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The face of the enemy

Sometimes it is worth plagiarising yourself.

I was asked in a pre-interview chat the other day, about 30 seconds from live TV, “Why is the government doing this? ‘Terrorism’ doesn’t seem to make sense; there has to be something more to it.” It’s hard to be snappy on the point even without crazy pressure, so mumbled something about my interlocutor going to Google and typing “Transformational Government”. I do recommend it, but I have a fairly neat explanation for why Transformational Government too. Just not quite neat enough to recall and pitch in 30 seconds on a GMTV sofa at 6:30 in the morning.

I actually wrote it about 3 years ago, in the days when I had time to think, as a comment on Phil Booth’s (whatever happened to him) blog, the Infinite Ideas Machine:

My answer arises from a pub conversation a while back with the post-Marxist commentator Joe Kaplinsky. He maintains “they” don’t know what they want the information for, they are just collecting it just in case it should ever come in useful, because that’s what bureaucrats do. There is much in that, but I think there’s slightly more.

The slightly more is a glimpse of bureaucratic fundamentalism to rival the more explicit fundamentalisms of religious and political fanatics. The administrative class (“class” in the cultural not economic sense) in Britain, but also in Europe more generally – and from which New Labour is almost exclusively drawn – holds it as self evident that the life and personality of an individual is a unitary object capable of being better managed if only there is enough information collected and enough “best practice” followed.

It is a fundamentalist faith in that if the world is out of line with the model, the world is wrong; that written rules and established methods are unquestionable from outside the tradition; and that forcing people to live within the categories determined by the faith is justifiable for a general and individual good that is evident to the elect.

It’s not that control is sought for its own sake, more that they yearn for the best well-ordered and coherent society, and believe this can be determined and imposed given sufficient expertise and information. Hence joined up government. They really do believe that efficiency is achieved by connecting everything to everything else in a giant bureaucratic system. It is the Soviet illusion, dressed up in “new technology” and market-friendly initiatives that co-opt corporate bureaucracies into the dream rather than setting them up as enemies.

The same people who claimed to have absorbed Hayek’s explanation of why 5-year plans can’t work during their turn away from Old Labour are too dull (or too intoxicated by the vision of the power to make a good society) to see that replacing some of the clerks with machines and the telegraph with the internet makes no difference to the basic proposition.

5 comments to The face of the enemy

  • Superb stuff, Guy. Best of…

  • Jim Keenan

    I recall reading of the German state’s response to the Baader-Meinhoff gang/Red Army Faction in the 70’s. Germany – a state with mandatory ID Cards – created a massive computer database, (unique for its time) listing every German citizen, every home in Germany, every car, etc. They then used the information to squeeze the gang into tighter and tighter corners.

    In response the gang became very proficient at identity theft, but eventually the computer tracked down all but those who fled to DDR or elsewhere.

    I believe that the government think that they are going to do something similar, forgetting that terrorist methodolgies have moved on, and that most of our recent attacks have been by persons previously unknown to the security services and who don’t seek to live to fight another day.

  • Kim du Toit

    Milton Friedman’s recollection of John Cowperthwaite’s attitude sums it up best:

    I met Cowperthwaite in 1963 on my next visit to Hong Kong. I remember asking him about the paucity of [government] statistics. He answered, “If I let them compute those statistics, they’ll want to use them for planning.”

    We need more Cowperthwaites in our polity today.

  • ian

    If I recall correctly, one of the objectives of the Baader/Meinhoff gang was to force the German state into more and more repressive measures in the hope of provoking a kick back from the populace. It didn’t work then and it doesn’t appear to be working now – although Al-Qaeda have different motives.

  • guy herbert

    That’s a perfect illustration of why “terrorist” and “terrorism” are not very useful categories. The Red Army Faction followed a Bakhuninite programme and were trying to precipitate “the revolution”. That isn’t generally the aim of the violent nationalist movements who have formed the bulk of so-called terrorist groups; they mostly want to produce pressure to get political concessions. The Islamists are are more often involved in demonstrative actions in which they are trying to impress those they think ought to be on their side with the feebleness of the enemy and their superior resolution.