Over the past two weeks in Meikle’s Blog I have been looking at how ostensibly altruistic, benign liberal values and principles, have become enmeshed with grand totalising solutions and attempts to enforce norms and values, in effect to micro-manage people’s behaviour and interactions with each other, on a scale unprecedented in liberal-democratic societies. This combination has distinct echoes of the totalitarian impulses which prevailed in firmly non-democratic political systems such as that under fascist and communist regimes. For that reason, this current socio-political trend within modern liberal-democracies has been described by some as “liberal-fascism”. And over the course of the past two weeks we have been attempting to ascertain how accurate or legitimate this description is of our current situation, or is it really just over-hyped nonsense to call it thus?
I shall finally try to answer that question in this week’s blog, but at the risk of stretching the reader’s patience to breaking point, I must ask for some further considerations to be taken into account before we can reasonably answer the question.
The grand totalising solutions, we have been talking about, are based on the attempt to realise the core values and principles of equality and diversity, anti-discrimination, multi-culturalism, healthy living, of being non-judgemental, inclusive and person-centred. These are now intrinsic to all aspects of public policy (they’re implicit in the injunctions to end homelessness, eradicate prostitution and cut down on heavy drinking which we spoke about last week in relation to social policy at both national and local government level in Scotland), are reflected in legislation and are now a strong determinant of how both organisations and individuals must conduct themselves. A society based firmly on equality and stripped bare of all manifestations of discrimination is what is trying to be achieved here. But we must repeat again: no matter how worthy, good and right these values and principles are no society has ever succeeded in achieving them without lapsing into dictatorial behaviour itself; within a democracy there is a limit as to how far society can go in enforcing right thinking and right behaviour on people.
What is more arresting, as we have also alluded to over the past few weeks, is that these attempts at grand totalising solutions are virtually off the radar in terms of party political debate. In almost all western societies, not least Britain, these values and principles, or rather the scope, level and impact of their enforcement on organisations and people are not the subject of policy debate both within and between mainstream political parties. No senior party figure wants to be seen questioning the extent of legislation or the drift of policy in this area for fear of being labelled racist, sexist, homophobic or whatever. This is the terrible effect of the fears, self-censorship and closure of debate that can be wreaked by the fallacy of negation (see Meikle’s Blog: Liberal Fascism Part One: posted 3rd February 2010.).
And it has two further insidious consequences. It confines debate on the extent and scope of the values and principles to the political fringe and because the values and principles are liberal, progressive even left-wing that means vocal opposition comes almost exclusively from the far right. This has the effect of producing a self-reinforcing consensus: the questioning of the enforcement of liberal values appears to only come from jack-booted, bigoted, rabid, hate-filled, swastika adorned BNP supporting skinheads or lower middle-class Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph reading ultra-reactionaries; QED.
The other consequence is that grand totalising solutions and the accompanying policies attempting to put them into practice, along with the entire gamut of legislation, rules and procedures enforcing liberal values and principles and the impact they have on people’s daily lives are not subject to proper debate and scrutiny whether in parliament or any other democratic forum. There has, rightly, been concerns raised that the levels of surveillance and detention powers which the state has accumulated has not been properly discussed or been subject to adequate accountability as this has been subordinated by the imperative to combat terrorism. Equally, the impact of the enforcement of all the legislation and regulation attempting to implement liberal values and principles have not been properly debated or effectively scrutinised: in both cases the result is a severe democratic deficit.
What then are the defining features of our current socio-political landscape that are both cause and effect of trying to realise grand totalising solutions based on unquestioned, largely un-scrutinised, almost sacrosanct values and principles? I would propose that there are six defining features.
First, is the emphasis on risk minimisation-come-risk aversion. This has three further manifestations which are rife in our contemporary situation: A focus on health and safety, a culture of fear principally stemming from concerns about terrorism after 9/11 in New York and 7/7 in London and the elevation of the concept of vulnerability from a passing, temporary state to being a permanent existential condition for entire categories of people. Health and safety concerns permeate every aspect of our daily lives, we are constantly in dread of an imminent terrorist attack and we now regard groups such as the elderly, children and young people and women, amongst many others, as incredibly vulnerable unless we are ever vigilant on their behalf. This is not to downplay or minimise real risks that can affect people in all three areas, but the crucial characteristic here is to conflate and even confuse possible risks with probable risks. Anything is possible but the fact is we live (at least here in the west) in the safest, healthiest and freest societies in human history where the probability of any of these dreadful things happening to any one individual is actually highly improbable. Of course attempting to reduce risk to near zero from the conduct of human affairs in all its messy, confused dimensions is an attempted grand totalising solution which is inherently incapable of being achieved, but brings in its wake serious measures which stifle the very creativity, innovation and yes risk-taking which are vital to sustain a truly free and mature society.
Second, attempts at enforcing values and norms on people’s behaviour, alongside trying to achieve grand totalising solutions and minimise and avert risk, necessitates huge levels of regulation. Inspection and regulation dominate every aspect of British life, ubiquitous in every sphere. And, of course, what flows from regulation is a massive increase in, thirdly, bureaucracy. The result of this vastly expanded regulatory environment of unprecedented dimension, scope and extent .is that Britain today is more bureaucratised, subject to greater regulation and controls, with far greater levels of state intrusion and government interference into people’s lives than at any other period in its history, short of wartime. Anyone who has ever tried to set up their own business, create a new charity afresh, attempted to implement a new initiative, or carry out even the most innocuous of activities, whether voluntary or for commercial purposes, will be aware that Britain is a nation hamstrung by regulation, planning controls, financial controls, laws and a thousand other obstacles that must be overcome/adhered to/met before any activity can get off the ground. In short we are immersed in a regulatory and bureaucratic guddle epitomised by the alphabet soup of agencies, bodies and quangos which infest every aspect of public life in the UK and often have overlapping areas of competence and constantly try to expand their domain.
The fourth defining feature is that of contradiction. The rights of the individual, the emphasis on equality, inclusion, multi-culturalism, diversity, respect for all backgrounds, the drive to end poverty co-exists with privatisation, outsourcing, downsizing, the emergence of huge corporate enterprises, the commercialisation of the public sector, the profit motive as one of the most exalted ethos within society, vast disparities in incomes, increasing surveillance and loss of civic freedoms etc.
Contradiction primarily issues from the fact that since the mid nineteen-nineties until the onset of the severe economic crisis of 2008, the situation in contemporary western society has been that of a liberal left agenda or value base predominating in the social and cultural sphere, while a right-wing agenda has predominated in the economic sphere. This has resulted in what I have described elsewhere (unpublished manuscript: The Bi-polar Society or how we lost our common sense) as the emergence of a Bipolar Society where the term “bi-polar” means simultaneously attempting to put into practice mutually contradictory policies with consequences that can lead to situations and scenarios which are simply contrary to common sense.
One of the by-products of the bi-polar society is that the proponents of grand totalising solutions revert to the fifth defining feature of our contemporary landscape: that is policy morphs into ideology. Ideologies are instantly transformable into dogmas and creeds, impervious to refutation by real events. They seek to create ideal states and strive to create perfection: As a consequence of this, ideologies also crucially lack balance or more prosaically an understanding and acceptance of the messy compromises and trade offs that characterises progress and development in the real world. Much policy making, particularly in the social care field, and many facets of current liberal-social democracy have become so idealistic in tone as to be analogous to an ideology. These include the setting of ideal goals, targets, modes of conduct and behaviour in areas such as equalities, diversities and anti-discrimination, or the alleviation and minimising of risk that are effectively impossible to attain and could only be met in some perfect ideal setting. One of the hallmarks of the alliance of idealism with ideology is the inability to be flexible or to compromise; flexibility and compromise are identified as being comparable to active promotion of whatever it is proponents of the ideology are against.
The sixth and final defining feature of our current situation is that of displacement, a term I have borrowed loosely from psychology where it refers to a transfer of a focus of emotions from one object or person to another. In this context it refers to a curious phenomenon that has occurred in British politics over the past thirty years. The 1990s onward has witnessed the ascent to power in politics and government, public administration, the media and public relations, the law, private industry, the burgeoning charitable sector and other fields of the ‘70s generation: mainly middle class ‘baby-boomers’ born in the late 1950s or early 1960s, whether educated at public or private schools who went on to enjoy free access to higher education during the 1970s (thus the “70s generation) taking advantage of the expansion in universities and colleges begun in the 1960s.
The education they would have received at that time in most British colleges or universities within degree courses in the social sciences, the arts or the humanities would have been taught from a distinctively left-wing or overtly Marxist perspective. This syllabus would have emphasised inequality and power relations, class and class struggle as the major focus for division and struggle in society and the motivating force for historical change, and nurture as against nature as the primary factor influencing human behaviour. Inspired by this formative influence, they would have desired a society premised on equality, free of poverty and exploitation and espousing Universalist values of social justice and the moral equality of all human beings.
As the eighties’ progressed and as there was little sign of any glimmer of revolutionary politics taking centre-stage in UK politics, indeed the reverse with the consistent re-election of a conservative government and the ascendancy of Thatcherism, many of the ‘70s’ generation, now beginning to take their place in the labour market, moved beyond ‘traditional’ left-wing concerns such as strike action and solidarity with the working class to achieve a worker’s state and a planned socialist economy to more cultural, what a later period would call ‘inclusive’ issues, such as anti-discrimination, anti-racism, the rights of ethnic minorities, gay people and women as well as agitation for equality, multiculturalism and universal human rights.
Slowly but surely many of the ‘70s’ generation’ began to discard the vestiges of their former far-left socialist principles. They made their peace with capitalism, did not regard the working class as an agent of progressive change and no longer advocated for state control of industry and a planned economy as both appeared to be electorally unviable and undesirable. Instead they focused increasingly on the social justice aspects of their political beliefs. New Labour’s victory in 1997 put the final seal of approval on this admixture of free market capitalism, political liberalism, social justice and espousal of Universalist human values, which only started to unravel with the recession of 2008. In government and politics, with the coming to power of New Labour, but also as directors, chief executives and in other positions of influence in organisations and institutions throughout the public, private and voluntary sectors, the ‘70’s generation’ became the new power base in British society. But the former emphasis on grand revolutionary strategies for remoulding society wasn’t entirely ditched. Instead the aspirations for the realisation of universal, ‘inclusive’, cultural rights was now displaced from centre-focus in the economic sphere to its new locale, backed up by legislation, regulations, rules and procedures within the socio-political sphere.
Thus the old appetite for planning, control and direction of people and organisations which is inherent in left-wing politics is now displaced towards social policy and culture whilst, crucially, leaving globalised, free-market capitalism intact, if not exactly thriving. This places the attempted grand totalising solutions in social care and social policy generally in an even weaker predicament. As we saw last week in our brief overview of three attempted social care interventions in Scotland, shorn of any attempts to allow for state intervention in the economy in order to redistribute wealth and income or to ensure the allocation of all the resources the state can command, the proponents of grand totalising solutions are attempting to combat macro social problems with micro means: the resources are pitiful compared to the aims and intentions.
So, finally, does all this, equate to liberal-fascism? No, for the simple reason as I outlined in the first blog in this series, the term ‘fascism’ is too associated with extreme right-wing movements, epitomised of course by the Nazis, whose politics were (and are) bound up with hatred, violence and virulent xenophobia. A desire for multi-culturalism, for universal human rights, for inclusion, for equality of all people, for the elimination of every and all forms of discrimination is the antithesis of the narrow, race based (or at least extreme nationalist) focus of fascism in its various forms.
But, to use Dr Johnson’s oft quoted aphorism, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and we shouldn’t forget that the other half of totalitarian politics in the 20th century, communism, was premised on universal freedoms, equality and the dignity of man: there was just the little problem of eliminating the nasty bourgeoisie and their allies before we got there. And this is the point, totalitarian politics can issue from the noblest of motives as with communism. The desire to control behaviour, to impose norms, to demarcate what is offensive and not offensive and to back this up with a entire infrastructure of laws, rules and procedures which impinge on every aspect of people’s lives, no matter how well-intentioned the original impetus behind them, ends up being every bit as oppressive and contrary to the free flow of human intercourse as in most totalitarian societies. For this reason, I believe a more accurate description of our current situation is pseudo-benign liberal totalism (PBLT). I apologise I cannot come up with anything snappier, but I believe this term captures better the direction our society has been heading in. Behind the surface appearance of benevolent and compassionate moderation and altruism lies an earnest desire to mould human behaviour that is total in its implications in that it will brook no compromise and seek no other end than the complete application of its objectives.
The danger is that a reaction or backlash against pseudo-benign liberal totalism, particularly against the background of an economic downturn and a widespread disenchantment with mainstream politics and political parties, will produce a situation where a truly nasty, neo-fascist politics or some variant thereof, can take root and become popular.
Over the next year in Meikle’s Blog I’ll be exploring some of the themes that it has only been possible to sketch in summary fashion over the past three weeks. I’ll also be looking at ways to break out of the strangle-hold that PBLT has effectively imposed on political debate and discussion in our society.