The economic system which defines people as objects to be exploited, consumers whose only duty is to buy, and in a British context, loyal subjects is broken, exposed and protected only by the threat of state violence and the stage-management of media scribes.
As Robert Peston has written:
“The horrific corollary of a faceless, irresponsible system of public-housing governance is that many of the poor and vulnerable people who died in the fire are not even being given the respect of formal identification as victims – because they live on the fringes of the state, and the authorities seem unable to be confident they even existed, let alone that they have died.
There is a social contract between those of us lucky enough to have voices that are heard and those who don’t that we should not put them in harms way. Grenfell seems the most grotesque breach of that contract in my lifetime. It shames us all.”
It doesn’t shame us all at all, but he is right.
Peston’s observations give Prime Minister May’s famous speech “…if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere…” a much darker hue.
But while this is NOT about Theresa May as an individual and the problems the crisis has surfaced will NOT be resolved by a change of personel, May does have unique responsibility for the shambles she has created and then mis-managed at every cringeworthy step.
Enough is Enough
May has a distinctly authoritarian streak that shouldn’t be ignored amongst her fleeting ‘liberal’ rhetoric or her shambolic campaign.
Most of the media have missed this, content with focusing on her frailty, incompetence and personal victory over hapless colleagues (apparently defeating Michael Gove is a mighty achievement). Rahul Rao has identified a meaner thread to her actions:
“At least one blindingly obvious rejoinder to May’s contemptuous dismissal of the citizens of ‘nowhere’, then, is that while some choose nowhere, others have nowhere thrust upon them. Ask a Syrian…”
Rao has commented that, in relation to the cancellation of inquiries into British troops atrocities in recent conflicts: “As if to remove any shred of doubt, May was equally contemptuous of those who might place themselves in voluntary exile from national loyalty in solidarity with the excluded, vowing that
‘…we will never again—in any future conflict—let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave—the men and women of Britain’s Armed Forces…’
Odd, and odious, how the phrase ‘never again’, once a shorthand for the human rights movement’s determination to hold states to account, is now tethered to a determination to thwart it.”
The language of anti-fascism used to crush rights, undermine the rule of law and give carte-blanche to off-the-leash military violence.
Another writer who has not missed this new authoritarianism is Peter Geoghegan, here writing for Al Jazeera some weeks before it all unfolded for May (‘May’s demagogic streak and the hypocrisy of the media’):
“So how does the prime minister explain her decision to go to the polls early? As a necessary opportunity to crush political dissent. “At this moment of enormous national significance,” she declared, “there should be unity here at Westminster, but instead there is division.”
Leaving aside that opposition – division – is a sine qua non of parliamentary democracy, the reaction to May’s comments in significant sections of the British press was striking. Such rhetoric coming from Turkey – or just about anywhere else – would have been decried as autocratic. Instead, the following day’s Daily Mail splashed with a full-page photograph of Theresa May’s face and the imploration to “crush the saboteurs”. Late last year, high court judges who ruled that the British parliament would have to vote on the start of the process of leaving the European Union were branded “enemies of the people”.
The response to May’s accusation that European leaders are seeking to meddle in the UK general election was similarly tendentious. While some broadsheet newspapers criticised the intemperate language, much of the coverage depicted the British prime minister as Churchillian, a strong woman standing up to overbearing Brussels mandarins.”
This language of unity and dissenters as enemies is replicated and amplified in the extraordinary speeches of the (now almost forgotten general election) in which she compared nationalists and jihadists – as “separatists and fundamentalists”. She can’t tell the difference between Jihadi John and Uppity Jock.
There’s long been ‘confusion’ between legitimate protest and terrorism.
From Hilda Murrell to Mark Kennedy, from the Enemy Within to the McDonald Libel case the British State has been suffering from ‘blurred lines’ seemingly incapable of distinguishing between activists and campaigners for a better society, and people who want to bring terror to the streets.
As Jenny Jones has written: “The police don’t always act as neutral agents of the law. We know that the Thatcher government’s determination to break the miners’ strike led to the Orgreave confrontation in 1984. There are still allegations about the links between the police and those running blacklisting databases that led to hundreds of construction workers being condemned to unemployment and poverty.”
It’s now routinely expected to be filmed, photographed and monitored and detained at will by generation of activists who have been kettled and intimidated for doing nothing more than exercising what used to be, our democratic rights. This didn’t come from nowhere. Jones again:
“And don’t mistake this for a partisan attack on Conservative politicians. Theresa May has forced through the draconian Investigatory Powers Act, but the Labour party too has been timid at best in opposing this snoopers’ charter. Indeed it was the Blair government that left a legacy of draconian public order laws, and which broadly defined the anti-terrorism legislation upon which an edifice of modern surveillance powers has been constructed.”
But the last few weeks has come astonishing new revelations about the continued ‘confusion’ by western governments and corporations about the difference between a protestor and a terrorist.
A shady security firm known as TigerSwan in the USA has been found to have targeted the movement opposed to the Dakota Access Pipeline with military-style counterterrorism measures, collaborating closely with police in at least five states, according to internal documents. The firm, which had its origins as a U.S. military and State Department contractor helping to “execute the global war on terror” has now turned itself to a more domestic threat.
According to The Intercept magazine: “Internal TigerSwan communications describe the movement as “an ideologically driven insurgency with a strong religious component” and compare the anti-pipeline water protectors to jihadist fighters. One report, dated February 27, 2017, states that since the movement “generally followed the jihadist insurgency model while active, we can expect the individuals who fought for and supported it to follow a post-insurgency model after its collapse.”
There are several key elements to this unfolding attack on human rights and democratic principles.
The first is that these companies work for the corporation who is under ‘attack’. So in this case TigerSwan works for Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline.
In their eyes their first and primary allegiance is to the company who is employing them.
This has the immediate effect of disorienting their own values. They are not part of any wider societal exchange or public debate. They are paid to protect the interests of the company. This isn’t any Marxist ideological analysis, this is just what thy are paid to do.
The second is that they are the product of war.
The third is that they are the product of privatisation and the outsourcing of police and security services.
The fourth is that they are the outcome of data, technology and the hidden hand of the conflation f state power and commercial interest.
The fifth is that the ‘bar’ about human rights, about what we might expect as citizens has at best been dramatically lowered and more likely just dissolved and eroded.
The Intercept reports that:
“As policing continues to be militarized and state legislatures around the country pass laws criminalizing protest, the fact that a private security firm retained by a Fortune 500 oil and gas company coordinated its efforts with local, state, and federal law enforcement to undermine the protest movement has profoundly anti-democratic implications. The leaked materials not only highlight TigerSwan’s militaristic approach to protecting its client’s interests but also the company’s profit-driven imperative to portray the nonviolent water protector movement as unpredictable and menacing enough to justify the continued need for extraordinary security measures.”
This wouldn’t happen here would it?
Brexit still Means Brexit
All of which brings us to Brexit, starting tomorrow.
With this swirling mass of anger and despair, now comes the most significant foreign policy and trade negotiations of our recent history. It’s a moment that is looked forward to here by Fintan O Toole (‘Britain the End of a Fantasy’):
“Last year’s triumph for Brexit has often been paired with the rise of Donald Trump as evidence of a populist surge. But most of those joining in with the ecstasies of English nationalist self-assertion were imposters. Brexit is an elite project dressed up in rough attire. When its Oxbridge-educated champions coined the appealing slogan “Take back control,” they cleverly neglected to add that they really meant control by and for the elite. The problem is that, as the elections showed, too many voters thought the control should belong to themselves.
Theresa May is a classic phony Brexiter. She didn’t support it in last year’s referendum and there is no reason to think that, in private, she has ever changed her mind. But she saw that the path to power led toward the cliff edge, from which Britain will take its leap into an unknown future entirely outside the European Union. Her strategy was one of appeasement—of the nationalist zealots in her own party, of the voters who had backed the hard-right UK Independence Party (UKIP), and of the hysterically jingoistic Tory press, especially The Daily Mail.
The actual result of the referendum last year was narrow and ambiguous. Fifty-two percent of voters backed Brexit but we know that many of them did so because they were reassured by Boris Johnson’s promise that, when it came to Europe, Britain could “have its cake and eat it.” It could both leave the EU and continue to enjoy all the benefits of membership. Britons could still trade freely with the EU and would be free to live, work, and study in any EU country just as before. This is, of course, a childish fantasy, and it is unlikely that Johnson himself really believed a word of it. It was just part of the game, a smart line that might win a debate at the Oxford Union.
But what do you do when your crowd-pleasing applause lines have to become public policy? The twenty-seven remaining member states of the EU have to try to extract a rational outcome from an essentially irrational process. They have to ask the simple question: What do you Brits actually want? And the answer is that the Brits want what they can’t possibly have. They want everything to change and everything to go as before. They want an end to immigration—except for all the immigrants they need to run their economy and health service. They want it to be 1900, when Britain was a superpower and didn’t have to make messy compromises with foreigners.
To take power, May had to pretend that she, too, dreams these impossible dreams. And that led her to embrace a phony populism in which the narrow and ambiguous majority who voted for Brexit under false pretences are to be reimagined as “the people.”
“The People” can and must be evoked when it is politically useful, but when they emerge as actual people actually “taking back control” they are to be despised, smeared and treated as “saboteurs” and insurgents, “vile separatists” and Remoaners. As Peston suggested they are treated as less than human, certainly citizens of nowhere, possibly traitors.
Brexit can and must only mean a further erosion of human rights.
In Scotland we have been urging and shaping the end of the British fantasy for many years, and we should avoid seeing solidarity with people in London as some kind of aberration from this. Nor is support for a true insurgency in any way at odds with self-determination.
From Project Fear to the backlash against the truth being exposed through the Grenfell Tower tragedy the British state is revealing its own vulnerability. Maximum solidarity will be needed as we enter the economic catastrophe that will be wrought by the impending shambles and the “childish fantasy” of Brexit.