Wednesday, 26 June 2013

If you read this, you'll be on a list.

Afternoon, readers.

I'm afraid that despite the momentous events of the week, I'm slightly devoid of pungent opinions. Too much going on at work. Mostly boring to the outside world, and some very sad, such as my friend's stroke. No news on that front today. Instead, I've been in meetings about pensions (generally bad news) and the regular union negotiating committee session. An interesting mixed bag as always, but in general a depressing view of how the senior management operates. However, I've now been elected to the university's Board of Governors, so I'm looking forward to seeing how oversight operates from that perspective.

Most of the week's outside news doesn't surprise me in the slightest because I read the newspapers and I'm a socialist. Police spying on dead mens' families? UK security agencies hoovering up every single communication? Law-abiding campaign groups riddled with police informers to the extent that cops wrote their material, in some cases kept the organisations going, and fathered children with activists before disappearing? Cops conducting spying missions against their perceived political opponents? Awful, awful behaviour. But not in the least surprising.

Now and then British newspapers publish stories about Over There. Terrible countries – Iran, North Korea, Russia, East Germany etc. – in which governments vet educational materials, spy on their citizens, operate secret courts and possess fearsome secret police forces which serve the political establishment rather than the people.

The plain fact is that Over There is really Over Here. Our schools are being handed over to corporate interests without a murmur of complaint. The UK has secret courts, boringly disguised as Closed Material Procedures. The Education Secretary and the Prime Minister personally write the curriculum, particularly for History because those with no memories have no means of cultural resistance. Anyone with any knowledge of leftwing politics, Northern Ireland (or indeed Scottish and Welsh nationalism) is well aware that beyond helping old ladies cross the road, the police services in this country are the reactionary lackeys of the ruling classes. In previous decades, they were merely corrupt, especially the Metropolitan Police, but they became politicised by the Miners' Strike (150 arrests at Orgreave: no convictions as it turned out that the cops faked their statements), Hillsborough, by Northern Ireland and by the Thatcher Government, by the shrieking neofascism of the Sun and the Daily Mail. Any light shone on Special Branch and its sub-groups, and the Security Services, reveals bodies with absolutely no political neutrality. They aren't interested in right wing, capitalist and racist subversives: their enemies are environmentalists, anti-racists, ethnic minorities and the poor. The permanent state is authoritarian and capitalist and its foot-soldiers operate to ensure that the arms dealers, bankers and uniformed services are never scrutinised, let alone overseen by the likes of us.

All this is one of the reasons I read science fiction: so much of it extrapolates from the assumption that state and corporate forces will always do whatever's technically possible, regardless of the law. Given the means to record every tweet, email and phone call, they will. States – of any complexion – fear their citizens, and rightly so. They aren't scared of each other in any real sense, they're scared of us. Luckily for them, most of us don't care in the slightest. Politics is boring and we're busy. We accept reassurances like Hague's that only guilty people are monitored: something that's not technically possible and it assumes that the natural state in which to exist is the Panopticon: that all instincts for privacy are automatically suspect.

Thomas Jefferson said that a situation in which the people fear the government is tyranny, whereas liberty exists when the government fear the people. He's now wrong. We don't fear the government: hegemony has manufactured consent, largely by persuading people that the subversives are Them: the Muslim bomber, the environmental activist, the Edward Snowdens of this world. In the modern tyranny, we've taken the free gifts: Twitter, Gmail, The Voice, CCTV, credit cards and mobile phones, without question. In the modern tyranny, the government fears us, and it acts on those fears to the fullest extent of its capabilities. The state doesn't have specific fears (the Irish, the ALF, Islamic terrorists). It has one general fear: that there are things it doesn't know. And yet when it comes to things it should know, it fails every time. MI6 was as shocked as everyone else when the USSR collapsed. Nobody knew the banks were lying, cheating and stealing. And yet the Met knew whether or not the Lawrence's friends had ever been on demonstrations or joined political parties.

I've always assumed that any campaign group is riddled with police officers, however anodyne the cause. They aren't detecting crime or disorder: they're conducting political surveillance. There's no other earthly reason to spy on Stephen Lawrence's grieving parents other than to destroy the credibility of their criticisms of the police. Perhaps I'm overly paranoid, but it does seem like the state and corporate bodies (this week revealed to have bugged and hacked their way across the country without any legal action at all: instead, the cops covered it up). Stand up for badgers and you'll be infiltrated before you can staple a placard, but Corporate Security Providers have carte blanche to do whatever they want: and yet last time I looked, business had bankrupted the country.

I said earlier that I'm a socialist. This means that I'm saddened by this state of affairs. In a socialist society, governments are a good thing. They're set up by the people as an efficient and fair means of distributing wealth and protecting themselves. Socialists don't trust corporations to do it, and believe that collective action is better than individualism. But because governments have power, expertise and stability, they attract the wrong kind of people and develop a tendency towards omniscience and omnipotence. Smarter socialists are aware of this, and believe in distributed power: grass-roots decision-making and the like. Some tend towards municipal socialism, others towards anarchism. But I still think we need governments. I've just read Cory Doctorow's interesting novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (he's posted it for free here, though I bought the book), which posits a society that's replaced money with accrued respect, and 'ad hoc' coalitions running everything from Disney Land to transport networks. It's a lovely semi-anarchist vision, but it's based entirely on the assumption that there are unlimited resources and – for the most part – general good will: the novel cheerfully just states that energy and resources are infinite and carries on from there. Back in the real world, we need democratic governments to referee the competing demands of its citizens (or you just need to put me in charge). But this is a Utopian vision: what we actually get is governments behaving oppressively as a means of self-preservation, or because it openly declines to serve the interests of its people, preferring instead to (in the case of the UK government) serve the US and the markets.

Radio 4 is currently running a series of programmes about British Dystopian entertainments called Dangerous Visions. Seems to me we don't need to imagine them. We're in it.

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