Chapter 8

From: Identity

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Practices of Freedom: 'Citizenship' and the Politics of Identity in the Age of AIDS SIMON WATNEY The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the 'state ofemergency' in which we live is not the exception but the rule ... The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are 'still' possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge - unless it is the knowledge that the view of history that gives rise to it is untenable. Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy ofHistory, No.8 (1940) A legally unrestricted majority rule, that is, a democracy without a constitution, can be very formidable in the suppression of the rights of minorities and very effective in the suffocation ofdissent without any use of violence. But that does not mean that violence and power are the same. Hannah Arendt, On Violence (1970) The relentlessly deepening AIDS crisis raises profound questions for all nations, ranging from community needs to adequate health-care provision. This is especially the case in the United Kingdom, where the epidemic coincides with a major ideological dispute about medical and welfare entitlements, and a sustained government critique of socialised medicine, in theory and in practice. ConRict in health and welfare policy reRects a wider debate that increasingly addresses the entire structure of British 157 Identity parliamentary politics, as an increasingly pluralistic model of European politics is met with strong government resistance in the name ofnational sovereignty. The publication of Charter 88 has been widely taken to represent a major sea change in British politics. The Charter drew attention to the erosion of civil rights in the UK, claiming that 'a traditional British belief in the benign nature of the country's institutions encourages an unsystematic perception of these grave matters'.l It argued that 'the intensification of authoritarian rule has only recently begun', though it is worth pointing out that the emergence of the 'new social movements' since 1968 has been firmly grounded in a critique of parliamentarianism. It is also important to draw attention to that central strand of British socialism, from Thomas Paine to Raymond Williams, which has sustained a profound and complex critique of the meaning and practice of democracy as it has been instituted in Britain. From both these perspectives it is clear that the increasingly confident authoritarianism of British government in the 1980s has only been possible because of the archaic nature of Britain's political institutions and political culture. Whilst this repressive current has seemingly only recently cOqie to the attention of the mainstream of British politics, it has long been apparent to those whom parliamentary democracy has never recognised as legitimate political subjects or constituencies. In this essay I want to consider the question of civil liberties in relation to the heavily contested concept of citizenship. As Stuart Hall and David Held have pointed out: Like all the key contested political concepts of our time, it can be appropriated within very different political discourses and articulated to very different political positions - as its recuperation by the New Right clearly shows.2 Rather than attempt a historical survey of the concept of citizenship in British political theory and practice, I want to consider its potential for forging identities and alliances that are independent of traditional forms of party and government allegiance. I also want to consider citizenship in relation to a particular site of controversial political activity: that of lesbian and gay responses to the AIDS crisis. This raises profound ethical and constitutional issues that the 158 Practices of Freedom Left has not begun to consider: as the American critic Douglas Crimp points out, the AIDS epidemic is not simply a natural disaster, but on the contrary, it has been allowed to happen.3 The emergence in 1989 of two new national lesbian and gay civil rights organisations in Britain suggest the emergence of a new politics of sexuality which is sensitive to recent debates concerning the construction of subjectivity, and able to reach out beyond older notions of the rights of supposedly distinct 'sexual minorities'.4 This returns us to the urgent question of the role of ethics in the construction of political identities that might offer a coherent collective refusal ofboth the values ofcapitalism and the institutions ofparliamentarianism as it is currently practised and understood. Subjects or Citizens? In Towards 2000 Raymond Williams offered what is perhaps the most coherent modern socialist critique of British parliamentary democracy. For Williams this was not merely 'some abstract or...


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