Questioning the New Conformism

Our potential to make greater choices today is continually thwarted.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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Next Friday, 11 March, spiked is hosting our conference Whose Choice is it Anyway? in London (click here for details). Our aim is to question the New Conformism.

We are often told that we live in an age of unprecedented choice, even that we are inundated with ‘too many’ choices. This is not just about the goods and services at our fingertips today. There is an assumption that we now have unprecedented freedom to live as we see fit, and to believe whatever we want. Ours is supposedly an age of anything-goes, when the old religious and secular orthodoxy has been called into doubt, and when we can finally, in the words of Karl Marx’s favourite motto, ‘Question Everything’. As the UK general election approaches, the major political parties are vying to capture this mood and be seen as the party of choice.

In some senses it is true that we have greater choice, and a good thing too. There is no doubt that in terms of material choices, the twenty-first century is the best time to be alive in human history. We are able to live longer, healthier and wealthier lives than ever before. Of course these advantages are disproportionately concentrated in the West, but even in poorer parts of the world average life span is increasing and infant mortality is falling. In countries such as Britain or the USA, many of those categorised as poor now enjoy things denied to the rich a century ago. People generally do have more choices about their lives, with few now being tied to the farm or the local factory. For women, especially, there has been something of a lifestyle revolution in the past half-century.

All in all, humanity should now have a greater chance to exercise choice over our individual and collective destiny than ever before. And yet that potential is so often being thwarted, not by material constraints, but by regressive cultural attitudes and political barriers. Look beyond the rhetoric about ever-expanding choice and freedom, and you see a very different dynamic at work. Time and again we find that everything tells us that we have no real choice. That is the power of the New Conformism.

The lack of genuine choice starts at the top, in the arena of political debate over society’s future. Everybody knows that there is less than ever to separate the main parties in Britain or America. The days of ideological clashes between the competing visions of Left and Right are long gone. One leading political commentator this week revealed the narrow gap between New Labour and the Conservatives when it comes to proposed spending on government services: ‘The differences between the parties’ spending plans are pretty small: around two per cent of national income over the course of a full parliament. This is less than half the rise since 1997.’ (1)

In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher controversially expounded the politics of TINA – There Is No Alternative. Now everybody in politics accepts that there is no alternative to the market. But whereas Thatcher’s version of TINA was a strident assertion of belief in the supremacy of capitalism, today TINA is embraced with something more like a resigned shrug. Nobody is inspired by the status quo, yet nobody appears able to offer any alternative. All we are left with is the mind-numbing politics of managerialism and low expectations. The political choice on offer seems close to the empty ‘choice’ between the big banks – they have different logos, and are promoted by different celebrities, but the content of them all is much the same and equally mundane. Little wonder then that many people now decide it is not a choice worth making and decline to vote for anybody, or else vote with nil enthusiasm.

It does not take a political genius to see that many of the choices we are offered today are illusory. The supposed choice between hospitals, schools or universities often turns out to be as empty as the choice between all those television channels showing the same trashy shows. Many of the institutions in our society are in crisis. The response form the authorities is to say ‘Don’t worry, you now have a choice!’. It sounds good, but it is just a cop-out from doing something to tackle the problems. Instead of offering us leadership, pointing their way to a better society, politicians offer the illusion of choice. From this perspective, the cult of ‘choice’ can be understood as a way for the authorities to avoid taking responsibility, and shift it on to us as individuals instead.

The assumption underpinning all of the choices on offer is that we are merely passive consumers rather than active participants. Our role is limited to choosing the packet of politics or health or education we want off the supermarket shelf, having first read the labels of course. It is a patronising view of the public that was perhaps best summed up by the Tory Party’s claim to be offering us ‘Ronseal politics’ that, as the wood preservative advert says, ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’ (see Who would choose ‘Ronseal politics’?, by Mick Hume).

Yet in reality, even in the narrow arena of consumer choice there is more and more pressure to conform. The powerful crusade to promote ‘healthy eating’ and ‘healthy living’ presses people to make the right choices about what they eat, how they live and how they bring up their children. Once the proposed system of health warning labels for food is in place, it will surely take a strong-willed shopper to be seen loading up with those bearing ‘Red Light’ warnings about fat, sugar and salt content. Thus consumer choices become increasingly presented as ethical choices.

This brings us to the heartland of the New Conformism – the promotion of ‘healthy living’ as an end in itself. Personal health is now presented, not as something to allow you to live life to the full, but as itself a way of life. The pressure to conform to the official standards of healthy living is probably seen as the nearest thing to a moral imperative these days. Nobody is supposed to have a choice when it comes to issues such as smoking, binge drinking, eating junk food or practising safer sex.

New Labour ministers now talk openly about their focus on ‘the new politics of behaviour’. Their political ambitions have been reduced to changing the way that individuals behave in what were once seen as private spheres of our lives. The politics of behaviour is based on denying people genuine choice – in particular, the right to make the ‘wrong’ choices. Of course, they would never admit that. Instead all the talk is of offering us ‘informed choice’. Instead of explicitly dictating how we ought to live (an approach which they gauge might meet some resistance), they offer to help us become informed and educated enough to make the correct choices for ourselves. But as the language they use implies, any choice other than the one the authorities endorse would clearly be the unhealthy one. The pressure to conform is never far below the surface of this therapeutic approach to choice. As Brendan O’Neill has pointed out elsewhere on spiked, when it comes to personal health ‘informed choice’ is really no choice at all (see An informed choice is no choice at all, by Brendan O’Neill).

The New Conformism also extends into our freedom to think and say what we like. We are free to question everything, and to break old taboos such as blaspheming against Christianity, just so long as we respect the new taboos about subjects such as race, religion, sex and sexuality. There are new laws on incitement to hatred, new codes and rules about what you can say everywhere from the university seminar to the football stadium, all underpinned by the belief that being offensive is now somehow the worst offence of all. So you are free to think and say what you feel, so long as it does not harm others – except that the definition of harm has been extended to include hurting their feelings or damaging their self-esteem. This is the face of intolerant tolerance and illiberal liberalism. It continually impinges on our ability to have an open debate about issues and thrash out the real choices.

The mantra of the New Conformism is ‘You can’t say THAT!’. It is not considered necessary to offer any intellectual argument against disagreeable ideas – you can simply rule them out of order for being ‘offensive’ to somebody. This sort of censorship-in-the-name-of-inclusiveness is no longer restricted to the cultural or political sphere. It is now even infecting the increasingly politicised world of scientific inquiry. Just listen to the recent high-level declarations that ‘there is no longer any scope or need for scientific debate’ on subjects ranging from global warming to passive smoking.

What the illusory openness of consumer choice and the strictures of the New Conformism both have in common is the denial of our self-determination as human subjects. At best we are to be treated as passive consumers in the supermarket of life. At worst we are objects to be shepherded into pens, mental or otherwise.

It is in upholding the human spirit of self-determination that spiked insists upon our right to make the wrong choices. This does not mean we want to fetishise the idea of individual lifestyle choice. That is always narrow and distorted. Historically, the emergence of genuine choices and alternatives in society has been dependent upon more collective outlooks and actions. But such a collective outlook will be impossible to forge, unless we first have a more active sense of self. The Good Society will not be debated and built by a community of informed and passive consumers, but by people with a sense of themselves as morally autonomous subjects, with the freedom and ability to make choices about real life and question everything without fear or favour.

We have organised the conference next Friday as the next stage in our effort to cut across all of the confused banter about choice, and ask how we might put some genuine choice back on the agenda in election year. I hope you will choose to join the debate.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

The spiked-conference Whose Choice is it Anyway? Questioning the New Conformism takes place at Savoy Place in London on Friday 11 March. Click here for full programme and ticket information.

(1) Stop quibbling, start delivering, Peter Riddell, The Times (London), 3 March 2005

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Topics Politics


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