British RCP and Frank Furedi

Philip Ferguson plf13 at
Tue Mar 20 19:38:52 MST 2001

Someone sent me off-list a review of Frank Furedi's new book - god, the
man's prolific in his post-Marxist incarnation - which appeared in the 'New
Statesman' last week.  It's a very favourable review, and, indeed, Furedi's
book, 'Paranoid Parenting' seems quite sensible.  Before I get to the
problems with the book, which are general problems with the whole
LM/post-LM business, here's the start of the review:

>New Statesman Monday 12th March 2001
>Paranoid Parenting
>Frank Furedi Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 214pp, £9.99
>ISBN 0713994886
>Three Shoes, One Sock and No Hairbrush
>Rebecca Abrams Cassell, 224pp, £9.99
>I was reading Paranoid Parenting in a train station cafe. The woman at the
>next table was ringing each of her four children on their mobile phones in
>Weston-super-Mare, trying to persuade one of them to put the dinner on.
>Three were watching television and wouldn't budge; she manoeuvred the fourth
>into the kitchen and impressively talked him through cooking sausages while
>rolling her eyes to the ceiling.
>"Does it help?" she asked, hanging up. She was referring to Paranoid
>Parenting. I gave her a brief summary of Frank Furedi's thesis, which is
>that the modern culture of paranoia about physical and emotional risks to
>children, and about how we should be parenting them, is making it impossible
>for parents to do their job. "That's right," said the woman. She told me
>that, when she was a child, she and her brother used to go off until ten
>o'clock at night, without their parents knowing where they were.
>I told her that Furedi claimed there was no more risk to children now than
>there was then. "Yes," she sighed, "I know. But you worry, don't you?"

Now, as I said Furedi's book - from the account of it in the review -
sounds quite sensible.  It's like a commonsense defence of parents' rights
and anti-moral panic stuff.

But, if you look at this and the rest of what Furedi and co. are banging on
about these days, in the name of human freedom and emancipation, several
questions arise:

1. Are these really the key problems besetting the majority of the world's
2. What kind of political project can you develop by concentrating on
issues like 'paranoid parenting'?

To deal with point 1:
These are clearly not the main problems that face people.  They are
manifestations, often in rather bizarre forms, of the decay of bourgeois
society - and, in particular, how this affects the liberal middle class.
You cannot even begin to address these manifestations at any serious level
without an analysis of the impasse reached by bourgeois society and how
this impasse takes a range of forms, from economic problems to the rise of
irrationalism to moral panics about ritual satanic abuse etc etc etc.  Yet
all the writings of the LM/post-LM brigade on these types of issues are so
fearful of being tarnished with anything resembling Marxism that they just
come up with sound-bite banalities like 'society has lost its nerve' or
whatever.  Even the most vulgar bourgeois sociologists can come up with
more profound insights than this and link these manifestations in some way
to a material base in contemporary capitalist society.  Most good academic
accounts of fin-de-siecle panics and pessimism at the end of the Victorian
era do this.  They actually ground the malaise, whereas the LM/post-LM
brigade write about it as if it is virtually autonomous from the structure
of capitalist society and the ruling class and middle class have just
suddenly and inexplicably 'lost their nerve'.

To deal with point 2:
Who can you unite, and for what purpose, by making issues like 'paranoid
parenting' your focus?  These are largely classless issues, except insofar
as the moral panics are mainly a middle class creation.  But Frank Furedi
and co. aren't  prepared to introduce class even in that mundane sense.
Now, if you take issues like this, you are likely to find society fairly
evenly divided - 50 percent of people will say, 'yes, Furedi is right,
that's just commonsense' and 50 percent will say, 'that's nonsense.  He's a
heartless, child-hating bastard'.  You're as likely to find people of any
class on either side of the debate.  So you can't develop any kind of
agenda for radical, emancipatory change.  You just end up in a cul-de-sac.

On the other hand, if you raise big political questions and use these to
cohere a distinctly revolutionary working class viewpoint, you end up with
most of the working class on one side of the barricades and most of the
bourgeoisie and their camp followers on the other side, and things get
interesting.  Class polarisation opens up the prospect for real and radical
change, precisely because the working class produces the wealth of society
and can therefore create a new society and run it.

If you tried to build a movement out of all the people who are opposed to
paranoid parenting and the other favoured 'issues' of Frank Furedi and co.,
all you'd have is a rather bizarre circus of people of all kinds of
political persuasions and no capacity to fundamentally change society.
Which is what LM ended up with in its last days on earth.

And, of course, while Frank and co., like many before them, have decided
that class politics are passe, and the working class is no longer the
agency of social change (or not for some indefinite future anyway), you
simply end up gravitating towards the other main class, the bourgeoisie, in
order to get some action on your goals.

In NZ, the most firebrand Maori radical of the late 70s and early 80s, and
the most arrested politico in the country, was Donna Awatere.  Awatere,
however, wrote off both white workers in toto and Pacific Islanders as any
force/s for radical change.  Well, if you write off most of the working
class and you still want to change things, the only class you have left to
turn to is the ruling class.  Which is what Awatere did.  She became a
millionaire by selling her 'anti-racist' awareness programmes to government
departments and private business and joined (Hayek's) Mont Pelerin Society.
Today, she's one of the wealthiest women in the country and a list MP for
the ACT party, the most economically right-wing party in parliament.

Every now and then she, like Furedi, still says something sensible.  But,
basically people like her and the ex-RCP have taken the same road
politically.  Disillusioned with the working class - and basically both
Furedi and Awatere were totally removed from the working class anyway - but
still wanting some kind of social change, they end up gravitating to the
other class in society.

Unlike much of the Brit left, which is only interested in knocking
everything about the RCP, and claiming that the outfit's trajectory
confirms everything they ever said about it, I still have a lot of respect
for the pioneering work that the RCP did on many issues, like Ireland and
race.  A rather classic example of their pioneering work is their attempt
in the mid-late 80s to get the far left to unite at least at election time
to pose a Marxist alternative to Labour.  The auto-Labourite left would
have nothing to do with challenging Labour.  A decade later, the far left
in Britain has finally been forced to form the Socialist Alliances and
start taking on Labour at the polls.  If the rest of the left had've taken
up this approach when it should have, back when the RCP proposed it, the
whole far left in Britain would be stronger.

I also don't entirely dismiss everything that Furedi and others from that
milieu say today.  Sometimes they make good points on this or that issue.
But the problem is that even the best points they make are totally devoid
of any connection to any serious political project to change the world.
That is why, as Paul Flewers so wonderfully put it, they now sound so much
like whining cut-price Julie Birchills.

Philip Ferguson

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