Capitalist progress does not equal progress of democracy

Oppression and western values

Democracy comes from below, not above, says Peter Manson

Over the last week the press has carried stories about the demand from China’s education minister, Yuan Guiren, that universities and other tertiary education institutions must never “promote western values”.

According to the official Xinhua news agency, Yuan said that statements that “slander the leadership of the Communist Party of China, smear socialism or violate the country’s constitution and laws” must not appear in textbooks or “be promoted in college classrooms”. This was in line with the call last year from president Xi Jinping for the party’s “leadership and guidance” to be more forcefully imposed, so as to “improve the ideological and political work” conducted in universities.

Unsurprisingly, the bourgeois media and defenders of the establishment have been making use of this news item to demonstrate the alleged superiority of those “western values” - not least, free speech and the right to criticise. What have we got to fear from such criticism? It goes without saying, however, that such worthy sentiments cannot be taken at face value.

For example, where is the insistence that free speech and the right to criticise must be implemented forthwith in, say, Saudi Arabia? Last week prime minister David Cameron was amongst the long list of upholders of “western values” who traipsed over to Riyadh to pay respects to king Abdullah, for whom the appropriate response to criticism was decades-long incarceration and the odd 1,000 lashes. But in the case of Saudi Arabia the friendly advice stood in stark contrast to the condemnations meted out to Beijing. Who are we to impose our standards on Riyadh? After all, with our support and understanding, the Saudi royals will gradually learn to be more tolerant - as the ‘free market’ develops there, so too will free speech, along with a whole range of other freedoms that we all know are nurtured by capitalism.

Except we don’t know. It is true that elements of the left have bought into the notion that ‘bourgeois democracy’ is the preferred modus operandi of developed capitalism. But in reality nothing could be further from the truth. Every democratic right has had to be dragged from our rulers by pressure from below: the right to free assembly, to vote, to strike - and, as long as the system of capital survives, all such rights will remain permanently under threat from measures designed to weaken and mitigate them, if not abolish them altogether.

Despite the display of hypocrisy in Paris on January 11, as ‘world leaders’ gathered in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and unanimously proclaimed their adherence to the same “western values” of freedom, ruling class advisors to presidents and prime ministers have been busily hatching up their latest schemes to encroach upon such freedom in the name of ‘fighting terrorism’.

In the UK, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill has been going through parliament - this week it was debated in the Lords. Part 5 of this bill imposes a new duty on various authorities, including in universities and other educational establishments, to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. It is not spelled out how exactly they are supposed to do that, but academics rightly fear that they will be expected to ban meetings on university and college premises that could be construed as encouraging or allowing people to be “drawn into terrorism”.

According to senior barrister Robert Moretto, the bill envisages a situation where students and guest speakers who express “a particular extremist but lawful point of view” will be excluded because of the potential risk that “those hearing that point of view will be drawn into terrorism”. This, he said, stood in conflict with the need “to ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institution”.1

It is self-evident that it is not only Islamists who may express “a particular extremist but lawful point of view”. I am sure that most of the contents of this paper and of others on the left are regarded in that way by many in the higher echelons of the ruling class. Of course, the provisions of the bill are not at present aimed against the revolutionary left, or working class militants in general, but that is because our movement is at present in such a pitifully weak state that no serious threat is ascribed to us right now. But without doubt an upsurge in class militancy and the creation of a potent revolutionary leftwing force would bring with it a parallel change of attitude amongst the bourgeoisie: we too would become subject to proscriptions and banning orders.

It is true that the 25 chancellors, vice-chancellors, chairs and directors of a range of British universities who wrote a letter to The Times in protest are not concerned primarily about the rights of the working class. When they say of the bill that they are “profoundly concerned about the consequences for UK universities”, they are referring to their own liberal commitment to “ensuring that academics and students are free to question and test received wisdom within the law”. That, after all, is how we are supposed to arrive at the truth, and it applies to the study of society itself, as well as to the laws of, say, physics and chemistry.

The 25 reaffirm their support for existing schemes, such as “the government’s Prevent strategy to counter terrorism and radicalisation”, but unfortunately the bill is “not the best means of maximising the contribution universities can make, and may indeed be counterproductive, causing mistrust and alienation”. In fact, “To be truly effective in countering terrorism and radicalisation, universities must continue to be independent from government.” Therefore they should be “exempt” from the proposals. “This would safeguard the unique status of universities as places where lawful ideas can be voiced and debated without fear of reprisal.”2

For its part, the University and College Union states: “Clarification is needed on how universities are expected to balance their duties under the 1986 Education Act to ensure freedom of speech, whilst at the same time preventing people from being drawn into terrorism.” In fact, the UCU continues, “We must question whether it is reasonable to expect institutions to actively prevent people from being drawn into terrorism, and seek clarification on what specifically constitutes terrorism in its broadest sense.” And “There is also a major question around what reasonable mechanism would allow teaching staff to flag up students who may, or may not, be in danger of being drawn into terrorism.”3

These comments certainly point to the (deliberate) lack of clarity around the proposals. They serve to highlight the fact that our rulers are primarily concerned with the appropriation of powers that are sufficiently flexible and arbitrary to allow the enforcement of measures that ignore or belittle democratic rights.

Meanwhile, the ‘fight against terrorism’ is being pursued on another front. It is being taken up by the Police Federation of England and Wales, whose chair, Steve White, appeared on national TV and radio demanding that tasers should be made available to “all front-line police” in light of the “increased terrorism threat” from “dangerous people”, who could be preparing to “attack officers”.

This is another case, should it be accepted, of an oppressive or anti-democratic measure being implemented in the name of opposing terrorism. As if bobbies on the beat are generally under threat from jihadists and as if the carrying of tasers would protect them. No, such weapons would be used by the police against ‘disorderly’ individuals, against football supporters desperate to get into a stadium and against demonstrators who refuse to be ‘kettled’.

We have seen across the Atlantic, in Ferguson and New York, how routinely armed police use their weapons - not against ‘terrorists’ and organised criminals, but against oppressed minorities. Yet now their colleagues in Britain feel so emboldened by the current atmosphere that they are demanding to emulate them.

The Police Federation may not get its way at this stage, but the demand was hardly met by generalised outrage from government spokespersons and political commentators. For ‘protecting the police’ - ie, equipping them with the tools of oppression appropriate to the circumstances - is considered perfectly normal.

And so is clamping down on the right to free expression of those considered to be a threat. These are examples of “western values” in action.



1. The Independent on Sunday February 1.

2. The Times January 28.

3. www.ucu.org.uk/index.cfm?articleid=7393.