BOOK REVIEW: Politics of fear, by Frank Furedi

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.

10 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Politics of fear, by Frank Furedi

  1. I haven’t yet read the book but based on the extract above, I think you have misinterpreted his point.

    As I read it, he is saying that anti-politics reflects pessimism about the ability to achieve change. Even in a situation of total free trade, that’s arguably true.

    You have to be optimistic to believe that the future can be made better than the past, whether that’s through the government doing more or simply getting out of the way. Optimists engage in politics; pessimists don’t.

    Apart from the fact that his point is more than a little obvious, and it has probably never been any different, I don’t think Furedi is talking bullshit.

  2. If your goal is liberalism then disengaging from politics won’t help in achieving it. However I do think that there is a logic to disengagement which relates to the utility of time expended versus any potential personal gain. In essense there is something of a free rider problem. To engage in politics entails more than mere optimism.

  3. Either you believe that the government can fix problems and improve the world, or you have given up to fate…

    … OR you believe that you can fix problems and you can improve your world, without the government.

    I take the last position. I’m optimistic about people improving their life and helping others, but pessimistic about the ability of government to make the world better. I haven’t given up to fate. According to Furedi, I don’t exist.

  4. Fixing things WITHOUT the government? Come on John! Get serious! Don’t go too radical on us here! We need governments to, to,… um talk to other Governments! Who would do that, if we didn’t have any governments? Bet you hadn’t thought of that, had you?

  5. Interesting John.
    I think the false dichotomy you identify is probably a symptom that we encounter often when talking to non-capitalists. (Whether or not Furedi actually falls into this trap, I can’t comment on).

    People don’t see the difference between force and voluntary interactions. They don’t understand that a populist monopoly organisation with gun-backed force powers is harmful when it enters the realm of business. People don’t understand what force means, what freedom means. People probably don’t even understand the trader principle.
    A great example of how force and freedom are confused occurs when you see lefties demanding total freedom of speech and protesting on university grounds. But ideally you do not have the freedom to say what ever you want on someone else’s property even if they invite you onto their property. Unions cross the property rights line too, there’s probably many examples.

    Many people in my experience assume that government intervention actually works. According to Furedi, this proportion is dropping.

    But we have many people who realise that government intervention doesn’t work very well, but they don’t expect that anything will work, therefore they still assume government intervention works better than privatisation. This is a very common viewpoint and it gives capitalists the biggest problem, namely that these people cannot be convinced that government intervention is a bad thing even when they are shown the facts and figures. eg/ If I tell someone that literacy rates have dropped even though education expenditure has increased. They don’t care. The empirical data is irrelevant to them because they simply assume that government is the only way.

    I agree about your pessimism concepts only I’d go further. I am sick to death of being told I am cynical or pessimistic when I trash government programs.
    It’s the government intervention which is truly pessimisitc of humanity. They are the ones assuming humans cannot be free and they are the ones asserting that humans should not be allowed to operate as they were born to do.

    And one last thing, “with all due respect …, that is utter bullshit” ……”stupitity …. of this bullshit” ….. “hurts to read”
    – I’d hate to see you when you’re not showing due respect. Actually I probably have. 🙂

    [JOHN: Good point. I toned it down.]

  6. On first reading I thought that he was saying the anti-political were simply acquiescing to the inevitability of government. In a sense I find that true. Unless people are willing to use the political system, the political system will always be there. That is the fate anti-politicians need to accept. I don’t believing abstaining from voting will bring about voluntary voting- only voting for a party that supports voluntary voting will bring about that change. So the anti-political are resigning themselves to a fate of a particular kind.

    But re-reading I realised I’d missed the point and found my own point, perhaps because I found it so hard to think that someone could actually believe in such a dichotomy and totally miss liberal optimists. Furedi uses words like “the world” as if they are synonymous with “politics” and “society” as if it’s synonymous with “government”. The anti-political does accept the state of government as unavoidable and unchangeable, but does not necessarily accept the state of the world as unchangeable and unavoidable.

  7. On ocassions that I have read Furedi’s work, I find myself agreeing with his reasoning only to be suprised that he comes to unexepected conclusions that I completely disagree with. He is a sophist in a “dark sense”.

    He views government as important in many more ways than this (me)Libertarian would view its role. He often is critical of business entrepreneurs.

    In this case he gets it wrong from the beginining.

    “In fact, the affirmation of anti-politics expresses a profoundly pessimistic outlook towards the future”

    as John says it is BS.

  8. Pingback: Some book reviews « Chapter 5

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