Frank Furedi talks to Jennie Bristow about his new book
'Today it really doesn't matter where you stand on most issues
- what you think of the war in Iraq, whether you think Napoleon
was a clever guy or a real idiot. What matters is where you stand
in view of what constitutes personhood.'
Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent
and prolific critic of our contemporary culture, is explaining why
this time he has focused his fire on politics. Politics of Fear:
Beyond Left and Right, published by Continuum this week, analyses
the exhaustion of public life in Britain and the USA, and comes
to a stark conclusion. The end of the historic struggle between
left and right has taken us, not towards a more secure future of
greater choice and consensus, but into a pre-political age dominated
by misanthropic mistrust. Whether you wear the badge of left or
right means little - what counts is whether you view people as capable
of shaping their own destiny.
'The main message I wanted to get across is the way that left
and right has changed', explains Furedi. The insight that we have
moved beyond the politics of left and right is not new - from former
Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher's famous dictum that 'There
Is No Alternative' to the market to New Labour prime minister Tony
Blair's centrist 'Third Way' agenda, the idea that politics has
changed has been widely accepted. What has not been accepted, argues
Furedi, is the magnitude of this change.
It is not simply that the ideas of left and right fail to convince,
or that people's participation in politics takes a different form
to the past (a conceit that Furedi terms 'politics in denial').
Rather, the end of left and right has led to a situation in which
politics itself, as an expression of human agency, is becoming systematically
discredited. 'Politics implies choice - the existence of alternatives',
explains Furedi. 'Now that doesn't exist, and it's not because people
lack the imagination to dream up new ideas. The idea of people as
political animals has become displaced by the idea that they have
Instead of a debate about choice and change in society, we have
an outlook of fatalism and conformism, in which people are assigned
an increasingly passive role. Furedi has termed this dynamic 'the
conservatism of fear' - and he argues that it is confronting this
powerful outlook that we should put our energies into.
Furedi is not a disinterested observer of the left/right discussion.
He was actively involved with left-wing politics in the 1970s and
1980s, and since the 1990s he has refocused his radicalism towards
elaboration of a humanist public agenda. But it is precisely this
that has propelled him to have no illusions about the state of politics
today. 'I am not nostalgic for the past, and nor do I want to dismiss
the idea of left and right', he explains. 'This divide meant something
very real. But I got involved in left-wing politics because of what
the left believed in.'
In Politics of Fear, he spells out how much has changed: 'To put
it crudely, the left wanted social change and looked forward to
human emancipation. In contrast, the right dreaded change and robustly
sought to uphold what it considered to be the traditional way of
Today, by contrast, 'people who regard themselves as right wing
- and there are very few of them - have more or less given up on
defending tradition', and 'those who call themselves left wing are
among the most vigorous opponents of change'. United in the conservatism
of fear, left and right are often indistinguishable, except for
the politician they support and the innovation they want to ban:
'For example, sections of the right would like to ban stem-cell
research while many on the left want to rid the world of genetically
With both sides of the political spectrum practising the politics
of fear, we are left with neither an orientation towards the future
nor a defence of society's historic gains. Instead, we have presentism
- a conformist sensibility that seeks to manage society in the here
and now, against a backdrop of fear about the future and discomfort
with the past.
In this climate, says Furedi, Thatcher's TINA becomes applicable
in its broadest sense: 'There Is No Alternative to recycling, or
to healthy eating.' The political elite, disengaged from society
and focused entirely on the present, pushes a misanthropic agenda
that emphasises people's vulnerability and sees individual behaviour
as a problem to be managed. The elite demonstrates a strong element
of paternalistic contempt, although, says Furedi, 'they don't recognise
it in that form - it's more a sense that there are all these dark
savages out there, who need to be told what to do'.
Just look, he says, at the 'self-conscious way the nanny state
is promoted - the way government ministers continually argue that
the nanny state has been seen before as a very bad thing, but now
we know that the nanny state is exactly what we need'. Or, in the
words of prime minister Tony Blair, recently promoting a number
of new parenting initiatives: 'Now some of it means changing the
way the law operates in a way that frankly a few years ago people
would not have found acceptable.'
Those who are familiar with Furedi's work will recognise many
of the themes in Politics of Fear. Culture of Fear, first published
in 1997 by Cassell and subsequently republished in 2002 by Continuum,
explored the debilitating impact of society's obsession with risk
upon the way human beings view themselves. This was where he first
expounded the theory of degraded subjectivity - the way in which
human agency is being systematically diminished by the fatalist
sensibility that we are powerless in the face of numerous risks.
Therapy Culture, published in 2003, examined the process by which
notions of the robust individual have been steadily subsumed beneath
the contemporary presentation of people as vulnerable, in need of
external support in living their everyday lives. One consequence
is the aggressive promotion of a culture of conformism, in which
people are treated as passive victims of circumstance whose emotions
and behaviour have to be managed.
Politics of Fear builds upon these themes, both showing the profoundly
negative consequences of the degradation of subjectivity, and offering
some suggestions about how it might be challenged. Furedi's analysis
is uncompromising, but not bleak. At the heart of the book is a
proposal for standing up to the misanthropic worldview that passes
for politics today, through engaging in a project of 'humanising
humanism'. Essentially, he argues, we need to take a step back from
the politics debate to approach a much bolder attitude to personhood,
reclaiming the sense of human agency and a positive orientation
This, he says, 'requires our involvement in a project comparable
to the Enlightenment', getting into a dialogue with people and establishing
a network to uphold and develop the gains of the Enlightenment.
A commonality of views about particular issues or political affiliations
is the least important aspect of this process. The divide that counts
today is between those who ascribe to the notion of human vulnerability
in the face of fear, and those who see people as the solution to
their own, and society's, problems.
This is no mean feat - but nor is it an impossible task. The politics
of fear is powerful but, as Furedi argues, 'it is not a completed,
absolutely rigid process that doesn't permit opposition. In the
real world, people are still able to engage in acts of solidarity
- for example, after the London bombs. One could feel extremely
depressed watching commuters running for the train, pushing the
elderly and infirm out of the way and not giving up their seats.
But then something like the London bombing happens, and shows that
solidarity still exists'.
Other disparate examples help to illustrate this point. Furedi
has written on spiked about how the French and Dutch rejection of
the EU Constitution represented, in its own way, those electorates'
refusal to play the passive role allocated to them. A footnote to
Politics of Fear expresses the author's 'delight' in discovering
that a group of swimmers have won a legal battle to bathe outdoors
without the presence of lifeguards on London's Hampstead Heath.
What such stories demonstrate, he says, is that 'our culture creates
this sense of vulnerability, but human experience conflicts with
it'. Even if the political elite has given up on people, there is
no need for the rest of us to do so.
We cannot go back to the Enlightenment, and today's conservatism
of fear offers us no way forward. Politics of Fear concludes by
offering us two clear alternatives. We can renounce the gains of
history and resign ourselves to the prevailing culture of fatalism;
or we can refuse to celebrate passivity and vulnerability and 'set
about humanising our existence'. The choice is ours.
published on spiked, 15 September 2005