By now, the right-wing commentariat and desperate Tories must be wondering if it was a good idea to turn Margaret Thatcher’s funeral into such a naked and triumphal political event. Had they left it as the mid-level public/private send-off due any PM, the protests might have ceased with the Saturday evening party at Trafalgar Square, by all reports something of a half-hearted occasion (your correspondent skipped it for the launch party of a 3D printing anarchist makerspace in Berlin — the future of post-capitalism, as opposed to its defeated past).
But with the military lining the room, dress listed as “ceremonial … without swords”, and the coffin to be borne by a selection of Falklands veterans (old joke: Thatcher’s walking among the homeless of ’80s London, sees a man with a sign saying “Falklands veteran”, gives him 20 quid, he replies: “muchas gracias, senora”) who retain all four limbs, the event has become one that anti-Thatcher protesters can’t ignore. It’s a fusion of state, politics and ideological power that has to be cracked open.
Thatcher couldn’t not have a state funeral — in essence because her role was not to free people from the state, but to reinvade a contested social space with state power, thus making sovereignty possible again. That’s why, in the end, Thatcher confused herself with the sovereign (“we have become a grandmother”). For her not to have a de facto state funeral would be an absence, a gaping lack.
Her domestic policy was always proto- and paramilitary. Any imposition of neoliberalism has to be. A classic example of neoliberalism — Pinochet’s Chile — was also the template, and subsequent impositions were merely variants on it, designed to allow for the messy business of elections and actually existing democracy. No wonder Thatcher retained her loyalty to Pinochet to the end. (I can’t really hate her for it — I’d defend Fidel Castro to the last, no matter what the violent idiocies the man has perpetrated.)
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So protest is essential. Inevitably it has become the occasion for assessing how the contemporary state thinks about civil activities. Police announced they were monitoring social media, discussion sites, etc, for protest activity in order to “prevent crime”. This repressive conception of policing — the police are there to investigate crime afterwards, not to investigate “pre-crime” — went unremarked upon. By the weekend the police were talking about section five of the Public Order Act, under which it could be an offence to cause someone “insult or distress”.
Ah yes, it’s our old friend “insult” again. The word that should have no place in the law books, the word that no one on the Left should tolerate for a second in any statute, rears its head to impose order, to reach beyond the purview of law — the management of bodies in public space — to make a series of interpretations. By Monday, the police had officially confirmed that it would not be be an arrestable offence to turn your back on Thatcher’s funeral cortege as it passed by. What better demonstration of the profoundly repressive nature of Thatcherism — and the social management policy of Blairism bolted onto it — that it would not be criminal to rotate your body 180 degrees in a public place on a Wednesday afternoon?
“Trouble is, the folks who know how to use these technologies may not be predisposed to become engaged …”
How is the Left to respond to police lurking in the cybersphere to detect pre-crime? In the UK we’ve had an example of this when a half-dozen anarchists were rounded up the day before the latest royal wedding after making vague online talk of planning a disruptive republican party. Principally, what struck one was the otiose stupidity of the people concerned, most of whom were anthropology lecturers at polytechnics-turned-universities, amazed that the state that paid them to teach that it would wither away would actually collar them. Most were arrested at their homes, the simple expedient of couch-surfing for a few nights to go off-grid clearly beyond them.
Now it’s happening again. Plans for civil disobedience at what has long since ceased to be the burial of a senile 80+ grandmother (Carol Thatcher, the daughter, was so upset at her mother’s death that she rushed back from sunny Spain — a mere seven days after her death was announced) have been discussed, as usual, across a range of open social media, as if this were not the equivalent of talking it over in the forecourt of New Scotland Yard. Quite possibly there will be the same roundup on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, with the same gobsmacked amazement.
It’s a measure of the degree to which Left politics has become a cultural activity, defining identity for an information-era elite class, rather than a real form of challenge to power. What remains of the Left has become so laced into power that, at some level, it doesn’t really want to challenge it; it wants to perform a challenge within the domain authorised by the state. Being arrested before you do anything is thus in some way a relief.
But behind this might be another layer of activists, and they won’t be communicating via social media. They’ll be communicating via Tor or another form of encrypted communication, which has now become essential to the conduct of free political activity. Tor is an encryption system, originally a product of the US Navy, that was “liberated” by hackers such as Jacob Appelbaum. Any encryption system relies on the simple character of large prime numbers — multiply two together, and the resulting huge number is practically impossible to factor into the original primes. Those primes thus serve as a sort of broken ring, a la Tolkien — the message can only be communicated when the two primes (controlled by receiver and sender) are matched up.
That’s an oversimplification, but it’s close enough to point out the simplicity of the process at one end — and its uncrackability at the other. The process is simply an electronic version of the skills that Leftists learnt for decades up until the 1960s, from invisible ink to false-bottom suitcases (to smuggle into Australia radical banned books such as Peyton Place, British Imperialism In India and The Limerick: an anthology). Subsequent decades of a relatively open society made those techniques first archaic and then a little corny. But from 9/11 onwards, as the open society has been successively closed down (with the enthusiastic approval, it must be said, of the think-tank Right, who now mewl and puke about “free speech”), an awareness of the national security state has become necessary.
Trouble is, the folks who know how to use these technologies may not be predisposed to become engaged in the sort of politics that involve mounting a protest against the funeral of Thatcher — and those likely to protest are only intermittently interested in the sort of skills that would make their activities genuinely clandestine.
“We now require encrypted communication to organise not illegal activity, but to organise legal protest …”
This issue has come to a head over the last year or so, as it has become clear to hackers that global states and superstates — the US and the EU particularly — have every intent of creating systems of total surveillance and interception, and that that system involves, as a matter of course, the major email and social media sites. To send a gmail or Facebook message to someone is to CC a copy to the US NSA — where it will be scrutinised by automatic processes and can now be kept for up to 100 years. The hackers — gathered at this year’s Chaos Convergence in Germany — clearly feel we are at a swing point in this process, whereby we could establish, or miss the opportunity to establish, a counter-system resistant to surveillance. Indeed, in response to this, Melbourne hacktivist Asher Wolf kickstarted the now-global “cryptoparty” movement, whereby experienced hackers teach relative neophytes the skills necessary to use Tor and other systems.
Your correspondent has some reflections on this over at Overland, the gist of which is that the case for using encrypted processes for activism seems proven beyond doubt, but the anarchistic processes that are second-nature to the hackerati are unlikely to spread its use much beyond an inner circle. A simpler process is required, to get the uptake of such systems to a critical mass, where, in any given activist network, more people are using them than not.
The necessity for such now seems to be unquestionable, and an event like Thatcher’s funeral proves it. We now require encrypted communication to organise not illegal activity, but to organise legal protest — which, via the means of “Public Order Acts” (which are the flipside of things like the recent Human Rights Act) can be flipped into illegal action via the mere application of a definition. Encryption has now become the minimum condition of freedom, the equivalent of putting a letter in an opaque envelope before you send it. Your correspondent, the original Luddite, is learning these things very, very slowly.
There seems to be a resistance among many sections of the Left, especially in Australia, to realise that we are, once again, in a state of semi-legality, and that certain measures are demanded. That is a curious situation, a product both of the low temperature of Australian politics and of the substantial way in which, from the Whitlam era onwards, the Australian Left became bound up with the state and supported by it. The result today is that there are many people on the Left who have become state clients, public servants, unable to see where they end and the state begins.
In the UK, people who thought like that are getting a rude awakening, as the funereal procession catches them in its mourning drapes. Those further from the altar of St Paul’s, where the Iron Lady will join the ages, could do worse than take it as a free hint, and get a little ahead of the game. It’s time for Tor.