Taking a stand against the hyper-regulation of life
When everything from looking after kids to dancing in pubs requires a licence, Josie Appleton suggests a summer rebellion against regulation.
There is no doubt that, over the past few years, there has been a fundamental shift in the relationship between state and civil society in Britain. But this shift has a peculiar quality. It is not that the state is oppressing society, or remoulding society in line with a political ideology. There are no New Labour boot camps; no smashing of newspapers that criticise the government.
The peculiar quality to state intervention was suggested by a letter I received recently, from my local National Health Service (NHS) trust. The letter announced a new NHS Camden initiative called ‘Walking Maps’, which ‘encourages local people to lead a healthier lifestyle by incorporating walking into their schedules’. The trust had mapped five walks around the borough of Camden in London, and invited me to come to the launch – where I could try one of the walks, and also ‘get lifestyle advice from our health trainers’ about healthy eating and so on.
It is not so much that the state is remoulding civil society. Instead, the state is demanding that we live our everyday lives through it. We are invited for a walk with the state; we are invited to eat with the state. More and more of social life is now lived through the state as an intermediary. Our everyday actions are supervised – and authorised – by an official bureaucracy.
The emblem of this peculiar situation is the licence. Obviously in pubs, you need a licence to sell alcohol. Now, however, you also need a licence for just about every other activity you might want to perform inside a pub. You need a sporting license to play darts. If somebody wants to watch the darts, you need a sporting events licence. There is a licence for dancing, which can be strictly enforced: undercover council officials spotted people ‘swaying’ in a bar in Westminster and chastised the owners. There is a licence to play music. There is even a ‘spoken word’ license, to cover poetry readings and plays.
The Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check, where all adults who work with children must first submit to an analysis of their pasts, is in effect a safe-adult licence – and if you don’t have it you shouldn’t go anywhere near children who are not your own, we are told. There is a licence to protest. In some areas you need a licence to hand out political leaflets, or to take photographs.
The meaning of the licence is, in effect, that you need the state’s permission to live. Your life is licensed. You can only dance, protest, photograph, volunteer and so on if you have the correct card.
Unlicensed social life is declared dirty and dangerous. If you don’t have the CRB check, you are a potential paedophile. If you don’t have an ID card, you are not a legitimate citizen (though the UK government has recently announced that ID cards probably won’t be compulsory). If you don’t have your photography licence, you are probably a terrorist taking pictures of public buildings in order to destroy those buildings at a later date.
Everyone who is not on a database, or who does not have a card to account for their actions, is illegitimate at best, and dangerous or tainted at worst. The state puts itself in the position of constituting civil society – not, however, by remoulding it, but merely by requiring that everyday life is authorised. It becomes the mass issuer of permission slips – permission to dance, sing, or read poetry. The state doesn’t so much ban activities as request that we ask it for its permission first.
We are seeing the bureaucratisation of everyday life. The methods of bureaucracy – which would have occurred in only very specific spheres in the past – now become part of every sphere.
There is a code or policy for the simplest situations. The English Golf Association has a ‘late-pick-up’ policy, which is a policy to deal with the situation of parents picking up their kids late after golf practice. The volunteer should wait with the child – categorically not give the child a lift home! – preferably with another adult, and in open view. If the parents cannot be contacted, the volunteer should consider calling the police for advice. Getting a child to and from sports practice now comes with an instruction manual.
Public space has been divided into zones: home zone, no-booze zone, low-emission zone, and so on. Although this is bureaucracy-speak, so it is not always clear what a particular zone means, and what implications it has for your behaviour. In a café in Elephant and Castle in London, I saw a sign saying that this was part of an ‘Age Check Zone’.
You could say: it’s only a drink in the park, it’s only the local nursery, it’s only a game of darts in the pub – who cares if there are licences and checks? These are not suitably dramatic freedom issues: these are not about police beatings, or smashing printing presses, or banning political organisations.
But I would turn this around and say: if we can’t even have a drink in the park, how can we have a demonstration? If we need permission to help out at our child’s nursery, how can we change the government? If social life is licensed at its every step, then we cannot be citizens or subjects in any other respect.
The Manifesto Club campaigns on we what call ‘flashpoint freedom issues’. These are the points at which there is a conflict between state regulation and people’s aspirations, desires or sense of their own autonomy. These are the points where the silent process of state regulation can be revealed, made conscious, and protested against.
Our campaigns – including our campaigns against vetting, or against booze bans – have laid the groundwork for this. Our Freedom Summer events series takes this project further, around the rallying cry: social life should not be licensed!
Previously on spiked
Josie Appleton explained why the freedom of civil society is more important than ever. She also observed that across Britain, the police are behaving like gangsters. Mick Hume observed a rights kerfuffle. Dolan Cummings looks at how anti-smokers are stubbing out liberty. After the Convention on Modern Liberty, Tim Black asked what next for freedom? Philip Hammond explained why human rights are wrong. Filmmaker Chris Atkins said ‘New Labour flushed liberty down the toilet’. Or read more at spiked issue Liberties.