The prison built on fear

* This article was first published in The Guardian, Monday August 30, 2004. Read all articles by Madeleine Bunting.


The question that dogs Tony Blair at every turn reared up again in the extract from Greg Dyke’s memoirs yesterday: either Blair misunderstood the 45-minute claim and was therefore incompetent, or he lied. As long as he dodges this question, its corrosive impact on his reputation and that of his government spreads. He is gambling that, in time, the question will fade, but that gamble is profoundly disrespectful of the democratic principles he is so keenly claiming to be exporting to Iraq.
This is one of the paradoxes which has troubled the thousands who have filled the tents of the Edinburgh Book Festival over the past couple of weeks. One theme has repeatedly cropped up in the programme and has attracted sell-out audiences: it can be summed up as “the health of democracy in its heartlands of Britain and America”.

The audiences that listen avidly and ask sharp questions are, as Neal Ascherson pointed out in his lecture on democracy, evidence that Britain has a more confident, assertive, educated, curious electorate than at probably any time in its history. The audience at the book festival has doubled in the past three years to just under 200,000. It has a vibrant appetite for debate and information, but it no longer necessarily turns to the political parties to meet it. Events such as those taking place beneath the tents in Charlotte Square over the past fortnight are a reminder that the much-discussed crisis of democracy, as evident in falling turnouts, is a crisis of faith rather than a crisis of participation. Apathy is not the issue; disillusionment is.

In the US, that disillusionment is being driven by two issues, argued Michael Ignatieff last night in the last of a Royal Society of Arts series of lectures on democracy. First, the corrosive bitterness in American politics derives from the belief among many voters that the 2000 presidential election was stolen, and a fear that it could be again. (A bitterness evident on the streets of New York this weekend as big protests mark the opening of the Republican convention.) “How can the greatest democracy in the world be so indifferent to the practice of democracy – something as simple as whether the voting machines are working properly?” asked Ignatieff.

Second, after Iraq (a war Ignatieff supported), he acknowledges that there are grave doubts about whether “democracies can control the war-making powers of their executives”. The faulty intelligence and deliberate deception can only lead one to the conclusion that the “entire leadership of the north Atlantic elite wilfully deluded themselves and then deceived the people”. A point echoed by Anthony Sampson in his lecture on the UK in the same series.

What really concerns Ignatieff is that the Bush administration simply doesn’t understand the democratic system it is constitutionally entrusted to defend. The use of torture has been the totemic issue: ruling out its use was a founding principle of American democracy. For the founding fathers, torture was for the despots of Europe; the new American state forbade the use of “cruel and unusual punishments” in its bill of rights. “I’m a passionate lover of American democracy – a lot of my pessimism is disappointed love,” concluded Ignatieff.

So how could such a precious principle have been abandoned so lightly? The answer, of course, is fear. Underlying much of the thinking going on in Edinburgh was how fear can be used to acquire power. “Fear stampedes electorates and parliaments. Fear is tremendously destructive of democracy – it’s more damaging than terror,” said Ignatieff, while Sampson, in another, equally grim analysis, argued that “the fear of terrorism gave an obvious justification for secrecy, for ruthless action and, above all, for moving without democratic constraints”.

The gloominess of these analyses in a sunny Edinburgh teeming with festival jollity is echoed in the weird, disturbing US film The Village. Making a pitch for the post-9/11 political allegory, it is a film which, despite its near-universal panning from the critics, lodges in the memory. The “elders” conjure up an elaborate myth of beasties laying siege to their community, which ensures a docile population. Their rule is largely benign but absolute. Pretty rural cottages, rows of cabbages and roaring log fires: it’s a parody of the escape many already dream of. Its evocation of American rural pioneer life – Laura Ingalls Wilder meets Relocation, Relocation – is posing its US audience a question: is this the tightly controlled dystopia you want?

What the thinkers in Edinburgh are pondering is how fear could stampede willing millions into just such a dystopia. The neocons offer just that. The problem, argued the philosopher John Gray in his talk here, is that the myth of progress which has sustained western liberalism for 200 years – the belief that the condition of human beings, ethically and politically, can be irrevocably improved – is crumbling. Two bogus versions of progress are being offered at the ballot box: in the US, the neocons are hijacking the myth of progress for their imperial project of an American century, while, in the UK, New Labour struggles to package its managerialist politics in the transformational progress rhetoric of the past. The electorate is rightly sceptical.

For over a century, a belief in progress and faith in the state to deliver it have been the driving force of progressive politics, but both are losing their hold. The dangers of this belief in progress are becoming increasingly apparent. With progress comes a belief in your own superiority; progress can be used as a rationale for aggression and coercion – institutions have to be forced to “modernise”; countries have to be dragged into the 21st century; nations must be democratised (as if that could ever be a passive process).

“Why are you so pessimistic?” a member of the audience asked Gray. “I’m just saying the future will be just like the past – full of conflict. It’s others who say that’s pessimistic,” he replied. Abandoning the belief in progress is the first step to becoming aware of the particular dangers our age faces – for example, how the progress myth can blind us to the re-emergence of old forms of cruelty, such as torture, or, most important, fuel the hubris of democratic, progressive power. Humility and a much better understanding of the limits of our power are what we need at this point in history, said Gray.

None of these speakers were offering their audiences any relief from their anxieties. Their language was shocking and dramatic. I’m no intellectual historian, so I don’t know if such pessimism of the intellect recurs every generation – but it seems that the anger in political life in the 80s and 90s has given way to something compelling, but very much bleaker. “It’s not my job to offer Prozac of the mind,” an unrepentant Gray told his captivated audience.