The current talk of civil liberties called to mind the following remark from Jean-Claude Milner, quoted by Slavoj Žižek in his book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce.
Žižek observes how the establishment co-opted and neutralised “all threatening consequences” of the 1968 uprisings, granting new rights to people but “without actually giving them any power”, and then quotes Milner as follows:
Those who hold power know very well the difference between a right and a permission … A right in a strict sense of the term gives access to the exercise of a power, at the expense of another power. A permission doesn’t diminish the power of the one who gives it; it doesn’t augment the power of the one who gets it. It makes his life easier, which is not nothing.
Hence “the right to divorce, abortion, gay marriage and so on” are “permissions masked as rights” that “do not change in any way the distribution of powers”.
Milner continues by observing that “the spirit of ’68” has ended up in a depoliticised, individualist, consumer-capitalist lifestyle on the one hand, and in nihilist violence among the dispossessed of the Paris slums on the other. He concludes:
Do not talk to me anymore about permissions, control, equality; I only know force. Here is my question: in the face of the reconciliation of the notables and the solidarity of the strongest, how to make it that the weak will have powers?
Well, now we have our own “reconciliation of the notables and solidarity of the strongest”, in the shape of the Conservative/Liberal coalition. And the difficulty I have is not with the coalition’s civil liberties proposals themselves, but with some of the more adulatory coverage of them (such as this item on BoingBoing yesterday).
What is being missed is that these proposals, while welcome, do not cover any areas of civil liberty that might seriously threaten the interests and power of the state. The vast array of anti-terrorism legislation from the past few years remains in place, with nothing more than a promise to “introduce safeguards against [its] misuse”. The right to silence will not be restored.
The Human Rights Act – probably the most important piece of civil liberties legislation passed in the last half-century or more, and one of the most important checks on state power – remains under threat from a Tory party that seems intensely resentful of the idea that people might enjoy human rights by virtue of being human, rather than being “British”, “responsible”, “law-abiding” and so on.
Above all, for “the weak” of which Milner speaks any gains in civil liberties will be more than offset by the loss of practical liberty that comes from losing one’s job, losing access to essential services, lacking decent and affordable housing, and having to bear a disproportionate share of tax rises.
Let’s celebrate the abolition of ID cards and other measures, yes. But let’s not get carried away. It is the most “non-threatening” liberties that are being restored to us, and I’m deeply sceptical that we will see any significant shift in real power away from a centralising state.