George Packer and His Problems

George Packer’s review of Glenn Greenwald’s book on the Snowden affair is largely based around an argument taken from Max Weber.

Edward Snowden is a child of the internet and at the same time an old American type—the solitary individual whose religion is conscience, and who follows his own regardless of where it takes him. … he type goes back to the English Protestant dissenters who settled the New World in the 17th century. Its most eloquent exemplar was Henry David Thoreau … In the famous hotel-room interview in Hong Kong that revealed his identity on video, Snowden said: “If living unfreely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept—and I think many of us are, it’s the human nature—you can get up every day, you can go to work, you can collect your large pay cheque for relatively little work, against the public interest, and go to sleep at night after watching your shows.” It sounds like the quiet desperation Thoreau attributed to most of his fellow men. But if, like Snowden, you can’t rest until you’ve tested the courage of your conviction by taking radical action, then “you realise that you might be willing to accept any risk and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is.” …

Not caring about the outcome is what Max Weber, in “Politics as a Vocation,” called “the ethic of ultimate ends,” in contrast with “the ethic of responsibility.” There are many reasons to criticise this ethic and the uncompromising Thoreauvians who wear it as a badge of honour, but one has to admit that the issue of mass surveillance in America would not have come to public attention without a type like Snowden. … Snowden is a libertarian whose distrust of institutions and hostility to any intrusion on personal autonomy place him beyond the sphere in American politics where left and right are relevant categories. A temperament as much as a philosophy, libertarianism is often on the verge of rejecting politics itself, with its dissatisfying but necessary trade-offs; it tends toward absolutist positions, which grow best in the mental equivalent of a hermetic laboratory environment.

There are two problems with this analysis. The first is that it misstates the arguments of Max Weber. The second is that it grossly misrepresents the position of Edward Snowden.

First, Max Weber. Weber’s claims about the ethic of responsibility can be found in his classic essay (conveniently available online in PDF form), Politics as a Vocation. When Weber seeks to contrast the ethic of responsibility and the ethic of ultimate ends, he is not arguing against “absolutist positions.” For Weber, some kinds of absolutism are not only acceptable, but admirable. Instead, he is arguing against pacifists and others who do not want to embrace the ugly truths of politics – that politics is ultimately based on force, and that morally dubious actions can have politically beneficial outcomes. It’s worth quoting Weber’s arguments at length.

We must be clear about the fact that all ethically oriented conduct may be guided by one of two fundamentally differing and irreconcilably opposed maxims: conduct can be oriented to an ‘ethic of ultimate ends’ or to an ‘ethic of responsibility.’ This is not to say that an ethic of ultimate ends is identical with irresponsibility, or that an ethic of responsibility is identical with unprincipled opportunism. Naturally nobody says that. However, there is an abysmal contrast between conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of ultimate ends—that is, in religious terms, ‘The Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord’—and conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of responsibility, in which case one has to give an account of the foreseeable results of one’s action.

You may demonstrate to a convinced syndicalist, believing in an ethic of ultimate ends, that his action will result in increasing the opportunities of reaction, in increasing the oppression of his class, and obstructing its ascent—and you will not make the slightest impression upon him. If an action of good intent leads to bad results, then, in the actor’s eyes, not he but the world, or the stupidity of other men, or God’s will who made them thus, is responsible for the evil. However a man who believes in an ethic of responsibility takes account of precisely the average deficiencies of people; as Fichte has correctly said, he does not even have the right to presuppose their goodness and perfection. He does not feel in a position to burden others with the results of his own actions so far as he was able to foresee them; he will say: these results are ascribed to my action.

… No ethics in the world can dodge the fact that in numerous instances the attainment of ‘good’ ends is bound to the fact that one must be willing to pay the price of using morally dubious means or at least dangerous ones—and facing the possibility or even the probability of evil ramifications. From no ethics in the world can it be concluded when and to what extent the ethically good purpose ‘justifies’ the ethically dangerous means and ramifications.

Weber is arguing against a specific kind of unworldliness, which assumes that from good actions only good things come, and from evil actions only evil. His claim is that the world of politics is at best a morally ambiguous one, in which wicked means can produce good outcomes. Those who fail to recognize this should withdraw entirely (as a truly religious vocation demands) from worldly affairs. Those who recognize this and are not pure creatures of politics who shift their positions according to interest and convenience, are, for Weber, genuinely heroic individuals, who have truly embraced politics as a vocation.

So is Packer right in claiming that Snowden is irresponsible in the Weberian sense? Emphatically not. Indeed, Packer’s presentation of Snowden’s argument is actively misleading. In his review, Packer accuses Glenn Greenwald of a “pervasive absence of intellectual integrity” for claiming inter alia that Snowden had tried to protect his colleagues while failing to note a Reuters article “showing” that Snowden had borrowed logins from these colleagues. But Packer fails his own test for intellectual integrity. He presents quotes that seem to support his claims. However, not only does he fail to provide the necessary context for these statements, but he appears actively to elide bits of the quotes that undermine his thesis.

The interview with Snowden that Packer draws on is available here. And it really doesn’t say what he suggests it does. Below a more complete version of the answer provided by Snowden that Packer quotes (with some malformed HTML cruft cleaned up):

[Question] Have you given thought to what it is that the U.S. government’s response to your conduct is, in terms of what they might say about you, how they might try to depict you, what they might try to do to you?

[Snowden’s answer] Yeah, I could be, you know, rendered by the CIA. I could have people come after me or any of their third-party partners. … And that’s a fear I’ll live under for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be. You can’t come forward against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk, because they’re such powerful adversaries, that no one can meaningfully oppose them. If they want to get you, they’ll get you, in time. But, at the same time, you have to make a determination about what it is that’s important to you. And if living, living unfreely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept – and I think many of us are, it’s the human nature – you can get up every day, you can go to work, you can collect your large paycheck for relatively little work, against the public interest, and go to sleep at night after watching your shows. But, if you realise that that’s the world that you helped create, and it’s going to get worse with the next generation and the next generation, who extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression, you realise that you might be willing to accept any risk and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is so long as the public gets to make their own decisions about how that’s applied.

Two things jump out here. First – Packer’s claim that Snowden says that he doesn’t care about the outcome of his actions is a gross misrepresentation of what Snowden actually says. Snowden has been asked whether he is worried about what the US might do to him in retaliation. The “outcome” that he doesn’t care about is what happens to him personally as a result of his actions. This, very obviously, is not an abdication of Weberian responsibility. In fact, it is arguably just the opposite. Weber is quite clear that the ethic of political responsibility requires that the individual political actor subordinate his individual amour-propre in his devotion to his ultimate cause. This is what Snowden looks to me to be doing. Weber again:

it is immensely moving when a mature man—no matter whether old or young in years—is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’ That is something genuinely human and moving. And every one of us who is not spiritually dead must realize the possibility of finding himself at some time in that position. In so far as this is true, an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility are not absolute contrasts but rather supplements) which only in unison constitute a genuine man—a man who can have the ‘calling for politics.’

Second – there is a quite extraordinary elision in Packer’s quotation of Snowden. He cuts off his quote at exactly the point where Snowden undermines his [Packer’s] argument. Snowden doesn’t say that “it doesn’t matter what the outcome is.” He says “it doesn’t matter what the outcome is so long as the public gets to make their own decisions about how that’s applied.” (my italics). Those are two very different statements. The one can be represented, with a bit of creative ingenuity, as That’s-not-my-department-says-Wernher-von-Braun style abdication of moral responsiblity over what happens next. The other makes it clear that Snowden’s actions are aimed towards a specific and defensible political goal – to reveal what is going on to the American public, so that the public can decide what to do next. As Marcy Wheeler points out, Snowden is furthermore consistent over time that the US public might react differently than he would like.

“For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished,” [Snowden] said. “I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated. Because, remember, I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.” … “All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed,” he said. “That is a milestone we left a long time ago. Right now, all we are looking at are stretch goals.”

To be blunt, I find it hard to see how Packer’s truncation of this quote can be explained by anything other than the kind of lack of intellectual integrity that he accuses his opponents of. There’s lots about Snowden’s politics that Packer – or other people – might reasonably want to disagree with. But if you want to make an honest case that Snowden is a crazy-ass libertarian fanatic who profoundly distrusts all institutions, you’re not allowed to hide the bits where Snowden emphasizes that he believes in the democratic process. Yet that’s just what Packer does. Perhaps there is some defense of what Packer does here – but I’m not seeing what it might be.

Packer’s piece, and its problems, reflect a more general pathology among soi-disant national security liberals – an instinctive distaste for what they see as extremism in the pursuit of civil liberty, and an effort to find some intellectual justification for their revulsion (although in Packer’s defense, the article isn’t as inept as the appalling Sean Wilentz piece on ‘paranoid libertarianism’ that it namechecks and leans upon).

It’s also a missed opportunity. A real Weberian analysis of the politics of surveillance (rather than one which misemploys Weber’s arguments as a crutch for prejudice) could help illustrate the tragic aspects of surveillance politics. From a Weberian perspective, Snowden is very plausibly a hero, someone who has declared his “Hier stehe ich,” and is devoting himself to his cause, regardless of its consequences for him personally. So too, arguably is Greenwald. While Packer is right that he’s a brawler, so too were the German party newspaper journalists of the early twentieth century that Weber singles out for particular admiration. But it’s plausible that Snowden’s and Greenwald’s political opponents, who adhere to a very different political philosophy, and are prepared to fight on its behalf can be described as Weberian heroes too. For Weber, what is admirable about a politician is not the righteousness of the politician’s cause, but the willingness of the politician to struggle on its behalf.

Exactly what the cause, in the service of which the politician strives for power and uses power, looks like is a matter of faith. The politician may serve national, humanitarian, social, ethical, cultural, worldly, or religious ends. The politician may be sustained by a strong belief in ‘progress’—no matter in which sense—or he may coolly reject this kind of belief. He may claim to stand in the service of an ‘idea’ or, rejecting this in principle, he may want to serve external ends of everyday life. However, some kind of faith must always exist. Otherwise, it is absolutely true that the curse of the creature’s worthlessness overshadows even the externally strongest political successes.

This means that for Weber politics is fundamentally agonistic – a realm of struggle where different political actors, devoted to different and irreconcilable purposes, each do their best to prevail. In this understanding, politics is often a tragedy, where every actor behaves as he or she must, leading to an end that none of them wants. This understanding (like all understandings) is partial – but it surely highlights important aspects of the international politics of the Snowden affair. It would be in the best interests of both Snowden and the US if they could reach an implicit accord in which Snowden found refuge in a country whose interests were less inimical to the US than Russia’s. Yet the fundamental political values both of the US state and its opponents means that this is very unlikely to happen.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.