A Cotton Wool Society in an Iron Cage

Jeremy Clarkson is dead right:

David Cameron laid out a new set of guidelines last week to which all Tory MEPs must now adhere. They fill me with horror and dread because it means we’re soon to be governed by a bunch of people who go to bed at 10, only drink ginger beer, never try to look up their secretaries’ skirts and are quite happy to get paid £4.50 an hour. In short, we’re going to be governed by bores and failures.

We’re rushing headlong into a culture where to misbehave is unacceptable, where protection is everything. Everyone’s taking offence, even where none is intended, everyone’s a risk and being scrutinised by government, even where common sense shows they shouldn’t be:

Jane Jones has been told that she can’t take her severely epileptic 14 year old son to school without a CRB check. Who’s taken leave of their senses here I ask you? Does the council really need to prove whether or not the boy’s mother has a criminal record which might make her too much of a ‘risk’ to be allowed to take him to school when she’s already his principal carer ? Merthyr Tydfil council said:

“For the protection of the council and all vulnerable persons in its care it’s essential all those endowed with an authority, implicit or explicit, should meet the security requirements within the transport contract provisions.”

Utterly insane, but now apparently all teenagers are so dangerous and so likely to stab or be stabbed, that legal curfews are needed:

a Sunday Times poll reveals today that nine out of 10 parents would back legal restrictions on their children going out after dark.

A report from a House of Commons committee will say this week that a national curfew on young teenagers could curb anti-social and violent behaviour. Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of the home affairs select committee, said: “I have sympathy with the view that children should not be out after 9pm.”

This would be the Keith Vaz of questionable financial affairs, not to mention remarkably fluid ethics which got him to vote for 42 days. And he doesn’t seek to justify his position with any reason, other than the abiding and implicit desire for control, conformity and ‘protection’. That these qualities rob young people of the ability to risk assess for themselves, abilities once naturally assumed to be part of growing up, doesn’t even come into the equation.

Clarkson continues:

in recent years I have been criticised for bumping into a horse chestnut tree; I’ve been called a berk, on the front page of a national newspaper, for using an iPod while driving. And only a couple of weeks ago I was “blasted” for enjoying a gin and tonic while at the North Pole.

And he’s right. Mistakes now scar you for life, as control becomes everything. People get fired from jobs they love because of ‘protection policies’ they haven’t even breached. Personal judgment, common sense and basic fairness are qualities being driven out from mainstream society. Is this partly because of legislation like the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which councils have used to spy on voters? Or the push for ID cards and a database which would catalogue us all in a way which Roberto Maroni could only dream of for the Roma? Max Weber would no doubt agree. This is his ‘iron cage’ of rationality, almost hyper-realised. Behaviour in society is indeed increasingly being dominated by a goal-orientated rationality – perversely the better we get at our mechanisation of society, the more we become victims of our own success, and we get cut off from the values which traditionally bound us together. Bureaucracies, he continued, are indeed also centralising huge amounts of power into the hands of far too few people, and they are not merely unaccountable, but increasingly controlling the quality of our lives. Advocates like Blair of ID cards would argue that the system is supposed to be a technological utopia, which by definition sets us free. Yet as with Iraq he and his followers misread history. Weber theorises that such a bureaucracy instead puts us in an ‘iron cage’, which limits our freedom and human potential; Clarkson and others can already see this coming into shape. The government is only now worrying there might be ‘function creep’ with ID cards? It’s downright inevitable. 

Clarkson can see that rationalisation, the drive to efficiency and the bureaucratisation of our lives are destroying our freedom. We should look back at Weber again, and remember that although it’s very difficult to do, we can still get our freedom back. He warns:

‘Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has obtained a level of civilization never before achieved”

And Clarkson, almost in response concludes:

I fear for our future. I worry that bad behaviour is being erased from society, and that unless the trend can be reversed somehow we’ll all have to go through life on the Planet Stepford, a rictus grin masking the boiling turmoil of desperation inside. I yearn sometimes when I encounter a neatly stacked pyramid of tins of beans to push it over. Don’t you? Wouldn’t it break the monotony of having to drive at 30mph and eating a wholefood fair-trade sandwich at your desk.

The professionalisation of ‘protection’, the zero-sum management of risk, curfews against all young people, the micro-management of society as a whole, CRB checking of parents, the list goes on. This is not the way we naturally relate to one another – our older values which, for all our other failings, did bind us together, are being driven out. Common sense, individual responsibility, second chances, trust in those who have earned it, taking offence where it’s meant rather than where it’s chosen to be taken – I for one want these old staples back. Join Clarkson in choosing non-conformity to this crap, and every once in awhile be irrational, irresponsible and imperfect, if only because you still can.


One response to “A Cotton Wool Society in an Iron Cage

  1. It’s been that way over here in the US for a while now. Welcome to the club.

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