Apr. 25th, 2006

chickenfeet: (ilp)
Charles Clarke's contribution to today's Guardian is very interesting. On the one hand it's an uncommonly open presentation of the the "New Authoritarianism", on the other it's a series of very obvious and clumsy rhetorical devices.

Let's dissect some of the claims of the "New Authoritarianism". The most interesting and far reaching one is "the modern reality that human rights are wider than those that the individual possesses in relation to the state". Well duh! Delete "modern" there. Law as we understand it in the countries with a Common Law tradition (and others besides) grew up mainly to provide a non-violent means of regulating individual citizens rights with respect to other citizens. It's called civil law. Criminal law regulates the relationship between the state and the citizen (for the most part). What the New Authoritarians are trying to do is move a whole category of disputes into the realm of new kind of criminal law while simultaneously bypassing the normal checks and balances of criminal procedure. That's by any standards an important (and to many worrying) expansion in the role of the administrative arm of the state.

The second claim, in essence, is that "existing democracies, particularly the US and the UK" are by their nature not authoritarian and intrinsically incapable of spawning authoritarian abuses. Those critics who protest at such abuses are accused of equating the US and UK to certain unspecified dictatorships that no longer exist (presumably to differentiate them form the unspecified dictatorships that the UK and US still support). This, of course, is a non-syllogism of the kind that you learned to avoid in your very first formal logic lesson. Nazi Germany gave the police sweeping powers, x points out that New Labour has given the police sweeping powers, x is equating New Labour with Nazi Germany. The implication is either that because there is a ballot periodically authoritarianism is impossible or that there is some sort of dualism elections=freedom, no elections=no freedom, which completely ignores the historical reality of the existence of elected authoritarian regimes; Huey Long's Louisiana, Maurice DuPlessis' Quebec to name but two. To point out that New labour is becoming increasingly authoritarian is not to equate it with Hitler or Stalin, though one might ask what happens if the powers Mr. Clarke claims were to fall into the hands of someone less fastidious thanhis honest self.

The third claim that I find very odd is a causal/temporal claim that Clarke makes;

However, as democracy has advanced so powerfully across the world(1), other rights become important too. The right to go to work safely on the tube. The right not to be killed by someone who has served his sentence for violent crime but remains dangerous. The right to live at home without being disturbed by antisocial behaviour outside the front door


In what sense were these "rights" less important before democracy advanced so powerfully? Did the existence of the USSR make us happier to be blown up on the tube? I don't think so!

So what then is the essence of the critique of the New Authoritarianism and why do I think that Blair and Clarke miss the point. There are a number of grounds.

The first problem is the transfer of a large element of criminal procedure from the relatively public courts to the murkier world of the police and bureaucracy. It's pretty difficult to nobble a judge and jury. It merely needs to be convenient to get a dodgy decision out of a bureaucrat. The possibility for harassment of anyone the government or police choose to harass in the proposed legislation is vast and I'm old enough to remember when "sus", conspiracy charges and the like were routinely used to harass. The proposed powers are much broader and therefore more dangerous. We can already see that the vision is a highly selective use of the powers. Tony Blair, in his weekend email exchange, was happy to propose "harassing" (suspected) drug dealers until their lives became unbearable. I can't see him using the proposed powers to harass insider traders or sellers of peerages. A future government could be just as selective but in quite different ways. It would be the easiest thing in the world to use restrictions on travel and meeting designated persons to cripple political opposition.

The second problem is the idea that simply because a government has a temporary majority in the House of Commons it can do whatever it likes. This apparently is "democracy" and "democracy" is always right and the polar opposite of "tyranny". We are asked to "to applaud the differences between democratic states and dictatorships" but nowhere does Mr. Clarke suggest what those differences might be. It's hard to see how they extend beyond periodic votes in a flawed electoral system because for Mr. Clarke "human rights" (which I think might just define the difference between tyranny and democracy) are whatever the government of the day says they are. There is no room in his world view for a less transient definition or even for the idea that minorities might need protecting from a majority (would that be a "democratic" or a "tyrannical" majority").

All in all, it's a curiously optimistic view that asks us to suspend all critical judgement where "democratic" governments are concerned. Our masters are benevolent. They can be relied on to know what's best for us. We don't need outmoded and clumsy legal protections. It's impossible that anyone less public spirited than messrs Clarke and Blair might be able to cobble together the 25% or so of the electorate needed to gain power. However, don't suppose they are going to let you vote on that in a way that makes any sense any time soon.

fn1: Has "democracy ... advanced so powerfully across the world"? There have been gains but they have either been in relatively small countries or are very shaky. I would hesitate to claim, for example, Indonesia or the Philippines, as stable democracies. There are far more countries where some sort of elections are held than, say, twenty years ago but in most of them the idea that the demos has much influence over the outcome, still less the behaviour of the government is laughable. Clarke's arguments might be a great deal more compelling if he ever defined "democracy".
chickenfeet: (enigma)
How many times has someone on your friends list posted about something and you were really confused, but you didn't want to ask because you knew you should know? How many times have you felt 'guilty' asking a close LJ friend a question that should be 'obvious'?

Well, here's your chance.

If you've missed a few things, missed an entry and are confused, ask me anything. Even something extremely basic. I'm not allowed to get even slightly irritated at any of the questions - we've all missed things before. (Okay, I can't absolutely promise not to get irritated, since that's unpredictable--but I can and do promise that if I do, I will deal with it myself and not take it out on anyone, except perhaps very sneakily.)

Hubris

Apr. 25th, 2006 02:22 pm
chickenfeet: (robespierre)
I guess there was another thread I missed out of my critique of Charles Clarke and the New Authoritarianism and that's just how hubristic it is. Not only are we expected to believe that our leaders (now and forever) are well intentioned but also that they are virtually infallible. They could never, for instance, harass (in Blair's chilling phrase) a suspected person to despair who was actually innocent. This is really asking a hell of a lot. Even if one believes that the current British government is, in a technocratic sense, fairly competent, it and its agencies have certainly shown themselves capable of enormous errors. After all, the most charitable explanation of the Iraq fiasco puts it down to incompetence and as [livejournal.com profile] rhythmaning has pointed out, Clarke's comments about "travelling safely on the tube" are particularly ironic. It should not be necessary to point out that even with the full resources of the courts involved mistakes get made, especially when the political heat is on. How much more likely is error when decisions are not subject to open and effective review? Add to that the near impossibility of a government or government agency ever admitting it has made a mistake and the opportunity for injustice is immense.

Far more human disasters have been brought about by overconfidence and inertia than by malice.

ETA: Ironically, this was written just before I saw the latest Home Office cock up story.

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