Here’s my talk from the recent Battle of Ideas festival session — Kindergarten culture: why does government treat us like children? — which some readers may find interesting. Some context: it begins with a reference to the proposal to ban smoking in public parks in Britain.
The assumption in arguments to ban smoking is that smoker and non-smokers cannot negotiate between themselves. The no smoking sign when it is required by law then, is functionally equivalent to a no thinking sign.
I can see why some people might find that claim far-fetched. It’s not a huge inconvenience to say, ‘you have to go over there to smoke’. Smoking is smelly, after all.
Banning things like smoking may seem trivial, but underpinning the banning is a fundamental shift in political culture that can be seen more broadly, operating at different levels of society, finding different expression in various aspects of public and private life.
My interest is in debates about the environment, and the political ideas which underpin those debates. I don’t think it’s enough to take the interventions we’re talking about – that treat adults as children — at face value, as face-value treatments of real problems.
For example: I wasn’t surprised to see that Alan Johnson MP had written an article in the Guardian called ‘If I were king for a day, I would ban coca cola’. That company, he believes, forces people to drink sugary pop. “My power allows me to save adults from themselves”, he said “to push them towards healthier beverages such as rooibos tea and mango juice”.
When Sir Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society was asked by Prospect magazine what he would do if he ruled the world. He said that “Only an enlightened despot could push through the measures needed to navigate the 21st century safely”.
REES: “Space-ship Earth is hurtling through space. Its passengers are anxious and fractious. Their entire life-support system is vulnerable to break-downs. But there is no ‘captain’ —no authority to safeguard the planet’s future.”
So I believe the premise of both Rees and Johnson’s positions is roughly the same: if we’re not even capable of deciding what to drink, how can we possibly take part in big decisions about the environment, or the management of the economy?
If it were only Martin Rees or Alan Johnson saying it, it would be easier to take their arguments at face value. But every political institution seems to be making the same order of claim.
On Rees’s view, democracy is not a sufficiently capable captain of “spaceship earth. It’s not enough for Rees that we should decide who the captain should be, and what his standing orders are. The public are simply not competent to make that choice. They lack the knowledge, expertise, and intelligence to make choices about their government.
What I think is going on here in political terms is that rather than seeking a mandate from the public, political authority increasingly turns to researchers, doctors, scientists and special interest groups. It is from them we get the claim that sugar is like crack cocaine, and that the planet is like a spaceship without a captain, careering towards its doomsday.
Researchers are commissioned to identify risks – even the most theoretical risks – give power to arguments for something to be done, and for new political organisations to see that something is done.
Nicholas Stern for example, author of the Stern Report on the economics of climate change, which set the ground for much UK climate policy, claims that ‘policy making is usually about risk-management’.
Stern gives the game away. Back when people were mostly able to manage their own exposure to risk, “policy makers’ used to be called ‘politicians’, and policy-making was called politics.
But politics has been hollowed out in this new political settlement and debates descend to the parent-child or doctor-patient metaphors because these are the zero-level of dependent relationships. And this is all about creating dependent relationships, rather than relationships based on assent, or consent, by willing, engaged subjects.
In conclusion then, I don’t think we should take the attempt to eliminate risks from public and private life at face value. Risk Society, as it was conceived by Ulrich Beck and Blair’s favourite sociologist, Anthony Giddens has been used as a political instrument, not to mitigate risk.
That’s not to say that risks do not exist. They certainly do. But under the logic of Risk Society, the more the ordinary adult’s faculties are diminished, so the greater the risk they are exposed to appears to be, and so the greater the imperative for the government to intervene becomes.