Saturday, April 29, 2006

"to represent the age"

posted by k

I've just seen the French film (from 1969 but reissued in a new print) L'Armee des Ombres. It's about the French Resistance but doesn't have the usual structure. There's no victory or anticipation of victory at the end. Instead,
the German occupation and Vichy government are well in place.

The film moved me, not just because it's well-made, well-acted and about a dark period of history. It raises questions about how we live now and our relation to our own government.

There are powerful absences in the film. No-one discusses why they resist, although a variety of positions (Communist, Catholic, Gaullist, Royalist) are acknowledged. The need to resist is taken for granted. Disturbingly, those who betray the Resistance are executed without trial. The film's focus is the daily courage of those who live and die anonymously rather than conform to an evil government.

It's a fiction, of course, for all its historical basis, ane the situation is comfortingly extreme. It's not how we live now. If it were, would we notice?

There have already been slips in our ethical assumptions.

Torture is now condoned. Recently, official papers revealed that torture was practised by public servants in Britain, its Empire and its occupied territories after the Second World War. it was concealed for some time. Now that our government is complicit in U.S. government torture (as in rendition flights), it tries to have evidence obtained under torture abroad accepted in British courts.

Justice and law are not equal for all. Anti-Social Behaviour Orders - soon to be extended - allow a kind of personalised law, in which actions that are not illegal for all become criminal for some. Control orders restrict personal liberty in a way that ministers condemned in apartheid South Africa. The power of the courts in these matters and others has been curtailed. Now the government threatens to extend such powers and further to curtail the courts' authority and public justice.

Freedom of speech and freedom to protest are increasingly limited while surveillance of all increases, as if by accident. Protestors and demonstrators are frequently detained (individually or in small groups) - usually out of sight of TV cameras.

Detention without trial is commonplace for asylum seekers - their children are denied the rights all other children have in British law. Fear of detention - or being sent to imprisonment, torture or death - has created a number of people who live illegally, outside the law. (The majority are criminals only because they were forced beyond the law - their lives have become illegal.)

I could go on. When I remember the ethical standards with which I was brought up, I can hardly believe it. Christopher Isherwood's collection of linked sketches, Goodbye to Berlin, ends with Berlin a newly Nazi city. The narrator comments, "Even now, it is hard to believe that any of this really happened." (quotation from memory I'm afraid)

No, we're not living in a state that's the same as Nazi Berlin or occupied France. But if we were, how would we know? And what would we do about it?

The Political Compass™

Posted by J

I have just taken "The Political Compass" test. It consists of 6 pages of questions on just about everything from globalization ("If economic globalisation is inevitable, it should primarily serve humanity rather than the interests of trans-national corporations") to sexuality ("No one can feel naturally homosexual"). For each question punters are given a choice of 4 answers: "strongly disagree", "disagree", "strongly agree" and "agree". The answers are totted up and the result is expressed arithmetically and graphically.

It is easier to describe the graphical expression. There is a horizontal left-right axis and a vertical authoritarian-libertarian axis. These axes create an "authoritarian left" box, an "authoritarian right"one, a "libertarian left" and a "libertarian right". My score comes to -1.13 on the left right scale and -4.92 on the authoritarian-libertarian scale which puts me in the libertarian left - slightly to the left of centre but comfortably into libertarian country.

To give some idea of where that puts me
  • Stalin is in the top left hand corner
  • Hitler is also at the top of the authoritarian scale but slightly to the right
  • Thatcher is well to the right of Hitler but only two-thirds of the way towards Hitler on the authoritarian scale;
  • Gandhi and Friedman are at about the same level as me on the authoritarian-libertarian scale but Gandhi is significantly to my left and Friedman well to my right - in fact he is right of Thatcher.

As for political leaders Tony Blair shares a spot on the authoritarian right with Silvio Berlusconi and John Howard. As for UK political parties New Labour and the Tories are on the authoritarian right, the Lib Dems (for whom I actually vote) are on the libertarian right though well to the left of New Labour. The only party in the libertarian left are the Greens and they are well to the left of me. Similarly, John Kerry and George Bush are on the authoritarian right. There is daylight between them but not much. Ralph Nader is the only US politician on the libertarian left that I have ever heard of and he is somewhat to the left of me.

I was directed to the Political Compass by one of the "Euston Manifesto" trainspotters. Had it not been for him I would have had a go at that risible screed, but that will have to wait for another time. I suppose everything has its uses.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

"Isn't this a prosperous nation?"

posted by k

What is a state, j asks, and it is a fundamental question. But the words we use may change the answer. Before we know what a state is I think we need to establish whose it is and in whose interest it exists.

The word "commonwealth" was used in the seventeenth century in opposition to "kingdom". It refers to that part of life which is shared and owned in common; it looks toward the possibilities of a participatory democracy. It goes further than "republic" because it sees the participants not just as citizens but as co-owners of the state. The Commonwealth of the mid-17th century didn't go very far but the debates of the period, as seen in the Putney Debates and the manifestos of the Levellers and the Diggers, show a profound sense of political responsibility for the state born out of that concept of co-ownership. The existence of that debate is possibly the most important thing that period in history gave us - because it reminds us of the human capacity to think, question and challenge in the interest of others and the greater good.

Today we are neither citizens nor co-owners by subjects - and that is how our government treats us. Compliance with convention is praised; to be anti-social is to come under the scope of the crimimal law. An idea of society is being imposed on us - but real societies grow and are made by all their members.

Perhaps it would help to think about how our sense of the state changes according to our relation to it - as subjects, citizens or co-owners.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Links in the Navigation Bar

I have taken the liberty of adding two links to the navigation bar, one British and one American. The British link is to "Open Democracy" which describes itself as "a new type of independent media based on exchange and participation." It has lots of good articles from some really big names like Paul Rogers of Bradford University and Sidney Blumenthal. Even Philip Bobbitt (whom I mention below) has made the odd contribution. The US link is Truthout which is a wonderful internet based news service. I particularly like the recent video casts from the Camp Casey regrouping just outside George Bush's holiday home at Crawford in Texas. Truthout is always appealing for dosh so I hope readers will open their cheque books.

Two other organizations that I propose to add to our list are "Liberty" and the American Civil Liberties Union. Any objections?

Posted by J

The Shield of Achilles

One of the things that prompted the thoughts expressed below was "The Shield of Achilles" by Philip Bobbitt, which I read a few years ago. One of the themes of that book is the notion that governments transform from city states through "princely states", "kingly states", nation states to "market states". I have to say that that I was reminded very much of Marx (e.g. the English civil war marking the transition of English society from feudalism to capitalism with the rise of the gentry). Even more redolent of Marx - or more particularly Hobson or even Lenin - was the description of the "market state":
"What are the characteristics of the market-state? Such a state depends on the
international capital markets and, to a lesser degree, on the modern multinational business network to create stability in the world economy, in preference to management by national or international bodies. Its political institutions are less representative (though in some ways more democratic) than those of the nation state. The Open Markets Committee of the Federal Reserve and the electronic referendum (to take two extremes) are more characteristic of the market state than the elegant electoral representative institutions envisioned by Hamilton and Madison or the mass election campaigns of Roosevelt and Johnson."

That sounds to me a lot like imperialism as the highest form of capitalism. What do others think?

Posted by J

What I propose to write about

I congratulate K for starting this blog. I had been thinking for some time of launching one on the triangular relationship between individuals, states and humanity, but that is a big subject likely to take up a lot of time which is in short supply for me as it is for most of us.

This blog offers an opportunity to present such questions as: -
  • what is a state - does it differ from other organizations such as a company or a club, and if so why and how;
  • what is sovereignty - is it just propaganda and power;
  • whether there is a relationship between sovereignty and democracy; and
  • is a democratic state legally or morally superior to an undemocratic one.
I shall be discussing these and similar questions, not as hypothetical issues, but as practical ones concerning the exercise of the very limited powers that individuals in a modern, advanced society enjoy, such as the power to spend (or not to spend) and the power to vote.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

"close designs, and crooked counsels"

posted by k.

The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill probably returns to the Commons in mid-May.

The Bill would, if passed as it stands, allow ministers or anyone they choose to make laws without debate in parliament. They could get rid of old laws or enacting new ones - on almost any subject at all. There are some limitations in the Bill, but ministers could use its powers to get rid of them too. No wonder the Bill has been called the "Abolition of Parliament Bill" or even "Blair's Enabling Act". Even if you trust all ministers in the current government and don't mind them passing laws on your behalf without debate, do you trust all future government ministers - from any party?

Fortunately lawyers read the Bill and were so appalled that they made their opinions known. We are now promised amendments, but it is not clear what these will be. One suggestion is a committee of MPs with a majority nominated by the government to check laws passed in this way. This doesn't go nearly far enough.

The Public Administration Committee of the Commons (a group of MPs) now insists that the legislation be watered down. They suggest certain areas of law should be outside the Bill's scope. It's a good starting point, but that's all it is. These MPs also say, according to the BBC's website, that the professed aim of the legislation (to make it easier to repeal redundant legislation) is "widely, even universally, supported".

Really? When did someone last turn to you and say, "I'm so worried about redundant legislation. Those poor MPs - up to their eyes in work - they don't want to be bothered with all that stuff." Oddly enough, I haven't ever heard anyone concerned with that. Most people I know care more about the state of the NHS, education, the environment, pensions and the war in Iraq. But I'm prepared to give it a go. Next time I'm on the train or in the pub, perhaps I'll strike up a conversation with the person next to me, "What do you think of all this redundant legislation, then? How do you think we should go about repealing it?" (Please note, I won't even use a leading question.) I look forward to the response.

Of course, it may be that parliament and MPs are inundated with petitions on the subject. Perhaps I missed the mass of demonstrators chanting: "What do you want? Easy repeal of redundant legislation. When do you want it? Mid-May." And if they're out on the streets, good luck to them - there are easier slogans to chant.

But, barring such huge expression of public support for this Bill, I would suggest it is so seriously flawed and so dangerous in its scope that the best thing for the government to do would be to tear the whole thing up and start again.

I'm not an experienced blogger and I haven't got the hang of posting links. However, you can copy and paste this into your browser to learn more about the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill:

Monday, April 24, 2006

"The people's voice is odd"

posted by k

Tony Blair is presenting himself as the voice of the people. Lawyers are wrong. Judges are wrong. Civil libertarians are wrong. Anyone who disagrees with Tony is wrong. He knows what the people of this country - the real people, the working class - really think.

It's a lie. Tony Blair may have picked up a few slogans, tabloid headlines and comments from focus groups but he is not in touch with the people of this country.

Leaving aside the question of money - and it's hard to leave it aside when the prime minister and his wife have taken on a mortgage debt of four million pounds - how would our prime minister know any longer what "the people" think?

Tony Blair lives behind security gates in Downing Street. His journeys are protected by armed police. He uses helicopters and the royal flight. He doesn't just go round the supermarket, pop out for a curry or to the chip shop, or have a quiet drink with friends in his local. He meets carefully selected individuals who have been vetted for security. And he meets a large number of people who defer to him.

How, from this experience, does Tony Blair begin to think of himself as "the voice of the people"?

"The people" are not the simple-minded mass that Tony Blair suggests. People - real people - have a range of views and a capacity for complex thought not imagined by our prime minister. People are varied and delightful and infuriating and stubborn and willing, when they think things through, to change their minds. They live in a more dangerous world than the prime minister's and they show a daily courage with which he is unfamiliar. Some people do dreadful things. Some people (sometimes they are the same people) perform startling acts of generosity.

Tony Blair seems to have an interest in calling on people's fear and intolerance. There is more to human beings than that.

One man cannot be "the voice of the people". The people's voices are too many and too various. It is time to think, speak, debate and listen to one another. There have been enough spin-doctors and focus groups. It is time to remake democracy.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth

In 1660, when the hopes of the English Republic were coming to an end, when there was little hope of anything but the restoration of an absolute monarchy, and when those involved in the Commonwealth had little to hope from the future but a painful and public death by torture, the poet John Milton published a pamphlet entitled "The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth". In it he declared that human beings were naturally free and that the commonwealth he had desired, which had never been achieved, might still be accomplished.

This blog is named in honour of John Milton, who published his beliefs when all hope seemed gone. The title, "Areopagitica", comes from the title of his pamphlet which urged freedom of the press and free debate.

There is a need for free debate now. Above all, there is a need for informed public discussion against the anti-liberal and anti-democratic trends of our current British government. The immediate impetus comes from the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill currently due to receive its third reading in parliament. If this is carried by the Commons and approved by the Lords, we shall no longer be living in a parliamentary democracy but in a ministerial dictatorship.

I have initiated this blog but I am inviting friends to post views. I hope that anyone reading it will feel free to add thoughtful comments.