Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The ends of freedom

This is frightening. Anyone who has the least belief in "freedom" should refuse to vote for anyone who does not answer Crane's question "absolutely not". That these men are not smart enough to understand the question or understand it but are willing to make any reply than "absolutely not" should scare Americans, and the rest of us, because where America goes, Australia follows.

Our freedom -- our physical liberty -- begins with habeas corpus. It is absolutely nonnegotiable. We should never empower our representatives to abridge it: that way lies disappearances, dictatorship, the dissolution of freedom.

I am frightened. There are a million surveillance cameras in my homeland, and a government that knows best on every score, but as we've discussed, ignores the facts when it's knowing best. We have governments that believe violence is the answer to almost everything; violence, coercion, repression. We have rightists who enable them, and in the UK, we have chickenhawks like Cohen and Aaronovitch who are attempting to shift the left sharply rightwards, urging support for warmongering and antimulticulturalism (which is all too often plain racism in a coat of reasonableness).

We now bear a striking resemblance to the final days of the Roman republic. Radicals on the left have simply faded away (in Rome, they were undercut by rightist populism, just as they were in the West: Reagan and Thatcher pushed a heavily corporate, antimiddle-class agenda while propagandising it as popular and bourgeois; like Rome, they appealed directly to greed, by offering small sops to the masses). The political scene is a contest for power between different factions of the business parties. Most people probably don't know that Julius Caesar posed as a populist of the left while being supported by Crassus, the richest man in Rome. None of the people involved had any true political alignment except to their own ambition, with a few exceptions, such as the scalding Cato, who gives the impression of not quite being clued in to what was going on.

Of course, dictatorship and empire were good for the Roman masses. When a man like Sulla liquidated his enemies, he was mostly killing aristocrats and businessmen. He did not murder the headcount. (His proscriptions had two functions: to eliminate political opposition and to raise funds with which to reward his supporters; the citizenry did not pose a political threat to him because he represented the popular faction and had the sense to pay them off, and they did not have enough money for him to think them worth killing for it.) The masses gained materially and somewhat in status and politically. They were entirely disempowered but the Roman economy thrived for a time (although the inflation after a successful conquest must have been painful) and the Romans used successful methods to keep them quiescent: food doles and state-supplied entertainments.

Justice, then as now, depended on the fatness of your wallet. The idea that a business should have any other end than making gobs of money would have struck a Roman as quite odd, as it does Americans today.

A major difference between then and now is that some of the aristocracy fought against the end of the republic, while some facilitated it. It may even be too cynical to suggest that those who fought for it only did so because they believed it to be the best structure to preserve their interests. Now, of course, no one in the elites has much problem with the extension of executive power. They expect to be wielding that power themselves some time soon, after all. If America elects Hillary Clinton, I would not expect her to be quick to roll back Bush's assertions of executive power; and David Cameron will probably only add to Blair's. One great disappointment with Blair himself was that he did not repeal any of Thatcher's repressive legislation. He just quietly let it lie, and in time built on it. If anything, Blair has been more authoritarian than even Thatcher, his party even keener to worship the market and his military quicker to become involved in expressions of power overseas. He has been able to pass himself off as a centrist because Britain's Overton window was so radically shifted by Thatcher's extremism. There is no one on the left who has the balls or energy to shift it back, and no one in politics who has the desire. Increases in power, it seems to me, are bound to appeal to those who contest for power. They are not going to fight to have less!

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

i guess being scared is a good start.

they don't teach political science in britain, i presume. i infer from the fact that brits commonly refer to their society as a democracy. have another look at '1984', with particular attention to newspeak and doublethink.

real democracy is possible, the swiss manage it, and some of the american states. but it's an accident of history rather than a choice. usually some elite group grasps power in any society.

the problem is that a small group with similar aims are both more agile and more persistent than the general population. this has been the case since before homo erectus- the same principles are visible in baboon troops or chimp gangs as can be seen in political parties.

if you want to improve human society, support democracy when you can:

citizen initiated referendum
direct election of officers
public access to the activities of public servants.

April 4, 2007 at 1:57 PM  
Anonymous Looney said...

Right as rain, Zen. Fuck. I'm turning libertarian ;-)

April 4, 2007 at 3:08 PM  
Anonymous Don said...

citizen initiated referendum
direct election of officers
public access to the activities of public servants


We have those in California, but it doesn't feel much like a democracy to me. The party division is particularly deep, and compromise is not the same as a reasonable middle ground.

I already know Giuliani is unacceptable. I haven't written Romney off yet but probably will. No Democrats inspire more confidence, though I will grant Obama the benefit of not having been deep in the machine for very long. Unfortunately, he's probably been in it long enough that his answer too would be couched in care and equivocating.

I fear the internet and other enabling technologies, couple with entitlement law, are become the people's bread and circuses.

some of the aristocracy fought against the end of the republic, while some facilitated it.

Who facilitated it, and why? It has always been at the base of my thinking that no one in power will ever allow the undermining of his own. Thus the right actions are those which benefit the masses ultimately (e.g. the wealth spread if unevenly by capitalism, don't deny it), and let the rich get richer, who cares.

April 5, 2007 at 4:28 AM  
Anonymous Don said...

dictatorship and empire were good for the Roman masses

My fear is that if we back off and surrender the world stage to other would-bes, the economic dip will create new political stresses, and we will lose not just fuel for our SUVs, but hospitals, freedom of assembly, everything. The turning wheel of history is a very, very big thing to ride.

April 5, 2007 at 4:36 AM  
Anonymous Dr Zen said...

Who facilitated it? Gaius Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, Lepidus, Caesar, Augustus and a cast of thousands. Everyone who thought they had more to gain from destroying it. But also players like the Gracchi, who democratised its institutions. True democracy is the end of a republic.

As for backing off the world stage, America is fucked if it does, fucked if it doesn't. Make sure your grandkids speak Chinese, innit.

April 5, 2007 at 9:00 AM  
Anonymous Don said...

I asked the wrong question because I wasn't paying attention. The end of the Republic meant the birth of Empire. In my thinking, the end of the Republic means the end of the country, and that's totally false with regards to Rome. As for the U.S., I think, as you say, we're fucked, Republican Empire or no. I am therefore to be pardoned if sometimes I prefer to survive as a sort of empire, than recede as a weak, decreasingly republican democracy.

April 6, 2007 at 3:12 AM  

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