at its most prominent in recent memory, conscience was the metaphysical pretext for hanging the murderers on the losing side. But it has not been to this point a practical political matter, because individuals simply lacked any relevant powers to accept or refuse any of the terms of the state.
Because of technological change, this presumption of control is now – only at the edges and probably just for a moment, but still radically – falsified. The vacuity of the social contract has become fleetingly consequential. This is a primary contradiction between reality and its representation for our generation at the precise moment whether we decide whether to become just another generation, inhabiting power in its old forms and justifying socially what is done for the sake of private interest, or whether to refuse the established forms of power and reach for other potentialities.
Technological acceleration alters the function of conscience so fundamentally that it implies constitutional change – it requires new and more interesting relations to be forged among individuals and between a rethought state (and other institutions) and individuals. The state cannot avoid changing its stance of cynical paternalism. It is finally forced to decide between taking individuals as ends in themselves or else — if the rules of justification remain static across this mutation in the meaning of power, if a twentieth-century configuration of authority and legitimization is allowed to take information technology as the next and final means to its own end — classifying all people of conscience as terrorists or traitors.
So far, here in the US, that’s the way that our government is playing it – investing heavily in using the new avenues of technological freedom as the means of hitherto-unimaginable control and declaring open war on individual conscience. But there are alternatives, I think, or at least I’m calling for alternatives to be invented and used – without violence and without permission.
I think our – Millennial – generation understands this. In venting it here, I’m not under the illusion that I’m leading, or articulating anything others haven’t said already, probably, better. I’m simply participating.
Note that it is also possible to understand this moment as already passed, state control as already effectively reestablished, the opening as already closed, and our generation as already lost.