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Beyond Left and Right: Frank Furedi’s “Politics of Fear"

David McKnight’s "Beyond Right and Left: New Politics and the Culture Wars" was reviewed on Webdiary back in October. McKnight is essentially a politician whose analysis of the capture of the parties of the left by the market imperative is used as a basis for a program for regeneration of the left.

Almost simultaneously with McKnight’s Australian publication, a very different analysis by a right-wing sociologist, Frank Furedi, was published in the UK: "Politics of Fear: beyond left and right" (London & New York, Continuum).

Review by David Roffey

Furedi’s book has been quoted before on Webdiary, in the comments to Carmen Lawrence’s lecture Relaxed and Comfortable, Folks?, and is now available here. Personally I find myself disagreeing with Furedi more often than not – despite the subtitle of his book, he is definitely a man of the right, and some of his analysis here betrays the blinkers on an otherwise open-minded discussion – but the issues he raises primarily in UK and US contexts seem to me to be even more applicable to Australia. Unlike McKnight, the meat is in the depth of analysis of the problems of both sides, rather than prescriptions for change.

There are several interlinked theses put forward in the book, but all are related to an underlying malaise in the body politic, which he believes should worry thinking people on all sides of political debate:

  1. the increasing use on all sides of the language and discourses of fear as justification for policies and actions (or lack of them)
  2. the matching failure of all sides to find policies and messages of hope and progress
  3. the resulting difficulty in finding clear difference of ideology between the parties: "This book argues that concepts like left and right have little content and their usage has mainly a rhetorical character." (p.4)
  4. which seems to be inevitably followed in all countries by increasing heated and intemperate debate over the remaining minor differences: "Increasingly the rhetoric adopted by the political elites is deployed to obscure the fact that, not only do they not have a big idea, but they also lack even a small one." (p.6) "Public figures attempt to compensate for their petty posturing through adopting high-octane rhetoric." (p.19) 
  5. the far-from-inevitable, but currently dominant, trend for all this to lead to wholesale disengagement by the people from the political process.

The book covers a lot of ground, so I’m only going to be able to pick up a few of the threads here. Furedi has a nice turn of phrase, so I’ll let quotes carry most of his argument, then put my own views at the end.

Not in My Name: disengagement and despair

Furedi points out that the excuses generally given for the levels of disengagement hold no water:

Statements like ‘I don’t trust politicians’ or ‘I don’t believe what they say’ simply rationalise the retreat from public life. They convey a profound sense of fatalism and suggest that politics is a pointless exercise. These sentiments are not the inevitable response to the misdeed of public figures. In previous times people have reacted to politicians whom they did not trust by getting rid of them or by even trying to change the system. Today people are more likely to react by switching off and disengaging from public life. (p.2)

Furedi has much scorn for the rhetoric of TINA – There Is No Alternative – an expression that is used by all sides of politics on all sorts of questions in place of any supporting evidence or argument for the efficacy of what is being proposed.

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 that the flip-side of anti-politics is the acceptance of the world as it is. (p.29)

If politics is indeed pointless then we are quite entitled to fear everything. In modern times politics provided the promise of people being able to exercise a degree of control over their destiny. (p.2)

The failure to propose alternatives or choices affects both left and right: "It is fitting that one of the most prominent slogans of the movement against the 2003 invasion of Iraq was ‘Not In My Name’; a self-consciously personal proclamation. It is not a political statement designed to involve others, and does not seek to offer an alternative." (p.43). Furedi points out that the mass mobilisations of February 2003 have, as a result, failed to follow-through into ongoing mass anti-war movements.

He doesn’t have much time, either, for contemporary social movements such as the World Social Forum and its offshoots:

The World Social Forum … frequently boasts that what distinguishes it from others is its diversity. However, this celebration of diversity may be a strategy for making a virtue out of the fact that this Forum is a diffuse, fragmented and atomised collection of pressure groups … [its] unity based on an unquestioning and uncritical endorsement of the idea of not questioning one another. Unlike true tolerance – which implies tolerating what we dislike – diversity is an apolitical strategy for avoiding making statements of judgement. (p.45).

My own experience as a presenter and attendee at various incarnations of the Sydney Social Forum backs this analysis: disagreements and debate are regarded as out of keeping with the gentle and anodyne vibe, and arrant nonsense is let pass because someone else is deeply attached to it, and to query it would be ‘disrespectful’. Furedi quotes a leading light of the WSF: "no-body in the Forum has the power or the right to say that one action or proposal is more important than any other" – a recipe, almost an injunction, for disengagement in debate.

Left and Right: how the words lost their meaning

Furedi’s thesis is that, whereas World War II irrevocably damaged the right through association of elitism with fascism and Nazism, the Cold War and the failures of soviet communism equally discredited many of the initiatives associated with the left:

In a sense the failure of these alternatives allowed the right to turn the tables on their opponents and win the Cold War. At the end of the 1980s it appeared for a brief moment that the end of the Cold War had helped to revitalize conservatism and the politics of the right. But only for a moment. Instead of boosting confidence, the West’s triumph in the Cold War merely revealed an absence of purpose and vision. The quest among leading Western politicians for a ‘big idea’ to replace the anti-Communist crusade of the post-war decades has failed to discover one. (p.57)

He quotes (without a reference) Alan Wolfe: "the right won the economic war, the left won the cultural war, and the center won the political war" (p.59).

Furedi’s contention is that the terms left and right no longer have any consistent association with particular political attitudes or policies.

There was a time when these labels signified an important distinction between progressives and reactionaries. To put it crudely, the left wanted social change and looked forward to human emancipation. In contrast, the right dreaded change and robustly sought to uphold what it considered to be the traditional way of doing things. (p.9)

This is particularly poignant in looking at the current nth attempt in the last ten years to re-reinvent the UK Conservative party, last seen heading off on the horizon well to the left of the ALP under Beazley, summarised by one commentator as:

David Cameron's campaign to move the Tory party to the left - or at least to the left of Tony Blair, which might not mean quite the same thing, is proceeding speedily. At the rate he's going, he'll be in favour of nationalisation and the closed shop by summer, and for the summary execution of the kulaks by Christmas. …[he] spotted that being to the left of the Tory party had won three elections in a row. Naturally he wants to be in the same place. This will make him resemble a cat chasing its own tail, since he can never actually catch up.

Meanwhile the Blairistas of the UK’s New Labour are probably more into deregulation and the supremacy of the market than John Howard, who despite his rhetoric has been an incessant meddler in markets to achieve policy ends. Picking examples not at all at random: eg trying to promote traditional family structures of home-based child-rearing women, and the strange case of the privatised ‘single desk’ for wheat.

Back to Furedi:

The cumulative impact of the experience of the past seven or eight decades is that it has forced the right to give up on the Past and the left to abandon hope in the Future. Consequently, the remnants of both of these movements are dominated by a profound conformist sensibility towards the present. (p.59)

Periodic attempts which aim to relaunch the conservative project often conclude with a plea for getting rid of the old ideological baggage. Even the so-called Religious Right, which is frequently presented as a dogmatic fundamentalist force, is in reality less in the business of defending old traditions than in inventing new ones. Promoting abstinence or intelligent design represents a rearguard action against an unpredictable world. (p.9)

Contemporary movements associated with the left tend to be particularly uncomfortable with, if not directly hostile to, change. The anti-capitalist and the anti-globalisation movements are self-consciously hostile to the ideals that have historically defined the future-oriented left. (p.61)

The label ‘progressive’ ill fits a movement that is intensely suspicious of science and experimentation and regards new technology with dread. … Often the difference that appears to divide the left from the right is focused on which innovation they wish to ban. For example, sections of the right would like to ban stem-cell research while many on the left want to rid the world of genetically modified products. (p.10)

This all rings horribly true to me. Much of the labelling that goes on in debates on this site and in many other Australian fora is nostalgically hankering back to the days of certainty and clear differences: the left is attacked by association with communist ideas that hardly any of them hold, while the right is similarly castigated in terms that caricature their views. In practice, there is no electable party of the left anywhere in the established democracies that wants an all-out planned economy, and there is no electable party of the right that believes in removing all controls from the market. The continued existence of fringe parties such Socialist Alternative, whose Green Left Weekly is often quoted by the mendacious on this site as the voice of the left, is no more relevant to the reality of the ongoing discussion than are One Nation or Fred Nile.

The Howard government, like the Thatcher government before it, is far more in favour of planned markets than its rhetoric of ‘reducing red tape’ allows for: a monopoly for wheat exports here, tight regulation of Telstra there, attempts to promote ethanol, subsidies for Mitsubishi, bouncing out Shell from Woodside, and so on … And quite rightly too – one person’s red tape is another’s essential safety regulation or measure for protecting small employers. A true free marketeer would control neither union power nor insider trading, but there aren’t actually any true free marketeers around.

All political parties (and some dinner parties) hold within themselves innumerable debates over the minutiae of what is to be controlled and by whom: should the Minister or an independent body control access to drugs, should greenhouse emissions be controlled or should we establish a market in carbon credits? Furedi wants to move ‘beyond left and right’, not to abandon distinction, but to focus more on one of the key tensions that underlie debate in all the parties:

Often the call to go ‘beyond left and right’ represents the demand to give up on politics altogether. Sometimes it expresses the aspiration to restrain the ambitions associated with the politics of the Enlightenment. My call to recognise the irrelevance of these categories is motivated by a very different impulse. It is motivated by the goal of getting rid of the distractions that confuse contemporary political life … the differences that really matter today are fundamentally about where one stands in relation to the past and the future. Those who are interested in the restoration of politics need to rework society’s relation to the past and adopt a more activist orientation to the future. (p.70)

Can things be changed?

In this analysis, much of the union movement, for example, is wedded to the past and trying to stop or slow change – as is much of the religious right, and large tracts of the green movement: Kim Beazley and Tony Abbott are on the same side here. On the other side, you can similarly find right-wing and even neo-con theorists rubbing shoulders with greens who think that investing in renewables could bring a resurgence of Australian manufacturing and growth in jobs. Jeffrey Sachs and Bono believe it is possible to eliminate poverty and famine if we do the right things – so does Johann Norberg: they disagree on the route, but agree on the achievability of the goal, while the majority of commentators defer to fate and the inevitability of failure. Furedi again:

The development of individual ambition and of a class- or community-based vision of social change often expressed outwardly contradictory aspirations. But their differences notwithstanding, what such responses had in common was a perception of future possibilities, and the belief that human action could make a difference. (p.73)

In an environment where the majority of players in the established parties are on the ‘There Is No Alternative’ side of Furedi’s divide, and garner their votes by playing on the fears and vulnerabilities of the electorate, much of the real political action is bypassing democracy. Furedi shows his right-wing credentials by concentrating his analysis on lobbying by NGOs, particularly the BINGOs (Big International Non-Government Organisations) and their lobbying activities, conveniently ignoring the fact that of the 34,750 paid lobbyists in Washington DC’s K Street, probably 34,500 of them work for corporations.

In practice, both sets of lobbyists show a level of at least disdain, if not contempt, for the processes of democracy. While some BINGOs try hard for democratic involvement in their policy-making – for example Oxfam Australia elects both its State committees and its Board from among registered volunteers and donors – in practice these are no more democratic than the average corporate AGM. I’m a nominally elected member of three such committees (the Oxfam NSW state committee, the Friends of the ABC NSW committee, and the Sydney Peace and Justice Coalition coordinating committee) – but the democracy of the electoral process was at least mitigated in all three cases by the fact that lack of sufficient candidates meant that everyone who stood was elected unopposed. In fact, in most of these sorts of organisation, you need a will of steel if you attend the AGM to resist the pressure to stand for the empty positions.

So, where to from here? Furedi doesn’t have an answer, but his strong conclusion is that if we accept that There Is No Alternative and don’t strive for one, we certainly won’t find it. We have to believe that humanity has the capacity to overcome diversity, or we might as well start shutting the planet down now – or sit on a mountaintop waiting for The Rapture, which amounts to the same thing.


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Labor pains and earthworms

Dear Syd, sorry I missed your comment.

Tell me, what did you do during the thirteen years that Hawke was running the country? Move to Bolivia? I don't recall the country falling apart, Syd. In fact, some people claim that Howard's good economic run is a direct result of policies put in place by Labor.

Labor, currently, is a basket case. No argument there. Beazley has all the leadership qualities of an earthworm.

But Howard is a complete bastard!

Labor pains

 Daniel Smythe, you ask where I was during the Hawke years. I was here in Sydney trying to keep a new business running.

One of things I do remember doing during that time was sitting at a blackjack table in Hobart during a Labor Conference. Sitting next to me was Bob Hawke who was betting $2000 on the turn of a card. I can remember thinking I wonder what that the young croupiers were thinking when Hawkie was betting the equivelent of their month’s wages on the turn of a card. I remember him dropping a bundle and storming out in a foul mood. He ran the country the same way he played blackjack.

Regarding Beazley I notice he is down to 18% in today’s poll, one  point higher than Labor’s inflation rate last time they were in power.

Fiona: Syd, didn’t John Howard (as Leader of the Opposition) have an identical rating in 1995, I think?

Labor Pains

Fiona, you are quite right, Howard was down to 18%, but the big difference is Howard is a very clever politician where Beazley is a captive of the unions. They will drag him and Labor down over the next 12 months.


Craig Schwarze, thanks for your thoughtful response.

Are you really trying to suggest that the fear created by Howard about Labor and rising interest rates at the last election (like the fear he generated over boat people and terrorism, etc) had no impact on the voting public? That is a ridiculous proposition!

Craig, our John is a Machiavellian figure, one with a benign face and a very cunning, duplicitous, black heart.


Daniel Smythe, you talk about fear. Can you even contemplate what this country would be like under Labor? They cannot even get along with each other, and on top of that you would have the idiots of the trade unions running things from behind. With their past record of running things we would be down the gurgler so fast it would make your head spin. However, the Australian public are too smart to let that happen.

Our John

Hi Daniel, I always enjoy reading your very insightful observations and find that I am invariably in agreement with them.

Re Our John, make that a cold, dead, black heart!

Did I say..?

Daniel Smythe: "Are you really trying to suggest that the fear created by Howard about Labor and rising interest rates at the last election (like the fear he generated over boat people and terrorism, etc) had no impact on the voting public? That is a ridiculous proposition!"

No, I wasn't suggesting that at all. I don't know how you got that out of my comment...


Thank you for an excellent analysis, David. I read your piece as identifying four problems:

The failure of the majority of the population to think critically. For those who do:

The failure of a large number of them to think positively. For those who do:

To want to change things. For those who do:

Know how to do it.

Another interesting analyst is Russell Ackoff. Redesigning Society analyses and gives his solutions for the major social systems. Part of his design for democracy includes always having a final ballot choice, “None of the above”.  He combines this with the proposal that if this final choice gets the most votes, then those who stood need for pay for a mandatory by-election. He book ends with an epilogue, “How to get started”.

PS Unfortunately, most of your links seem to have failed. The links I gave for Wallerstein in my last post also failed, they are the book and the commentaries.

David: the links should be fixed now - I have no idea why, but the system replaced almost all of the links with '%u201D'


Gareth, I am not responsible for the voting foibles of all the people in Australia including yours.

If Evil John is your hero, so be it. People in Germany before WW2 thought Hitler was the ant's pants. Did that make them right? Or him?

Gareth, you have not really dealt with any of the issues I have raised concerning the many serious sins, lies, and shortcomings of the Howard Government. Not one! Let us agree to disagree!

History will prove which one of us is right.

Apology accepted.

Dear Syd, the reason Howard got the Senate is that he allowed Australians to borrow themselves silly. Then he implied that if they voted for Labor they would pay 17% or lose their homes. Like sheep, they queued up to vote for him.

Syd, I know your heart is in the right place. You are definitely a much nicer man than our Evil Johnny.

May the force be with you!


"Dear Syd, the reason Howard got the Senate is that he allowed Australians to borrow themselves silly."

He "allowed" them? So it was his fault? Not "allowed" to take responsibility for themselves, are they?

When I borrow money, its because I choose to. The government has nothing to do with it. Liberty and all that.

"Then he implied that if they voted for Labor they would pay 17% or lose their homes."

It was a pretty unlikely suggestion, wasn't it? High interest rates under Labor - who would believe that?

"Like sheep, they queued up to vote for him."

Yes, everyone who voted for Howard was a sheep.

By contrast, everyone who voted for your preferred candidate was an intelligent and independent thinker.

David: as a Brit, I always find the interest rate debate here confusing, because of course we had the same run of high interest rates at the same time as Australia did, but for us it was under the economic guidance of that nice Mrs Thatcher, so for a Brit high interest rates are associated with the Right and economic rationalism, and low rates with Labour ...

Howard voter with no debt

Daniel, I have no debt, yet still voted Liberal. How do you explain that?

No-voters aren't no-hopers!

Syd, I strongly disagree with your comment that Webdiary comments will change nothing. Besides, if neither party is worth voting for then it would be an act of hypocrisy to vote for either of them. Syd, sadly, you're sounding more and more like an apologist for the Coalition! Mind you, there is much that they should apologise for.

Trevor, I saw the Mundine interview. He sounded like a brickies' labourer I used to work with. I'm surprised we didn't hear the F*^#! word a few times! It was a disgusting advertisement for the Labor Party.


Daniel Smythe, I apologise for saying that Webdiary comments will not change anything. I forgot the last election.

Prior to the last election Webdiary was flooded with all sorts of people bagging John Howard, there was an artist who painted a picture of Howard and stuck it in a shop window in Bennelong, there was a magistrate who blamed Howard for the death of his son and it went on and on.

All it achieved was handing the Senate to Howard.


Syd Drate, you said:

Prior to the last election Webdiary was flooded with all sorts of people bagging John Howard, there was an artist who painted a picture of Howard and stuck it in a shop window in Bennelong, there was a magistrate who blamed Howard for the death of his son and it went on and on.

All it achieved was handing the Senate to Howard.

This is a disingenuous connection. To imply that Howard's critics directly caused a backlash that handed the Senate to the Coalition is silly. There is no proof for this. While I won't disagree that Webdiary had minimal impact on the election result, the same is true of just about every advocacy, media and lobby group. They're all just 'one of thousands'. Just like our individual votes. Does that then mean they are worthless? To say this is to go against the very point Frank Furedi is making. Fighting for causes always has limitations and disappointments. But to give up completely is dangerous.

Apathy was a much bigger factor in the 2004 result than any backlash. Are you seriously arguing that swarms of voters in the suburban marginals actually saw the Bennelong picture, read the Brian Deegan book or were members of Webdiary?

Warren Mundine

Take heart, Daniel Smythe. Clock onto Warren Mundine discusses Labor Party tensions for the transcript, if you missed it.

He injected about six 'bloodys' into the most refreshing advice for the ALP I'd heard for a while.

Left-right, left-right...

As a child my left foot thought it was right. I was always getting into trouble. Problem was that, to me, both feet looked exactly the same!

Gradually, the cane was introduced to my right hand when my erratic marching caused problems to the boy behind me. The pain it caused gradually allowed me to identify what I was told was the right side of my body. I grew up to be ambidextrous, that is, I had little coordination between any of my limbs. Left and right did me no good, let me tell you.

As I progressed through school “right” gained other connotations. Things were either right or wrong. There was no in between. You got no marks for something wrong. And wrong became associated with failure and naughty things like the type of thoughts that often entered my mind.

As I lurched towards manhood, I learned about left and right wing politics. The left wore shorts, swore crudely, and had calloused hands. Like me. The right wore suits and had hands that females loved. Right voters also had MGs and got the best looking girls.

When I first voted I always went the way of my suited father (perhaps hoping it might open the door to romance). Menzies was his icon. Later, in a spirit of rebellion, I voted Labor. Subsequently I have become a swinging voter even though “swinging” also has naughty connotations.

I'm a non-voter. I can't in all conscience vote for Howard because I fear him and his rich mates (especially George who is about to bomb Iran into freedom and democracy) and I can't vote Labor because they couldn't run a chook raffle.

Left-right, left-right? I'm still having trouble.

Left Right

Daniel Smythe
, as far as I am concerned anybody who is a "non-voter" has no right to whinge about what is going on. The opinions expressed on Webdiary will not change anything, but putting a ballot slip in the box may.

Crossing divides

Reactions to Rachel Corrie: a Call to Action are more likely to reflect where people are with respect to the things that matter.

If the play was produced in Sydney or Melbourne, I wonder if Kim would attend.

Where to from here?

Immanuel Wallerstein predicts a radical change within the next fifty years, though he is unsure whether it will be cataclysmic or gradual. He also writes a twice-monthly commentary.

Left should be Progressive

Left and right have, in my opinion, lost their political meaning. I believe Conservative or Progressive may be better words to describe political ideology. The conservative side of politics is happy with the state of affairs as it stands and is trying to maintain its position of advantage, although some conservatives think that the progressive side has moved too far and would like to reverse some progressive laws. For example, the attack on abortion law, and the roll back of industrial legislation that has won rights for the employee.

The progressive side believes there is much room for improvement and is looking to implement change. Progressives believe that there are many in our society who are disadvantaged, and would like to see more political reform.

Unfortunately, when we are in the state of an economic boom the conservatives (those protecting their position of advantage) are in the majority.  Booms are always followed by busts, when the number of the disadvantaged is higher. More people then will look for change and be willing to vote for progressive policies.

Conservatives are also more likely to go to war to protect what they have, or to expand their influence in other areas of the globe.

...a very naughty boy

David Roffey, thank you for this magnificent interview. May Terry Jones' shadow never grow less!

Very trying ...

on the religion bit, see Terry Jones' "God: I've lost faith in Tony Blair"

Kim is trying

Straight off the bat, and unencumbered by the labour of reading the book, I have to say the topic comes at a good time. Several recent images flash past.

One, Julia Gillard at the Sydney Institute. The pinhead, Gerard Henderson, loves his Left-Right analyses, but he must know he is addressing a shrunken audience that still thinks in those hopelessly inadequate terms. Gillard knows it, has said so, and wants her party to abandon stale categorisations. 

Again, Gillard's recent addresses have played light on the arguments for Labor to do things differently. She has done the electorate a big favour by putting up the claims for the parliamentary leadership to step away from factional positions. The call for the leader to have the power to appoint a non-factionalised ministry has been opposed by Beazley, but at least the argument will have to run. She has also appealed for more transparency in political business, so that influence-peddlers can't corrupt policy.  

Did anyone else read the speech that Howard gave at his anniversary dinner? This may have been noted elsewhere on Webdiary, but there was not one reference to God. The only reference to religion was to the old 1950s Left-Right political divide along sectarian lines. We know how the Americans invoke God to bless all their malefactions. And Tony Blair has recently spoken of similar, but more moderated, belief in the power of his own faith. Wouldn't it be interesting to hear how Howard and Beazley answer the question?

It's been noted before, but Labor would be much better off without the corrupting presence of sectarian influence. If they can start the process at the top, and work down by throwing out the Left-Right labels, they may even finish up with a stable that can accommodate views and ideas from all over the shop. I don't think Howard would be stupid enough to turn down a fresh idea because it wasn't sponsored by an Anglican in good standing. But can old die-hard Leftists bear to listen to proposals from non-atheists? And on the other side, can Labor's Rightists learn to live with non-Catholics?

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