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The legacy of 9/11 has weakened liberal democracy, not strengthened it

In Events, Foreign Affairs, Law And Order on September 9, 2011 at 8:58 pm

James Bartholomeusz

Predictably, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York City has provoked an orgy of reflection on the ‘war on terror’ decade. After ten years of war, we must ask ourselves, is the world a better place? Has the life of the average Western or Arabic person been improved enough to justify the actions taken? Neo-cons and liberal interventionists alike have adopted the Arab Spring as evidence that toppling dictators is beginning to catch on in the Middle East – failing to mention, obviously, that the two most high-profile autocrats were until last winter funded and supported by the West. Whilst the democratic revolutions of this year have been welcome, it is a tempting but treacherous line which is drawn between these uprisings and the supposed victories of the ‘war on terror’. In fact, liberal democracy is looking sicklier than perhaps at any time since the 1930s.

Across the Western world, the birthplace of liberalism, we have witnessed the steady erosion of our rights and liberties. To take two British examples, detention without trial and stop-and-search legislation have undermined the fundamental concept of innocence until guilt is proven. Blair’s draconian 90-day proposal for the former was, thankfully, halted by a rebellion in his own party, whilst the additional powers afforded to police by the latter have been used disproportionately on the young and non-white, often with no regard for the potential Islamist credentials of the suspect. What is perhaps most striking about these developments has been that they have achieved cross-party consensus. After Bush and Blair, part of Obama and Cameron’s appeal was the prospect of democratic reinvigoration: progress has been almost non-existent, with Guantanamo Bay still open and Britain’s authoritarian state apparatus remaining intact.

Furthermore, in an age of multiculturalism, Islamophobia is more widespread and more acceptable than ever: Islam has been singled out as having ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts, as if that made it unique amongst religions or ideologies. The renaissance enjoyed by the far-Right, though mostly to do with the effects of globalisation, cannot be divorced from the apparent tolerance of anti-Islamic views. The EDL in-particular is opposed specifically to Muslims, and yet it shares with the mainstream Western establishment the sense that there is something uniquely barbaric and murder-inducing about Islam. In a report last year by a former Scotland Yard counter-terrorism operative attributed hate crimes against Muslims to “a negative view of Muslims . . . acquired from either mainstream or extremist nationalist reports or commentaries in the media”, and even went as far to suggest that “Anti-Muslim crimes have not been afforded the same priority attention [that] government and police have invested in racist hate crimes”.

And let us not ignore the ostensibly ‘stabilising’ effects of Western intervention abroad. In Afghanistan, the civilian death toll from 2006 to 2010 is estimated at over 8,000, whilst 70% of southern Afghans think that the intervention has had a negative effect on the country. Iraqi civilian deaths have not been recorded, but estimates place the total at almost 1.5 million. As campaign organisations have consistently pointed out, torture has become commonplace treatment for those detained by NATO forces in war-zones. Extraordinary renditions – the illegal movement of humans against their will from one country of custody to another – have become the norm, as prisoners are passed from the Middle East to North America and back again. Meanwhile, profits of arms companies have soared to levels as-yet unseen, so that Afghanistan is now one of the most militarised areas of the planet: to give just one statistic, in the period 2008-10 the UK exported £32.5 million worth of arms to the country. And yet even by its own standards of murder, torture and profiteering, the West is failing. Having broken Iraq and tossed it aside, we are now in the middle of a protracted withdrawal from Afghanistan, and a compromise with the Taliban, once derided, is now looking increasingly likely.

Another unwanted effect in the Middle East of the ‘war on terror’ has been the loss of Western credibility at a time when local people sorely need support: the Arab Spring. The democratic revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya were hailed by Western leaders as a fulfilment of the aim of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since February this year, a collective amnesia seems to have descended on the Western establishment, conviniently omitting from memory the West’s long and ongoing support for authoritarian regimes. The Arab people, however, are not likely to forget the scene of Blair embracing Gaddafi, or Hilary Clinton referring to Mubarak as “a close personal friend”. Neither are they likely to forgive the lack of serious reprimand towards Israel, despite it holding the illustrious position as the nation to have violated the highest number of UN Resolutions (along with the tacit assumption that centuries of Jewish oppression entitles successive Israeli governments to ignore Palestinian human rights). Perhaps the most egregious example of this duplicity was in Iraq, where NATO funded and armed Saddam Hussein throughout the 1980s whilst he was an asset against the USSR, and then bombed him in the 1990s and 2000s when his own expansionism began to threaten oil resources. There was no miraculous change in the Bathaist regime’s morality to merit this U-turn: the human rights of Iraqis did not enter the discussion at all until humanitarian aims became usefully (and accidentally) aligned with economic ones. It was pure hypocrisy.

By no means would all of us describe ourselves as ‘liberals’ – most Brits would probably opt for ‘conservative’ or ‘social democrat’ as a label – but we cannot escape the fact that the ground on which our political intuitions are built is that of liberal democracy. Few Westerners would refuse to pay at least lip service to the fundamental ideas of individual liberty, freedom from abuse and equality before the law. And yet, as a decade of war fought to protect our way of life draws to close, Western society looks less liberal and democratic than it did ten years ago. The legacy if 9/11 has given new credence to the old truth that, in war, opponents are often far more similar than either side would like to think.


This climbdown is liberal, not Conservative

In Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Judicial Spotlight, Law And Order, Party politics, The Media on June 21, 2011 at 11:53 pm

David Weber

I respect Ken Clarke, as a politician and more importantly as a political thinker, but some of his reforms weren’t liberal, just as much as they weren’t Conservative. At the heart of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill was a scandal, one which should have been obvious even underneath the noise and fury that erupted over Clarke’s ill-informed comments about rape, but has still gone largely uncommented on, which is deeply troubling. I refer to the damage that would have been done, to a fundamental principle of justice, by the proposal to cut sentences by as much as 50% in return for an early guilty plea.

This is precisely the proposal which the Guardian, in a typical bout of sheer missing the point, described as “a sensible move to relieve the pressure on Britain’s creaking courts”. The latter may be true, but the policy can only be described as sensible from a cold, bureaucratic, and morally corrupt perspective, the perspective of those who care nothing for justice and everything for money above all else.

Has the Guardian considered the stigma which is already attached to being falsely accused of a crime — particularly the most serious and horrifying of crimes? Has it occurred to the sadly anonymous writer of its editorial that there are already numerous incentives for the accused to plead guilty, not out of honesty, but as a gamble for the sake of an easier future? It should have, for such nightmares are frequently reported, and even more frequent in real life. Not only does plea bargaining already exist, but it actually goes far too far. In reducing the cost of justice it perverts the cause of justice, bargaining away the right to a fair trial. “Innocent until proven guilty” becomes “do you want to risk being proven guilty?” Far from it being “sensible” to increase plea bargaining, it would actually be “sensible” to abolish or at least reduce it — at least from a perspective of moral sensibility.

One would hope that it is for these principled, and most definitely liberal reasons, that David Cameron et al have decided to abandon this “reform”. One has to be sceptical, particularly given Ken Clarke’s reputation for liberalism, and the association of the Liberal Democrats with his agenda for reform in the Ministry of Justice. I suspect that if No. 10 had been motivated solely by liberal principles, it would have held back from interfering with Clarke’s agenda due to a mistaken association of liberalism with the Liberal Democrats. Additional policies announced at the same time, such as a new mandatory prison sentence for certain knife crimes, are distinctly conservative in nature.

More likely is that a tipping point of unpopularity with Conservative backbenchers, and with certain parts of the general public, has been reached; and that the rewriting of Clarke’s bill is a conciliatory gesture in the aftermath of the rewriting of Andrew Langsley’s NHS bill. It is certainly true that the bill had numerous “Conservative” objections to it, not least because the halving of sentences in some cases could have led to very short sentences indeed, for very serious crimes. But this merely demonstrates that conservatism and liberalism are not always mutually exclusive, and that liberals should not be associated with a policy just because conservatives are opposed.

But despite Downing Street’s arguably cynical motivations, the u-turn on this bill is something Liberals should be thankful for, not morose. Liberal Democrats should put their party’s ego (sorry, ‘influence in government’) to one side for a moment, and actually consider if, were they not in government, they would be supportive of or horrified by this particular proposal. Then they should put that response in front of any regrets they might have about their influence in the coalition, and whether the prevailing direction is conservative or liberal, because at the end of the day, it is more important. Real lives, real injustices, are always more important.

Government is not a monopoly

In Ideology, Law And Order on October 1, 2010 at 4:23 pm

David Weber

Part of September’s* Law and Order season

I’ve been gently reminded by Stephen that I have yet to fulfil my promise, almost a month ago, of a second article setting out my philosophical ideas about Government in more detail. Having chewed this over, I grudgingly decided for that for once I should actually be as good as my word, and use some late night reflections to finish off the season with aplomb. (Stephen’s forthcoming article excepted.)

My first observation is that the common anarchist refrain that government is a monopoly is actually misplaced. True, that government is a monopoly on legitimate violence is technically accurate. But ask yourself this: if government did not exist, what violence would be ‘legitimate’ to begin with? The answer is none. Legitimate violence without a monopoly is a contradiction in terms, as it is only made ‘legitimate’, in a way distinct to bog standard violence, by law.

If law was not a monopoly, then, ideas of violence’s “legitimacy” would be entirely subjective. Hence no violence could have a claim to being truly legitimate. Even with the existence of sophisticated models of private law, I cannot see how this would fail to be the case.

So government is a monopoly on legitimate violence, but this in reality is fairly meaningless. What does carry meaning, and practical weight, is if government is a monopoly on violence. And this is patently not the case. Indeed, in common law and constitutional systems, such as the USA, there are often legal protections of the right to violent behaviour. Is this then a “monopoly on the protection of violent behaviour”? Government suddenly seems less terrifying and more fluffy.

Sarcasm aside, it should be clear that government is not a monopoly on violence but a competing form. For ultimately, from a perspective of applied violence, government only exists with the implicit support of its citizens. The relationship can be extreme (a tolitarian regime) or more balanced (a constitutionally limited government). But government still competes within a marketplace, no matter how big or distorting its presence.

This relationship with its people is important, as it strikes a powerful argument against the views of many libertarians and anarchists. I’ve been reading James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree, and I’d like to cheekily cite it in support of my argument. In it, Tooley scrutinises the impact of the sudden transition to ‘free’ primary education in Kenya, and shows what happens when a government institutes sweeping change without bringing its citizens with it (or, indeed, having any understanding of their needs). But although his argument is against a policy of sudden intervention, the same argument can be applied against a sudden withdrawal of the state. Unless politicians bring people with them, then change itself can be a more dangerous policy than any particular political direction.

Our relationship with government is, in fact, notably absent from most modern libertarian and anarchist arguments. Government is often described as an alien force, imposed externally through no involvement of people present or past. This allows for its inevitable condemnation without the asking of awkward questions.

Yet if you scrutinise such an attitude for but a moment, it falls down like house of cards. This is because of two fundamental flaws with the idea of a society or market functioning without government:

1. Competition without success is meaningless; Competition with success is dangerous.

2. The historical prevalence of government in human society.

With regard to the first point, if competition gained no reward, then there would be no incentive to compete. Apart from this patently not being the case; it would prove fatal to any idea of a market economy. Incentive is vital to success. Without it development would be slow and sporadic, relying entirely upon serendipity. Yet success in the market economy provides the means for establishing one’s position — the establishment of power.

And humans seem to have an almost universal addiction to power. I never fail to find it amusing that the powerful arguments libertarians always marshal in favour of the legalisation of drugs are almost never applied to the legitimisation of violence.  Power is, in essence, a drug. Violence is one of its many symptoms. Illegalising it – even if abolishing government could achieve that end – would merely drive it underground. In the place of legitimate violence we would have illegitimate violence. Instead of an inefficient monopoly, we would have an efficient marketplace for violence. I am not convinced this would be for the better of humanity.

Surely if there is one place the inefficiency of government could theoretically do some good, it is in the application of violence? After all, government rarely ever does things as well as the private sector. And violence is one area where I am happy for this to be the case.

There is, of course, a serious point to my ironic citation of anarchist arguments. To come to my second point, which I believe is infinitely more powerful, as it relies on the citation of history rather than one person’s philosophy about human nature — the establishment of power has played a role in the structure of almost every society known to history. It exists in modern capitalism. It exists in all attempted forms of socialism. It existed in feudalism. It existed in ancient societies, and tribal structures. It has shown resilience, in fact, in every group structure with a moderate level of population density and interdependence. Most groupings of humans, even units as small as the family, have instituted some form of government**. Far from society not being the same thing as the state, there is a close and inseparable relationship between the two.

For this reason, it should be clear that if we learn anything from history, it is to pick our battles. Government is undefeatable and indestructible in today’s world because no human can defeat or destroy human nature. Therefore to attempt this would not only be pointless, but quite possibly counter-productive. Instead, what is surely necessary is to work out the best way of taking control of government and subjecting it to our accountability. And this is what philosophers, politicians, activists, and yes, the wealthy and successful, have been doing for centuries. It is not just the State, as I commonly love to argue, that is a check on the private; but the private which is also a check on the State. This separation of powers is essential to keeping power divided and distributed within society, and abolishing it would be disastrous.  Slowly but surely the race of history has been in the right direction, and this is why it is only a minority who want to return to the thinking of the past.

*Yes, I am aware that it’s October 1st
**Kudos to polarii for that sentence


VATman, ACTA, and the Internet Activists

In Events, Foreign Affairs, Ideology, Law And Order, The Media on September 15, 2010 at 10:16 pm

…is the rather melodramatic title to our fifth podcast to date, episode 4 (the pilot remains numberless).

In this, Stephen Wan dons the VATman uniform in his quest to make VAT a fairer tax; and Chris Meier discourses on the subject of ACTA, and then goes on to give a heartwarming tale about “internet activists” from 4chan*.

As always, enjoy. And if you wish to join us in our podcasting revellry, simply give myself or Stephen Wan a shout, at dingdongalistic (at) gmail (d0t) com, or stephenwan91 (at) gmail (dot) com.

* Source: http://tech.blorge.com/Structure:%20/2010/09/03/4chan-makes-an-old-man-happy-but-dont-expect-the-fluffiness-to-continue-for-long/


From one extreme to another…

In Home Affairs, Ideology, Judicial Spotlight, Law And Order on September 14, 2010 at 11:46 pm

David Weber

Part of September’s Law and Order Series

I would like to take a brief ideological break at this juncture, and shift the focus of my critique of the anarchist position to look at the far more common presence of authoritarianism.

We could start with the death penalty. This is one of the frequently cited areas where politicians supposedly part ways with public opinion, although given that ‘evidence’ for this often takes the form of polls run in the wake of sensational crimes, I have my doubts. Nevertheless, it is certainly clear that public opinion on the subject is far less consensual than political opinion, where support is largely confined to the fringes.

Why is this, you may ask? I suspect that is an answer which has its roots in many factors, not least including the “grey wash” created by our electoral system. One I’d like to think has most influence is that the more informed you are on a subject, the less likely your opinion is to flip-flop.

And in most cases, opinion polling shows far more evidence of flip-flopping than it does anything meaningful. In the run up to the election, it was established fairly firmly that the public were in favour of spending cuts — unless it affected health, of course. Or education. Or pensions. And against tax rises. But we shouldn’t let those dastardly bankers get off lightly, better slap a couple of hundred extra taxes on them before you touch my darling child’s trust fund. And in favour of balanced budgeting. And in favour of the Tories’ line on immigration. But in favour of Labour’s policy.

Apart from illustrating my scepticism of the “great unwashed masses”, I hope this might demonstrate how the existence of a “political class” might not necessarily be a bad thing. Certainly, given that government is supposed to “amplify all of the factors that can cause immoral behaviour”, I see a surprising lack of evidence for this in the criminal justice system here, which has been slow to respond to public opinion.

But unfortunately not slow enough. Although the death penalty has no serious chance of being reintroduced, the public’s attitude towards crime in general has influenced the political sphere, and entirely too much so. The second term of the Blair government not only allowed for the first infringement to a criminal trial by jury for centuries, but according to the Director of Public Prosecutions of the time, Ken MacDonald, Blair himself suggested diluting the burden of proof for the most serious offences*. Blair was worried about the impatience of the “middle classes” at a criminal justice system which was perceived to be slow to deal with criminals.

And if you take the view that this is merely government perverting the substance of public opinion and not representing it, ask yourself this: why so little outrage? Why so little unease? A few academics write worried letters, and the country (or rather more accurately, the media) moves on, as if it was only of passing interest.

The simple fact is that “innocent until proven guilty” may sound like a principle that everyone believes in, but in reality it tends to be far less certain than many of us would like. Just witness the attitude towards “terror suspects”. Every time the government is unable to deport a terror suspect, many wax lyrical of the “outrageous” Human Rights Act “perverting” the course of justice. However, hardly any appear to think of mentally adding a question mark to their thoughts when they read “terror suspect”. Do they know the suspect is guilty? Are they certain he has committed a crime? If not, why are they willing for them to be treated however the State pleases?

Despite a veneer of outward belief in the principles of justice, many people think that the State can, more than ever before, be sure that someone has committed a crime. Who hasn’t heard the “DNA evidence” chestnut, used to justify such views? The very example of DNA evidence is another excellent illustration of areas where the public, not just the government, are generally out of touch with the facts. The reliability of DNA evidence is far more disputable than many realise or would like to admit. According to a recent New Scientist article, in an example case, different methods generated different probabilities of error, ranging from 1 in 3, to 1 in 95,000! But if you speak to many you would think it was crowning proof of the need for a death penality.

So criminal justice is perhaps the core of my belief in the State — not because I particularly endorse violence but because I wish to limit it. There is simply no evidence in this field that people would exercise power any less savagely privately than public servants do publicly. Quite the opposite, in fact.

* Taken from a seminar in the Compass Conference 2010, “Why has the left become so illiberal?”. Further details can be found here: http://www.designtoday.info/aziziye/?p=670


All Men Are (not) Born Equal

In Ideology, Law And Order on September 4, 2010 at 11:19 pm

David Weber

Part of September’s Law and Order Series

I never could resist an argument with an anarchist. Ben Southwood rightly takes Stephen Wan to task for some of the assumptions inherent in Stephen’s recent article, so I of course intend to look for the assumptions in his rebuttals. Assumptions are lovely things. Once you have found them, you can deconstruct almost any argument.

I also intend to continue this month’s analysis of Law and Order, killing two birds with one stone. This will not be difficult, as the following argument will be aimed at the most basic level; the questions surrounding the need for government, if indeed there is one.

Ben, in answer to Stephen’s assumption that human nature is basically wrong, extends the logic of James Madison; “if men were angels, no government would be necessary” — continuing; “if men are fallible, they are not fit to govern”. However, I believe the assumption in this is even more interesting — that all men are equal.

Consider; Ben tells us it does not matter if men are angels or fallible. But surely this only holds true if all men are equally angelic or fallible? Let us reword the statements for a moment to describe two hypothetical situations: “No government, because all men are angels”; “No government, because all men are fallible”. In both situations anarchism could work, but what they both have in common is “no government, for all men are equal”. And this implies an equality which can by no means be taken for granted.

For I see no evidence for such an equality. Men are self-evidently not equal. Moreover, it should be obvious that “all men are [not] born equal”. Some are born ill, others well. Some are born into families, others begin life as orphans. Some have wealth, others live in poverty.

Although I have come to see the optimism of many anarchists as indestructible, even I cannot believe that they could be so arrogant to blame every one of life’s ills on the State. I grudgingly respect that the State’s impact on the distribution of wealth is up for debate. But disease has always been with us, and always will. Humans have been born weaker than others before, and always will. Some are born into privilege, others into want, and this will always remain the case, even if it is only due to luck or providence.

And, as Ben willingly admits, men are fallible. And not only are they fallible to different degrees, resulting in a society which always divides people, criminal or saint, slave or master, coward or hero — but their fallibility also exacerbates their natural inequality in numerous ways. If men were “angelic”, inequality would not matter — but as men are not, then unequal power corrupts. This inevitably leads to the concepts of crime, government, and of course law and order. These problems will always be with us. The State did not invent them, nor can it ever fully get rid of them.

What the State can do, I firmly believe, is act as a stabilising force. Since we have established that these problems will always be with us, the question now becomes “how are they best minimised?” I believe they are best minimised through a separation of power with some holding it privately (businessmen, bankers, landowners), and some holding it publicly (politicians, policemen, civil servants). I shall tackle the questions, as well as the philosophy, of how this is best put into practice, in a further post.