AWS, Parler, and Outsourcing Tyranny

Endings Begin with Questions

It’s been long observed that the surveillance state in the U.S. has been privatized. The government has no need to spy on its own citizens because private companies — Facebook, Google — do it for them. Of course, they maintain the charade that there’s something more than the minor barrier of the courts (which is, I suppose, something; in China, there is no barrier). If Big Tech didn’t aggregate the information of U.S. citizens, then such aggregated data wouldn’t exist given the constitutional prohibitions of government data collection. Nana’s 80th birthday, your vast gun collection, the GPS location of every person every minute of every day — if Facebook didn’t exist, the NSA would have invented it.

The question has moved beyond whether the government has outsourced extra-constitutional powers to whether the government has outsourced anti-cultural powers.

Tyranny as Mission Statement

The British labeled Ethan Allen “the king of terror” as his mob marched from Vermont up the Hudson. In his memoirs, Allen celebrated the label, confirming that he had been a terror “to arbitrary power.” For America’s founders, “arbitrary power” was the hallmark of tyranny, and they could level no greater charge against British government than arbitrary. According to their political philosophy, citizens subjected to arbitrary government were obligated to overthrow that government.

It’s vital to understand the difference between “arbitrary power” — the terror of arbitrary government — and lawless government. Arbitrary exercises of power may or may not be illegal; the government may be acting within its constitution. Arbitrary power violates not the law but the culture. For America’s New England founders, one of the formative acts of arbitrary power was Parliament’s actions against the Land Bank (details here). Parliament did not (and could not) act illegally; Parliament cannot violate the British Constitution (as there was, and still is, Parliamentary supremacy in the U.K.). Land Bank advocates never questioned whether it was within Parliament’s legal authority to crush the Land Bank; and yet, such behavior so foreign to British culture was so clearly to them an act of arbitrary terror. Their government had become culturally unpredictable, foreign, and hostile — tyrannical.

And so, when Apple, Google, and Amazon/AWS decide to execute a legal business, and the government — representing ‘the people’ — does nothing, is the government’s silence acquiescence? collusion? a conspiracy of tyranny? Is this different from the pseudo-spontaneous citizens’ groups and youth leagues that so many fascist and communist governments used (and still use) to silence opposition under cover of plausible deniability?[1]

But, of course, constitutional myopia informs us that Amazon is a private company so it can do what it (constitutionally and legally) wants to do. And yet, Woolworth can’t deny service to a black person at a lunch counter; the cake company has to bake gay cakes or else be harassed into poverty by the state; etc. etc. There are rules delineating what private companies can and can’t do, and, generally, they need to be neutral. Of course, government has one definition of neutral and culture has another definition — one could substitute ‘reasonable’ or ‘fair’ for ‘neutral’. Tyranny emerges from the gaps in the definitions of law and culture.

And yet why would a government engage in arbitrary terror? First, to accomplish what it cannot accomplish legally. The government cannot legally execute Parler, but Amazon can. Second, a state that is transforming the locus of its credibility from ‘the people’ to power establishes credibility and aggregates power through terror (as any good Leninist knows). The state must from time to time demonstrate that its power lies above law, culture, and reason. Arbitrary power is then both a symptom of and a means to absolute power.

Has the American government outsourced tyranny as it has privatized surveillance? Does tyranny slither ashore under the murk of libertarian constitutionalism? At what point is government permission of private arbitrary power a public act? a policy? a transgression of culture?

[1] The Nazi Storm Battalion, known as the Brownshirts, were affiliated with a political party, though somewhat independent of it. They were a private organization, not a government entity. Ernst Röhm, the brutal leader of the Brownshirts, was a gay Marxist. His homosexuality was as public as his objective to redistribute wealth, and he enjoyed nothing more than executing his enemies. In another life, Röhm would have been a Fortune 500 CEO.