15 June 2012

Supressing more than protest in Britain

Civic and political freedom in Britain is declining. More and more political activity is considered a nuisance or a threat and something to be controlled.

Many have argued that the state is attempting to suffocate dissent and protest, but what is worse, the suppression political activity.

Police, government and state action is indeed directed at suppressing protest (i.e. people who shout or hold placards to emphasise their point), but state surveillance is also more widely deployed against people who engage in political activity more generally.

For instance, people fall victims to police FIT photographing, not only because they demonstrate, but because they attend meetings. Police informers infiltrate not only street protests, but attend the most sedate of meetings to gather information. Teachers and youth workers are encouraged to report ‘anything of interest’ said by their students or charges to the police.

Little comes to light of the probably extensive police surveillance of the internet and telephone communication, because, unlike the monitoring of demonstrations and meetings, the victims have no means of finding out about it. For the most part, people-on-line are merely exchanging opinions; yet many of them will now have police records.

Almost certainly the vast majority of people on police records, not only have never committed a crime, but have never or have rarely engaged in street protest. What they have done, like me now, is sought to communicate politically and so have been branded as domestic extremists worthy of police surveillance.

Sadly the only protection people have is that the large numbers of people now on record as domestic extremists make the active surveillance of everyone a logistic impossibility.


1 June 2012

The Nation State: facts and desires

The nation state is, but ought not be, the prime unit of political orientation.

In the developed capitalist world the nation state remains the key political organisational unit with its imposed monopoly of violence over its territory, supported by its legal system, bureaucracy and its control of the vast bulk of money held as public funds. Neither sub-units, such as regional authorities, nor supranational ones, such as the European Union, today come anywhere near to outweighing the political might of the nation state.

Several West European states (e.g. Britain, Belgium, Spain) contain nationalist and separatist tendencies. While such autonomous movements should not be politically underestimated, it should be noted that not one state in western Europe has been broken up in this way since 1945. The devolved units, such as Scotland and Catalonia, remain very much secondary to the old political states of which they are still part.

Nonetheless, the independent power and room for manoeuvre of the nation state has weakened in the last thirty years on account of globalisation - or to say that more precisely, the free movement of financial capital and the growing role of transnational corporations. That said, the real power of the nation state was again amply demonstrated in the near financial meltdown in 2008. Collapsing banks could only be rescued by subsidies from nation states, and supranational bodies such as the EU proved themselves weak and ineffective.

What is an entirely different question is: should the nation state be the exclusive unit of focus for the political left? The answer is no for at least two reasons: first nationalism by its nature not only creates a community, imagined or otherwise, for those who are deemed part of the nation, but by the same token it also identifies and excludes those who are not deemed to part of the nation. The striving for socialism, tactical consideration aside, can never be based on preference for one set of people defined by citizenship or ethnicity at the expense of others, because socialism is properly anchored in principles of universalism and internationalism.

The second reason is practical. Reformism is about progressive change brought about by the state, nearly always with popular pressure from below. In the so-called Golden Years, late 1940s to the mid 1970s, the state did bring about meaningful reform in favour of working people. Thus we can clearly see that, though the state is an instrument of capitalist power, it also has the ability to regulate capitalism and can do so on occasion against the interests of capitalists. And today, in so far a globalisation has diminished the power of the national state, the space for progressive reform lost to the nation state can only be taken up by supranational bodies – and in Europe that mean the EU. Such reform is, of course, utterly unrealistic if conceived as the EU alone acting against member states, but is perfectly feasible if it were the EU acting in coalition with several of its big member states.

In conclusion, thought about the political role of the nation state becomes much clearer if we consider separately, but in juxtaposition, first where we are now politically and second what we want to do to realise socialist purposes.