May the state preserve us from ourselves
Under the new authoritarianism, state agencies from the police to social
services are assuming more and more power to regulate our lives. The key
assumption of this political culture is that we need to be protected from
each other, and from ourselves.
At first sight it seems curious to talk about a climate of authoritarianism.
Superficially we are living through a period that appears tolerant, forgiving
and even generous in its provision of new rights. Almost every month the
British government publishes a new charter offering us rights that we did
not previously enjoy. We have a Citizen's Charter, charters for patients,
and charters for British Rail passengers. Words like 'empowerment' and 'enablement'
have become part of the political vocabulary, promising a distribution of
power and influence to everyone. Even the term 'children's rights' has become
fashionable. It is surely only a matter of time before the government issues
a Charter for orang-utans.
Frank Richards asks what's new about the new authoritarianism, and identifies
the dangerous trends developing behind the public climate of fear and mistrust
in the nineties
In addition to publishing new charters, the British establishment publicly
espouses a political philosophy that is self-consciously anti-authoritarian.
Tory politicians regularly denounce state intervention, government bureaucracy
and unnecessary rules and regulations. They praise individual choice and
promise to allow local communities more say in running their own affairs.
Clearly there is no direct or overt promotion of authoritarian solutions
in Britain today.
And yet, despite the formal commitment to reducing the activities of the
state, it seems to be expanding its powers all the time. Local government
may have been curbed - but its activities have been taken over by new non-representative
quangos, appointed by the government. Development agencies employing thousands
of people are replacing elected councils. The same pattern of quangoisation
is evident everywhere from the education system to the health service. This
replacement of representation by administration suggests that the vocabulary
of 'empowerment' is being used to consolidate the power of the ruling elite.
It is always they who do the empowering - and not surprisingly, they keep
more than a little for themselves.
The authoritarian dynamic is particularly evident in the constant emphasis
on law and order. Permanent roadblocks in the City of London, police curfews
on selected individuals and controls over the movements of groups such as
the New Age travellers are only some of the more dramatic instances of the
authoritarian culture of our times. It is a safe bet that no official report,
inquiry or conference will ever suggest that the police need less power.
On the contrary, they need more resources, longer batons and special powers
'just to prevent a breakdown of society'.
But matters go beyond repressive policing. Almost every innovation suggested
by the state today has authoritarian consequences. So the dubious right
of parents to choose their children's school is paralleled by greater government
interference in education. New policies of national tests and a national
curriculum are presented as an ultimatum. The strange mixture of government
diktat and the language of choice in education typifies the general trend.
Even initiatives which purport to provide more protection against the abuse
of state power follow a similar pattern. Take the example of the Royal Commission
on Criminal Justice. Originally it was set up to tackle the problems revealed
by the recent high-profile miscarriages of justice. By the time its report
was published, the commission's attention was absorbed not so much by the
miscarriage of justice as by the need to strengthen the punitive powers
of the legal system. The lack of justice had become equated with the flouting
of the law by crafty criminals. The consequence of this redefinition of
the problem was that the commission proposed to take away the right of a
defendant to a trial by jury.
The proposal to eliminate the right to a trial by jury was accompanied by
a carefully orchestrated media campaign about the failure of the law to
protect ordinary people from criminals. The papers and news bulletins were
suddenly full of stories about under-age criminals who brazenly continue
their anti-social activities safe in the knowledge that the law cannot touch
them. These stories of juvenile hooligans were complemented by a series
of high-profile cases in which an assortment of muggers, robbers and killers
were either let off or given ridiculously low sentences by the courts.
The press manipulated these stories to invent the British vigilante. Overnight
the media was prominently featuring individuals and groups 'who have had
enough'. Reports suggested that large numbers of ordinary people were ready
to take the law into their own hands. For a while it seemed that any angry
taxpayer who was fed up with noisy children would be guaranteed an interview
on national television. Through the summer the national media continued
to fuel this vigilante psychosis. The most famous example was that of Joseph
Elliott, a self-confessed vandal whose killing of another man was accepted
as self-defence by a jury in South London. The message of the media campaign
was that the courts and juries were being extraordinarily soft on crime,
and unless they got their act together, 'ordinary' people would take matters
into their own hands.
The invitation to the state to adopt more authoritarian solutions implies
that law and order institutions are too liberal and too much oriented towards
the criminal. In a sense this message is the central motif of the new authoritarianism.
It expounds an outlook which inflates the problem of individual security
and safety, as the justification for authoritarian solutions. The message
is that we need more protection.
At the most basic level the need for protection is projected in relation
to crime. According to the widely promoted formula, there are not enough
policemen on the street, not enough decent magistrates and not enough firm
However, the political culture of the new authoritarianism is not exhausted
by a law and order campaign. The central message of the need for more protection
is expressed in a variety of ways. The key assumption of this political
culture is that we need to be protected from ourselves.
The need for protection is often posed in a neutral or even in a liberal
fashion. Campaigns for 'safer sex' warn of the harm we do to each other.
Health campaigns on a host of subjects - from smoking to eating - suggest
that we really are a danger to ourselves. Children left out in the sun too
long need protection from their miscreant parents. Once the logic that we
constitute a threat to each other is accepted then anything goes. We need
to protect wives from their husbands. Errant fathers can expect to be tracked
down by a state concerned to defend the position of the mother. But matters
do not end here. We also need to protect children from their parents. The
intrusion of the state into private life is now a matter of everyday routine.
It appears that even the most intimate aspects of our lives are a legitimate
concern, if not for a civil service bureaucrat then for a social worker
or a policeman. Indeed the line that divides the police constable and the
social worker has become increasingly blurred. The police now provide services
that were hitherto provided by others, such as rape counselling. And social
work has become more and more oriented towards the policing of family life.
No workers' rights
It would seem that the only sphere where no protection is required is that
of workers' rights. It appears that workers need no protection from employers.
The government is abolishing wages councils, refusing to contemplate limits
on the length of the working week, and rejecting every other similar measure.
Ironically the new authoritarian culture is prepared to protect workers - but
only from other workers. So there is now a degree of acceptance that workers
sexually harassing others should be disciplined. This principle also applies - at
least formally - to racial harassment by workers.
The thrust of this approach is that so long as official interference aims
to protect us from each other, it is in principle acceptable. The question
of who is going to do the protecting is seldom posed, since it is self-evident
that this is a job for the state.
The systematic extension of state intervention and regulation in everyday
life is to some extent obscured by the form in which this development occurs.
It seldom seems that the initiative is taken by the state itself. Instead
it appears that state intervention is merely a response to a demand from
concerned professionals or a frightened public. Just how extensive this
protection racket has become is rarely understood. Occasionally - for example
in the recent uproar about the refusal of social services to allow a mixed
race couple to adopt a black child - we realise the truly frightening power
that the state possesses to interfere in our lives. There was a time when
the word 'totalitarian' was used to describe such attempts by the state
to regulate the behaviour of parents towards their children.
Of course, the state has always had a tendency to throw its weight around.
What is new about the contemporary form of authoritarianism is that it is
understated and presented as a response to people's genuine concerns. Moreover,
unlike the traditional law and order campaigns, this one is often formulated
in the language of liberal common sense. Even racist violence has been accepted
by the police as something from which the public needs protection. The Metropolitan
Police now offers gay police constables to liaise with the gay community
to protect them from a 'serial killer'.
It is important not to confuse the new authoritarianism with crude repression.
This is not the 'lock 'em all up' attitude of the military dictatorship.
In Britain many offenders are put on probation rather than jailed. To save
money, the government is prepared to release seriously disturbed people
from mental institutions 'into the care of the community'. So what is at
stake is not a simple police crackdown. The important developments involve
extending the sphere of state surveillance, regulation and intervention.
The key consequence is the elaboration of a public climate of fear and mistrust - a
climate which encourages conservative solutions.
On one level this new interventionism seems to go against the spirit of
conservative politics. It is often the right which complains about busybody
social workers and the pretensions of political correctness in questioning
conventional behaviour. However, right-wing outrage regarding trendy local
government practices is tactical rather than substantive. Conservatives
may object to state agencies imposing 'trendy ideas', but they do not oppose
the right of the state to regulate family life. They might criticise
liberal social worker-speak advice to parents. But they are not against
preaching their own 'untrendy' morals. The government's vindictive propaganda
against single mothers shows that right-wing ideologues are no more inhibited
about interfering in family life than professional social workers. The message
they preach is often different, but both agree that they have the right
to interfere with how people conduct their personal affairs.
What is striking about the new authoritarianism is how often the politically
correct professional milieu establishes the precedent for regulating private
life. Moreover, both the state and the liberal professionals often agree
on specific measures. For instance, the government's policy of tracking
down fathers who abandoned their family responsibility is supported by many
professionals and feminists. The repressive implications of this measure
for both the women and men involved have escaped the attention of do-gooders
ostensibly concerned to protect single mothers.
The strange alliance of professional nice people and the state was clearly
brought home through the BBC's recent campaign to recruit volunteers. For
weeks the BBC ran adverts promoting different voluntary organisations, some
as radical as OutRage! and Greenpeace. This showed that the appetite of
the authorities for extending their domain is considerable; they even want
to be involved with protest groups. But more importantly, it exposed the
informal alliance between the state bureaucracy and the voluntary sector
The new authoritarianism is a consequence of the erosion of the postwar
political consensus, and the consequent weakening of the legitimacy of Britain's
central institutions. The problem of political legitimacy has become closely
linked with the economic uncertainty that is the product of more than two
decades of stagnation. Economic life is out of control and the ruling elites
lack the political instruments to create the impression that they have a
grip over the situation.
The crisis of legitimacy and the problem of control continually push the
authorities to clamp down, to regain the initiative. Economic chaos and
the lack of a political consensus encourage a demand for order. But order
is an elusive quality in contemporary Britain, amid a climate of economic
anxiety and political uncertainty. Under these circumstances government
policies invariably fail to tackle the problems they seek to address. Such
failures create an even greater temptation to clamp down. If local councils
don't do what you expect - get rid of them. If juries no longer believe the
police - get rid of the jury system.
Many middle class professionals who experience the consequences of the economic
depression feel particularly vulnerable. On the one hand their profession
is devalued. On the other hand they are confronted by the menace of a society
more and more out of control, in which the behaviour of insecure individuals
becomes as unpredictable as the fluctuations of the housing market. For
these professionals, the threat seems to come not from an anarchic social
system, but from people who are desperate to survive. In their desire to
insulate themselves from the uncomfortable attentions of the 'common' people,
the middle classes become vociferous advocates of order. In this way the
fear of the masses - football hooligans, single mothers, yobbos, young criminals - creates
a ready-made audience for the political culture of the new authoritarianism.
Uphold civil liberty
In these circumstances it becomes all the more important to uphold the fundamental
principles of civil liberty. Those who are concerned with human freedom
and progress need to encourage the libertarian impulse. There already exists
a healthy suspicion towards the activities of the state. This needs to be
pointed towards the development of an alternative perspective, one which
refuses to yield an inch of our space to state intervention.
To be sure, all of us face the prospect of insecurity during this economic
depression. Many individuals are faced with problems beyond their control.
Some inevitably fear for their safety. But a solution to these problems
will not come from granting more authoritarian powers to the state.
It is only when people begin to organise together, and to evolve
their own rules and objectives, that anti-social acts can be curbed. The
constitution of a working class political culture at once creates a standard
of acceptable behaviour which communities can act on and enforce. Without
such standards there is no way of counteracting the destructive effects
of human alienation. Authoritarian solutions only force us to become more
fragmented, more subject to state regulation, and therefore less able to
control our own lives.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 59, September 1993