As a Trotskyist in the heady atmosphere of late 1970s London, Frank Furedi founded the Revolutionary Communist Party, a splinter party of the extreme Left. Three decades later the articulate, ubiquitous University of Kent sociologist, prolific author and serial stirrer is better known as a darling of the Right who has got up the collective nose of everyone from environmentalists, animal rights activists, regulators, the cultural elite, educators, parents and politicians.
Furedi’s radical stance of questioning received wisdom - from the ban on human cloning to blaming human behaviour for global warming and what he calls the empty celebration of multicultural touchstones such as diversity - has won him numerous enemies on Britain’s Left.
George Monbiot, the prominent left-wing author and columnist for London’s The Guardian newspaper, has dubbed Furedi the godfather of what he claims is a secretive, cult-like organisation with a far Right, corporatist agenda and, according to the sociologist, has tried to have him sacked from his academic post.
On the eve of a speaking tour to Australia, where he is a star attraction at Brisbane’s Ideas Festival, a Queensland Government-backed talkfest, Furedi denies he can be described as “a person of the Right”, telling Inquirer: “I haven’t really changed but the world has changed a lot.”
Suspicion of the state is the unifying theme of his work. But while many of the ideas he extols in his books and articles point to a strong streak of libertarianism, Furedi rebuffs suggestions he can be characterised in this way, preferring the label humanist.
“There are different kinds of libertarianism,” he says. “There are libertarians who are obsessed with the free market and think that’s the high point of civilisation. I would see myself as a libertarian who sees the importance of liberty and tolerance and genuine liberalism, not the way it is understood today. I actually think that as a humanist I would have been on the Left side of virtually every major controversy of the past 300 years.”
According to Furedi, the ideals of the Enlightenment, “daring to know and a powerful humanist vision”, are the inspiration behind his belief in human potential to solve problems, from the millennium bug to global warming and the root of his dismay at what he sees as cultural pessimism, suspicion of science and technology and misanthropy.
His is the key name behind the Manifesto Club, a new online forum set up, its website says, to tackle the cultural pessimism “gripping Western societies ... despite the significant achievements of the past two centuries”. Certain to raise eyebrows is the club’s second principle: support for “experimentation in all its forms - scientific, social and personal”.
Born in Budapest in 1947, a little more than a year after his mother returned from a concentration camp, Furedi spent his childhood in the Hungarian capital. His father and older sister were embroiled in the country’s 1956 revolt. When it was defeated the family fled to Austria, ending up in Montreal, where Furedi discovered left-wing politics as a student at McGill University.
Even in those days, Furedi says, he was regarded with suspicion by fellow travellers and sometimes accused of being “a lackey to fascists” for his insistence right-wing opponents be given a voice in campus debates.
According to Furedi, he often finds himself in rows with right-wingers. “They think the free market will solve all of our problems,” he says. “No.1, there has never been a free market. No.2, it is not going to solve all of our problems. I also happen to think that governments have an important role to play in providing certain services.”
No matter what his politics, Furedi’s appeal lies in his ability to diagnose and articulate the West’s malaise.
His arguments against the dumbing down of education in Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone and regarding the dangers of over-cautious child-rearing in Paranoid Parenting ring as acutely in the Australian context as in Britain or the US. In his latest book, Politics of Fear, he argues that the disorientation and disenchantment of people with the traditional Left-Right political divide has created a vacuum that has been filled by “negative politics” and fear-mongering on the part of politicians and what he calls “fear entrepreneurs”.
“What you were left with by the end of the 1980s was a fairly narrow, managerial rhetoric that had very little substance to it,” he says. “In that situation governments and political parties find it very difficult to project a positive view of the future and feel much more comfortable with warning us about the dangers ahead.” They include terrorism, childhood obesity, avian flu, climate change and genetic modification.
Furedi does not argue that we fear more than in the past but that we fear very differently and that it has left people feeling helpless and risk averse. “In previous times when we feared it often brought us together, like in the Blitz in London,” he says.
“Fears were very specific things you could do something about. The fears we have today are mediated through CNN. They might be things we hear about going on in Vietnam or Turkey or god knows where and we see their impact on the imagination, but these are fears we can do little about. Usually you can flee when you fear something or fight it. But these things are simply suffered.”
Furedi says the result of faceless, generalised fear can be seen in diminished human relationships, in paranoid parenting and in the delayed adolescence evident among young adults.
When it comes to identity, another red-hot theme in Australia, Furedi is impatient to bypass hurrah words such as diversity to get down to the “real values we sign up to, not the bullshit ones like diversity, but the real ones that tell us what is right and wrong”.