I’m posting this on the day my new book is published. I thought it might help to explain who the book is for and why I wrote it.
The book advocates for a world without law.
When you first suggest that idea, it seems ridiculous. Of course we need laws, don’t we? And now, of all times, with governments taking away human rights, laughing at the idea of asylum for refugees, coming up with ever more draconian anti-protest laws – isn’t this exactly the moment to be standing up for people’s rights?
For those who want to focus on the present, don’t worry, the book does a lot of that. I write in the book (as I’ve been doing in the press for the past few weeks) about the authoritarian side of populism and the benign laws it smashes, as well as the malign ones it creates.
What I try to show in my book is that, in the conditions of the past 40 years, we have come to rely on the law at just the same time that we’ve felt less power in our lives. In the workplace, for example, a structure of individualised employment law took root at the same time as the passing of anti-union laws. Workers were prevented from striking, and workers were rewarded for bringing their complaints in the tribunal. This two-step dance did not make workplaces better or reduce managerial power. In the 1960s, when unions were strong and laws were weak, employees who were dismissed would often appeal that decision to their managers. Around one in four employees who were dismissed was able to get that decision reversed. Move on a generation and under our present-day system of employment tribunals fewer than 1 in 1000 unfair dismissal claims leads to a worker’s reinstatement.
If you have been a union rep then you will know how casework has drained activist time, and reinforced dynamics of self-policing within the unions. In talking in employment law, I don’t mean to extract it from other areas of law: the same processes of complexity and legal overreach have been going on housing law, family law, etc etc.
The most exciting of left-wing traditions imagine a world in which there is no state because the unequal relationships which a state seeks to mediate and protect have themselves gone away – in which there are no discrimination laws because there is no racism and no sexism. Or, in relation to the destruction of the environment, there is no bureaucracy of business regulations, because there is no longer “business” in the sense we understand it now, as a series of wealthy individuals hoarding resources for the sake of their descendants to the 50th generation into the future, with a complex regime of laws protecting them from being sued when those plutocrats take decisions which burn the forests and poison the seas.
If you can hold in mind that vision of the future, even as you look with open eyes at the world around us, then slogans such as “Save the Human Rights Act,” or “Defend judicial review,” can no longer be sufficient. Merely to save what we have now, you need to think beyond it.
They might involve certain expansions to the state: environmental courts to expropriate the polluters. But what I’m arguing for is, in general, the increasing power of social movements outside the law.
Faced with the crisis around us, I insist on optimism. It is in moments when you can see structures of law being dismantled, and they cease to seem permanent, fixed and unchanging, that you can start to imagine a different kind of legal system, one that corresponds to what people really need.
Against the Law is published by Repeater today.