Three words

Three words in one telling phrase in a statement by Home Office security minister John Hayes yesterday, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s The World at One in response to the High Court ruling that data retention and surveillance powers in DRIPA are “inconsistent with European Union law”:

paranoid liberal bourgeoisie

Setting aside the casual discriminatory undertone of the first word – the snide characterisation of legitimate, principled, rational objection as something akin to a serious mental health condition; an attempt to paint serious people (David Davis, Tom Watson and many, many others) as somehow ‘hysterical’ or ‘mad’ – what struck me first about Mr Hayes statement is what it reveals of his thinking. My friend Ian drew my attention to the quote, and my initial response was this:

Though my friend Guy had already cut straight to the point:

I was busy so – besides noting that “liberal bourgeoisie” is how the Communist Party of China sometimes refers to the Western Democracies and making a terrible pun that, probably deservedly, left me with an image of my friend Simon that will scar me for years (thanks, Ian) – I went back to work.

But those three words stayed with me.

Later that evening I tried inverting them, to see if I could better understand them. My ‘mental unpacking’ went something like this:

paranoid = “hyper-concerned” > complacent = “utterly unconcerned”; clinical ‘pronoia’ irrelevant and I don’t like misusing medical terminology in any case. It’s offensive.

liberal > illiberal; ‘authoritarian’ probably equally appropriate, but equally a label. A literal inversion suffices.

bourgeoisie (French origin; typically Marxist in usage?) > elite vs, say, the (metropolitan) “chattering classes” – which was to whom former Home Secretary David Blunkett said he was referring in similar circumstances, as Simon had already pointed out.

To the extent that I have any, my Marx is rusty, so I checked a few references, e.g. bits of Trotsky (interestingly, in the Third International on the Chinese Revolution) and some New Cambridge Modern History on the early C20th, noting “The Liberals were supported by the working-class parties (Labour and Socialist), which were as yet of insufficient size to do more than assist in the struggle” – but, basically, I wasn’t too far off the mark.

Use of the word “bourgeousie”, whether intentionally or not, seems to engage a Marxist and/or revolutionary frame of reference: the division between ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘proletariat’; those who own the means of production (“upper class”/capitalists), and those who don’t (“working class”/workers). Of course, society – and division – has moved on, but I was reassured that I probably wasn’t any more part of the bourgeousie (in that sense) than I thought I was.

Of course, I am ‘middle class’ – though my “political, economic and social opinions” are most definitely not “determined mainly by concern for property values and conventional respectability”, so I guess I dodge that definition too.

Though no longer ‘metropolitan’, I do spend quite a bit of time in London – and some might say I could “chatter” for England. (Though  personally, I like to think my verbiage is something more than just chatter.) Fascinating that Mr Hayes, who I assume is a staunch Conservative, should think to draw on such reference points.

Or maybe he wasn’t thinking? Maybe it was just a bit of typical, lazy “let’s use a big word that makes me sound impressive” political rhetoric? Hard to tell.

So anyway, what I ended up with was “complacent illiberal elite“, to which Roger Lancefield would add “deceitful”:

complacent (deceitful) illiberal elite

Just a few thoughts on these four words:

complacency – this is not the simple form of personal complacency, which one would hope might be a signal to constituents that a person was not fit to represent them. Something along the lines of, “I don’t give a shit, so why should you?” – this is more a deliberate attempt to project a lack of concern onto others, from a position of purported authority: “Nothing to see here…” or, more usually in this context, “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.”

This projected complacency suggests there’s something they’d rather you didn’t know about; a form of distraction and deceit which, in the powerful, is generally an indication that there is actually something to be concerned about.

These days, being Big Brother is far too ‘in your face’; proponents adopt a form of overweening, Nannying paternalism that is either wilfully ignorant – unfortunately, not a disqualification for elected office – or outright deceitful given the increasing numbers of people been have been harmed, even died, due official, lawful abuse and misuse of personal data and metadata by governments, companies (including charities) and institutions.

[N.B The spectre of “the hacker”, so often deployed by the tech-illiterate media and politicians, may indeed be real – but pales in comparison to the effects of legislatively-sanctioned and authorised user / insider abuse.]

One of the most concerning aspects of Mr Hayes original statement is the use of the word “liberal” as a pejorative: when did freedom and tolerance become a bad thing, values not to aspire to? When did that particularly insidious, ignorant, illiberal tendency of the American hard Right become acceptable in British politics? People, especially powerful people, who denigrate the very words that signify freedom bear close watching.

I realise the word “elite” is pretty loaded these days, but it’s also pretty easy to understand in context. I would note only that if the word triggers associations with 12-foot lizard people for you, we’re probably not talking about the same thing.

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