• Reasons from the left to oppose the Internet filter

    Apr 16 2010, 9:04

    This guest post is written by Mark Bahnisch from Lavartus Prodeo for our series of blog posts on the importance of online civil liberties as part of EFA’s 2010 Fundraising Campaign

    There are a range of good arguments against the Rudd government’s internet filter, some emphasised for persuasive or tactical reasons, some reflective of deeply held political and political positions. Among the latter, liberal and libertarian arguments tend to dominate. This is not necessarily to say that those advancing such arguments (which we might usefully summarise under the slogan ‘information wants to be free’) are liberals or libertarians in a consistently ideological sense, or on the political right. It’s more that the deep logic of the internet’s history produces an argument in terms of freedom, and that view seems natural to those who are passionate about the online world. In this article, I want to present a somewhat more sociological argument, and one that seeks to build on an alternative (though, in part, complementary) set of assumptions drawn from left and progressive thought and tradition.

    In so doing, the target at which I want to aim is not the internet filter itself, or Stephen Conroy himself. To my mind, the personalisation of the debate has not been a helpful aspect of the campaign against the filter proposal. What I think is useful and important to understand is the underlying cause of the government’s move, which casts the argument around freedom in something of a different light.

    What is at issue here is the desire to govern the private choices of individuals, a desire which has had its apogee in the communitarian aspects of New Labour governance in the United Kingdom. To adapt a judgement made by The Economist, thirteen years of New Labour government has seen the state grow, personal freedom greatly diminish, but the underlying social patterns of inequality little disturbed. The urge to shape and dictate private choices has been growing among Labor governments in Australia, with the long lived Bob Carr style state regimes leading the vanguard. Mark Latham tempered the communitarian rhetoric to a high flame during his leadership, and despite his repudiation by the ALP, the Rudd government has seemingly adopted a similar governing mentality, albeit at more of a simmer.

    The causes of the desire to govern the soul are multiple, though interconnected and interwoven.

    It’s no coincidence that an increasing drive to interfere with private decisions and choices accompanied the election of the first generation of centre-left governments after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of the End of History. The ideological climate where social democrats lost any sense of the capacity to transform, and the desirability of transforming economic and social relations lent itself to a statism without long term purpose, a statism that manifests itself in interventions to transform private lives rather than to transform national and global society. Stripped of the power, and the will, to restructure economic life so as to negate deeply structural inequalities in a globalised world, purpose and the will to do good manifests itself into a micro-level of intervention; what Michel Foucault called ‘biopolitics’ – a politics of governing the individual body and soul.

    Reflected through the prism of the constant campaign, the spectacle of the symbol in politics, and the 24/7 media cycle, ‘bite-sized’ policies have the capacity to substitute for social change over the long term and to feed the drumbeat of moral panic sounded on a repetitive and moment by moment time scale.

    Secondly, in a risk society, individuals are less trusted to make choices for themselves, governed by their desires, their use of private reason, and their consciences. The sub-politics of risk, to invoke the German sociologist Ulrich Beck, concerns itself with the downside of modernity and complexity – the costs of the aggregation of private decisions to public finances and purposes. In areas like health, child development, and many others, the costs of perceived negative choices are transferred to a public purse unable to deal with them, and in a neo-liberal culture, the production of a docile and compliant workforce is key both to the legitimation of governance in a chaotic environment and to the reproduction of late capitalist patterns of work, consumption and distribution.

    Thirdly, the micro-government of the individual is a key point of contestation at the site where democratisation and authority clash. An increasing climate of openness from the 1960s onwards, and the democratisation of culture among whose effects is a resistance to assertions of authority, later supplemented by the growth of populisms both right and left combined to render the notion that policy is an effect of expertise shaky. ‘Evidence-based policy’ is something of a backlash. With politics denuded of big picture ideological conflicts, the void is filled with hordes of experts, who with the best will in the world, think that they know what’s good for us. Labor governments, stripped of any real transformational purpose, obsessed with symbolic campaigning and feeding the media beast, and concerned about the governance of risk, seize upon (and cherry pick) crumbs from the table of thinktank, private and public research expertise.

    So, then, the internet filter is part of a bigger picture. It’s one more item, among the alcopops tax, the national testing regime in schools, and many others, of a form of governmental mentality which seeks to shape, or to dictate, choices to citizens, who are presumed to be unable to discern their own best interests. Evidence, research and policy step in, and electoral advantage is sought through the intertwined machine of political communication and media dissemination.

    Yet, there is another left tradition.

    That is the tradition embodied in movements for popular education from the 19th century onwards, in the habits of auto-didacticism of early trade unionists and activists, of the respect for reason and informed conscience and judgement imparted to English speaking socialisms and Labourism from the dissent of chapel and the world of workplace dispute and argument. This tradition is one of the cultivation of the capacities of all citizens to apply reason to human affairs, to make conscientiously good decisions in their private lives through collective learning and civic conversation, for opportunity to be opened up rather than to be circumscribed.

    This fundamentally progressive attitude and set of dispositions seeks to expand the capabilities of ordinary folk and to enable and facilitate citizens’ desires for autonomy, self-government and collective government of communal and state institutions.

    It’s part of a sweeping movement of democratisation, which popped up in another context at the height of the administered society in the 1950s and 1960s, in a desire for participatory decision-making and for individuals together to question the force of ingrained social norms. It’s part of an activist culture manifested in social movements such as feminism and other liberatory and transformational currents. At its heart, it represents a fundamental optimism, a philosophical anthropology foundational to left politics (and to liberalism, too) which holds that humans are thinking beings able to be trusted with choice, and whose choices deserve a basic level of respect.

    The internet, as I alluded to at the outset, is part of that secular movement towards the democratisation of social relations; and of knowledge. It’s precisely because the internet affords so much promise for those who wish to decide their destinies in common, to learn, to form an informed judgement and habit of thought that its freedom from state interference is so important at the level of principle. I’m not so interested in the particulars of the reasons advanced by the Rudd government for this latest instance of the desire to micro-manage individual choices. I’m much more interested in opposing, in principle, anything that partakes in the disrespect for the capacities of individual citizens to decide severally and collectively how best to regulate their own lives. That’s a principle, in my view, that from a left and progressive position, is well worth fighting for.

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