I was recently invited to give a keynote presentation about Student as Producer to a conference at a college in England. A condition of the invitation was that I sign a document agreeing with the proposition that the principles of democracy, liberty and religious tolerance are based on fundamental British values. The document forms part of the British government’s Prevent policy, which seeks to prevent people carrying out acts of terrorism. It is a requirement of public institutions that they follow a set of protocols to deny the promotion of ‘extremist’ ideas on which terrorist activity might be based. I did not sign the document but set out my views about the relationship between British values and the principles of liberal democracy in an email that I sent to the organisers of the conference. The organisers accepted my views on the matter so that I was cleared to accept the invitation and present my keynote. It is part of the Prevent protocols that colleges balance their legal duty to ensure freedom of speech and academic freedom with the requirement to challenge what the Prevent policy defines as extremist views and ideologies. I have set out below an extended account of what I consider to be some of the main areas of contention with the Prevent policy.
The British Government’s policy to prevent people being ‘drawn into terrorism’ (Prevent Policy 2015) is deeply flawed, not least because of its claim to equate the principles of liberal political society with British values, but also for its refusal to acknowledge that political violence is an organising principle for all nation-states, including the British state, as well as the global system of international relations.
As a Professor of Sociology, who teaches and writes about political theory in an English University, I do not accept that the ideals set out on the document to be signed by visiting speakers: democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and respect and tolerance of religious faiths, are based on British values. The values are, in fact, the key characteristics of a particular political ideology known as liberal democracy or liberalism. This refusal to accept the provenance of these ideals as British values is not based on my personal opinion but is a reasoned and informed position grounded in understanding and insights gained from my study of social science, critical political economy and international history. The core aspects of liberal democracy: a free market and free labour regulated by a strong state are the essential aspects of capitalist society in general.
Capitalism did first appear in Britain in the 15th century but was not the result of British values, rather it emerged out of the discovery of the way in which surplus value could be produced through the exploitation of labour rather than the exploitation of land (feudalism), and later how machines and technology could be used to intensify the exploitation of labour. The emergence of capitalism in Britain led to the development of a political and economic system along with associated cultures and behaviours that we now understand to be the basis of modern British society. The current legal system of order is based on the maintenance of capitalist freedoms of the market: the capacity to buy and sell commodities, and the freedom of labour as the basis of individual liberty, both of which are imposed by the state and enforced by the police.
This form of society was replicated elsewhere as other countries adopted these capitalist methods so that a liberal democratic political system is now the basis of many developed capitalist countries. As we now know capitalism has positive aspects along with some very negative consequences, including unemployment, poverty, environmental destruction and global warming. These negative consequences lead to popular forms of resistance which have been contained by extending the franchise through parliamentary democracy, legalising trade unions, along with other employment and human rights, as well as the provision of welfare and charity. A key feature of liberal democracy is that any alternative form of political system that seeks to ameliorate the negative consequences of capitalism, e.g, through the redistribution of resources, promoting a less hierarchical society or the support for internationalism: not the nationalism explicit in the concept of British values, is presented as chaos and confusion. Resistance to capitalism can be criminalised if it is counter to the rule of law and order on which capitalism is based.
It is important to be able to vote and to protest and to strike so that the politicians can be held to account, the system as a whole reviewed, with the possibility always open for reform as well as transformation.
A central aspect of capitalism and what distinguishes it from the pre-capitalist feudal period is that the religious principle of the divine right of kings was replaced by the rule of money and private property. As religion is no longer predominant it is possible to be indifferent to and tolerate religions as religion has ceased to become the dominant form of social authority. Discrimination is prevalent in British society, often based on behaviours carried over from pre-capitalist societies based on patriarchy, slavery, colonialism and hierarchical customs as well as other oppressive traditions. These practices are not central to the functioning of the rule of money and private property and so can be contained and eradicated through policy and political administration.
Liberal democracy can be contrasted to social democracy, which places more emphasis on collective organisation rather than individual liberty. Social democracy is also imposed by a strong centralised state as a way of ameliorating class based politics, for example, through comprehensive education and collective bargaining over employment rights and wages. Under our current parliamentary political system liberal democracy is the basis of right wing politics and social democracy is the basis of left wing politics.
The Prevent strategy to stop people engaging in terrorist activities is based on a refusal to acknowledge that political violence is an organising principle for all nation-states, including the British state, and the global system of competition among nation-states and their regional alliances. The imposition of international law is based on the condition that when national wills collide force decides. This global system of international political violence is evidenced by the history of imperialism and on-going regional and global wars as nation-states seek access to resources to continue the production of surplus value and maintain a competitive advantage. The epitome of this globalised system of mortal violence is the atomic nuclear bomb with the power to destroy all planetary life. This endemic nature of political violence is not only between nation-states but within nation-states. All nation-states and their political systems were formed through acts of mortal violence, a killing mentality denied to other groups that wish to challenge the authority of the nation-state system. This liberal framework of political violence is used extensively to justify acts of murder, sometimes under the guise of humanitarianism. To regard terrorist attacks as a form of political violence does in no way condone these atrocious acts.
In higher education it is very important that there is no dogmatic assertion of any political ideology, and that students are taught to understand how ideologies are constructed so as to be able to make their own decisions about their own place in the world. Student as Producer, which I was invited to speak about, is based a critical view of capitalist education derived from understanding and insights gained from the social sciences, critical political economy and international history.
To be asked to sign a document affirming the status of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and respect and tolerance of religious faiths as British values, while, at the same time, avoiding the violent nature of liberal political society, is not only against what I understand to be the basis of these ideals and the history of violent nationalisms, but is contrary to the principle of academic freedom on which my professional integrity is based.
I have suggested some readings below that further elaborate on the points that I have made.
Benjamin, Walter (1921) Critique of Violence. Reflections. Shocken Books: New York, pp. 277 – 300.
Freedman, Des ( 2017) The Terror News Cycle. LRB Blogs. 24th May: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2017/05/24/des-freedman/the-terror-news-cycle/
Kay, Geoff and Mott, James (1982) Political Order and the Law of Labour. Macmillan: London.
Meiksins-Wood, Ellen (2017) The Origins of Capitalism. Verso: London.
Mieville, China (2006) Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. London and New York; Verso.
Nabulsi, Karma ( 2017) Don’t go to the Doctors. London Review of Books. 18th May. Volume 39 no.10, pp. 27-28.
Neary, Mike (2016) Educative Power: the Myth of Dronic Violence in a Period of Civil War. Culture Machine, 16. pp. 1-28. https://www.culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/article/download/586/591
Perelman, Michael (2000) The Invention of Capitalism. Duke University Press: North Carolina.
Seymour, Richard (2008) The Liberal Defence of Murder. London: Verso.
Thompson, Edward (2013) The Making of the English Working Class. Penguin Modern Classics: London and New York.