After decades of James Bond and other secret agent superheroes, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the figure of the spy was always heroic, but in fact it wasn’t so until the Cold War.
Spies were marginal figures in the history of warfare, and their activities were always considered unsavory, even when necessary. Spending one’s time sneaking around and prying into the lives of others, practicing deception and disguise, was not a noble occupation, but a contemptible one.
However, when the U.S. shifted from a republic to an empire after World War II, the image of the spy was refashioned into a guardian of freedom. The new elitists with their new religion—anti-communism—put their faith in secrecy and espionage rather than in the free and open democratic ideal they professed to protect. The holy spook was born.
It is remarkable, once you pull your head out of the fantasy realms of movies and TV, how many famous spy cases actually involved figures in the West successfully passing secrets to the Soviet Union. The notorious examples of Philby and Maclean in the U.K, and the more recent U.S. intelligence traitors Ames and Hanssen, were reputed to have tremendously damaging effects. There’s always been something of a puzzling air surrounding these cases. For someone enjoying the relative freedoms of America or England, it seems unaccountable that people would choose to spy for Russia against their own nations. The motives, of course, range from the merely pecuniary to ideological conviction. But behind the headlines lies a deeper irony.
A secretive society, a state predicated on the notion of secret information and spying as the bulwark of "national security," is far more compatible with an authoritarian political philosophy than a democratic one. It’s obvious, for instance, that a free press could only be an obstacle to the effectiveness of such a society. Any kind of oversight by elected representatives or judicial bodies would naturally make secrecy more difficult as well. The national security state, therefore, is by its very nature an undemocratic state, or at least one in which the state apparatus resists and opposes the country’s democratic institutions on a regular basis.
With all the parallels sometimes drawn between the Bush gang’s political ideology and early fascism (some of which are quite valid, in my view), the similarities to Stalinism are even greater. In Stalinist society the secret police were the primary instrument of state power. The idea of national security legitimized any and all behavior by the government, including torture, summary execution (although capital punishment was forbidden by the Soviet constitution), and of course imprisonment on political grounds, or indeed on any pretext at all, with a rigged court system providing the face of legality. A similar philosophy is evident in the practices of the Chinese government today—one-party rule, a subservient press, no free speech, torture, etc. And always secrecy. The citizen of a totalitarian state is kept in the dark concerning the true activities of his government. He or she is not trusted with such information. In fact, ordinary people are primarily viewed as potential security threats. Therefore, knowledge is restricted to the ruling few. The rest are expected to simply believe and obey.
The post-World War II anti-communists in American exploited fear for their political gain. Although the Soviet Union was a legitimate threat, the right wing mirrored the nature of Soviet thinking in its strategies. Show trials, guilt by association, blind obedience as a value, dissent as unpatriotic, and the elevation of the spy to hero status—all these developments have occurred in American society, and continue to hold sway in the right-wing world view after the fall of the Soviets. Islamic militancy has become the new devil, and even though the methods used to supposedly fight terrorism only promote it, the authoritarian world-view is self-perpetuating. It needs an enemy in order to maintain the religion of "national security," which implies an endless state of war, which in turn necessitates the suppression of democratic forms of government. The actual security threats facing the country are almost incidental to the workings of the ideological mechanism. The real enemy, the unconscious shadow haunting the machine, is peace, or rather a national vision that values peace, and therefore values a free and open society.
Early in the post-9/11 nightmare, when the Bush gang proposed a program where we would all be asked to spy on one another, there was an outcry. In America there is still a residual repugnance to spying, whereas in Stalinist Russia it was assumed to be the absolute duty of a citizen. The reason that the Soviets were better spies than we were, it seems to me, is that spying is simply more characteristic of a secretive society, a society of constant suspicion in which authority is invested in a dominant executive police power. The true ideal of Richard Cheney, the neo-cons, the radical extremists who have taken over the Republican party, and their financial sponsors, is in essence almost identical to the Soviet model.
To be fair, it should be said that this disease was shared across party lines for decades. It has been holy writ in national politics for over sixty years. Those who have challenged it are labeled as weak on defense, pinkos, terrorists, traitors, and so forth. All the Democratic presidents, from Truman to Clinton, have been votaries of the national security state. The Republicans have simply been more radical about it, and the current occupants of the executive branch have taken it to previously unimagined levels of extremism. But they have all tended to distrust the ideals of an open society and the workings of democratic institutions, favoring instead an ancient model of rule by specially educated elites. The liberal establishment thought that they could balance this model with a limited form of representative government. The right wing, on the other hand, was committed to the pure imperial idea—shut up and salute. Strangely enough, the rightists were more intellectually consistent in this regard. A national security state will always function more effectively in secrecy. The ensuing consequences—undeclared wars and subversions, corruption of the press, attacks on civil and human rights, the consolidation of power into smaller and smaller elites, the militarization of the police, and the placement of the spy agencies outside of any legal or ethical accountability—have proceeded steadily and with a kind of iron logic.
The United States will only find relief from its political woes when the people firmly reject the rule of the spooks. So-called "security" must be rejected as a national ethos, and society returned to a condition of openness and freedom from fear. We must trust the institutions of our forefathers, and condemn the un-American, undemocratic cult of secrecy that has held us so long in thrall.