The Investigatory Powers Bill

The Investigatory Powers Bill

There was a recent article circulated that sums up a troubling development in the UK. The Investigatory Powers Bill was recently passed into law legalising government behaviour in the UK that enables the government total invasive access into the online lives of everyone within its borders.

The passing of this bill is troubling but what is worse is the level of general support in the population for such a thing. If someone asked to view your private online history, your emails and location at all times most would balk and refuse out of principle. Yet when this is written on a piece of paper by politicians this behaviour is now somehow deemed acceptable in the name of security. Every terrorist attack, or threat of terrorist attack has been used to sway public support for the erosion of digital liberty and anonymity.


I wonder what the eventual destination of this trajectory is that we are on. Today there are few bodies or authorities that exist outside the state to protect the individual. Institutions that were hard fought for have been stripped back over time as the role of the state has grown largely unquestioned. Privacy isn’t a natural state and a relatively recent thing but so is the extent to which the state determines how one lives now. The image that increasingly comes to mind concerning the internet is that of the Panopticon. Foucault wrote on the subject…

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so.

Foucault, Michel. “Discipline and Punish, Panopticism.” In Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison.

In the Panopticon the idea that an individual might be being watched is enough to bring their behaviour under the desired influence of the captor. Likewise the very potential that you are being watched by the government will influence your behaviour towards the government increasing rates of self-censorship and being unwilling to step outside of mainstream opinion. This also means that when you are placed within the Panopticon you are less likely to verbalise opposition to such monitoring than had you not been monitored at all. Something that is generally known as ‘The Spiral of Silence’. This is why the power of anonymity on the internet was so important to those with minority views and beliefs. It gave them the means to speak in a fashion that wasn’t censored, not by themselves or anyone else. In some ways it’s the same reason I started to write here. I wanted to process and externalise my thoughts in a way I wouldn’t if I had to do such a thing in public. The steps of the UK government with the passing of this bill promise that this is all beginning to change.

As according to the law of nature each must be born free … many of our common people have fallen into servitude and diverse conditions which very much displease us; we, considering that our kingdom is called … the kingdom of the Franks [free men], and wishing that the fact should be truly accordant with the name … have ordered and order that … such servitudes be brought back to freedom …

Louis X of France

I do not think it a coincidence that as Britain moves away from being a society where people are sincere Christians that we increasingly live in an age in which others attempt to determine the thoughts and beliefs of others. If the popular consensus is that we are determined by our biology, that we are fleshy machines, it’s not a great step to believe that we might as well begin to determine one another. That might seem disingenuous to the sincere beliefs of determinists, but I think anyone would be hard pressed to make an argument on the basis of abstract rights. What good are principles where the mind itself is ultimately an accident of evolution? If we think we are machines we begin to treat each other like machines.

We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us

Father John Culkin

Why do the nations say,

   ‘Where is their God?’

Our God is in heaven;

   he does whatever pleases him.

But their idols are silver and gold,

   made by human hands.

They have mouths, but cannot speak,

   eyes, but cannot see.

They have ears, but cannot hear,

   noses, but cannot smell.

They have hands, but cannot feel,

   feet, but cannot walk,

   nor can they utter a sound with their throats.

Those who make them will be like them,

   and so will all who trust in them.

Psalm 115:2-8

All of this might seem hyperbolic or alarmist but I think there is a genuine reason to be unwelcoming of these changes in practice by the authorities. More so that there are grounds for a critical Christian position on these matters. The often quoted mantra is “you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide” but we know people are fallible and our salvation ultimately won’t come from any man-made institution, no matter the security we are promised. To give any institution so much power is to invite abuse. The pursuit of utopia consistently has lead to its very opposite.


In an age where we are increasingly living digital lives I think there’s an argument from these recent changes to moderate our interactions with the online world. An element of sobriety and vigilance online is not only a spiritual good but a practical one too. If we believe in the liberty of individuals there are also avenues here to interact with others concerned with these issues too. Not because we wish to hide who we are, but because we believe people are more than numbers to be watched and moderated by the state. Is it too much to say such an invasion into the lives of individuals is a sin? I don’t think so, by doing this we are failing to love our neighbour.


The basis of society

The basis of society

For a long time I thought of myself, or rather the individual, as the basis of society. Like pixels on a screen make an image individuals en masse make a society. I didn’t really think the church had a great deal to say on this matter, to my mind it was something so basic that it went unchallenged. God made the Man alone in the beginning and we all ultimately live and die alone before God. Yet whilst God did make the Man alone, this wasn’t good, it only became so when out of his side God made Woman.

It is in the dynamics that emerge between husband and wife that I am now beginning to believe form the basis of society. It is the first point in which the interior world of the individual moves beyond itself and engages with the interior world of another at its most comprehensive degree. The world of ideas becomes incarnated in the physical interactions of a husband and wife, more so, it is the most basic unit that is self-perpetuating. The presence of children ensures this society continues and the means by which they are raised communicate what is collectively held of value and importance. In fact the catechism of the Catholic church describes the family as.

The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honour God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.

Catechism of the Catholic Church #2207

An individual in their interactions with others may form something approximating society yet it is not self-sustaining. Nor does it hold the special intimacy found between husband and wife, parent and child. If we boiled everything back and some tragedy struck England it is the family through which everything begins again. What the parents pass on to their children defines the shape of the subsequent society.

Looking at the issue from another perspective, we have the individual and we have contemporary society-at-large, a family of families. The individual alone, something only possible more recently, is subject to the values and expectations of the society they find themselves in. The family is the most basic institution where the individual might flourish and work out there own vision of the world, to create their own culture. As a result the family can be the foundation of resistance, it stands between the individual and overbearing external authorities. It creates space for new culture to emerge. Just as it is the most basic unit of society, a healthy family enriches even the largest society. To lose the family is a loss of the bedrock of individual liberty. Other institutions; formal societies, guilds, religious institutions, unions, orders, organisations and corporations do this too but none in quite such a foundational way as the family. The extent to which these groups facilitate the family or oppose it collectively determines the ultimate flourishing of the individual in any given society. Likewise these things can lead to the flourishing of the family and help unite separate families together to form the bonds that make increasingly large scale societies successful. This is why the assault on these institutions, ultimately all rooted in the family, is the hallmark of authoritarians who seek to impose their own will upon a mass of individuals.

When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale

G.K Chesterton, Heretics

On the subject of the individual, Charles Taylor in his work A Secular Age highlights the shift in where we find meaning as integral to the rise of the individual as a form of ‘buffered self’. Prior to secularisation we found meaning inherent in the world around us but the secular mind places it as something generated within the mind. With the shift in posture from an communal self to a individualist self it follows that our association with any institution or external influence is progressively questioned and negotiated. Does this now mean that society is found in the mind of the individual? So if the family was once the basis of society, has it now become the individual? Can the basis shift?

Yet for the buffered self, if meaning is generated within the mind, can one mind reach out and genuinely touch another? Or is it simply giving itself the impression that such a thing is occurring? For the buffered self its a subject always open to debate, a lingering doubt. Could such a private mind be driven to create a sustainable society? Its more reasonable that the buffered self can inherit a society, rather than found one. Yet even then its inherent doubt will over time contribute to the renegotiation of public institutions to the point in which they cease to exist in any ‘meaningful’ sense. Even the language used in such a setting becomes increasingly contentious as people can no longer agree over the very meaning of words. During such times a society either eventually becomes possessed by more robust visions of society or it becomes increasingly authoritarian in an effort to maintain current social arrangements. Something I think we are seeing in the West.

Considerations of the individual aside it does nothing to address the inherent creative nature of the family. The individual will expire, family will not but instead changes over time, children becoming parents who give rise to their own children. The individuals can transmit beliefs but if they have no vision for the family it cannot be considered sustainable.

The individual is often put forward for the basis of society as opposed to that of the family. However I would contend that the individual is most enabled when emerging from the context of the family. As a result the healthy society is only guaranteed by, among other things, the promotion of the family as its most basic constituent unit. From this individuals are taught a vision of the world and find, in the words of the catechism above ‘initiation into life in society’. That life might take the form of meaningful work and participation in organisations that reach across families as necessary and form nations. Yet we should never forget it all started with the union of a husband and wife.