TERROR AND THE POLICE STATE: CHAPTER 20

 

 

[This is a short version of a book ‘Terror and the Police State; Punishment as a Measure of Despair’, published in 2015.  The book focussed on France after 1789, Russia after 1917, and Germany after 1933.  The instalments will follow the 21 chapter headings that are as follows: 1 Terms of Engagement; 2 Enduring emergency; 3 Righteousness; 4 Good bye to the law; 5 Instruments of terror; 6 Civil war; 7 Waves of terror; 8 Degradation; 9 Secret police; 10 Surveillance; 11 Denunciation; 12 Fear; 13 Popular courts and show trials; 14 Scapegoats, suspicion and proof; 15 Gulags; 16 Propaganda, religion, and cults; 17 Surrealism and banality; 18 The numbers; 19 The horror; 20 The meaning?; 21 Justification.  The short version is about one quarter the length of the original.  Each instalment is about 1200 words.]

20

The meaning?

It is obvious that there is no such thing as a revolution.  ‘Revolution’ is a label that we apply to a series of events.  Some people like to use abstract or group nouns to categorise the kinds of people taking part in the violent changes.  These categories have bedevilled discussion of the French and Russian revolutions.  The notorious terms are bourgeoisie, class, elite, kulaks, masses, peasants, proletariat and sans-culottes.  It is obvious that these very loose and broad labels may involve unproductive word-games.  How do you define the criteria for membership?  How do you apply those criteria?  What on earth is a plutocrat?

If you take as given that each of us has an inner worth or dignity merely because we are human, the police state will inevitably work against that dignity, and be opposed to our humanity.  It does so in at least two ways.  It says that the state is more important than the individual – that the government means more than either you or me – and that therefore the individual has to give way to the state.  It goes further and says that if there is doubt, the issue must be resolved in favour of the state.

The other way that the police state is against our dignity is that it judges or assesses people not by their own worth, but merely by the fact of their being a member of a group.  In doing that, it engages in the kind of word-game that we have just looked at.

Both of those failings derive from a kind of arrogance.  Those behind the police state believe that they have used the power of their minds to find an answer to our social problems.  Since they believe that their answer is demonstrably true, if not logically necessary, they believe that they have the answer.  It follows that those who do not accept that answer are demonstrably wrong, and, equally demonstrably, that they are acting against the interests of the whole community, by standing in the way of the implementation of the answer the acceptance of which will benefit everyone.  But, and this is also fundamental to the police state, it follows that the state is entitled to use force to implement the answer because in doing so it will be acting to benefit the community as a whole.

We might recall the two first pillars of the rule of law.  First, the law is supreme over government and any one person or arm of government – government derives from the law, and not vice versa.  Secondly, and relatedly, everyone is equal before the law.  Obviously, rule by one man or the police or simply by ‘government’ above the law contravenes the first, and any regime that adjusts rights by political belief or membership of a group contravenes the second.  .

The first way that the police state puts us down is by putting the state over any one person and therefore over everyone.  It prefers an abstraction to real people.  That is the hallmark of the totalitarian state.  That state must be all-powerful and therefore it cannot give way to any man: no rights of an individual can stand in its way.  The people pushing this line tend to see the rights of individuals deriving from the state, rather than seeing the state as some kind of construct permitted under conditions by the people.

Intellectuals are prey to this kind of thinking, because they put too much faith in the power of their own thinking.  What is critical is the state of mind that says that when in doubt, the individual must give way to the state.  That is not the way that decent states try to proceed.  They think that it is better that some wrongdoers go free than that anyone innocent is imprisoned.

The second affront to humanity comes from a smallness of mind and meanness of spirit that is sadly common enough to be part of all of us.  It is, if you like, our dark side.  This is our attachment to prejudice – it is the refusal or failure to treat each person on their merits, but our readiness to deal with them merely as a member of a group, where such membership warrants certain treatment by the state irrespective of the merits of any one person in that group.

Examples of kinds of group that are the basis of prejudice seen in this book are class (aristocrats or bourgeois), office (priests and bishops), economic standing (kulaks or other capitalists), nationality (foreigners), religion (Protestants, Catholics, or atheists), politics (royalists or fascist or communists), sex and sexuality (women and homosexuals), infirm (aged or retarded) and race (gypsies).  These groupings have all been used to disadvantage the members of those groups.  When those disadvantages derive from the law, the discrimination contravenes the rule of law by expressly denying the principle of equality before the law.

Sometimes a regime will seek to ascribe dangerous attributes to members of such classes in order to give some warrant to a kind of block condemnation, but ultimately that is not necessary – the whole purpose of the prejudice is to relieve us of the task of facing one person and treating them on their merits.  The disadvantaged are objects of either contempt or fear or both in a failure not just of the mind but of character.  This failure is found more among people whose ignorance comes from a lack of intelligence or education and whose edge comes from a lack of recognition.  This weakness is then exploited by political leaders or their functionaries and their camp followers in the press.  The grossest modern examples are called shock jocks, parts of the Murdoch press, Sky TV, and fringe political parties that exploit fear of strangers like migrants or refugees or those following minority faiths.

The worst part is the evident pleasure that these people take in kicking someone when they are down – this somehow serves to redeem them from their own mediocrity and to comfort them in their frailty.  It is a kind of revenge on the world.  You get the impression that nothing could make them happier than a good clean lynching.

Unhappily the gorilla called prejudice lurks in us all – it is just that some are graced with a better capacity to keep the iron gates shut and stop the gorilla from coming out.  (Someone once said that that the major difference between us and the gorillas is cutlery.  The proposition is instructive.  It may be that the iron gates are properly called courtesy or manners, and that people get these at home rather than at school – or not at all.)

The police state has a circular process under which anyone who denies its maxims or who questions the authority of the current regime is without more an enemy of the people, and an enemy of the people is anyone showing any such behaviour.  The result of this circularity is that the accused cannot, and the accuser does not have to, identify any conduct the proof which would found a finding of a discrete breach of the criminal law.  Because the regime is above the law, it is commonly enough as a matter of fact for the state to act against someone on the ground that that person is suspected of showing such behaviour or otherwise being an enemy of the people.

The phrase ‘enemy of the people’ is of course itself a lie.  An ‘enemy of the people’ is in truth merely an ‘opponent or possible opponent of the regime’ and the regime does not represent the people.  The two propositions are worlds apart, but they are conflated by pride and prejudice.

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