UK
ELECTION
2010



 
 In
 the
 run‐up
 to
 the
 UK
 General
 Election,
 spiked
 will
 publish
 a
 series
 of
 essays
 reposing
 political
 issues.
 The
 aim
 of
 the
 ‘Question
 Everything’
 essays
 is
 to
 encourage
people
to
rethink
the
past,
the
present
and
the
future.
 
 
 
 


ESSAYS
#1:
FRANK
FUREDI:
Education:
you
can’t
buy
and
sell
intellectual
capital ............... 3
 #2:
BRENDAN
O’NEILL:
Turning
immigration
into
a
tool
of
social
engineering......... 7
 #3:
MICK
HUME:
Don’t
believe
in
the
ghosts
of
politics
past
................................ 15
 #4:
JAMES
WOUDHUYSEN:
Whatever
happened
to
innovation? .......................... 20
 #5:
JAMES
PANTON:
What’s
so
great
about
the
welfare
state? ............................ 28
 #6:
JENNIE
BRISTOW:
Turning
parents
into
‘partners
of
the
state’........................ 34
 #7:
BRENDAN
O’NEILL:
Unfettered
Freedom:
The
basis
of
the
Good
Society......... 40
 #8:
DR
MICHAEL
FITZPATRICK:
Public
health
and
the
obsession
with
behaviour ... 48
 #9:
SEAN
COLLINS:
The
trouble
with
‘anti‐capitalism’........................................... 53


 



 


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Education:
you
can’t
buy
and
sell
intellectual
capital

ELECTION
ESSAY:
Frank
Furedi
explains
why
the
mighty
mess
Labour
made
of
 education
won’t
be
fixed
by
privatisation
or
parental
pressure.
 

In the run-up to the UK General Election, spiked will publish a series of essays reposing political issues. Tackling everything from education to immigration to capitalism, the aim of the ‘Question Everything’ essays is to encourage people to rethink the past, the present and the future. In this first essay, Frank Furedi argues that treating education as a ‘material good’ rather than a ‘mental good’ has serious implications for schooling and the intellectual capital of our society. The good news is that everyone is talking about education in the run-up to the UK General Election in May. The bad news is that the discussion is too focused on technical and organisational matters, which means that the real debate that we need – about the substance of education – hasn’t even started. This failure to address and clarify issues of substance could provide New Labour with a getout clause in relation to education. And that is dreadful news. The New Labour government’s appalling record on education is in a class of its own, and yet it has not caused the party any serious electoral problems. Indeed, a recent poll for BBC TV’s Newsnight suggested that the Conservative Party has failed to capitalise on the government’s depressing record on education. Yes, the majority of the electorate knows that New Labour has failed to deliver on its educational promises – but it remains unaware of the extent of the damage the government has done in the world of education. It is worth noting that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that, although spending on education has increased by more than £30billion per year under Labour, value for money has fallen steadily. Of course it is almost impossible to measure improvements in school standards, but, if anything, the ONS figures actually underestimate how badly the money was spent. The recent slight improvements in GCSE scores and exam results should not be seen as a reflection of improved educational standards. Over the past 11 years, grade inflation, helped by fiddling the curriculum and the system of examinations, has become the norm. Consequently, educational statistics tend to obscure rather than clarify. Even worse, education has become so politicised and bureaucratised that the intellectual value of the school curriculum has been seriously compromised. It is not surprising that the government’s massive investment in education has been wasted. Throwing money at education seldom yields positive qualitative outcomes. Investing financial resources can improve teachers’ living standards and the quality of school buildings and equipment. Such improvements are desirable, of course, but they are unlikely to make any significant impact on educational standards. Why? Because although money has a direct impact on the quality of material goods, it can rarely have a positive impact on education, which is a mental good. Public spending can enhance physical infrastructure and improve the material goods available to society. But mental goods – such as knowledge, appreciation of the arts, civic pride, intellectual curiosity – are unlikely to increase and decrease in response to financial stimuli or, for that matter, government policy. That is why, as the experience of the US shows, there is not always a correlation between a nation’s wealth and its standards of educational attainment.


 


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New Labour’s inability to distinguish between material goods and mental goods has led to a form of technocratic policymaking, and to a situation where an increase in quantity (material resources) has coincided with a diminution of quality (mental resources). This disturbing achievement is not simply a consequence of the New Labour government’s habit of ‘throwing money at a problem’ – more fundamentally it reflects New Labour’s tendency to look upon education as a material resource that can be distributed and redistributed in the same way that money is distributed in the sphere of welfare payments and taxation. Unfortunately, however, it is far easier to target and redistribute financial capital than it is intellectual and cultural capital. That is why the government’s various social-engineering projects in education – such as widening access or discriminating in favour of disadvantaged pupils – yield such meagre results. Building a new, well-equipped school in a disadvantaged community is far easier than providing the children with inspiring teachers and with access to the cultural and intellectual resources necessary for a challenging educational experience. We should remember the liberal philosopher Bertrand Russell’s warning about what happens when government attempts to redistribute intellectual capital from those who have it to those who don’t. Russell wrote: ‘There is a risk that, in the pursuit of equality, good things which there is difficulty in distributing evenly may not be admitted to be good. Some of the unjust societies of the past gave to a minority opportunities which, if we are not careful, the new society that we seek to build may give to no one.’ Russell’s concern was that, since cultural capital cannot be readily redistributed, governments might respond to this fact of life by calling into question the value of cultural capital altogether. High standards in intellectual and artistic pursuits would be denounced as ‘irrelevant’ and ‘elitist’. His prediction proved to be accurate. There is a real tendency today to devalue subject-based academic learning as elitist and irrelevant. The current trend for eroding the academic content of education is fuelled by a belief that it is far better to distribute something – even if it’s just paper qualifications – than to acknowledge how difficult it is to provide genuine opportunities for all. Instead of engaging with the tough question of how the ‘good things’ that are currently available only to a minority can be made available to all, Labour feels more comfortable creating a society in which such goods are given to no one. In recent years, a succession of Labour politicians in charge of education – Charles Clarke, Ruth Kelly, Estelle Morris, Ed Balls – have shown that they are far better at criticising the elitism of those who uphold high academic standards than they are at providing greater opportunities for the intellectual development of youngsters whose parents have little access to cultural capital. If throwing money at schools worked, then the government’s programme of building specialist academies would have proved a major success. Yes, a lot of nice buildings have been built; yes, there are wonderful whiteboards and computers in these new establishments; and yes, children probably prefer to work in these kinds of settings than in old-fashioned schools. But the construction of these academies has done little to improve educational standards. There are two reasons why the academy programme has failed, and will continue to fail, to make any significant difference to young people’s learning. Firstly, as I argue in my book Wasted: Why Education Is Not Educating, the quality of schooling is shaped by the quality of the relationship between adults and young people. It is also influenced by the value that society accords to ideas and to the pursuit of education for its own sake. And unfortunately, today’s policymakers and pedagogues are reluctant to tackle these wider social and cultural questions, even though they impact enormously on what takes place in classrooms. Instead they opt for technical solutions: change the curriculum, introduce behavioural management techniques, build new kinds of schools. Secondly, there is the problem of policymakers trying to harness parental anxieties as a way of compensating for the failures of schooling. Parents are now expected to assume primary responsibility for the education of their children. Instead of seeing education as a generational


 


4



 


transaction, which is carried out through the joint cooperation of adults and schools, education has become atomised and has been outsourced to the individual parent. Of course, in previous times the ideal of education as a generational transaction was undermined by the tensions brought about by different class and social interests. Today, we have a highly individualised free-for-all where parents are encouraged to fend for themselves and pursue their private interests in relation to their children’s schooling. The promotion of parental selfinterest inflates the impact that individual circumstances can have on the educational opportunities available to children. The individualisation of education through direct parental involvement in schooling makes the problem of traditional forms of inequality seem almost benign by comparison, because it directly turns education into a zero-sum scramble for influence. One parent’s success in getting a place for her child in a desirable school comes at the expense of her neighbour’s children. Nor does parental pressure play any constructive role in relation to what happens in the classroom. Through their interventions into the minutiae of school life, parents cannot help but undermine the professional status of teachers. Yet policymakers are demanding an even greater role for parental pressure. In empowering the so-called ‘pushy parent’, policymakers inadvertently undermine the ideal of education as a generational accomplishment driven by community solidarity. Of course it is understandable that parents should go to great lengths to help their children and try to make up for the failures of the schooling system. Some have even taken the desperate step of lying about where they live in order to get into a good school. Other parents hire a posse of private tutors to teach their children subjects that they should have learned in their school classroom. Groups of parents have even embarked on setting up their own schools. Many of these initiatives may well be able to provide an inspiring alternative to mainstream education. Yet while such initiatives provide some kind of solution for a small minority of parents and children, they obviously do not address the problem of mainstream education. Worse still, the affirmation of parent power threatens to foster a climate where the traditional disinterested promotion of educational opportunities, in the interests of the community and society, becomes more and more difficult to pursue.

Outsourcing
education

New Labour’s education policy has been so bad that it would be very difficult indeed, if not impossible, for the Conservative Party’s education policy not to represent some kind of improvement. Numerous Conservative policymakers have been openly critical of the dumbing down of the school curriculum under New Labour. The Conservatives’ education spokesman, Michael Gove, has spoken eloquently about the problem of the state’s micro-management of schooling and the politicisation of the curriculum. And he has rightly drawn attention to many of the intellectual failings of the curriculum in subjects such as history and the sciences. The Conservatives have rightly questioned the ability of a highly centralised and bureaucratised education system to provide decent schooling. However, their policy response to the bureaucratisation of education looks unlikely to improve the situation in any real or meaningful way. Instead of elaborating a decentralised, community-oriented system of quality schooling, they have opted to harness parental ambition and concern by promising to provide parents with greater choice. Conservative education policy is built on the flawed assumption that a quasi-market in education is likely to raise standards in classrooms. In this respect, the party falls prey to that confusion between material goods and mental goods. Getting private companies and group of parents to run schools is unlikely to be any more effective than Labour’s academies. Those who support the Conservative Party’s policy of educational choice point to various successful schools that are run by groups of parents or private educators. There is no doubt that schools freed from centralised control and run by highly motivated parents or educators can achieve impressive results. Over the past century, numerous experimental projects have shown that committed parents and teachers can succeed in outperforming the mainstream school sector. However, their achievements are not testament to the virtues of ‘choice’ or the workings of the educational market, but rather to the enthusiasm and involvement of a selfselected group of concerned individuals. Indeed, the very process of self-selection


 


5



 


distinguishes the teachers, parents and children involved in such schools from the norm – if they had stayed in mainstream schooling, these individuals would likely have done better than their peers. Although projects and experimental schools may provide important lessons for society, they are what they are – projects and experiments – and are unlikely to become mainstream. Conservative policymakers are looking to private schools in Sweden and charter schools in the US as models to pursue in the UK. Yet these initiatives demonstrate the limited impact that an educational market can have on raising educational standards. No doubt some of the privately run Swedish schools and American charter schools have achieved impressive results. But there is compelling evidence to show that these improvements are not easily reproducible and that they last for a relatively short period of time. Moreover, by relying on parental ambition, these initiatives encourage educational polarisation, where opportunity for children becomes dependent on the commitment and energy of their parents. There is also the danger that charter schools and private initiatives become parasitical on the public education system. There are many compelling arguments for rejecting the idea of having US-style charter schools in Britain. Diane Ravitch, one of America’s leading education historians and a fierce critic of the dumbed-down curriculum promoted by the American equivalents of Estelle Morris and Ed Balls, has come out strongly against using the market to improve schools. Although she once supported having a market-based system of education, the impact wrought by various market-style reforms has led her to change her position. Ravitch now argues that charter schools are, on average, no better than regular mainstream schools. She fears that charter schools are diverting resources from regular schools, and that as a result the whole system of public education has become undermined. In principle there is nothing wrong with private education. Many of the institutions in the UK’s independent education sector (though not all of them) provide a high standard of education. In part, their achievements are a result of their ability to insulate themselves from the worst impacts of government intervention. But it is not their private status that guarantees their success. Many of these institutions are built on a legacy of significant cultural and intellectual capital. Their achievements are organically linked to a tradition of excellence, which is supported by generations of influential and privileged parents. Such schools cannot be cobbled together through parental ambition or the workings of the market. Market-driven new private schools are likely to be merely a more efficient version of New Labour’s academies. Without the requisite cultural capital, they are likely to prove better at training than at educating. It is worth noting that one of the most insidious threats to the ‘independence’ of private education is the impact of the ‘pushy parent’. Parents who view themselves as fee-paying customers often have no inhibitions about demanding that teachers accommodate to their demands and those of their children. The pressure they impose on independent education has very little creative content – its principal accomplishment in to undermine the ethos of a school community and force teachers on the defensive. The antidote to the centralised state control of education is not to privatise education, but to establish a public school system freed from bureaucratic influence. That way we can create the conditions for the emergence of a genuine form of educational pluralism that is based on a common commitment to high standards. It is not enough that politicians should stop interfering in education. They should also avoid confusing the mental good of education with material goods whose quality can be improved through state spending or a cash transaction on the market. Frank Furedi’s latest book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)


 


6



 


Turning
immigration
into
a
tool
of
social
engineering

 ELECTION
ESSAY:
The
elite
now
expresses
its
snobbery
and
authoritarianism
by
 being
‘pro‐immigration’
rather
than
anti‐immigration.

In this second essay, Brendan O’Neill argues that New Labour relaxed immigration controls as a cynical exercise in social engineering, raising important challenges for those of us who support freedom of movement. In recent decades, various UK governments at various different times allowed a certain number of migrants to enter Britain for economic reasons, in order to compensate for a lack of labour or to boost a flagging industry. Under the New Labour government of the past 13 years, something rather different, new and dangerous occurred: migrants were allowed into Britain for political reasons, to achieve social objectives rather than economic ones. Where earlier immigrants were expected to build physical infrastructure, New Labour hoped that allowing in hundreds of thousands of immigrants might fashion a new social and moral infrastructure. The government relaxed immigration controls, between 2000 and 2008 in particular, not because it has any attachment to the idea of free movement, but as an instinctive exercise in social engineering. It was a subconscious attempt by a disoriented elite to renew Britain, to redefine it, through altering the social make-up and elevating the virtues of the migrant above the virtues of traditional British nationalism and the native working classes. Under New Labour, the number of migrants entering Britain rose exponentially. The era of controlled mass immigration to Britain started in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, with the arrival of workers and families from the West Indies and South Asian countries as well as from Ireland and old Commonwealth nations. During that era, however, and for all the scaremongering of Enoch Powell and others, Britain remained a country of net emigration – that is, the number of people leaving was higher than the number arriving. In the early 1970s, for example, annual net immigration to Britain stood at minus 50,000. From the early 1970s to the early 1980s, net immigration was a negative figure, flitting between -50,000 (early 1970s) and -75,000 (1981). In the mid-1980s, it became a positive figure, but stayed between 40,000 and 50,000 between the years 1986 and 1996 (1). It is in the late 1990s that net immigration rises dramatically. In 1998, a year after New Labour was elected, net immigration was almost 150,000; in 2001 it was around 160,000; in 2004 it had risen to around 225,000 (2). Many different factors impacted on the shifting number of immigrants from the 1950s to today: economic downturns and booms play a role in determining whether migrants will come to Britain, and in 2004 the European Union was expanded to include Poland and seven other Eastern European countries, leading to increased movement of Eastern workers to Western Europe. However, one under-explored factor is New Labour’s use of relatively relaxed immigration to achieve, in its words, the ‘social objective’ of ‘[making] the UK truly multicultural’ (3). Some of us who support opening the borders, including spiked, have long argued that the hundreds of thousands of people who came to Britain over the past decade are not responsible for Britain’s social and infrastructural problems. To blame the arrival of migrants for overcrowded trains, overstretched hospitals, the housing crisis and ruptures in ‘social cohesion’, as some observers do, is to project political failings on to families arriving from overseas. If Britain’s public services are in disarray, and its communities divided, that is down


 


7



 


to a lack of vision and investment here at home, not the desires of people from abroad for a better life. However, that doesn’t mean that there are not serious problems with the way in which New Labour has encouraged immigration (in an underhand, dishonest, censored fashion) and the reasons it has done so (to try to engineer a new kind of society). Britain’s political elite has effectively weaponised immigration. But where in the past it weaponised it through the politics of race and of anti-immigration, today it has turned being pro-immigration into a weapon, into a tool for expressing its discomfort with Britain’s traditionalist past and its distance from Britain’s native working classes. Amongst the elite, taking a ‘pro-immigration’ stance has become a way of espousing its supposedly superior values of cosmopolitanism, liberalism, official tolerance and official anti-racism, and of disciplining and policing those who do not possess such values. Such cynical politicisation of immigration has potentially increased community tensions, further racialised everyday life, and contributed enormously to the contemporary distrust of mainstream politics.

Social
objectives

In recent months there have been many interesting revelations about New Labour’s immigration policy, but in keeping with our era of dumbed-down political debate the revelations have either been downplayed or have been used to fuel conspiracy theories. At the end of last year, a former government adviser revealed that ministers frequently discussed ‘open[ing] up the UK to mass migration’. But their aims were as much political and social as they were economic. Indeed there was a ‘driving political purpose’: ministers’ belief that bringing in more immigrants would make manifest their ideal of a ‘truly multicultural society’ and allow them to ‘rub the right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date’ (4). Here, we can see how ‘diversity’ is looked upon by New Labour as more than a fluffy value – it is also considered an explicitly political tool that might be used to boost Labour’s fortunes and denigrate its critics. At the start of this year, government documents released under a Freedom of Information claim confirmed what the government adviser said. In one, written in 2000, officials discussed their desire to ‘maximise the contribution’ of migrants to achieving the government’s ‘social objectives’. The document makes clear that New Labour, unlike previous governments, is keen to exploit the ‘social benefits’ of increased immigration. It argues that it is ‘clearly correct that the government has both economic and social objectives for migration policy’, and lists the ‘social impacts’ of immigration as including ‘a widening of consumer choice and significant cultural contributions’. ‘Migration policy has both social and economic impacts and should be designed to contribute to the government’s overall objectives on both counts’, the document proposed, describing this as ‘a considerable advance on the previously existing situation [where immigrants were allowed in primarily for economic reasons]’ (5). Strikingly, these discussions were kept as far away from the public as possible. The government adviser says there was ‘an unusual air of… secrecy’ in government discussions about immigration, and the internal document of 2000 was passed between ministers with ‘extreme reluctance’: ‘there was a paranoia about it reaching the media’ and causing concern amongst Labour’s ‘core white working-class vote’ (6). Indeed, when the 2000 document was published as a consultation paper in 2001, it was heavily edited: all mentions of the ‘social objectives’ of increased immigration were removed (7). This provides a glimpse into the elitism that drives the ‘pro-immigration’ stance today, where migrants are considered socially beneficial while the white working classes are looked upon as volatile, potentially racist, and best kept in the dark. Unfortunately, these interesting revelations have not generated any interesting or serious debate about New Labour and immigration. Liberal commentators have brushed them aside as unimportant. Right-wing commentators talk about a vast conspiracy by the New Labour government to remake Britain in its own image. Incapable of political nuance, New Labour’s critics have railed against what one commentator describes as ‘The secret plot to destroy Britain’s identity’ (8). Others have accused Labour of ‘using immigration to turn Britain into a


 


8



 


nation of Labour voters’ (immigrants are more likely to vote Labour than Tory), where Labour has ‘deliberately tried to re-engineer Britain for its own political advantage’ (9). The idea that the government’s attraction to the ‘social benefits’ of immigration was driven by a simplistic desire to magic up readymade Labour voters both overestimates the elite’s internal coherence and underestimates the profound moral and political crises that have combined to reshape the immigration issue over the past decade. There has been no plot or conspiracy by the political elite – rather it is drawn instinctively to immigration because it is an issue that allows it to distance itself from Britain’s past and to redefine itself as cosmopolitan and constantly changing. And this is not about simply winning votes – rather the reshaping of immigration has been driven by an historic and profound crisis of values amongst an elite which now sees more virtue in what newcomers can bring to Britain than in what its own predecessor elites created and achieved.

Disavowing
the
past

Those who claim that New Labour relaxed immigration controls in order to remake Britain in its own image are missing the main point: that New Labour’s instinctive attraction to immigration is a product precisely of its lack of real values, of its cultural and political disorientation and uncertainty about what to make Britain into. What the elite likes most about the immigrant is the idea that his arrival and his presence constantly remakes Britain, so that the absence of core British political and moral values can be glossed over with the positivesounding notion that ours is a nation of forever-changing values, reflecting, in the words of one government minister, ‘the influences of the many different communities who have made their home here’ (10). Indeed, there has been an important shift over the past 30 years from emphasising the assimilation of immigrants into the values of British society to celebrating British society’s assimilation of the immigrants’ values. For the contemporary elite, taking a ‘pro-immigration’ stance is a way of creating a distance between itself and ‘Old Britain’, a way of disavowing elements of the past, whether it is imperial values, outdated ideas of ‘Great’ Britain, the old-style education system, or aspects of British culture. As the former government adviser said at the end of last year, one of the reasons ministers wanted to increase immigration was to ‘render [the old right’s] arguments out of date’ (11). In a speech and report published in 2001, New Labour argued that there was little fixed about ‘British identity’ and that the ‘changing ethnic composition of the British people themselves [through immigration]’ can only ‘strengthen and renew British identity’ (12). Behind the PC-sounding language, it is a profound discomfort with the ‘identity’ of Old Britain – fixed, homogenous, nationalistic – which leads the elite to celebrate the impact of immigration on British identity today. In April 2001, Robin Cook, then New Labour foreign secretary, gave a key speech on immigration to the Social Market Foundation. The speech is best remembered for Cook’s line describing chicken tikka masala as ‘a true British national dish’, yet the rest of it was extremely revealing. Cook outlined the reasons why his government was determined to relax immigration controls and made clear his hostility to ‘outdated’ ideas about Britishness. ‘The British are not a race but a gathering of countless different races and communities’, he said. And this lack of a singular notion of Britishness is precisely what gives Britain its strength: ‘[Our] pluralism is not a burden that we must reluctantly accept. It is an immense asset that contributes to the cultural and economic vitality of our nation.’ (13) The most striking aspect of Cook’s speech was the period in British history he was most keen to distance himself from: the 100 years from the Victorian era to the Second World War. With remarkable historical illiteracy, Cook argued that Britain had ‘always been multicultural’: ‘In the pre-industrial era… Britain was unusually open to external influence, first through foreign invasion, then through commerce and imperial expansion. It is not their purity that makes the British unique, but the sheer pluralism of their ancestry.’ However, there was a period when, unfortunately in Cook’s view, British identity was relatively homogenous: ‘The homogeneity of British identity that some people assume to be the norm was confined to a relatively brief period. It lasted from the Victorian era of imperial expansion to the aftermath of the Second World War and depended on the unifying force of those two extraordinary experiences.’ For


 


9



 


Cook, New Labour’s celebration of diversity today is in keeping with an older British history, one that preceded and therefore was not tainted by the now largely discredited modern industrial era. ‘The diversity of modern Britain expressed through devolution and multiculturalism is more consistent with the historical experience of our islands’, he argued (14). Here, we can see what underpins the contemporary elite’s embrace of immigration: a desire to distance itself from a past it feels increasingly estranged from, by elevating the contribution of external actors to British society and identity. Feeling ever-more alienated from the values and advances of modern, Victorian and post-Victorian Britain – from the growth of industry to the celebration of high culture, from old-style morality to values such as the ‘stiff upper lip’ – today’s elite contrasts the dynamism of the contemporary flow of ‘many cultures’ into the UK with the ‘homogeneity of British identity’ that existed in what is now seen as the problematic modern era. For all Cook’s and others’ seemingly progressive attacks on ‘purity’ and ‘homogeneity’ in favour of ‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’, what they are really questioning is the idea that there should be any overarching, defining values in British society. They are effectively dressing up Britain’s crisis of values, its uncertainty about what it stands for, in the positive language of a ‘constant churn’ of values from outside (15), where the immigrant is celebrated precisely for his lack of attachment to, and origins in, Britain’s traditional culture. This is what underpins the ethos of multiculturalism itself: a desire to re-present a crisis of values as something positive. Fundamentally, multiculturalism is officialdom’s response to the profound identity crisis of Western society, brought about as a result of the collapse of common values, national institutions and political networks. Multiculturalism is about adding a positive gloss to this identity crisis, where the lack of common values is sexed up as ‘cultural pluralism’ and divisions within communities are relabelled ‘diversity’. Likewise, the contemporary elite’s celebration of society’s ‘continually changing values’ as a result of unpredictable migrant flows re-presents a crisis of core values as something purposeful and positive. Indeed, the most striking thing about immigration over the past 10 to 15 years is how the elite now advertises its assimilation of immigrant culture rather than calling for immigrants to assimilate into British culture. One historian of immigration in Britain writes that in the 1950s and the 1960s, ‘The first official British response [to mass immigration] was to declare that immigrants must be assimilated to a unitary British culture’ (16). Now, in New Labour’s words, ‘Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. Our lifestyles and cultural horizons have also been broadened [by immigration]… it reaches into every aspect of our national life.’ (17) There were many problems with the old idea of immigrant assimilation, but it was at least built on the notion of a core society into which immigrants could be welcomed. The new idea of Britain ‘absorbing and adapting’ and being constantly altered by the arrival of migrants effectively says there is no such thing as society (updating Thatcher’s dictum), only various cultures. Where the politics of assimilation spoke to a society that needed migrant workers and wanted them to be well-behaved, the politics of absorption speaks to something worse: a society that welcomes immigrants for the narrow political good of the elite, which hopes that the arrival of outsiders will somehow refresh and renew a corroded and confused nation alienated from its traditions. This is the political equivalent of slumming it.

Disciplining
the
working
class

If the elite now expresses its discomfort with Old Britain through the immigration issue, it also expresses its disdain for the lower orders through it, too. In many ways a perfect issue for a fundamentally middle-class party like New Labour, the ‘pro-immigration’ stance allows the contemporary elite both to distance itself from the traditional elites of the past and from the working classes of today, from the old order and from the new masses. For decades, the British elite used the politics of racism as a way of keeping the working classes in their place, ratcheting up immigration fears and racial tensions in an effort to win native workers’ loyalty. Now it uses the official politics of ‘anti-racism’ and ‘pro-immigration’ to do a similar job. One of the most effective ways in which the working classes are policed today is through the


 


10



 


monitoring of their allegedly problematic attitudes to immigration and their failure to embrace the apparently superior cosmopolitan values of their rulers. In elite circles, it is now widely assumed that the key ‘immigration problem’ is not immigrants themselves but the response their arrival might provoke amongst the working classes and what Trevor Phillips, head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, describes as ‘an angry, embittered, permanent underclass looking for targets on whom to vent its rage’ (18). Indeed, today, when members of the elite do call for curbs on immigration, they do so in the name of preventing the working classes at home from going wild rather than in the name of keeping ‘wild foreigners’ out of the UK. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, summed up this trend when, in early 2010, he and his Balanced Migration campaign group called on the government to lower immigration levels in order to avoid playing ‘into the hands of the far right [by failing to] address the concerns that have led to some otherwise decent people supporting modern-day fascism’ (19). In the past, authoritarians and snobs sought to restrict immigration in order to keep ‘alien cultures’ out of Britain – now they want to restrict it in order to dissipate the ‘alien cultures’ lurking within Britain’s own working-class communities. It is through the issue of immigration that the working classes are most explicitly attacked today, for being feckless, illiberal and slovenly. Liberal opinion-formers who are normally relatively guarded in their expressions of disgust for the lower orders feel able to let rip through the issue of immigration. One columnist praises ‘hard-working bloody foreigners’ who get jobs in Britain because ‘our own people are either too lazy or expensive to compete’. Apparently, ‘tax-paying immigrants past and present keep indolent British scroungers on their couches drinking beer and watching daytime TV’; immigrants are ‘despised’, the columnist says, only because they ‘seize opportunities which these slobs don’t want’ (20). Other observers contrast ‘pleasant asylum seekers’ to the ‘fat twats’ of working-class Britain (21). Frequently in commentariat circles, the values of the working classes are attacked by being contrasted with the values of the immigrant classes. Such is the apparent backwardness of the working classes’ attitude towards immigrants that politicians now police their own speech in order to avoid stirring up the natives. In recent General Elections, leading race relations groups have encouraged the party leaders to sign pledges promising not to use ‘inflammatory’ language when discussing immigration, since ‘the right to free political expression must not be abused in the competition for popular votes by causing, or exploiting, prejudice’ (22). In the 2001 General Election, Labour encouraged its MPs and candidates to avoid using the term ‘foreigner’ in any kind of derogatory way and said nobody should ‘fight an election by exploiting the worst instincts of fear and prejudice’ (23). This is about taking a ‘Not in front of the children’ approach to immigration, on the basis that the lower classes will be inflamed if they hear the word ‘foreigner’ or know the truth about how many immigrants have come to Britain. In the political elite’s view, the real ‘foreigners’ in Britain are the white working classes. It looks upon them as an inscrutable, incomprehensible mass, relating to them as an anthropologist does to a tribe rather than as democrats should to the demos. At the end of last year, the New Labour communities secretary, John Denham, drew up a list of the top 100 ‘extremism hotspots’ in the UK where social deprivation threatens to ‘fuel far-right extremism’. They were mostly poor working-class communities, of course, and Denham promised to try to rescue them by pumping in millions of pounds for social improvements and awareness-raising projects on immigration and other issues. ‘[I]f we fail’, he said, ‘the danger is that extremists will try to exploit dissatisfaction and insecurity in ways which will pull communities apart’ (24). This is a modern-day version of writing off certain communities as ‘beyond the pale’, as moral no-go zones, socially warped areas in need of re-education in the values of their elite superiors. The ‘pro-immigration’ pose of the contemporary elite allows it to advertise its alleged moral superiority over the uneducated mob. Today, the elite defines itself as superior to the masses, not through its traditions, its role in history or its defence of Great Britain and British values, but through the very opposite: by affecting a cultural disdain for traditionalism, nationalism


 


11



 


and sovereignty in favour of the modern values of cultural flux, cosmopolitanism and what Robin Cook described as a ‘modern notion of national identity [not] based on race and ethnicity’ (25). It is the elite’s apparent ability to rise above the squalid traditions of the past that marks it out as superior today. And one of the key ways it does is this is by celebrating (controlled) immigration for ‘shaking up’ British values and forcing the illiberal lower orders to confront their prejudices or else have them fixed by a heavy dose of intervention by the Department of Communities. This represents a significant turnaround: in the past, British elites strictly controlled immigration in order, they said, to preserve British values and decency; today the British elite takes a more relaxed (though not libertarian) approach to immigration in an attempt to create a new kind of British decency. One thing remains constant, however: immigration remains highly politicised, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Racialising
everyday
life

There are many problems with the elite’s adoption of a ‘pro-immigration’ stance for cynical social and political reasons. It is built on dishonesty and censorship, where the facts and the truth are kept away from the public lest they inflame our prejudicial instincts. It is driven by a disdain for some of the gains of the past and for the views of today’s working classes. Most worryingly, it can only further racialise everyday life in Britain. Already, thanks to New Labour, virtually every aspect of our existences – from politics to schools to the workplace – has been racialised, where everyday interaction and speech is governed by a plethora of diversity codes and a super-sensitivity about racial matters. The politicisation of the immigrant, and his elevation as superior to the white working classes, threatens to take this racialisation to another level. All of this raises some important questions for those of us – like me – who support open borders. For today it is often those who present themselves as ‘pro-immigration’ who are the least progressive, expressing a profound cultural snobbery and adopting the immigrant as a cover for their own lack of attachment to a political vision or moral values. And often, those who seem ostensibly ‘anti-immigration’ – for example, some working-class voters who express discomfort with the arrival of people from abroad – are expressing an understandable, if misplaced, agitation with the values of the cosmopolitan elite. When immigration is increased without any public debate about why it is being done, when old-style British values are judged to be inferior to new cultures from overseas, and when immigrants are continually held up as better beings than Britain’s native working classes, is it really surprising that some people ask awkward questions about immigration? Having politicised ‘pro-immigration’ for poisonously elite purposes, our rulers cannot feign shock when ‘antiimmigration’ becomes a political factor, too. The truth is that celebrating immigration as a ‘social good’ is no more progressive than treating it as a narrow ‘economic good’: in both instances, the needs and desires of individual migrants and their families are subordinated to an abstract, external measurement. The only ‘good’ in this debate should be the argument that it is good for individuals to have full, unfettered freedom of movement with no interference from the state. And if we want to win that argument, we will need to challenge New Labour’s transformation of immigration into an elite weapon, and take the debate to the mass of the population. Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here. (1) Community Cohesion in Crisis: New Dimensions of Diversity and Difference, John Flint and David Robinson (eds), Policy Press, 2008 (2) Community Cohesion in Crisis: New Dimensions of Diversity and Difference, John Flint and David Robinson (eds), Policy Press, 2008


 


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(3) Don’t listen to the whingers – London needs immigrants, Evening Standard, 23 October 2009 (4) Don’t listen to the whingers – London needs immigrants, Evening Standard, 23 October 2009 (5) How New Labour threw open doors to mass migration in secret plot to make a multicultural UK, Daily Mail, 10 February 2010 (6) Don’t listen to the whingers – London needs immigrants, Evening Standard, 23 October 2009 (7) How New Labour threw open doors to mass migration in secret plot to make a multicultural UK, Daily Mail, 10 February 2010 (8) The secret plot to destroy Britain’s identity, Melanie Phillips, 24 February 2010 (9) Using immigration to turn Britain into a nation of Labour voters is so shameful I can hardly believe it, Stephen Glover, Daily Mail, 12 February (10) Tories reject Cook’s race claim, BBC News, 9 April 2001 (11) Don’t listen to the whingers – London needs immigrants, Evening Standard, 23 October 2009 (12) Robin Cook’s speech, Guardian, 19 April 2001 (13) Robin Cook’s speech, Guardian, 19 April 2001 (14) Robin Cook’s speech, Guardian, 19 April 2001 (15) Robin Cook’s speech, Guardian, 19 April 2001 (16) The Twilight of Britain: Cultural Nationalism, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Toleration, G Gordon Betts, Transaction Publishers, 2002 (17) Robin Cook’s speech, Guardian, 19 April 2001 (18) Trevor Phillips warns that Britain could return to racism as recession bites, Daily Telegraph, 19 January 2009 (19) Migration threatens the DNA of our nation, The Times (London), 7 January 2010 (20) See Why the elite prefers Poles to proles, by Brendan O’Neill (21) See Why the elite prefers Poles to proles, by Brendan O’Neill (22) Parties will not exploit race issue, BBC News, 14 March 2001 (23) Parties will not exploit race issue, BBC News, 14 March 2001


 


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(24) ‘Ignored’ working-class areas to get government grants, Birmingham Post, 15 October 2009 (25) Robin Cook’s speech, Guardian, 19 April 2001


 


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Don’t
believe
in
the
ghosts
of
politics
past

ELECTION
ESSAY:
Whether
we
are
talking
about
the
UK
General
Election
or
the
 current
outbreak
of
strikes,
it
is
definitely
not
déjà
vu
all
over
again.

In this third essay, Mick Hume says political observers should face up to the fact that ‘the end of left and right’ is a reality, not a platitude. Britain seems to have an unhealthy obsession with ghosts these days – often a symptom of insecurity and impotency among the living. Satellite and cable television channels are packed with daft ghost-hunting, spiritualist and séance shows such as Most Haunted – Live or Celebrity Spooks on Ice (well, almost), while headlines announce the portentous news that model Katie Price/Jordan has fled her ‘haunted’ house. At the higher end of the spectral cultural spectrum, meanwhile, the new hot thing is Roman Polanski’s The Ghost, based on a Robert Harris book about a former prime minister – that is, Tony Blair – who comes back from the dead in political if not corporeal terms. But the ghost-hunting trend is not confined to the relatively harmless spheres of culture and fiction. In the UK today the real worlds of politics and industrial conflict also appear to be haunted by the ghosts of the past, as many media and political observers suffer visions of spectral figures apparently stalking our public affairs. Thus the Labour Party claims to see the Conservative opposition as still Thatcherites in sheep’s clothing, the same old Tories who have not changed really and are just waiting their chance to attack the NHS and reward their rich pals. Meanwhile the Tories say they can see the wicked spirit of old Labour alive beneath New Labour’s white sheet, still in thrall to militant trade unions such as Unite. In the televised ‘chancellors’ debate’ this week, Liberal Democrat economic spokesman Vince Cable seemed to see more ghosts than TV spiritualist Derek Acorah, arguing that the mainstream parties were both still trapped in the age of left and right, with Labour beholden to union militancy and the Tories to the City’s ‘pinstriped Scargills’. When Robert Harris appeared on BBC TV’s Newsnight the next evening to discuss Blair’s return to the preelection political fray – a ‘spooky’ coincidence with the launch of The Ghost – he too claimed that it was now clear Blair’s changes to the political scene had been illusory, and that we were faced with an election between old-style Labour and Tories. A similar outbreak of hauntings seems to have inflicted those covering developments in the world of industrial relations. The coincidence of a few relatively small and short-lived strikes – for example, three or four days at a time of industrial action involving British Airways cabin staff or railway signalmen –has been widely claimed as the return of the spectre of union militancy. Spooked media scaremongers have dubbed it the ‘Spring of Discontent’ to draw direct comparisons with the past ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978-9, which signalled the end for the previous Labour government. On the other side of the picket lines, meanwhile, union spokesmen and their supporters have accused BA management of acting like old-fashioned Dickensian-style bosses out to ‘break the union’. Behind all of these ghostly sightings lies the common assumption that things cannot really have changed all that much in UK politics or workplace relations over the past few decades, so that the old patterns and forces are essentially still active, even if sometimes they might be buried just beneath the surface of a shallow grave.


 


15



 


Yet only an overwhelmingly naivety or wilful ignorance about historical and political facts could try to justify such assertions. There is simply no comparison between the parties, trades unions or employers of today and those of 20 or 30 years ago.

An
outbreak
of
amnesia

The obsession with ghost-spotting reflects two related political failures of the modern age. One is a failure of political imagination – the inability to grasp just how far things have changed, and lazy preference for seeing the familiar. The other is a failure of political nerve – the refusal to face up to the new and the unknown, and the habit of wrapping oneself in old newspaper cuttings as a sort of comfort blanket for uncertain times. The combination of historical ignorance and amnesia is of course made easier by the appearance of institutional continuity – the parties are still called Tory and Labour, and while an organisation such as Unite might have changed its name through mergers, it still claims the name ‘trade union’. Yet this apparent continuity of institutional forms disguises the extent to which the content of these bodies has been completely transformed. Who could seriously argue, on the basis of anything more than prejudice, that Gordon Brown’s government is ‘old Labour’ in disguise? Nostalgists from the rump of the old right and left are equally guilty of fantasy politics in talking up New Labour’s links to the past. From Alistair Darling’s multi-billion pound bailout of the bankers to Brown’s denunciation of the ‘deplorable’ striking BA cabin crew, New Labour has established itself as the accountants-inchief for modern British capitalism. Against this, the odd rhetorical attack on Tory ‘toffs’ and one-off tax on bankers’ bonuses hardly amounts to a socialist revival. It is equally ridiculous to claim that the spirit of Margaret Thatcher still stalks the Conservative Party of David Cameron, as the Tories’ opponents have sought to suggest. No doubt traditional Tories still dominate the rank and file of the party, just as older Labourites still make up the majority of Labour activists. But they have no influence on PR-oriented party leaderships divorced from any such roots. The central aim of Cameron’s reform project has been to distance the Conservatives from their past in every sense possible, to establish them as the Not-the-Tory-Party (what they actually are is far less clear to us all, except that many of their policies appear more New Labour than New Labour’s). Look at the way in which Lord Norman Tebbit, the living tomb of Thatcherism, has become the bête noire of Cameron’s new Conservatives. Perhaps the most fantastic ghost-hunting of all is the attempt to claim that employeremployee relations and industrial conflicts today are comparable to those of the past. As Brendan Barber, nominal head of the British trade union movement, has himself somewhat pathetically pointed out, talk of a ‘Spring of Discontent’ is a wild distortion. Despite the fact that Unite still funds the Labour machine, the unions have nothing like the membership, power or influence they had in the past. Today’s small and short-lived strikes by cabin crew or rail signal workers stand out only because such disputes are so rare these days. Yet they are a far cry from the clashes between millions of members of the big public service unions and the Labour government in the Winter of Discontent of 1978/9. During that months-long conflict, some 29million working days were lost to industrial action, compared – as Barber pleadingly assured the media this week – to only 455,000 days in the whole of 2009. Nor is it really right to equate today’s big employers with the union-busting bosses of the past – not because they are somehow ‘better’ today, more because British capitalists, like their union counterparts, are pale shadows of their former selves. No doubt Willie Walsh of BA is an objectionable individual, and of course his underpaid cabin staff should be supported in their fight against his cut-costing measures. But he is a poor imitation of a ‘union-buster’ set against the bosses and governments of the past that used laws, police violence, prisons and deportations to break trade union organisation. Nor is it necessary to go back to the days of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Twenty-five years ago Thatcher’s government waged open warfare against the striking miners, while bosses would often lock out and sack strikers – taking away their jobs rather than withdrawing their perks, as Walsh has done to striking trolley dollies. Mention of ‘union-breaking’ disputes involving air travel brings back memories of the US


 


16



 


traffic controllers strike in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan had union leaders arrested and led away in chains before the watching media. The differences between political parties, trade unions and other institutions then and now are about much more than the personal contrast between, say, a Thatcher and a Cameron. However much today’s leaders might pretend otherwise, a political culture cannot be reduced to the personalities of politicians, nor what they represent attributed simply to which schools they attended. Political and social movements are the products of much broader factors, of the historical context that gave birth to them and the constituencies and forces in society that they represent. It is in this sense that we can see why none of the political players in the UK are what they once were.

The
end
of
Tories
and
Labour

The Tories dominated twentieth-century politics as the party of the British Establishment and Empire – not only was the Church of England the Tory Party at prayer but the British Army was the Tory Party in uniform, the senior civil service the Tory Party in bowler hats, the BBC the Tory Party on the airwaves, and so on. As the Establishment declined, the Empire disappeared and British capitalism stagnated, Thatcher’s Tory governments of the 1980s broke with the traditions of one-nation Conservatism and launched an offensive against both the trade unions and many of the other institutions of the postwar order. Thatcher won the war against the unions, but when it was over both traditional and Thatcherite Toryism were exhausted, too. The Labour Party emerged at the start of the twentieth century in the age of mass industrial conflict. Labour became established as the powerful party, not so much of the new working classes, but of the trade union bureaucracy that led the labour movement. Its state socialist policies of nationalisation and government intervention offered an alternative way of managing capitalism with the consent of the mass trade union movement in the postwar era. That era came to an end in the recession of the 1970s, when the Labour government’s ‘social contract’ with the unions sought to restrain working-class pay and living standards in the interests of capitalist industry. The result was the Winter of Discontent and the election of Thatcher’s Tories in 1979. By the time it was routed in the 1983 election, traditional Labourism was dead. Thus were the great historical forces of modern British politics, first Labourism and then Toryism, emptied out by the end of the 1980s. That process was sealed by the international fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. This first destroyed the credibility of all state socialist traditions – even those such as Labourism that had been hostile to the Soviet Union – and then undermined all of the conservative parties that had existed for 40 years on a limited diet of anti-communism. These changes in the political terrain should make it impossible to imagine that either the Labour or Conservative parties could exist in the old way today. Whatever they call themselves they are empty shells, without the links to real roots and movements in society on which both once built their authority. Each of these election machines masquerading as political parties now practises the ideology-free politics of managerialism, bean-counting and – since they stand for nothing distinctive or of substance – swapping positions and pinching one another’s business plans at will. In recent years many observers have paid lip service to the ‘end of left and right’ in UK and international politics since the end of the Cold War. Yet when a moment of real political and social crisis arrives, such as the debate around the coming General Election, most retreat from confronting the serious consequences of that insight and seek refuge in the safe old politics of the past. Suddenly we are told that the forces of both left and right really are alive and kicking, fighting for their lives over such apparently historic issues as a penny on national insurance.


 


17



 


Once again the attempt to summon up the ghosts of the past becomes most absurd in relation to the unions and workplace relations. The British trade unions emerged from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the mass organisations of the working class in an industrial age, often in the face of fierce hostility from employers and governments. Over the next half century the bureaucracy that took control of the unions sought to reach compromise between workers and employers and to increase its own influence in the state machinery. This strategy reached fruition during the Second World War, when union leaders were incorporated into the heart of the war effort and the government. In the 40 years after the Second World War there were two distinct phases of trade unionism in Britain, as an excellent Marxist study outlined in the early 1980s: ‘The first phase corresponded to the period of postwar expansion and the early stages of recession up to 1979. In these years the employers and successive [Labour and Tory] governments built up the union bureaucracy as a means of containing conflict in industry. This approach reached its peak in the Social Contract years of the mid-Seventies [brought to an end by the Winter of Discontent]. The second phase began with the deepening of recession after 1979 and the election of a Conservative government. The Tories decided that the state no longer needed to rely so heavily on the union leaders to deal with the working class. They set about pushing them into a greatly diminished role in the management of social conflict.’ (Mike Freeman, Taking Control, 1984.) As that book was being published, the ‘second phase’ of industrial relations was exploding in the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5, when the Thatcher government went to war with the militant wing of the trade union movement. It should be obvious today that we are living through neither of those phases of trade unionism and industrial relations. The power of the union bureaucracy was shattered by the capitalist offensive. What pass for trade unions today are often little more than an extension of the human resources department, selling insurance and dispensing legal advice to their members as individuals rather than fighting for their collective interests. Strikes have become so rare than even small-scale disputes can make headlines. According to official figures, the number of days lost to industrial disputes in the 1970s averaged almost 13million a year; in the 1980s the annual average was more than seven million days; in the 1990s it fell to 660,000. That only 455,000 were lost in 2009, a year of recession, rising unemployment and falling wages, speaks volumes about the neutered unions. Those banging on about a ‘Spring of Discontent’ today are playing a game of fantasy industrial relations. Working people certainly have many problems and issues to fight about. But their old weapons have been blunted. And class solidarity with strikers today is noticeable by its absence, in an age when many working people see the world as individual consumers, so that a strike by airline or railway staff becomes a matter of personal inconvenience rather than a political issue.

New
thinking

It is important that we take a sober and realistic view of how far things have changed in politics and society, rather than wasting time on a ghost hunt. There are plenty of big issues to be addressed in deciding what sort of society emerges from the current crisis, including how to stand up for jobs and pay. But there seems little hope of coming up with any forwardlooking answers if we are still trying to answer yesterday’s questions. The logical first step towards discussing a solution must be identifying the real problems of the present. For those of us who might still think of ourselves as being on the left, if not of the left as it exists today, there is nothing to be gained by indulging in nostalgia, either by imagining that there is a Labour Party worth defending or that there is a Thatcherite threat to unite the old movement against. Things need to be thought about anew. Those taking refuge in ghost stories instead are betraying a loss of nerve that refuses to face reality.


 


18



 


That need not be a message of doom and gloom. There were plenty of big problems with the powerful old politics. The ghosts of politics past are by definition ethereal and more readily exposed. Putting an end to the ghostly possession of political life might at least present the possibility of debating some new alternatives. But only if we begin by accepting the grown-up proposition there are no such things as ghosts. Mick Hume is editor-at-large at spiked.


 


19



 


Whatever
happened
to
innovation?

 ELECTION
ESSAY:
James
Woudhuysen
explores
the
roots
of
the
establishment’s
 neglect
of
scientific
and
technological
innovation.
In this fourth essay, James Woudhuysen explores the roots of the establishment’s neglect of scientific and technological innovation, and calls for the creation of new industries for the twenty-first century. One morning recently, I found myself trying to board a Central Line on London Transport (LT) in the morning, during the rush hour. The platform was impossibly packed with commuters, and bare wiring stood out from the curved walls that encased it. People could barely walk, still less get on a crowded train. But once on, blaring announcements to ‘pass down inside the cars and use up all the available space’ came not just from the train’s intercom, but also – at the same time, overlaid on the first – from an LT woman on the platform with a loudhailer. So great is the weakness of infrastructure in Britain today that any amount of crowd control is now deemed proper. Yet while more and more people use London’s tube, announcements and signs aimed at compressing and redirecting those people can only do so much. The fact is that, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, Britain and its capital simply need more frequent trains, new and newly reliable signaling systems, roomier rolling stock, and new, fast-running railway lines. Technological innovation, not the elitist management of the plebs’ behaviour, is the way forward in transport services. Further station instructions telling you what not to do can do little more than irritate. Worse, the authorities’ sloth in developing new, innovatory transport connections means that, today, it is not alarmist to see the Central Line during rush hour as a fire waiting to happen. This is what the failure to innovate in a hectic modern society really means now. It means an unacceptable level of risk, endured by passengers who are provided no litterbins, but instead told contemptuously, as if they were garbage: ‘Take Your Litter With You.’ Yet apart from the occasional piece of rhetoric about innovation, in which merely repeating the word with enough optimism is supposed to amount to a coherent policy, innovation has yet seriously to be debated in the General Election. At one level, of course, this is all very British, and has been the trend for many decades. After all, Harold Wilson’s famous ‘white heat’ speech, endorsing a scientific and technological ‘revolution’, only captured the popular imagination a long time ago, in 1963. But there are new reasons for today’s neglect of innovation. It is nearly 30 years since each member of Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet was given a book related to innovation to read. That book was the American academic Martin Wiener’s English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850-1980 (1). In the Thatcher years, some parts of the British elite came to agree with Wiener that, way back in the nineteenth century, British science and industry had effectively been lost on the playing fields of Eton. There also appeared no alternative to Thatcherite deindustrialisation. Thirty years on, however, times have changed. The insouciance of New Labour towards manufacturing is agreed by Labour and Conservative alike to have gone too far.


 


20



 


Even the Tories today regard manufacturing as slightly sexy, and it is anyway widely acknowledged that most manufacturers now offer important services as well as products. Nevertheless, while the rebalancing of the British economy away from financial services now enjoys the formal support of all political parties, innovation is, compared with taxes and expenditure and ‘efficiency measures’, barely discussed. Partly because of the low pound, UK manufacturing has recently been growing at the fastest rate for 15 years. Yet the partypolitical disdain for a serious set-to on innovation has taken the vapidity of Election 2010 to a fresh nadir. In turn, the reasons for this shameful turn of events turn out to be quite revealing. First, though, we must understand today’s politics of the gesture in innovation.

Gestures
in
innovation

In his Budget, chancellor Alistair Darling said that Crossrail around London, and High-Speed 2, linking London to Scotland by fast train, would together create 100,000 jobs. Darling will also invest £2billion in a new bank for infrastructure – to back green projects, of course. In IT, among other measures, Gordon Brown has promised ‘to make Britain the leading superfast broadband digital power’ [sic], creating ‘100 per cent access to every home’ (2). What are we to make of these initiatives? After all, Tyne and Wear is to get nearly £600million for light rail, Leeds will get more than £200million for buses, and trams in the West Midland will get more than £80million (all vehicles, no doubt, will be fully equipped with announcements about how to behave). And it is not just in transport, or IT, that there is some movement. The government has announced: * the Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, a £250million complex to be built at St Pancras, London (3); * £97.4million for the development of the synchrotron at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, Oxfordshire, where light beams are used to study every kind of material (4); * the launch of UK Space Agency, which will replace the British National Space Centre and bring all UK civil space activities under one single management (5). This is all well and good. And it is also well and good that public spending on R&D has moved from about £5.5billion in the mid-1990s to nearly £8billion in 2007-8; and that the proportion of that R&D which is ‘basic’ – carried out purely for the advance of knowledge – has moved up from about 30 per cent in the mid-1990s to more than 40 per cent in 2005-6 (6). Yet the fact is that all these projects, and the upward trend in R&D statistics, are gestures that are too little, too late, and too slow in execution. Projects that get backing in the tens or hundreds of millions sound ambitious – until we compare them with Britain’s GDP of £1.4 trillion. It is true that many of New Labour’s latest local transport projects are, conveniently enough, in northern marginal seats. But of more significance is that, as a fraction of GDP, UK public spending on R&D stagnated at about 0.7 per cent from 1997-8 to 2007-8, while business spending declined below 1.2 per cent of GDP over the same period (7). Innovation continues in Britain, but in the credit crunch it is much more faltering than rebounding. Perhaps more importantly, innovation has very little social prominence: it is only done here and there, and has none of the weight in public life that, say, banks have, or the National Health Service, or the country’s much-vaunted creative industries (8). Scientific and technological innovation is not felt creative. What is upheld instead is each and every government campaign to change the way you live. Yes, the Central Office of Information’s (CoI’s) 2009 expenditure of £208million on advertising is a smaller outlay than some of the state’s bigger new rail projects (if they actually happen). But that £208million still makes the CoI the largest advertiser in Britain. While commercial advertisers caught by the recession have been cutting budgets, the CoI registered a 13 per cent increase in advertising expenditure in 2009 (9).


 


21



 


In practice, officials value the art of the patronising ‘nudge’ to the masses more highly than the science and technology of innovation. Elbow-like and ubiquitous, government campaigns about your behaviour dominate British consciousness in a way that the possibilities with innovation do not. Likewise, the ‘innovation’ of new state regulations in IT is held a more pressing matter than the provision of IT. Last month, childcare expert Professor Tanya Byron advocated a new Council for Child Internet Safety, a new ratings system for computer games, locks on children’s mobile phones to prevent them watching the internet, and a ‘huge’ public information campaign on children and the web. The government immediately gave her proposals enthusiastic backing. Genuine innovation, consistently advocated and debated, is an afterthought among British officials. Is that because it is thought too expensive, or too risky, especially in a downturn? Certainly. Is cutting back ‘waste’ of all sorts automatically preferred to creating new products and services? Yes. Have regulations, like the target mentality and the ceaseless propaganda aimed at raising ‘awareness’, gained a kind of unstoppable dynamic of their own, to the detriment of innovation? They have. Are the Cabinet and the shadow Cabinet dominated by people with little experience of science, technology or even business? Yes. Yet while all these explanations hold water, there is something deeper at work. As the concepts of consumer society and service economy have loomed larger in the mind of the authorities, so their concept of innovation has diminished.

The
‘consumer
society’
sidelines
innovation

After the end of the Cold War, political parties worldwide went over to a fully marketdominated view of society. The market was eternalised, and different systems of production came off the agenda. As prosperity appeared to mount, most economic discussion in America and Britain came to focus on final consumer demand, not on supply-side innovation. Housing, consumer services and mobile phones captured much of the limelight. In Britain under New Labour, even voters came more and more to be treated like consumers. Changes in mobile phones, in the delivery of music and in the internet in the home underpinned the fetishised view that markets alone could effortlessly bring about very rapid innovations. Programmed in North America, very cheaply manufactured in China – this mix appeared to confirm the power of markets. Yet in fact the impulse to state intervention in markets was never very far behind the market-orientated consensus on economics. Let’s not forget that Tony Blair came to power promising his Third Way. For continuing critics of capitalism, however, even the system’s excesses and weaknesses came themselves to be described in the language of ‘market failure’. Not for nothing did page one of the government’s 2008 Stern review on the economics of climate change insist that such change was ‘the greatest example of market failure we have ever seen’. Thus when the credit crunch lent a big boost to the cause of government regulation, measures to redress market failure were themselves framed in the reputed logic of the market. Out of this whole process, the categories of consumer society – and, more recently, personal greed – have expanded. Compared with the idea of innovation, these categories tower over the brains of bureaucrats, and over the thought of society as a whole. Few, for example, see failure to innovate outside the arena of finance as in any way a cause of today’s economic downturn, even if they will ruefully concede that, too often, innovation itself can be a casualty of such a downturn. Instead, political economy has been reduced to consumer habits of buying and use, to consumer behaviour, its psychology and its economics, to consumer depletion of the planet and its resources, to population and its control. And that is why the scope for scientific and technological innovation is now unconsciously taken as very, very narrow. Price signals, not railway signals, dominate the mindset of politicians and civil servants alike.


 


22



 


Take, if you must, February’s consultation by the Office of the Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem), the regulator, on the future of energy. Titled Project Discovery: Options for Delivering Secure and Sustainable Energy Supplies, it runs, in typical regulator style, to more than 100 pages. For Ofgem, global financial crisis, tough environmental targets, increasing gas import dependency and the closure of ageing power stations have together ‘cast reasonable doubt’ on the ability of current energy arrangements ‘to deliver secure and sustainable energy supplies’ (10). But Ofgem’s measures to deal with Britain’s looming power gap have nothing to do with innovation, and everything to do with market intervention. It proposes ‘to promote low carbon investment by reducing carbon price uncertainty with a minimum carbon price, and to strengthen investment signals through improving short-term price signals in both the gas and electricity markets’. And, just in case you understood that, it wants ‘enhanced obligations’ of energy suppliers and system operators, along with a centralised market for wind and other forms of renewable energy, and possibly clever kinds of tenders; or, in extremis, a full-blown central buyer of electricity capacity, energy and gas storage (11). Whatever the issue, Ofgem would rather tweak the way energy is bought and sold than put forward innovatory ways of making the stuff. The words technology or technological appear 53 times in its narrative; the words market and price appear, respectively, 411 and 417 times. Consumer demand and magical price ‘signals’ to suppliers pretty much comprise the whole Ofgem universe (average staff numbers in 2008-9: 310). This kind of consumerist myopia about innovation is one thing. But there is another, closely related, component of the sidelining of innovation from British public consciousness. Particularly since the Thatcher years, the UK’s broad shift from manufacturing to services has acted so as to make R&D seem less relevant to UK plc, if only because R&D in services has hardly any role there.

The
‘service
economy’
sidelines
innovation

What the UK government defines as ‘service industries’ take no fewer than 21.66million, or 84 per cent, of the 25.73million employee jobs in Great Britain (12). However, they account for just 76 per cent of what is termed Gross Value Added (13). It is hard to raise productivity in services. R&D there is intractably weak not just in Britain, but also right around the world. In the twenty-first century, the big challenge of taking the labour out of labour-intensive services is bigger than ever, no matter how much IT has been poured in. The R&D in services is just not there to help modernise them any time soon. For proof, look at some of the figures for R&D intensity – R&D expenditure as a percentage of sales revenues – for some major private sector service providers based in, or active in, Britain today (14):


 


23



 


R&D expenditure as a percentage of sales revenues

With the exception of BT, this is a dismal scene. It gets worse. Away from big firms, most small and medium enterprises are in services, not manufacturing. And these SMEs, who are major employers in Britain, in 2005 accounted for just 3.3 per cent of UK business expenditure on R&D (15). And who else provides services in volume? Why, the public sector. And here the record with R&D and innovation is very weak, and with major IT projects, very often disastrous. During the 1980s, what used to have been discussed as a standard of living moved to being treated as a high quality of life. In a Britain of lifestyles, the weight of consumer services rose compared to the weight of consumer goods: while the share of total consumer spending in 1970 on services was 35 per cent in 1970, in 2009 it reached 52 per cent (16). Yet services of all descriptions remained labour-intensive; few became hi-tech. If we think of construction services, which build much more than houses, or we think of business-to-business services and finance, there isn’t much meaningful innovation to point to. Think, for example, how long it still takes to process a cheque, or an international payment abroad. The fact that more Portuguese are involved in the NHS, more Poles in UK construction, and more English speakers in call centres in India only confirms the point. Services remain defined more by exacting regimes of labour utilisation than by exciting breakthroughs in innovation. Today’s capitalism finds it easier to push men and women around than it does exerting force on the physical world. And in the physical world, capitalism finds it easier to push electrons around than it does materials or energy. In a sense, then, innovation in services has been reduced to a series of more or (frequently) less radical makeovers in IT. So on London Transport, Oyster cards make a bit of a difference; yet for all the opportunity in something more substantive, like remote medical diagnosis and treatment (‘telemedicine’), little has happened. Of course, there are IT giants such as Amazon, Apple, Blackberry, Facebook and Google, and also IBM, Infosys, Ocado and Wal-Mart; but, outside the military, the world can hardly boast even half an alphabet of large, really innovative service providers. No wonder innovation has receded into the intellectual background of Britain’s policymaking elite. In its mind, innovation in services is either done by IT wizards in California or India, or has proved too difficult (the UK public sector). British retailers can offer loyalty cards, smarter cards are coming, and media platforms can play new tricks (though watch out for the end of


 


24



 


analogue TV in 2012 – preparations already look too little, too late). But even in consumer services, stasis obtains, and it’s felt that not too much can be expected of innovation. As for innovation with the Prodigal Son of manufacturing, that is now felt to deserve a bit of rhetoric. But for cold-blooded beancounters, Asia’s low-cost operating conditions alone will always limit the potential of a UK manufacturing revival, and will likewise limit the potential for manufacturing innovation.

Whole
new
sectors
needed

A new report on competitiveness and growth by sector, compiled by the McKinsey Global Institute, at least has some realism about what I have called gestures in innovation (17). Interestingly, the MGI frames its discussion of the potential of different economic sectors in terms of jobs. It has been widely quoted in its observation that ‘many policymakers are pinning their hopes today on innovative new sectors such as cleantech as the answer to the challenges of competitiveness, growth, and jobs. Yet such sectors are too small to make a difference to economy-wide growth. Even mature semiconductor sectors account for 0.5 per cent or less of developed economies’ employment.’ (18) At the factual level this is all fair enough. Yet the argument merely highlights how familiar so called ‘innovative’ industries such as cleantech and IT are. Initiatives there will not really create jobs, because these are not new, all-conquering industries. The point about innovation is that, apart from being worth pursuing in its own right, it can create completely new arenas for the production of wealth. Recycling, home insulation, renewable energy, chips and fibre optics don’t really count as these. Likewise, Alistair Darling’s 100,000 jobs around Crossrail and High Speed 2 will make only a marginal difference to the total of 2.5million people who are officially unemployed. In technology, it bears repeating, innovations typically mean science-based changes in process or in product. Frequently, process and product innovations are accompanied by changes in organisation. The biggest innovations, however, bring about whole new industries, such as television, or nuclear power. In the twenty-first century, there are some important contenders for new industries – genomic medicine, for example. But the challenge is to find, across more than a handful of sectors, a series of mutually reinforcing innovations that make a lot more new industries mature rapidly, so as to create millions of new jobs. Such innovations, indeed, will also serve to win back mass confidence in what human ingenuity can achieve. McKinsey is right that ‘services will continue to be critical for job creation’ (19). Insofar, then, as innovation has an economic role in leading Britain out of the credit crunch, it might not only continue to revitalise manufacturing, extractive industries and agriculture, but also create fresh, hi-tech service sectors, where work is neither backward nor labour-intensive, but rather is plentiful, and adds a great deal of value. To create such sectors could turn out to be the great task of the new century. Certainly the provision of completely new transport, IT, energy and also water services – not just for consumers, but also for the private and public sectors as well – will be critical. Fresh approaches to hi-tech health and geriatric care, and to hi-tech housing (possibly leased as a service), will also be very significant. If we think simply about the cleaning of clothes, houses, workplaces, other facilities, facades, signage, lights and streets – where are the robots, or even Germany’s ruthless technologies of spraying, cleansing and rubbish collection? Or pause for a moment on the tawdry, disorganised state of Britain’s services to tourists. And then, on top of all this, there is a great need for qualitatively higher levels of efficiency and service in education, social services and postal services, in Town Halls, and in all parts of the pubic sector. If the sectors appear prosaic and discovering a series of mutually reinforcing innovations for them looks really tough, that’s just the point. Manufacturing is important to Britain but, for the most part, we do live in a service economy. It is time to think big in services, too.


 


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Learning
from
abroad

There is much to be learned, especially from developments in Japan, America and Germany. Faced with an ageing population but graced with a business system that, unlike Wall Street or private venture capitalists, doesn’t always insist on immediate results, Japan has poured more and more money into R&D. Yet even in robotics, where Japan has a world lead, little has been achieved outside industry: service robots have yet properly to enter Japanese hospitals, still less Japanese homes. More than a year after Lehman Brothers collapsed, a revival of that American institution, venture capital, has occurred – although things still look quite shaky. By contrast, venture capital in the UK is on its knees. Yet British capitalism has, in principle, plenty of finance with which to assist innovators. Darling’s budget speech trumpeted the establishment of UK Finance for Growth – yet another reorganisation of the government’s £4billion investment support for SMEs, complete with a new Growth Capital Fund, which, eventually worth £500million, will supply private capital to the Britain’s fast-growing companies. Terrific! But when the credit crunch broke, the size of the UK government rescue package to banks, most of which consisted of loans and debt guarantees, was £500billion. Nobody can say that finance for innovation in the UK is intrinsically tricky, so long as these figures continue to indicate the priorities of the state. Now consider apprentices, and the German experience. In his report to the Conservatives on Britain’s prospects with hi-tech exports, inventor Sir James Dyson welcomes the Tories’ commitment to fund a tripling of apprenticeships to 30,000 places a year (20). Yet though he is right to want to ‘reform the curriculum to teach pure science, rather than “How Science Works” or “Science for Citizenship”’, Dyson is somewhat vague about what these 30,000 apprentices might actually do. In brief, he has in mind hi-tech manufacturing for export, even if he supplies, in more than 50 pages, a box on energy (‘low carbon technologies’), and an even smaller box on healthcare (‘harnessing public services to encourage innovation’). Yet once we take into account the need for innovation in consumer, business and public services, 30,000 apprentices a year seems far too modest. Yet in Germany experience with apprentices has become rather mixed. The country trains too many young hairdressers, and about a quarter of its general teen trainees don’t get offered a job in the private sector, and so tend towards long-term joblessness. Meanwhile, retraining older workers has proved even tougher (21).

Conclusion

For innovation in Britain there can be no glib answers. Obviously the country cannot go it alone in new technology, and must understand both the strengths and the weaknesses of other countries’ approaches to innovation. Obviously, too, new forms of collaboration with China and India seem set to emerge. But innovation, including innovation in services, is too important to tomorrow’s older people and its children to be left in the hands of experts, and outside political debate. The debate on innovation should not go round the usual circles of ‘public or private?’, or ‘the state cannot pick winners’, or ‘we need to ring fence R&D budgets for the long term’. In a deadbeat service economy, what is required in the first place is a kulturkampf, a cultural struggle, to ridicule authoritiarian platform announcements and behaviour control, and instead establish a challenging, really ambitious, take-no-prisoners concept of innovation. In and after the election, every adult can and must get passionate about what innovation could do. James Woudhuysen is author, with Joe Kaplinsky, of Energise! A Future for Energy Innovation, published by Beautiful Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) He is also a contributor to BIG POTATOES: The London Manifesto for Innovation.


 


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(1) English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850-1980, Martin Wiener, Penguin, 1981 (2) Speech on Building Britain’s Digital Future, 22 March 2010 (3) Government announces £250m support for new centre for medical innovation; sets out priorities for strengthening british industry, Central Office of Information, 25 March 2010 (4) £100m for jewel in UK science crown , Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 30 March 2010 (5) UK Space Agency (6) pp9, 15, Figures 1.1 and 1.7, The Scientific Century, The Royal Society, 9 March 2010 (7) p21, figure 1.12, Ibid (8) For the latest official definition of creative industries, see here. (9) COI overtakes P&G with £208m annual adspend, Marketing, 23 March 2010 (10) ACTION NEEDED TO ENSURE BRITAIN’S ENERGY SUPPLIES REMAIN SECURE, Ofgem, 3 February 2010, on (11) pp32-50, Project Discovery: Options for delivering secure and sustainable energy supplies, Ofgem, 3 February 2010 (12) p27, Table 3.3, Monthly digest of statistics, Office for National Statistics (ONS), 765, September 2009 (13) p254, Table 16.4,Annual abstract of statistics, No 145, ONS 2009 (14) The 2009 R&D Scoreboard: the top 1,000 UK and 1,000 global companies by R&D investment – company data, Department for Business Innovation & Skills, March 2010 (15) Entrepreneurship and innovation policy: retrospect and prospect, V Uberoi and others, Options for Britain: cross-cutting policy issues, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. (16) p13, Consumer Trends, Q4 2009, ONS, 30 March 2010 (17) How to compete and grow: A sector guide to policy, McKinsey Global Institute, March 2010 (18) Ibid, p12 (19) Ibid, p11 (20) p25, Ingenious Britain: Making the UK the leading high tech exporter in Europe, James Dyson, Conservative Party, 9 March 2010 (21) See The Apprentice: Germany’s Answer to Jobless Youth, Business Week, 7 October 2009


 


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What’s
so
great
about
the
welfare
state?

ESSAY:
The
origins
of
state
welfare
were
far
from
progressive,
and
in
its
new
 therapeutic
form
it
is
actually
a
barrier
to
human
solidarity.

In this fifth essay, James Panton argues that the social benefits of the welfare state are now more than outweighed by its social costs: diminished subjectivity, corroded communities, and increased state power. With all the ‘tough talking’ in the General Election campaign about which party is most capable of making drastic public spending cuts, there appears to be at least one piece of good news: the welfare state – that alleged crowning achievement of Britain’s postwar political consensus, which guaranteed citizens ‘protection from want’ from cradle to grave for more than 60 years – is safe. Whatever minimal and technical disagreements exist between the three main parties about how and when spending should be cut, there is one thing on which they are agreed: savings will be made and public expenditure will be cut without any deleterious effects on the provision of frontline welfare services in healthcare, education, support for children and families, and benefits for the needy. Thus New Labour pledges to ‘protect vital frontline services in health and education’ while bringing ‘borrowing down to meet our commitments on halving the deficit’. The Conservatives promise to ‘cut the deficit, not the NHS’. The Liberal Democrats promise not only to reduce class sizes in schools but to provide more funds ‘for things like one-to-one tuition and classes in the evenings’ while ‘protecting and improving the NHS’. On the New Labour government’s Sure Start initiative for families and young children, the only discussion seems to be about who will do most to expand it. Labour minister Ed Balls promises to defend Sure Start against Tory cuts, while the Tories deny the cuts accusation and actually promise to ‘strengthen Sure Start by recruiting thousands of new Sure Start health visitors’. Even on the question of welfare benefits, where there is at least the appearance of a disagreement, none of the parties is proposing reducing service provision in any way. Some people will be pleased that the welfare state will pretty much remain intact – but there are many reasons why this apparent consensus on the immediate future of the welfare state should concern us. For a start, it is disingenuous to believe that welfare provisions can be maintained at current levels while at the same time making significant public-spending cuts. There is also the profoundly conservative assumption that cuts are essential in the first place, which assumes a future of austerity and low rates of economic growth (see, for example, The austerity auction, by Rob Lyons and There is an alternative to austerity, by Daniel Ben-Ami). But most troubling of all is the fact that the leaders of all parties are united in their refusal even to consider the possibility of significantly reorganising, much less reducing, society’s reliance upon state welfare provision. The twin influences of economic recession and the exhaustion of political and state institutions give us the possibility of asking a number of hugely important questions about the welfare state: What kinds of social provisions do we


 


28



 


want in society? How might they be (re)organised? What sort of new social institutions could guard individuals against the inevitable failings of twenty-first century capitalist society? Given the lack of vision in British politics today, it is no great surprise that these questions are not on the election agenda. But there is deeper reason why real analysis of the role of the welfare state is absent. To raise any critical questions about the welfare state would require the political class to question the role it has played in a fundamental reorganisation of the relationship between state and citizens, radically transforming assumptions about what citizens are capable of and what role the state can and should play in our lives. Over the past couple of decades, a new understanding of welfare has been put at the centre of the elite’s project to connect with, engage with and remould the citizenry. Where the old welfare state was largely about providing citizens with the material things they needed to survive, the new welfare state is a far more therapeutic institution and is about redefining what it means to be a citizen and how citizens relate to the state. The old notion of the welfare state as a ‘safety net’ to help citizens cope with hardship assumed that individuals, families and communities were generally able to run their own lives most of the time. Social assistance, therefore, was designed to return people to a situation where they could get on with their lives unaided, as autonomous, capable human beings. But the model of welfare that has developed over the past two decades entirely rejects the idea that individuals have the capacity to run their lives. Welfare provision now starts from the assumption that individuals and communities are incapable of managing their own health and lifestyles, family life, child-rearing and informal community relations without the constant intervention of the state and its institutions to advise, train, counsel and (re)educate them. The change has been so profound that it is really no longer appropriate to talk about a ‘welfare’ state at all. In its place there has developed what former New Labour prime minister Tony Blair described in 2006 as an ‘enabling state’. This new ‘enabling state’ might promote itself through the rhetoric of responsibility and empowerment, but in fact its impact on individuals and communities has been extremely disabling. Virtually every welfare-state intervention is now premised on the assumption that individuals are vulnerable, physically and psychologically incapacitated, and in need of constant therapeutic intervention. Questioning the role of the welfare state in our lives has never been more urgent. And to do this effectively, we must first understand what the welfare state was really all about in the past, and then consider the more recent transformation of state institutions from providers of discrete assistance and material resources into vehicles for therapeutic guidance.

The
origins
of
the
welfare
state

Of course, the welfare state, even in its traditional form, was always more than a mere safety net. Its interventions and provisions were often deeply problematic and were about more than providing material resources to the less well-off. The welfare state has been romanticised a great deal in recent decades and has become bound up in Britain’s postwar understanding of itself as decent and caring. Many on the left in particular considered the welfare project to be the first step on the road to socialism. However, it is important to recognise that the real motivation for building the welfare state had little to do with moral concerns about ensuring greater material equality or social justice, and certainly had nothing to do with creating a socialist Britain. In reality, the welfare state developed as an attempt to mitigate the failures of market society and to contain the threat of class conflict – it was driven by the interests of the state, not the interests of the citizenry. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, certain sections of the liberal intelligentsia became concerned with the apparent injustices of laissez faire capitalism. The social liberal TH Green called on the state to ‘remove all obstacles’ to the individual development of ‘social capacity’, such as those caused by lack of education, ill health and housing (see Thomas Hill Green, Lectures on the Principle of Political Obligation, 1885). Research into poverty and


 


29



 


housing conducted by the social reformer Charles Booth and the young socialist Beatrice Webb, and Seebohm Rowntree’s study of poverty in York, in which he developed the argument that poverty was the result of low pay rather than the moral failings of the poor, all provided the statistical evidence and normative arguments for a developing moral, if paternalistic, concern with poverty. However, these concerns, put forward by various Quakers and liberal reformers, were not sufficient to motivate a fundamental reconceptualisation of the role of the state based on providing welfare and health to all. On their own these arguments did not give rise to a new welfare state. Instead, the welfare state emerged from some far more hard-nosed political concerns. In 1899, the political class was appalled to discover that, despite the apparent willingness of the British working man to enlist to fight in the Second Boer War, almost 25 per cent of volunteers were unfit for military service. In Manchester alone, 8,000 of the 10,000 men who volunteered were rejected on the grounds of ill-health and physical incapacity. Worse still, the difficulties experienced by those working men who did pass the basic fitness test and then struggled to defeat the less-experienced Boers made the elite worry that this might be the beginning of the end of Britain’s military greatness. How could Britain be great if its fighting men were so physically weak? There emerged a heated elite discussion about the degeneration of the British race, and how this might be turned around by improving the basic conditions of the working man. Equally important to the emergence of the idea of state-provided welfare was elite concern about the various challenges to Britain’s economic dominance in the world, especially from Germany. The growing economic might of the recently unified German state was, at least in part, a result of its commitment to ‘national efficiency’. In the 1880s, motivated both by an attempt to create the conditions for maximum productivity and to contain social conflict, Bismarck introduced a range of state measures to provide health, accident, old-age and invalidity insurance for the working classes. These German welfare measures were the model for the Liberal reforms made by governments under Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George: the introduction of free school meals in 1906, the introduction of a means-tested pension in 1908, the establishment of labour exchanges in 1909, and the National Insurance Act of 1911, which introduced a basic level of health insurance and unemployment benefit. Just as for Bismarck, the acceptance by the British ruling class that the state should intervene in society to create the conditions for a more efficient capitalist economy went hand-in-hand with their increasing concern about the growing strength and radicalisation of the labour movement. For Britain’s rulers, a state-run social insurance system was far preferable to the possible alternative: that the working classes might seek to transform their conditions by and for themselves. The project of transforming these early twentieth-century systems of social security and insurance into the institutions of state welfare that we recognise today began with the publication of the Beveridge Report in 1942. Almost immediately, the promise of a society of fully employed, healthy, educated and materially secure citizens – a society that had defeated the ‘giant evils of squalor, ignorance, idleness, want and disease’, as social reformer William Beveridge put it – became central to the ideological drive to keep British troops fighting in the Second World War. They were now seen as fighting towards a new kind of society. The principles and institutions of the welfare state were finally established with the Education Act of 1944, which created free secondary education and the basis for comprehensive schools; the Family Allowance Act of 1945; the National Insurance Act of 1946; and then the National Health Service, which was launched in 1948. Most of these provisions were enacted by the first-ever Labour majority government, but it was the Tory reformer RA ‘Rab’ Butler who introduced the education reforms. Butler and his fellow ‘One Nation’ Tories, who entered government in 1951, had no problem with the welfare model. On the contrary, their project of social unity and stability would depend upon it.


 


30



 


The aim of the Beveridge Report was to keep the capitalist economy afloat, not in any way to undermine it, and to establish the possibility of further growth and expansion. The general, postwar acceptance that society could be dominated to such an extent by the state was doubtless made easier by the total domination of society by the ‘warfare state’ for the previous six years. Importantly for the elites, their pursuit of a new welfare-modelled state allowed for the even greater cooption of the labour movement, individuals and communities into a unified sense of Britain’s role in the world. The point of this brief historical survey is not to suggest that the principles and reality of the welfare state brought no positive benefits. The National Health Service, premised on the idea of providing universal access to healthcare at the point of need, has played a significant role in both eradicating disease and significantly improving the health of the population. The introduction of a comprehensive system of education provided, in theory at least, access to rigorous learning and knowledge to everyone, regardless of class or social privilege. The social provision of material necessities and resources to individuals who, through no fault of their own, were unable to provide for themselves is an expression of the important humanist responsibility that society has to all of its members in times of need. The recognition that poverty, illness and unemployment are social problems, and not the result of individual moral failings, was implicit in the model of welfare that was dominant in Britain from the end of the Second World War to the 1970s, and is an essential insight for anyone concerned with social justice. However, it is important to set the positive benefits of the welfare state against the constant potential for the ever-greater intervention of the state in society, and the consequent domination and structure of dependency that this establishes, to limit the capacity of individuals and communities to take control of their circumstances. By providing a buffer against the worst deprivations caused by poverty, unemployment and social alienation, the welfare state also plays a significant role in encouraging people to accommodate to their lot. The criteria by which any past, current or proposed welfare intervention should be judged is in terms of the capacity that it gives individuals to take greater control of their lives – to live the lives that they want to lead, with the means to take control of the resources that they feel are necessary. On this basis, it would be wrong to dismiss the gains of education, healthcare and material welfare benefits – when people are in need, a decent society should develop mechanisms to meet those needs. But it would be naive to overlook the hardnosed political origins of the welfare state, and its role in de-radicalising and controlling working-class aspiration, and to leave unexplored the increasingly problematic role that a new therapeutic welfare state plays today.

From
welfare
to
therapy

The old aspiration, amongst social reformers at least, to provide social mechanisms that might empower people to take greater control of their lives has been entirely absent in the discussion and development of the welfare state over the past two decades. Indeed, the new ‘enabling state’, as Blair christened it, is a direct consequence of a diminished view of the capabilities of individuals and communities. Where the welfare state was in essence an attempt to head off radical, working-class politics, the motivation for the transformation of the meaning of welfare in recent years has been a semi-conscious attempt by the state to engage with, connect to, and in numerous ways reshape and resocialise the citizenry. Let us consider two examples. The case of children and families One of the most progressive campaigns of the feminist movement in the 1970s and 80s was for the provision of universally accessible childcare on demand. At first sight, it might seem as if this demand has finally been achieved with Sure Start, the New Labour government’s ‘programme to deliver the best start in life for every child by bringing together early education, childcare, health and family support’. Sure Start provides children’s centres (‘service hubs where children under five years old and their families can receive seamless integrated


 


31



 


services and information’), through a guarantee of free ‘early education’ provision for threeand four-year-olds, and the promise of childcare provision for every child between the ages of three and 14, from 8am to 6pm. The only party political disagreement over Sure Start today concerns who will do the most to increase its funding and ability to provides services. However, two insidious ideas underpin the Sure Start initiative. First, the assumption is that most parents are at best ignorant of how to raise their children, and at worst are utterly dysfunctional. The second is a fatalistically deterministic view of child development – an idea that miscreant adults and broken communities are the result of ‘bad parenting’ from the earliest months of a child’s life. Sure Start aims to create healthier children by ‘supporting parents to care for their children both before and after birth’ [my emphasis]. In reality this involves the state teaching parents about the moral ills of smoking and drinking during pregnancy, and ensuring that children are fed the recommended five portions of fruit and veg a day, amongst other things. Sure Start even provides instructions to parents on how they should play with their children. Such intervention undermines the authority and autonomy of parents and encourages them to view child-rearing and family life as an activity which can only be undertaken under the careful guidance of state-sanctioned experts. More than any previous social-service interventions in family life, which were traditionally directed towards a relatively small section of very deprived families, Sure Start aims to engage with families across all social classes. Sure Start assumes that state intervention is essential to produce properly socialised individuals and to keep families together, while ignoring many other problems related to childcare provision, access to decent education and the financial burden of raising children. It is all about therapeutically redirecting the population towards the right way of thinking and behaving and parenting, rather than providing them with the things and finances they might need. Unemployment and incapacity Over the past couple of years, society has been going through a deep economic recession, with the official level of unemployment reaching nearly 2.5million people. Consequently there has been much material insecurity and hardship for a great many individuals. However, in our response to these hardships, we have moved a long way from the period of industrial labour militancy that dominated the recession of the 1970s, and which played a large part in bringing to an end the traditional postwar welfare consensus. As Brendan O’Neill has argued, unemployment has ceased to be a political issue to which we see the possibility of social and political solutions. In response to the current recession, the state is not readying troops of armed men to maintain social order – instead it is training an army of counsellors and therapists to help the newly unemployed cope with their changed circumstances. NHS Direct call-centre operatives have been encouraged to listen out for signs of depression amongst callers who have lost their jobs, while Jobcentres have been given the authority to refer jobseekers for cognitive behavioural therapy, with a promise that such therapy will soon be offered onsite at Jobcentres themselves. These initiatives are only an expansion of the government’s stated intention, planned before the recession, to provide psychological therapies to the unemployed, not simply to help them cope with unemployment, but to help them to ‘develop the confidence’ to get back into work. Unemployment, in other words, is now seen as a problem of individual psychology rather than social and economic organisation. The changing understanding of unemployment, from political failing to individual handicap, is reflected in the fact that of the five million people currently out of work and claiming benefits in the UK, over 50 per cent are drawing Incapacity Benefit – they have been redefined as incapable of working rather than as being denied a job by the current social and economic framework. While political parties do still express concern about the rising bills for the expansion of welfare, behind their rhetoric there is no real attempt to encourage any autonomy or independence. Instead, the mechanisms through which the unemployed will apparently be


 


32



 


‘assisted’ back into work involve an ongoing process of training, mentoring and support, which will continue even once work has been found. In other words, the assumption is that state intervention and support will be needed in order to maintain an individual’s capacity for work and employment. The widely held assumption that many unemployment and incapacity claimants are cynically manipulating the welfare system misses the extent to which individuals have been encouraged by the new welfare state to understand themselves in terms of their physical incapacities and psychological vulnerabilities. That unemployment has come to be understood as a problem of individual incapacity and community attitudes and culture, rather than of social organisation, is expressed in the Conservative Party’s diagnosis that ‘in many parts of the country, worklessness is being passed from generation to generation’. Here, the children of unemployed families are understood as being socialised by a degenerate culture; such children are seen as being less likely to achieve at school and more likely to end up as workless in the future. Like the assumption that the abused child becomes the adult abuser, unemployment is seen to be a psychological problem caused by a failure of appropriate parenting and poor socialisation. In some ways, this takes us back to the old idea of poverty as a moral failing (or in this instance a psychological failing) rather than as a social problem – the new therapeutic state is taking us backwards.

Towards
a
new
future

The idea that society can and should provide material welfare for people who need assistance from time to time is a positive one. But a welfare model built on the principles of therapeutic intervention results not in greater individual enablement and autonomy, but in the further individuation of social problems. This outlook suggests that individuals are generally incapable of organising their lives – and this risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, as individuals really do come to be increasingly dependent upon the state to mediate, regulate and give counsel on the most common and everyday activities. The creation of a society in a condition of such dependency is a truly demoralising waste of people’s lives and energies. However, for the state to try to change this situation, to allow people to act as capable and autonomous individuals, would be to challenge the very foundation upon which the state has sought to build its legitimacy in our post-political climate. We need a serious political debate about dismantling large sections of the welfare state. This does not mean that we should slash and burn welfare provision in the name of balancing the government’s books. It means interrogating how the welfare state has come to have an almost entirely corrosive role upon the individuals and communities who are subject to it. Far from being an ‘enabling state’ as Blair suggested, what we now have is a disabling state. The debate we must initiate needs to move beyond the limited political imagination that dominates both left and right. The state is neither the only institution that can guarantee the wellbeing of the citizenry, nor can we rely on the market consistently to provide for individuals. Rather than understanding the current situation as a reason for despair, we ought to embrace the very positive challenge that rejecting the interventions of the state would force us to confront: how we might begin to build a new set of public institutions and bodies, through which, acting in concert as citizens, we could begin to decide what kinds of welfare provisions we might actually need, and what kind of society we might really want to live in. Those of us with any concern for a better future must not shy away from challenging the ideological underpinnings of therapeutic state interventionism. The current benefits gained from state welfare are not worth the very great social cost of accepting the redefinition of ourselves as individuals who are limited, vulnerable, and generally incapable of managing our lives. James Panton is lecturer in politics at St John’s College, Oxford, and co-founder of the Manifesto Club. Contact James here.


 


33



 


Turning
parents
into
‘partners
of
the
state’

ELECTION
ESSAY:
Thanks
to
New
Labour,
the
family
is
no
longer
seen
as
a
haven
in
 a
heartless
world,
but
as
a
site
of
all
sorts
of
abuse.
In this sixth essay, Jennie Bristow argues that, because it distrusts families and also doubts the ability of the state simply to take over the job of parenting, New Labour has given birth to ‘professionalised parenting’ – with disastrous consequences for family life. ‘[I]t is quite wrong to conclude that families are in decline. This is not my experience and authoritative, independent evidence, some of which is presented in this Paper, shows what I believe most people know for themselves: that all families have their ups and downs, but most people do the best they can to sustain family life for the benefit of their children, sometimes in the face of adversity.’ (Ed Balls, UK secretary of state for children, schools and families, ‘Support for All’ Green Paper, January 2010.) Just when you think New Labour has lost its capacity for surprise, the children’s minister Ed Balls comes out with a statement so straightforward, humane and intuitively correct that it takes your breath away. Parents are not all rubbish, families are not all breaking down, and most people love their children and do their best to muddle through. But then he goes and spoils it all by saying something stupid like: ‘This government’s conviction is that it is both possible and necessary to develop policies to support all families without intruding into the privacy of family life.’ Stupid because family policy, to a greater or lesser extent, has always intruded into the privacy of family life. And also profoundly dishonest. The family policy developed by New Labour has been all about making a concerted attack on the privacy of family life. It claims to be about ‘supporting families’; in reality, it tears them apart.

Four
questions
about
New
Labour’s
family
policy

When the New Labour government came to power in 1997, it catapulted family policy to the top of the political agenda. The 1998 consultation document Supporting Families was explicit in its explanation as to why the privacy of the family was a problem, and why the solution was greater government intervention. The foreword, by then home secretary Jack Straw, noted that families are still important – ‘the foundation on which our communities, our society and our country are built’ – but that they are also ‘under considerable stress’. He went on to acknowledge that families ‘do not want to be lectured or hectored, least of all by politicians’ – yet claimed that they did want a friendly kind of intervention by the state: ‘[W]hat families - all families - have a right to expect from government is support… [They] want clear advice to be available when they need it on everything from their children’s health to their own role as parents.’ The argument behind Supporting Families was that families are in crisis, and that previous governments had neglected their responsibilities by hiding behind the cloak of the privacy of the family. A government wedded to New Labour’s vision of ‘social inclusion’ and models of behavioural conformity intended to play a more explicit role in engaging with families at the level of everyday life, particularly in relation to child-rearing. Parenting classes were the best


 


34



 


known of these initiatives, resulting in the creation of a whole new cadre of ‘parent trainers’, given official status in 2007 by the launch of the government’s £30million National Academy for Parenting Practitioners. The first question to raise about the agenda behind Supporting Families is whether it was parents who wanted ‘clear advice’ from the government on ‘everything from their children’s health to their own role as parents’ – or whether the government had decided that it needed to dispense this advice. Certainly, the provision of parenting classes and the like has not sparked major rebellion amongst parents, and some parents have actively welcomed these initiatives. But New Labour was not elected on the basis that it would really help parents to decide what food to put in their children’s lunchboxes, and desperate mums and dads have not been invading Downing Street demanding clearer parenting advice from the prime minister. Whatever the impetus behind Supporting Families, it cannot be understood in terms of a response to a clear demand from families themselves. The second question about Supporting Families is where the ‘supporting’ stops and the coercion begins. The support to families offered by New Labour was largely of a therapeutic kind, to do with ‘information’, advice and training in ‘parenting skills’, rather than material provision or financial help. In this vein, alongside the offer of voluntary parenting classes came more directly coercive initiatives such as Parenting Orders and other mechanisms designed to make ‘hard to reach’ parents engage with the state if they did not do so of their own accord. In 2005, as part of the launch of the government’s ‘Respect’ agenda to tackle antisocial behaviour, then prime minister Tony Blair spelt out just how much his government had done to transform respect for the privacy of the family into thinly veiled contempt. A few years previously, Blair said, the talk of ‘parenting orders and parenting classes and support for people as parents… would have either seemed somewhat bizarre or dangerous, and indeed there are still people who see this [as] an aspect of the nanny state [and believe we are] interfering with the rights of the individual’. But, he continued: ‘[T]he point is this, we need to give people that support, and we need to do that particularly in circumstances where if we don’t give people that support, and also put pressure on them to face up to their responsibilities as a parent, they end up having an impact on the whole of their local community. So it is not something we can just say, well, that is just up to you as to whether you do this properly or don’t do it properly, because unfortunately the way that you do it makes a difference to the lives of other people.’ In seven years, the carrot of ‘parenting advice’ offered by the government had hardened into a very definite stick. Through parenting orders, argued Blair, ‘Parents themselves can be forced… to accept support and advice on how to bring discipline and rules to their child’s life’. And while the government had to accept that some parents really did not want this kind of ‘support’, they were to be forced to accept it anyway for their own good: ‘[W]hile most parents on these orders can resent them initially, I think often they grow to value the support they receive, and the vast majority indeed do comply with the order.’ The speed at which the New Labour government’s insistence that it just wanted to hold parents’ hands morphed into a full-on defence of issuing parents with court orders and locking them up if they didn’t comply shows the extent to which a touchy-feely therapeutic dynamic is the flipside of heavy-handed law’n’order. On one hand, the authorities give us friendly advice on healthy eating for children and tell us that ‘Every Parent Matters’ when it comes to our kids’ education; on the other hand, parents of truanting children are sent to jail, and fat kids end up on the child protection register. The third question is about the sheer amount of family policy developed over the course of the New Labour government. If, as Ed Balls asserts, families are not in decline and most parents are doing a good job in difficult circumstances, why does the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) obsessively churn out documents that appear to respond to the crisis of parenting and tell us what we should be doing better? When I researched my book, Standing Up To Supernanny, I found that the DCSF website listed 28


 


35



 


new documents published in December 2008 alone – and this was not an atypical month. For the family to be subjected to this avalanche of policy interest implies that there must be a problem. It could be, of course, that Balls’ positive account of the modern family is merely a rhetorical flourish. After all, when Jack Straw said in 1998 that families did not want to be ‘lectured or hectored, least of all by politicians’, this heralded a new era of politicians lecturing and hectoring all of us about everything. A key component of therapy culture is the way that subservience to ‘advice and support’ is garnered through flattery, and New Labour is certainly skilled in using these techniques, promoting the message that the reason it wants to help parents is because we are trying so hard. It could also be that Balls is positive about the family to indicate just what his government has done to support it: the second paragraph of his foreword is dedicated to detailing the measures New Labour has taken to ‘support children and families’ over the past 12 years, and to dwell on continuing problems would be a fairly stark admission of defeat. PR techniques aside, though, the statement that the family is not in decline gives an important clue to the dynamic behind family policy today. What has motivated politicians to burrow ever deeper into the everyday ups and downs of family life is not the crisis of the family so much as the crisis of politics. In an era offering no grand political visions or social alternatives, social policy has come to adopt an increasingly individualised focus. Discussions about healthcare focus on individuals’ lifestyles – their drinking, smoking, eating and exercise habits – while any grander vision for sorting out the National Health Service is conspicuous by its absence. Politicians are obsessed with education, but their big idea is one that obsesses over personalised learning strategies for individual children, and engaging these children’s own parents in the project of their education. It was striking, in the first televised debate between the leaders of the British political parties, that the crisis of care for the elderly was merely recognised by all as a really difficult issue, and the only thing the party leaders could offer by way of a solution was the idea that unpaid carers (that is, family members) should have access to one week’s respite care per year. This paltry policy response indicates the lack of social vision shared by all three party leaders, and also their reluctance to engage in ‘big state’ solutions to issues of care, socialisation and education. This relates to the fourth, and most important, question about the kind of family policy dominating the political agenda today: whether it supports and helps families, or undermines them and corrodes their autonomy.

Explicit
family
policy

New Labour’s approach to family policy was novel, not because it was the first time a government had intervened in family life, but because of the explicit character of this intervention and the therapeutic form that it took. The position traditionally held by the family in modern capitalist society has been one in which its role has largely been taken for granted. The state has related to the family through other institutions, such as the education system and the health service, and has had the power to play a more directly interventionist role in terms of child protection, through social services. Those families engaged with the welfare system have, for the past half-century, been forced to cede some of their privacy and autonomy in return for financial or housing support from the state. But until New Labour, the idea that all families should be directly engaged with the state did not have great purchase. From politicians’ point of view, one of the major benefits of the family is that it has historically absorbed and contained many of the pressures that otherwise would be placed upon society at large, from child-rearing to individuals’ ill-health. If the state were to undermine or appropriate the family’s ability to absorb these pressures privately, a huge extra responsibility would be created for the state: as was clearly recognised in the party leaders’ discussion of elder-care. Therefore it was in the interest of society in general to maintain a private sphere of life, which operated according to its own informal rules and relationships, and which had its own dynamic.


 


36



 


Over the course of the past century, the privatised character of the family attracted criticism from a number of sources. As I explain at length in a previous spiked essay, ‘Why we need a parents’ liberation movement’, the left-wing critique of the family focused on the way that privatising childcare and domestic work formed the basis of women’s oppression, and progressive arguments were made about the liberating potential of socialising these activities. As such political ideals waned, a cultural critique of the family came to the fore, heavily influenced by the radical feminist movement, which saw the problem with the family in terms of male power and men’s behaviour leading to the abuse of women and children, and called for greater state intervention in the family to prevent domestic violence and child abuse. The policy impact of this critique is clear in the landmark inquiries into cases of serious child abuse within the family, from the 1974 Maria Colwell inquiry to the 1985 Jasmine Beckford inquiry to the 2003 inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié. At each stage of this process, the argument was made that the privacy of the family allowed for terrible atrocities to take place ‘behind closed doors’, and that more should be done by the state to monitor and regulate family life. The child protection dynamic was important in gradually increasing the state’s interest in, and surveillance of, family life in the latter part of the twentieth century. However, this was not a straightforward process. The 1988 inquiry into the Cleveland affair, where over 100 children were removed from their families by professionals on (erroneous) suspicion of sexual abuse, and the 1992 Orkney Inquiry, where children were removed from their homes because of (unfounded) suspicions of organised sexual abuse, turned the spotlight away from abusive parents on to the trauma and injustice caused by an over-zealous state taking children away from their parents. Revelations about abusive practices carried out in state-run children’s homes cast further doubt on the idea that the state could provide a kinder, safer alternative to child-rearing than could the family. This ambivalence about the ability of the state to protect children from abuse has continued in recent years, starkly indicated by the criticisms levelled at Haringey council in relation to the deaths of Victoria Climbié in 2000 and ‘Baby P’ in 2007. Unfortunately, the fact that the state has been exposed as an imperfect carer of children has not meant that the family is positively extolled as an alternative. The key outcome of the highprofile child abuse inquiries highlighted here is that both the family and state-run institutions are now viewed as sites of potential damage to children’s wellbeing. The privacy of the family is opened up to question because of what might go on ‘behind closed doors’ – but the state fights shy of directly appropriating the role of parents, for fear of exposing its own weaknesses on this front. The upshot is a strategy of professionalising parents, in which the authorities play a more directly interventionist role within the family through working with parents on the minutiae of child-rearing. This is expressed through the use of a new, and expanding, vocabulary employed by officials to describe parents: as ‘carers’, ‘edu-carers’ and ‘partners’ with the state in the project of child-rearing. Many critics of the current trend towards increasing state intervention into family life articulate their concerns through reference to an increasingly authoritarian ‘nanny state’. But the direction of contemporary family policy is better understood not as the authorities trying to direct family life, but as the state trying to insinuate itself into family relationships. It is not the product of over-confident social policymakers who are making a political argument that they can do a better job than parents; rather it is the consequence of policymakers’ awareness of being out of touch and out of control, attempting to connect with broader society through involving themselves in the informal sphere of the family.

‘Supporting
families’
–
like
a
rope
supports
a
hanging
man

The impetus behind contemporary family policy is not motivated by a crisis of the family, but by a crisis of politics. In the absence of a political vision about how to organise society as a whole, politicians are attempting to get a handle on social policy by engaging with people at


 


37



 


an increasingly intimate level, insinuating themselves into pre-political relations of authority and care. This has profound consequences for the family, both at the level of its institutional role and the lived reality of family life. It should be recognised that family policy does not work. Politicians can try to prescribe childrearing methods, but the ebb and flow of family life means that, whatever their intentions, everybody ends up just muddling through somehow. So even if it were true that children read to for a certain number of minutes each night by their parents were more likely to turn into high-achieving adults, or that children fed a particular diet were less likely to be hyperactive or obese, or that children disciplined according to ‘firm but fair’ reasoning rather than shouting or smacking were less likely to engage in antisocial behaviour, such practices simply cannot be willed into existence by a policy document and an official helpline. The fact that these deterministic assumptions are not true, combined with the amount of money and energy that has been thrown into creating policy on the basis of such rigid attachments to particular parenting practices, means that we can criticise contemporary family policy for being a shocking waste of public resources. However, it is not simply a question of wasting resources. Family policy actively compounds the problems it seeks to tackle, by undermining the already precarious foundations upon which family life is conducted. As Ed Balls asserts, it is not the case that families are somehow failing. For all the tensions and difficulties apparent in the modern family, this remains a space in which parents continue to love, care for and socialise their children, and individuals nurture each other. But as the privacy of the family becomes gradually undermined by a policy dynamic aiming to bring individual family members into a more direct relationship of monitoring and accountability by the state, the family’s ability to continue to play its taken-for-granted role becomes gradually corroded. The form this process takes is one of knock-on effects. For example, parents who are constantly encouraged to question their ability to make decisions about what their children should eat become less confident and more dependent upon official advice and intervention in these decisions. When the state starts providing breakfast clubs in schools on the grounds that it cannot be assumed that children eat a decent breakfast at the start of the school day, this has a subtle effect on the working of the family relationship – both in terms of whose responsibility breakfast is assumed to be, and the way that households begin the school day. Similarly, when the state incites parents to become ‘edu-carers’, and take on board more personal responsibility for their children’s education, this creates new tensions between parents and the teaching profession, where the responsibility for a child’s literacy levels, or emotional wellbeing, becomes blurred. And on it goes. The problem is not that, taken one by one and on its own terms, every family policy measure is a bad one. Many families, including my own, have benefited from initiatives such as breakfast clubs in schools or the (small) part-funding of pre-school childcare, which did not exist under previous governments. Nor is this a problem of New Labour alone. While I have focused here on policy developments over the past 13 years of a New Labour government, it should be remembered that many of New Labour’s ideas had been articulated and developed in the US first. In relation to the forthcoming General Election, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats have no intention of taking a different approach to the family: all parties are fighting over the same terrain of putting families at the top of the political agenda, and arguing for the need to play a more directly interventionist role in the early years of a child’s life. The new politics of the family, pioneered in the UK by New Labour, is endorsed across party lines. And the problem is not that contemporary family policy is necessarily, or directly, having a negative impact on people’s experience of life with children. It has been persuasively argued by some academics and commentators that the cultural expectation upon parents to conform to ever-higher and more rigid ideals of ‘good parenting’ are resulting in a decline of parental confidence and an increase in anxiety, and that this is not a happy story for parents or children (1). It is also the case that parents often resent being bossed around by politicians.


 


38



 


But just as people are disengaged from politics in general, they are often distant from, and cynical about, the dictates of family policy – and among those who are not, many welcome certain forms of therapeutic intervention by the state. To put it another way: most people don’t go to parenting classes, and many of those who do rather like them. As an argument against modern family policy, to say that it is unpopular or unpleasant does not work. Moreover, there is a lot about family life today that is arguably much better and more liberating than was the case in the 1950s or 1970s: for example, the rise in material living standards and the acceptance of working mothers. There was no Golden Age of the family, and there is no convincing argument for going ‘backwards’. All that said, the current direction of family policy poses big problems both for the family as an institution, and for individuals’ lived experiences. The logic of policy developments, from Supporting Families to Support for All to whatever a Conservative government might come up with, is that the family is expected to play its traditional role of raising children and nurturing individuals in a context where this role is continually questioned and undermined. The family is not, as it once was, idealised as a haven in a heartless world: it is presented as the site for all sorts of problems and abuses, and tolerated by a political vision that sees the role of policy in terms of helping families to be less bad. The lack of an ideal of the family provides for a crisis of meaning at the level of those living through it. This exacerbates the tensions within the family between individuals’ roles, as ‘unpaid carers’ of children, spouses and other kin, and their experiences, where individuals are encouraged to worry about the limitations their caring roles have placed upon ‘their own lives’ - and at the same time made to feel that they are not carrying out their caring roles sufficiently well. People can, and do, absorb these tensions to a certain degree – but it comes as little surprise when they then decide that they want out, and attempt to throw the responsibility for their children’s diets or their mother’s care back upon the state. The consequence of this dynamic is that the informal relations of family life become gradually disorganised and formalised. Parents are discouraged from following their instincts and relying on their friends and family for support, and are oriented instead towards officially sanctioned child-rearing methods and sources of advice. This creates a sense of dependence upon the authorities, and incites adults to question, not only how they are looking after their children or elderly relatives, but why they should be doing it at all. In this sense, the trajectory of family policy is destructive of the most fundamental of human relationships – that between parents and children. If politicians genuinely wanted to support families, their best bet would be simply to leave us alone. Or, as the American cultural historian Christopher Lasch put it back in 1997, we should have ‘nothing to do with the official search for a national policy on families. What the family needs is a policy on officials, designed to keep them in their place.’ (2) Jennie Bristow edits the website Parents With Attitude. She is author of Standing Up To Supernanny, and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here. Email Jennie here. Many of the ideas in this essay have been developed in recent discussions with members of the Institute of Ideas Parents’ Forum. Thanks to Jane Sandeman and the other forum members for continuing to pursue these issues. (1) See, for example, Paranoid Parenting, by Frank Furedi, 2001; The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, by Sharon Hays, 1996); Perfect Madness, by Judith Warner, 2006. (2) Women and the Common Life, by Christopher Lasch, 1997


 


39



 


Unfettered
freedom:
the
basis
of
the
Good
Society
ESSAY:
Both
the
political
elite
and
its
critics
believe
there
is
a
conflict
between
 rights
and
responsibilities.
They
could
not
be
more
wrong.
In this seventh essay, Brendan O’Neill analyses the political class’s profound ignorance about freedom. Nothing better illustrates the British political class’s cluelessness about freedom than the fact that they think there is a contradiction between rights and responsibilities. Every contemporary British leader, from Tony Blair to Nick Clegg, has offered some variant of the idea that rights must be carefully balanced with responsibilities, in order that people’s exercise of freedom does not turn them into selfish beings, concerned only with satisfying their own instincts, who forget or discard their responsibility to behave as decent citizens. As one New Labour document puts it, ‘responsibilities provide a balance to those who would take advantage of rights’ (1). What is extraordinary and profoundly revealing about this idea is that, in fact, ‘rights and responsibilities’, or better still freedom and morality, are not contradictory at all. On the contrary, one makes the other: it is the exercise of freedom, and the exercise of freedom alone, which makes us truly responsible individuals, conscious of and engaged with the consequences of our actions. It is the freedom to think for ourselves, to speak as we see fit, and to develop lifestyles of our choosing which allows us to develop a true sense of moral responsibility. And it is the curtailment of our liberties by the contemporary political elite which, ironically, both makes us feel irresponsible and, in a very real way, actually makes us irresponsible. From Blair onwards, the debate about freedom has been framed through the concept of ‘balancing rights and responsibilities’. At New Labour’s annual party conference in 1997, Blair gave an indication of his government’s attitude to the freedom question: individuals must ‘match their rights with responsibilities’, he said, and further still, ‘a decent society is not based on rights. It is based on… the duty to show respect and tolerance to others’ (2). He talked about ensuring that liberty could ‘coexist with community values and social order’, strongly implying that there is a contradiction and potentially even a conflict between ‘liberty’ and ‘social values’ (3). Blair’s outlook – his idea that the state should be the referee between individual liberties and social duties – has defined the debate on freedom for the past 13 years. David Cameron’s Conservative Party likewise accepts that unfettered freedom is a potential enemy of the social good. According to Nick Herbert, a member of Cameron’s shadow cabinet, left unchecked ‘there is a danger that rights become not tools for protecting the individual within society, but advantaging the individual against society’. The Conservatives have proposed replacing the Human Rights Act of 1998, which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British law and which itself contains hundreds of ‘responsibility checks’ on our liberties, with a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities (4). Cameron’s Conservatives have accepted, wholesale, the Blairite idea of using the state to strike a balance between individual liberty and social stability. Herbert says that our response to ‘increasing individualism’, where some people apparently want the freedom to do whatever they please, ‘must surely be the strengthening of society and its bonds and the promotion of responsibility’ (5). This echoes Blair’s attack in 1997 on ‘narrow individualism’ and his promise to counteract it by developing ‘a new balance between the individual and collective in which liberty could coexist with community values’ (6). All our political leaders feel a need to ‘strengthen society’ and they imagine that the best way to do that is by attacking and defeating ‘narrow individualism’ (7). New Labour brought this debate to a head with the Ministry of Justice’s publication last month of a consultation paper titled People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities. The paper explicitly discusses codifying individuals’ responsibilities to each other, the state and society, and explores how our liberties might sometimes have to be


 


40



 


curtailed in order to ensure that we are fulfilling these responsibilities. New Labour is also keen to introduce a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, which, according to the consultation paper, ‘would go some way towards addressing falling standards of behaviour’ and would help ‘entrench the ideal of social responsibility over time’ (8). What is striking about the ‘rights and responsibilities’ debate is that our leaders clearly recognise that there is a social malaise today, a rupture in collective identities… yet the solutions they have put forward to this problem have only made it worse. In diagnosing the problem of a social malaise caused by ‘narrow individualism’ and individuals seeking to ‘take advantage of rights’, they are effectively projecting the profound, historic social and political crises that have generated contemporary atomisation on to the alleged greed and recklessness of individuals, as if people’s desires to live freely are themselves the cause of social decay. And more importantly, in seeking to rectify things though problematising the idea of unchecked liberty, and trying to ‘entrench social responsibility’ from above, they fatally fail to realise that only freedom itself can give rise to any meaningful form of moral and social responsibility. They fail to recognise that freedom is not merely a fairly nice thing that people should enjoy in bite-sized morsels called ‘rights’ after they have fulfilled their social duties and obligations. No, freedom is the creator of moral responsibility, it is a social and moral good, it is in fact the only basis on which a Good Society can be created and sustained. As John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty 150 years ago, ‘The human faculties of perception, judgement, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. The mental and moral, like the muscular powers, are improved only by being used. He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.’ (9) In short, it is through freely choosing – through acting freely – that we exercise perception and judgement and become truly moral and morally responsible beings. Under New Labour’s tyranny of ‘balanced rights and responsibilities’, we are assigned the role, not of morally responsible citizens, but of ape-like imitators of state-decided ‘standards of behaviour’. They have destroyed both liberty and responsibility.

Keeping
our
freedom
in
check

There have been two consequences of the decade-long focus on ‘balancing rights and responsibilities’. Firstly, the idea of ‘responsibilities’ has increasingly been used to undermine our freedoms, where we are effectively told that, yes, we have certain freedoms, but we must exercise them responsibly and cautiously in order not to harm other individuals or damage the fragile social fabric. This is really a new attack on liberty, carried out not by a jealous, jackboot-wearing state that forces us to hand over our liberties, but by a disoriented elite which marshals widespread concerns about social instability as a way of encouraging selfpolicing and timidity amongst the public. And secondly, our era of ‘balanced rights and responsibilities’ has revealed a political elite which can only conceive of responsibility in terms of something which is codified by the authorities and then ‘entrenched’ across society – revealing their spectacular ignorance of what moral responsibility really is. On the first point, with the promotion of ‘responsibilities’ as a necessary check on ‘rights’, what we really have is a new form of state intervention into our freedoms and choices (indeed, even the term ‘rights’, especially in relation to human rights, is not an unproblematic one – so-called ‘rights’, especially strictly checked and regulated ones, can also be used to undermine true liberty today). In the arena of rights and responsibilities, ‘social responsibility’ really means conformism to custom. This is clear from the government’s People and Power consultation paper, which names two important British values as ‘freedom of the person’ and ‘freedom of expression’. However, it says these ‘values’ must be set against our ‘responsibilities’ – which in the instance of these two freedoms include: to ‘be non-judgemental, open and encouraging’; to avoid ‘forcing our opinions on others’; and to ‘accept the consequences of being outspoken’ (10). In short, yes we have the freedom to be left alone and to speak our minds, but we must self-regulate these


 


41



 


freedoms in order to avoid antagonising or even simply offending other people. We are graciously given the right to free speech, but on the condition that we do not say anything too controversial or intemperate. Here, we can see how the interplay between ‘rights and responsibilities’ is one where state-defined responsibilities pretty much eradicate our rights. The consultation paper even floats the idea of making our enjoyment of liberty conditional on our adherence to state-defined social obligations, suggesting that perhaps ‘certain rights should be conditional on responsibilities’ (11). However, the authorities do not need to list our ‘social responsibilities’ in a new legal instrument – because the idea that we have certain responsibilities, and that these responsibilities will inevitably impact on our ability to act and speak freely, is now broadly accepted and institutionalised in all but name. Many of New Labour’s most insidious attacks on our freedoms – to think, to speak, to gather in public spaces, to drink or smoke what we like – have been justified on the basis that we cannot have unfettered freedom and be socially responsible, and that there comes a point when we exercise our freedoms to such ‘extremes’ that our behaviour becomes irresponsible and thus damaging to society. In the arena of speech, the authorities argue that we can have free speech so long as we do not use it irresponsibly. As a 2009 government document on rights and responsibilities put it, we have the ‘responsibility’ not to indulge in ‘abuses of the right of freedom of expression, for example extreme forms of hate speech’ (12). In the arena of ‘anti-social behaviour’, the government has justified its vast system of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders – which involve the use of semi-criminal instruments to curtail the behaviour of specific individuals or groups of individuals – on the basis of ‘restoring civic responsibility’ (13). The ban on smoking in public places is justified by the ‘social responsibility’ not to harm others with our passive smoke. We still have the ‘right to smoke’, says one government document (in our homes, anyway), but we must also ‘accept our responsibilities to other people who do not wish to be affected by passive smoking’ (14). Even worse, in some instances the government implicitly assumes responsibility, not for protecting the social fabric, but for protecting individuals from their own behaviour. In their smoking ban, drinking restrictions and censorship of junk-food advertising, the authorities exercise ‘individual responsibility’ on individuals’ behalf, on the basis that we are too stupid or greedy to do it ourselves. In every case, we are assured that we still have all our rights – the right to speak, gather, smoke and stuff our faces – but are told that in some instances our responsibilities to society must override our ability to exercise those rights. Far from criticising this subtle yet farreaching watering down of our freedoms, the government’s critics accept that ‘rights’ must occasionally be checked by ‘responsibilities’, only they make the case in slightly different language – more duplicitously still, they use the language of rights to attack our rights. Shami Chakrabarti, the head of the civil rights campaign group Liberty, says Britain doesn’t need a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities… because the Human Rights Act of 1998 already keeps our freedoms in check (15). This is true. For example, the Act grants us freedom of expression, but it says that since this freedom ‘carries with it duties and responsibilities’, it ‘may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society’ (16). In other words, we don’t really have freedom of expression. The government’s critics in the human-rights lobby also accept that elite-defined ‘duties and responsibilities’ can and should impede on our liberties. The curtailment of our rights through the idea of ‘social responsibilities’ is really a new form of state denigration of liberty, and one which is well suited to our times. In earlier eras, when there was often a clearer dividing line between sections of the public demanding freedom and a confident state determined to defend its power, the denigration of liberty tended to be executed in a more explicit fashion: through a police state, brute censorship, or new laws restricting movement and association. Today, when there is neither a widespread demand for freedom nor an elite possessed of the wherewithal or even the need to dismantle liberty root and branch, our freedoms can be bargained off in a more informal fashion. The balancing of rights with responsibilities really represents the exploitation of the fear of social instability, of a widespread perception that we are living through, in Tony Blair’s words, a period of ‘social


 


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disintegration’ (17), as a way of blackmailing people into self-policing their speech, behaviour and lifestyles in the name of preserving the status quo. It is the atomisation of the public, and the elite’s instinct for social control as a way of offsetting ‘social disintegration’, which has given rise to this tyranny of ‘balanced rights and responsibilities’.

Codifying
responsibility

The second impact of the doctrine of ‘rights and responsibilities’ has been the denigration of the meaning of moral responsibility. In both their belief that rights and responsibilities are potentially antagonistic elements that must be mediated, and their notion of a conflict between individual liberty (Blair’s ‘narrow individualism’) and social stability (Blair’s ‘community values’), the political classes demonstrate that they have no idea what freedom is, far less why it is the most important value in society. The truth is that, far from being conflicting categories, it is only freedom that can give rise to meaningful responsibility. And far from individuals pursuing their liberties posing some kind of threat to bigger, more important ‘social interests’, it is only free individuals – engaged, choicemaking individuals – who can create the basis for a stable, happy and Good society. One of the most striking things about the contemporary elite is the way it understands responsibility. It cannot conceive of responsibility as anything other than a contractual thing, fashioned and imposed upon communities and individuals by external third parties. It doesn’t understand that responsibility – real, worth-its-name responsibility – comes from experience and engagement, from making choices and learning from the consequences, not from lists of duties drawn up in committee rooms. New Labour has fashioned numerous ‘responsibility contracts’ to govern relations and duties between individuals and public bodies. It has sought to ‘build responsibilities into policy development’ (18). ‘Neighbourhood agreements’ are contracts ‘designed and agreed by the residents and the providers of services in an area’, which cover everything from individuals’ responsibilities in relation to their neighbourhoods (for example, to report any crime they witness) to public bodies’ responsibilities to respond to problems quickly and efficiently (19). ‘Home-school agreements’ outline both a school’s and parents’ ‘respective responsibilities with regard to pupil attendance, behaviour and homework’; here, even parents’ relationships with aspects of their children’s lives become codified (20). There are also contracts outlining individuals’ ‘responsibility to find work’, where in return for improved services from the welfare state, jobseekers agree to ‘make greater efforts to gain employment’ (21). The government has considered further expanding these contract-style lists of responsibilities. In People and Power, it proposed, under the banner of ‘Patriotism’, codifying people’s responsibility to ‘protect important heritage sites’ and to ‘promote a positive image of Britain abroad’. Under the banner of ‘Respect for laws and institutions’, it considered codifying people’s responsibility to ‘better understand British institutions’. And under the banner of ‘Manners/politeness’, it floated the idea of introducing some form of contractual stipulation that we should all ‘treat others with respect, kindness and empathy’ and ‘employ politeness/courtesy’ (22). (Such patronising official reminders of our social responsibilities are already at work in London, where mayoral propaganda posters on public transport remind us to avoid eating smelly food, turn down our iPods, smile at people, and use polite language such as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’). The political elite’s attempt to magic up a sense of social responsibility through contracts is a product of two things: first, its instinctive recognition that there has been a fraying of collective, social outlooks in recent years; and second, its belief that ordinary people, left to their own devices, are incapable of negotiating their relationships and interactions with public bodies, communities, each other and even their own children. The creeping codification of responsibilities becomes a kind of crutch for society, for a real public realm, and the only way the political elite believes it is possible to create social dynamism and community interaction, so that everything from respecting the National Gallery to reporting crimes to being polite to reading to your child becomes an explicitly spelled-out responsibility. What the elite doesn’t


 


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recognise is that its codification of responsibilities, and its corresponding denigration of the ‘narrow individualism’ of liberty, is doing nothing to mend society and a great deal to damage it further. As John Stuart Mill understood very well, we only become fully responsible beings, fully human indeed, when we make decisions and take actions freely rather than under pressure of censure, shame, or of doing ‘the expected thing’. ‘Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing’, said Mill. Mill argued that our moral faculties – our ability to exercise reason, to learn from experience, and to assume greater responsibility both for ourselves and in relation to society – can only work properly when we are free. ‘The faculties are called into no exercise by doing a thing merely because others do it, no more than by believing a thing only because others believe it… [However], he who chooses his plan for himself employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision.’ (23) In short, it is only a free man who can assume true responsibility, precisely because he is free and is exercising his moral judgement rather than adhering to the pre-decided ‘standards of behaviour’ of an external force. Yes, in exercising their moral faculties people will sometimes make mistakes. Yet Mill argued that it is better to be a free man who makes errors than a cosseted man who always does what is customarily expected of him and is considered to be ‘the right thing’: ‘[T]hough individuals may not do the particular thing so well, on the average, as the officers of government, it is nevertheless desirable that it should be done by them, rather than by the government, as a means to their own mental education – a mode of strengthening their active faculties, exercising their judgment, and giving them a familiar knowledge of the subjects with which they are thus left to deal.’ (24) Today’s elite could never countenance such a thing – leaving people to organise their lives and relationships as they and their communities see fit, in the interests of expanding their own ‘mental education’ and ‘active faculties’ – and instead draws up codes for every social possibility and interaction. As to the idea that too much individual liberty is a threat to social solidarity, Mill argued that in fact society is vastly improved by being made up of strong-willed, determined, even selfinterested members. The prejudice against what Blair called ‘narrow individualism’ is widespread today, amongst both the elite and its critics. Human rights activists look down their noses at people who complain about not being able to smoke in pubs or drink on trains or eat what they want without feeling guilty, accusing them of having ‘petty’ demands. One human-rights campaigner says, ‘You may have the right to do whatever you want to your body – like continue drinking even when you’re drunk, for example – but what if that makes you violent towards someone else? Rights and responsibilities go hand-in-hand and should not be used and abused for trivial, petty wants.’ (25) But these ‘trivial, petty wants’ are a key part of what it means to be free – and society ultimately benefits from allowing us to decide for ourselves how to live our lives. As Mill said: ‘Whoever thinks that individuality of desires and impulses should not be encouraged to unfold itself must maintain that society has no need of strong natures – is not the better for containing many persons who have much character – and that a high general average of energy is not desirable.’ (26) Society should not fear strong individual impulses, but allow them to flourish, said Mill: ‘The same strong susceptibilities which make the personal impulses vivid and powerful, are also the source from whence are generated the most passionate love of virtue… It is through the cultivation of these, that society both does its duty and protects its interests: not by rejecting the stuff of which heroes are made, because it knows not how to make them.’ (27) In contrast, today the political elite seeks to neuter the individual in the name of protecting society, not realising that a society composed of weak, cosseted individuals – where ‘the mind itself is bowed to the yoke’, as Mill put it – is a society that will almost certainly lack spirit and dynamism and which few people will be interested in


 


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signing up to. ‘The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it’, said Mill. Amongst both the political elite and its influential critics, there’s a powerful disdain today for true liberty, for the exercise of individual subjectivity, for the right of individuals to think and speak and associate in ways that they and their social networks find agreeable, useful, enlightening or simply fun. And it is this elite disdain for people’s free exercise of their moral faculties which is itself degrading society and robbing people of any semblance of moral authority and responsibility.

Conclusion

In many different ways, New Labour’s creation of an insidious culture of unfreedom, of external intervention into almost every area of our lives, has diminished our ability to take moral responsibility. The system of anti-social behaviour orders actually discourages individuals and communities from resolving problems of bad behaviour and taking responsibility for their neighbourhoods. In creating a new form of punishment designed to target specific out-ofcontrol or simply naughty individuals, the authorities implicitly invite individuals to seek external arbitration of local problems. Individual and community initiative come to be replaced by the watchful eye and heavy hand of the external arbiter. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, New Labour’s Stalinist piece of legislation requiring every adult who works with children to submit to a criminal records background check, diminishes adult responsibility in relation to the care and education of the next generation. Today we get to work with children, not on the basis of our pluck, knowledge or determination to lead and enthuse youth, but on the grounds that we have been okayed – effectively licensed – by the authorities. Our responsibility towards, and authority over, young people is no longer based on our experience or internal drive, but on a nod from the bureaucratic arbiters of adult interaction with young people. Even in relation to something like alcohol consumption, officialdom’s illiberalism appears to have had an impact on people’s ability to assume meaningful responsibility. It is frequently commented on that young Britons seem to drink in a more reckless and ostentatiously drunken fashion than earlier generations did. This is likely to be a result of the fact that, thanks to New Labour’s various anti-drinking initiatives, new rules and regulations in pubs, and its treatment of any young person found drinking in public as a criminal, there are fewer and fewer ways for young people to be socialised into the world of adult drinking. Effectively excluded from the adult world of pubs, and continually warned that drinking anything more than three pints will turn them into complete and utter wrecks, it is not surprising that young people lack the moral and intellectual means through which to negotiate the world of booze today. And on it goes. Again and again, from the home to the workplace to the public realm, our responsibility is undermined precisely because our liberties are curtailed. The more constraints that are put on our thought and behaviour, the more difficult it becomes for people to take full and proper and satisfying responsibility for their lives and their experiences. Not a single one of the political parties in the running for our votes on 6 May understands what freedom means or why it is so important. They don’t understand that freedom is good for individuals, allowing us to live more independently and less burdensomely, and is also good for society, tying individuals together through free association, shared experience, and having to work out for ourselves what we want our society to look like. This means that whoever gets into Downing Street, the first thing we should demand of them is that they completely withdraw the state from our personal lives, homes and pubs and reverse every single attack on freedom made by the New Labour government. Because as we know from the past 13 years, to live by their petty rules is no life at all. Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.


 


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(1) People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities, Ministry of Justice, March 2010 (2) Quoted in Citizenships, Contingency and the Countryside: Rights, Culture, Land and the Environment, Gavin Parker, Routledge, 2002 (3) See John Major, Tony Blair and a Conflict of Leadership, Michael Foley, Manchester University Press, 2002 (4) Conservative Party Speeches: Nick Herbert: Rights without responsibilities - a decade of the Human Rights Act, 24 November 2008 (5) Conservative Party Speeches: Nick Herbert: Rights without responsibilities - a decade of the Human Rights Act, 24 November 2008 (6) See John Major, Tony Blair and a Conflict of Leadership, Michael Foley, Manchester University Press, 2002 (7) See John Major, Tony Blair and a Conflict of Leadership, Michael Foley, Manchester University Press, 2002 (8) People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities, Ministry of Justice, March 2010 (9) On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, 1859: read it in full here. (10) People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities, Ministry of Justice, March 2010 (11) People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities, Ministry of Justice, March 2010 (12) Rights and Responsibilities: Developing our Constitutional Framework, Ministry of Justice, March 2009 (13) My vision for Britain, Tony Blair, Observer, 10 November 2002 (14) What is the Care Value Base?, Lewisham Local Council, March 2008 (15) Interview: Shami Chakrabarti, Guardian, 10 December 2005 (16) UK Human Rights Act 1998 (17) My vision for Britain, Tony Blair, Observer, 10 November 2002 (18) People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities, Ministry of Justice, March 2010 (19) These and other examples of contracts are discussed in People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities, Ministry of Justice, March 2010 (20) These and other examples of contracts are discussed in People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities, Ministry of Justice, March 2010 (21) These and other examples of contracts are discussed in People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities, Ministry of Justice, March 2010 (22) These and other examples of contracts are discussed in People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities, Ministry of Justice, March 2010 (23) On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, 1859: read it in full here.


 


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(24) On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, 1859: read it in full here. (25) Individual Vs Society’s Rights, Ice & Fire: Exploring Human Rights Stories Through Performance, 18 February 2010 (26) On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, 1859: read it in full here. (27) On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, 1859: read it in full here.


 


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Public
health
and
the
obsession
with
behaviour
ESSAY:
Recent
thinking
on
health
policy
has
been
driven
by
two
myths:
that
bad
 health
is
caused
by
bad
habits,
and
that
government
can
promote
good
health
by
 changing
our
behaviour.

In this eighth essay, Dr Michael Fitzpatrick says that in the sphere of health the Tories are planning to replace New Labour’s ‘nanny state’ with a ‘nudge state’ – a development which would damage our liberty and dignity even further. ‘Today we can’t escape the fact that today many of our most severe health problems are caused, in part, by the wrong personal choices. Obesity, binge-drinking, smoking and drug addiction are putting millions of lives at risk and costing our health services billions a year. So getting to grips with them requires an altogether different approach to the one we’ve seen before. We need to promote more responsible behaviour and encourage people to make the right choices about what they eat, drink and do in their leisure time.’ (David Cameron, foreword, A Healthier Nation, Policy Green Paper No.12, Conservative Party.) Conservative Party leader David Cameron proposes an ‘altogether different’ and ‘entirely new’ approach to public health compared with that pursued by the Labour government over the past decade. In his foreword to the policy green paper that provides the basis for the Conservative Party election manifesto commitment to relabel the Department of Health as the Department for Public Health, Cameron emphasises that ‘we must think practically about how to help people to take more responsibility for their own health’. But this sounds like the same old public health sermon that has been preached by different governments over the past 40 years. Indeed, the Labour Party manifesto proclaims a similar commitment to ‘preventative health care’, insisting that ‘we all have a responsibility to look after our own health, supported by our family and our employer’. So, what is new and different about the Conservative approach to public health? The central theme of A Healthier Nation is that Tory policy will be guided by ‘cutting-edge science and research’ in the spheres of ‘social psychology and behavioural economics’ (or alternatively from ‘cognitive science and behavioural psychology’, all terms are readily interchangeable). Official resort to the latest psychological fad (usually imported from the US) is not particularly novel: this has been a key feature of a range of New Labour therapeutic initiatives, including Sure Start parenting programmes, the ‘We Need To Talk’ campaign for ‘improved access to psychological therapies’, and the promotion of ‘social and emotional aspects of learning’ in schools. But before looking more closely at the politicians’ preoccupation with the use of psychological techniques to manipulate behaviour, let’s first consider some of the assumptions underlying Cameron’s public health policy.

The
myth
of
a
public
health
crisis

The notion that deviant individual behaviour is a major cause of disease is central to contemporary public health and it is endorsed by all the big political parties. But is it true? The most striking change in the health of the nation in the years that I have been a general practitioner in London has been increasing longevity. Last year, the practice I am part of welcomed three more patients as centenarians. It is extraordinary that our ageing patients have not only survived numerous threats to decimate the nation (AIDS, BSE, SARS, bird flu, pandemic flu), but they have also lived through decades of steadily rising obesity and alcohol consumption. No doubt the decline in smoking from the 1960s onwards has saved many from


 


48



 


a premature death, but even the persistence of a hard core of smokers has not deterred the general improvement in both the duration and quality of life of older people. Closer inspection of the behaviours chosen by David Cameron as major contributors to the burden of ill-health reveals a highly arbitrary selection. In the mounting panic about obesity over the past decade, both the scale and consequences of individual weight gain have been grossly exaggerated. There are relatively small numbers of individuals whose weight is a serious threat to their health, but for the vast majority of people who are moderately overweight, this is unlikely to have significant consequences for their health. Though some young people may drink excessively and cause a public nuisance, this is more a matter for the licensing and public order authorities than for doctors. There has been an increase in alcohol-related liver disease and other problems associated with prolonged high consumption, but these are still on a much smaller scale than in other European countries. Drug addiction is another social problem – but a much smaller one – and in my 20 years in an inner-city practice, one that has not significantly increased in size. Furthermore, the links between particular diseases and the deviant behaviours identified by Cameron are weak. For example, it is widely assumed that coronary heart disease is strongly linked to ‘unhealthy diets’ and obesity. Yet the number of deaths from heart attacks has been steadily declining over the past 50 years – during which diets high in supposedly lethal sugars, fats and salt combined in all sorts of so-called ‘junk foods’ have become increasingly popular. These are also the decades of the couch potato, in which people are supposed to have assumed sedentary lifestyles and shunned physical exertions. It is clear that factors other than diet and exercise, notably genetics, possibly infections, are more important than behavioural contributors to heart disease. It is true that, as people live longer and die less from circulatory diseases, more people seem to be getting cancer. But, apart from lung cancer, the mortality from which has been declining for decades, no other common cancer is strongly associated with a behavioural cause. How then can we explain Cameron’s selection of ‘our most severe health problems’ on which public health policy should focus? Why not, for example, choose some of the neurological and rheumatological problems, such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, connective tissue disorders and many more that constitute a substantial disease burden for our ageing population and a major challenge for the National Health Service (NHS), both in hospitals and in primary care? Why not, for another example, focus on chronic mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar affective disorder, which affect large numbers of people and have major consequences for affected families and the wider society? It is evident that Cameron’s choice has little to do with health, but is more a political selection arising out of prejudice against the sorts of people who engage in the sorts of activities that would be increasingly stigmatised under a new Tory government (as indeed they have been under New Labour). People who are overweight, appear drunk in public places, smoke cigarettes, use heroin, have become objects of public disgust and professional condescension and would remain so under a Cameron government.

The
failed
assault
on
behaviour

In their emphasis on links between behaviour and disease, politicians assume that publichealth authorities have reliable techniques for achieving the behaviour changes they believe will improve the health of the nation. But this is a triumph of wishful thinking over experience. For at least half a century – longer in the US – doctors and other health professionals have been telling patients that their health would benefit from eating less and exercising more. This has clearly been a spectacularly unsuccessful intervention in terms of influencing diet and activity (though, as we have seen, this has not deterred dramatic improvements in health). Take a more specific health-promotion intervention: the drive to persuade children to eat ‘five a day’ portions of fruit and vegetables. Despite nationwide propaganda and major schoolbased programmes promoting this policy, the proportion of children reaching this target has


 


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remained steady at around one in five over the past five years, after an earlier increase. But not to worry! Recent research shows that ‘five a day’ confers only marginal benefits in terms of cancer prevention – confirming earlier studies casting doubt on wider health benefits (see Bofetta et al). The focus of government health policy on behaviour reflects a wider transformation of the relationship between the state and the individual. The concept of behaviour is traditionally associated with children and animals, often in the context of psychological experimentation. In place of the active subject of democratic citizenship, the behavioural approach assumes an individual who is the passive object of official policy. Instead of an independent agent playing an active role in society, the citizen is assumed to be ignorant and immature, requiring expert professional guidance. The self-determining individual is reduced to being the target of official propaganda and political manipulation. In his book Dread, American public health researcher Philip Alcabes traces the origin of the contemporary culture of public health back to the response to the emergence of AIDS in the 1980s, which he characterises as the first ‘behavioural epidemic’: ‘The turn from risk group to risk behaviour was a sign of an important change in thinking, a behavioural turn, wherein behaviour as risk became behaviour as cause. Before the advent of AIDS, never had the entirety of disease prevention policy been to tell people what they should stop doing… In the AIDS era, behaviour control was disease control.’ Alcabes shows how this approach led to the ‘new moralism’ of safe sex – and the neglect of the various forms of blood-borne transmission of HIV, which offered no scope for moralising. Alcabes also shows how the ‘behavioural turn’ in response to a real infectious disease in the 1980s was consolidated in response to ‘imaginary epidemics’, such as ‘bioterrorism’, from the 1990s onwards. He singles out the obesity scare as the archetypal postmodern ‘epidemic’ which ‘plays on fantasies of mayhem and misgivings about our habits’. Depicted as ‘the fault of individuals’ poor choices, the failure to opt for the healthy lifestyle’, obesity is ‘an easy canvas on which to paint our psychic unease, our difficulties in achieving personal goals, or our sense that we have become lazy – even though no study on the topic of body mass and psychic impairment shows any clear connection’. Nevertheless, the panic over childhood obesity has contributed to the notion of childhood as ‘a period of both intense vulnerability and grave toxicity to society – despite the lack of evidence of widespread harm’. The concept of childhood obesity as an epidemic or risk leads us to ‘create administrative solutions to manage our children’s behaviour’.

Nudges
and
networks

The distinctive feature of Conservative Party’s approach to public health is its acknowledgement of the failure of past attempts to change behaviour in the cause of health (of course, these are associated with the years of New Labour government). Thus, the Tories’ public-health Green Paper endorses recent judgements by medical authorities that propaganda on the dangers of drinking alcohol has been ineffective. The familiar response to (numerous) studies revealing that health promotion policies do not achieve their objectives is to demand more of the same and that everybody involved should try harder – while also proposing more coercive interventions, such as more punitive taxation, more bans and proscriptions. But while there are plenty of such proposals in the Conservative document, its claim to novelty is its reliance on the insights of recent popular psychology books such as Connected: The Amazing Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives and Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness. The sole insight of Connected, the joint work of a Harvard physician and a Californian political scientist, is that individuals are influenced by social factors: ‘People do not have complete control over their own choices.’ But the authors’ ‘social network’ perspective treats individuals as passive objects who receive and transmit behaviours as though they were an infectious virus (though even the spread of the most infectious virus is influenced by specific individual and social factors). The results of supposedly groundbreaking academic inquiries appear banal. For example, the authors tell us that ‘psychological research suggests that feelings of loneliness occur when there is a discrepancy between our desire for connection to others and


 


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the actual connections we have’. Or in other words, ‘people with more friends are less likely to experience loneliness’. When it comes to practical measures, the authors boldly propose ‘a new foundation for public health’ that offers Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous as models. One of their few specific proposals is a ‘creative alternative’ to current vaccination policy based on immunising ‘the acquaintances of randomly selected individuals’. This strategy is based on a mathematical model that suggests that ‘acquaintances have more links and are more central to the network than are the randomly chosen people who named them’. The authors suggest that ‘a choice informed by network science could be 700 per cent more effective and efficient’. But this model takes no account of the fact that most immunisations are aimed at a highly selected population (mainly babies) who have a very limited circle of ‘acquaintances’. The concept of Nudge, written by a behavioural economist and a law professor based in Chicago, is that governments and employers should make self-conscious efforts to steer the choices of their citizens and workers in ways that improve their lives. They describe themselves as ‘liberal paternalists’ who reject bans and mandates in favour of ‘weak, soft, non-intrusive’ measures to create a ‘choice architecture’ that can ‘influence people’s behaviour in order to make their lives longer, healthier, and better’. The most familiar illustration of this approach is the fly incorporated into the ceramic of airport urinals, providing careless men with something to aim at – and thereby at a stroke reducing ‘spillage’ by 80 per cent. However, the relevance of this example to the subsequent discussion of the Medicare subsidy for prescription drugs and the controversy over explicit consent or mandated choice in relation to organ donation is not readily apparent. The ‘nudge’ that appears most appealing to Tory public health strategists is the ‘dollar a day’ scheme piloted in North Carolina, under which teenage girls receive $1 for every day that they avoid becoming pregnant. A programme along similar lines in the UK offers pregnant women supermarket vouchers (exchangeable for any commodity but alcohol and tobacco) in return for abstinence from cigarettes: early results suggest that this is both cheaper and more effective than established ‘smoking cessation’ programmes that rely on ‘nicotine replacement’ and group therapies. Such crass economic incentives are more likely to invite fraud than produce long-term changes in behaviour.

Not‐so‐magical
thinking

In A Healthier Nation, Conservative public-health advisers claim that ‘there are some hugely successful strategies now emerging from cognitive science and behavioural psychology’. Perhaps they have in mind the theories of ‘positive psychology’ promoted by the psychologist and self-help guru Martin Seligman. These theories enjoyed a major influence in the era of speculative finance capital in the US, in what Barbara Ehrenreich refers to as ‘the decade of magical thinking’. These are the sort of notions used to justify charismatic leadership in corporate rulers and to help them in ‘managing the despair’ of the millions of workers who lost their jobs in restructuring (aptly satirised by the character played by George Clooney in Up in the Air). It is ironic that at the very time that ‘positive psychology’ began to be imported into the UK – under the authority of New Labour happiness tsar Lord Richard Layard – its influence reached a ‘manic crescendo’ in the US subprime mortgage crisis that triggered the global financial collapse of 2007. A similar combination of self-delusion and wishful thinking of the sort that united creditors and debtors and dragged the world into recession is now offered in another package of cod psychology, as a model for public health. References: P Basham, J Luik, Fat kids? Obesity: epidemic and myth, Democracy Institute, 2009 M Gard, J Wright, The Obesity Epidemic: science, morality and ideology, Routledge, 2005 P Campos, The Obesity Myth, Gotham 2004.


 


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P Boffetta, E Couto, J Wichmann et al, ‘Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Overall Cancer Risk in the European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC)’, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 6 April 2010 B Ehrenreich, Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America And The World, Granta, 2009 R Thaler & CR Sunstein, Nudge: improving decisions about health,wealth and happiness, Penguin, 2009 N Christakis, J Fowler, Connected: the amazing power of social networks and how they shape our lives, Harper 2010. P Alcabes, Dread: how fear and fantasy have fuelled epidemics from the black death to avian flu, Public Affairs, 2009. ‘A Healthier Nation’, Policy Green Paper No.12, Conservative Party


 


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The
trouble
with
‘anti‐capitalism’
ELECTION
ESSAY:
contemporary
so‐called
‘anti‐capitalism’
–
which
is
underpinned
 by
a
powerful
misanthropy
–
is
the
main
barrier
to
progress
today.
In this ninth and final essay in the series, Sean Collins argues that contemporary socalled ‘anti-capitalism’ – which is underpinned by a powerful misanthropy – is the main barrier to progress today. The world economy has experienced one of its most severe downturns – arguably the most severe since that of the 1930s. A true recovery has yet to arrive, and problems in Greece and elsewhere indicate that there could be a ‘double dip’ or some kind of reversion. And yet, despite this severity, the economic crisis has not led to a serious debate in the US, the UK or anywhere else in the West about causes of the crisis, and how economies can be put on a path to growth. In the US, economic recovery is slow and unemployment remains high at nearly 10 per cent. There is a thick atmosphere of fatalism about what can be done about it: most hope the normal recovery mechanisms will eventually kick in, but few express confidence. To the extent that the crisis is discussed, it is centred on the financial world. But the firefighting of late 2008 and early 2009 is now long gone, and there is no sense of urgency about financial reform, nor any thorough discussion about the issue. Most recently, political leaders have shown a preference to pillory Goldman Sachs instead: the spectacle of hauling up Goldman representatives before a Senate hearing has been the political equivalent of putting the investment bankers in medieval stocks and throwing filth at them. Britain has suffered one of the more drastic downturns of the major economies, and its economy is more weighted towards the City and finance than others. And so a General Election would seem to be the perfect occasion to air competing views about the economic problems of today and the way forward. But no. As the coverage on spiked has detailed, the election has been an uninspiring affair, with little discussion of substance or alternative visions regarding the economy or other issues. The election discussion in the British media, to the extent that it is taking place, is about cutting the fiscal deficit. All three major parties agree on the need to address the deficit in the abstract and the only ‘debate’ is about how soon to do so. None of the parties is providing details of how to do it. But, given that the crisis has revealed significant structural problems in the British economy, even a fully detailed discussion of the deficit would be far from sufficient. As spiked contributor Rob Killick recently wrote: ‘The question of how to get the economy growing again has been barely mentioned during the course of the election campaign. There are some populist, but essentially tinkering, supply-side proposals to get the sick back to work. Noises have been made about getting the banks to lend to business, without any detail of how this could be done. But none of the parties has any serious plan for how to help create a dynamic UK economy.’ The recent crisis has shown that there are no automatic responses to economic downturns. Recessions are not necessarily radicalising, nor do they always create a desire for progress. How we experience a crisis – how we seek to explain it and attempt to address it – is mediated by our understanding of society’s potential. And indeed, it is the prevailing political


 


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and social views in the years leading up to 2008 that have influenced how the recession has been interpreted and re-presented back to us.

A
superficial
discussion
of
the
crisis

The most predominant explanations of the economic crisis have to do with individual greed, irresponsible borrowing, excessive consumption and financiers’ reckless speculation. Time and again, bankers and their bonuses are presented as proof of greed run amok and as the cause of the crisis. Denunciation of big bonuses is meant to denote a profound understanding of what went wrong. In last week’s televised leaders’ debate in Britain there were plenty of references to Sir Fred Goodwin and other bankers. On the other side of the Atlantic, Naomi Klein says that the banks’ culture is ‘an orgy of greed’. There is a strong moralistic streak running through the discussion of greedy bankers, which is reinforced by a condemnation of the apparently decadent practices among them – spending on booze, nights out with lapdancers, and so on. In turn, an attack on the bonus culture has easily slipped over into an attack on a materialistic culture generally. For example, home-owners also stand accused of bringing on the financial crisis, by taking on mortgages that they couldn’t afford. In his book Reset, Kurt Andersen argues that everyone is to blame. Americans developed ‘an unfettered zeal for individual getting and spending’ in the decades before the crisis. ‘For 20 years we’ve had Homer Simpson’s spot-on caricature of the quintessential American: childish, irresponsible, wilfully oblivious, fat and happy’ (for more on Andersen, see here). From this perspective, the recession is in fact welcomed as a salutary lesson for us all. The hope is that we will now constrain our impulses: less spending, less going out, and more time spent with the family – getting reacquainted with the ‘important things in life’. Greens in particular hope that the crisis will lead us to consume less and leave a smaller carbon footprint. Devin Leonard concludes his review of the book Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution with the following: ‘If there was ever a time to ponder the long-term consequences of our spending habits, it’s in the wake of the worst economic crisis in decades, which was fuelled by rampant consumer borrowing. Is it possible that we could save the planet and restore the economy at the same time?’ In prior crises, such as the 1930s, capitalism was faulted for not meeting needs, for not providing enough growth, jobs and income. The focus was on production – specifically the lack of expanding productive capacity – and the discussion was posed in terms of structural economic issues. If critics attacked excessive consumption, they focused on the consumption of the rich. In contrast, today’s discussion is exceptionally superficial. It is preoccupied with individual behaviour and there is very little exploration of underlying economic forces. The current attacks on bankers is a caricature of criticism: they have much in common with late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century populist prejudices about financiers and Jewish people. And what is truly unique today is the fact that criticisms of consumption blame us all, not just the rich. We’re all complicit, or so they say. In the past, the lack of mass consuming power was a problem that needed to be addressed – today’s critics say the issue is that we’ve got too much consuming power.

How
‘anti‐capitalism’
undermines
a
critical
perspective

Why are the prevailing perceptions of the crisis so superficial and backward? In a nutshell, because ‘anti-capitalist’ values now predominate in Western societies. I put ‘anti-capitalist’ in quote marks because this critique is not in fact against capitalism or the market economy per se; it is really against any form of economy that seeks to promote dynamic growth and development. And it is the old left that has been at the forefront of promoting this perspective. Traditionally, the left has used a crisis to expose the limitations of the market, while the right has usually sought to defend the system. But in the past two decades the left has become


 


54



 


anti-development, anti-consumption and misanthropic, which has had the effect of redirecting criticism away from the market itself, and towards blaming humanity in general. The shift towards an anti-development and anti-technology outlook, especially among socalled progressives, has affected the interpretation of the recession. Prior to the financial crash, the left criticised capitalism for being too dynamic, as if it could increase production and consumption limitlessly. In this respect, the left held as many illusions as the most staunchly pro-capitalist ideologue. This excessive dynamism was said to have negative consequences in many areas, especially the environment. Those who argued that capitalism was too dynamic were caught off-guard by the financial crisis. They were not sure how to respond, given that the downturn was a stark reminder of the pain caused by a lack of economic growth and employment. But rather than argue that the crisis showed the need for consistent development, the left pivoted to reinterpret the crisis as the result of too much growth, too fast. Their implicit ideal is ‘sustainable development’, or stasis, rather than dynamism, and the crisis was claimed to be the result of losing the proper balance. Similarly, the common understanding of the recession has been coloured by a pre-existing anti-consumption attitude. In the years running up to the arrival of the financial crisis, the left in particular criticised so-called excessive consumption. Their attack was sometimes directed against the higher earners, such as ‘fat cat’ executives, but more often than not against the broader consumer society. The masses’ desire to purchase more was now considered a bad thing, as it distorted values and would make people unhappy. This anti-consumer prejudice was then utilised to explain the recession. Rather than argue that the recession had revealed that capitalism could not consistently raise living standards, the crash was put down to a futile search to keep up with the Joneses, especially for bigger and better houses. The crisis was a ‘credit crunch’, and the working class in particular was now criticised for this expanding credit. The reality is that workers’ real incomes had stagnated, and many people sought to take advantage of low interest rates to borrow so as to maintain their living standards. But their critics adopted a moralistic posture and admonished people for trying to live beyond their means. Finally, an underlying misanthropic viewpoint has also contributed to a distorted discussion of the crisis. Recent years have seen a return of the ideas of the population scaremonger Thomas Malthus and his notion of economic limits. This outlook is most clearly expressed by environmentalists, who see people’s impact on the world as one-sidedly destructive. The consequence of this outlook is to argue that there are too many people on the planet and we should stop procreating. For example, after reviewing a variety of possible individual acts that could help the environment, Lisa Hymas writes in Grist: ‘But even in aggregate, all of these moves don’t come close to the impact of not bringing new human beings – particularly new Americans – into the world.’ The stress on limits has been used to interpret the recession as coming about as the result of seeking to extend beyond natural boundaries. Moreover, this anti-human outlook has made it more readily accepted that ‘we only have ourselves to blame’. It also means that a crisis that has brought much pain and suffering can be perversely greeted as a welcome development, since austerity conditions will mean there are fewer people taking cheap flights, driving cars on vacations, and otherwise spoiling Earth. The misanthropic emphasis on flawed humans is also expressed via conspiracy theories. Such theories hold that wicked individuals are colluding behind the scenes and that people cannot be trusted. Historically, conspiracy theories were the province of the reactionary right, but in recent times the left has adopted them in a variety of areas, including health (for example, vaccines) and terrorism (for example, the 9/11 ‘truth’). A conspiracy of bankers is now one of the main explanations given for understanding the crisis. In the US, this has taken the form of bashing Goldman Sachs. Again, left-leaning commentators are taking the lead. Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi is the most rabidly anti-


 


55



 


Goldman, and his description of the firm – ‘a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money’ – is now repeated ad nauseum by others. But a vampire squid was an image used by Nazis to describe Jewish financiers, and the description of Goldman as a ‘tribe’ is also an anti-Semitic trope. Taibbi may not be consciously anti-Semitic, but he is definitely conspiratorial. (And, in common with many writers on the liberal-left, he exhibits little desire to try to understand how financial markets actually work.) The problem with focusing on conspiracies surrounding one firm like Goldman is not only that they are they wrong, but that they also direct our attention towards supposedly wicked individuals, and in turn towards our flawed human nature. The focus on corrupt individuals suggests that what is legal and allowed, what goes on in front of us, is otherwise okay, if not for nefarious goings-on behind the scenes. In reality, what is legal and apparent is the problem. Also, in a conspiratorial account that picks on one institution like Goldman, other groups that contributed to the crisis – such as politicians – are effectively absolved, and the broader systemic problems of the economy are dismissed. All in all, from an anti-development, anti-consumption and misanthropic perspective, an economic crisis is not really something that provokes or requires a change in how society is organised. You might, as some have, even see benefits to a recession. Such an outlook undermines an active, aggressive response to overcome economic crisis conditions.

Using
the
state
to
keep
a
lid
on
growth

Compared with the popular perceptions of the crisis – which, as I have mentioned, focus on greedy bankers, senseless borrowers and mindless consumers – the discussion among economists, government officials and other professionals appears to be much more sophisticated. And yet a closer look shows that the same low horizons and anti-humanist tendencies found in the more widely held conversations can also be found in the economic arena, albeit expressed in more lofty theoretical terms. With the arrival of the financial crisis, liberal-left politicians and economists proclaimed a new era had arrived. ‘Laissez-faire is finished’, said French President Nicholas Sarkozy. In his book Freefall, American economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote that the September 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers ‘may be to market fundamentalism… what the fall of the Berlin Wall was to communism’. Such strong pronouncements, with the references to the end of the free market, suggest that the debate is about the fundamentals of the economic system. However, these economists are, as they say in the American West, all hat and no cattle. They do not back up their words with a robust alternative. Most liberal economists would identify themselves as neo-Keynesians, and yet the worst economic crisis since the 1930s is not enough for them to put forward a solid defence of Keynesian intervention. Yes, government bailouts in the West have been influenced by Keynesianism, but these have only been introduced as short-term rescue plans and stimulus packages, not as a counter-model for the longer term. Having gone into deficit to shore up sinking ships, government officials are now resigned to just wait and hope their efforts work. Slumps in the past tended to lead to discussions about structural, ‘macro’ issues regarding the entire economy. But in response to this crisis, liberal economists have focused narrowly on the financial sphere. Of course, it was the financial panic in 2008 that set off a chain reaction, but the job of an economist should be to understand all of the economy – both the ‘real’ and financial sectors. Instead, fixating on finance means that economists’ efforts have been mainly spent on arguing for greater restrictions on financial practices. While certain regulations may be reasonable, this approach does not address why the economies in the US and UK became ‘financialised’ in the first place – that is, so skewed towards finance relative to industry. The preoccupation with finance mirrors the popular view of reckless bankers. And, for all their high-minded theories, liberal economists can be as populist as any in denouncing greedy bankers.


 


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Moreover, the discussion of what is wrong with finance is itself revealing. Here, liberal economists have criticised their conservative opponents’ theories of finance, such as Efficient Market Hypothesis and Rational Expectations Hypothesis. While these theories uphold the concept of a rational economic man, the liberal counter-critique emphasises that the various players in the financial world act irrationally. While the ‘rational’ theories are abstract and open to criticism, the liberal approach is even worse, because it assumes that people are essentially senseless. Some who stress irrationality, like economic historian Robert Skidelsky and behavioural economist Robert Schiller, see themselves as following the footsteps of Keynes’ writings about ‘animal spirits’. However, this is a retro-fitting of Keynes to suit today’s concerns. Keynes was more interested in structural categories than in narrow investigations of investor psychology. The trendy discussion of irrational behaviour in economics is one of the main ways that the general anti-humanist tendency in society expresses itself in economic theory. Liberals’ calls for greater state intervention may appear on the surface to be a return to older social-democratic ideas, but in fact they represent something new. The impulse behind them is different: whereas in the past, the state was said to be deployed as a vehicle to enhance growth, now the emphasis is on state control of the economy, trying to keep a lid on destabilising propensities of capitalism, especially in finance. In this way, this stress on state regulation is more akin to the idealisation of a static economy promoted by greens than prior notions of state intervention.

Disorientation
on
the
right

For conservative economists, such as those at the ‘Chicago school’ (based at the University of Chicago), the crisis has led to soul-searching. According to their theories, a financial meltdown should not have happened. Many have since accepted that the bailouts were necessary and recognise that this has damaged the integrity of their free-market arguments. Richard Posner is one who has done an about-turn. Posner, who is both a leading judge and a prominent Chicago-based economic commentator, calls the crisis ‘a failure of capitalism’. He now argues that banking is inherently unstable and requires state monitoring and controls. It is often not fully appreciated how disorienting the recession has been for the elite, especially for those on the right. Some say that Bush administration’s increase in deficits undermined the right’s credibility, but I would argue that its embrace of the bailouts were even more damaging. Before 2008, the strident free-market ideology of the Thatcher and Reagan variety had long gone, and it was clear that the state remained a major component of the economy. But the market was still upheld as the arbiter of efficiency, for both conservatives and ‘Third Way’ liberals. Consequently, the financial panic was confounding for many. As Gillian Tett wrote earlier this year in the Financial Times: ‘Not only is the financial system plagued with losses of a scale that nobody foresaw, but the pillars of faith on which this new financial capitalism were built have all but collapsed. That has left everyone from finance minister or central banker to small investor or pension holder bereft of an intellectual compass, dazed and confused.’ Tett quotes the head of Merrill Lynch’s Moscow operations, Bernie Sucher, as saying: ‘The last time I ever saw anything like this, in terms of the sense of disorientation and loss, was among my friends [in Russia] when the Soviet Union broke up.’ Conservatives have been hypersensitive as to what they view as attacks on the capitalist system and strides towards socialism. They take Sarkozy and Stiglitz at their word, and believe the market economy is under siege. But as noted, liberal economists’ reforms are tepid and focused on finance, and they assume the market continues to play a central role. (And even if liberals did return to old-style Keynesianism, that theory/policy was an attempt to save capitalism, as Bruce Bartlett, in The New American Economy, and others on the right have admitted.) Conservatives assert that the ‘future of capitalism’ is now at stake, but this says much more about their insecurity and defensiveness than anything else. The market economy faces no real opposition, and yet the market’s defenders feel threatened. In its leader column that concluded its ‘future of capitalism’ series, the Financial Times appeared to take a more balanced view: ‘Capitalism comes in many varieties and the cavalier


 


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thesis that less regulation is always better has been exposed as false; but the main features of the liberal market economy – private property rights, smart but even-handed and armslength regulation, and democratic politics – are uncontested. Capitalism’s worst crisis in 70 years has not prompted a serious alternative vision of society.’ This statement encapsulates simultaneously both the strength and weakness of pro-capitalist arguments today. On the plus side, as the FT correctly notes, capitalism really has no alternative. But on the minus side, this defence of the market is a negative one – it goes ‘uncontested’ – instead of one that is based on a robust, positive case for its benefits. A large part of the reason for the right’s disarray is that few appreciate that the debate has changed. In attacking ‘socialism’, conservatives are knocking down a straw man. What they do not recognise is that the prevailing critique attacks development and progress in general. It only sometimes takes the form of a criticism of the market, but even when it does, it is not really about the market mechanism itself but about economic growth. Historically – at least in the twentieth century – capitalists and capitalism have not been affirmed in the wider culture. As Nick Gillespie points out in Reason, there have been few procapitalist narratives: ‘Can we at least acknowledge that there is something fabulously odd about a culture that depends on capitalism but that will not ever acknowledge it in the stories it tells itself about itself?’ But in today’s culture, with many espousing ‘sustainability’ as the ideal, this is true to an even greater extent. If stasis is the goal, capitalism will no doubt be blamed for creating excess and a consumerist culture (even, ironically, when it is in crisis, and can’t consistently deliver the goods), as well as being considered morally suspect. Hit by unfamiliar criticisms, conservatives are now struggling with how to respond. Some are very defensive. It was noteworthy that the Texas Board of Education, which is generally conservative and has undue influence on the country’s school textbooks, recently decided to remove the word ‘capitalism’ from their texts. ‘Let’s face it, capitalism does have a negative connotation’, said one conservative member. At the theoretical level, Yuval Levin calls for recovering the case for capitalism’ in National Affairs. To Levin’s credit, he recognises that populist noises complaining about government ‘takeovers’ from certain corners are not the same as an argument in defence of capitalism. But his case for capitalism is based on a restoration of moral virtues (he looks to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments). This suggests that he believes the criticism of capitalism’s moral shortcomings is one that needs to be answered, and thus the argument is essentially defensive in nature.

Challenging
the
consensus

Different sections of society have responded differently to the crisis. As I have noted, liberals and conservatives appear, on the surface, to be divided on the future of capitalism, but both share a lack of confidence. The differences between them are real enough, but it is worth noting that these differences conceal the fact that the bottom line is a consensus on a number of key points. Specifically, there is agreement that we should: Avoid examining production. All sides share a preoccupation with finance and banking, and are at least circumspect, if not downright hostile, towards consumption. But little effort is devoted by any to a reconsideration of production. The slamming of bankers serves to displace blame away from politicians (who ought to get at least if not more blame) as well as to obscure how serious the underlying problems of the productive sphere are. If bankers’ bonuses truly are the worst aspect of the crisis, then there is no need for a thoroughgoing debate about the economy – all you need to do is adopt a quick-fix solution like higher taxes. Accept austerity to come. All sides agree that public spending must be cut, and that living standards in general must be restrained if not reduced, in the future. There is some debate about timing, but not about the necessity. This is because, long before the credit crunch arrived, voices ranging from the greens to the Tories argued that people’s material desires had got out of hand. Some might emphasise how consumption damages the planet, others how it harms family or community life. When the crisis hit, it was then easier to blame people for irresponsible borrowing. Now that we’re more than a year-and-a-half past the meltdown,


 


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the calls for restraint and austerity build on this prior message. This is why there is no real debate about austerity, why it is not contentious. Adopt a fearful, victim mentality. For some time, we have lived in a culture that is fearful. The greatest doom-mongering emanates from the left, but both left and right agree that the world has become an exceedingly dangerous place. In this context, individuals are portrayed as vulnerable and weak victims. This widespread cultural mood has had implications for how the economic crisis is interpreted. For example, Michael Moore, in his movie Capitalism: A Love Story, presents loans as so complicated that the average worker could not possibly understand them. Thus, working people are presented as hapless victims of unscrupulous moneylenders, rather than autonomous individuals who can take responsibility for their personal finances, as well as defend themselves if someone tries to take advantage of them. This emphasis on a complex world that leaves us vulnerable encourages a fatalistic and passive posture. If we feel powerless, there is no point in trying to debate and understand the economy, since we’ll never be able to influence its direction. Challenging the current consensus means confronting each of these points: insisting on the importance of production (and innovation in production); resisting austerity and focusing on expansion of the economy, rather than lowering horizons; and contesting the depiction of the world as unknowable and fearful, and encouraging an active, problem-solving attitude towards economic issues. Truly to challenge this consensus, we have to recognise that ‘anti-capitalism’ is now the biggest barrier to progress. True progressives ought now to focus on challenging ‘anticapitalism’ and the poisonous, anti-humanist notions that underpin it, if we are to have any hope of achieving the great aim of moving society forward to a time of plenty. Against those who preach the politics of limits, we should argue that the possibilities for humanity are limitless. The good news is that the economic constraints we face are largely of our own making, and represent first and foremost a failure of imagination – which means that it is within our control to do something about all this. Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his new blog, The American Situation, here.


 


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