Friday, June 17, 2005

Why Orwell Doesn't Matter

What does Aaro do on weekends, by the way? I was down for Sunday duty but he wasn’t there in the Observer and he wasn’t there in the Sunday Times. I didn’t look in the Torygraph or the Independent but I doubt he was there either. Is England’s Third Best Orwell Impersonator taking a reduced workload?

Anyway, my colleague has amply documented the most recent col, in which Decent Dave gets in bed with ID cards and surveillance. As far as I can see the new Murdoch-era gameplan is to nudge a little bit to the right every week, rather like the Eastern Edge of the San Andreas Fault and probably leading to the same inevitable eventual collapse. Which leaves me with nothing to do except bash out a bit of colour commentary on what the hell argument Aaronovitch thinks he’s making.

I blame Orwell myself. It was his 1984 which established the central metaphors by which we think about ubiquitous surveillance. The televisor in every house, the scrutiny of individuals, the barking voice issuing commands to Winston Smith to wake up and begin the day’s callisthenics. Trouble is, this central organising metaphor is actually very misleading as a way of looking at the way in which actual totalitarian states work.

Aaronovitch is clearly in the grip of this central organising metaphor; his vision is clearly of a Blofeld-figure in Tesco central headquarters or in Alastair Darling’s orbital command-pod, surveying a bank of screens, constantly scrutinising the proles for evidence of deviant activity. And he concludes that it’s ridiculous to think this way. And of course he’s right that it’s ridiculous, because it would be logistically impossible to run a panopticon of this size.

But of course, that’s not how governments work when they want to use surveillance in order to restrict the liberty of their citizens. They don’t just hang around watching people more or less at random on the off-chance of catching someone being subversive. They pick a small number of people that they don’t like and watch them very intently; the installation of a universal network of surveillance makes this task immeasurably easier, but it doesn’t change the essential nature.

And this is why organisations like “Liberty” are worried. Because governments in the UK do not have a very good record about choosing to snoop on and harass people only on the basis of their potential to create a public nuisance. They in fact have a very bad record of snooping and harassing people purely on the basis that the establishment of the day doesn’t like their politics. Asbos and CCTV are potentially a powerful weapon for good, but you can’t be a weapon for good without being a weapon. And our current government has, to say the least, an uneasy psychological relationship with weapons of all kinds, and a record of remarkably poor self-control when facing people who annoy it.

Aaronovitch must know this, for God’s sake. As a former CPer, there must be a file on him up at MI5. He knows about the Miners’ Strike. So what the hell is this rubbish about “the majoritarian view of human rights”? And why on earth is he complaining about the kind of people who talk about “planning-violating Gypsies” in paragraph 6 and then affecting not to have any concept of a “marginalised community” in the last but one? As far as I can see, the central theme of this column is almost that of a Morecambe & Wise sketch in which Decent Dave has been cast in the role of Pastor Martin Niemoller’s straight-man (“well, they’ve come for the Communists, Jews and Trade Unionists, but I’m not one”).

Laws like the ASBO can certainly be used to good effect against old-lady-taunters and drug-dealers (though one might note that taunting is not currently a criminal offence and if it is to become one, primary legislation might be in order). However, given that they carry a presumption of action, are not subject to rules of evidence and can make people subject to criminal law without having committed a crime, they are also perfectly adapted to the task of harassing the politically inconvenient, and the beginnings of their use as a tool against Gypsies is not exactly encouraging. The police don’t give you the benefit of the doubt if you’re walking down the street at night carrying locksmith’s tools and it is not unreasonable of Liberty to take the same attitude to the government.

So the solution to it all? Well, neither the fascism of the strawman “majoritarians” not the libertinism of the strawman “minoritarians” but rather a “Third Way” in which we all ignore the shoe factory stitching a rush order of jackboots because we can’t see anyone goosestepping yet. Well fair enough, Decent Dave. But you, Aaro, personally, are not quite as scot free as you appear to believe. Tescos might not care about your big tubs o’Vaseline. Alastair Darling might not care where you’re driving to. Charles Clarke might not consider you quite worth the trouble of an ASBO just right now. But we’re watching you

(Readers, of whom we have none and no realistic prospect of any until we start publicising this blog, will notice that there are two regular contributors, both using the screen name “Bruschetta Boy”. We might sort this out or we might not).


Blogger Quixotematic said...

The US is lobbying to get open access to the putative UK ID card database.
Its not just a government that we elect that will be spying on us.
They're already entrapping the innocent:

How long before UK citizens are being disappeared?

6/17/2005 11:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David Aaronovitch seems like an intelligent chap and pleasant enough to chat to socially.

Part of the fun of watching him on TV or reading his columns are the mental contortions which he goes through in order to appear to convince himeslf of the NuLabour apologist positions which he often promulgates.

His article on current CCTV and future Road Tolling mass surveillance is just wrong.

It does not matter if he thinks that he personally has "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" from Government or Corporate spies, that is not sufficient to justify forcing such mass surveillance on the rest of us.

In typical NuLabour style, he throws in quite a few red herrings such as the Magna Carta.
The Human Rights Act is not the final word on the subject, it is, after all based on the 60 year old European Convention on Human Rights (it was a scandal that the UK did not ratify it when it was created), and it needs to be further strengthened explicitly to deal with 21st century technological threats and benefits posed by , for example, Information Technology and Genetic Biotechnology, neither of which existed when the Convention was drawn up.

Although George Orwell's "1984" does describe a totalitarian society, it is not the vast majority of people who were under "telescreen" surveillance, it was only the Party elite and the nomenklatura like David - the rest of the "proles" were considered beneath contempt and did not jusitify the expense of such surveillance. This is very different from NuLabour, where mass surveillance of the "proles" is exactly what the ever cheaper techniology allows them to fantasise about using as a technological fix to social problems, especially if the public can be conned into paying a fee for the privilige of being kept under surveillance.

However , just because someone in Tesco or the Department of Transport is not using the technology on you right now, is no reason to be complacent. In the words of George Orwell:

"The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live - did live, from habit that became instinct - in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and except in darkness, every movement scrutinised."

Of course modern CCTV technology can see in the dark

What was that nonense Aaronovitch was wittering on about "majoritarian" or "minoritarion"
civil or human rights ?

It seems like Bolshevik doublethink. (Bolshevik ="majority" in Russian, used by Lenin and his followers who were in a minority in the Provisional Government after the fall of the Czar)

There is no evidence that ASBOs have solved any of the problems of fears about "youth on the streets". Especially as most ASBOs are served on adults with drink, drug or mental problems, and they are not being inflicted fairly and consistently throughout the country.

6/18/2005 02:53:00 PM  

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