Beyond Left and Right: Frank Furedi’s “Politics of Fear”

David McKnight’s Beyond Right and Left: New Politics and the Culture Wars was reviewed on Webdiary back in October. McKnight is essentially a politician whose analysis of the capture of the parties of the left by the market imperative is used as a basis for a program for regeneration of the left. Almost simultaneously with McKnight’s Australian publication, a very different analysis by a right-wing sociologist, Frank Furedi, was published in the UK: Politics of Fear: beyond left and right (London & New York, Continuum).

Furedi’s book has been quoted before on Webdiary, in the comments to Carmen Lawrence’s lecture Relaxed and Comfortable, Folks?, and is now available here. Personally I find myself disagreeing with Furedi more often than not – despite the subtitle of his book, he is definitely a man of the right, and some of his analysis here betrays the blinkers on an otherwise open-minded discussion – but the issues he raises primarily in UK and US contexts seem to me to be even more applicable to Australia. Unlike McKnight, the meat is in the depth of analysis of the problems of both sides, rather than prescriptions for change.

There are several interlinked theses put forward in the book, but all are related to an underlying malaise in the body politic, which he believes should worry thinking people on all sides of political debate:

  1. the increasing use on all sides of the language and discourses of fear as justification for policies and actions (or lack of them)
  2. the matching failure of all sides to find policies and messages of hope and progress
  3. the resulting difficulty in finding clear difference of ideology between the parties: “This book argues that concepts like left and right have little content and their usage has mainly a rhetorical character.” (p.4)
  4. which seems to be inevitably followed in all countries by increasing heated and intemperate debate over the remaining minor differences: “Increasingly the rhetoric adopted by the political elites is deployed to obscure the fact that, not only do they not have a big idea, but they also lack even a small one.” (p.6) “Public figures attempt to compensate for their petty posturing through adopting high-octane rhetoric.” (p.19) 
  5. the far-from-inevitable, but currently dominant, trend for all this to lead to wholesale disengagement by the people from the political process.

The book covers a lot of ground, so I’m only going to be able to pick up a few of the threads here. Furedi has a nice turn of phrase, so I’ll let quotes carry most of his argument, then put my own views at the end.

Not in My Name: disengagement and despair

Furedi points out that the excuses generally given for the levels of disengagement hold no water:

Statements like ‘I don’t trust politicians’ or ‘I don’t believe what they say’ simply rationalise the retreat from public life. They convey a profound sense of fatalism and suggest that politics is a pointless exercise. These sentiments are not the inevitable response to the misdeed of public figures. In previous times people have reacted to politicians whom they did not trust by getting rid of them or by even trying to change the system. Today people are more likely to react by switching off and disengaging from public life. (p.2)

Furedi has much scorn for the rhetoric of TINA – There Is No Alternative – an expression that is used by all sides of politics on all sorts of questions in place of any supporting evidence or argument for the efficacy of what is being proposed.

The very idea that anybody could achieve any positive results through political action is often dismissed as naïve or arrogant. But those who perceive some sort of radical imperative behind the rejection of politics ignore that the flip-side of anti-politics is the acceptance of the world as it is. (p.29)

If politics is indeed pointless then we are quite entitled to fear everything. In modern times politics provided the promise of people being able to exercise a degree of control over their destiny. (p.2)

The failure to propose alternatives or choices affects both left and right: “It is fitting that one of the most prominent slogans of the movement against the 2003 invasion of Iraq was ‘Not In My Name’; a self-consciously personal proclamation. It is not a political statement designed to involve others, and does not seek to offer an alternative.” (p.43). Furedi points out that the mass mobilisations of February 2003 have, as a result, failed to follow-through into ongoing mass anti-war movements.

He doesn’t have much time, either, for contemporary social movements such as the World Social Forum and its offshoots:

The World Social Forum … frequently boasts that what distinguishes it from others is its diversity. However, this celebration of diversity may be a strategy for making a virtue out of the fact that this Forum is a diffuse, fragmented and atomised collection of pressure groups … [its] unity based on an unquestioning and uncritical endorsement of the idea of not questioning one another. Unlike true tolerance – which implies tolerating what we dislike – diversity is an apolitical strategy for avoiding making statements of judgement. (p.45).

My own experience as a presenter and attendee at various incarnations of the Sydney Social Forum backs this analysis: disagreements and debate are regarded as out of keeping with the gentle and anodyne vibe, and arrant nonsense is let pass because someone else is deeply attached to it, and to query it would be ‘disrespectful’. Furedi quotes a leading light of the WSF: “no-body in the Forum has the power or the right to say that one action or proposal is more important than any other” – a recipe, almost an injunction, for disengagement in debate.

Left and Right: how the words lost their meaning

Furedi’s thesis is that, whereas World War II irrevocably damaged the right through association of elitism with fascism and Nazism, the Cold War and the failures of soviet communism equally discredited many of the initiatives associated with the left:

In a sense the failure of these alternatives allowed the right to turn the tables on their opponents and win the Cold War. At the end of the 1980s it appeared for a brief moment that the end of the Cold War had helped to revitalize conservatism and the politics of the right. But only for a moment. Instead of boosting confidence, the West’s triumph in the Cold War merely revealed an absence of purpose and vision. The quest among leading Western politicians for a ‘big idea’ to replace the anti-Communist crusade of the post-war decades has failed to discover one. (p.57)

He quotes (without a reference) Alan Wolfe: “the right won the economic war, the left won the cultural war, and the center won the political war” (p.59).

Furedi’s contention is that the terms left and right no longer have any consistent association with particular political attitudes or policies.

There was a time when these labels signified an important distinction between progressives and reactionaries. To put it crudely, the left wanted social change and looked forward to human emancipation. In contrast, the right dreaded change and robustly sought to uphold what it considered to be the traditional way of doing things. (p.9)

This is particularly poignant in looking at the current nth attempt in the last ten years to re-reinvent the UK Conservative party, last seen heading off on the horizon well to the left of the ALP under Beazley, summarised by one commentator as:

David Cameron’s campaign to move the Tory party to the left – or at least to the left of Tony Blair, which might not mean quite the same thing, is proceeding speedily. At the rate he’s going, he’ll be in favour of nationalisation and the closed shop by summer, and for the summary execution of the kulaks by Christmas. …[he] spotted that being to the left of the Tory party had won three elections in a row. Naturally he wants to be in the same place. This will make him resemble a cat chasing its own tail, since he can never actually catch up.

Meanwhile the Blairistas of the UK’s New Labour are probably more into deregulation and the supremacy of the market than John Howard, who despite his rhetoric has been an incessant meddler in markets to achieve policy ends. Picking examples not at all at random: eg trying to promote traditional family structures of home-based child-rearing women, and the strange case of the privatised ‘single desk’ for wheat.

Back to Furedi:

The cumulative impact of the experience of the past seven or eight decades is that it has forced the right to give up on the Past and the left to abandon hope in the Future. Consequently, the remnants of both of these movements are dominated by a profound conformist sensibility towards the present. (p.59)

Periodic attempts which aim to relaunch the conservative project
often conclude with a plea for getting rid of the old ideological
Even the so-called Religious Right, which is frequently presented as a dogmatic fundamentalist force, is in reality less in the business of defending old traditions than in inventing new ones. Promoting abstinence or intelligent design represents a rearguard action against an unpredictable world. (p.9)

Contemporary movements associated with the left tend to be particularly uncomfortable with, if not directly hostile to, change. The anti-capitalist and the anti-globalisation movements are self-consciously hostile to the ideals that have historically defined the future-oriented left. (p.61)

The label ‘progressive’ ill fits a movement that is intensely suspicious of science and experimentation and regards new technology with dread. … Often the difference that appears to divide the left from the right is focused on which innovation they wish to ban. For example, sections of the right would like to ban stem-cell research while many on the left want to rid the world of genetically modified products. (p.10)

This all rings horribly true to me. Much of the labelling that goes on in debates on this site and in many other Australian fora is nostalgically hankering back to the days of certainty and clear differences: the left is attacked by association with communist ideas that hardly any of them hold, while the right is similarly castigated in terms that caricature their views. In practice, there is no electable party of the left anywhere in the established democracies that wants an all-out planned economy, and there is no electable party of the right that believes in removing all controls from the market. The continued existence of fringe parties such Socialist Alternative, whose Green Left Weekly is often quoted by the mendacious on this site as the voice of the left, is no more relevant to the reality of the ongoing discussion than are One Nation or Fred Nile.

The Howard government, like the Thatcher government before it, is far more in favour of planned markets than its rhetoric of ‘reducing red tape’ allows for: a monopoly for wheat exports here, tight regulation of Telstra there, attempts to promote ethanol, subsidies for Mitsubishi, bouncing out Shell from Woodside, and so on … And quite rightly too – one person’s red tape is another’s essential safety regulation or measure for protecting small employers. A true free marketeer would control neither union power nor insider trading, but there aren’t actually any true free marketeers around.

All political parties (and some dinner parties) hold within themselves innumerable debates over the minutiae of what is to be controlled and by whom: should the Minister or an independent body control access to drugs, should greenhouse emissions be controlled or should we establish a market in carbon credits? Furedi wants to move ‘beyond left and right’, not to abandon distinction, but to focus more on one of the key tensions that underlie debate in all the parties:

Often the call to go ‘beyond left and right’ represents the demand to give up on politics altogether. Sometimes it expresses the aspiration to restrain the ambitions associated with the politics of the Enlightenment. My call to recognise the irrelevance of these categories is motivated by a very different impulse. It is motivated by the goal of getting rid of the distractions that confuse contemporary political life … the differences that really matter today are fundamentally about where one stands in relation to the past and the future. Those who are interested in the restoration of politics need to rework society’s relation to the past and adopt a more activist orientation to the future. (p.70)

Can things be changed?

In this analysis, much of the union movement, for example, is wedded to the past and trying to stop or slow change – as is much of the religious right, and large tracts of the green movement: Kim Beazley and Tony Abbott are on the same side here. On the other side, you can similarly find right-wing and even neo-con theorists rubbing shoulders with greens who think that investing in renewables could bring a resurgence of Australian manufacturing and growth in jobs. Jeffrey Sachs and Bono believe it is possible to eliminate poverty and famine if we do the right things – so does Johann Norberg: they disagree on the route, but agree on the achievability of the goal, while the majority of commentators defer to fate and the inevitability of failure. Furedi again:

The development of individual ambition and of a class- or community-based vision of social change often expressed outwardly contradictory aspirations. But their differences notwithstanding, what such responses had in common was a perception of future possibilities, and the belief that human action could make a difference. (p.73)

In an environment where the majority of players in the established parties are on the ‘There Is No Alternative’ side of Furedi’s divide, and garner their votes by playing on the fears and vulnerabilities of the electorate, much of the real political action is bypassing democracy. Furedi shows his right-wing credentials by concentrating his analysis on lobbying by NGOs, particularly the BINGOs (Big International Non-Government Organisations) and their lobbying activities, conveniently ignoring the fact that of the 34,750 paid lobbyists in Washington DC’s K Street, probably 34,500 of them work for corporations.

In practice, both sets of lobbyists show a level of at least disdain, if not contempt, for the processes of democracy. While some BINGOs try hard for democratic involvement in their policy-making – for example Oxfam Australia elects both its State committees and its Board from among registered volunteers and donors – in practice these are no more democratic than the average corporate AGM. I’m a nominally elected member of three such committees (the Oxfam NSW state committee, the Friends of the ABC NSW committee, and the Sydney Peace and Justice Coalition coordinating committee) – but the democracy of the electoral process was at least mitigated in all three cases by the fact that lack of sufficient candidates meant that everyone who stood was elected unopposed. In fact, in most of these sorts of organisation, you need a will of steel if you attend the AGM to resist the pressure to stand for the empty positions.

So, where to from here? Furedi doesn’t have an answer, but his strong conclusion is that if we accept that There Is No Alternative and don’t strive for one, we certainly won’t find it. We have to believe that humanity has the capacity to overcome diversity, or we might as well start shutting the planet down now – or sit on a mountaintop waiting for The Rapture, which amounts to the same thing.