Sociology professor Frank Furedi - whose latest book is First World War: Still No End in Sight - was a child refugee from Hungary who became a student radical in Canada in the 1960s. After moving to Britain, he became a leftwing firebrand who riled the Left far more than the Right. Since leaving the Left behind about 20 years ago, he has written a series of books arguing that the political labels of the past are meaningless and that we live in a culture of fear and low ambitions that puts a drag on society’s ambitions. He was recently at a conference on understanding social protest and contestation, one of a series on leadership and public policy organised by Oxford University and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
You’re here to speak on what you call the “therapeutic moment” in politics. What do you mean by that?
The protest of the past 15 years has become about the individual. People get involved because of their feelings, they even take “selfies” at demonstrations because it’s all about “me” and not the issue. People have become distanced from political concerns, they don’t have political or ideological objectives.
Your latest book argues that contemporary politics is a continuation of the problems created by the first world war.
The legacy of the first world war is that it didn’t solve the problems it created. The legacy for today, the result of that war, is in the culture wars, our disputes about lifestyle and identity. The war was a crisis for elites that turned their worldview upside down because it destroyed the belief in liberal democracy, the foundation of what I call the normative values that define us. After the war, the 20th century saw no attempt to give real meaning to democracy or to protect it from authoritarian influences. The second world war rehabilitated democracy, but it was a rhetorical accomplishment: democracy was redefined in a technocratic way, as procedural. Real democracy has a logical priority of popular consent, a foundation of public agreement and the public playing a role. The European Union insulates us from democracy, the Basic Law in Germany outsources political influence to the courts. In Britain, the role of the judiciary in deciding law has become as important as lawmakers’ role.
How can the public gain or regain a meaningful role in democracy?
There are two ways of carrying out legislation and public policy. One is to rely on scientists and experts, implying that the public can’t understand the issues. You minimise the role of popular participation to ritualistic elections … [and] have an elite of more educated people making decisions. As with the climate change debate, apparently only scientists, technocrats and NGOs can be relied on to take into account the needs of future generations. Or we can have a form of political order with pride of place given to popular consent, to rehabilitate the democratic ideal. We can have an ideal of citizens capable of public dialogue and debate, tolerant of dissenting views. It’s very important not just to protest for democracy in a formal sense, but to discuss what it is people want and how the world should be and find a way to express those views.
Most academics have a narrow focus on one speciality but your bibliography stretches over areas as wide-ranging as African history, politics and moral authority to population policy and ideologies that justify colonialism. What qualifies you to cover such a wide area?
I have done empirical research and my PhD was based on field work. As a social theorist, the advantage of researching political history is that it gives me insights into the protest movements of today, such as the Occupy movement, through a historical knowledge of change in the past. I work on three or four books at the same time. I find I’m always writing about the same thing, it’s always connected in one form or another. I published a book last year [that] took seven years to write, about the history of political authority, titled Authority: A Sociological History. I was writing about the rise of political authority in ancient Greece and Rome, and I wrote a chapter on Augustus and the inter-war period, how Mussolini used Rome to legitimise his rule and I realised I was always being taken back to the first world war. The book came about when I was being interviewed on TV about fear and the interviewer asked me if I wasn’t really talking about authority, as fear is the absence of authority. I thought he was right, so I went away and began the work on authority.
One of the books for which you drew the most flak was your work (first published in 2001). It’s only a slight exaggeration to say you were caricatured as the man who thinks children should run around in playgrounds of rough concrete littered with broken glass.
I argue in the book that at least in the Anglo-American world of paranoid attitudes to children and their safety, a heavy burden is imposed on youngsters, who aren’t allowed to take any risks, and on parents forced into a life of permanent alertness. The situation is worse now: I’ve been taking my son to football for years, but have no photos of him scoring a goal or playing because you now have to ask every parent present for their permission and that’s a practical impossibility. When the book came out, I gave the example of the headmaster of a Scottish school who said parents couldn’t film their kids in the nativity play. People said that was just one eccentric headmaster but it’s now the norm. The image of a child has become a harmful, dangerous phenomenon. Grandmas have been kicked out of swimming pools for taking their grandchildren’s photos. Although I was vilified and am still vilified, that was my bestselling book. People may not like what I say, but they know something is wrong with what they are being told about parenting. More books have come out in support of my views, because they are so commonsensical.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as ‘Psychology of protest’.