You’ve heard of SOPA and ACTA. as well as Canada’s new rejection of digital privacy rights (bill C-30) and Harper’s dreaded “Crime Bill” (C-10). It seems like every day another assault on our rights is written up and signed into law. While some, like SOPA, shrivel away when they’re shown the light of day, many are far stronger, and see very little attention. The legal framework of our society is taking a radically authoritarian turn, and it’s being witnessed at all levels.

H.R. 347 – America’s “Anti-Occupy” Law
US Congress just passed an amendment with only three votes against (all Republican) which makes threatens to criminalize many forms of protest, especially around officials or government offices. All that’s needed now is Obama’s approval. The amendment would make it a federal offence (rather than a misdemeanor), “to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions, engages in disorderly or disruptive conduct in, or within such proximity to, any restricted building or grounds when, or so that, such conduct, in fact, impedes or disrupts the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions.” This would especially relate to any area occupied by the president or other officials protected by the Secret Service, and no longer require “knowing and wilful” intent.

In too many ways, this is reminiscent of the “Public Works Protection Act” which became so notorious during Toronto’s G20. It imposes a “no-protest-zone” which follows officials anywhere they go and protects all institutions they enters. Laws like these mark an important turning point from an era where potentially disruptive behaviour was tacitly allowed (or lightly punished) because of the potential for constructive protest to a state of affairs where such protests are the main motivation behind their prohibition. Nowadays, political protests are considered exactly what’s considered dangerous.

Privatizing Police
This idea should have stayed in science fiction. In Britain, though, it’s coming closer to reality. In Surrey and West Midlands police departments have invited bids from private firms for investigations, as a means of coping with blanket 20% cuts to police budgets. The proposed contracts could be worth billions. Some police services have already been contracted out in Britain, and this follows similar trends in America of private prisons and “military contractors” (mercenaries).

Any kind of privatized services threaten to make the institutions involved far less responsible and accountable to the public. Violence, though, isn’t just another government service – it’s the fundamental service provided by the state. Without a role as enforcer, what exactly is the state? If other institutions are providing this enforcement, at what point do they become the state? And who, then, holds power?

Beyond Legislation
Other examples include new laws in California which impose fines and jail time on high school students for being late for class. Another, though not a “law”, would be Google’s new “privacy policy” which institutes collection off personal details on all sites they own and threatens bans which can cut users off from much of what they’ve come to know as “the internet” at once. This certainly shows, as mentioned above, how boardrooms are beginning to eclipse parliaments as the source of policies which rule over us. Thankfully, this has not gone un-noticed by more traditional legislators – and Google’s new rules are now facing investigations in the USA and have been already been found to violate EU law.

A final dishonourable mention goes to a policy which barely exists, at least officially, and is in as many ways a “crime” as a law. The use of assassinations as a tool of American foreign policy has reached new heights under Obama. Bombings, drone strikes and commando raids have killed thousands, pushing further beyond borders into undeclared war-zones with more than half of those killed being “false positives”. It goes, of course without saying that this is against American, international and local laws (in a “war crimes” kinda way), but of course nobody expects this to go to trial. Instead, these actions re-write the rules of the game – proving institutions like the UN and ICC toothless, and cementing American power in ways no UN resolution could.

Power, Law and the State
Laws are a part of a much broader mediation with power. We’re subject to numerous smaller sets of rules within institutions as well as constant orders and demands from all levels. Laws like the Magna Carta or American Bill of Rights have always been a stabilizing influence which limited immediate state power for the sake of broader legitimacy. They set out how one could be punished for breaking the rules, but also set limits on those punishments. While it might tie the hands of authorities to punish somebody in particular as much as they like (in theory), it also protected the institution from the revolts and reprisals which typically follow such despotic actions. One need only look at Rodney King, or any other victim of police brutality who’s inspired riots throughout the last few decades to see how risky these excesses are for the rest of the state. It is these legal rights, often the product of long, hard struggles, which set nation-states apart from warlords and mafias, which give “the people” a reason to tolerate their leaders.

The last decade has witnessed, in Canada, America and Britain as well as countless others, a dramatic legal shift away from these limitations. Using threats of terrorism, cyber-crime and gang violence among others, a dramatic number of legal and policy changes have come into effect which tear up basic restrictions on the way we can be watched, classified and punished. Of course any honest look at our history shows that these “rights” never really applied, but the fact that it’s still happening shows that the policies of the Palmer Raids, McCarthyism or COINTELPRO never really ended – they just went dormant for a while. In this latest revival, they’re threatening to become a permanent and acknowledged part of operating policy, which puts us all in a very dangerous position. If a government cannot rule based on (implied) democratic legitimacy, it must rely on fear.