'Humanising politics – that is my only agenda'
As he turns 60, author Frank Furedi discusses environmentalism, conspiracy theories and the ‘network of McCarthyites’ slurring his name.
What do you say to someone who tells you that he will shortly turn 60? Apparently not ‘Oh, that’s nice’. ‘It isn’t nice. It’s horrible!’ says Frank Furedi, the sociologist, author and slayer of lazy received wisdom who next week will celebrate (or perhaps not celebrate) his sixtieth birthday. Despite reaching the dreaded Bus Pass Age – when the British government congratulates you with a ‘freedom pass’ that allows you to travel on the nation’s buses to your heart’s content – Furedi has no plans to retire. He doesn’t want any silver clocks, thanks very much. Indeed, he tells me his aim over the next few years is to help build a ‘humanist and future-oriented political movement’. That’s a far cry from Help The Aged’s ‘positivist image’ of the 60-plus generation riding bikes and having picnics.
Furedi will be familiar to readers of spiked. In his monthly column ‘Frank Furedi’s Really Bad Ideas’ he picks apart faddish thinking – those political outlooks that are taken for granted as ‘hurrah ideas’ but which in fact, when you look a little closer, have deep-running illiberal and anti-human streaks. That sums up his intellectual approach in general. The author of 13 books (and he has just sent his fourteenth – on terrorism – to his publisher, he tells me proudly), Furedi has developed an international reputation as a thorn in the side of today’s reactionary trends. He gave a stern telling-off to parenting panics in Paranoid Parenting; he implored society to get off the psychiatrist’s couch in Therapy Culture. He is best known for his work on the use and abuse of fear, as delved into in Culture of Fear (1997) and The Politics of Fear (2005) as well as in numerous articles and essays on spiked.
Yet some are interested in (or at least morbidly intrigued by) Furedi less for what he has written or said in public than for what he allegedly gets up to in private. There is a small group of people – Furedi refers to them as a ‘network of McCarthyites’ – that spreads rumours about Furedi being the all-powerful leader of a sinister cult that has infiltrated the TV industry, the science industry and the media in order to do the bidding of Big Business against environmentalists. It’s tempting to say ‘You couldn’t make it up’ – only someone clearly has.
Clustered around the Guardian’s green columnist George Monbiot, and based in the gutters of the World Wide Web – areas so remote and cut off that it seems even spell-check does not work there – these networks publish occasional scurrilous assaults on Furedi and the ‘Furediites’. The websites include GMWatch, LobbyWatch, SpinWatch. The clue to their activities lies in their titles – all they seem to do is ‘watch’ people, constantly looking for evidence of dodgy dealings. In a recent interview with LobbyWatch, Monbiot claimed that Furedi and others who were involved first with Living Marxism magazine in the 1990s and later with spiked have, over the past few years, pursued a ‘coordinated programme of action’. Apparently they ‘moved first of all into one industry, television, and then into another, science communication, more or less as a body [of people]’. Monbiot says this secret group has not ‘necessarily swirled their blood around in a bowl and made some sacred pact’. (Note the use of the phrase ‘not necessarily’! In other words, they might have….) But they have, he says, ‘[colonised] the means of communication between scientists and the public’ (1).
So, Professor Furedi, are you the leader of a secretive, and by the sounds of things hugely successful entryist cult? He sighs.
‘The stories that have been spun about me have all the hallmarks of a classical conspiracy theory. Firstly, every individual I come into contact with, even if it’s just for five minutes, is immediately deemed to be my co-conspirator. And secondly, the very fact that the websites obsessed with me cannot actually discover a conspiratorial plot is taken as evidence that a very serious one must exist! That has always been the conspiracy theorists’ view: the more difficulty they have in uncovering a plot, the more crazily convinced they become that a plot is taking place. It’s like what Donald Rumsfeld said about Saddam’s WMD: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”’
Certain Furedi-bashing websites and journalists seem to use what one critical study of conspiracy theories has called ‘the fallacy of the spider’s web’ – that is, they link individuals together into a web and then say, ‘Hey presto! If they’re linked then they must be working on the same plot….’ In Critical Thinking About Conspiracy Theories, Jerry Goodenough says: ‘All too often, conspiracy theories proceed in this fashion, weaving together a web of conspirators on the basis of who knows who. But personal acquaintance is not necessarily a transitive relation.’ (2) The end result is that ‘some of the individuals mentioned as being part of my alleged plot are people I either don’t know at all or people I’ve had maybe a 10-minute conversation with over the past 10 years’, says Furedi. Yet the spider’s web approach means they can all be sinisterly weaved together. So the fact that Furedi wrote for Living Marxism in the 1980s and 90s, and so did Fiona Fox, who currently is director of the Science Media Centre in London, is taken as evidence that Furedi and Fox are in cahoots to dominate the public debate about science – despite the fact that Furedi has no links with the Science Media Centre!
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This has been the approach of conspiracy theorists for as long as conspiracy theories have existed – from rural anti-Semites in prewar Germany who drew links between various Jewish tailors to show there was a Great Jewish Conspiracy to control tailoring in Europe, to today’s left-leaning greens who draw links between Furedi and others to show there is a Furediite plot to control science communication. (As it happens, the conspiratorially-minded amongst you might well spot some similarities between Monbiot and Co’s conspiracies and those of anti-Semitic websites. One racist online publication has accused Furedi, who has Hungarian Jewish origins, of leading a ‘Jew-directed attack on the mainstream’ – and it cites as evidence various Guardian articles written by Monbiot about Furedi and his cabal.) (3)
Furedi says that, ‘like everyone else’, he has a network of ‘friends, mates, colleagues, comrades’ – ‘people who I discuss issues with and try to clarify what is going on in the world’. It would be surprising if Furedi did not have such a network. He was, after all, involved in revolutionary left-wing politics for many years. Born in Hungary in 1947, he and his family fled to Montreal in 1956, following the crushing of the Hungarian Uprising by the Stalinists. Furedi moved to London in the 1970s where he got stuck in to left-wing activism. He and others founded the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) in 1981, which published a weekly newspaper called the next step and later the monthly magazine Living Marxism, which was edited by Mick Hume. The RCP developed a reputation for its no-BS stance on issues such as militarism and free speech. It wound up in 1996.
Furedi keeps in touch with many of the friends he made during that period. ‘And I’m very pleased about that – the fact that people I was engaged with in intellectual discussions, and who I collaborated with on different projects, are still, for the most part, happy to be mates and debate the big issues with me.’ Yet in keeping with their conspiratorial approach – for this is another key component of the conspiracy theory – Furedi’s green-ink critics argue that all the ‘revolutionary communist’ and ‘Living Marxism’ stuff was a cover for Furedi’s and others’ real agenda: which apparently is a right-wing campaign to diss environmentalists and raise support for unbridled corporatism. In his recent interview, Monbiot says that Living Marxism was ‘about as far away from a Marxist journal as you could possibly get’. Just as the Anti-Defamation League is accused by some of being a cover for the Zionist World Government, and the Bush administration a cover for big oily business, so Monbiot alleges that the use of the word ‘Marxism’ in Living Marxism was ‘a direct and deliberate attempt to distract attention from the fact that this was a far right-wing libertarian publication’.
Furedi laughs. ‘Living Marxism sprung from the tradition of the anti-Stalinist left. That is who inspired us. If you read the magazine you will see the influence of Roman Rosdolsky, Henryk Grossman, Lukacs, Rakovsky, Trotsky – members of the Workers’ Opposition and the Left Opposition. The title of the magazine itself is taken from an earlier journal called “Living Marxism” published before the Second World War under the editorship of Paul Mattick, who also influenced us very much.’ Furedi says the reason many on the mainstream left, including today’s left-leaning environmentalists, cannot conceive of Living Marxism as having been a left-wing publication is because it was passionately pro-freedom and anti-state. And ‘much of the left, in the twentieth century, tended to be influenced by Stalinist and Social-Democratic traditions, which means they could not imagine that you could be left-wing and anti-state’, he says. ‘So they were confused by us. But that was their fault, not ours. It was a product of their own abandonment of liberty in favour of ideas about state control.’
He points out that many of Living Marxism’s heroes were also, in earlier eras, accused by their critics of hiding their ‘real agendas’. ‘They, too, were denounced for not being what they claimed to be.’ When Trotsky tried to get a visa to enter the US in 1939, his Stalinist enemies accused him of being in ‘the pay of the oil magnates and the FBI’ (4). Some habits die hard on the left. Today there are whispers that Furedi and others are somehow linked to oil magnates like ExxonMobil – well, they must be if they criticise the politics of environmentalism, right? Far from being a right-wing rag, Living Marxism ‘stood shoulder-to-shoulder with those individuals who were dragged before the Stalinist showtrials and targeted as “American spies”’, says Furedi.
Furedi balks at the suggestion that he has ‘abandoned Marxism’ to pursue a right-wing agenda. In fact, he says he often feels more Marxist than any of his other left-wing friends do. He says the critique of environmentalism that he and others pursue today, including on spiked, shows a continuity from the revolutionary politics of the past, rather than a break from them.
‘The thrust of mine and others’ questioning of environmentalism comes from a view which used to be considered the hallmark of left-wing thinking – namely, we must understand that the problems that face the world are not biological or natural or problems of religion; they are social problems. In contrast to other sections of society, one thing that defined left-wing thinking was to appreciate that, whether it is poverty or unemployment or whatever, these are social rather than natural problems. I think the critique of green politics continues within that tradition, a tradition that began with the nineteenth-century critique of Malthus and which continues through the arguments on spiked about environmentalism today.’
For Furedi, the depressing thing about the increasingly cranky antics of the small group of intolerant conspiracy theorists is that they ignore all the many things he has said and written over the past 20 years in favour of focusing on parts of his life that ‘were entirely tangential to my real life’. He was interviewed for the Channel 4 series Against Nature, which was critical of environmentalism, in 1997; he says he spent ‘about two-and-half hours of my life’ talking to the Against Nature production team. Yet his being interviewed for that series is, unbelievably, cited as evidence that he was part of a ‘coordinated campaign’ to take over the TV industry. And so convinced are the idiotic conspiracists that Against Nature was a high-level conspiracy to humiliate greens that it is just about the only aspect of Furedi’s life over the past 20 years that they talk about. ‘The other 19 years, 11 months, three weeks, six days and 21 hours, the books, the articles, the speeches, they just ignore that stuff….’
Furedi believes there are two reasons why the green-ink greens focus on what he allegedly does behind closed doors rather than what he says upfront and out loud. First, he says, because they have ‘severe intellectual limitations’. ‘People like Monbiot actually do not understand anything that is not written in the obvious, predictable way. They don’t understand what I’m saying.’ And second, it is because they have ‘a very parochial, censorious approach’. ‘So if you say something that they find objectionable, then they take it as a sign not only that you are wrong but that you are morally suspect’, says Furedi. ‘And once people are labelled morally suspect, then you can do what everyone from the Spanish Inquisition to the McCarthyites did – which is to not take seriously what they’re saying, but to look for hidden meanings.’
What is a final key aspect of every conspiracy theory? It is the attempt to get certain suspicious individuals hounded out of public life. In his recent interview, Monbiot makes clear that one of his aims is to get those he alleges are part of an anti-green plot sacked from their jobs. He says: ‘[W]hat absolutely staggers me is none of these people have lost their positions. And indeed, some of these people gained positions subsequent to [the publication of my Guardian article about them].’ Can you believe it? ‘These people’ still have jobs! Furedi is struck by Monbiot’s unguarded outburst. ‘A while ago I said in an interview that he was trying to get me fired from my job. He phoned me up and denied it and said it was slander. Yet now he admits to being astonished that people like me, or people who might have similar views to mine, are employed in responsible positions.’
From their craven search for hidden agendas to their spider-web linking of various individuals to their censorious and McCarthyite demands: they might be treehuggers by day, but these individuals share all the worst traits of the most hardened conspiracy theorists. Furedi says he is ‘quite able to handle’ whatever the network throws at him. And anyway, he has more important things to do. He enters his seventh decade with a clear and resolute outlook. ‘In the twenty-first century, it is important to look over the past century and learn from some of the mistakes and some of the positive developments’, he says. ‘For me the central thing today is to challenge the very naturalist, Malthusian impulse in society, so that we can instead develop a socially experimentative and more confident and optimistic attitude to people’s capacity to solve the problems that face them.
‘We need a humanist politics for the coming century. And trying to make that happen is my only agenda.’
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Frank Furedi’s latest book is The Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, published by Continuum. Visit Furedi’s website here.
(1) Interview with George Monbiot, LobbyWatch, April 2007
(2) Critical Thinking About Conspiracy Theories, Jerry Goodenough, UEA – available here
(3) Why Jews’ news are very bad news, Heretical.com, 14 November 2005
(4) The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky, 1929-1940, Isaac Deutscher, Oxford University Press, 1963