The Counterrevolution

"I suppose you must realize by now that the U.S. is no longer a free country, that undoubtedly our conversation is being recorded. The room is wired, and my house is closely watched."

– Albert Einstein speaking to a friend in 1948 [1]

"We are facing something radical, new, and dangerous. It has been long in the making, historically. It is time to identify and expose it."

– Bernard Harcourt, The Counterrevolution

In the last 20 years, political rule in the United States has taken a decidedly authoritarian turn. This can be seen in the mass surveillance of the population, in total information awareness as a stated goal of government [2], in the militarization of police forces across the country, infiltration of American mosques and of citizen groups like Occupy Wall Street. It is also evinced by warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention of suspects without due process, watch lists and no-fly lists, secret prisons, intimidation of dissidents [3], and drone strikes against American citizens [4].

During this period, warnings about creeping authoritarianism could be found in numerous books and articles, in lawsuits filed by civil-liberties groups, and in the principled dissent of well-known and lesser-known whistleblowers [5].

One interpretation is that these actions of the government were strictly a response to September 2001 -- emergency measures that any country would take after an invasion or attack. These actions were thus exceptional and provisional, a temporary deviation in governing from the American norm of due process of law.

The political theorist Bernard Harcourt offers a different hypothesis in his book The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War against Its Own Citizens.

The authoritarian turn, Harcourt says, is not aberrant, exceptional, or temporary; rather, it represents "a new model of government inspired by the theory and practice of counterinsurgency warfare."

What is most striking is that there is not now, nor has there been in the discernible recent past, anything approximating an insurgency in the United States. Neither insurgents nor revolutionaries nor, for that matter, any organized opposition against the monopoly of power vested in the neoliberal order. No opposition, no threats, no antidotes to a hebetating inertia in the political sphere, but instead elaborate preparations made by the security state in anticipation of the least noise made by the citizenry. [6]

This new model of counterinsurgency was conceived long before the events of September 11 2001, Harcourt notes, and it has been "refined, deployed, and tested" since then. It is based on the ideas of such theorists of counterrevolution as Peter Paret, David Galula, and Roger Trinquier [7]. It was laid out in General David Petraeus' field manual of warfare. And it was explicated in a 519-page report by the RAND Corporation. [8]

Ideas about counterinsurgency are informed not by theoretical musings but by the lived experience of the French in Vietnam and Algeria, and of the British in Malaysia. The key insight of theorists like Paret is that political and military objectives can be convergent rather than divergent; that in order to defeat revolutionaries, in fact, there needs to be a sustained plan for winning the loyalty of the general population.

What Is Counterinsurgency Warfare?

It is well to quote Professor Harcourt at length here:

The central tenet of counterinsurgency theory is that populations -- originally colonial populations, but now all populations, including our own -- are made up of a small active minority of insurgents, a small group of those opposed to the insurgency, and a large passive majority that can be swayed one way or the other. The principal objective of counterinsurgency is to gain the allegiance of that passive majority. And its defining feature is that counterinsurgency is not just a military strategy, but more importantly a political technique. Warfare, it turns out, is political.

On the basis of these tenets, counterinsurgency theorists developed and refined over several decades three core strategies. First, obtain total information: every communication, all personal data, all metadata of everyone in the population must be collected and analyzed. Not just the active minority, but everyone in the population. Total information awareness is necessary to distinguish between friend and foe, and then to cull the dangerous minority from the docile majority. Second, eradicate the active minority: once the dangerous minority has been identified, it must be separated from the general population and eliminated by any means possible -- it must be isolated, contained, and ultimately eradicated. Third, gain the allegiance of the general population: everything must be done to win the hearts and minds of the passive majority. It is their allegiance and loyalty, and passivity in the end, that matter most.

Counterinsurgency warfare has become our new governing paradigm in the United States, both abroad and at home. It has come to dominate our political imagination. It drives our foreign affairs and now our domestic policy as well.

A few chapters later, he restates this three-pronged strategy of counterinsurgency in more colorful fashion:

1. Bulk-collect all intelligence about everyone in the population -- every piece of data and metadata available. Everything about everyone must be known and rendered accessible for data-mining...

2. Identify and eradicate the revolutionary minority. Total information about everyone makes it possible to discriminate between friend and foe. Once suspicion attaches, individuals must be treated severely to extract all possible information, with enhanced interrogation techniques if necessary; and if they are revealed to belong to the active minority, they must be disposed of through detention, rendition, deportation, or drone strike -- in other words, targeted assassination. Unlike conventional soldiers from the past, these insurgents are dangerous because of their ideology, not their physical presence on a battlefield. They need to be sequestered from the general population (when not outright eliminated) so as not to taint it...

3. Pacify the masses. The population must be distracted, entertained, satisfied, occupied, and most importantly, neutralized, or deradicalized if necessary, in order to ensure that the vast preponderance of ordinary individuals remain just that -- ordinary." [9]

What he is describing, essentially, is the grand ambition of a small ruling class to rid society of its most perceptive members, to mute dissent entirely, to privilege blind obedience to the state, and to pull the enterprise off without anyone really noticing. Power no longer wishes to come under the studied scrutiny of alert minds; in fact it wishes all bright lights, all moral reflection, the voice of society's better angels to be silenced forever.

This is quite a development historically, as the young nation has always somehow been able to get on with its affairs notwithstanding the incisive critiques of a small but influential class of thinkers and reformers. Granted, the U.S. has always treated its dissidents badly, ignoring and excluding them when not turning its surveillance machinery against them, as indeed it did to Albert Einstein and to numerous others [10]. But it has always allowed a fraction of them to exist and prosper, to reach whatever audience might be receptive to their ideas: Thoreau and Emerson, for example; C. Wright Mills, Lewis Mumford, Noam Chomsky, to name but a few. [11]

Here, today, the U.S. government is seeking to blot out anyone it deems subversive. "We are facing something radical, new, and dangerous," Harcourt acknowledges. "It has been long in the making, historically. It is time to identify and expose it." [12]

A Crucial Point

According to Harcourt, "our government does everything possible to legalize its counterinsurgency measures and to place them solidly within the rule of law -- through endless consultations with government lawyers, hypertechnical legal arguments, and lengthy legal memos. The idea is not to put law on hold, not even temporarily. It is not to create an exception, literally or figuratively. On the contrary, the central animating idea is to turn the counterinsurgency model into a fully legal strategy. So, the governing paradigm is not one of exceptionality, but of counterinsurgency and legality." [13]

Note that the hashing out of legalities occurs in private, behind closed doors. There is no public discussion about the transition to an authoritarian society, no mention of any of this in the commercial media. Those with the clearest insight into what is going on, other than the architects of the new governing paradigm, are the victims of it: the "dangerous minority that must be separated from the general population and eliminated by any means possible."


Anyone with an active interest in civil liberties and rights, who has spent some time studying the subject, will know that Harcourt's hypothesis rests on the sturdiest of foundations. Consider the evidence for each of the three prongs of counterinsurgency.

1) Total information awareness of the population:

We know that an "Office of Total Information Awareness" was created in 2003. [14] And we know from Edward Snowden's documents that the U.S. government has a vast architecture in place to spy on and monitor not only its citizens, but anyone in the world. [15] Snowden's documents make clear that citizens' Internet searches and telephone calls are vacuumed up into government databases every day.

In 2019 Snowden wrote, “Systems of mass surveillance strive to record all people, in all places, at all times. The question is no longer ‘Am I on the list?’ it is ‘What's my rank on the list?’” [16]

William Binney, the former technical director of the National Security Agency, is on record saying the NSA is pursuing a program of “total population control.” [17] Binney resigned from the agency in 2001 because he believed the NSA was violating the constitution on purpose. One of the programs Binney built, known as ThinThread, was used to spy on “virtually every U.S. Citizen.” [18]

In 2005 a report surfaced that the Pentagon actively spies on peaceful anti-war groups. According to an NBC analyst, “I think Americans should be concerned that the military, in fact, has reached too far.” [19]

A report from the Brennan Center for Justice notes that the FBI “has violated the rights of tens of thousands of Americans” through warrantless searches of their private communications and through abuse of the FISA Court procedures. The article notes that “the total number of U.S. person queries run by the FBI each year is well into the millions.” [20]

This mad rush to obtain as much information on the citizenry as possible has been declared unconstitutional by courts [21] and has even struck former intelligence officials as unprecedented and extreme [22].

2) Identify and eradicate the “revolutionary minority”:

For many years now, numerous U.S. citizens have complained about being the victim of an orchestrated campaign of sabotage and harassment. [23] This includes being placed under constant surveillance, experiencing defamation, being stalked in person and online, receiving death threats, and suffering property damage, theft, and other acts of intimidation.

The physician and human rights advocate Daniel Lebowitz addressed this subject in testimony to the U.S. Senate in December 2014. [24] Having spoken to hundreds of victims, Dr. Lebowitz concludes that there is an active government program like the old FBI COINTELPRO to control and neutralize “dissidents, activists, whistleblowers, agitators, and other so-called undesirables.”

An outpouring of citizen complaints led Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney to introduce a bill in 2006 to re-open investigative hearings into COINTELPRO and other activities of the intelligence agencies. [25]

Naomi Wolf discusses the targeting of “key individuals” in her book The End of America, written during the Bush administration in response to repressive political measures that she claims resembles tactics in fascist societies. [26] Wolf notes how, during the first decade of the new millennium, various American citizens -- scientists, artists, civil servants, educators, entertainers -- were pressured to toe the conservative political line, which meant the agenda of the Bush regime, or else face censure and unemployment.

The threat of job loss and permanent blacklisting is an invaluable method for keeping people in line. “If you can show citizens that they can lose their livelihood if they refuse to comply with the party line,” Wolf writes, “it doesn't take long to ‘coordinate’ an intimidated civil society.” [27]

The attempt to identify and eradicate perceived “insurgents” in society is also reflected, at least in part, in the movement to censor, ban, de-platform, and cancel groups and people on social media. Banishment can occur with no explanation, for no good reason. Dissident points of view have already been purged online. [28]

One website, PropOrNot, has been set up to discredit all ideas it happens to find offensive -- which is to say, ideas that run counter to the holy canon of established power. The website's experts are anonymous. Some time ago, PropOrNot stirred controversy by drawing up a list of alternative news sites that it claimed are pro-Russia propaganda organs. This list happened to include some of the most respected outlets in investigative journalism. [29] PropOrNot eventually retracted claims it made, but the harm had been done, and the website's dubious mission continues.

3) Pacify the masses, win their allegiance:

Harcourt believes the best pacifier of all is digital life:

The distractions are everywhere: e-mail notifications, texts, bings and pings, new snapchats and instagrams. The entertainment is everywhere as well: free Wi-Fi at Starbucks and McDonald's, and now on New York City streets, that allow us to stream music videos and watch YouTube videos. And of course, the advertising is everywhere, trying to make us consume more, buy online, subscribe, and believe. Believe not only that we need to buy the recommended book or watch the suggested Netflix, but also believe that we are secure and safe, protected by the most powerful intelligence agencies and most tenacious military force. [30]

He tells us “the domestication of counterinsurgency has coincided with the explosion of this digital world and its distractions. There is a real qualitative difference between the immediate post-9/11 period and today. One that is feeding directly into the third strategy of modern warfare.” [31] In the immediate post-9/11 period, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter hadn't yet existed, and Google had not yet existed as a publicly traded company.

Digital life has been an enormous boon to the surveillance state, not just because of its power to captivate and hypnotize the population, but because it swings the door of everyone's personal history wide open for inspection. As theorists like David Galula understood, control of the population is not possible without a thorough accounting of people's whereabouts; everyone, he thought, must be registered by the government and given an identity card.

Today, Harcourt writes, “that identity card is an IP address, a mobile phone, a digital device, facial recognition, and all our digital stamps. These new digital technologies have made everyone virtually transparent. And with our new ethos of selfies, tweets, Facebook, and Internet surfing, everyone is now exposed.” [32]

In this digital world a breezy complacency can be seen among the ranks of the privileged, who “move from their iPhones and iPads, wear Apple watches, text and snapchat one another, living comfortably in their little bubble heedless of the risks to their privacy and data.”

We need to remember that there is something for everyone on the Web. It is not merely a heap of insipid programming, endless advertisements, highlight reels and promotional content. High culture is amply represented as well: one can listen to Dvorak's New World Symphony, reread Shakespeare's sonnets, take up Latin or explore quantum mechanics. All of it is there in digestible portions.

“People spend most of their waking hours staring at screens,” notes MarketWatch. “American adults spend more than 11 hours per day watching, reading, listening to or simply interacting with media.” [33]

“Today, in the average household in North America, you will find thirteen internet-connected devices.” [34]

Is a population this captive in any position to oppose the practitioners of counterinsurgency? Does such a population even know they exist?

The Ethics of Counterinsurgency

Need it even be said that counterinsurgency warfare is antithetical to a free and open and pluralistic society? That it reveals the United States to be an experiment not in representative self-government but in covert dictatorial rule?

What rationale, other than a psychopathic disdain for the questioning of authority (or of the ways of empire) could possibly explain so brutal a master policy as this?

And the historical irony couldn't be crueler: a nation founded by a minority of revolutionaries exalting principles of freedom and tolerance and due process now being run and controlled by a minority of committed counterrevolutionaries contemptuous of democratic norms.

The best societies learn to put up with their fiercest critics. They understand that the antagonism between power and truth [35] is better respected and left alone than quashed. They know that attempts to rid society of every last trace of opposition, every voice of objection and reproof, can only ultimately lead to the most baneful consequences.

It certainly makes for a cramped, constricted, repressed, and fearful citizenry. And a much less interesting one, at least compared to societies that honor the life of the mind, encourage critical thought, and cultivate a sensibility of engagement and freedom of association.

Harcourt captures the precariousness of this historical moment quite well:

Counterinsurgency abroad and at home has been legalized and systematized. It has become our governing paradigm ‘in any situation,’ and today ‘simply expresses the basic tenet of the exercise of political power.’ It has no sunset provision. It is ruthless, game theoretic, systematic -- and legal. And with all of the possible tactics at the government's disposal -- from total surveillance to indefinite detentions and solitary confinement, to drones and robot-bombs, even to states of exception and emergency powers -- this new mode of governing has never been more dangerous.

In sum, The Counterrevolution is our new form of tyranny. [36]

Comment & Criticism

What distinguishes Harcourt’s indictment from many comparable ones is his use of the rulers’ own playbook to make his case.

One cannot amble through his narrative without being repeatedly struck by the feeling that “it all makes sense now”: the government’s mania for spying, the harassment of dissidents, the exclusion of meaningful dissent from the major organs of information and opinion, the vicious attacks against whistleblowers, and of course all the advantages that redound to the state's favor from digital and virtual life.

Rare is the mind that can discern what is opaque to most, even astute, observers. Still more prized is the mind that empties itself on behalf of the public good and in service to what is just and true. Harcourt earns plaudits on both counts. The Counterrevolution is a significant achievement, among a handful of books over the last forty years that are not only profoundly edifying but, equally important considering the historical moment, timely as well.

The only quibble here is that the narrative is resolved in the direction of sanguineness – a trait that afflicts most American writers and intellectuals, who seem incapable of arriving at the conclusion that things are at least as bad as they seem and destined to get much worse. [37] Does this trait reflect the unexamined assumption that a scholarly tone should be upbeat and that forecasts should rest on the reed of hopefulness? Is a pessimistic conclusion any less scholarly or impartial than an optimistic one?

No matter: Harcourt sees hope in resistance efforts. He lauds the Snowden disclosures as an important development in the changing of public thinking -- away from blanket credulity toward a more skeptical posture. He entertains the possibility that increased resistance will lead to better outcomes. There is, indeed, evidence that public attitudes toward government have evolved over a generation, with a majority of Americans now expressing their desire for a third political party. [38]

There has been, however, no substantive change in policy over these many years: no rolling back of the USA Patriot Act, no trimming of the surveillance-state budget (not even a public discussion about doing so), no national movement to reclaim the fourth amendment to the constitution, no demand that latter-day Church Committee hearings be convened to investigate COINTELPRO-like crimes. In short, nothing has happened to thwart or even curtail the rollout of counterinsurgency governance.

A frank acknowledgement of the bleakness of our situation is preferable to forced optimism. And if anything beyond this need be said, one might turn to an insight of Jean Baudrillard’s for guidance. This has to do with the fate of finality itself.

“Into any system at its peak, at its point of perfection," Baudrillard wrote, “[an event] reintroduces internal negativity and death. It is a form of the turning of power against itself, as if, alongside the ingredients of its power, every system secretly nourished an evil spirit that would ensure that system were overturned.”

It’s an interesting thought, that written into the DNA of hegemonic systems is a collapse feature – revealed in history but somehow conceived outside of it. A spiraling and unwinding that defies everyone's expectations in the end, not least those of pragmatists who cannot be convinced that the system is unsalvageable, who cling to hopes and solutions.


1. This incident is recounted in Fred Jerome's The Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover's Secret War Against the World's Most Famous Scientist (2002). A review of Jerome's book -- "The FBI and Albert Einstein" -- can be found on the World Socialist Web Site.

2. When it was revealed in 2003 that John Poindexter was heading up the new Office of Total Information Awareness, segments of the population expressed their vehement opposition, as Poindexter was one of the leading figures of the Iran-Contra scandal.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, total information awareness (TIA) “may be the closest thing to a true ‘Big Brother’ program that has ever been seriously contemplated in the United States. It is based on a vision of pulling together as much information as possible about as many people as possible into an ‘ultra-large-scale’ database, making that information available to government officials, and sorting through it to identify terrorists.” See the ACLU, "Q&A on the Pentagon's 'Total Information Awareness' Program"

3. Examples include the detention and harassment of filmmaker Laura Poitras at airports after she directed a film critical of the Iraq war, and the intimidation tactics leveled against Jacob Appelbaum, a technologist and journalist who openly criticized the surveillance practices of the National Security Agency. Appelbaum claimed that apartments he rented were ransacked, that he was placed under surveillance for no apparent reason, and that numerous threats against his life had been made. He eventually left the United States saying he no longer felt safe in the country.

Law-abiding citizens have complained about being victims of a latter-day COINTELPRO operation by agencies of the U.S. government. Physician and human-rights activist Daniel Lebowitz appeared before the U.S. Senate on December 9, 2014 and testified that he had spoken to "hundreds of individuals" claiming to be targeted by the government. These citizens complained about being constantly spied on, stalked, defamed in their community and on the job, and even targeted with high-tech energy weapons. Lebowitz has called for an investigation of the Pentagon and of the intelligence agencies.

4. In 2013, Anwar al-Awlaki, born and reared in the U.S., was killed by a drone strike without "ever having been charged, tried, convicted, or sentenced to death," Bernard Harcourt notes in The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War against Its Own Citizens (New York: Basic Books, 2018), p. 126. In addition to al-Awlaki, nine other American citizens were killed by U.S. drone strikes between 2001 and 2015.

5. See, for example, Naomi Wolf, The End of America; Robert Scheer, They Know Everything about You; John Whitehead, Battlefield America: The War on the American People; and any number of articles by journalist Chris Hedges during this period – e.g., “What is Happening to Assange Will Happen to the Rest of Us.”

 The ACLU's "Spy Files" report is also worth examining. In June of 2012, former president Jimmy Carter wrote an article for The New York Times lamenting the "widespread abuse of human rights" in recent years, including the loss of privacy. A year later President Carter went further, insisting that "America does not at the moment have a functioning democracy."

Among the many voices of conscience having blown the whistle on government wrongdoing are Russell Tice, William Binney, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, and Reality Winner.

Key lawsuits filed include Clapper vs. Amnesty International; Hedges et al. vs. Obama; and American Civil Liberties Union vs. National Security Agency.

6. Granted, there have been symbolic protests -- fleeting expressions of dissent -- from sundry groups over the last four years in cities such as Seattle and Portland and Washington, DC. Many would point to the raid on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 as proof of at least an inchoate insurgency. But these are only so many theatrical moments, designed to be screened online and talked about later, rather than actions forming the nucleus of sustained political struggle. There are no specific demands made of the existing power structure, no ultimatums, and surely nothing suggesting a viable alternative to the two political parties.

7. Peter Paret, French Revolutionary Warfare from Indochina to Algeria: The Analysis of a Political and Military Doctrine. David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. Roger Trinquier, Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency.

8. See Harcourt, The Counterrevolution, pp. 24, 28, 60.

9. Ibid., pp. 6-8, 53-55.

10. For example: Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Norman Mailer, among others.

11. It should be noted, too, that certain towering figures left the country altogether in search of more hospitable environs. George Santayana found Harvard to be stymieing and spent the second half of his life in Rome. T.S. Eliot moved to England at the beginning of the first world war and received citizenship there years later. Gore Vidal, an admirer of Santayana's, followed the philosopher's lead and took up residence in Rome during the height of his literary success.

12. Harcourt, p. 15.

13. Ibid., pp. 213-214.

14. See footnote 2.

15. See the Snowden Archive at The Intercept.

16. “Everyone Is on the List: Snowden Says No ‘Innocents’ in Mass Surveillance World,” Sept. 18, 2019.

17. The claim was made in a rather odd venue: on televangelist Pat Robertson's network: “Whistleblower: NSA Goal Is 'Total Population Control'”

18. Ibid.

19. “Is the Pentagon Spying on Americans?” NBC News, Dec. 13, 2005.

20. Elizabeth Goitein, "How the FBI Violated the Privacy Rights of Tens of Thousands of Americans."

21. For example, in United States vs. Moalin.

22. "They're collecting everything they can collect," former CIA officer Ray McGovern said in an interview. "They've been doing that without any adult supervision -- the White House, the committees in Congress who are supposed to be exercising oversight...The first time in my life, you have the executive, you have important people in the legislative branch, the heads of the intelligence committees, and you have 15 judges on the FISA Court all sort of enmeshed, all complicit, in this gross violation of the 4th Amendment."

23. An example is the story of cancer researcher Arnold Lockshin. See Silent Terror: One Family's History of Political Persecution in the United States.

24. Dr. Lebowitz's testimony was presented to the Senate for its hearing on "The State of Civil and Human Rights in the United States," December 9, 2014.

25. This was H.Res. 1026, "For the re-opening of investigative hearings into the Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) and other intelligence and law enforcement programs and agencies, and an expansion of those hearings to include renewal of previously curtailed abuses, and other activities sanctioned by the USA PATRIOT ACT.”

26. Naomi Wolf, The End of America (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007). See chapter 8.

27. Ibid., p.113.

28. An example is the World Socialist Web Site. See "Facebook purges left-wing pages and individuals."

29. Websites such as Truthdig, Counterpunch, Truthout, Naked Capitalism, and ConsortiumNews. The matter is discussed by Pam and Russ Martens in "Timberg's Tale: Washington Post Reporter Spreads Blacklist of Independent Journalist Sites."

30. Harcourt, p. 187.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid., p. 60.

33. MarketWatch report, August 4, 2018.

34. James Williams, Stand Out of Our Light (Cambridge University Press, 2018), p. 14.

35. There are thinkers like Michel Foucault who see truth as a by-product of power relations in society rather than as a transcendent object toward which human cognition inherently aims. I see power and truth as antagonistic forces attracting profoundly different types of adherents. Cf. Foucault's Discipline and Punish with Bertrand Russell's essay "A Free Man's Worship."

36. Harcourt, p. 247.

37. A notable exception is Morris Berman, author of a trilogy that explains why the American experiment has failed. He believes the citizenry’s nescience is incurable and the trajectory of the empire’s decline irreversible. See Dark Ages America; The Twilight of American Culture; and Why America Failed.

38. According to Gallup, 62% of U.S. adults say the “parties do such a poor job representing the American people that a third party is needed”: Support for Third U.S. Political Party at High Point.