(Last week we examined the situation where benign liberal ideals have been allied to sweeping regulation enforced by law reinforced by a set of all-embracing values and principles which attempts to direct how people behave and interact with each other. This has been described as liberal-fascism. This week we look at how this impacts on social policy as exemplified by three instances in present-day Scotland.)
One of the hallmarks of fascist and communist regimes was the prodigious use of slogans. These could be positive, extolling the virtues of the regime and enjoining everyone to participate. Alternatively, they could be venomously negative vilifying and spotlighting enemies and their inevitable accompanying “conspiracies” which were preventing the successful achievement of the popular will. Slogans were the means by which fascist and communist regimes rallied the population around them. They were superbly Manichean, effortlessly reducing the world to black and white, to a few simple maxims which amounted to whether you for or against the regime, the right way and the wrong way to behave, and what was correct and incorrect thinking. Any vestiges of nuance, subtlety, circumspection, complexity, qualification or hesitation around policy or direction were stripped away in slogans. Instead there was only certainty, stridency and unequivocal rightness. In sum, slogans were the means by which fascist and communist regimes mobilised the population around grand totalising solutions to solve social problems and attempt to achieve the regimes’ desired aims.
In contrast, liberal-democracies have by-and-large avoided sloganeering except in wartime. Slogans have tended to focus on the differences between political parties on bread and butter issues. In tone, style and consequence there are a billion light years separating political slogans commonplace in British political life such as “abolish prescription charges!” and those favoured by fascist and communist regimes such as to take two typical examples: “the Jews are our misfortune” (a notorious Nazi Party slogan) or “The kulaks are still the chief danger threatening our Government’s plans!” (“Kulaks” were categorised as rich peasants in Soviet Russia during the 1930s and therefore almost certain to be “enemies of the people”) both of which slogans were preludes to mass murder of entire peoples. And this was due primarily to the fact that liberal-democracies did not indulge in promoting grand totalising solutions as the prime means of forwarding social policy, certainly not on the global, cosmic, somewhat apocalyptic scale emanating from the fascist and communist worldviews.
Now let us look at a country such as Scotland today. This is not a land at first sight which is dominated by slogans. Party political debate, exemplified by some debates in the Scottish Parliament, can descend into a virtual “rammy” (Scots colloquialism for strident discussion verging on if not actually deteriorating into fisticuffs), but by and large, these centre around party point scoring which usually passes the rest of a disinterested Scots population by. There are, however, other forms of slogans which cross party political differences, indeed in many ways are non-party because, to a greater or lesser extent all parties subscribe to them. In the areas of health, lifestyle, risk minimisation and safety, anti-social behaviour, anti-discrimination and others Scotland is a land awash with advertising campaigns on TV, radio, the press and billboards whose messages strongly endorsing positive themes belie the fact that they are, in effect, slogans, whose aim is to change the lifestyle of the average Scot to a more desired end. You will in fact struggle to get through a single day in a Scottish town or city, watching reading or listening to the Scottish media or sit waiting for an appointment in some state or local authority agency without being bombarded by a barrage of campaign material cajoling you to live better, desist from this or that activity and not be racist/sexist/homophobic/ageist. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that, outwith overt dictatorships, never have people in contemporary democracies such as Scotland been subjected to as much neo-Orwellian propagandising as now.
Slogans are the handmaidens to a simplified view of life, shorn of complexity and messy compromise between competing aims and interests, and the midwives to attempts at grand totalising solutions. Take three examples in today’s Scotland.
In 2003 the Scottish Government passed the Homelessness Scotland Act. This Act aims to insure that by 2012 anyone who is’ unintentionally’ homeless in Scotland will be entitled to, not just temporary accommodation as in a hostel or bed-and-breakfast, but a proper home. In other words, this legislation which has the mandate of legal authority for all those dealing with the homeless in Scotland, will aim to eliminate homelessness in Scotland within two years. This has been heralded as the most “radical” and “forward thinking legislation on homelessness in Europe”. Yes, there is that little qualifier about ‘unintentional’ implying that anyone who makes themselves ‘intentionally’ homeless need not be given accommodation. But as someone who was Chair of an organisation which specialised in working with and attempting to find shelter for the homeless for five years, I can attest that the difference between being ‘intentionally’ and ‘unintentionally’ homeless is paper thin and anyone who is on the street can make a reasonable case that they are there through no fault of their own. So anyone who is homeless in Scotland come 2012 can demand that they be housed and get redress if they’re not.
Great, what an aspiration, backed up by law to end the terrible situation where people not only have no roof over their heads, but ensure that they get permanent accommodation! As they say: what’s not to like? Well, first of all there is a considerable hostage to fortune here in that significant resources will have to be allocated in the midst of what will probably still in 2012 be an economic downturn to ensure that the legislation is being met. People will have to be found permanent accommodation to comply with the legislation when there is still a scarcity of decent housing stock as a consequence of earlier polices of allowing council housing to be sold off and almost no new council house building in the past thirty years.
But there is a more fundamental problem with the legislation. Quite simply no urban society has ever prevented or eliminated homelessness. The poor have always been with us and so have the homeless. No matter how unpalatable it is to say it there are a stratum of people in any urban society who find it difficult to maintain a roof over their heads because of a whole variety of reasons, which usually comes down to a combination of emotional, psychological and mental health problems. Because of this they find it difficult to stay in even short-term accommodation and any long-stay is usually only accomplished with intensive support and care. This is assuredly not condemning such people to permanent homelessness and suggesting that we should be washing our hands of them. Far from it, their very vulnerability cries out for our help and a range of harm reduction interventions to prevent them sleeping rough in the streets and to get access to a roof over their heads. But we in Scotland are going to have a transient population of homeless people on our hands for some considerable time no matter how much resources we plough into this. In other words, there is absolutely no chance of Scotland preventing homelessness or permanently re-housing the existing homeless by 2012, no matter how well intentioned policy makers are. This is an attempt at a grand totalising solution which actually covers a slogan devoid of any real substance.
Similarly, the local authority in Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow City Council, has adopted a policy of “zero tolerance” towards prostitution. It aims to “eradicate” prostitution from the city by a series of measures that will stop women from having to sell their bodies and prevent men from trying to procure sex from women. There is nothing more grubby, unglamorous, seedy, unhealthy, in most cases exploitative and downright dangerous (seven prostituting women were brutally murdered during the 1990s in Glasgow, a good number of the murders remain unsolved) than prostitution. But yet, again, as with homelessness, the aspiration, to “eradicate” prostitution is simply unachievable. No human society from the onset of civilisation has been without “the oldest profession”. For Glasgow, a city of 600,000 people, to eliminate prostitution, when not even the most regimented societies on earth have managed to achieve this, is highly improbable if not downright impossible. Again, this is not to countenance, belittle, far less support prostitution, nor more importantly should it prevent the delivery of support services to help, protect and ultimately get women (and men) out of prostitution, but to be realistic in what is achievable. Once more we have a highly desirable grand totalising solution which is in essence no more than another slogan bereft of any possibility of realisation.
Finally, we have the current moral panic around alcohol. I have already devoted a Meikle’s blog to this topic two weeks ago and will not spend much more time on it. Suffice to say the crux of this campaign has been focused on lifestyle, on individual’s responsibility and on adherence to a set of guidelines around consumption of alcohol which are pitched too low to have any realistic impact. I have a lot of support for promoting individual responsibility in a society flooded with people’s expectations of entitlements which considerably absolves them of taking responsibility for their own actions, but as I have tried to show, much of the problems currently being highlighted around alcohol actually stems from the policies and actions of a whole raft of actors, including politicians, over the last few decades (see The Trouble with Alcohol posted 26th January 2010). Quite simply much of the campaign around alcohol in Scotland is focused on the wrong targets, misses the right targets, and uses a set of guidelines as one of their main supports which need considerable reviewing. In short, we have more blather and unrealistic grand totalising solutions which have little chance of taking effect and amount to more slogans.
So we have three areas of social policy: on homelessness, prostitution and cutting down on alcohol misuse which are attempting radical grand totalising solutions that are premised on unrealistic assumptions and rest more on hope, aspiration and no small amount of wishful thinking than any chance of coming to fruition. I risk no fear of contradiction in saying bluntly that in 2020 Scotland will still have a problem with homelessness, prostitution and alcohol misuse.
For the purpose of clarity, not least in case I am badly misunderstood, please let me emphasise that there is no wish on my part to be complacent about or indifferent to the misery, degradation and suffering caused by homelessness, prostitution and alcoholism here in Scotland or anywhere else. We need more support services to deal with these issues both when people are in the midst of crisis in relation to them, but also services to intervene at an earlier stage to prevent people losing their homes or becoming enmeshed in prostitution or cutting down their alcohol intake from dangerous levels. But we will not stop or prevent these, and other social ills, happening for now or the foreseeable future.
These three areas of social and public policy in contemporary Scotland are representative of a trend whereby social policy becomes hijacked by attempts to pursue grand totalising solutions which, behind the extravagant facades are really no more than empty slogans incapable of fulfilment, at the expense of more rational, moderate, feasible and pragmatic policies which will not set the heather on fire but which will achieve some reduction in harm.
Fascist and communist regimes did attempt radical social engineering through the pursuel of grand totalising solutions backed up by slogans and they had command of the full resources of the state to do so. Even then they failed to eliminate social ills: Homelessness was still apparent in both fascist and communist regimes, prostitution was rife and alcoholism was endemic, despite the fact that homeless people, prostitutes and those with severe alcohol problems could be classified as “asoicals” or “parasites” and rounded up for incarceration in concentration camps under both systems.
Such command of resources and such radical solutions as these are simply not available to policy makers and politicians within our current political system, nor should they be. And this clearly marks an important distinction between grand totalising solutions as tried within fascist and communist regimes and those of the present. The latter stem from the most liberal, benign and progressive of motivations; they are universal in aspiration and inclusive in scope in complete contrast to the exclusive class or race or national motivations which inspired grand totalising solutions in fascism and communism. In a real sense, in our current situation where there can be no recourse to national mobilisation campaigns and massive command of resources we have the unique situation where there is a serious attempt to combat macro social problems for the most altruistic of reasons with micro means, thus rendering our crop of grand totalising solutions even more unrealisable.
But in spite of this for their proponents, these policies are beyond criticism; ending homelessness, eradicating prostitution, curtailing alcoholism are such good ends in themselves that it is beyond their ken why we should stop at nothing and not attempt to achieve them to create a better, ideal world. At that point we have encountered the situation where pragmatic, feasible social policy has morphed into something else. And that something else is: ideology. Is it, therefore, legitimate to describe that ideology as liberal fascist? Next week I shall try to answer this by looking at what are the defining features of our current socio-political situation.