Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Against the New Authoritarianism

By Mark Featherstone, Senior Lecturer in Sociology  

Recent research prompted me to write this blog in order to think through the broad social and political landscape of Britain today. Working on material for one of my undergraduate modules, Sex, Death, Desire, which focuses on the social and cultural value of psychoanalysis, and a current research project on psychoanalysis and globalisation, I read a Samaritans’ report, Men, Suicide, and Society. This report explains the rising rate of suicide amongst socially disadvantaged men and paints a bleak picture of contemporary British society. This reminded me of the recent visit to Keele by Swayne O’Pie, author of a book about the hatred of men in contemporary Britain, and also put me in mind of debates I had watched on the BBC2 current affairs programme Newsnight – in particular, I was reminded of a debate focussed on the state of welfare and public opinion about issues of poverty broadcast on 7th March, 2013. It occurred to me that these apparently unrelated events can be seen as symptomatic of a deeply worrying trend in British society and politics – a more or less unopposed swing to the right that recalls the popular authoritarianism of the Thatcher years.

Reading the Samaritans’ report immediately reminded me of O’Pie’s book – Why Britain Hates Men. This is essentially an anti-feminist polemic full of claims that women choose inequality, sexualisation, and abuse that simply ignore, and are indeed designed to defend, the embedded nature of gender inequality and violence in society. At this point, I think I must stress, there is nothing in this book that would lead one to explicitly defend the position of men in contemporary society, because it is an attack on women’s right to fight for equality. However, from a psychological point of view, and students of my current module on psychoanalysis would recognise this, O’Pie views are clearly the result of his perception that men have lost their place in society. While this may be true, because of the decline of industry and the rise of the post-industrial mode of production, it is not the fault of feminists who want to pursue the emancipation of women from patriarchal domination.

If men are indeed redundant in contemporary Britain, this is because of a mode of production which has left them behind, and a form of globalised trade which has outsourced industrial work to other parts of the world. The impact of these systemic effects on men is evident in the Samaritans’ report, which was also reported on Newsnight (broadcast, 5th March, 2013). Centrally, what the Samaritans’ work highlights is the problem of men committing suicide in a society wracked by high levels of social and economic precariousness. The key here is the emphasis on social and economic precariousness – this is the proper sociological / psychoanalytic response to this kind of condition because it focuses on systemic effects. Unfortunately, this is not the established line in contemporary Britain, where the populist position, often advanced by politicians courting public opinion, is to attack other groups. This position, which reflects the authoritarian, fascistic, response of social problems, is useful for elites because it excuses them from having to take on systemic problems. Essentially, it is much easier to blame others and turn them into ‘out groups’.

Unfortunately, this rightist, authoritarian, response to social problems is far too prevalent in Britain today. On the 7th March Newsnight debate, for example, we were told that the public has no time for the poor, and that welfare is a burden that Britain cannot afford, because the vulnerable are simply lazy. This position ignores basic sociological truths. One does not need to be a leftist to know that the idea of full employment is a fantasy in capitalist society and that there will never be enough work for everybody. As one of the founding fathers of sociology, Karl Marx, taught in the 1850s, capitalism relies on a reserve army of labour to keep those in work on their toes. Marx called this reserve army the lumpenproletariat. Today, we call them the underclass, the excluded, or chavs. The latter is, of course, the language of class hate, which Owen Jones discusses in his excellent Chavs. The Lancaster Sociologist Imogen Tyler, reflects upon the same condition of systemically produced hatred in her new book Revolting Subjects, and I have also spoken about this new authoritarian politics in my article Hoodie Horror. Essentially, what we find in these works is an explanation of the way a society systematically creates outsiders, who it then blames for their own exclusion in order to evade the difficult question of the need for socially and politically managed inclusion.

In the case of unemployment, the truth is that unemployment has nothing to do with laziness. The unemployed are not happy, and I do not believe that they are basking in the warm glow of excessive benefits paid for in hard earned taxes, but are instead an excluded group who suffer the kinds of psychological problems outlined in the Samaritans’ report. As anybody who has ever been unemployed will testify, unemployment destroys a person from the inside out. Unfortunately, this psychological destruction makes the unemployed an easy target for critics of welfare who want to drive down taxes and encourage a society based on violent, aggressive, individualism. How can the unemployed, the poor, the vulnerable speak when they first, have no political representation and second, have no sense of their own value because they have been psychologically undermined by conditions such as worklessness?

In this way, those men made redundant by capitalism, men who feel under fire, who Swayne O’Pie feels the need to defend against the virus of feminism, have a real problem. But this problem is that they are being attacked by rightist critics of welfare who condemn them as the underclass, lazy, feckless, and undeserving of support. The problem with O’Pie’s position, then, is that he is attacking the wrong target – the target is not fantastical, monstrous, feminists who are pulling the strings from behind the scenes to destroy men. The real target is the socio-economic system which has made some men redundant, but also transformed many women in sex objects, branded ethnic minorities freeloaders and scroungers, and made children into the frontline of consumerism. As Bernard Stiegler shows in his excellent, and disturbing book, Taking Care of Youth, advertising agencies think about children in terms of available brain time to be colonised and controlled. Here, the child is an object, an object to be exploited for the sake of profit. Of course, all of this violence is excused away by elites, who would rather not confront real social problems, because this would require large scale systemic change.

The truth is that contemporary capitalism is in favour of equal opportunities – it is indiscriminate in its violence. It does not care. All that matters is the bottom line. Of course, in times of economic stress and recession it is easy for people to turn to the politics of hate, because the politics of systemic exclusion mean that it is either you or me. We live in a society defined by precariousness and what we know most surely is that our socio-economic position is not secure. On the contrary, life is defined by insecurity. Under these conditions, it is easy to attack the other who is different from you, seek to elevate your own position, and make yourself feel secure by attacking them. If I can demonise and destroy the other it means I am more likely to survive. This is a Hobbesian world and one that I think we have to resist. As students of my module on psychoanalysis would again be able to explain, this is a politics of sadism, a politics of abuse, that we must seek to escape through a sociology that is sympathetic to others and does not see them as dangerous enemies. There is no future in a society of spite, violence, and destruction. As even Hobbes understood, even if I destroy you today, it is only a matter of time before a bigger fish comes along and wipes me out. This is the logic of precariousness and even the most hardened realists - Thomas Hobbes and the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud – knew, it is suicidal for humans to try to live this way.

No comments: