Blunkett's Backward Basics

By Matthew Hyland, 10 March 2002
Image: Illustration by dom B

Matthew Hyland on the government’s Operation Infinite Adjustment and the Minister for Voluntary Servitude, Mr David Blunkett 

The new Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act allows the Home Secretary to intern indefinitely ‘known terrorist suspects’ in cases where the security services’ ‘knowledge’ isn’t quite solid enough to stand up in court. This special power applies only to non-UK citizens, a fact which points to the historical limit of human and civil rights. As French revolutionary political philosopher Emmanuel Sieyès made clear, ‘the rights of man’ are those of the full national citizen, denied to foreigners, women, children etc. according to social convention. Since classical Greece the notion of citizenship has depended on the visible exclusion of non-citizens. This detail is partially acknowledged by David Blunkett in a footnote on page 39 of his recent book Politics and Progress (Politico’s Publishing & Demos, London, 2001), but it lies at the heart of his political programme.

Blunkett’s book eloquently confirms Hannah Arendt’s promise that with the gradual dissolution of the nation-state as a single, self-evident unit, ‘human’ rights, which depend precisely on national citizenship, become provisional for everyone, not just for those of us not blessed with a UK/EU passport. The Home Secretary’s writing and speeches are packed with references to ‘active citzenship’, which is soon to become a compulsory subject at school. Some of this stuff is low comedy – Francine Britton, the US author of the government’s ‘Teaching Toolkit’, makes recalcitrant classes listen to Whitney Houston’s The Greatest Love of All, because it’s about ‘valuing education, pride in self, and being a good role model.’ However the basic implication of making citizenship ‘active’ is pretty clear: use it or lose it. ‘Rights’, as no politician has tired of saying since Thatcher, ‘mean responsibilities.’ Citizens whose ‘activity’ is insufficient or inappropriate may find their special status revoked at any time.

Politics and Progress talks a lot about encouraging ‘autonomy’, self-help and self-management (a phrase also favoured by Tito) for individuals and communities, through devolution of State functions to a local level. In a literal sense, it’s perfectly true that this is what Blunkett wants. What is being devolved, however, is responsibility (or ‘duty’, as the minister likes to call it) accompanied by ‘accountability’ (in other words, surveillance). As we have seen in education, with the establishment of national targets and a Standards and Effectiveness Unit, the element of ‘accountability’ is crucial. Getting people to police themselves, administering their own housing estates, local services and health care, then requiring ‘transparency’ in how they do it introduces institutional prescription and monitoring to newly intimate areas of social life.

These policies are the expression of an internally coherent interpretation of history and political power. Blunkett dreams of reviving active political participation, stopping the fall in voter turnout and saving youngsters from the pernicious cynicism about formal politics shared by Marxism and ‘anti-globalisation protest’. Yet the model of politics he proposes looks more like charity work than historical agency. Economic forces are repeatedly characterised as beyond the reach of political action, natural and inevitable. He criticises the ‘old left’ for its ‘blind’(!) resistance to Thatcherism, when it should have been ‘helping to ride these transitions.’ Conflict is completely ruled out, except as something for politics to resolve. The role of government is to administer the given economic reality, adjusting society and citizens to its demands.

In terms of this radical social passivity, Blunkett’s programme is quite rational. Even his assertion that dealing with ‘nuisance neighbours’ is as important a political problem as providing housing starts to make sense: the first is within the power of the State as glorified town meeting; the second can be left to individual responsibility. Given sufficiently sophisticated surveillance to ensure that ‘autonomy’ doesn’t take on any conflictual or subversive dimensions, it’s simply more efficient for adjustment to be (self-) managed locally.

What this means in practice is easily imagined. ‘The death knell for common ownership as [...] politically feasible and defensible [...] was sounded very early in the post-war years,’ Blunkett declares early in his book. His concept of ‘asset-based’ welfare, in which crassly quantitative ‘income transfer’ is replaced by a vaguely defined distribution of ‘assets’ to be used by individuals to safeguard their own livelihoods, is in the strictest sense a project of enclosure. Wealth formerly held in common, to be drawn on by anyone (at least in theory) according to need, is divided into privately-owned packages for a new nation of smallholding peasants. For an idea of how this might work, re-read the part of Benedict Seymour’s article ‘Two or Three Things I Know About Her’ (Mute 19) on the amount of low-cost social housing still available in London after a few years of owner-occupier and shared-ownership-based urban regeneration under New Labour. Such are the results when political action retreats from quantitative intervention into the cloying world of ‘quality of life’.

Matthew Hyland <asperger AT> is co-founder of Wolverine, the journal of Childish Psychology, a regular contributor to Datacide and plays guitar and Farfisa organ in Mean Streaks