The biggest story of this year has undoubtedly been the Edward Snowden leaks, which have done so much to show how entrenched and systematised the practise of mass surveillance is in western society. What is perhaps more egregious than this is the response of the state towards such revelations. Despite the undeniable contribution of Snowden’s revelations to public life he is still denied the status of whistle blower and considered a spy by an Obama administration which has declared war on whistle blowers. It is worth pointing out that of the eleven people to be charged under the 1917 Espionage Act, conceived to stop sabotage during World War I, fully eight had their proceedings brought about by the Obama administration. In Britain the government’s harassment of the Guardian for breaking the story of the leaks, and by doing so exposing GCHQ’s collusion and use of warrantless surveillance, is also well known: accusations of criminality, spouses of journalists being withheld under terror legislation, the calling of editors to McCarthyist select committees to be asked if they “love their country”. Such thuggery has not gone unnoticed abroad as evinced by the comments of Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, that it was “unacceptable in a democratic society.”
That Snowden’s actions constitute an act of whistle blowing and criminality is beyond doubt. Even in the USA, this realisation is starting to take hold: there are currently three motions going through Congress and a report recommending the scaling back of NSA activities has just been delivered to Obama. It’s an altogether more muted in Britain, however. Without his revelations neither the people nor their democratic representatives would know of the scale and nature of government surveillance thus leaving us with the absurdity of a democracy without the informed consent of the electorate, even indirectly through those they chose to legislate for them. Instead of being thankful for this necessary and empowering disclosure though, our democratic representatives seek to crush it.
What is driving this assault on our democratic rights?
For the answer we have to look beyond the government’s disingenuous and hysterical representation of terrorism as an “existential threat” and divert our gaze towards the most portentous geopolitical phenomenon of our times – the rise of China, for the first time in centuries, to international pre-eminence.
That China’s undemocratic and highly regimented road to global power will challenge and confound our cherished assumptions about how the modern state should relate with its people and economy has been much commented upon. Pankaj Mishra, writing about Asian nations, writes how China’s rise has proven that “wholesale adoption of western ideologies” do not work.
What is less common, however is extrapolating from this observation to ask how the politics of the west might be effected. One of the few exceptions is Martin Jacques. Jacques writes in his book, When China Rules the World, that as China rises “ideas such as ‘advanced’, ‘developed’ and ‘civilized’ will no longer be synonymous with the West. This threatens Western societies with an existential crisis of the first order, the political consequences of which we cannot predict but will certainly be profound… [for] our belief in human rights and democracy, for instance”. However, he has distanced himself from this, writing in a recent blog post that “with the deep roots of democracy in the West — and the absence of it in the Chinese tradition — the overall influence of Chinese governance in the Western world will remain very limited.”
It is odd that at a time of growing awareness of how change transcends borders – with the Arab Spring so recent in memory and transnational history all the rage in the academy – that we seem so reluctant to acknowledge that the changing of the guard and the explosion of our paradigms could have an enormous effect in the west.
China’s rise will likely have a profound effect on us; it presents the right with far too good an opportunity – much like terrorism – to remould the state in line with their interests. Just as they agitate for lowering wages, working conditions and living standards by invoking the idea of international “competitiveness”, expect them to use the same concept to justify an erosion of democratic rights more and more often. How, they will ask, can we compete with disciplined China if denied recourse to the same apparatus as they?
The process has already started. Liam Fox is one of the leading voices in calling for the prosecution of the Guardian for its role in breaking the Snowden leaks. In his recent book, Rising Tide, he argues for such unaccountable secrecy on the grounds that “it was a gift to Beijing to have its activities overshadowed by a debate about civil liberties in America”. Here, political rights and democratic empowerment are subordinate to the need to “compete” with China, whose surveillance activities he not coincidentally frames as a “threat to the very essence of Western prosperity”. People like Fox would have us believe that in the face of competition with China, we cannot afford such trifles as democratic accountability and protection from unwarranted surveillance.
In this way the political rights of the majority will be sacrificed for a negligible growth in GDP that will go to an already wealthy minority but celebrated as though indicative of the well-being of the nation. Expect democracy to come under attack in such a way as the right enviously eyes up the cool “efficiency” of Chinese technocracy.
As the next century progresses, there is the danger that we will see the onset of a deep spiritual and political malaise in west as the idea that democracy and economic development do not go hand in hand becomes more prevalent. Basic liberal values held dear to western civilisation since the Enlightenment like privacy, democracy and equality will come to be seen as increasingly anachronistic.
You can already see it now in the apathy in Britain over the NSA’s untrammelled access ot its data: privacy is passé.
Do not look to the right to “conserve” western civilisation. Look at how our communities have been uprooted, our sovereignty superseded and our culture debased in search of a quick profit.
Of course, there will limits to our emulation of China. When it comes, for instance, to their use of state owned industry, the sentinels of entrenched private interests will make sure to advocate vociferously for the axioms of the “free market” – or, basically, the current one sided arrangement whereby that state acts as a guarantor for large business through bailouts, subsidies and the outsourcing of large government contracts all the while providing it with tax breaks and a legalised system of “avoidance”. No: no matter how successful China’s state capitalism, this is a lesson that will remain resolutely opaque to us.
During the Cold War we looked at the totalitarianism of the East and redoubled our commitment to civil rights, the rule of law and democracy (ours, at any rate). But something has happened since and we seem so much more cynical and unsure. We value markets and consumer goods, but not our own liberty. Is this what decadence looks like?