The Newspeak of ‘human-centred’

David Chandler’s Freedom vs Necessity dissects the way governments offer us choice today - as long as we make the ‘right’ choice.

In George Orwell’s nightmare dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1948, the government of the future has a Ministry of Peace (which is dedicated to fighting endless wars), a Ministry of Truth (which spreads propaganda and rewrites the historical records), a Ministry of Plenty (which rations basic goods to a bare minimum) and a Ministry of Love (which hunts down dissidents).

In his new book, Freedom vs Necessity, David Chandler, professor of international relations at the University of Westminster, offers a masterful summation of the latest trends in policy internationally and domestically. The book lays bare the claims of governments to put people and their decision-making at the centre of policy. What Chandler shows to great effect is that the latest claims of policymakers and theorists to a human-centred approach result in something like its opposite. In a wide range of cases - from the United Nations’ Human Development Report to the Cabinet Office’s prioritisation of the ‘choice environment’ - Chandler explains how ‘human-centred’ policy is, in fact, very far from human-centred. The real aim is for people to align their behaviour and choices to the outcomes chosen by those in power, rather than deciding such outcomes for themselves. ‘Human-centred’ policy turns out to have as much to do with people deciding for themselves as the Ministry of Peace had to do with Peace, or the Ministry of Plenty to do with Plenty in Orwell’s novel.

Chandler draws attention to the irony of a worldview that imagines a much greater role for human action ending up making the case for greater restraints on freedom. As he explains, one of the marked prejudices of our times is that humanity now has such an impact on the external world – for example, through pollution – that its industrial output threatens the very existence of life on the planet. Similarly, he observes, we have an exaggerated view of the way that our own health is shaped by the choices that we make. Political loyalties, too, are now widely seen as a great destructive force, limiting more positive outcomes.

In contemporary social theory, there seems to be a greater reckoning of human influence - so much so, in fact, that many of these theorists insist that the world, and even human nature, is a ‘social construct’. Though this approach seems to enthrone humanity, notes Chandler, it tends to see human impact as largely negative or even outright destructive. Where everything is reckoned to be a social construct, says Chandler, all the problems in the world become direct expressions of human fallibility. Chandler’s more modest insistence that there is an objective reality outside of human action, he argues, gives a greater opportunity to anticipate changing that reality for the better and, therefore, a larger role for humanity.

Chandler explains how David Cameron’s Big Society proposals were worked through into the Cabinet Office’s Strategic National Framework on Community Resilience. The original claim was that government would step back to let people decide better for themselves how to run their communities. As it turns out, though, what the policy wonks had in mind was that the role of government would be to build social capacity so that communities could come to the right choices, once the right ‘choice environment’ had been created. As Chandler explains, the policy proposals draw on an idea of ‘community resilience’. But this turns out not to be a case of communities making decisions, but communities adapting to new conditions, exhibiting ‘resilience’. Here, members of the community take ownership of the problem, but without really having the power to change their circumstances so much as change themselves.

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Here, the Cabinet Office is drawing on the ideas of the academic and New Labour policy wonk, Anthony Giddens, and his ideas of the auto-telic self and of the democratisation of society. Like Giddens, the Cabinet Office sees democratisation and self-determination not in traditional political terms - as the sovereignty of a people over its government - but rather in the opposite direction: as the capacity of individuals to master their lives, take responsibility individually for social problems, and redirect their aspirations away from political solutions towards renegotiating their relations with one another. As Chandler explains, this approach is not really ‘neo-liberal’, as is often argued, but rather should be seen as a ‘post-liberal’ policy. It does not truly enthrone the individual subject, as classical liberal theory does, but rather takes as its focus a vulnerable or needy subject, whose success is not in taking control of his or her circumstances, but in adapting to them.

The shortcomings of this supposedly human-centred policy approach are wider than British social policy. Chandler shows that the very influential ideas of the development economist Amartya Sen have had a great influence on the framing of the United Nations’ Development Goals. Sen made a name for himself with the idea of ‘development as freedom’ (in his book of that name, published in 1999). Moving away from traditional ideas of development as material improvement, Sen argued that real development would come through developing social capacity, mostly through education, and building resilience in communities, so that they could better absorb the unanticipated problems that descended upon them. Where more traditional development literature tended to dismiss the question of democracy in favour of greater welfare, Sen’s focus on development as freedom seemed like a welcome one.

But as Chandler explains, Sen’s own approach, enshrined in the UN Development Report, is less respectful of people’s own choices than you might expect. According to Sen ‘the outcome one wants is a reasoned assessment’ but ‘the underlying question’ is ‘whether the person has had an adequate opportunity to reason about what she really wants’. Building capacity turns out to mean building capacity to make the right choices – in other words, the choices that development economists think are the right choices. ‘Reducing risk-taking among youth requires that they have the information and the capacity to make and act on decisions’, explains the World Bank’s Development Report.

A chapter on the changing arguments in international security policy explains how attitudes towards humanitarian intervention have changed over the past 20 years, from the 1993 Bosnia intervention through to recent events in Libya. Chandler shows how both the terrain and the arguments over intervention have changed. The humanitarian interventions of the 1990s were pointedly justified in contrast to sovereignty, with the intervening powers assuming responsibility for the governance of supposedly failed states. Today, though, the arguments for intervention have been adjusted. Now intervention and sovereignty are not counterposed. Rather, it is claimed, intervention is undertaken to assist states to exercise sovereignty. Here the very meaning of sovereignty has changed. No longer seen as a claim for self-government, sovereignty is re-imagined as a capacity of local rulers to fulfil the proper course of action.

Freedom and Necessity in International Relations is an important contribution to the understanding of modern policymaking, both in the international and domestic spheres. The subtleties and mystifications in the ways that social policies are justified take some careful explication, and Chandler is the man to do it. Particularly useful is his own restatement in the book’s conclusion of the case for a policy framework that, in seeing human choice as mediated through political contestation, makes the substantial case for freedom. This is freedom in its true sense, not as an Orwellian codeword for having your choices framed for you by the appropriate authorities.

James Heartfield is author most recently of The European Union and the End of Politics, published by ZER0 Books. Visit his website here.

Freedom vs Necessity in International Relations, by David Chandler, is published by Zed Books, London, 2013. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)

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