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Informers wanted to demoralise Britain

Old Holborn considers the new disposition of the state and highlights, in that Hayekian warning, of the extension of the state through arbitrary fines and the presumption of guilt. What is forgotten is that the agents of the state are still few and far between: without the ballast of a mass party to back them up, they remain an irritant, rather than a overarching totalitarianism. One can live without hearing or seeing these actions in person.

Nevertheless, state functionaries will wish to find ‘efficient’ ways of exercising their power. The database state is meant to replace the mass party as a vehicle for co-ordinating and controlling all activities. Yet, some means of identifying and punishing perpetrators is still required, as technology is still insufficient to achieve this goal. Hence, the rise in channels for informing and denouncing those who dissent.

After all, East Germany required ten percent of the population…

20 comments to Informers wanted to demoralise Britain

  • Why do you think communist states of the 20th century are a good point of reference/comparison?

  • Actually, any party/state that required such institutions to provide the social mobiolisation and cement for pervasive control of the state to operate. Communism is a a handy reference point to show what can and cannot be achieved by the modern state.

    The comparison is valid as modern party dictatorships show what ‘soft totalitarianism’ lacks in its ability to meet its objectives. Without a mass party to exercise control, other tools have been unconsciously adopted to expand the coercive reach of the state.

  • I just don’t think a conceptual model of a central “party” exerting control over the nation (like communism) maps very well onto our condition. It is more a state of mass moralist conformism. This is not a State rigorously governed by The Party. The ideological decision making is distributed, and the government follows that, rather than controlling it.

  • That is my point. The absence of a mass party to mobilise and enforce control demands other channels for coercion: hence databases. However, their lack of social penetration leads to innovation in the bureaucracies with various policies and tools that replicate some of the functionsof an authoritarian state, such as informants.

  • guy herbert

    Seen on the Marylebone Road last night, an illustration of how cowed, passive and ultracompliant to bureaucratic norms the people now are:

    An ambulance with a police car following, lights flashing and sirens going, clearly in a hurry, approach traffic standing at the junction with Albany Street. They are in the outside lane, and that and the main lane are full. There is no way through. But the red-paved imperial Bus Lane is empty. …

    None of half-a-dozen drivers blocking the inside lane was prepared to break the rules by getting out of the way via the empty Bus Lane. None of those in front would edge out past the red light on their own recognisances to save a life. So the ambulance had to wait for the lights to change.

    If only there had been an official in a peaked cap to direct the blockers out of the way, then all would have been well. I noticed no one got out of the police car to do it. Directing traffic is no longer part of the police’s job-description. (Except for those excellent motorcyle escorts for VIPs, who make London a place where traffic almost doesn’t notice diplomatic and military progresses.)

  • Yes, but the question is, who are “They”? It isn’t a central committee, politburo, etc. Communism and fascism are characterised by a distinct, defined ideological agenda which the centre imposed on the mass of the people. That isn’t the case with the “progressive state”. Before we discuss how They are doing what we think They are doing, we need to know who They are. And They don’t appear to be the State. In a sense, the whole libertarian model of The State and The People sort of doesn’t fit properly.

    Look at it this way; the most visible dissent in Britain isn’t from groups opposing the government’s ideology, it is from groups angry that it does not go far enough. There isn’t a Mao or Stalin or Hitler who decided that the people must recycle. Instead, there is a strong will in the general populace that recycling must be imposed upon their fellows. The state is just trying to use its apparat to do what it thinks the people want it to do. It’s the equivalent of if the East Germans demanded that their government build the wall higher and do more to keep out decadent western clothing etc.

  • Pa Annoyed

    Ian B,

    ‘The State’ is an emergent property of many people interacting, but it’s often simpler to remember that the State consists of people. The defining feature of a dictator is not that they give the orders, but that everybody else obeys them.

    You can also think of it as a political catallaxy. People organise into groups, which organise into groups of groups, and so on in a fractal structure. At each level, its behaviour is a reflection of the behaviour at smaller levels. It is a pyramid, a tangled upside-down tree, and government is simply the pointy bit on top.

    So the beliefs and behaviour of a government is, in some distorted way, a reflection of the beliefs and behaviour of the whole of society. There’s no point in hanging the government, because another one just like it will be along in a second. If you want to change things, you have to change the views of society generally. Rather than fearing government – you should fear everybody. (The definition of “par anoia”, of course. Some people do ask why…)

    That does not mean that people necessarily want a dictatorial government. Sometimes it arises as an unintended consequence, something people do because they feel they have to. Take this spying lark, for example. There are some unpatriotic people who refuse to report their neighbours, probably because they’re thought-criminals themselves. So to weed them out, we have government agents commit political crimes in public, and then anyone who fails to report it is known to be an unpatriot. Once people know this, they will report their neighbour out of fear. They become an agent of the machine. (Are you listening to me Neo? Or are you looking at the woman in the red dress?)

    When people compromise their principles for fear of the consequences – whether of the breakdown of social order, loss of their job, their prosperity, their reputation, their lives, their freedom – they become part of a self-sustaining chain reaction, a phase transition. Society is interconnected at every scale – that fractal political catallaxy again – so when individuals compromise their principles, so do groups and institutions. The whole is as each of its parts. As above, so below.

    I honestly don’t know if there is a strong will in the general populace that recycling must be imposed on their fellows. Certainly, I have found many enthusiasts unable to clearly articulate why. But there is certainly a strong will in some to be seen as the sort of person who does care about that sort of thing, and then to feel that if they have to spend their lives sorting through rotting garbage for no pay, that everybody else should suffer too.

    “Whips in the soul,” as Pratchett called it.

  • I think there is also a certain amount of “if you don’t do it then someone else will have to”. I personally can’t be bothered to rip the windows out of envelopes to recycle the paper part, but I get shouted at for not doing it as someone else will have to if I don’t.

    Of course, it has to be done. There is no questioning that recycling EVERYTHING is the right thing to do.

    I can’t think of anyone I know who wouldn’t bow to this phase transition pressure. Just look at the crap jobs that most people do, taxed at 30+% just to keep going. They’ll put up with anything and do whatever they’re told.

  • Brian of Darlington


    If you drive in the bus lane, it’ll cost you sixty quid. If you drive through the red light, it’ll cost you sixty quid.

    You can, of course, contest these fines in court, but that would cost you a chuffing sight more that sixty quid, acquitted or not.

    So someone is a few minutes longer getting to hospital because you didn’t expose yourself to a fine and a criminal record. Who cares? It’s all right for them to lie around untreated for four hours when they get there, isn’t it?

    And any criticism of that fact is unpatriotic, isn’t it?

    You don’t get what you ask for. You get what you reward. And killing somebody to save a fine is what the state rewards.

  • I personally can’t be bothered to rip the windows out of envelopes to recycle the paper part, but I get shouted at for not doing it as someone else will have to if I don’t.

    That’s a good example of the moral nature of this thing. People believe in recycling because of a simple moral principle, that “waste” is bad, defined very simply as discarding anything. To a rational person, waste is, well, waste- discarding something useful. In the moralist form, waste is discarding anything however useless.

    It’s indicative how thoroughgoing this moral ideology is. People avoid “wasting” paper, despite being fully aware (everybody knows this) that paper is made from trees, and (admittedly not everybody knows this) trees are made from carbon dioxide, and (everybody knows and is constantly reminded of this) there is certainly no shortage of carbon dioxide. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of the populace believe that avoiding wasting paper is an objectively moral good.

  • Kevin B

    I somestimes twit the supermarket checkout girls who moan because I don’t bring my own bags about this.

    “Don’t think landfill, think carbon sequestration!”

    A plastic bin bag filled with plastic wrapping, cardboard packaging and waste paper dumped in a landfill probably sequesters more actual carbon than all of Fat Al’s carbon credit scams put together.

    Unfortunately it’s the wrong message to give.

  • John K

    If you drive in the bus lane, it’ll cost you sixty quid. If you drive through the red light, it’ll cost you sixty quid.

    You can, of course, contest these fines in court, but that would cost you a chuffing sight more that sixty quid, acquitted or not.

    True, I have read of people getting fined in exactly these circumstances, and not getting any sympathy from the courts. If the state behaves like an amoral bastard, people soon get the message.

    I’m surprised the ambulance didn’t use the bus lane, at least the ambulance service employs people to sort out the bullshit paperwork for them, a good example of the public sector generating work for itself.

  • I agree with Ian B (again!).

    There is no Politburo, there is no Reich. There is no central underpinning idea to legitimise state power in this country, merely a series of disposable justifications for the increasingly arbitrary wielding of authority.

    Our real problem is not the politicians, it is the British people who either cravenly accept or actively support the culture of punishment which the ruling class uses to in order to extract wealth and maintain status. Indeed, to the extent that there is any ‘dissent’ or ‘protest’ at all, it invariably consists of an indignant and incoherent rage at the prospect of some people escaping unpunished or insufficiently punished.

    A long time ago one of our commenters (and I cannot recall who it was) perfectly described the culture of “liberty” in this country as an “I’m alright, Jack, ‘Fell-off-the-back-lorry” type of ‘liberty’, i.e. “Leave me alone but go and get him”. I regret to say that this doleful assessment chimes exactly with my own experience. Until this changes (and I cannot see how, when or why it will) then I’m afraid to say that there is little we can do.

    For as long as they cast onto such stoney, barren land, the seeds of ideas will neithr germinate nor grow.

  • Thanks Thaddeus 🙂

    What I sort of think perhaps I’m kind of trying to get at here is that the underlying perception of the role of the State in the UK is that the State can and should monitor and improve the nation’s moral fabric. What is specifically considered to be moral and requiring of the government’s attention and intervention varies over time, and is the subject of manipulation by various groups of the population. If the British public were to have a catchphrase, it would be, “There ought to be a law against that!” Most of the people complaining about infringement of liberties at the moment are not actually interested in general liberty, merely upset that the state is encroaching on their lives when they are certain it should be encroaching on somebody else’s.

    There is in my view next to no interest in general liberty in the UK. Sean Gabb said recently somewhere on the LA blog that there are probably around 500 people in Britain who want a radical libertarian government, and I’m inclined to agree. I suspect the whole British libertarian tendency could fit in a large pub. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is not to restore a state of liberty but to create it ex nihilo. The British haven’t lost their fondness for liberty. We never had it.

    This comment will self destruct in five seconds.

  • lucklucky

    Changing Concepts of “Justice”.

    So much that now Justice is often labeled “Social Justice”, even the progressives can’t get a away that they are building a different Justice Value and use a different name. For example when Saddam was executed, i have read many protests, “not civilised”, we should behavior that way” etc, etc but none that said the crucial word: that what happened to Saddam was unjust. So todays Justice it is often a narcisistic thing that shows more in what the person that is applying it thinks it reflects of himself than the crime and the criminal occurence.

    Since the Left dominates the narrative via Media it is easy to see why the people follow it, breeding of course other leftists . The free discussion of Internet is the only thing that can dent the Left.

    This happens because of Romantic Revolution. Romantism occurs when People due to technological advances and knowledge think they can start ruling everything to get the perfect society. The epithome of violent Romantic Revolution was with Nazi and Communist experiments trying to achieve purity by force.

  • lucklucky

    Just this in America:

    About recent arrest of Bob Dylan for no motive:

    “…I don’t know. I find it pretty depressing. There was a time when we condescendingly used the term “your papers, please” to distinguish ourselves from Eastern Block countries and other authoritarian states. Post-Hiibel, America has become a place where a harmless, 68-year-old man out on a stroll can be stopped, interrogated, detained, and forced to produce proof of identification to state authorities, despite having committed no crime.”


  • Paul Marks

    I agree with Ian B. that there are “groups” of people demanding all sorts of more statism – but it is great leap to go from “groups of people” to “the general population”.

    I doubt that a majority of the British people want the extra forms of statism that have been mentioned – they just grumble and do what the government tells them they must.

    “But why does the government do it?”

    Partly the pressure of the “groups” (ten percent of people who really care about something carry a lot more weight than nintry per cent of people who are against it but only in a weak way – public choice determination of votes) and partly general ideology.

    The schools and universities (and the mainstream media they produce) educated politicians with the idea that all problems must be tackled by more statism.

  • Ian Bennett

    (Ian B):

    I suspect the whole British libertarian tendency could fit in a large pub.

    And even then, “a few men [would talk] of freedom, while England talked of ale.” We are, largely, sleepwalking, led by what Samizdata refers to as the metacontext.

  • virgil xenophon

    “..killing somebody to save a fine is what the state rewards.”

    Brian of Darlington has just penned a statement which should be enshrined forever as a tribute/monument to the power of faceless bureaucrats. Kafka would have been proud to have written that. And that’s just what has been missing from this discussion–the name of Kafka.
    In Kafka we have a man who has painted a vision of the trajectory of our human condition long ago. We would do well to re-acquaint ourselves with his works.

  • Paul Marks

    One of the interesting things differences between Britain and the United States is books.

    In the United States pro freedom books such as “Liberty and Tyranny” or Thomas Woods “Meltdown”, Thomas Sowell’s “Housing: Boom and Bust”, Ann Coulter “Guilty”, Senator De Mint’s “Saving Freedom”, Michelle Malkin’s “Culture of Corruption” are BEST SELLERS – to be found in the book stores.

    Whereas in Britain this is not just so (I suppose one could count J. Clarkson’s stuff – but it is really very different indeed).

    Most people in Britain do not even know of the existance of real pro free market books – perhaps because such “free market” publications are careful to never review them (instead they review “important” books – i.e. pro big government books, including American books, that sell a small fraction of the numbers of copies that the free market books that they do not review sell in the United States).

    However, I do not think that the reason that one can go into a book store in Britain and not find a single pro freedom book is NOT because the British are naturally pro big government.

    I suspect it is because specialist pro capitalism publishers (such as Eagle Publishing) were never set up in Britain, and because nothing like conservative talk radio or Fox News is ALLOWED to exist here.

    If a British person wrote a free market book who would publish and promote it?

    And what radio and television shows would invite the author on to discuss their work?

    This is the reason that British book shops are a desert as far as pro freedom books are concerned.

    Not because the British have a natural love for socialist and socialistic politics, economics and philosophy works.