Friday, November 24, 2006

Blair and the death of society

He really just doesn't get it, does he?

"A new contract between the state and the citizen setting out what individuals must do in return for quality services from hospitals, schools and the police is one of the key proposals emerging from a Downing Street initiated policy review."
Does he even get what the "social contract" is all about? It's one of the fundamental ideas underlying the British political system, not to mention the birth of modern concepts of liberty and liberalism. Blair's decision to bring it up - though in a deeply, almost offensively garbled manner - shows once again that his understanding of political theory is rooted firmly in the 17th century. And not the right bit, either: this is Hobbes, not Locke.

You see, the fundamental things that Blair's missing are that
  • a) the social contract is a theoretical concept to explain the development of political subjugation and interrelationships, not a physical, legally-binding piece of paper of the kind he'd have us all sign
  • b) the social contract is not imposed upon the people by the state, but upon the state by the people, outlining just what government owes its citizens in order for them to continue to owe the government allegiance
Ignoring the royalist Hobbes (the interpretation of whose theories is, in any case, fraught with ambiguities), in the past, the concept of the social contract was generally advanced from below - the people giving away some aspect of their rights to the state, usually in return for guarantees from the state of protection, order and such like. When contract theory began to advance was usually at time of crisis - during and after the English Civil War, following the deposition of James II at the Glorious Revolution, during the French Revolution and during the American War of Independence. On each occasion, the concept of the social contract was used to demonstrate that the state had betrayed its side of the bargain, not that the people owed more to the state.

Of course, a written social contract could work fine, were - say - the state to agree that if it failed to provide adequate policing, schooling etc. then the citizens affected would no longer have any obligation to pay taxes. But the Blair version of the social contract is a complex and inconsistent beast that seems merely to heap yet more obligations on to the citizen, while removing responsibilities from the state based on the actions of individual citizens. At a glance, and assuming some logical consistency and, well, common decency and reciprocity within the plan, removing obligations from the state might sound like a good thing to some - small government and all that - but this is Blair we're talking about. Please note the ominous words in that Guardian report,
"what is expected from citizens (beyond paying taxes and obeying the law)" (emphasis mine)
This is not about reducing the size and scope of state/governmental control, but increasing it - because nowhere is mention made of us mere citizens (well, subjects, actually) gaining anything new out of this proposed contract system.

In the original concept of the social contract, the benefits were obvious - peace and security rather than anarchy and chaos. The suggestions of what these new contracts could be made to do include conditions on access to the NHS, to education and even (implicity) to the police's protection. Blair's cunning concept of the contract is to reduce the state's own obligations while increasing those of the people, so that it will be the people to blame when everything comes crashing down - for not upholding their end of the deal.

To an extent, this is a logical offshoot of Blair's constant efforts to shift the blame throughout his time in office - be it Scottish and Welsh devolution (giving the new executives just enough power to be able to blame them when they cock it up, but not enough so that Downing Street can't claim a hand in their successes), the localisation of public spending and law-making (again, enough power to blame the councils for tax hikes, but not too much so that central government can't claim to be the source of beneficial reforms), the whole idea of allowing hospitals and schools to determine their own spending priorities and the like.

Tony has rarely been directly responsible for the failures of the last nine years - he's always made sure there's a slight buffer between him and having to take responsibility for his decisions. Even to the extent of (it would seem) trying to set up his mate Lord Levy as fall guy for the loans scandal, and ensuring his other mate, Lord Goldsmith, fixed his legal advice to support the Iraq war to allow Tony to simply say "but the lawyer said it was right, blame him".

With this new cunning plan, however, (especially with the idea of "individual contracts between parents and schools" implying microscopic levels of detail), Blair would finally divest himself of all legal responsibility towards the people. Anything goes wrong, any public service fails to get delivered - "ah, but you didn't abide by the terms of your contract".

Once again, it seems, Blair needs to update his political philosophy library. Rather than this silly fixation with Hobbes, he should get up to speed with Locke, Rousseau, and the American Revolutionaries. Perhaps, most importantly, he should take heed of Proudhon:
"What really is the Social Contract? An agreement of the citizen with the government? No... The social contract is an agreement of man with man; an agreement from which must result what we call society."
Because, as Rousseau pointed out, with the social contract what is created is a collective will and a collective, mutual responsibility:
"Each of us places his person and authority under the supreme direction of the general will, and the group receives each individual as an indivisible part of the whole"
What Blair is proposing, in forcing a literal, physical contract between the state and individual citizens, is a destruction of this collective obligation between citizens. He is proposing the destruction of society itself.

Update: A Blair and Hobbes footnote

A passage from Chapter 15 of Jonathan Israel's superb Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 (Oxford University Press, 2001), on Hobbes' conception of liberty - which bears some striking parallels to Blair's apparent belief system:
"In Hobbes, liberty of the individual is reduced to that sphere which the sovereign, and laws of the State, do not seek to control: 'the liberty of a subject, lyeth therefore only in those things, which in regulating their actions, the sovereign hath praetermitted'...

"All participation in the political process, the making of law, and forming of opinion is hence excluded. Hobbes indeed disparages the republican, or positive, concept of freedom... Such liberty he deems antithetical not only to monarchy but to political continuity and stability, accusing those addicted to such ideas of 'favouring tumults' and 'licentious controlling the actions of their sovereigns'. The political liberty republicans extol he considers a ruinious illusion, a mythology manipulated by agitators and factions for their own ends, to undermine and weaken the sovereign."
Replace "republican" with "liberal", you've pretty much got Blair's attitude...

12 Comments:

Anonymous Justin said...

This is just John Major's Citizen's Charter with pre-fascist knobs on, isn't it?

11/24/2006 11:26:00 am  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

I dunno, if anything I'd say it was the opposite of the Citizen's Charter - Major's professed emphasis was at least on increasing the accountability of state agencies to the citizen to motivate the improvement of public services. Here it's increasing the accountability of the citizen to state agencies to motivate the "improvement" of the citizen...

11/24/2006 11:48:00 am  
Anonymous leon said...

"This is just John Major's Citizen's Charter with pre-fascist knobs on, isn't it?"

Pre as in soon to arrive?

11/24/2006 12:20:00 pm  
Anonymous Justin said...

Leon: Yep, I reckon.

NM: OK, wrong analogy. How about this one. It's like going into a pub and paying for a pint but not necessarily getting a pint in return.

We still have to pay for the services in the form of taxes but we aren't necessarily guaranteed anything in return? All those drinkers and smokers pouring billions into the Treasury can't bank on receiving any help when the cancer and the cirrhosis kick in.

Surely under the terms of this new 'Social Contract', the 'Insurance' part of 'National Insurance' is now false advertising?

11/24/2006 12:48:00 pm  
Blogger Tristan said...

I do have a habit of seeing parallels between New Labour's conception liberty and freedom and that of Benito Mussolini.

11/24/2006 02:40:00 pm  
Anonymous Tommac said...

This is a shocking bit of rubbish, and NM's got it bang to rights.
But the big question I'd have thought is:
Is this one of those appalingly wrongheaded and vacuous schemes Blair gets into his head and then won't let go of, no matter what, a la ID cards and Iraq?
Or is it one of those appalingly wrongheaded and vacuous schemes Blair gets into his head and then quietly drops once he's got the headlines, a la Big Conversation, or toughening up immigration policy?

As he ages, and his latent syphillis goes tertiary, he seems to cling on to his delusiary manifestations of power for longer.
On the other hand, he tends to cling hardest to those crackpot ideas which can be introduced in a concrete fashion and cost most, whether it is a piece of plastic necessitating a 15 billion pound database, or tens of thousands of graves at a million each.
Considering how nebulous and reltively cheap this one is, maybe they'll be able to prise it from his grip before he can get it to weapon-grade status.

11/24/2006 03:38:00 pm  
Anonymous Paul said...

Can't someone just buy him a copy of SimCity and let him get on with it?

11/25/2006 04:47:00 pm  
Anonymous Backword Dave said...

I think Justin's analogies are all wrong. I thought (from memory) that the old Labour social contract was 'from cradle to grave'. Now whether that's (ethically or morally) right or practical, I'm not here to argue. But what does a child have to do to earn a place at school? No matter if her parents are delinquent, criminal, whatever: a child born here is entitled to education and health care and police protection. End of. *Not* the parents. Despite the parents, if need be.

Or have I misread the Labour Party?

Because Blair is talking about *selling* services to parents: just as he bought school places for his kids. That's not what it's about. There's a beautiful statement in Philip Roth's "The Human Stain" (p 268) "The backbone of his argument is always personal sovreignity, personal freedom, and what he never understands, Delphine dares to tell the treasury-secretary-who-never-was, is that for most people there isn't enough money to make choices and there isn't enough education to make educated guesses- there isn't enough mastery of the market."

11/25/2006 11:59:00 pm  
Blogger dearieme said...

1) James II
2) I suspect that this sort of nastiness is what you get when you opt for our sort of welfare state.

11/26/2006 02:30:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Typo - fixed - ta.

11/26/2006 02:42:00 pm  
Blogger Jonn Elledge said...

What gets me about this stuff is that... Even if he's being optimistical, Blair must know he's gone in eight months. After which he'll stop being part of the state and go back to being just one of the people.

So how can dumping responsibility in this way help him now? What exactly is he trying to achieve?

11/26/2006 06:29:00 pm  
Blogger Bob Doney said...

Jonn Elledge said: "So how can dumping responsibility in this way help him now? What exactly is he trying to achieve?"

Is it possible that in the darkest, nearly unreachable back of his mind he doesn't actually believe he's going? Else why the Olympics and all the other "legacy" stuff listed here?

11/26/2006 08:22:00 pm  

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