Public policy and public anger in a 24/7 world

For those that try to keep with international and current affairs the emerging picture of the world around us is surely a bleak one. Yet there is little that is new about this, if the advent of a new century has seen little done to address the wars on want, inequality and political instability, the century before it was little better. As Eric Hobsbawm’s masterful summary of the 20th century showed (Age of Extremes, Viking Press, 1995) the era before this was marked by genocide, political and national extremism, total war and devastating human loss. Yet, for all the advances in science and commerce, we continue to live in a world of overwhelming human suffering and unsettling changes, as the release of information about the use of torture by the US secret services surely shows.

The kind of political world we live in, by intent or its systemic forces, continues not only to tolerate the kinds of inequality and suffering around us, indeed, in many cases, social problems are ignored or condemned in their own right with fervour by mainstream politicians and lapped-up by an anxious and angry class of precarious workers and welfare recipients. It is surely curious that public conversations can be carefully shaped in such a way that the interests of the poor are made to appear as though they are united. The focus of my recent work has been the way that politicians, the media and social life tend to focus on the excluded, the marginal and the deprived and actively seek out their removal – to far away places, prisons and to segregated areas of our cities.

Anger and politics

The world of politics has long been laden with emotions. The charisma and force of political argument is often associated with motivating and convincing speeches and actions connected to big ideas about how the world worked and should be remade. Many commentators have argued for some time that the world we live in today is less driven by these big political ideas, that ideology and blind subservience to lofty goals has given way to a more practical kind of political life and policymaking.

On one level we might welcome such a change and yet the rapidity of transformations in modern social life and global economic circumstances has delivered incredible insecurity and fear. Many people now seek to throw up boundaries (national, gated communities or secured homes) and look to sanctuary within imagined local and ethnic communities. As examples we might look as much to the EU, the US or to Australia as to Rwanda, the Balkan states or to the middle East to see examples of the growing significance of these social forces.

This unpredictable and more connected world has helped to make us angrier and more emotional about the problems of the world – anger at injustice, at environmental change, at taxes, at crime and so on. Regardless of our own political affiliations there are issues that frustrate us and which often lead us to look for leadership on these issues. This bubbling social rage can generate gains for those political parties and media outlets that capitalise on these fears by providing leadership and coverage of these problems. These broad feelings of personal and communal insecurity have, in fact, generated support for those politicians who are able to project this anger onto the groups and issues that trouble us and the list of such groups is now quite long.

In this environment the media have become a key player, and if we look at the kinds of crime dramas and soaps on TV, the news headlines in our newspapers and on websites we can see how editorial decisions often tend to focus on the worst, random and most violent events. For the people who inhabit this media-saturated world, and that is a great deal of us, the world not only seems to be full of problems, but we also begin to have a rather distorted view of how often these problems take place. The kind of frustration provoked by witnessing real-life and fictional victimisation and various injustices is a deep source of the kind of pent-up frustration and fury that we see around us.

A war on the poor and helpless

We regularly hear from politicians about how they will challenge problems and particular groups (immigration, welfare ‘scroungers’ and so on) but in some cities around the world these proposals are really quite extreme. Let me give a few examples. In New York the police were directed by the then mayor, Giuliani, to clear homeless people from the parks and streets to help improve the image of downtown Manhattan. In the UK Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (the infamous ASBO) were used against traveller communities, prostitutes and the mentally ill. In many of the cities where the Olympics have been held the games have been prefaced by the removal of the street homeless. In Beijing thousands of families have seen their homes destroyed to make way for various stadia and athletes villages.

How can we make sense of the viciousness of these examples and the ways in which the most helpless are attacked, even destroyed? For some the explanation for these attacks is a sign of a backlash by high-income groups who have come to feel anxious and embittered about their loss of privileges and their growing fears about ‘unwanted’ social groups in public spaces as welfare systems neglect these groups ever further. I want to suggest that another reason for the aggressive turns in political life, in media reportage, policing, welfare, attacks on the homeless and so on are a sign of a deeper need within society to find a release from the frustration of being unable to solve or tackle these social problems through traditional routes.

In many places around the world long gone (indeed, if they were ever there) is the ambition to promote redistribution, opportunity or some reasonable level of equality (look at the UK, US, or Russia). In its place comes a kind of catharsis, or release, by attacking those groups, who are not only the most vulnerable, who are also generated by the workings of these societies – by regimes of low pay, flexible labour markets, housing tenure insecurity and so on. The tendency increasingly appears to be for us to show disgust towards those who are inevitably produced by our economies, housing systems and inequalities in wealth distribution. It is almost as if we are in denial of the fact that we would prefer to shift these problems, and problem people, out of sight and out of mind (a point that Sampson makes in his book Great American City on the destruction of public housing in the city core and subsequent gentrification).

A new dawn, for hate or hope?

Another concern raises itself at this point. If ideology no longer matters as much, then is there something about the way that our societies, political and media systems operate that will tend to produce more vicious reactions against the poor and vulnerable as they come together? In other words, is it about something more than just politics and anger? There seems to be something worth considering in such an explanation – that a 24/7 news culture produces quicker reactions (with disasterous results in the vengeful attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq) and that politicians seeking majority support will, by necessity, focus on the lowest common denominators of public opinion. Principled debate has given way to a more emotional and unstable way of delivering policies, with the risk that those we should be helping are those we turn away or deny support.

This is an abbreviated version of a journal article I have recently submitted.

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