AMNESTY’S warning that British rights to peaceful protest are “fast disappearing” should be the priority for democracy campaigners in this country.
Its judgement comes within a global map of alleged crackdowns on protest rights. Socialists may not agree with every country named as an offender (and there are some peculiar omissions on its “interactive map,” from Afghanistan to Poland) but the overall trend it identifies, of a world growing more authoritarian, is hard to argue with.
Yet the rise of authoritarianism is not just a left-wing concern: it also forms a key plank of government propaganda in the United States and its allies, including Britain.
President Joe Biden’s “summits for democracy” are justified by the familiar narrative. Challenges to US global dominance are depicted as challenges to a “world order” supposedly defined by liberal democracy. Those states most obviously out of line — Russia, locking horns with Nato through its invasion of Ukraine, and China, as the US’s acknowledged “peer competitor” — are described as authoritarian enemies intent on establishing a new, less free international system.
Whether the so-called enemy states conform to this description is not key to the argument. Gangster-capitalist Russia, whose president regularly attacks communism and the Bolshevik Revolution for having broken with Russia’s imperial and Orthodox past, and Communist Party-ruled China do not resemble each other politically, but then nor do the states the US welcomes at its “democracy” summits.
The point is not to analyse political systems but to divide the world into “us and them,” the “free world” versus the authoritarians.
It is designed to mask a fact — that the growing clamour for world institutions to be reshaped in the interests of the global majority is actually a democratising movement.
And that the “new cold war” against China is primarily aimed at stifling it in the interests of continued Western hegemony.
That’s why it’s important the left does not indulge such rhetoric, which we find even in parts of the labour movement. It lines us up behind our own state against the states it identifies as opponents, subordinating class struggle to the imperial interests of our ruling class.
And its domestic effect is the opposite to that implied. The supposed presence of an enemy without is made to justify the suppression of the enemy within — it is used to attack our freedoms.
The raft of draconian legislation condemned by Amnesty — the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Act, the Public Order Act and so on, effectively gifting our scandal-ridden police forces “almost unlimited powers to curb peaceful protests” — cannot be separated from the spy scares over “Chinese influence,” the calls from spooks for ever vaguer powers to detain or deport.
Britain’s secret state is dishonest and corrupt. This has been demonstrated through the exposure of the spycops scandal.
It is also political, as witness the almost exclusive targeting of left-wing organisations by Special Branch, or by the media interventions by top spymasters designed to undermine Labour when Jeremy Corbyn led it. The same forces that closed ranks to stamp out democratic socialism from 2015 on are those demanding our loyalty against foreign foes.
Anti-China hysteria is intimately connected to the attacks on our democratic rights.
Rishi Sunak’s description of China as a “threat to our way of life” last week was preposterous — and the mocking responses online as to how exactly China threatens a British “way of life,” from “food with taste” to a functioning rail system, thoroughly deserved.
But it was also serious. Because the real threat to our way of life comes from our own state.
It is not China undermining British democracy, but a cross-party consensus in favour of greater state and police powers over citizens and greater restrictions on free speech and protest.
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