Officious: Rise of the Busybody State is an intellectually gripping analysis of what its author Josie Appleton characterises as a new kind of state power, one that is arbitrary and encroaching on what is left of our unregulated lives. As the director of the Manifesto Club, civil-liberties campaign group, Appleton has done much to expose the arbitrary and intrusive ways of contemporary British officialdom. She has long drawn attention to the damaging effect that criminal-record checks for those wanting to work with children were having on all kinds of voluntary activities, from the scouts to Sunday schools. She has also campaigned against the arbitrary regulation of public spaces, be it the routine hectoring of buskers or the clampdowns on drinking in public spaces.
With Officious, though, Appleton has taken a step back from the immediacy of day-to-day campaigning. The result is a strikingly thoughtful reconstruction of the emergence of the busybody state.
Starting with an account of the new officialdom, Appleton sets to one side the question of officialdom’s focus on, say, child protection or anti-social behaviour, and looks instead at the intrinsic character of this new kind of public authority. It is an approach that pays off. Rather than be drawn into the construction of the moral panic that justifies each particular new regulation, she looks at the nature, roles and activities of the new officials.
Appleton shows that the drive to officialdom has created a great many new points of official interaction and intervention in everyday life, with organisations now obliged to allow officers to regulate any number of new concerns, from health and safety to anti-bullying. These new officials, writes Appleton, are weirdly informal, often found sporting fleeces or fluorescent yellow safety jackets and badges to show that they are officials, but without the esprit de corps of the old-fashioned police force. That, she explains, is because their proliferation is not driven by a sharp distinction between the state on the one hand and civil society on the other, but by the blurring and breaking down of that distinction.
As Appleton explains, the new officiousness is driven not by any conventional authoritarian impulse, but rather by the breakdown of traditional modes of authority. The need constantly to expand regulatory frameworks comes about precisely because the old-fashioned sources of authority, the moral underpinnings of traditional society, are falling away. The peculiar outcome of all this is informal rule-making and the appointment of officials in all walks of life, whether employed, like council officers, or appointed, like workplace-safety wardens. The new officialdom, Appleton explains, is curiously amoral in its moralising. All kinds of activities, from walking a dog to having a drink on a beach, are deemed inappropriate or anti-social, but not in any way that can be justified by an appeal to moral law or principle. The reasoning behind the demand for orderly or secure behaviour is unstated, assumed, perhaps because it is not possible to put into words the underlying impetus to regulate.