The March of Unfreedom

The hawks are surely right. The aftermath of the World Trade Center attack will lead to unprecedented turmoil and chaos. Look at what’s happened to the government’s proposed anti-terror legislation for example. As Damien Lawson notes, this piece of amazingly anti-democratic legislation has attracted the opposition of the broadest coalition anyone can remember, from One Nation across to the far Left and taking in Liberals like Marise Payne and Bronwyn Bishop (yes, that Bronwyn Bishop) along the way. While the worst of the legislation’s powers seem to be on the carpet, whatever eventuates in its final form will be a significant curtailment of civil liberties.

But what else is new? It should have become clear to everyone by now that we have slid backwards to an amazing degree, and that the slide continues. The Victorian opposition under Denis Napthine has attempted to do a bit of political product differentiation with some lunatic US-style mandatory drug laws that will see — if enacted — party-going teenagers facing five-year prison terms. The Carr Government in NSW has ensured that it will never be gazumped by the Right on law and order by going there so far, so fast — now with drug and gun sniffer dogs on trains — that any further crackdown would involve the return of trial by ordeal. And an item in our ‘Rope’ section gives us a postmodern version of that, with a twelve-year-old being electronically tagged because she broke a court order (presumably one of New Labour’s ‘antisocial restraining orders’) not to enter a town centre.

Relentlessly, unceasingly, every dimension of political freedom is under continual attack. Political freedom — what one might call actually existing freedom — always has been under attack of course, but there have always been substantial elements of resistance. Now the forces of repression are gaining ground, and we have clearly entered a grey area between a semi-democratic public sphere and polis, and a post-democratic, post-citizenship one. Recent events have made it easy for anti-democratic forces and governments to prosper, but far more than actual terrorist events is behind such a collapse. The reactionaries are cutting with the grain. The collapse of a real alternative political imaginary and the triumph of neoliberalism has made the very idea of political contestation and conflict look unreal and marginal, and shifted the debate from the qualitative — how shall we live? — to the quantitative — how much of Telstra shall we privatise? In the latter realm power takes on the aura of automatic legitimacy and legitimacy takes on the aura of inevitability — and politics, the real politics of rights and institutions, of liberty and authority, takes on the air of theology, of an ethereal and fascinating debate about things no one believes in. This is the atmosphere in which the relentless march of tagging, private prisons, anti-assembly laws, ‘house invasion’ laws, abolition of the right to jury trials (in the UK), prosecution for email jokes about terrorism (in the US) and innumerable other crackdowns have occurred. Here, the anti-terror legislation has proved a rallying point, due to the ludicrous mismatch between the purported and real nature of the threat. Hopefully it will prove the beginning of a more systematic and cross-political resistance to repression, and the point from which we begin to push back the march of unfreedom.

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