A Tale of Two Cities: Detroit and Kabul
This is a tale of two cities, once proud in their own ways and now reduced to a shadow of their former glory. It is a story that harks back to the hippy trail of Afghanistan and the humming asphalt of America; the silk road of Kabul and the streetlights of Detroit.
It is a story that follows the time-honoured trajectory of rise, fall and possible redemption. It is fragranced with the aroma of opium poppies, exhaust fumes and the shit of kamikaze camels. But finally it’s a story about the necessity of contraction, urban and imperial.
But hush, the lights are dimming. Look now. See the needle drop on the vinyl. Hear Paul Simon’s thin voice singing faintly.
“It’s carbon and monoxide, that ole Detroit perfume. It hangs on the highways in the morning, and it lays you down by noon… ”
“Oh, Papa Papa Hobo, Could you slip me a ride? Well, it’s just after breakfast, I’m on the road, and the weatherman lied.” Paul Simon.
It’s long after breakfast in the chronology of Detroit’s day. It’s dusk and it’s cold out there. The ride has stalled and the streets are empty. It’s a bad time to be a hobo, lying weathermen or no, but with an unemployment rate of 28.9%, the city’s producing not a few.
This metropolis used to be known as the “Paris of the West” for its architecture. Did you know that? It used to be the center of American industry and engineering. But all the roaring machismo of mankind’s oily ingenuity has fallen pretty quiet here. It’s looking a little ragged round the edges.
It used to be a city of purring wheels. High rollers. The Big Bankrupt Three are headquartered here: General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. But you knew that.
It’s full of “little wheels” now. That’s what roulette means in French. Did you know that? Yeah, they’ve replaced much of the industry with casinos. People throwing money away: that’s what they call urban regeneration these days. Did you know that? They call it regeneration, poker-faced.
(Sure, your occasional off-duty cop is gonna burn twenty-thousand odd at the MGM Grand and then shoot themselves in the head at the blackjack table, but that’s collateral damage, you can roll with it.)
Remember that song by Buffy Saint-Marie? “Little wheel spin and spin, big wheel turn around and around”? Well that little wheel’s spinning but the big wheel has pretty much juddered to a halt. “Hearts they shrink and pockets swell, everybody know and nobody tell”. Yeah, that just about sums it up too I guess. Though there ain’t too many pockets swollen round here at the end of the day.
The motor city has been shrinking for over half a century. Yeah, more than a million people have fled this place since the 1950s. There were two million folks working and drinking and singing here back in the days after World War Two. It’s less than half that now and the city’s falling apart. If you leave the casinos behind you and head out of town, you’ll encounter packs of wild dogs flitting like shadows in and out of burnt down suburban houses. There are things that are green and grow wildly wedging unforgiving fingers in crumbling redbrick.
You know, someone from Newsweek drove every street of the city back in 2007. This is what they saw from their car window:
People living ordinary American lives amid an extraordinary landscape of abandoned and burned-out homes, factories, schools, and stores in what was once the epicenter of American manufacturing. Even Detroit’s many gracious neighborhoods have boarded-up homes, and some blocks are ghost towns in miniature, with house after house empty and crumbling.
And that was before the recession. Gracious indeed.
The devastation here is a tourist attraction now. Folks gape at the “extraordinary landscape” and those brave-hearted photographers who fear no hobos and dare to pick their way through the nettles to snap decrepitude on their pricey Nikons. Holy fuck, it’s like one of the wonders of the world now. Or an inverse image thereof. You’d think people had never seen a busted-up city before. Well, sing on Mr. Simon:
“Sweep up, I been sweeping up the tips I’ve made. I been livin’ on Gatorade, planning my getaway. Detroit, Detroit.”
Hell, you want to see a busted-up city? I’ll show you people a busted-up city:
Now sure, Detroit’s seen its fair share of battles. The French vs. the Indians in 1760 was no joke. And the unemployed councils vs. Henry Ford in 1932? That was some serious shit too. Yeah, more people died in the Ford Hunger March massacre in the depths of the depression than when the British put the whole city under siege back in 1813. Most people don’t know that..
But why not leave Detroit for a moment. Step away from the squalor of the slot machines and follow me as the crow flies 6859 kilometers east. There’s no mistaking this place. Kites fly above houses that make your suburban Detroit wreck look like a mansion. Wedding parties fire AK47s madly upwards, mountains jut up from the plateau. Everyone’s got a beard. Hell, even the women might have them: you wouldn’t know, they’re all covered up:
Welcome to Kabul.
Now, rewind a second. I know what you’re thinking: it doesn’t seem fair to make your better half live under a shroud with a hole in it, but bear with me, there’s probably good reason for that. You see, Afghanistan has been invaded by more megalomaniacal motherfuckers than you can shake a hookah at.
Wedged in a chaotic sprawl up between the peaks of the Hindu Kush for some 3000 years, it’s survived Alexander the Great, Timur the Lame, Gengis the Khan and George the W. Bush. Not to mention the squaddies of the British and the Soviet Empires. With that kind of company dropping by I’d probably keep my woman under wraps too.
But your local Pashtun, Tajik, Pashtai, Aimak, Hazara, Uzbek and Turkmen masses know how to look after themselves. They’ve given a few of those empires the finger in their lifetime and lived to tell the tale. Not too shoddy for a country that basically makes a living from growing flowers. Your Afghan florist is clearly not to be fucked with.
Kabul is looking less than pretty though; roses on every table? I think not. But you can hardly blame the mayor. The city’s taken a royal beating over recent decades; hell, if you think you’d look all that after being repeatedly mortared in the face you’d probably better think again.
(Detroit may have come under siege by senior British officer Major General Isaac Brock in 1813, but the American army there surrendered without a fight. Shit. They don’t pussy out, fly the white flag, or sit mute at the casino in Kabul while their suburbs rot. Only roulette they play out here is the Russian kind. But easy now: this place needs a lick of paint as bad as Detroit, not more blood splatters and bullet holes.)
The first Marks and Spencer store in Central Asia was built here in the 1960s, d’you know that? It’s long gone now, along with the pot-smoking dudes who rocked up around the same time in their colourful vans — some of them no doubt built in Detroit — to chat shit and chill before heading onwards down the Hippie Trail to Peshawar or Lahore, Goa or Kathmandu.
They certainly liked their flowers those hippies. And anyone in the know knows it’s all about the poppies out here in Kabul: big crimson, satin-petaled opium poppies, papaver somniferum, that sway somnambulantly in the sun.
Somebody better tell those Americans. They bombed this place with something called the “daisy cutter” back in 2003. That’s the world’s largest conventional weapon with a lethal radius of 900 feet to you and me. I think it’s called the BLU-82B/C-130 to the technically minded. Whatever. It’s designed to kill your missus and the kids.You could say the mayor wasn’t thrilled: it wasn’t really what Kabul needed. Besides, we don’t grow any damn daisies here. Total poppycock. Get the fuck out.
Talking of bombs, Detroit’s made bombs: in fact, you could even say that it’s the bombs that have made Detroit, or at least its freeways. You see, when the U.S. entered WWII on December 7, 1941, getting enough bombs to rain down on those Nazi Scheißters was serious business . So October the following year a brand-new, four-lane expressway from Motor City to munitions plants just out of town in Ypsilanti opened up.
It started as just a way to get Detroit workers to the bomb factories in Ypsilanti quicker and more efficiently, but ended up growing into a freeway extending first to, then through Detroit on the east and bypassing Ann Arbor on the west; a key link in the system of freeways in and around greater Detroit. (Hey, someone has to say it: I bet drivers used to bomb down that road.)
But Detroit’s not making too many munitions nor cars anymore. And present-day mayor and former Pistons star Dave Bing has said only half the city’s land is being used productively, though the wild dog packs might disagree. The city is going to have to prune itself back. In nearby Flint, the local authority has already pulled down 1,100 abandoned homes in outlying areas and some streets now just peter out into woods or meadows. It won’t be too long before nature reclaims the bitumen. The big city is going to have to do the same.
It doesn’t come easily; in the heartlands of capitalism growth is an ideal to be sustained at all costs, even at the cost of sustainability. But you can’t keep puffing away at a balloon with a gaping hole in it, and the man behind the scheme in Flint, Dan Kildee, has been approached by the US government and asked to apply what he has learnt to the rest of the country. Concentrating on 50 cities identified in a recent study as needing to shrink substantially to cope with their decline, Dan the Man includes Detroit on that list.
But just handing the damn town back to the prairie ain’t too imaginative: Detroit is surrounded by fresh water and green spaces. When life gives you lemons you gotta make lemonade. This smoking metropolis could wind up the cleanest, most liveable, environmentally friendly place in Michigan if it plays its cards right. One can only dream; call it the American Dream.
It’s not like you gotta look too far to find bright ideas. Shit, just give historian Mark Dowie a soapbox for a minute:
Were I an aspiring farmer in search of fertile land to buy and plow, I would seriously consider moving to Detroit. There is open land, fertile soil, ample water, willing labor, and a desperate demand for decent food.* And there is plenty of community will behind the idea of turning the capital of American industry into an agrarian paradise. In fact, of all the cities in the world, Detroit may be best positioned to become the world’s first one hundred percent food self-sufficient city.
Someone ought to put that man in touch with Michigan’s senator.
Detroit’s man in Washington, Sen. Carl Levin (D.-Michigan) is not thinking about a few shoddy suburbs or feral dog packs though. His mind’s elsewhere — 6859 kilometers east as the crow flies to be precise — and on grander things than the decline of the city he represents and its potential saviour by goddam urban farmers and fresh vegetables. But he is thinking about trimming back, albeit soldiers not suburbs.
See, the occupation of Afghanistan isn’t going too well, as Gengis, Tamur, or any Victorian fool in a pith helmet could have warned it wouldn’t. So Senator Levin’s been busy letting the Senate Armed Services Committee, which he chairs, know in no uncertain terms that he’s not keen on putting more American boots on the ground around Kabul.
Now close to a third of Detroit’s folks are out of work. Shouldn’t he be thinking about them, you ask? Maybe he is: I doubt any of them want to end up in the Hindu Kush getting shot at by some bearded Pashtun florist with a fucking AK. (What the hell do they put in the water out there anyway?)
The devil you know is better for Michigan’s citizens, Carl’s thinking — when he thinks about them at all — and there’s already 65,000 troops out there in Afghanistan. And besides, when you’re faced with an enemy that’s countering your daisy cutters with exploding camels, you should know you’re in deep shit; it must be time to leave the kamikaze quadropods and their owners in peace and head home to the suburbs, or whats left of them.
Can’t faster action be taken to build up and train Afghanistan’s army and police forces, to supply them with arms and equipment, and to get lower-level insurgents to switch loyalties from the Taliban to their own local defense forces? Carl asked his committee lugubriously over a pair of pince-nez, rocking from side-to-side as he sat there a few days back like an elderly, indignant bear.
Those actions would demonstrate the U.S. commitment to success in the war “while avoiding the risks associated with a further increase in U.S. ground combat troops.”
You could say the senator’s right to be a little fretful and chewing his claws; just days earlier Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, had wondered aloud whether Western powers now in Afghanistan were running the risk of suffering the fate of the Soviet Union.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the old foreign policy maven with the consonant-heavy name meant simply localised failure or the collapse of the whole troubled edifice that is the American empire, but as Levin flew back over his own crumbling citadel he might have looked down and concluded there are not a few lessons to be drawn and things to be done back home in Detroit.
*(Unbelievably, as Dowie writes, the city is close to becoming a food desert. Not so long ago, there were five produce-carrying grocery chains—Kroger, A&P, Farmer Jack, Wrigley, and Meijer—competing vigorously for the Detroit food market. Today there are none. Nor is there a single WalMart or Costco in the city; a city of more than a million people… Those looking to feed their families on healthy food in inner-city Detroit are in for a challenge. But the man’s got ideas…)
One obvious solution [for Detroiters] is to grow their own, and the urban backyard garden boom that is sweeping the nation has caught hold in Detroit, particularly in neighborhoods recently settled by immigrants from agrarian cultures of Laos and Bangladesh, who are almost certain to become major players in an agrarian Detroit. Add to that the five hundred or so twenty-by-twenty-foot community plots and a handful of three- to ten-acre farms cultured by church and non-profit groups, and during its four-month growing season, Detroit is producing somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of its food supply inside city limits.
“The strategic adversary is fascism… the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” Michel Foucault
A strange half-light seems to have settled over Britain. Our cars are to be monitored everywhere they go. Our public spaces and protests are violated by drones intended for military espionage. Our citizens are detained without trial and tortured by the intelligence services. Our police can kill the innocent with impunity and without shame. Our dissent is dismantled under the gaze of their cameras.
We, as citizens, are largely silent. Perhaps these things crept into the fabric of our public life too quietly, too alluringly, at a time when we were distracted and distraught; politically cynical and personally craven. They gained life as legislative arcana passed unheeded by a hidebound parliament of self-interested technocrats with an eye on ever-larger televisions bought on the expenses account. They were dust in Hansard’s transcripts. They did not relate to us.
These infringements, these tasteless, odorless Gestapo of the cyber age came as our waking lives were riddled with the daydream of property prices ploughing ever onwards, leaving a rich furrow of unearned income to pick over in their wake; our sleeping lives haunted by nightmares of bearded terrorists with a thanatotic fervour so nihilistic that torture and black site prisons seemed a small price to pay for our freedom from fear.
And so we slept as they came for those we wouldn’t speak up for and have woken in a world some of us do not and some of us refuse to recognize. It is very quiet.
To speak like this in polite society is to sound hysterical, shrill, or even paranoid. Why the self-indulgent, tinfoil-hat ranting?
After all it takes more than the vaguely comical introduction of a police drone over pagan revellers at Stonehenge’s summer solstice celebrations to rouse your average punter. And when the police killed, they killed with if not good reason, good excuses; the Brazilian electrician whose life ended abruptly on a London tube carriage after being executed at point-blank range by 12 shots to the head with expanding hollow-point bullets looked like a terrorist. There were intelligence failures. It was an honest mistake.
And when a pudgy, alcoholic newspaper vendor with nine kids found himself caught up in Operation Glencoe, a policing operation named after a massacre against protestors decrying the unrestrained venality of the nation’s banks, he was putting himself in harm’s way; if you wander insouciantly and with a lack of urgency in front of security officials intent on preventing a riot, you can expect to be repeatedly slammed to the ground as the Alsatians snarl and your abdominal walls begin to haemorrhage while you remonstrate feebly from a sitting position on the cold pavement, your skin turning grey. These things happen. No great loss in the grand scheme of things.
But the devil steps lightly over your threshold when invited, as the old superstition has it, although you will find it harder to get him to leave.
“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” queried Roman poet Juvenal: “Who guards the guards?” Largely quoted by those commenting on totalitarianism (or illustrating the notion of infinite regress), few know that Juvenal was actually lamenting the licentious behavior of his wife.
“I hear always the admonishment of my friends: “Bolt her in, constrain her!” But who will guard the guardians? The wife plans ahead and begins with them!”
For offer a temptation to a guard, whether it be a poet’s wife, legislative sanction or merely the technological capabilities to take what they want, and they will take it. And what we in Britain have now offered our “guardians” in the police and intelligence services is the knowledge of our movement on every road of the land in the form of a “panopticon highway“, a network of automatic number plate recognition cameras tracking each car. This, naturally, like shooting Brazilians and punching protestors, is for our own good:
“This development forms the basis of a 24/7 vehicle movement database that will revolutionise arrest, intelligence and crime investigation opportunities on a national basis”
Proclaim those behind the strategy rousingly. And Frank Whiteley, Chief Constable of Hertfordshire and chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers’ steering committee on automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) is ebullient on the move, telling the Independent that:
“Clearly there are values for this in counter-terrorism… The security services will use it for purposes that I frankly don’t have access to. It’s part of public protection. If the security services did not have access to this, we’d be negligent.”
But stop for a moment and consider the function creep. Anti-terrorism laws have been used widely on protestors. Drones used not just on Iraqi “insurgents” but druids peacefully observing the summer solstice. And ACPO note that:
“In addition to cross-checking each number plate against stolen and suspect vehicles held on the Police National Computer, the national data centre will also check whether each vehicle is lawfully licensed, insured and has a valid MoT test certificate.”
So if my car has a minor oil leak or a chipped windscreen and I have deferred getting it MOTd, the policing apparatus will know, they will be alerted by the eyes and ears of the database and stop and charge me.
When the reach and response of the police is this minute, this penetrating, it is time to wake up and begin questioning what, if this is the thin end of the wedge, the thick end might look like.
We’ve had a few pointers already and they disturb immensely: protestors whose vehicles were clocked by ANPR cameras at or near demonstrations have had their car details added to the database (under “subversive”?) and have been stopped and repeatedly harassed as they go about their business entirely legally.
Police have even been accused of effectively stopping people groundlessly merely to milk them for their DNA to add to another growing database. Being obstructive and failing the “attitude test” is likely to result in arrest sanctioned under anti-terrorism legislation.
Refuse to open your mouth and have a latex-gloved thug swab your gums and take your DNA after busting you for your pathetic, failing old car and you’re going to be called a security threat.
With security forces effectively being given whatever they want, as those who should watch them — our elected representatives — sit supine, how long will it be before, like every male Iraqi, we are having our retinas scanned by police with handheld biometrics devices for our protection? (U.S. officials are already pressing for the use of the technology back home in America). Ten years? Twenty?
And how long before not just our cars but our very bodies are tracked via implanted computer chips? After all, the arguments for such procedures are as impeccable as the need to track the movement of vehicles: medical records can be made easily and life-savingly accessible to medics; crimes will become that much easier to solve for people will be easy to place; and, timelessly, those of us who have nothing to hide would have nothing to fear.
Dystopian and far from possible? No, technology already more than six years old. In 2004 broadcaster MSNBC reported on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval for Applied Digital Solutions of Delray Beach, Fla., to market the VeriChip, an implantable computer chip about the size of a grain of rice, for medical purposes.
With the pinch of a syringe, the microchip is inserted under the skin in a procedure that takes less than 20 minutes and leaves no stitches. Silently and invisibly, the dormant chip stores a code that releases patient-specific information when a scanner passes over it.
It is telling that the human body, to our “guardians”, is just information needed on the database: on the battlefields of the Middle East, for example, a man’s eye is no longer the window to his soul; it is the information that reads “insurgent”, “enemy”, “wanted”, “combatant”, “suspect”, “collaborator”, or merely “unregistered adult male”. It is the IP address of the originator of a virus; it is the tattoo on the inner side of the upper left forearm; it is empty data. The scanner recognises no soul, no causes, just data to be logged.
Strikingly, given the bare facts, or “truth” that such technology reveals, we unleashed these machines and the soldiers holding them in dusty cities overseas, with a lie. It is a lie that has grown and mutated; a lie that sits, ignoble and unopposed among our elite. It is a lie that no longer needs a single liar to speak it, but one that has taken on its own form and returned home hungry; a lie that rots the heart of our body politic; a lie that cannot be refuted with simple, legalistic logic for it is no longer spoken in words but in actions. The lie is this: it is for your protection; it is for your own good; we watch over you and you need not watch over us in turn. You are free.
- The title of this blog post is a reference to Plato’s “gennaion pseudos” or noble lie:
“Everyone sees to it that the Guardian’s pursuit of truth can go on. But notoriously, that truth-seeking activity is a superstructure founded on mendacity… In a telling metaphor, Plato says that the rulers will need to administer some potent “drugs” in order to make this truth-seeking activity possible. The strongest drugs he has in mind are “falsehood and deception.” (Plato 1981, p. 459)
- For a provocative take on VeriChip and news of their recent merger with a credit rating agency, Wired wrote a good piece detailing the company’s ambitions:
VeriChip and its former owner Applied Digital have been drawing fire since 2004, when the FDA approved the rice-sized injectable RFID for human use. While the company primarily pushed the chip as part of a system to index medical records, Richard Sullivan, then-CEO of Applied Digital, had a penchant for wantonly confirming every nightmare of cybernetic social control.After 9/11, it was Sullivan who announced the VeriChip would be perfect as a universal ID to distinguish safe people from the dangerous ones. He dreamed of GPS-equipped chips being injected into foreigners entering the United States, prisoners, children, the elderly. He thought the VeriChip would be used as a built-in credit or ATM card.
- For more on the moral and philosophical issues behind the biotechnological reach of the police, Giorgio Agamben’s “No to bio-political tattooing” is thought-provoking and disturbing.
- And for further reading on Britain’s surveillance state, Henry Porter is always excellent.
Paranoia in the Panopticon
“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 scrutinized.”
George Orwell. 1984
In 1785, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed a design for a prison called the Panopticon. The prison had a central point from which prison warders were able to watch all the prisoners simultaneously, whilst themselves remaining unobserved.
There were two key advantages to this design, Bentham claimed. Firstly, as prisoners would not know whether they were being watched or not, warders would not have to be on duty all the time, thereby reducing costs. Secondly the prisoners, aware of the constant scrutiny, would behave better.
Why? It has become something of a well known trope that observation affects outcome; under observation (of this kind), we often tend to internalise the observer’s desire for discipline in their subject and begin self-policing. And as Bentham put it:
The greater chance there is, of a given person’s being at a given time actually under inspection, the more strong will be the persuasion – the more intense, if I may say so, the feeling, he has of his being so…
… who would expose themselves even to the slightest punishment, or even to the mortification of the disappointment, without so much as a tolerable chance of escaping instantaneous detection?
For Bentham, therefore, the prison was not only a mechanism for confinement or punishment but through its very design, a machine for the reformation of its inmates’ morals. While his intentions were humane and his concerns broad –from costs to hygiene; education to security – his concern was primarily with discipline and its attendant benefits:
…the inspector may have the satisfaction of knowing, that the discipline actually has the effect which it is designed to have: and it is more particularly material in such cases where the inspector… has more or less frequent occasion to give them such transient and incidental directions as will require to be given and enforced, at the commencement at least of every course of industry.
But what is moral reformation systematically imposed by the powerful on the powerless but a straightjacket? As French philosopher Michel Foucault put it in his 1975 word Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison
The major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.
In such an environment the undisciplined outbursts of spontaneity that make for an unpredictable but creative environment are stifled and the human faculties that allow for them begin in some sense to ossify. But as Albert Einstein once said, “Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labour in freedom.”
It takes the strength few of us have to labour in freedom whilst under constant surveillance; the art we create under such circumstances – and I mean art in its broadest sense – becomes grimly homogenous Soviet-realism at the service, finally, of those in the watchtower. *
Yet when Dame Stella Rimington, the former head of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency MI5 said in February of this year that the UK risks becoming a police state, it sounded like hyperbole to most.
A few months later — amid the scenes seen at the G20 in London – her use of verb and tense look more startling than her actual statement and she looks not so much prescient as the rest of us utterly parviscient.
And when it comes to such widespread surveillance, it is of course clear that it serves those in power, firstly through ensuring the internalisation of a power relationship that Foucault speaks of, but more prosaically, through being resoundingly a tool of the state.
For where abuse by authorities of their power occurs, CCTV footage invariable goes missing, is corrupted, or the cameras are found not to have been recording; and as the G20 has shown us, footage that does emerge of crime by authorities tends to be shot by members of the public…
Most of us have mixed feelings about the police and mixed experiences in dealing with them too. Going purely on personal history, I’ve always come away from my dealings with cops in the U.K. with none-too-bad a feeling.
Granted, I’m not actually much of a protestor; in the past when something has raised my hackles enough for me to actually want to join the banner-waving brigade, I tend to have been in overseas, as I am now. So the last time I came face-to-face with the fluoride-jacketed-and-jack-booted was when I was caught speeding down some wee country lanes without a valid tax disk on my car. “Shite”, I thought, panicking as the sirens wailed. “I’m so fucked.” The copper strolled over and said (verbatim):
“Excuse me sir, are you aware that you were speeding? We could barely keep up with you… You know these roads pretty well don’t you?” He strolled round my car: “Are you aware that your tax is out of date sir? We’re currently conducting a crackdown on drivers without tax and you risk having your car being impounded and crushed…”
I winced. He peered in what looked like idle curiosity through the window of my little Toyota: detritus, CDs and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass… I was suddenly off the hook, I could feel it in my bones. (I’m sure it’s the poetry that did it. All speeding tax delinquents should bung some transcendental poetry on their passenger seat: I mean, hardened criminals don’t read verse by a hirsute and long-dead American extolling the virtues of Mother Nature do they?)
This cop relaxed as if I’d sung out “Oh Captain My Captain” to him and turned back to his motor. “Well, you better get this taxed pronto hadn’t you sir; and easy on the pedal eh?” And off he went on his law abiding way. Legend that the good officer was.
Anyway, cops: they aren’t all power-hungry sadists ready to backhand you across the face like a bitch. But the one’s that do answer to the above description are increasingly prevalent and this is symptomatic of something much more disturbing than the obvious character flaws in those who actually pursue or condone such activity.
I’d long had my reservations about the state of democracy in the country. An electoral system that at times appears to almost actively conspire against the electorate; massive centralization; a “spineless, supine” legislature; abuse of power by the executive; excessive amounts of poorly written legislation being churned out yearly to further bolster a growing authoritarianism: all these are accepted by most people with an interest in politics as among the major concerns of the day.
But the extent to which these problems (which I’d previously looked at with a certain academic detachment) were sweeping a town near me first struck viscerally in 2oo3. Home in Canterbury – a small, conservative and picturesque cathedral city – after a spell overseas, I was taking a walk down the high street among the tourist hordes when I came across a small anti-Iraq-war protest.
It’s the kind of city where you’d feel a touch embarrassed to register your dissent and the demo was, in short, about as far from a riot as you can get. Just a clutch of students mutedly shouting “Stop the War.” And holding “Bliar” placards. So far, so tame… But the police. The frigging police! Phalanxes of them ten-thick. Many of them with handheld digital video cameras, right up in the faces of those protesting, getting the best footage and taking verbal notes.
The atmosphere was intimidating and oppressive, but even more startling was the incongruity. What on earth were they doing conducting intensive surveillance of such a small bunch of people holding a peaceful protest?
It was suddenly very clear: if you dared raise so much as a voice against government policy you were going to be monitored, categorised, added to a database. It wouldn’t even remotely surreptitious: they’ll just stick a fuck-off big camera right in your face and take verbal notes whilst you stuttered on your cheesy chant.
This was my introduction to police Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT). Any protest, any meeting, any Greenpeace gathering of vaguely activist types, FIT will be there, snapping and videoing and spying away. Nobody even knows what the fuck they do with all their footage, which agencies and departments it’s shared with etc. But they’ve started harrassing journalists too. As The Journalist (the magazine of the national union of journalists) reported in August of last year
Photojournalist Marc Vallée was unable to work for a month after police threw him to the curb at a demonstration he was covering. Milton Keynes staff photographer Andy Handley was detained for eight hours when he refused to stop taking pictures in a public area.
And police tactics seem to be becoming more menacing. Photographers have complained that the Metropolitan Police’s Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) — set up to target public disorder and anti-social behaviour by having high-visibility police officers use camera and video footage to gather intelligence — has started surveillance of press-card carrying journalists. They say that images of them are given a four-figure “photographic reference number” and held on a database.
All journalists covering a demonstration against restrictions in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act in March were catalogued by the FIT team. Photographers say they were even recorded while waiting outside a London hospital when Prince Philip was admitted for treatment of a chest infection in April. NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear wrote to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith in May, complaining of “intimidatory policing”. He cited examples of police officers who know journalists by name, follow them and film them all the time they are working.
Regular, low-level intimidation of photographers often goes unreported. David Hoffman, a freelance with more than 30 years experience, told the Journalist: “If you’re just walking down the street and taking a picture of police on the beat, when you’re well away from any problem and not causing an obstruction, they come over and interfere. “It happens constantly. In May I was taking pictures of the party on the London tube — the last day people could drink alcohol — from a good distance when two police officers started pushing me around and put a hand over my lens. There was no reason at all. I was simply recording the event and they stopped me because they thought they could. That’s a very typical incident. That will happen to me once a week if I’m out working.”
“If you have ten thousand regulations, you destroy all respect for the law” Winston Churchill
The British government has introduced 3,023 new criminal offences since 1997, figures released in 2006 showed
Given this kind of behaviour, the police sometimes seem like a law unto themselves. It’s simply not true: they may be a powerful interest group in their own right; they may have stacked the Independent Police Complaints Commission with pliant proxies and they may manage to oversee the deaths of more than 600 people in custody annually without too much political interference, but at the end of the day, they can only arrest protestors on anti-terrorism charges, detain people without trial for obscene periods of time and rough-up journalists if they have been given a great deal of legislative sanction to do so.
This is where the broader issue of we, the people – and our failure to push for the renewal of a political system ill-disposed towards us – come in. It is some irony that unelected members of the House of Lords have been the most vocal defenders of civil liberties and a properly functioning legislature:
In July 2006, Lord Andrew Phillips of Sudbury, a City solicitor and philanthropist resigned from the House of Lords after having failed in his battle to prevent an ID cards bill passing. Parliament is producing a “ludicrous excess of legislative effluent” Phillips said, pointing out that 13,000 pages a year is far beyond what most parliaments pass.
Yet it’s not like ideas are thin on the ground: solid proposals for a better functioning, more transparent parliament have been knocking around for ages. The Better Government Initiative, a crusty group of elderly former civil servants came up with a few commendable suggestions in a paper called Governing Well that they put out in 2006. Here’s a few of their recommendations:
R1: The capacity of Parliament to scrutinise the proposals of the Executive and to hold it to account for its decisions should be strengthened. Parliament should provide for more rigorous initial analysis of policy proposals; and retrospective review, after a suitable period of time has elapsed, of the costs and outcomes of policy and legislation actually achieved against those in the initial proposals.
R2: Before policy decisions are taken by the Government, proposals should be thoroughly tested by objective analysis, by drawing on the experience of politicians in Parliament and in Government and of officials (including people familiar with delivery), and by wider consultation.
R3: The Government should establish a better balance between the strategic role of the Centre of Government in determining the overall policy framework and the operational role of departments in framing policies and delivering services in their specialist areas or responsibility.
R4: Service deliverers – such as executive agencies, non departmental public bodies the NHS and local authorities – should be set clear objectives against which their performance will be monitored, but they should not be micro-managed by Departments or by the Centre of Government. Stability of structures and instructions from the Government is clearly desirable.
R5: Pressures from the media should be handled consistently in a way that avoids responses, let alone policy commitments, before the Government is ready. This intention should be explained to the public and to the media themselves.
R17: The volume of legislation should be reduced, and the quality of scrutiny (especially in the Commons) thereby increased, through stronger pre-introduction tests.
R18: the numbers and range of skills of staff supporting Select Committees should be increased so as to improve the speed, depth and range of their investigations
Whilst such language meet appear a touch arcane or dry as dust to some, it points to some massive failings in how our legislature is run and offers some substantial pointers in terms of how to rectify them.
Politicians like to complain about political apathy and cynicism amongst the electorate. Given the pathetic turnout rates in recent general elections, they have a point of course. But as Bertrand Russell once said (and I paraphrase because I can’t dig up the exact quote), “apathy is a combination of powerlessness and comfort: the powerlessness causes unrest and the comfort vitiates the desire to do anything about it; the result is apathy.”
We might appear powerless but we are also increasingly losing our comforts: will this be enough to shake off the above? It’s clear that whichever ideological viewpoint you look from, Britain is in urgent need of a massive political enema.
Some standing politicians have made promising suggestions, such as Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s call for a freedom bill to roll back excessive legislation. But as councils spy massively on citizen’s emails, police beat the crap out of people at peaceful protests and an unelected prime minister has his way with an almost bankrupt country, GK Chesterton’s words echo like a call to arms. A shame that so many seem to have concurred that beer is, indeed, best.
They have given us into the hands of the new unhappy lords,
Lords without anger and honour, who dare not carry their swords.
They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
And the load of their loveless pity is worse than the ancient wrongs,
Their doors are shut in the evenings; and they know no songs.
We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street.
It may be we shall rise the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
Our wrath come after Russia’s wrath and our wrath be the worst.
It may be we are meant to mark with our riot and our rest
God’s scorn for all men governing. It may be beer is best.
But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.
*It’s interesting to note that this disciplining is in a sense the direct opposite of the resolution proposed by Friedrich Schiller for the conflict between two competing drives; that associated with law and reason and that “sensuous drive” associated with the personal appetite of individuals.
Where in the Panopticon the infringement of the latter on the former is what has landed inmates in the machine to start with and hence one of the key drives of the soul — for want of a better word – that must be disciplined and sterilised, Schiller in contrast argues for a resolution of the two drives through play. Creative play brings abstract form to sensual life, he wrote in his Letters on The Aesthetic Education of Man, and the result is beauty, harmony as “living form”.