October 24, 2004
The Politics of Fear
Richard Sennett is a very perceptive man. In a recent article in the Guardian he identifies a phenomenon underlying politics in the US, which I believe has wider implications for the rest of the world. As he puts it:
�...In the wealthiest country on Earth, the economic engine rouses Ricardo�s ancient spectre of uselessness; the class map is shrinking the number of people who matter, who are included. The new class map breeds fear, and the counter to fear is to assert that the old values matter. By shifting the centre of gravity, you assert your own value when confronted with conditions you can do nothing about.�
Reading Sennett�s piece, which I urge you to read with some care, I was reminded of an essay by Jock Young , � From Inclusive To Exclusive Society: Nightmares In The European Dream �, which takes a longer historical look at how we reached this phenomenon. In it he traces the move from what he calls the Inclusive Society, which was the major thrust of politics in the advanced industrial countries of the West from the end of the 2nd World War to some point in the mid-Seventies, to that of the Exclusive Society, which seems to head the political agenda now. As Jock Young says:
�If we picture contemporary meritocracy as a racetrack where merit is rewarded according to talent and effort, we find a situation of two tracks and a motley of spectators: a primary labour market where rewards are apportioned according to plan but where there is always the chance of demotion to the second track where rewards are substantially inferior and only small proportions of the track are open to competitors and there is always the chance of being demoted to the role of spectators. As for the spectators, their exclusion is made evident by barriers and heavy policing: they are denied real access to the race but are the perpetual spectators of the glittering prizes on offer.�
This agenda, seems to me, to be a recipe for disaster. The politicians, who play the game of amplifying the fears of those who sense they no longer matter or who may at some point may fall into that group, are like people fighting for chairs on the Titanic. Sadly, when I look at politics here in the UK and in the USA, those seem to be the majority of the political voices.
A small step towards moving us back to more inclusive notions of society and countering the insecurities that plague too many people�s lives would be to explore seriously the idea of a Universal Basic Income . Even a sensible widespread debate about the notion could be a means of shifting the point of gravity away from the politics of fear to a politics of why people matter. As Sennett has written elsewhere, �a regime �which provides human beings no deep reasons to care about one another cannot long preserve its legitimacy�.