I had heard some good things about Furedi, and there are some excellent parts of this book — ‘Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right’ — but unfortunately there is a major confusion at the core of the book which is hard to forgive.
Furedi has noticed that people are disengaging from politics. And he doesn’t like it. From p29:
“In fact, the affirmation of anti-politics expresses a profoundly pessimistic outlook towards the future. It represents a new form of deference. Whereas in the past people deferred to hierarchical authority, today they are encouraged to defer to Fate. Disengagement allows other to determine your fate. Anti-politics is not, as it sometimes appears, a rejection of particular parties and politicians, but an expression of a deeper conviction that politics as such is futile. The very idea that anybody could achieve any positive results through political action is often dismissed as naïve or arrogant. But those who perceive some sort of radical imperative behind the rejection of politics ignore the fact that the flip-side of anti-politics is the acceptance of the world as it is. ‘Politics is the denial of fate,’ argues the Austrian political scientist Andreas Schedler. Or to put it the other way around, anti-politics represents acquiescence to Fate.”
Similar ideas are expressed elsewhere. With all due respect to Furedi, that is utter bullshit.
Furedi creates a false dichotomy between believing in politics and passively accepting fate. In his mind, the only options are to believe that government will improve the world, or the world can’t be improved. Simply repeating his point more directly exposes the glaring mistake.
What Furedi, in all his wisdom, is entirely unaware of is that there is another option besides the government that people can use to pursue their personal and social goals. That alternative is the free market (voluntary exchange for your own benefit) and civil society (voluntary exchange for the general good).
Indeed, the conflict between the pro-government and anti-government points of view is the central conflict in political economy. And yet the starting assumption of Furedi is that you either choose the pro-government option or you have given up.
Furedi claims that anti-politics is pessimistic. Not true. Being anti-politics is simply being pessimistic about the ability of politics to achieve results. And we have good reason to be pessimistic. Politics and government have consistently failed to meet expectations, and the nature of politics means that it never will. Furedi complains that people think the possibility of political success is naïve. But it is naïve. And all the wishing of a horde of hand-holding hairy hippies isn’t going to change that. But this does not mean we need give ourselves up to fate.
While we may not be able to use bureaucracy, tax, regulation and welfare to make the world a better place, we can still use voluntary and peaceful cooperation with other people. This is the position that liberals believe in. And despite the fact that liberals have been around for centuries, Furedi unfortunately hasn’t heard of them. And that undermines his reputation as a thinker.
He does touch on some interesting issues. He notes that ideology is dead. (Killed by democracy, but Furedi doesn’t notice this.) He notices that people join political groups in part for the social element. (Thought this has always been true, and Furedi doesn’t notice this.) And he notices that the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ have lost their meaning.
Sadly, Furedi’s ignorance of liberalism is representative of the majority. For most people today, the main political debate is how the government should control society. The preceding debate about whether the government should control society has been skipped, and consequently the liberal approach (where people control their own lives) has been written out of the story.
But while this political ignorance is normal, and perhaps even understandable in an age of democracy-worship, I had expected more from Furedi.