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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.
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

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.

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.

Inventing vigilantes

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 laws.

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.

Protection racket

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.

'Trendy ideas'

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.

Strange alliance

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 do-gooder.

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.

Acceptable standards

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

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