Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

A world view built on worst-case scenarios
Guy Rundle

HABITUES of second-hand bookshops tend to develop a more sceptical sense of intellectual fashion than those who prefer their ideas shiny and new, straight from the everlasting present of Borders or Amazon. Amid dusty shelves and wobbling stacks one finds whole runs of ideas and obsessions now discarded, such as lost civilisations or those long polar ice-core samples that have become part of our mental furniture.

Nowhere is this more telling than in the area of the social sciences, where dominant ideas and research programs rise and fall and rise again over decades, leaving rich lodes of once popular works obsolete with a turn of the calendar.

When I started to haunt such shops in the early 1980s, the ideas that had excited and informed the '60s and '70s were at their nadir and books that had been eagerly read classics were available in fire-hazard volume.

As the Reagan-Thatcher-yuppie-greed-isgood years took off, it was above all works of grand cultural criticism that were dumped. Works that had inspired a revolution in thinking, such as Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man, the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth report, Ivan Illich's Celebration of Awareness and Paul Goodman's Growing up Absurd had come to appear, as we all got stoned and it blew away, irrelevant, if not a little embarrassing.

They had warned of a world tearing up its finite resources at a furious rate, in which the variety and quality of life had been suborned to a commodified, inhibited one-dimensional society. By the time we got to the '80s many of their answers turned out to have a few problems of their own, and here we were in a world of bright lights and big cities and, well, it didn't look so bad.

The classic '60s works were part of a longer tradition of cultural criticism stretching right back all the way, if one wanted to go there, via authors such as John Ruskin and William Morris, Emile Durkheim and Geoffrey Bateson, to the traditions of Theocritus and the other pastoral poets of the Greek city-states, who wrote endless odes about happy shepherds frolicking in a simple, uncorrupted world.

To many, the glorious dawn of cultural criticism in the '60s was, in its twilight, more readily identifiable as traditional, rather than revolutionary, cyclic rather than unprecedented. Two decades further on, such concerns have once again come to the fore, prompted by a variety of great and small events.

Yet such was the wrenching power of the fire last time, such were its promises and disappointments, that current contributions are haunted by a memory of embarrassing naivete, of the ease by which the smiley face became a logo. Even those predisposed to offering a more prophetic account of contemporary life feel a need to hedge their bets. Such caution, and what haunts it, is exemplified in Robyn Davidson's Quarterly Essay on nomadism.

Davidson, a life-long travelling writer, best known for her book Tracks, has written a highly readable and sometimes moving account of encounters with various nomadic peoples, with an explicit attempt to offer some reflections on our way of life - and a concerted attempt to disown any sense that what she is offering is a program for another way to live.

Yet whether one agrees with or is exasperated by her argument that we must look to other cultures for solutions to an unsustainable way of life, many will be irritated by her idealised view of those other cultures.

Beginning with a fairly outdated historical account identifying the coming of agriculture with the "fall", Davidson moves through a consideration of the Aborigines she grew up near, but did not know, in rural Queensland, a journey to a horse fair in Tibet and, most substantially, a period travelling with the Rabari people of Rajasthan in India.

Having early on sketched out a more limited purview-"I do not mean to say that we should (or could) return to traditional nomadic economies. I do mean . . . that it would be foolish to disregard or underrate (them)"-the essay itself is a process of falling into a deep romance with her subjects.

"I never once saw one of them show discourtesy to another human being, no matter how lowly, nor cruelty to another form of life," she writes of the Rabari. "Although they were proud of themselves as a caste, they seemed to exist somewhere outside the more rigid hierarchies of settled people. They were aware of the air of freedom and liberality surrounding them." Not only that, but they retained a pre-Edenic innocence that other cultures have lost: "Their success depended upon formal generosity, tolerance and honesty among migrating individuals, families, dangs (small groups), castes and religions."

At times, Davidson slips into a near Rudolph Valentino mode in which the nomads are a glamorous aristocratic other: "It was something they identified as their own, which made them different from (and I'm sure they would tacitly agree, superior to) the peasantry."

At other times they are "comfortable with uncertainty and contradiction. They are cosmopolitan in outlook, because they have to deal with difference, negotiate difference. They do not focus on long-term goals so much as continually accommodate themselves to change. They are less concerned with the accumulation of wealth and more concerned with the accumulation of knowledge . . . Adaptability, flexibility, mental agility, the ability to cope with flux. These traits shy away from absolutes, and strive for an equilibrium that blurs rigid boundaries." You can almost see them walking down Glebe Point Road, Brunswick Street or any groovy inner-city locale.

By now you can see the denouement coming. It is we, the knowledge and culture workers who are the true heirs of these insouciant nobles: "And increasingly, there are people like me, who live in several countries, have complex identities and feel allied to more than one culture. We live in what Edward Said called 'a generalised condition of homelessness'. These new forms of nomadism will shape the culture of the new century in unpredictable ways."

For all the genuine passion and knowledge in Davidson's account of her time with the Rabari, the account of nomadism as a whole is a farrago. Though such cultures have many qualities to be envious of, you don't have to know much about non-agricultural peoples (and my knowledge is confined to second-hand acquaintance with Inuit culture) to know they have a harshness we would find intolerable.

The abandonment of the weak or ill, infanticide, shunning, scapegoating, exile, summary judgment, violence, xenophobia, feuds, splits, slighted honour and retribution - all are essential to their survival as coherent and mobile peoples. And they issue from the same place as the qualities more attractive to a contemporary audience.

Nor does the equation of nomadism with contemporary atomised hyperindividualism ring true. The most important point, surely, about nomads is not that they move, but that they move together, and that the identity of each person in the group is bound up in those of the others to a greater degree than we would find possible or desirable.

Both short and long-distance nomadic groups travel within a known world, a world in which part and whole - landscape, flora, fauna, weather - are knitted together, organised and made vivid by myth, totem systems, taboo, kinship rules and complex language systems. Though early anthropology was wont to see these systems as more stable than they now appear, and although contact with modernity has created hybrid systems, the fact is that nomads have more in common with non-mobile, substantially non-agricultural people - Pacific Islanders, for example - than with mobile moderns.

In all traditional cultures, stories of solitary wandering are either cautionary tales of exile - the worst punishment imaginable - or of the wanderer's triumphant return home. What the contemporary traveller seeks is repeated strangeness, the exciting, frightening, delicious process whereby the utterly alien starts to become known, without losing its alien quality.

The encounter between the traveller and the nomad is not an encounter between two nomads, and to imagine it as such obscures the real difference between the intimacy and connectedness that Davidson finds in the Rabari people, and the anomic disconnection of contemporary life that she sees it as an answer to. For anyone in sympathy with some of Davidson's conclusions about the contemporary world, it's an enormously irritating piece, its initial cautionary tone no more than a figleaf for the worst sort of narcissistic identification, whereby a particular modern social class finds, via the Third World, its own values reflected as those of essential humanity.

But for all the certainty of this and other books centred on the one big idea - "something has gone wrong" is how Michael Bywater sums it up in Big Babies, his critique of contemporary media and consumerism-induced adult infantilism - is anything distinctive really happening? A publishing boom in this area - two books titled Affluenza (by Australian political theorist Clive Hamilton and, more recently, British psychologist Oliver James), Shelley Gare's Triumph of the Airheads, James Hawes's satirical novel Speak for England, James Martin's The Meaning of the 21st Century are the standouts - would suggest there is.

Or are we merely in the throes of a new transition between one social form and the next, one in which the new world, seen from the perspective of the old, looks chaotic and bizarre? After all, anyone essaying cultural criticism has to be chastened by memories of vicars denouncing the corrupting effect of cinema or the widespread belief that young girls reading novels represented the end of the world.

For sociologist Frank Furedi, much cultural criticism that focuses on the allegedly disastrous trends within modernity is less an expression of intellectual agency than it is a symptom of a deeper social and historical process whereby Western peoples have lost the power to think of themselves as capable of collectively shaping and controlling their environment, and thereby making History, the capital H signifying not simply events, but the capacity to qualitatively change and improve the human condition.

Hungarian-born Furedi is one of the more high-profile public intellectuals in Britain, keeping up a stream of articles, essays and books addressing a set of themes uppermost in contemporary Western life, most particularly the amorphous, all-encompassing phenomenon of fear, whose changing nature seems to be reshaping our idea of the relationship between humanity and the world.

Originally the theoretician of a group called the Revolutionary Communist Party, part of the rich fauna of the ultra-Left in '80s Britain, Furedi in his work was always concerned with understanding the conditions and possibilities by which real change happens.

The failure of Marxism to revive itself as a liberating movement once the dead weight of the USSR had vanished prompted him to argue that we are in a new historical period in which the core humanism of Marx's ideas - the promethean capacity of human beings to shape their destiny - was no longer expressed or carried forth by class politics.

Instead the RCP, now dissolved and by various stages reconstituted as the Spiked group, began to focus on a series of what its leadership saw as regressive cultural themes and movements. Furedi argued that there was a need to regroup the people and forces, from Left and Right (in Australia, he has been a guest of the Centre For Independent Studies), who believed that humanity should "play for high stakes".

In particular, this has amounted to a critical attitude to the green movement, for an alleged underlying loss of faith in human control of nature, and also to much of the recent commentary of the Big-Brother-is-the-end-of-civilisation stripe, arguing this usually is a form of conservative elitism masquerading as critique.

Yet nor is Furedi part of the anti-critical cultural studies movement, arguing instead that much of the current "stalled" nature of history results from the collapse, within a media society, of the webs of association that formed the underlying social connectivity that made class politics possible.

Once people feel isolated and atomised, fear rather than solidarity becomes the primary social medium, whether expressed as distrust for science, an appetite for apocalyptic scenarios, panics about pedophilia and other social "monsters" and so on: a world in which the worst-case scenario has become the default setting. Furedi's work, especially his much-praised recent book Where Have All the Public Intellectuals Gone?, tends to be claimed by conservatives as conservative, by libertarians as libertarian, but he has never made much secret of the fact that it was about recapturing a sort of historical audacity implicit of the type, though not of the form, last seen in its purest incarnation in October 1917 in Russia.

The object is not simply to push things forward but to hope that qualitative change in technology and economy will produce a transformation that will take us into a radically new future. From that perspective, diverse critical commentaries are united by a limited view of what human beings are capable of, a perception of new problems through the lens of old ideas, a fear of our capacities and desires.

One of the most important aspects of Furedi's work is the manner in which it goes beyond the narrow confines of a single perspective, which constrains the other works discussed, to offer a more general diagnosis of our cultural-political condition and the manner in which it shapes our perception of particular problems.

Much of his earlier output, such as in the '80s and '90s, was concerned with how the guts had been knocked out of the Western project by 20th-century events. Prior to World War II, imperialism had been grounded on a racism that gave an assurance to its capacity to subjugate other peoples (and it's probably a measure of the times that I need to clarify that this wasn't a Niall Fergusonesque defence of imperialism, but a Marxist analysis of its character).

The Holocaust and the war had put this selfbelief in crisis, only partly assuaged by the defining dualism of the Cold War. By the time the latter ceased, structural changes to social life, a loosening of "webs of shared meaning" by a media-dominated society, had undermined the class politics of Right and Left.

The combined effects of the failure of the Western Left, revelation of environmental problems and the enlightenment critique of postmodernism had put notions of freedom, rationalism and human capacity in the shade. For Furedi, the war on terror is really among the lesser effects of a fear culture; far more important is, say, the widespread popularity of alternative medicine, to the extent that insurers and public health bodies will provide for it, and the loss of faith in a scientific medicine held to be "invasive" or "toxic".

And all such small-picture worries are mirrored in the big picture of the environment, and global warming in particular. Neither a supporter nor a sceptic as regards the evidence for global warming, Furedi's argument is that our response to it - one of despair, and a barely disguised millenarianism - is determined by a culture of fear, rather than a clear-headed response to the evidence.

In earlier days, Furedi and Spiked were robust in their critique of such approaches; more recently, such as in his book The Culture of Fear Revisited, there is a deal more circumspection about the truth or otherwise of the more alarming forecasts, but the cultural critique of our response to it remains.

Yet while Furedi is right to connect the large and the small and to see the issue of global warming as one principle focus of contemporary dilemmas, the issue is one that also points to a contradiction in his work, indeed of all of those who interpret widespread disquiet about global warming from a culturalist perspective.

We have long since passed the point where the most alarming scenarios are coming from the wilder fringes of the green movement; today it is world-class scientists such as James Lovelock (in The Revenge of Gaia) and E. O. Wilson (in The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth) who are suggesting that an irreversible destruction of the biosphere is well advanced.

If your political project is to restart a genuine humanism with confidence in its capacity to bend nature to its will through scientific excellence, then you have a problem if the most excellent scientists tell you that we are creating potentially catastrophic problems far beyond our forseeable capacity to quell or mitigate. Once that occurs, then a culturalist analysis of such movements reverses on itself and begins to look irrationalist, while more pessimistic scenarios start to look relatively clear-eyed.

A more persuasive account of their connection, and by far the most thorough-going reading of the present period, comes from Zygmunt Bauman, for a long time professor of sociology at the University of Leeds. Bauman's work is voluminous, but one metaphor has become central: that of "liquidity". For Bauman, our current state is one in which there has been a radical shift in the manner in which society and selfhood are constituted.

In a process we have barely begun to recognise, we have passed from a society in which a whole series of dynamic elements and flows - the movements of individual selfhood, the movement of capital, values formation - were anchored within a static framework that guaranteed a degree of stable social reproduction.

In recent decades, the flow has become the norm, for the first time in history, and many apparently unconnected phenomena can be explained as the effects of this liquidity.

Capital flows around the world and when the tide goes out, as in the contemporary West, it leaves a section of the population as a useless surplus. Subjectivity changes and the dominant dilemma for the individual becomes a sort of flowing towards meaning, always knowing that any achieved will be provisional. Life becomes fragmentary and strategic. Big Brother is not the end of this civilisation, but its epic poem, an unfolding and ritual retelling of life's shifting uncertainty and isolation, the ever-present threat that we will go down the drain.

Bauman's idea of liquidity has similarities with Furedi's notion of "shared webs of meaning", and also of the notion, explored here in Arena magazine and journal, of a society ungrounded by having all human relations drawn through its most abstracted levels, such as the market and the media.

It is the change that writers such as Bywater, who suggests that the way to deal with an infantilising culture is to ignore it, can describe yet not understand, because they try to read them through older, exhausted notions of liberalism and conservatism.

When you live in a world of media and meaning flows, the ideas of John Stuart Mill or Friedrich Hayek are as relevant as debate about the doctrine of the divine right of kings.

Bauman's account of this new world in Liquid Fear is so powerful because he has connected it to the shifting role that life and death plays within any culture, and how it manifests in ours. However much civilisational criticism forms part of a genre stretching back into the centuries, what is apparent is that the capacity exists to destroy the civilisation from within, whether by nuclear death, biosphere destruction or what Bauman calls "metaphorical death", the manner by which human connection becomes so fleeting, unpatterned and attenuated that the sense of a living other dies away.

For Bauman, "all human cultures can be decoded as ingenious contraptions calculated to make life with the awareness of mortality liveable". Once death comes to the heart of a culture, the search for immortality becomes individual rather than social, and thus fame and celebrity become driving mass obsessions, and especially of fame "lotteries" such as reality TV. Deep down, Bauman would argue, we all know that globalisation is on an unsustainable trajectory and that global warming is the most visible sign and symbol of that process, but that knowledge is sublimated through every aspect of our life.

What appear to be disparate effects-say, the normalisation of plastic surgery for teenagers at one end, and wars for control of oil reserves at the other - are really shards of the same shattered vessel, our cup which hath overfloweth. As denial comes to the centre of the culture, two social tasks, steering rational action and reproducing an ideology, start to be confused for each other. The production of values is rendered cynical and strategic (the knowing emptiness of Paris Hilton) and planning comes to be based on illusion and fantasy (the empty knowingness of George W. Bush).

It seems to me that it is this aspect of our culture that will expand in the years to come. We are in the strange cultural situation whereby the core process at the heart of our civilisation - scientific rationality - overwhelmingly argues that we are undermining, or already have undermined, the basis of life. And yet there seems no way in which a real process of cultural change (as opposed to near-useless "carbon neutralising") might develop on a global scale, before visible and disastrous effects start to concentrate the collective human mind.

This is not to suggest that the case for global warming has been utterly, unequivocally proven, or that the (fairly rare) honest sceptics should cease to offer alternative accounts. It is simply to make the cultural point that the phenomenon has been taken into people's lives as a truth, and that the utter state of denial in which we find ourselves cannot but have a series of corrosive cultural effects. After all, if even the mid-range scenarios prove correct, then a vast amount of current human effort, the megacities, airports, highways, stadiums, plane fleets and resorts, amount to the most phenomenally futile project in human history.

Simply decrying "apocalyptic" thinking may serve short-term political ends, but it is ultimately pointless if large numbers of people come to feel that such a scenario is a wellfounded possibility. What we will face culturally in the immediate term is a strange and possibly self-destructive period in which there is the building of a movement that believes a truly radical degree of cultural change is necessary for human advancement, while a majority, convinced that such a task is beyond collective human agency, pursue the creation of what, by Bauman's terms, would be an anti-culture. It seems likely that such an interim period will not be transformed until the first large-scale and unequivocal effects of global warming occur (or until the hypothesis is weakened by their non-occurrence).

The climate records written in those layered polar ice-core samples might then be the model by which we judge those shafts and ridges of old cultural critique in the second-hand bookshops: as part of a continuity with present and future volumes, to which our wandering attention comes and goes, but which measures, in a manner often fallible and foolish, the dimensions of a crisis deeper than we care to acknowledge.

First published in The Australian, 7 February 2007