The world Americans now live in has acquired all the trappings of a police state. But unlike police states of the past, with soldiers at every street corner, the police and their policing techniques have become invisible. Invisibility is the key to their efficacy. We mustn’t see what is ensuring our security.
William M. Arkin, writing for Newsweek, describes it as a vast, secret underground force. “The force, more than ten times the size of the clandestine elements of the CIA, carries out domestic and foreign assignments, both in military uniforms and under civilian cover, in real life and online, sometimes hiding in private businesses and consultancies, some of them household name companies,” he writes.
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Here is a rare instance of the independent press living up to its mission of informing the public of what is deliberately hidden from its view. Arkin highlights its historical significance: “The unprecedented shift has placed an ever greater number of soldiers, civilians, and contractors working under false identities, partly as a natural result in the growth of secret special forces but also as an intentional response to the challenges of traveling and operating in an increasingly transparent world.” In the security state, the name of the enemy is “transparency.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
The only meaningful and useful identities in hyperreality
Arkin describes in lurid detail the “completely unregulated practice” of fabricating for deceitful purposes superficially credible false identities. The science and art he describes is called “signature reduction.” This means that the ability to identify real people executing a variety of illicit tasks becomes exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. The aim is to protect such people from being exposed, a practice that may be frowned upon in normal circumstances, but must be applauded when done in the name of national security.
The belief that national security has become the fundamental mission of nations — practically to the exclusion of all others — implies a radical change in political culture. Rather than suspecting such practices of having the power to undermine the idea of trust that any society requires to maintain its social coherence, it puts the highest value on what is both secret and unregulated, and therefore simply fake. When a culture evolves in this direction its members spontaneously stop asking questions about such things. Fakeness becomes the accepted norm. Knowing that hyperreality has been implemented to protect us from dangers we are told are lurking in the shadows, we instead feel grateful.
Those who practice this new art and science of “signature reduction” refuse to recognize even its formal designation. Doing so would amount to admitting that the Pentagon’s game is to deceive the public rather than ensure the defense of a democratic society. That would be tantamount to heresy in a democracy as well as a betrayal of the principle of hyperreality: Everything must look real but remain unreal enough to permit plausible denial.
Deep secrecy of this type has numerous advantages. By obscuring our perception of a phenomenon we know exists, the public stops believing in its existence, even after reading an exposé in Newsweek. “No one knows the program’s total size, and the explosion of signature reduction has never been examined for its impact on military policies and culture,” Arkin writes. “Congress has never held a hearing on the subject. And yet the military developing this gigantic clandestine force challenges U.S. laws, the Geneva Conventions, the code of military conduct and basic accountability.”
Signature reduction means that the risk of being caught out for violating fundamental laws and ethical codes is also reduced. The practice should draw our attention to one of the most effective strategies of the new security state. It is the trend that consists of privatizing what were formerly government functions, a key to invisibility. The signature reduction program “engages some 130 private companies to administer the new clandestine world. Dozens of little known and secret government organizations support the program, doling out classified contracts and overseeing publicly unacknowledged operations.” The military fully understands the principle. When soldiers are replaced by mercenaries, people stop noticing that a war is still going on.
For the past five years, the Democrats have successfully persuaded the respectable media that Russia’s meddling in US elections should be considered the most heinous crime of the century and the greatest threat to democracy. Newsweek’s article tells us that the massively funded “undercover force” of indeterminate size that has managed the question of reduced signature may “even engage in campaigns to influence and manipulate social media.”
Is the Pentagon imitating the Russians or were the Russians imitating the US? What propaganda outfit or commercial entity today would not seek to “engage in campaigns to influence and manipulate social media”? That happens to be the only way anyone with a modicum of ambition can hope to get ahead, either individually or collectively? The culture of hyperreality rewards deception and manipulation. It also undermines social identity.
We have entered an age in which disguise trumps — and possibly abolishes — reality. Newsweek tells us “a major task of signature reduction is keeping all of the organizations and people, even the automobiles and aircraft involved in the clandestine operations, masked.” Speaking of masks, some may begin speculating that there may be a connection between “signature reduction” and the COVID-induced campaign to persuade everyone to live in society behind a mask. In an age marked by the growing trend to define one’s image through cosmetic surgery, life itself becomes a struggle to define the mask behind which one will live and interact with others.
At the beginning of his article, William Arkin points to the phenomenon’s significance in recent history: “The largest undercover force the world has ever known is the one created by the Pentagon over the past decade.” He calls it “an unprecedented shift.” But the movement of what amounts to not just signature reduction, but signature erasure began much earlier than a decade ago.
The 20th-century consumer society produced generations of Americans who, in the first instance, sought to base their identity not on who they were, but what they could buy and display. This was the era early in the century of what economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen described as “conspicuous consumption.” As the consumer society began to create new distinctions of status, the question of every individual having the right to create a personal “signature” began to become associated less with social relations and more with the kind of job one had, which in turn was linked to what one conspicuously consumed. This spawned a culture of consumerist prosperity that encouraged the development of what the late anthropologist David Graeber called the trend toward “bullshit jobs.”
Graeber saw most of the jobs in the past half century as unjustified for any reason other than supporting the consumer society’s ideology and avoiding the “mortal danger” represented by people with too much free time to think about things and eventually act on them. Graeber defined five categories of bullshit jobs: flunkies, who serve essentially as foils to their superiors; goons, who deceive others for the sake of their employer’s immediate interests (maximum profit); duct tapers, who intervene to provide a temporary fix to problems rather than solving them; box tickers, who validate processes; and taskmasters, who manage and create a sense of usefulness for the others.
The work described as “signature reduction” in Newsweek’s article consists of manipulating information and official documents to hide the real identity of people engaged in what would normally be considered illegal and antisocial activities. Are these also bullshit jobs? This description could be justified in a literal sense. They produce something resembling social excrement. They are designed for one purpose: to make the fake look real and the real look fake. The bull in the pasture chomps on, chews and digests the fresh green grass only in the end result to excretes in an unrecognizable form. The grass’ signature has been singularly and definitely reduced.
The consumer society’s greatest achievement has been the reign of hyperreality. Hiding an invisibly growing police state is just one of its features. As a retired military officer cited in the article observed, “modern life is not as transparent as most of us think.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.