Does Google Make the State Stronger?

Night vision

When the news broke that Google and Microsoft had shared user data with the NSA, it provoked angry editorials and impassioned discussions about privacy. Just how closely technology companies collaborated with the American government remains unclear, but it raises the fascinating issue of how much the power of the state depends on coopeartion from people and organizations within society.

At a recent CHESS workshop, Cornell political scientist Sid Tarrow shared his thoughts about the often cozy relationship between government and civil society. Part of what makes the modern American state so powerful, Tarrow argues, is that it doesn’t just exercise control, it works through institutions like corporations, non-profits, and the family. This is particularly true of national security in wartime when institutions often make a significant effort to help keep the country safe.

In the case of the United States, Tarrow points out that this relationship is reinforced by the fact that there are lots of competing groups. Those groups not only struggle for influence over the state; the state itself plays companies and non-profits against each other. For Tarrow, the recent controversy over whether Apple ought to decrypt a terrorist’s iPhone is a great example of this. When it came to hacking the phone, the FBI turned to an Israeli company. And while the iPhone is a great engineering achievement on Apple’s part, much of the underlying technology relies on government-funded research. It turns out that the line between government and society is much less clear than we often think.

The fact that modern states tend to rule through institutions and not just despotically helps explain why they’re so powerful. When governments work through society, they not only give people a say in how the state is run, they also give people an interest in preserving that state.

Whether we think it’s a good thing or a bad thing, it’s clear that national security depends on much more than just the NSA and CIA and the Defense Department collecting intelligence and fighting terrorism on their own. There’s an entire network of individuals and institutions outside of government who shape the ability of the state to carry out its goals. That’s true whether we’re talking about providing health care or eliminating terorists. The big question is why the American state has been so successful at winning the support of civil society even as government surveillance and national security policy remain controversial.


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