Golden age of liberty?

I was fascinated by this piece by Rafael Behr in the Observer today; he argues that we are freer now than we have ever been, because taboos about personal behaviour have disappeared.  Behr regards this as much more significant than the fact that, in Britain at least, the level of surveillance has in the past few years increased hugely and the right to dissent has been curtailed.

I think what angered me about the place was its complacency; it’s very much the sort of thing that a relatively affluent media worker, engaged with the popular cultural zeitgeist, might write – a Pangloss for the twenty-first century.

So what’s the problem?

Behr’s analysis is entirely self-regarding and individualist; there’s no sense of the collective.  It’s a very market-driven, post-modern view of freedom; in the end he reduces the liberal critique to a fear of being ignored, the mentality of the toddler crying me, me, me.  And it comes dangerously close to the old policeman’s adage,”the innocent have nothing to fear.”  Try that one on the Guildford Four.

In many ways, Behr needs to get out more.  To Kingsnorth, perhaps,  where police used anti-stalking legislation to confiscate soap and clown costumes from peaceful environmental protestors, while making totally fraudulent claims about being victims of violence themselves.  Or to Britain’s borders, where it seems that increasingly intrusive checks are about to be introduced for travellers.

The inconsistencies in Behr’s analysis are made startlingly clear in this paragraph:

How much more freedom could we possibly have? Or, for that matter, how much more privacy? Our neighbours don’t grass on us, they don’t even know our names. You may feature somewhere as a number in a government database; you used to appear on carbon-paper duplicates in government filing cabinets. Before that, your ancestors were scratchily transcribed entries in leather-bound ledgers. So what? No one in government gives a monkey’s who you are or what you’re thinking. Whitehall knows less about you than Tesco. The Home Office holds the same data on you as you gave to Ryanair last time you booked a flight.

If it’s gathered by commercial organisations, Behr hints, it’s OK.  But what gets done with this information?  At what point, crucially, do the commercial interests of business and the political interests of Governments coincide?  And if Behr really understood the debate about personal data, he’d know that the real question is less that of what information is held by individual organisations, but what happens when that data is merged and mined.  Much of this information is held by private companies because legislation requires it.

Behr needs to understand that information is power; and that in an age when political dissent is bound up with the collapse of the economic and social assumptions that underpin the diminishing political space in which mainstream debate is undertaken in Western democracies, the risk that the information will be abused is growing.  The abuse is particularly clear when we see how legislation created for one purposeis  being used for another; legislation about stalking is used to stop peaceful protests.

And, above all, Behr fails to understand that one of the reasons why the personal taboos he mentions have gone in some societies – in secular Western democracies – is because they are no longer relevant to the maintenance of power.  Look at the culture wars in the US; the debates about gay marriage and abortion are still alive, and are about who wields power over whom.   In a week when an Afghan student journalist is imprisoned  for twenty years for downloading feminist literature from the internet, Behr’s view of this as a golden age of liberty looks particularly sick.

It’s an old truism that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.  Perhaps the lesson of this piece is that it’s too precious to be entrusted to zeitgeist-toting journalists.


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