Recent Meikle’s Blogs looking at regulation (REGULATION AND INSPECTION: ALL FUR COAT AND NO KNICKERS, posted 16th December 2009), reaction to the recent severe weather in Britain (Risky Weather: posted 19th January) and last week’s blog examining the current moral panic regarding alcohol use (The Trouble with Alcohol: posted 26thJanuary), have had two underlying sub-texts. One is an almost obsessive concern with risk aversion and a desire, amounting almost to a crusade, to impose on individuals, ideal ways of living and behaviour regulated and scrupulously monitored by a bevy of agencies, ordinances, rules, protocols and procedures.

Two weeks ago, in my blog on the weather, I spoke of the tendency of modern western societies to become increasingly infantilised; of losing the balance, essential for any grown-up society, between on the one hand risk minimisation and imposing rules and ‘correct’ norms of behaviour on people, and on the other hand allowing some measure of risk-taking which stimulates creativity and growth but allows individuals to take responsibility for their own lives including dealing with the consequences of the choices that they make. This lack of balance, which particularly affects the area of social policy, has been given some pejorative labels, the most popular of which is, of course, “political correctness”. Another common term applied to it is the “nanny state”. Most recently and controversially, emanating from the USA, is the term “Liberal Fascism”.

At first such a term appears absurd, if not contradictory. No two political actors could be further removed than one espousing liberal principles of inclusion, diversity, anti-discrimination, equality, healthy living etc and the other, proverbial fascist red in tooth and claw spitting out hatred, xenophobia, racism, extolling violence as a legitimate tool of political conduct to deal with opposing views, all wrapped up in an iron fist of utter intolerance. No two ends could be further removed, surely, than the desire for a multicultural society and the road that led to Auschwitz?

The term fascist, of course, is today almost always synonymous with Nazi Germany. Swastikas, jackboots, Hitler, cattle-trucks and the rest of the grizzly apparatus of genocide are the terrible icons one immediately associates with fascism. So to label someone or some group ‘fascist’ is to effectively accuse them of wanting to bring about something akin to what Nazi Germany was like circa 1943. No matter how much I personally disagree with people who go over the top about risk-taking or appear obsessed about equalities and diversities or want us all to be eating five-a-day with fruit juice and never, ever getting drunk, I cannot in my wildest dreams picture them as Nazis.

But fascism wasn’t just confined to Nazi Germany. It encompassed regimes like Mussolini’s Italy (which predated Hitler’s rise to power by 11 years) and Spain under Franco. And while these regimes were not ‘benign’ by democratic standards, they were less vicious and violent, certainly less avowedly racist than their Nazi counterpart. What they did have in common was intolerance of opposition, a notion of the state as all-powerful and the imposition of a common set of ‘correct’ values, rules, norms and standards of behaviour which all of society had to adhere to and which was personified in the personality cult of the leader. In other words, they aspired to total regulation of society and what we would nowadays refer to as the micro-management of the behaviour of each and every individual within them.

Fascists weren’t alone in their pretensions to regulate the conduct and value base of society and individuals. Ostensibly, coming from a radically different end of the political spectrum, communism aimed at a harmonious, classless society, premised on equality, where wealth and privilege would cease and all would live in amity with their fellow humankind. Anyone opposing this was excoriated as a ‘class enemy’ or ‘enemy of the people’ wishing to uphold exploitation and oppression. Similarly, opposing the aims and values of fascist regimes rendered one liable to arrest and imprisonment, and vilified as ‘asocial’ or dangerously out of step with ‘correct’ thinking. In both cases there was an entire machinery of plaint courts and officialdom, secret police and camps to enforce ‘correct’ thinking.

By contrast liberal-social democracy, the political system under which Britain has been governed since the extension of the franchise in the early part of the twentieth century, eschews any grand totalising attempts to rule people’s conduct and behaviour for the ends of some ultimate political aim. It aims at limited government to achieve feasible, pragmatic, achievable outcomes or reforms, based on a commitment to democracy and democratic values including tolerance of opposing views and ways of life (unless they threaten democracy itself) and the upholding of individuals freedoms and rights enshrined as civil liberties within the framework of  political stability and economic prosperity (the combination of political instability and economic crisis have usually been the greatest threats to liberal-social democracy). These have been the characteristic hallmarks of liberal social democracy. The result has not been perfect but a well honed system based on messy compromises between competing aims which has brought about for most of its citizens the freest and safest societies in history. Certainly, liberal social democracy never sought to micro-manage or regulate people’s behaviour.

Consequently, the great political debates within liberal-social democratic societies  have been about whether to increase the welfare state or take some parts of industry into public ownership or, on the contrary, to increase competition or lower taxes to take just a few examples. These were macro policies and individuals would shape their own lives around them, but it was no part of the state’s or the governing political parties’ remit to prescribe to them how to live those lives as long as it did not transgress the law. As such, fascism and communism sought to achieve grand totalising solutions for society and individuals based on a visionary, messianic view of politics while liberal social democracy strove at most to muddle through with incremental reform to advance realistic increases in most people’s prosperity and happiness without shouting at them.

However, disturbingly, over the past three decades, supported by all major political parties in almost all western societies, policies and practices are being pursued which do seek to regulate and micro-manage people’s lives, that are prescriptive about what people should do in their private lives and of the social norms they must adhere to, that abhors messy compromises and strives to realise grand, totalising solutions, and does end up shouting at people. In short, liberal-social democracy has been progressively subverted by tendencies which would be more at home within the grand, visionary schemes pursued by those political philosophies and systems antagonistic to it such as fascism and communism.

Take one important aspect of this. Informing every organisation and institution in the social care field, in education, local government, central government, the voluntary sector and now beginning to take firm hold in the media, and large parts of the private sector, are a set of principles or values (sometime referred to as “core values”) which have come to define how those organisations and institutions and the people who work within them should behave, relate to and interact with each other. They include a commitment to equality of opportunity, diversity, being non-judgemental, inclusion, being person-centred or focused on the needs and rights of the individual, having ‘positive regard’ for people, working in partnership etc.. They have also entered the political lexicon and become the stock-in-trade of all political parties to demonstrate their anti-elitist credentials and how keen they are to engage with the populace at large.

Yet for all their liberal good intentions, their progressive appearance, prominence and constant repetition these terms are actually quite illusory, shallow and chronically ambiguous. They are comparable to a verbal equivalent of smoke and mirrors: promising a lot, highly aspirational, indicating great intentions and commitments, yet revealing nothing and promising and committing to nothing. In effect, they are devoid of any substance, or have been rendered so by currant usage. But, crucially, in lacking precision and depth, they can be stressed, emphasised and promulgated widely without any fear of being held to accountability or measured against them.

We shall be looking at and critically examining these values and principles in the weeks to come, but for now it is important to note that, as well as having an all-embracing scope but little substance, these terms share another distinctive characteristic. Attempts to critically evaluate them, to place each under forensic analysis to measure their worth and effectiveness can be instantly discredited by attacking such criticism as supportive of or actually complicit in… well racism, elitism, exploitation, inequality, oppression, sexism. In short, to borrow an old phrase if you’re not with us you’re against us. This is the classic fallacy of negation: a flawed reasoning which assumes that any critique of a proposition means that you support the opposite of that proposition. Thus, any attempt, for example, to question the extent and scope of anti-discrimination laws and regulations within the workplace or any other setting, can be instantly branded and dismissed as indicating active supportive for discrimination. Being potentially vilified as racist, sexist, elitist etc is a powerful disincentive to speak out, particularly within a corporate or organisational context.

This is analogous to the situation that prevailed under fascist and communist regimes whereby any criticism, no matter how mild, of the prevailing orthodoxy was treated as heresy and inevitably exposed the critic and his or her family to a midnight knock on the door and processing through a judicial conveyor belt that ended up in some God-forsaken prison or camp or even up against a wall.

Now I know that no-one in Britain, or any other modern democracy, ends up against a wall, or in prison, least of all gets their door kicked in by secret police goons because they called into question a focus on equalities or dared to say that being non-judgemental is not only unrealistic, but downright stupid and dangerous in practice (more on this in a future blog). But there are more subtle forms of censorship. Dare to raise your head above the parapet in any organisation, especially in the public sector, and raise doubts about the validity and rationale behind policies and rules enforcing these values and you risk being depicted as racist, homophobic, misogynist etc, but you also may also jeopardise your career prospects, chances of promotion, ultimately your livelihood. And, if you work in an organisation that depends on the public sector, then funding will be dependent on your organisation demonstrating its commitment to these values. There are self-imposed gulags of the mind as well as the real physical ones.

Let us summarise so far. We have a situation where an all-pervasive risk averse/risk minimisation culture interacts with, feeds off and encourages an all-embracing regulatory environment which in turn supports, polices and monitors a set of values and principles which are sweeping in scope, but lacking in depth and which attempts to enforce norms and rules of behaviour among the population at large in all manner of settings, but these values are themselves virtually immune from criticism. It is important to remember and emphasise that every little aspect of this, every small part of it, is motivated by the best of intentions and the most benign liberal principals. Cumulatively, however, it results in civil society being wrapped up in a stultifying blanket of regulation and rules and the attempted enforcement of social norms and modes of behaviour which are fundamentally inimical to the free flow of ideas, tolerance and dissent and also crucially stifles innovation and creativity.

It is this unique conjoining of benign liberal ideals with sweeping regulation enforced by law and powerful social norms providing support for a set of values which are not open to question that has given rise to the otherwise implausible notion of ‘liberal fascism’. Whether this is an accurate way to portray our contemporary social and political situation is still open to question. But the values we have talked about are only one aspect of this. In next week’s blog I’ll be looking at three actual, live social policies, inspired from the most benign, liberal, progressive and humane of motives which are currently trying to be implemented in Scotland, but which are ultimately unworkable, unrealistic and at the same time effectively off-limits to criticism.