Almost immediately after the Tory victory, David Cameron announced his intention to battle so-called extremists. This is not a surprise. More of a surprise, even in the context of Western conservatism, is Cameron’s assertion he would enact policies to battle forms of expression that were not illegal:
“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.”
This is not merely a vague notion Cameron is kicking around. It’s a proposal that was already blocked by the Liberal Democrats the last time. Now that a conservative government holds power it’s round two. And it doesn’t matter if you obey the law (“if you’re not a criminal you have nothing to hide”) – you’re still a potential target.
A premise of representative democracy, a fundamental myth of the system, is that politicians are your employees and representatives of the public will. Yet, most people do not vote. Politicians, then, can’t be said to legitimately represent the non-voters. A significant minority (almost half) of people who do vote also end up without parliamentary representation. This is because the winning side dominates and effectively disenfranchises the losers. On top of that, politicians who attain power routinely pursue private agendas contrary even to the wishes of supporters.
Representative democracy, at least here and now, has failed.
The unilateral imposition of policy – and this describes almost all policy and law – is effectively the full role of the modern state, be it parliamentary or republican. I recently wrote about how some American conservatives, moving further to the right in response to social change, end up abandoning what have historically been conservative values. A deference to the rule of law is one example, while freedom of expression is another. In the case of the rule of law, the law itself is subordinated to more ephemeral values, specifically whatever the right-wing flavor of the month is. It could be to stop flag burning, enhancing surveillance, or combating so-called extremism. And in the case of expression, speech is subordinated. Cameron’s policy mixes both.
The new act, which will allow police officers to vet Internet usage and censor so-called extremists, is the kind of policy that the conservative-cum-fascist trend enables. Legality, in this case, falling second to enforcing “British values.” The classical liberal value of free speech, what used to be an ideological staple of Western conservatives, is being buried beneath the ever-shifting goalposts of ambiguous values. Ambiguous and new; most “traditional values” have been invented in the last decade, reactionary and fearful responses to perceived threats (terrorism).
Unfortunately, when the line is crossed – when politicians don’t even bother to hide behind the facade of law – there is little hope for a peaceful solution. The system of representative democracy in place no longer works to rectify political overreaching.
“But you can vote that person out of office,” you may say. Maybe. Maybe not. Even if we can, when we can no longer expect politicians to follow the law, when politicians use positions of power to push their own personal agendas, why assume the next representative will be better. More importantly, why should anyone be forced to submit to, or concede the legitimacy of forms of repression, even for a short period of time, or even if repression has the rubber stamp of a subverted form of democracy?
In a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, the only effective responses to policies like Cameron’s are going to be “extremist” in nature. “Extremist” resistance. The full rejection of the legitimacy of this government, civil disobedience in the face of oppressive policy, and non-cooperation with any institution (e.g. the police) that has a role in censoring, vetting, or monitoring dissident speech. The kind of resistance Cameron would call extremist – what I call much needed or about time – thrives in environments of repression. And as the illusion of democracy melts away what remains is our true course: direct action.