Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right by Frank Furedi

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Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right by Frank Furedi

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A manifesto in defence of the human capacity to make history, this book acutely diagnoses modern politics as an empty activity devoted to the preservation of status quo with politicians exploiting the predominant idiom of fear as a means of social manipulation. However, the wholesale refusal to see any of the modern activism as real engagement was extreme and unnecessary and meant that genuine Big Idea of our time was recast as something akin to paedophile panic. Recommended for stimulating but critical reading.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 197 Date: January 2007
Publisher: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd
ISBN: 978-0826492944

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What is the government doing to increase the activity levels of secondary school-aged children? A query or headline of this kind is so commonplace nowadays that it takes a while to realise how utterly preposterous it is. It is a perfect example of the degree to which the government is engaging - and is actually expected to engage - in micro-management of individual behaviour instead of presenting anything even remotely resembling a wider, political, vision. But in the world of TINA, the infamous there is no alternative, which since Thatcher has become a government mantra of a whole generation, a vision - which implies an existence of viable alternatives - is not possible. Thus, cabinet conferences about school-dinners.

Furedi's book is subtitled Beyond Left and Right as he claims that the old-fashioned political categories are just labels nowadays, and all politics operates according to the TINA principle fuelled by the predominant culture of fear while the society as a whole is characterised by a profound disengagement from real politics. The alienated elites, deeply contemptuous of 'the ordinary folk' welcome that, as it's obviously in their interest to maintain the status quo and thus concentrate on creating procedures for people to have their say, on participation for participation's sake which is - empathically - not the same as exercising real control over the government, especially as such procedures are often heavily managed, top-down regulated and engineered to achieve the 'correct outcome'.

Politics of Fear explores this state of affairs, and links it to the general societal condition, characterised by an unspecific, floating anxiety that can attach itself to any subject and which thus becomes a dominant mode of public discourse. With history seen mostly as a repository of horrors and a future almost bound to be worse than the present, while uncontrollable forces threaten the very survival of the human species, the Enlightenment ideal of humanity creating its own history, of human agency capable of influencing, moulding and to some extent controlling what happens according to freely chosen ideas seems to be indeed very out of fashion. The populace becomes infantilised, and this insidious process is welcomed rather than contested because people already believe that they need to be guided, supported and protected as they are too vulnerable (and, implicitly, too ignorant and volatile) to deal with everyday tasks of life like bringing up children, having relationships and cooking food - never mind running the country. Governments, which have become uncertain of values and their purpose, have refocused their energies towards management of individual behaviour and regulation of informal relationships. Creating conditions for a better life has been replaced by attempts to alter individual lifestyle and manipulate emotions (thus the popularity of unnecessary hate laws).

The book ends with a passionate plea to reclaim the progressive legacy of the Enlightenment. Controversially, Furedi suggests that the left-right divisions need to be put aside and that the true Socialists, Conservatives and Liberals need to unite forces in the quest to oppose and turn around the current anti-humanist culture of vulnerability and recover the ideal of individual, grown-up autonomy. According to Furedi what we need is not a Big Idea - not yet, at least - but an intellectual climate that would make a future Big Ideas possible.

Furedi's diagnosis of the current societal state of mind is realistic, well-argued and wide-ranging. But in his analysis of political life, especially modern activism, too many leaps of reasoning are made which help to make the argument whole-encompassing, but which perhaps simplify things too much.

Furedi conveniently equates the fear or mistrust of particular bodies or organisations with that might bear change with the fear and mistrust of the change itself. Again, the reality of grounds for such fear is never argued and thus, for example, my fear and mistrust of Monsanto (which I strongly believe is justified by the fact that Monsanto is an entity which - legally - is required to maximise its profit and nothing else, and beyond any democratic control) is equalised with a fear of genetic research (which I think should be conducted). Times when What's good for General Motors is good for America was a commonly believed statement might be seen as times of delusion rather than lack of paranoia. Attaching a Qui Bono? to innovations we encounter is not contradictory to Kant's Sapere Aude (Dare to know), and it doesn't need to be anti-humanist.

I think the way Furedi tars all current kinds of 'activism' with the same brush is rather extreme. Obviously, attending a self-help group is not political activity, whatever the prophets of 'personal is political' might claim, but attending an anti-war demonstration is, inherently, a form of political activity: it's not engaging in every-day issues directly affecting the participants, it's making a political statement, not necessarily just for the sake of personal expression. It's not the same as attending Diana's funeral.

Most fundamentally, though, Furedi treats all the panics as examples of the same class of phenomena and, implicitly, all the dangers as equally to do with perception rather than an objective, material reality. Global warming seems to be as (un)real - essentially a socially constructed perception - as the stranger danger, pesticide residues panic or ideas of co-dependence and addiction.

Analysing the major environmental concerns in such a framework means that the Big Project of halting climate change loses its meaning, and loses its political potential to inspire social, technological change. This is a distorted point of view. Anybody reading George Monbiot's latest book couldn't fail to see the exhilarating strength of his futuristic, technological vision, full of faith in human agency that it presents, nothing even remotely like the "humans as object of Fate" claims of Furedi.

All in all, provocative and well-argued in its diagnosis, while overstretching the main point in order to get to what I felt was pre-set conclusion, Politics of Fear nevertheless is extremely stimulating and definitely worth reading especially by those interested in the state of the society & politics but unfamiliar with Furedi's ideas.

Thanks to the publishers for sending this book. We also have a review of On Tolerance: The Life Style Wars: A Defence of Moral Independence by Frank Furedi.

Those interested in a more whingey but humorous view of infantilisation of the modern world might like Big Babies. George Monbiot's Heat shows how environmentalist cause can be conscious of the achievements of technological civilisations and be perfectly compatible with the profound belief in human ability to make a difference. You might also appreciate Britain in a Perilous World: The Strategic Defence and Security Review we need by Jonathan Shaw.

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Buy Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right by Frank Furedi at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right by Frank Furedi at Amazon.com.


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