2000s >> 2003 >> no-1192-december-2003

Editorial – What Sort of Identity

ID cards are not a new idea: slave masters branded their chattel; Chinese and Russian feudal despots issued passports and papers so that peasants could not leave their allotted territory; racist regimes used them to classify their population. Of course, so have “free democracies” : the USA has had ID cards in many states for years; Germany, France and much of Europe use them. Now Home Secretary Blunkett wants to impose them on workers in Britain too.

The absence or presence of ID cards has not changed one iota the wage-slave of their possessor. Or perhaps vice-versa, since it is the cards that could be said to own the people – the scrap of plastic, the shard of paper, the scarred arm carries the revealed truth of its bearers name, address, citizenship status. Without it, the person would be nothing. If you cannot produce ID, you are presumed to not be who you say you are.

Those who support ID cards point out how we are constantly being asked for identification wherever we go: passports, credit cards, library cards, video store cards, loyalty cards, clocking-in cards; a vast array of cards to show who we are when we are asked; that we are already the possessions of a series of bureaucratically allocated identities. So why shouldn’t we mind a consolidation into one, neat, easy to use identity card?

Of course, they are right. The development of commodity society has it corollary in the development of distrust. With the advancement of credit systems, electronic money and e-order of goods, the need develops to be able to seal a deal with the wax of identification. In the absence of being able to “show them the money” it becomes necessary to show who you are, so they can find you if you cheat them. Likewise, with advanced methods of distributing mass produced goods, you need a system in place to stop people just taking what they want, without handing over the moolah.

The parties to a commercial transaction come together as the representatives of property, the qualities of their property determining their respective roles – what Marx called the fetishism of the commodity, in which relations between people become relations between things. The things in question, in the age of credit, include electronic bank accounts, credit slates and memberships of service providing organisations.

The new need for identity goes further, however. Our proponents of ID cards who use the example of passports would probably be surprised to learn that less than a century ago, a person could travel most of Europe without needing a passport to move between countries. The passport became necessary with the perceived need by nation states to protect the specific patches of land they occupied from interlopers.

The new calls for ID cards follow from much the same reason, with immigration being given as a specific impetus. The authorities need to know who belongs to which piece of land, to keep them in their place. This need is given an added edge by their need to make sure that the owners of these patches of land don’t spend strained welfare and benefits budgets on workers who aren’t going to swell their coffers in return.

The growth of commodity culture means that the authorities, usually the state, need to be able to recognise the parties to the contract. It doesn’t need to recognise them as human beings, however, but as owners of property. As potential criminals, presuming they might be lying and that they need to be watched, just in case.

Those who say “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear” are just as caught up in the same corrosive alienation: unable to see their fellows as human beings, opportunities for advancement and enjoyment; but instead, potential robbers, threats to them and their goods. Such fears, though, are not unfounded. The wolf-eat-wolf world of commodity society, where you are what you own, pits human against human.

The issue for socialists, then, is not ID cards or not ID cards, but a society of creeping fear of our fellow women and men or a society that fosters common trust, common mannerliness and rewards co-operation rather than thievery.

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