It might at this point seem like I’m viciously and unfairly picking on the UK’s Tory government in general and Davie & May in particular. If so, this piece will do nothing to dispell that notion.
To be fair, it’s not that I don’t have something against those two — I do, and I will continue to viciously and unfairly pick on them — but in the specific thematic context of this project they really have outdone others to say dangerous and scary things about the function and production of security.
In this case May went all out to show her true police state colours, while attempting to wrap herself up in some kind of devious pro-EU sheep’s clothing. Many have read her latest speech as a blatant, if not outrightly unscrupulous, attempt to use the question of membership in the European Court of Human Rights as a foil against the EU, as conciliation for her Leave supporters. An unimportant tidbit, dribbled from her fingers to the swivel-eyed Brexiters so that when Business Interests inevitably win the day she isn’t the first against the wall come 2020.
Personally, I see the inverse: the ECHR set up to fail against the EU for the benefit of what remains of the sane liberal-left: don’t worry little people, I don’t want leave the EU and turn Britain into a monarchic gitmo, no no. Just the ECHR, because it “makes us less secure” and outside of it “we can protect human rights ourselves in a way that doesn’t jeopardise national security.”
For those less attuned to the sub-, con-, meta- and hypo-text of such horripilating police state-ese, this translates roughly as follows: human rights, championed by colonial warmonger Winston Churchill, are making us less safe. We need to subordinate them to security state powers, but we’ll still protect them, promise.
There are a great many absolutely terrifying things about this statement, perhaps most viscerally that the rest of the government seems genuinely unnerved by such an overt display of fascism, but to preserve what’s left of my sanguinity I’d like to focus on the conceptualisation of ‘security’ implied here.
The claim is that the ECHR’s enforcement of human rights – yes, those inalienable rights upon which our entire concept of liberal democratic morality and law is ostensibly based – is preventing the government from providing the ‘security’ it allegedly has to (although May gives examples, they contain zero evidence that doing so would actually have increased the safety of the population). ‘Security’ is more important than the ECHR’s rulings, thus we must leave. As Mark Elliot astutely notes, there is no legal reason to do so other than to weaken the restrictive power of human rights upon the government’s ability to act. The logical implications thereof read like the how-to guide for DIY cliché authoritarianism: human rights are an afterthought to ‘security’, and ‘security’ is the brute sum of legal government powers to act upon its own citizens.
This degree of shamelessly Orwellian instrumentalisation of language is the raison d’etre for this little cathartic project. In darker moments I have suspected that Marcuse was right, and something subtle yet utterly cataclysmic has befallen language and society to allow such a brazenly authoritarian statement to go unnoticed. Has fiction come full circle like some predicted, leaving irony an empty gesture bereft of all subversion and language, just a one-dimensional operation perpetrated upon the behavourised electorate? Paranoid hermeneutics indeed at this hour… None the less, this is no time to be giving up all hope. Keep calm, and.. uh.. maintain a critical close reading…
Right, so May’s move may be clever, but it’s hardly Cicero. She’s just not yelling ‘security’ as a smokescreen for a naked power grab — such a move would be far too crude —, instead she has implicitly redefined ‘security’ so as to be compatible with her rationalised and camouflaged power grab.
There are distinct indications in her speech for the way she’d like us to understand security: It is something to be “maximised” in a “trade-off” between different variables. While ‘maximise’ once again not-so-subtly underlines May’s priorities here, together with ‘trade-of’ it also implies that ‘security’ is something that can be objectively, neutrally, apolitically quantified, i.e. purely mathematically measured and compared. That there could be a function with which the amount of ‘security’ can be computed, and in which membership of the ECHR is, apparently, a variable. This could well be termed the utilitarian theory of security, and it is a heinous abuse of language opens the door to all sorts of pseudo-coherent doublespeak.
The first, and perhaps most aristocratically vicious, upshot of such a simplistic utilitarianism is the way in which an overall amount of ‘security’ can then be claimed to have been somehow provided (and/or increased) — an amount (or increase thereof) which is then left implicitly equivalent to the actual security of every one. Such an overall summation — were it at all possible (uh, anyone remember what the unit of security is? Is it metric, or something ridiculous in 16th’s?) — renders the distribution of ‘security’ across the population invisible, allowing the insecurity of large and small minorities to be swept under the bottom-line rug of Maximum National Security. This would be the point to wade off the deep end into the invisibility to the privileged of the other edge of the security sword affecting minorities, but that would risk of long and rancorous tangent and I’m already running out of readers’ attention span.
Instead, my main bone of dissension lies within the further implications of ‘security’ as something calculable in a “trade-off.” Here in a sleight of hand so smooth and so corrupt one has to wonder, albeit briefly, whether she is aware of it, Mrs May shifts almost imperceptibly from a trade-off between international constraints and sovereignty to domestic civil liberties and government power, which she equates with the provision of security. In one fell swoop she has set up ‘security’ as in zero-sum opposition to civil liberties, which have only a negative correlation in this equation. Now granted, this is a bit of an interpretive stretch here, but she has said it before, as have others too numerous to cite. In fact, this particular conceptual metaphor of simplistic ‘balancing’ is a toxic and fast growing weed in the security discourse; it seems to have utterly killed off all oppositional conceptualisations and taken deep root within the ecology’s collective consciousness.
There are a great many things dangerously wrong with this image of thought, food for many more screeds, but the point here is that ‘security’ is becoming instrumentalised. The Frankfurter School, while a tad culturally elitist, where right when they railed against the becoming-functional, instrumental, one-dimensional of concepts. Stripped of values (civil liberties), in fact almost explicitly opposed in May’s comic-book-subtle authoritarianese, ‘security’ is being naturalised as the function of summed governmental powers to act upon people. This concept of ‘security’ has been “rationalised” in the words of Horkheimer: the twin move of justification through apparent functionalisation of a particular operation, in this case the governments ability to legally wield force in the name of security.
In so doing, a means, a set of tools to ensure the safety of people against a range of threats including the government, becomes end in itself, disconnected from the values it was intended to protect. Flattened, indisputable within the now given rational framework, ‘security’ is first given priority über alles, and then set against civil liberties. For this reason alone the balance metaphor is excrescence of conceptual fascism, a serial strangler of critical thinking and linguistic brownshirt of the security state. There are other reasons, but for another time.
It could be left at this, but being a suspicious bastard (Sam Vimes is one of my heroes) I decided to check exactly with which human rights the ECHR has hitherto so brutally compromised the UK’s sovereignty, the rather insignificant cases that May tosses our way aside.
And lo, to my utter lack of surprise, the Right To bloody Privacy was adopted in the UK only upon incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 8, in the UK Human Rights Act.
This is no place to start making impossible inferences, certainly not to claim or even imply that the ridiculously, absurdly, villain-esquely surveillance-sympathetic Home Secretary might wish the exit from the ECHR in order to no longer be plagued by pesky privacy objections.
Ha ha, no.
Besides, it’s only an itemised phone bill.