We often boast of the uniqueness of our system. We are not a totalitarian society that crushes the individual out of existence and tramples over his/her rights and freedoms. Ours is not a traditional society that suffocates its members with the authority of the tribe, its dated norms, rigid customs and smug chieftains. Nor are we comparable with the communist system and its rationalised instruments of surveillance, force and coercion. No, ours is a liberal, free and open society.
But there are questions we need to ask ourselves. For, is the distance that separates us from these systems we deplore really as great as we believe? Can we take the gap that divides “us” from “them” for granted? Are liberal societies completely immune to totalitarianism? Could the boundaries between these systems not be blurred? Could the liberal system itself not slide into tyranny, whilst still preserving its veneer of freedom, tolerance and pluralism?
We all remember the McCarthy era, with its government and privately run “loyalty review” boards, “subversive activities control” committees, random arrests, house searches, aggressive investigations, unconstitutional laws, extra-legal procedures, blacklists, illegal trials, and full jails.
We all recall the May ’68 riots, when the French government turned protests by a number of angry university students into a national crisis, with its brutal handling of the situation generating a strike by two-thirds of France’s workers. In response to the strikes, De Gaulle, who was president at the time, deployed the army, dissolved the National Assembly, and threatened to institute a state of emergency.
Two decades later, Thatcher summoned a massive police force – which many former miners maintain included British army soldiers in disguise – to crack down on the miners striking over pit closures and loss of livelihood. The striking miners, Thatcher said, were “the enemy within” who did not share the values of the British people. “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty”.
Commenting on what he had witnessed, Arthur Scargill said, “We’ve had riot shields, we’ve had riot gear, we’ve had police on horseback charging into our people, we’ve had people hit with truncheons and people kicked to the ground… the intimidation and the brutality that has been displayed are something reminiscent of a Latin American state.”
And today, amidst the so-called war on terror, we watch ourselves rapidly turn into a surveillance society. Liberal democratic governments are using the authority their citizens have placed in their hands to violate their rights and erode their freedoms. In the name of national security and the protection of “our” sublime values, liberties are squandered, judges’ authority is depleted, and the unlawful gets legalised.
Oppose the systematic destruction of hard won freedoms and you’re intimidated into silence, dismissed as an “apologist for terror”, or a simpleton who does not understand the “depth and magnitude of the terrorist threat”.
We continually sing the praises of our democratic system, its transparency, representativeness, and checks and balances on power. But rarely do we put our theories to the test of reality – instead deliriously repeating them over and over again as though they were some sort of sacred dogma, to be believed regardless of the facts on the ground. With its torrent of lies and distortions, the Iraq war, like several events in the past, has exposed the vulnerability of the liberal democratic system.
As one opinion poll after another revealed the extent of public opposition to the war and hundreds of thousands protested in the heart of London, battle plans were being drawn up, troops were already being mobilised. When Bush congratulated Iraqis that freedom was knocking at their door, his police forces did not hesitate to handcuff angry protesters in the streets of New York and Washington.
Democracy, its institutions and representative bodies, seem to shrink to insignificance when confronted with the specter of “national interest”, an ambiguous notion defined by a few politicians, their unelected entourage and a network of powerful lobbies and interest groups
Another dark stain on our system’s record today is its turning on its least privileged of minorities, pushing it to the corner, surrounding it with suspicion, repressive measures and policies, and giving free reign to bigotry and prejudice. Muslims are Britain’s poorest community, five times more likely to live in overcrowded accommodation than their fellow white Britons, four times more likely to be unemployed, twice as likely to have no qualifications, live in social rented accommodation, and suffer from ill health. But just as Thatcher had blamed the poor for their poverty, the trend today is to hold this new underclass responsible for its misfortunes in one of the most socially stratified and closed social systems in the world.
From “the working class character” with its “laziness” and “lack of motivation”, to Muslim culture and its “penchant for isolationism”, our system seems to excel in the creation of scapegoats.
The value of a socio-political system is not judged by its self-congratulatory rhetoric, nor by the way it conducts itself in times of ease and stability, but by its behaviour in crises. If the threat of some deluded terrorists can drive the liberal system to turn its back on the principles upon which it claims to be founded, and to degenerate into surveillance, coercion and majority tyranny over the minority, I hate to think how it would react if faced with the danger of armies stationed at its borders, mutiny, coup d’etats, invasion, or occupation.
The question we must have the courage to ask ourselves is: grand slogans of freedom, tolerance, and pluralism aside, how liberal is our “liberal” system?