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The End of the Enlightenment


The pre-Enlightenment has just been beaten by the post-Enlightenment. As the last fundamentalist fighters are hunted through the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, the world’s most comprehensive attempt to defy modernity has been atomised. But this is not, as almost everyone claims, a triumph for civilisation; for the Taliban have been destroyed by a regime which is turning its back on the values it claims to defend.

In West Virginia, a 15 year-old girl is currently fighting the state’s Supreme Court. Six weeks ago, Katie Sierra was suspended from Sissonville High School school in Charleston.

She had committed two horrible crimes. The first was to apply to found an anarchy club, the second was to come to classes in a T-shirt on which she had written “Against Bush, Against Bin Laden” and “When I saw the dead and dying Afghani children on TV, I felt a newly recovered sense of national security. God Bless America”.

The headmaster claimed that Katie’s actions were disrupting other pupils’ education. “To my students,” he explained, “the concept of anarchy is something that is evil and bad.” The county court upheld her suspension, and at the end of November the state’s Supreme Court refused to hear the case she had lodged in defence of free speech.

Katie is just one of many young dissenters now battling for the most basic political freedoms. A few days before she was suspended from school, A.J. Brown, a 19 year-old woman studying at Durham Tech, North Carolina, answered the door to three security agents. They had been informed, they told her, that she was in possession of “anti-American material”.

Someone had seen a poster on her wall, campaigning against George Bush’s use of the death penalty. They asked her whether she also possessed pro-Taliban propaganda.

On October 10th a 22-year-old called Neil Godfrey was banned from boarding a plane travelling from Philadelphia to Phoenix because he was carrying a novel by the anarchist writer Edward Abbey.

At the beginning of November, Nancy Oden, an anti-war activist on her way to a conference was surrounded at Bangor airport in Maine by soldiers with automatic weapons and forbidden to fly on the grounds that she was a “security risk”.

These incidents and others like them become significant in the light of two distinct developments.

The first is the formal suspension of certain civil liberties by governments backing the war in Afghanistan.

The new anti-terror acts approved in the United Kingdom and the US have, like the reinstatement of the CIA’s licence to kill, been widely reported. The measures introduced by some of the other allied governments are less well-known.

In the Czech Republic, for example, a new law permits the prosecution of people expressing sympathy for the attacks on New York, or even of those sympathising with the sympathisers. Already the Czech journalist Tomas Pecina has been arrested and charged for criticising the use of the law, on the grounds that this makes him, too, a supporter of terrorism.

The second is the remarkably rapid development of surveillance technology, of the kind which has been deployed to such devastating effect in Afghanistan. Unmanned spyplanes which could follow the Taliban’s cars and detect the presence of human beings behind 100 feet of rock are both awesome and terrifying.

Technologies like this, combined with CCTV, face recognition software, email and phone surveillance, microbugs, forensic science, the monitoring of financial transactions and the pooling of government databases ensure that governments now have the means, if they choose to deploy them, of following almost every move we make, every word we utter.

I made this point to a Labour MP a couple of days ago. He explained to me that it was “just ridiculous” to suggest that better technologies could lead to mass surveillance in Britain. Our defence against abuses by government is guaranteed not only by parliament, but also by the entire social framework in which parliament operates. Civil society will ensure that there is no danger of these technologies falling into the “wrong hands”.

But what we are witnessing in the United States is a rapid reversal of the civic response which might once have defended the rights and liberties of its citizens. Katie Sierra’s suspension was proposed by her school and upheld by the courts.

The agents preventing activists from boarding planes were assisted by the airlines. The student accused of poster crime may well have been shopped by one of her neighbours. The state is scorching the constitution, and much of civil society is reaching for the bellows.

This, I fear, may be just the beginning. The new surveillance technology deployed in Afghanistan is merely one component of the US doctrine of “full-spectrum dominance”. The term covered, at first, only military matters: the armed forces sought to achieve complete mastery of land, sea, air, airwaves and space.

But perhaps because this has been achieved too easily, the term has already begun to be used more widely, as commercial, fiscal and monetary policy, the composition of foreign governments and the activities of dissidents are redefined as matters of security. Another name for “full-spectrum dominance” is absolute power.

There are, of course, profound differences between the US and the UK. The United States sees itself as a wounded nation; many of its people feel desperately vulnerable and insecure. But while our cowardly MPs seek only to dissociate themselves from the victims of Torquemada Blair’s inquisitors, the Lord Chancellor’s mediaevel department is preparing to dispense with most jury trials, which are arguably now the foremost institutional restraint to the excesses of government.

The paradox of the Enlightenment is that the universalist project is brokered by individualism. The universality of human rights, in other words, can be defended only by the diversity of opinion. Most of the liberties which permit us to demand the equitable treatment of the human community — privacy, the freedom of speech, belief and movement — imply a dissociation from coherent community.

While those who seek to deny our liberties claim to defend individualism, in truth they gently engineer a conformity of belief and action which is drifting towards a new fundamentalism. This is an inevitable product of the fusion of state and corporate power.

Capital, as Adam Smith shows us, strives towards monopoly. The states which defend it permit the planning permission, tax breaks, externalisation and blanket advertising which ensure that most of us shop in the same shops, eat in the same restaurants, wear the same clothes.

The World Trade Organisation, World Bank and IMF apply the same economic and commercial prescription worldwide, enabling the biggest corporations to trade under the same conditions everywhere.

Some of those who, in defiance of this dispensation, write their own logos on their T-shirts are now being persecuted by the state. The pettiness of its attentions, combined with its ability to scrutinise every detail of our lives, suggest that we could be about to encounter a new form of political control, swollen with success, unchecked by dissent. Nothing has threatened the survival of “Western values” as much as the triumph of the West.

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