Saturday, February 28, 2009

Liberty, human rights and the grassroots

Dave e-mailed me a few days ago to ask that I contribute a blog post on the theme of 'socialism and modern liberty' to the Carnival of Socialism.

A lot of the discussion on both of these subjects is quite downbeat and depressing, so I'm going to tell a cheerful story. A couple of weeks ago, I was helping a community group organise a workshop discussion and training in human rights to be held in a community centre in an estate in West London. Somewhat optimistically, the organisers planned for between 20 and 25 people to turn up.

In fact, over 120 people attended, mostly younger people, and a roughly equal gender balance.

A few weeks earlier, I spoke at a conference alongside a whole host of speakers including Shaykh Kabbani, an internationally renowned Sufi scholar, and, um, Chico from the x-factor. Shaykh Kabbani and two other scholars who spoke were speaking about how extremists misrepresent Islam.

He spoke about how people feel angry when they see injustice, whether in their own communities or when seeing and hearing the news from Gaza and other parts of the world. But for people living in Britain, where the laws allow human rights and free expression, this is not a reason to turn to violence. Instead, he taught that people should do three things - ensure that they themselves make every effort to help those weaker than themselves and look after others when they need it; to pray; and to engage in peaceful protest against injustice. (Incidentally, this is a good example of how many of these anti-terrorism laws which undermine the right of peaceful protest play rights into the hands of violent extremists).

Over 300 people turned up on a Saturday evening for this conference, again, mostly younger people and with roughly equal numbers of men and women.

I think that all of this is particularly interesting, whatever you think of human rights or Islamic scholarship, because it shows that discussions about liberty aren't, contrary to the myths, ones which are only of interest to 'chattering classes', but that there is a lot of interest in working-class communities to discuss and debate these issues, whether as part of more secular discussions about human rights and equalities, or in a more religious context.

I think this enthusiasm for discussing modern liberty is one that socialists should be part of and encourage. One of the things that I find difficult about the 'mainstream' debate about civil liberties at the moment is that I don't agree with the vast majority of the government's laws restricting liberties, but at the same time I don't think that Britain is a police state, I think most people have greater freedoms than a decade ago (let alone at the time of Magna Carta or whatever).

I think a debate about modern liberty which is shaped by discussions and debates and led by the grassroots in local communities up and down the country is likely to be infinitely richer, more thoughtful and more rooted in people's experiences and needs than the theoretical and often very polemical debate that seems to dominate at the moment.

10 Comments:

At 6:25 pm , Anonymous tim f said...

Yes.

Usually the words "Magna" and "Carta" in the same sentence cause me to disregard whatever it is that someone is saying.

 
At 5:25 pm , Blogger Paul said...

"I think most people have greater freedoms than a decade ago."

I'd be interested to know this sentence can be backed up.

 
At 10:12 am , Blogger jdc said...

Paul, really really easily.

I have more freedom to access government information, more freedom to choose who I marry, more freedom to enforce my welfare against the state through the UK courts, more freedom to protection in my employment against discrimination and unfair dismissal, more freedom from harassment based on my race or religion, more freedom to access services regardless of disability, etc etc.

In contrast, what freedoms have I lost? The freedom not to be watched? I don't care. Let people have the freedom to watch me, it doesn't reduce my real freedom in the slightest. Bizarrely the last libertarian list I saw complained of the government limiting the freedom to stalk. Irony, much?

 
At 11:34 am , Blogger Rob said...

jdc, I think that the problem here is that freedoms/liberties are not fungible. It's not easily possible to say "on the one hand we gained X quantity of freedom and on the other we lost Y, therefore if X > Y we gained freedom overall". For a start, attributing values to freedoms won and lost in this way is difficult.

Secondly, the costs and benefits will fall differently on different people. Some may gain, others may lose. And we value freedoms subjectively too; the fact that you don't care about a loss of freedom in one area doesn't mean that others will not care either.

I think there's also a difference in the categories of freedoms won or lost, and the dangers represented by that loss. Free speech, for example, underpins many other freedoms. It might not have been possible to speak up for many of the other freedoms you mention had it not been possible to protest loudly and forcefully in favour of them. We run the risk, now, of classifying many people who merely object to the government's policy as "extremists", with the effect that many legitimate complaints that could lead to greater freedom (for example, greater freedom to question and hold the govt. to account on military matters) might become difficult or impossible to obtain.

 
At 2:15 pm , Blogger jdc said...

Rob - politics is innately subjective. Obviously a gay man living in Camden is likely to value the freedom to marry his life partner (gained) more than the freedom to kill a fox for fun (lost). A heterosexual squire in Tewkesbury may feel differently.

A member of a persecuted religious minority may place a high value on their freedom from persecution (gained, or at least legally protected), whereas a smoker may place a higher value on their freedom to smoke in the company of others (lost, in places open to the general public).

I'm just saying which ones I think are more important, subjectively, to me.

 
At 3:35 pm , Blogger Paul said...

I wonder whether a 'gay man living in Camden' values his loss of the right to protest near parliament. I wonder if he values his loss of the right to remain silent if arrested. I wonder if he worries about the government's forthcoming right to take and keep his DNA, and fifty other pieces of personal information about him, on a permanent state database. I wonder if he is concerned about being banged up without charge for 28 days or being wire-tapped without his knowledge.

I wonder if he cares that police can now stop and search him without a warrant, and that bailiffs can enter his home with no notice and physically restrain him. I wonder if he cares that the state can trace all his emails and phone calls. I wonder if he is concerned about the ongoing abolition of trial by jury or the fact that police can now forcibly disperse a gathering of 20 or more people, anywhere they like at any time.

I wonder if he cares that if he protests about this, the police can use that protection from harrassment act, or terrorism legislation, to threaten him with years in jail simply for voicing his opinion, as has been done many times in recent years to peaceful protesters.

Probably not, eh? After all, gay people are only interested in the right to have a civil partnership, aren't they? So much more important than any of these.

I suggest you take a look at this exhaustive list of what this government has taken from you, and is preparing to take:

http://www.modernliberty.net/downloads/abolition_of_freedom.pdf

Then I suggest you act a little less blase about rights and freedoms which were hard-won over centuries and are now being lost.

 
At 8:28 am , Blogger jdc said...

"I wonder whether a 'gay man living in Camden' values his loss of the right to protest near parliament. I wonder if he values his loss of the right to remain silent if arrested. I wonder if he worries about the government's forthcoming right to take and keep his DNA, and fifty other pieces of personal information about him, on a permanent state database."

There are plenty of protestors outside Parliament on a daily basis, I walk past it twice a day. Now, please tell me, if the government has my DNA and other personal information, what am I in fact less free to do?

 
At 6:36 pm , Blogger Paul said...

Yes, but they have to ask permission from the police to express their political opinions. Does that not bother you at all? Not even a little bit?

Did you bother reading any of that stuff I pointed you towards?

Do you have any idea what's going on at all?

You are a very good example of precisely why we are losing what we're losing. Not only are you ignorant, but you revel in it.

Orwell couldn't have made it up.

 
At 6:38 pm , Blogger Paul said...

PS: Since you find the 'freedom to stalk' so amusing, have a look at this explanation of what that act is now being used for. And then hope you don't feel like protesting about anything the government does at any time in the future:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/mar/06/comment.politics

 
At 8:57 pm , Blogger jdc said...

I had a quick skim of your undergraduates' pamphlet. Bit shallow, but nice to confirm the government is taking firm action to rebuild society after the individualism and anarchy that grew steadily from about 1963 to the late Thatcher/Major era.

I do revel in it. The police now have the right to break up the gangs of feral children who are destroying the real liberties of people round here. The liberty to go to the shops or wait for a bus without constant fear. Of course society is so far gone that the gang's response to this was to beat the chair of the tenants association who had made the request to the police until he was unconscious, but hey ho, I guess they were just "standing up for their liberties".

Wow, Henry Porter and George "if Al Qaeda did not exist it would be necessary to invent it" Monbiot. It's like a game of useful idiot bingo, and I'm calling House. You have described a problem caused by too much liberty - the liberty to dispose as you see fit of your private property, and too little strong government, and turned it on its head. You might care about people's right to have their little protest, I care about the outcome.

And no, it doesn't bother me in the slightest about Parliament Square. To be honest every time I walk past, I become a little less sympathetic with whoever is despoiling the view. Trafalgar Square has been good enough for British political protestors since, well, since Trafalgar. The Countryside Alliance started the rot, and then the anti-war lot embedded it.

Have your protest, but the selfish Americans (and 90% of Parliament Square's resident wasters are Americans, or at least the ones with megaphones always are) stopping the police from doing their job, getting in the way of tourists and workers alike, and trying to disrupt the workings of democracy are an embarrassment to whatever trendy cause they've decided is more important than getting a job this particular week. Brian Haw ought to be supporting the seven children he spawned, not making a public spectacle of himself.

 

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