David R. Henderson  

Charles Davis is Half Right

Desrochers on synthetic dyes... Brad DeLong poses two question...

Over at Salon, Charles Davis has an article titled "Amazon's frightening CIA partnership: Capitalism, corporations and our massive new surveillance state." In it, he quotes from, and criticizes, a post I wrote titled "The Amazon Boycott: Blaming a Victim." Davis writes:

The statement was over the top -- try as it might, not even the government has been able to point to a single life lost due to Manning's disclosures -- but, nonetheless, Amazon's capitalist apologists on the libertarian right claimed the big corporation had just been victimized by big bad government. David Henderson, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, explained that those calling for a boycott of Amazon were out of line, as the real enemy was "megalomaniacal Senator Joe Lieberman," who had earlier called on Amazon to drop WikiLeaks (and is, admittedly, a rock-solid choice for a villain).

"The simple fact is that we live in a society whose governments are so big, so powerful, so intrusive, and so arbitrary, that we have to be very careful in dealing with them," Henderson wrote. That Amazon itself cited a purported violation of its terms of service to kick WikiLeaks off its cloud was "a lie," according to Henderson, meant to further protect Amazon from state retribution. Did it make him happy? No, of course not. "But boycotting one of the government's many victims? No way."

First, I want to congratulate Davis, no irony intended, for quoting me correctly. You might be surprised at how often people try to score points by misquoting those they want to argue against.

Second, although Davis argues against my claim that Amazon itself had to worry about retribution from a powerful government, his only evidence is this:

"I consulted people I knew fairly high up in the State Department off the record, and they said that they did not have to put pressure ... on Amazon for that to happen," said Robert McChesney, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois, in an appearance on "Democracy Now!." "It was not a difficult sell."

That's not evidence enough, given, as Davis himself knows because he quoted me, that my claim was based not on pressure from the State Department but, rather on pressure from Senator Joe Lieberman. The evidence that it was pressure from Lieberman was given by Glenn Greenwald on a site that Salon writer Davis might have heard of, namely, Salon.

Third, Davis makes a good point in the rest of the piece: Amazon is in there fighting, like many corporations, for a government contract and there is some reason to worry that it will use this money to do bad things. Davis writes:

And it paid off. A little more than a year later, Amazon was awarded a generous $600 million contract from the CIA to build a cloud computing service that will reportedly "provide all 17 [U.S.] intelligence agencies unprecedented access to an untold number of computers for various on-demand computing, analytic, storage, collaboration and other services." As The Atlanticnoted, and as former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed, these same agencies collect "billions and perhaps trillions of pieces of metadata, phone and Internet records, and other various bits of information on an annual basis."

That is to say: On Amazon's servers will be information on millions of people that the intelligence community has no right to possess -- Director of National Intelligence James Clapper initially denied the intelligence community was collecting such data for a reason -- which is used to facilitate corporate espionage and drone strikes that don't just jeopardize innocent lives, but have demonstrably ended hundreds of them.

Instead of helping expose U.S. war crimes, then, Amazon's cloud service could be used to facilitate them, for which it will be paid handsomely -- which was, in all likelihood, the whole point of the company proving itself a good corporate citizen by disassociating itself from an organization that sought to expose its future clients in the intelligence community.

So was I naive--Davis doesn't use that word but clearly that's what he's charging me with--in seeing Amazon as a victim, plain and simple? Yes, I was. That, besides his quoting me correctly, is the part that I think Davis got right.

Fourth, let's consider Davis's solution. He writes:

Abolishing capitalism is indeed a utopian goal, but when corporations routinely go above and beyond their legal duties to serve the state -- granting police and intelligence agencies access to their customers' data without so much as a judge's rubberstamp on a warrant -- expecting meaningful change from a few hearings or legislative reforms will only leave the reformers disappointed to find their efforts have just led to dystopia. So long as there's money to be made serving the corporate state, that is what corporations will do; there's no need to resort to conspiracy for it's right there in their corporate [DRH note: there's a word missing--my guess is that the word is "charter"]. And that's not to be defeatist, but to suggest we ought to try a different approach: we ought to be organizing to put a stop to public-private partnerships altogether.

So what would "a stop to public-private partnerships" look like? It would look a lot like NSA. That is, the government, instead of hiring contractors, would do the work in-house. We know, from everything we know about government, that that would be less efficient. In this case, maybe that's good. But Davis should spell out his solution a little more.

Finally, although this does not address the substance of his piece, it does address his tone in talking about me. Would he be surprised that I contributed money to the defense of Bradley, aka Chelsea, Manning? It wasn't because I thought Manning was innocent. It was because his/her punishment before the court-martial was extreme. A friend who is a Marine Major told me that if he had been in charge of the Marine brig where Manning was kept, he would have felt, based on Manning's treatment, a moral obligation to resign his commission.

HT2 Chris Coyne.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
jj writes:

Yes, ending PPP would just move the same activities in-house, and make them even less transparent. However on the flip side, at least the carrot of quid-pro-quo would be lessened. And as you said, there was no evidence of a stick.

So perhaps Amazon would still be hosting wikileaks, in the end.

MikeP writes:
...when corporations routinely go above and beyond their legal duties to serve the state -- granting police and intelligence agencies access to their customers' data without so much as a judge's rubberstamp on a warrant -- expecting meaningful change from a few hearings or legislative reforms will only leave the reformers disappointed to find their efforts have just led to dystopia.

It is delusional to think this is a problem with corporations rather than a problem with the state.

I am continually shocked by people who blame AT&T, Yahoo, Amazon, etc., etc., etc., for abiding by requests for cooperation from police and intelligence agencies. They have no inherent obligation to heroically counter agents of the state working under the color of the law.

On the other hand, if we do think corporations should take stands against state agents, there are much bigger fish to fry. In particular, the biggest problem with these corporations is that they cooperate with Citizenship and Immigration Services, and thereby are complicit in the abrogation of rights of migration, residence, and labor of tens of millions of people. A little metadata collection is comical peanuts compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars in lost income and significantly degraded well being due to these much more egregious corporate actions.

Mark V Anderson writes:

I think everyone who reads this blog realizes that the Davis goal of ending capitalism actually defeats his purpose of weakening government abuse. But can it possibly be that anyone with half a brain, no matter what their ideology, wouldn't see the contradictions of his essay? After all, ending capitalism would result in economic activity being done by .... government? IS there is any other choice? How could ending capitalism do anything else but strengthen government and make ending their abuses even more problematic?

John Smith writes:

Being suspected of treason rarely entitles you to the best of treatment.

Tends to be otherwise, actually.

jj writes:

Contra MikeP, I do think that corporations have the obligation to heroically oppose the state. If not as a stated purpose in the corporate charter, then as the individual action of each person employed at the corporation. Every individual should say "whatever the state (and even my boss) might say, I will not act contrary to my higher duties as a citizen".

I believe that without "heroes", a free society is impossible. (I'm defining heroes as people who put the good of others ahead of their own, and are willing to suffer for the greater good). Good laws and processes are necessary but not sufficient.

I wonder what proportion of heroes a society needs to prosper. I'm thinking somewhere between 1% and 10%.

MikeP writes:


Such heroism might be fine for someone in HR who forges I-9's so people who don't have state permission to work in the US can do so. But it's going to be discovered eventually, and the heavy hand of government retribution will not go after the heroic HR worker, but after the company as a whole.

A pattern of a corporation allowing heroic HR people to act toward their higher duty rather than participating in state abrogation of the rights of people born elsewhere will result in incredibly heavy punishment for the corporation and its officers.

This seems to me to be a 100% recipe for failure for an established corporation. Do you know something I don't know?

jj writes:


I agree that at some threshold of not-enough-heroes, the government is able to destroy its few opponents with impunity. If Amazon stood up against the US government and everybody else in the country let them take all the heat, they would be doomed.

But if enough people are willing to stand up and fight, and "go down with the ship" if necessary, they will win over the government. Government oppression of this sort -- using the carrot and stick to get what they want -- only works because too many people just want to keep their head down, live their life, and get by. If enough people ever stand against it, it will end.

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