Government policies on parenting is akin to mind control, a University of Kent conference on childrearing was told last week. That university’s Professor Frank Furedi told the conference that today’s parents are being bombarded by advice and guidance that ends up leaving them demoralised and disempowered. Professor Furedi told the conference entitled 'Monitoring Parents: Childrearing in the age of intensive parenting' that parents now need a PhD in developmental psychology when all parents really need is the space to learn from their experiences. “What they really need is better-resourced childcare and more flexible working,” said Furedi.
Frank Furedi is the professor of sociology at the University of Kent and author of the books Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear. Furedi is a Hungarian émigré and a former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party. He has now moved away from left-wing politics and describes himself as a humanist. According to ABC’s Michael Duffy, Furedi is one of the most interesting thinkers in the humanities today.
The subtitle of his book Politics of Fear is “Beyond Left and Right” and the book argues that the political terms left and right have become devoid of meaning and need to be replaced with less simplistic language. Furedi’s thesis is that government has become the art of micro-management of individual behaviour instead of presenting a wider political vision. Furedi states that being scared has been a culturally sanctioned affectation that pervades all aspects of life. Fear politics is commonplace and is used by all political parties. It is symptomatic of what he calls a “pervasive sense of exhaustion and disengagement that affects public life”.
The 18th century enlightenment offered the promise that people have a degree of control over their destiny. People became less disposed to accept disease and death as the will of God. Through science, art, medicine, commerce and politics people believed their lives could be altered and improved. But that trend is now changing. People are becoming seen as object and not agents of change. Despite the new forms of activism that is offered by the internet, Furedi sees this type of response as the “politics of denial”. It not only denies the relevance of politics but it also denies the underlying reality of deep-rooted disengagement. Furedi argues that what matters now is the role of humanity and the individual. Only by upholding the achievements of human civilisation and keeping an open-minded view of the future can this politics of fear be defeated.
Furedi begins his argument by discussing the dearth of ideas in politics. He finds the term the Third Way devoid of meaning. The name serves only to show that Blairite Labour in the UK lacks imagination and has no big ideas to call its own. And the Tories are no better. There was a time when it was possible to differentiate between progressive and reactionary politics. In simple terms the left wanted social change and human emancipation. The right sought to uphold the status quo and the traditional way of doing things. But today, the right no longer defends tradition and the left is no longer interested in change. Instead there is a detachment from issues and a lack of commitment; it is a culture that endorses scepticism, relativism and cynicism or as Furedi calls it a doctrine of the “conservatism of fear”.
It can be found on the left and the right. Those protesting against globalisation on the streets of Davos and Seattle are peddling a fear of human ambition and experimentation and a desire to seek refuge in a predictable existence. It is an estrangement from the future which undermines the capacity to generate new ideas. Meanwhile the multi-national companies and the objects of their wrath apologise for themselves and aim for re-invention as ethically responsible firms, almost more charity than business.
Much of the retreat of political ambition can be traced back to the 1980s and the Thatcherite mantra of “There is no alternative” (TINA). TINA decried the futility of political imagination, because if there was no alternative, politics itself was pointless. And politicians have been quick to acquiesce to this outlook. Governments play down their responsibilities and see themselves as facilitators rather than managers. Policies are no longer the result of informed debate but instead imposed by global forces. The assumption now is that big ticket items such as the economy, the environment, technology and social policy can not be significantly improved by government policies. Furedi calls it a “pessimistic account of human limits”, held by the left and right alike.
But while the public sphere has become depoliticised, the private sphere has become the site of major political disagreement. Issues involving the family and personal behaviour have become the province of debate. The personal is now political: the body, food, health, cancer and victimisation. Public involvement is atomised, passive and personal. One of the prominent slogans of the anti-Iraq war protests was “Not in my name”. It was not inclusive and does not offer an alternative. It is nimby-esque and simply means "do not involve me".
The terms left and right date back to the French revolution. Its National Assembly was divided by those who sat on the right and advocated the separation of political power and those who sat on the left who wanted full popular sovereignty. Throughout 19th century Europe these “wings” fought conflicts over democracy, capitalism, economics, human rights, religion and science. Both sides advanced each other as they were forced to account for themselves, rethink their ideals and develop new insights about society.
Little of that conflict remains in the 21st century. Socialism is dead; conservative thought has dissolved. New movements avoid ideology. The West’s triumph at the end of the Cold War revealed an absence of purpose and vision. Society has become estranged from the past and traditions have little meaning in everyday life. Meanwhile the left has become suspicious of the future. Today’s prevailing slogan is “more of the same”. And so, Furedi says, by different routes – giving up on the future and losing the past – the left and right have converged on the terrain of the present. On the left is the disenchantment in the promise of modernity, on the right the decline of traditional authority.
Deference to authority has now been replaced by deference to fate. People no longer believe they can shape or alter their circumstances. It is a process of declining subjectivity. Instead of change, people want compensation, apologies, recognition or affirmation. The citizen has become the customer. Sociologists describe this process as “loss of agency”. This is reflected in policy documents which assume people are not trustworthy and cannot live responsibly. The electorate is infantilised, vulnerable and insecure. The human centred view of future possibilities and making a difference have been replaced by an increasingly narrow range of options and a sense of impotence.
That impotence is matched by a growing contempt for the public among elites. Ordinary people are marginalised as Nascar dads, rednecks, battlers, tabloid readers and so on. The intelligentsia uncritically transfers responsibility for the malaise of political life to an uneducated electorate thereby distracting attention from its own sense of moral confusion. There is no zeal to enlighten, to instruct, to convert.
The absence of political purpose about the future encourages the cultural sensibility that gives rise to the politics of fear. It is not simply the manipulation of public opinion, though there is no doubt political campaigners use fear to promote agendas. Fear has become one of the defining features of public life in the wake of 9/11. While Governments have used fear to strengthen authority, business groups, advocacy organisations and special interest groups have also to manipulate public anxiety to further their agendas. The media compete with each other in the promotion of different scare stories. Fear is a language that has a wide cultural resonance.
Meanwhile the exhaustion of politics has channelled energies once devoted to it into the colonisation of everyday life. Governments embark on crusades targeting diet, health, sex life, parenting, alcohol and public behaviour. Politicians have eschewed the macro issues in favour of the micro. They have abandoned distinct philosophies and ambitious projects and instead are preoccupied with banal lifestyle issues. In Britain school dinners became a major 2005 election issue. In the US, President Bush broke off his holiday to sign emergency legislation to keep brain-damaged Terry Schiavo alive.
People’s private lives are now a legitimate area for legislation. Governments have mooted policies to help people prepare for marriage, cope with arriving babies and proposed parenting orders on those deemed to have failed to control their children. Paternalistic pamphlets about marriage convey the impression that adults are actually children playing at being grown-ups.
Nanny state supporters claim these policies simply continue progressive traditions such as the abolition of child labour. But they are less about improving health than about directing how people ought to live. British Labour MP Frank Field said Britain is moving away from the politics of class to the politics of behaviour. Field was describing legislation to deal with anti-social behaviour but it remains a sinister notion that can easily invade into other spheres. It is a statist intellectual outlook that shows scepticism concerning people’s ability to act as responsible citizens without the support of professionals who know what is in their best interest.
Furedi argues there is a better way. Society needs to re-establish a claim on the past and future. People making choices do not need support from bureaucratic institutions but instead need the freedom to engage with new experience. We must recover from our uneasy relationship with science and knowledge. In the 18th century Immanuel Kant said enlightenment was man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. It remains pertinent today. The ideal of individual autonomy was perhaps the enlightenment’s greatest gift. To regain it, people must be encouraged to take risks, experiment, and exercise critical judgement. Thatcher and TINA are wrong. There is an alternative.