‘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 no role.’
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 doing things.’
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 modified products.’
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 towards change.
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.