It’s time to stand up for courage and conviction

Machiavelli and other humanists would have been appalled by today’s bureaucratisation of everyday life that threatens vital public virtues.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

spiked is publishing a series of articles based on talks given at the Battle of Ideas festival, which took place on 30 and 31 October at the Royal College of Art in London. Here, Frank Furedi argues that whilst there is an obsession with ‘public engagement’ today, the very virtues necessary for a public spirit – risk-taking, devotion, courage – are stigmatised.

There has been considerable discussion in recent years about the lack of public engagement in civic and political life. But this discussion suffers from the fact that it’s conducted from the perspective of a political elite that is itself socially isolated. This elite therefore has a perception of the public as an object with which one engages. That itself tells me straightaway that when we use the word ‘public’, we’re almost invariably not talking about the public in the way that it’s been historically understood.

In many respects, the public has become a project, a project of inclusion. New Labour loved having these projects. So every museum would start saying ‘we’re showing fine art, but we’re also spending millions of pounds on including the public’. The moment the public becomes a project that you seek to include artificially, it acquires a fantasy-like character. Hence, virtually everything we say about public engagement – counting the numbers, checking whether the voter turnout has gone up by two per cent since last time and so on – all represent this kind of fantasy of trying to create a link that really isn’t there. Just because you vote at a particular time, just because you come to a meeting, this does not involve or imply the reality of a public.

Historically, a public referred to a group of people with an idea of themselves as distinct and independent, as having something in common, and a sense that it had some power and influence. So therefore the idea of empowering the public is a contradiction in terms: power is gained, not granted. When you ‘empower’ people, you’re not empowering them, you’re enfeebling them.

Today, it seems that almost every form of public engagement – of public relations – is a kind of impression management. People make a lot of money out of it, but it really doesn’t bear upon everyday life. I think the problem is a cultural one and that’s the domain we should be addressing.

The cultural problem that we have today is something that Machiavelli identified over 500 years ago. He grasped that the strength of a body politic is determined by the extent to which it was infused by public spirit. As far as Machiavelli was concerned, a real public spirit accounted for the strength of the Roman Empire – the Roman republic specifically – and also the incredible things that were going on in Florence, Sienna and so on during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. And Machiavelli made the point that public spirit presupposes a set of virtues, forms of behaviour that you expect people to have as part and parcel of everyday life. These virtues would include devotion, courage, patriotic conviction, risk-taking and so on. (That all this seems so terribly old-fashioned now is part of the problem.)

I would argue that almost every single virtue that makes for public spirit is stigmatised by our society. Having recently been listening to people’s recollections at the inquiry into the 7/7 bombings about what happened that terrible day in London in 2005, what really struck me was that you had stories of people wanting to do things for the hurt and injured but who were being told by fire officers that for health and safety reasons they could not go anywhere near these people.

Just imagine: here are all these people, they’re trying to help others, they’re trying to do the right thing, but to do so they have to adhere to a very clear process. All these processes, all these procedures, serve to displace public interaction. They make public virtue dependent on adhering to different codes of conduct.

This displacement of public virtue happens in all sorts of ways. Just this morning, for instance, I heard yet another plea for volunteering – I almost felt like throwing up, I’ve heard it so many times. Now call me old-fashioned, but when I was young you volunteered because you believed in something. You wanted to help people; you wanted, for instance, to give blood. You didn’t do volunteering because it looked good on your CV. So, while volunteering certainly has a virtuous potential, it has been turned into a process that you adhere to much in the way that you clock on to a job.

An example of this stigmatisation of virtue relates to something I feel strongly about, namely, devotion and care. During the course of writing a book a few years ago called Therapy Culture, I noticed that aspects of devotion and care had become increasingly stigmatised, often being expressed and defined as a marker of a disease. In fact, any manifestation of love, friendship, loyalty or altruism was potentially labelled as a form of addictive behaviour. Altruistic behaviour – which hardly seems a bad thing – is actually diagnosed as compulsive helping. According to this definition, compulsive helpers disregard their own needs and feelings and focus on helping another person. That kind of sums up our current situation with regards to public virtue: in a different era, in a different society, this so-called disease would be seen as a positive thing.

Rhetorically, responsibility and loyalty are still upheld as public virtues, of course. But in practice these are undermined, time and time again. Something happened to me recently that made me think about this in a way that I hadn’t before. Last year, my mother died. While she was in hospital, I used to go to visit her all the time. And the very first time I went to visit her, I introduced myself to the nurse: ‘I’m Frank Furedi, I’m Clara’s son.’ The woman looked up at me and said, ‘You mean you’re her “carer”’. ‘No, her son’, I responded. But she was insistent: ‘No, you are her carer.’

It was very interesting that she used the word carer. This kind of terminology displaces the idea that there’s some kind of spontaneous and informal relationship with a bureaucratic typology. It reminds me of the way in which very elementary forms of compassion, of human interaction, have been pretty much blocked out altogether.

For that reason, the public can never have the virtues we want the public to have because we’ve done such a brilliant job at undermining those virtues. It is worth recalling that Machiavelli and other humanists feared the professionalisation of public duty. If you look at their writings, time and again they point to the danger of their city states relying on mercenaries instead of the services provided by citizens. From their perspective, the employment of mercenaries absolved the people from taking responsibility for the future of their community and served as instruments of the corrosion of public duty. That’s more or less what the bureaucratisation of public life has achieved today. It leads to a world where even family responsibility can become outsourced to ‘carers’. In such circumstances the public can’t do anything until a bureaucrat ticks the right box.

So we need a change in cultural attitudes towards the public.

When I was in Australia this summer during the election, the prime minister, Julia Gillard – who I don’t particularly like, but who has her strengths – decided that she would set up a citizens’ assembly to discuss climate change. ‘Why not?’, I thought, ‘this is a good thing’. After all, it affects the citizens, so why shouldn’t they get to discuss it?

But climate change experts opposed to the idea were saying ‘these are citizens, they are not experts on climate change’. The environmentalists were even worse. They were saying, ‘we don’t want citizens because ordinary folk are selfish, they only care about guzzling gas, they want to have big carbon footprints. So we want a proper committee of experts.’ And in the end, when the assembly was set up, Gillard had basically got rid of the idea of an assembly of normal people and had stuffed it with the experts instead.

In a press release she explained that instead of a committee of people, we have a group of experts who have a greater understanding of the challenge of climate change. ‘While the commission will set up a website’, she continued, ‘there are no plans for a major advertising campaign’. The committee concluded that the proposal for a citizens’ assembly should not be implemented and that there would be other ways of harnessing public dialogue and engagement in the science of climate change and engagement in questioning the price of carbon.

This illustrates how the language of public engagement, public dialogue, public inclusion are self-consciously used as a means to push people away. And I don’t blame Gillard or any other politician. I think politicians are in a very difficult situation. It’s not their fault.

What I do have a problem with is the fact we don’t recognise that ordinary people have been silenced, that we’ve forced people to censor themselves in terms of what they actually believe and what they think. And most importantly, instead of culturally validating people’s active, positive side – all the good things about human beings – what we’ve done is subjugate them to the most boring, flattened out form of bureaucratic rule. As long as that’s the case, any form of public engagement will simply be a caricature of itself.

Frank Furedi’s most recent book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics Politics


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