A Time for Folly

By Tim Hardy

What better time to release a story about Britain’s latest move towards a surveillance state than April Fools’ day?

We were told yesterday – sadly it was no joke – that the threat of terrorism is to be used as an excuse to give the state the power to snoop on all our web traffic, to keep an eye on the websites we read, to note with whom we talk in email and online, to perform traffic analysis on our personal networks and, at the flick of a switch, peer inside our private communications to ensure we are being good, passive, uncritical, obedient citizens.

What the government is proposing is nothing short of the technological infrastructure necessary for dictatorship.

Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, responded to Sunday’s news with the warning:

Of course the security services should be able to get a warrant to monitor genuine suspects.

But blanket collection, without suspicion, or powers to compel companies to hand over data on the say-so of a police officer would be very wrong.

The saga of complicity between senior police officers and Murdoch’s journalists should tell us how vulnerable people’s privacy can be. The government should stand by the commitments both parties made before the election to protect our privacy.

Nobody could look at the ways in which the police routinely break the law – abusing the extraordinary powers they have been given to assault, intimidate, even murder with impunity – and think that increasing the powers of the state will not lead to further corruption.

But of course the only thing of value in our sick society is the health of the financial markets.

Terror is always used as the excuse to keep the people in line but what the weekend’s leaked proposals suggest is that the apologists for capitalism in the UK have reached the point where they will no longer seek to justify their ideology as being about freedom and are instead adopting something closer to the Chinese model.

As the cascading failure of the markets continues to gain in momentum, more and more force will be used to keep the people in line.

As we see on the streets of Athens, if people are not willing to bear the yoke of supporting their new masters, then they will be beaten and gassed until they comply.

If the smooth functioning of the markets demands a police state then that is what we will get. If spying on all communication between individuals is necessary to prevent growing discontent from becoming dissent then that is what the government will do.

As Sunny Hundal notes, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were outspoken critics of New Labour’s authoritarianism while in opposition  but now they have power, they’re planning on taking things even further.

Clegg claims to be sensitive to civil liberties and to oppose the government being able to read people’s email “at will”. He claims that the changes are:

Simply updating the rules which currently apply to mobile telephone calls to allow the police and security services to go after terrorists and serious criminals.

Nothing he has done since gaining power gives me a reason to believe a single word he says. Liberal Democrats always claim to offer principled opposition then vote with the Conservatives. Their acts make their words meaningless.

Unsurprisingly, Labour are not exactly rushing to resist these measures either.

Our political system is not fit for purpose. As Mediocre Dave commented on the failure of the campaign to save the NHS:

Part of the desire to blame ineffective campaigners rather than an uncaring government may stem from a refusal to accept powerlessness within our Parliamentary system. It’s preferable to think that we just dropped the ball this time around than that we never stand a chance of winning, perhaps. The truth is, the government doesn’t need our approval to get things done. If you don’t like the government’s NHS reforms, don’t vote for them again at the next election. That’s it; that’s your democratic power; that’s the recourse that’s open to you if you work within the system. It’s in three years time. How many staff and patients will have had their lives changed in that time?

If this farcical travesty of a legislative process can be good for anything, let it be that we can no longer have any delusions about our power within a representative democracy. Stop blaming ourselves; we never stood a chance. This was their battleground, they set the terms and they always win. If we really want to fight them, we need to think, dream and act much bigger.

The three main parties have become little more than sales representatives pitching for and protecting the interests of big business. Their promises are worthless. All they care about is their commission.

You might vote for Labour in the hope they might pull the knife out a little – then get angry if they don’t – or you could start thinking about real alternatives to the good cop, bad cop routine of British politics.

As Malcolm X said:

You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.

George Galloway’s victory – whatever the rights or wrongs of his politics – shows that people will seize any opportunity to tell three identical right-wing parties that they have had enough and that the old certainties are anything but certain.

Voting day in Bradford west

(via Election Day in Far, Far Away – or – The Ego Has Landed)

There is a vacuum in politics left by the gap between a Westminster elite and the people they are supposed to represent. This is a space within which hatred might flourish as the rise of the far right worryingly suggests. But this is also the space of possibility for the real, radical alternatives needed if our planet is to survive. This is the time to make our demands and hopes more bold, not to withdraw and claim voting doesn’t change anything or to hold our noses and vote for the candidates we are told stink the least.

It is not enough to refuse to vote and believe we are creating alternative, autonomous zones, refusing to participate in the ballot for fear of seeming to endorse the status quo. It makes no strategic sense to leave the field of battle uncontested as the most rapacious elements of humanity increasingly use the powers granted by slim electoral success to criminalize dissent, step up surveillance, militarize the police and pass regulations and laws to choke off any possibility of attempts to live outside the system.

However little power voting gives us, not voting gives us nothing.

Our dreams need to be far, far bigger than electoral success but we should not shy from it as a tactic as part of a larger strategy.

What we are doing is not working. We have lost every dispute so far with a government that has no mandate for the radical changes it is pushing through.

Galloway’s crushing victory over the main three parties shows that the impossible can happen and gives hope for the NHS doctors’ campaign to unseat senior Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs at the next election.

We are going to have to engage with a system that seems to corrupt even the purest of hearts and win power so that we can give it away. Many say that such an attempt is doomed to failure but it  is no more quixotic than to believe that if we wait long enough the people will spontaneously rise up and overthrow the government and replace it with something more benign.

If the promises of the Enlightenment are not to end in a new feudalism in which the majority are forced to spend their lives working in increasingly miserable, dangerous conditions to keep the rich in luxury, then it is time for us to stop pandering to and failing to oppose parties that favour tyranny through surveillance over freedom and believe we exist to serve them, not the other way round.

The arguments of capitalist realism are always used to dismiss those who dream of a better world. We are told we need to grow up and pick only from the narrow range of political options that the bond markets will like. We must be sensible.

With these new draconian proposals giving a hint of what the future holds if we continue down this path, now has to be the time for folly.