People get nervous when they hear you write fiction. They are afraid that you will make them into a character in your next novel; put them in a world of your own creation, where you can do with them what you will.

Although one actually rarely uses a known personality wholesale, such fears are not unfounded. There is a sense in which novelists do play God. They have, after all, the power of life or death.

For this reason, it is unsurprising to discover that the word “author” has the same etymology as the word “authoritarian”, which shares its implications of omnipotence and control.

The word “libertarian”, on the other hand, comes to us from the Latin word for “free”.

Accustomed as we are, to viewing political regimes and systems as either right or left wing, the question as to whether they are authoritarian or libertarian is largely neglected.

This, I believe, is a mistake, for it dangerously narrows our outlook. We do not, after all, view the world in only one dimension. As well as side to side, there are up and down, and backwards and forwards.

Likewise, to consider the authoritarian or libertarian dimension of a political system is to deepen our understanding of its nature, in ways that are of vital importance, especially as we decide how to react to recent events.

The information which this parameter reveals is, arguably, even more crucial to determining whether or not a system is ethically acceptable than ascertaining if it is right or left wing.

Take Hitler and Stalin, for instance. Fascist and Communist. Far right and far left. And yet both authoritarian, which was why their regimes had so much in common.

Here are just some of the tools of the authoritarian state which the two employed to such ruthless ends: police; armies; concentration camps; torture; disappearances; and mass killing.

Other instruments of authoritarian systems are spy cameras; prisons; denunciations; laws which bear no relation to what is right or wrong; and the constant assurance that all these things are necessary for the protection of the population.

At the top of the pile, a corrupt coterie commits criminal acts with impunity, while the violence of their thugs also goes unpunished.

All of these features are easy to spot and condemn when they are in the past, or characterise foreign states. Unless you are in the front line, though, they are rather harder to recognise as the face of your own.

Daily, though, on British television, we see our military and its allies inflicting untold suffering on those with whom we, as a people, have no quarrel.

For spurious reasons, young men are stopped and searched on our cities’ streets.

Those at the top fiddle the books and wreak financial havoc on the country without being answerable for their actions. And the police, too, often appear to be unaccountable for their behaviour.

In the light of all this, it might well seem to the alienated and dispossessed that when they riot, commit random acts of violence and loot burnt-out shops, they are not behaving in any way differently from those in charge.

Undoubtedly it is no coincidence that, at the same time as our under-class becomes ever more oppressed, the right to protest is being curtailed and civil liberties diminished in the name of state security.

Witness this chilling example. Last month, supposedly as part of their counter terrorism measures, the Metropolitan Police issued the following directive: “Anarchism is a political philosophy which considers the state undesirable, unnecessary and harmful, and instead promotes a stateless society, or anarchy. Any information relating to anarchists should be reported to your local police.”

In other words: a group of people, breaking absolutely no laws, should be denounced, simply because they do not like the way their country is being run.

How quick we are to condemn such a stance, when we see it being adopted by the regimes of countries such as Syria, Egypt and Libya!

From the early days of the novel, writers ill at ease with an autocratic position found ways in which to change their relationship, both to their material and to their readers.

A story might be told from various different perspectives, for instance. The narrative voice itself might not have a full grasp of the truth or, indeed, the last word on a tale’s outcome – some novels have alternative endings for the reader to choose from.

This democratisation of the novel form finds parallels in a libertarian outlook, which allows for, listens to and tolerates different voices, viewpoints and ways of existing; the only stricture being that they do not impinge upon or harm other people.

Libertarianism believes in live-and-let-live, and the freedom and privacy which that implies. Its watchword is trust, not fear.

All these are things which we purportedly hold dear, but are in danger of losing sight of at this pivotal moment for British society.

There is no question in my mind that our authoritarian system, and the example which it sets, has been a major cause of the disorder which has broken out in our cities.

And yet, in their zeal to please those set on vengeance, our politicians are falling over themselves to put still more repressive measures in place, which will only increase the levels of injustice and oppression. And dissent can now expect to be met, not just with the disgraceful tactic of kettling, but with water cannons and rubber bullets. Of course, all this will deal with the situation for a while, just as similar responses have done, to differing degrees, in the Arab countries whose people have risen up against their rulers.

But where underlying grievances remain unaddressed, tensions inevitably mount and, when sparked off again by some intolerable event, the rage unleashed returns, redoubled.

It is, therefore, my plea that we eschew a kneejerk response to what has happened in Britain, and realise, instead, that it is only by halting the onward march of the police state that we can create genuine concord.

If not, we will be the authors of our own destruction, obliged to become accustomed to watching our cities burn.

Cathy Feeny


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