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The 'shadow coup': Rereading Edward Said’s Orientalism after Capitol riots

If the US wants to overcome surveillance capitalism at home, it needs to understand the role it has had in establishing it around the world
An American flag near the West Front of the US Capitol on 9 January in Washington, DC (AFP)

Soon after Donald Trump became US president in 2016 and unleashed a frightful prospect of white supremacy fascism, Americans began reading some of the recent classics of critical thinking to help them understand their predicament better. 

"After Donald Trump was elected president," wrote Sean Illing for Vox in January 2019, "lots of people started buying books by Hannah Arendt. A month after the election, her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism was selling at 16 times its normal rate." Sean Illing then contacts and engages in a conversation with Professor Lyndsey Stonebridge, a literary scholar, about why people have turned to Arendt and particularly The Origins of Totalitarianism while trying to figure out Trump and Trumpism. 

In another earlier piece, "The Frankfurt School knew Trump was coming" for the New Yorker in December 2016, Alex Ross reminded his readers how "Adorno believed that the greatest danger to American democracy lay in the mass-culture apparatus of film, radio, and television. Indeed, in his view, this apparatus works in dictatorial fashion even when no dictatorship is in place: it enforces conformity, quiets dissent, mutes thought."

Surveillance capitalism 

I was reminded of these and similar pieces recently when I was reading a long, brilliant essay in the New York Times by Shoshana Zuboff, a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, and the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2019).  

All of these key concepts - "bypassing democratic oversight", "license to steal human experience and render it as proprietary data" - sounded awfully familiar to the ears of a postcolonial thinker

In this essay, "The coup we are not talking about",  Zuboff writes of the rise of what she calls "surveillance society" and what she has termed an "information civilization" predicated on her analysis of surveillance capitalism. 

In this information civilization, surveillance capitalists, like Google and Facebook, are those who decide who knows what from which she concludes: "The horrific depths of Donald Trump’s attempted political coup ride the wave of this shadow coup, prosecuted over the last two decades by the antisocial media we once welcomed as agents of liberation."  

This shadow coup is what Professor Zuboff calls an "epistemic coup" in which she proposes how "surveillance capitalism originates in the discovery that companies can stake a claim to people’s lives as free raw material for the extraction of behavioral data, which they then declare their private property."  

"People’s lives as free raw material". Where have we heard of that before? All the subsequent stages Professor Zuboff describes totally corresponded to a colonial condition that was not of any concern to her. But it is to me. 

Paradoxically, it was the events of 9/11 that triggered the governments to start harvesting for mass surveillance. "The revolutionary roots of surveillance capitalism," Professor Zuboff writes, "are planted in this unwritten political doctrine of surveillance exceptionalism, bypassing democratic oversight, and essentially granting the new internet companies a license to steal human experience and render it as proprietary data.”  

a Facebook employee walking past a sign displaying the "like" sign at Facebook's
A Facebook employee walking past a sign displaying the "like" sign at Facebook's corporate headquarters campus in Menlo Park, California on 18 February 2021 (AFP)

All of these key concepts - "bypassing democratic oversight", "license to steal human experience and render it as proprietary data" - sounded awfully familiar to the ears of a postcolonial thinker, though in lands far away from Professor Zuboff’s attention.    

Rereading Said's Orientalism

What Professor Zuboff has discovered and outlined both in her book and in this essay is in fact the stuff of European colonialism and American imperialism all over the world long before the advent of the internet and dawn of "surveillance capitalism" in the heart of American empire itself.  

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It has been definitive to the long and murderous history of European colonialism around the globe to use and abuse their power to gather information and organise it in a manner that best benefited their interests. It was called "Orientalism", and Edward Said was among the first to expose and discredit it.  

Surveillance capitalism began with surveillance colonialism, a fact that requires a rereading of Said’s Orientalism for the era of Trump’s attempted coup in the US. In the midst of the noisy cacophony of Democratic-Republican battlefield, essays such as this insightful piece by Professor Zuboff need to be taken back to the history of European and US imperial abuses around the globe. Americans have much to learn from that history - for they are now doing to themselves what they and their European ancestors have done to the world.

Let me cite a very specific example. Soon after a group of militant Iranian students seized the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, they spent years meticulously reassembling the intelligence reports and other operational accounts that were hurriedly shredded by the CIA officers before they were arrested. 

Within a couple of years after the Iranian Revolution, a substantial body of these documents were collected and published in a multivolume set in Tehran, to the delight of Russian and other spy agencies. Back in 1982, Scott Armstrong wrote a detailed account of these documents for Washington Post. 

Decades later, back in 2011, the BBC reported how the arduous task the Iranian students had performed manually could now easily be done by computers. In other words, between 1979 and 2011 we had a collection of US documents that Iranian students had gathered and painstakingly assembled before computer software was ready to replicate the task.

By now the very logic of surveillance capitalism was reconnecting back to its colonial roots of surveillance colonialism.  

More enduring lessons 

The roots of this intelligence gathering or surveillance colonialism are not limited to Iran and extends far wider from India to Africa to Latin America and even Europe itself. Colonialism does not just need intelligence. It manufactures what it needs and stages it as truth. 

Colonialism does not just need intelligence. It manufactures what it needs and stages it as truth

We can go back to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, when he had commissioned a group of Orientalists to accompany his army to produce the kind of knowledge he needed to conquer an Arab country. The knowledge and artefacts the French collected (stole) from Egypt and other African countries became the very foundation of French and other European museums of antiquities and university departments of archaeology and anthropology. Egyptology was a colonial discipline at its roots. 

But before long Europe itself would become the site of intelligence gathering for the CIA worried about the worldwide appeal of the cultural left. In a famous essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “The CIA reads French theory: on the intellectual labor of dismantling the cultural left” (27 February, 2017), Gabriel Rockhill has given the details of US intelligence officers trying to figure out what leading French critical thinkers like Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes were all up to! 

When the selfsame critical thinkers, especially Foucault, became instrumental in Edward Said’s subsequent exposure of Orientalism as the modus operandi of colonial knowledge and power, it was now the turn of American Zionists like Bernard Lewis and his minions to attack Edward Said and the entire field of postcolonialism he helped establish for having had its crucial role in exposing the machinations of Israel, their favourite settler colony in Palestine. 

The "Orient" of the Orientalists was the "surveillance society" long before the term was coined to understand it in the heart of capitalism in US and Europe.   

An 'epistemic coup'

In his detailed scholarship on the Israeli technologies of settler colonial surveillance, the Palestinian scholar Elia Zureik has detailed the technologies of surveillance and biopolitics in the brutal strategies of population control in occupied Palestine.

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There is a reason why Israel is a "hub for surveillance technology", and engaged in "selling its products around the world to governments that want to spy on their own citizens".  Understanding what is happening inside the US in 21st century is contingent on understanding what the US and its favourite garrison state, and long before them their European colonial forebears, have done around the globe.    

Shoshana Zuboff speaks of an "epistemic coup" that unfolds in four stages of appropriation of epistemic rights, a sharp rise in epistemic inequality, introduction of epistemic chaos, and finally in the fourth and final stage “epistemic dominance", which is driven to override democratic governance. 

The way we, postcolonials, have mapped out precisely these stages in our own worlds and arisen to oppose and end them contains a crucial lesson for Americans like Professor Zuboff deeply concerned - as she rightly is - about how to rise and oppose and end this barbaric domination. To see the roots of surveillance capitalism in surveillance colonialism the first place to start is to begin rereading Edward Said’s Orientalism through her deeply perceptive eyes. 

The most rudimentary lesson of that rereading of Said’s Orientalism in post-Trump America is that Americans cannot engage in surveillance imperialism around the globe, and be the key patron of their favourite settler colony as it engages in surveillance colonialism in Palestine, while seeking to overcome surveillance capitalism at home. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Hamid Dabashi
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York. His latest books include Reversing the Colonial Gaze: Persian Travelers Abroad (Cambridge University Press, 2020), and The Emperor is Naked: On the Inevitable Demise of the Nation-State (Zed, 2020). His forthcoming book, On Edward Said: Remembrance of Things Past, is scheduled to be released by Haymarket Books later this year.