Mark Cantrell, Author

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CITIZEN ZERO: Fortifying The Social Divide

Posted by Mark Cantrell on June 11, 2012 at 5:00 AM

We are all enemies

of the State now

In a society fractured by a gulf between rich and poor, the preservation of the ruling elites' profits, powers and privileges can no longer rely on the conventional democratic mechanisms of the State, writes Mark Cantrell, instead it must mobilise the combined security machines of both State and Big Business against a common enemy - the citizens


THE landed aristocrats and industrial barons of the 19th Century had no doubt who were the real 'barbarians' at their gates. They dwelt in the heart of the UK's industrial heartlands: the malnourished urban proles broken in the factories and the slums to create the wealth that draped an Imperial elite in purpled ease.


Empire is long gone, these benighted isles and a handful of rocks excepted, but the attitude remains; industry is dismantled and finance rides high as arrogant and disdainful as ever it was before, during and after crashing the economy, and for the millions of Britons struggling to get by in this Age of Austerity, the hardships come thick and fast under a welter of reform and cutbacks, widening the already deep divide that has split Britain asunder.


Over the last 30 years or so, Britain has become an increasingly unequal society. The social divisions - the split between an ever-narrowing pinnacle of great wealth and a bottom-heavy sink of deepening poverty - is well-documented and debated, but the impact of the growing gulf between rich and poor goes further than indices of deprivation, or heated discussions on social justice. Behind the scenes, by stealth or sleight of hand, it is transforming every aspect of our society.


By degrees, rather than seek to bridge Britain's social divide it is becoming fortified, the country turned into what amounts to an armed camp, mobilised for the defence of wealth and privilege. Like any military operation, it has both physical aspects to its deployment, a need for intelligence gathering, as well as the conflicting demands of secrecy against the need to sell it with propaganda.


The process of fortifying Britain takes different forms, of course, such as the more familiar rise of CCTV and the so-called surveillance society, but there are other aspects too. Welfare reform, for instance, has slowly turned the 'safety net' of the welfare state into a policing and intelligence-gathering operation. In this guise, it is using the lifeline of benefit payments as a means to manifest greater say and control over people's lives - and even turn them into a nationalised labour force that can be farmed out on the cheap to benefit business1.


Slowly but surely - and accelerating its pace nowadays - society is being turned into a controlled space, a place we the citizen occupy not as a right but as a privilege bestowed by some unaccountable authority figure. These privileges can be rescinded at any time, if we are deemed to be unworthy, or if we are judged as failing to conform to the requirements of the authority - an authority that can be a private company as much as an aspect of the conventional governmental machinery.


Fascism without the fascists

'Fascism', as Mussolini pointed out, should rightly be called 'corporatism' since it represents the merger - call it partnership if you will - of State and big Business. In more human terms, as it were, it represents a kind of nepotistic 'cartel' of politicians, financiers, industry barons, security chiefs, and corporate bosses, working together to subordinate civil society to the benefit of their personal wealth and power2.


As the Leveson Inquiry has revealed, the relationship can be an uneasy one, prone to backstabbing and fallouts, but the Murdoch/News International affair is only a peculiarly theatrical expose of a deep-rooted amalgamation of political and economic elites who play fast and loose with our lives and livelihoods.


Behind the scenes, the concentration of power and wealth at the top continues; the divide between rich and poor is not only widening but also being reinforced and fortified, to defend the few at the top from the many incarcerated beneath. A 'corporatist' society is taking shape around us, glossed over by democratic and consumerist rhetoric, but no less potent for its lack of readily identifiable fascists in positions of power and public office.

Given the increasing concentration of wealth at the top, the deepening deprivation at the bottom, and the rising uncertainty in the affluence and prospects of a diminishing middle, the threat of instability is greatly magnified. To put it bluntly, economic disparity and uncertainty undermines the conventional underpinnings of elite dominance, so stronger mechanisms must be put in place to contain and control the lower social ranks.


Whether it's the 'velvet glove' of quasi-democratic theatre and celebrity circus combined with the bread of consumerism, or the 'iron fist' of State Troopers and the unyielding glare of Big Brother surveillance, the aim is much the same - to ensure the subject people are dissuaded from ever threatening the wealth, privilege and power of the 'corporatist' oligarchy.


Image is everything

In a nominally democratic society such as the UK, it seeks to maintain the democratic façade on the main stage of the political theatre, but backstage the command structure of authoritarian rule is being put in place.


The means by which this authoritarian state is sold and its components assembled range from the mundane to the spectacular. For an example of how spectacle is used to manifest a glittering prison, take the Olympics: to defend it the Government is mobilising enough military might to fight a small war. And that's just the visible means of security.


To give a brief overview, there'll be more troops deployed than are currently serving in Afghanistan. Typhoon jets will be patrolling the skies, helicopters carrying snipers will buzz the rooftops, and a warship will be parked up the Thames, and that's only part of it. Add to this the security operations conducted by the Metropolitan police, the many thousands of private security staff, the intelligence and surveillance operations, and the effective lockdown that will be put in place, will all serve to ensure no pesky protestors (let alone those sinister terrorist baddies) will get anywhere near this spectacle of patriotic fervour.


Taken together, one has to wonder if Coalition Ministers aren't raising their fists, pushing out their chests and yelling to the world: "Come on if you think you're hard enough!"


Well, it is to be hoped that no terrorist will seek to take the Government up on this macho invitation, although if a few tens of thousands of peaceful protestors manage to break through the cordon sanitaire and upset the Great and the Good's celebration of elite high-mindedness, this author for one will be ready to give them a suitable salute of solidarity.


Spoof aside, that all this military might is really there to prevent placard-waving austerity-refuseniks from ever getting within chanting range of the venue3, there are plenty of very real concerns about the social impact of this militarisation - the likelihood of the security apparatus (especially the surveillance machinery) becoming a normal aspect of life in the capital - of life in the UK - long after the Games have ended.


Let's be civil, now

For all the hype of the 2012 Olympics, this fortification of towns and cities is a long-standing theme. For most of us, it's the CCTV camera - that double-edged symbol of the surveillance state - that most signifies this worrying trend, but there is much more to it, with rising security measures both overt and obscure rapidly becoming the norm.


"Our cities are being militarised by stealth, under the banner of improving public security against vaguely defined people and threats," according to Professor Steve Graham of the University of Newcastle. "Everyday sites and events like political summits or the Olympics are becoming shop windows for the latest security kit. In a world of massive economic chaos, the security industry is booming like never before."


Last year, Professor Graham published a book - Cities Under Siege - that explores the increasing fortification of cities and the effective abolition of public space, the domain where we the citizen can behave as, well, citizens in a democratic society; instead we must conform to certain standards of behaviour and attitude - akin to the conduct expected of employees - in quasi-public spaces that are the corporate-commercial enclosures.


Citizens Under Siege might be a more apt title, given some of the issues he discusses, but regardless of title, his book seeks to demonstrate how the lines between civilian and military policing is being blurred, with places such as Gaza and the West Bank, and post-invasion Iraq, fast becoming models for 'urban pacification' techniques here at home. Essentially, we're all becoming 'insurgents'.


The typical justification for this fortress society is our own protection and security against a variety of threats, each tailored to its own appropriate level. From the thuggish hoodies terrorising streets, through binge-drinking marauders fighting in the high streets, to suicide bombers hell bent on tearing us limb from limb with explosive underwear, there's a little terror-demon for everyone.


"When the outlandish becomes an every day occurrence - using 'non-lethal' military technology of high frequency noise to disperse teenagers outside supermarkets, for example - there's a shift in what we perceive as 'normal' and that's extremely troubling," added Professor Graham. By slow degrees do we come to accept the unacceptable.


The latest buzz

The device he refers to, of course, is the so-called mosquito. Designed and marketed as a device to tackle young thugs hanging around outside shops and neighbourhoods, it exploits the sensitivity of young ears to certain frequencies of sound. Adults can't hear the device, but the young are driven to distraction by an ear-piercing whine - forcing them to move on4.


It is no doubt a classic example of 'non-discriminatory' remote policing. By that, I mean the device cares nothing for the youngsters hanging around to 'intimidate' the shoppers, or the young people going about their every day lives, or just nipping to the shops for their mum. The device makes no distinction between innocence and guilt: if you can hear the whine, you've no right to be in the vicinity. It is guilt by demographic, punishment by auditory sensitivity.


Essentially, whether it's the threat of anti-social behaviour, benefit scrounging, or binge drinking, all the way to shadowy international terrorists, what we are presented with is a smokescreen that masks the demolition of civil society and the subsequent criminalisation of we the citizenry.


Instead of legal or human rights based on universal citizenship, the emerging security politics of cities - as Graham has it - are based on the privatisation of public spaces, combined with the profiling of individuals, places, behaviours, associations and groups, all in advance of any alleged misdemeanour or crime.


In this modern, corporate-dominated world, the paradigms of the marketing industry have become the yardstick of normality: generally affluent, fashionably dressed (in a manner appropriate to one's target demographic), with conventional tastes, mainstream interests, and generally accepting of the 'centrist' concepts of politics, broadly in line with the standard spectrum put across by professional politicians.


Guilt by focus group; it sounds remarkably like the way the marketing industry breaks down and targets potential customers into niche demographics and 'lifestyle choice' categories, turning human subtlety and complexity into a neat and formulaic expression. This is our type, so are we required to behave accordingly, and thus are products branded and promoted according to our niche demographic, combined of course with the added ingredients of 'aspirational' add-ons. So too are we scrutinised from a security perspective.


We are categorised according to branding and merchandising worth, so too are we categorised in terms of threat assessment. The parallel is perhaps not entirely accidental. Either way, what is established is an estimation of personal worth and value to the socio-economic structure according to category. The process is deliberately exclusive: the creation of valued insiders, granted the privileges of their status, and set apart and even ranked above those excluded. You, the in-group, are better, worthier, than them - so don't lose that status!


The process demands - and to a greater or lesser extent inculcates - conformity to the group dynamic. Nobody wants to be shunned; it's a powerful drive for a gregarious species such as ours, especially for young people eager to be accepted; a trait both advertising and the security apparatus readily exploit. Those who, for whatever reason, refuse to conform face the prospect of becoming 'neutralised' in terms of any potential they might possess to upset the carefully established process.


As Professor Graham put it: "Those deemed not to conform with increasingly gentrified city centres have become targets that need to be continually tracked, scanned, controlled and excluded."


Serf's up

When it comes to the public realm, where we are free to engage in civic and political acts, it is fast being curtailed. We are encouraged to become collaborators in our own imprisonment, as civil society is abolished to make way for 'gated' corporate enclaves (whether these are gated private 'communities', or quasi-public spaces such as malls). Slowly but surely, these 'private' corporate enclosures are absorbing entire towns and cities, with the full backing of an increasingly corporatist State.


"Cities need to be places for people rather than just the profit of corporations," Professor Graham added. "There are increasingly more completely privatised spaces where the public are not allowed to enter, such as the London Docklands, without being subject to a check-point and questions about how 'legitimate' you are.


"In such places, and in new completely private shopping areas like Liverpool 15, all protests and political mobilisations are illegal. This is extremely problematic in a democratic society. It's taking away our freedom to move around the city and behave politically, turning them into a private space for companies to do what they want, which turns thousands of years of urban history on its head."


For want of a metaphor, civil society is the forum where we debate and discuss; even shake our fists in anger as we vehemently disagree. Here do we make the democratic decisions that affect society, where we all have a say, and where - however messily - we make progress. In this, the realm of the citizen, we can - and do - dare to disagree with those who might fancy themselves master.


Democracy is messy and imperfect, that's true, and it's easy to idealise6, but it provides strength in numbers for the weak to overpower the minority of might, for the poor to be heard over the bellows of the rich, for the voice of the many to veto the diktats of the privileged few. Little wonder, now that they have outgrown the society that sustains them, our Lords and Masters today seek to transform a vocal citizenry into meek minions, overawed by pomp, ceremony, glittering spectacle and grandiose rank.


In the quasi-public corporate enclaves they are establishing, the citizen is muted. For all the polish of presented arguments of consumer convenience, of safe space and protection, they are corrals for livestock where the master servant relationship flourishes, and we bow in gratitude that we are humbly accepted to their hallowed halls. Democracy, civil society, has no place here, in these oligarchal principalities, and if they venture within they risk swift ejection.


Well, those who preached democracy and civil society were subversives to the social order once; so it seems are they subversives again. Dissent is the very nature of civil society, obedience the very stuff of the corporate enclosures.


Ironically, our 'lords and masters' fought for a civil society in ages past: they fought to free themselves from aristocratic enclosure. Now they are the aristocrats and they want to secure for themselves the commons, to protect and preserve not their liberties, but their power, wealth and privileges. All the rest, this talk of security and protection, social mobility and aspiration, is nothing but window dressing.


Arise, ye starvelings

Those malnourished proles of yesteryear fought over generations to slowly wrest democratic redress for the inequalities they faced, to forge for themselves and their descendents - us - a decent standard of living, to secure rights and liberties our masters talked but seldom walked. Every gain made was achieved in the face of bitter resistance: tears were spilled, blood was shed, lives were lost, to make society a better, fairer place, where civil society meant more than just a talking shop.


Our Lords and Masters today know this. They resent it. They resent it all the more, as they look to the gulf they have managed to create between their kind and ours, dismantling the gains of the past. Fearfully, they ponder the possibility that one day we might seek redress, much as our forebears once did.


Today's ruling elites know us better then we know ourselves. Like their 18th and 19th Century forebears, they know we the citizens for what we are - the 'barbarians' at the palace gates - and they surely fear the day we might awaken and demand the return of our civil state.


This is our society, not theirs. They cannot exist without us, let alone rule. They need us more than we need them. We are many; they are few. No wonder they're building a fortress.


Mark Cantrell,


9 June 2012


Copyright (c) June 2012. All Rights Reserved


1 Workfare - or the Work Programme to give it the official name.

2 And these 'cartels' can be international in nature.

3 If spoof it is, difficult to tell these days.

4 Pity the youngster who lives in earshot of one of these things. One wonders what impact it will have on their health and well-being?

5 A major regeneration project in Liverpool that encompasses swathes of streets in the city and which, contrary to the public space they were before, now serve as private property. Shoppers can access these streets, but only on sufferance - they are no longer entitled to be there without the permission of the developers.

6 I could go and fill a book with discussions on democratic models, theory and practice, all the limitations, and idealisations, etc, but this isn't the place, so let's just stick with this quickfire idealistic simplification.


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