Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Stripping away our rights

If the state strips away basic freedoms and civil liberties, what do you have left? And is this then a state worth preserving? These questions are worth asking on a day that two further assaults on our rights make it into the public realm (don’t even ask about the stuff we know nothing about) that are designed to intimidate ordinary citizens.

First comes the news that the Home Office wants the police to deploy remote-controlled drones used in war zones. The stated aim would be to gather evidence and track criminals without putting officers at risk. The unstated objective is to increase surveillance over society at large.

Then there is the statement by the Cabinet Office's former security and intelligence co-ordinator, that in future the security services will need access to a wide range of personal data in the “fight against terrorism”. Of course, this is already happening to a great extent behind closed doors. So why is Sir David Omand bothering to use the Institute for Public Policy think tank to publish a new document?

One conclusion is that we are being “softened up” so that the government can claim it has the popular support when a more overt system is introduced. As Omand says: "Being able to demonstrate proper legal authorisation and appropriate oversight of the use of such intrusive intelligence activity may become a major future issue for the intelligence community, if the public at large is to be convinced of the desirability of such intelligence capability."

According to Omand, that is preferable to “tinkering with the rule of law, or derogating from fundamental human rights”. So, on his logic, as long as there is statutory backing, it does not constitute an attack on rights. What rubbish! When New Labour passed laws that authorised the indefinite detention without trial of foreign terror suspects, did that constitute the “rule of law”? Well, no actually. The courts declared that the law was itself unlawful because it contravened fundamental human rights.

None of this has stopped New Labour from orchestrating the destruction of an array of rights, which has resulted in the emergence of an authoritarian state. An audit carried out for this weekend’s Convention on Modern Liberty is a stark reminder of the range of rights that have disappeared or been subverted.

To demand, however, that the present state, instead of taking our rights away, should somehow be made their guarantor, is to misunderstand completely the nature of the beast. Basic rights and liberties have never been the subject of protection orders. All of them owe their very existence not to the state but to the struggles of countless generations for various rights. The capitalist state emerged in late 18th century Britain in screaming opposition to any rights at all. Anything we’ve achieved since has been on our own account and through our own efforts.

If the position has deteriorated it is because in some respects we are back where we started in terms of the fight for rights. In its infancy, the state promoted nascent capitalism and free markets at the expense of basic rights and in doing so actually became a ruthless capitalist state. Today, globalised capitalism has drawn the state into its orbit to the extent that massive transfers of public wealth are taking place in order to try and rescue banks and corporations. Where does that leave the right to vote? We may have it still but it is hardly effective.

The logic of all this is that the capitalist state itself has passed its use-by date. It has run its course, along with the capitalist system it co-ordinates and presides over. Renewing the historic struggle for rights must of necessity take us into a new democratic era, where the present state is confined to a museum and a new one based on the rule of law, human rights and freedom from exploitation is put together by the people themselves.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

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