To paraphrase Ferris, illiberal society comes at you pretty fast. What’s most remarkable about the suite of proposed new laws on facial recognition, extended detention, and other measures, is the absence of a concerted pushback. Announced a few days ago, with little proposed consultation, the laws have already disappeared from the front pages of the larger media. Surveillance and authoritarian policing is crossing a tech/state threshold, yet we’re already moving on.

Quite aside from the reasons for this, it’s worth looking at what else happened this week. Yesterday, the ABC announced a major shake-up of its news and current affairs approach, which will have Lateline disappear (among other things), to be “replaced” by investigative units across platforms. And at the beginning of the week, another part of the ABC revealed the absolute financial debauchery of the Adani Carmichael coal mine project — billions and billions of state funds being poured into a crisis-ridden company, which diverts billions to tax havens, and would provide less jobs than would direct investment.

What links these and other events? ‘Tis not often that this writer gets the chance to be straight-down-the-line Marxist, but it’s worth it this time: the last remnants of liberal capitalism are being shut down, by “liberals”, and we are moving to an authoritarian capitalist social model. The right, who labelled themselves “liberals”, are going along with it, restricting their complaints about state repression to abstruse matters of speech regulation, and wilfully ignoring wider challenges to liberty, and the notion of an independent public sphere.

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The pretext for this new suite of measures is, presumably, the possibility that some Australians who went to fight with Islamic State may now be returning home, as IS loses its territory, and turns back to deterritorialised terror. Fair enough, that’s a reasonable thing to prepare for. But it’s something that requires — or would, in a still-liberal society — discussion about the threat level, and what balance of freedom and security we would like. Whatever the target of such measures, we know such laws will be abused, and rolled over to public protest in general — especially environmental protest.

State, market and public sphere are being squeezed together as one, in this period, with the state occupying the other spaces. Thus the state funding of Adani is so vast as to all but make it a state project. It’s part of a wider accumulation crisis of capitalism in the West, as measured by the decade of quantitative easing that has just been concluded. Trillions upon trillions of dollars has been transferred to the global financial sector, to prevent its collapse, very little has trickled down to the real economy, and the principal effect on the general public has been to create real estate bubbles, which makes basic housing unaffordable, and transforms the character of cities.

That quantitative easing — fancy term for giving money to banks to get their toxic assets off the books — is now coming to an end, because it is pushing interest rates into permanent negative territory. When that starts to bite, the pallid recovery the West has had will falter afresh, due to a lack of purchasing power. Social unrest will rise, and the new protest movement will be dealt with through … facial recognition surveillance in which every participant in a protest can be identified, tracked, data-matched. Masks, of course, will remain banned, and the bans will increase.

There is a need for a public sphere in which such things can be discussed. But just as it it is most required, it is starting to be wound up — with the winnowing of newspapers that aren’t demented ideological vessels like News Corp, and the rise of new news sites that specialise in “gotcha” investigative work, often useful, but lacking in a place for synthesis and argument. Lateline was one such place, in its heyday. It has suffered the usual trick — run it down so much that no one really misses it, when it goes — but the very fact that an end-of-the-day show of comment and debate (as could be), as carried by the national broadcaster, can be disappeared, demonstrates how the public sphere is undermined by an unwillingness to defend it, even as the ground shifts beneath it. The idea of debate itself, of interpretation and reasoning, done publicly, comes to have little value.

Yes, there are more proximate causes to all this. Politicians need Big Fear to distract, and their oppositions don’t want to be caught out. Police forces work to extend their power, regardless of the public good, and politicians in turn respond to that with a fresh round of new laws. Round it goes. Beneath the immediate processes, we need to understand the deeper effects, to fight it more effectively.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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