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.