19 November 1999
New Labour's therapeutic state
by Michael Fitzpatrick
According to the Queen, in her traditional speech detailing the government's legislative programme for the next parliamentary session, her ministers are committed to 'providing people with real opportunities to liberate their potential'.
Of all the New Labour platitudes Her Majesty was forced to spout, none better expresses the way that the government has assimilated the outlook and the jargon of the New Age/personal growth counselling and therapy culture. Beyond the nanny-state prejudices of the old left and the free-market nostrums of the new right, the Third Way proposes a therapeutic state.
Tony Blair, part guru, part autocratic cult leader, offers a healing, helping hand to those deemed worthy - but is ready to visit the wrath of the righteous on those deemed unworthy. The therapeutic state implies a relationship between government and citizen in terms of therapist and client. Assuming expertise and authority at one pole and passivity and incapacity at the other, this relationship is more likely to reinforce dependence than to unleash the potential of the individual.
One measure trailed in the Queen's Speech that has attracted little attention is the proposal, as part of a series of electoral reforms, to extend the franchise to patients in mental hospitals. No doubt this will be presented as a modernising reform, reflecting an enlightened attitude to mental illness. In fact, by implying that somebody who is, in common parlance, mad, is as well qualified as somebody of sound mind to make important political decisions, this proposal degrades the whole electorate and the democratic process itself. It is striking that while the government wants to give voting rights to the insane, it is also seeking to restrict the basic democratic right of a person accused of a crime to be submitted to the judgement of a jury of competent adults.
(The government clearly cares little about the mentally ill or about democracy: its plans for compulsory treatment orders reveal its respect for the rights of the mentally ill as well as the selection process for the candidate for the London mayor confirms its commitment to democratic principles.)
Another key theme of the Queen's Speech is the need for numerous measures for the 'protection' and 'safety' of the public (in relation to transport, crime, environmental dangers, terrorism). This preoccupation reflects New Labour's conception of the individual, not as active citizen, but as passive client or consumer. The subject of the therapeutic state is the vulnerable or the victim, above all the child. The government's emphasis on the feebleness of the individual in society serves to justify its drive to intrude more and more into the regulation of everyday life.
As the phrase 'zero tolerance', popularised under New Labour, implies, the therapeutic state presides over an intolerant and increasingly authoritarian society. There have already been widespread protests about the Queen's Speech proposals to introduce mandatory drug testing of offenders, even wider anti-terrorist powers and continuing attempts to censor the internet. But even measures that have been broadly welcomed - such as introducing charges to deter cars from city centres and other environmentalist gestures - have an authoritarian character.
And all this modernising rhetoric delivered from the mouth of the personification of the forces of conservatism in British society!
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