Sunday, 12 September 2010

Emerging trends: the marshalling of society

It may not actually be an emerging trend, rather something that I am noticing in various places, but let us start with this final line from Antonio Maria Costa's defence of the (indefensible) continuing worldwide UN treaty-led prohibition of drugs:
The prohibition versus legalisation debate must stop being ideological and look for the appropriate degree of controls. Drug control is not the task of governments alone: it is a society-wide responsibility. Are we ready to engage?
I will leave the fisking of Antonio's threadbare argument, as Tim Worstall has already given it a good seeing-to, pausing only to question what exactly he means by saying that the debate 'must stop being ideological'? Presumably that all of us who reject his views should shut up because he's right and that's the end of it.

Instead I will dwell on this very last part. Governments can't do it all themselves, society needs to shoulder its share of the burden, and then the direct question 'are we ready?' The rationale of this question is built on a number of presuppositions which cannot go unchallenged. Firstly that governments can't do it all alone: By stating this truism out loud, he implies that it would be desirable if they could, if governments were indeed all-powerful. A passing knowledge of history will suffice to refute this repellent idea. Secondly that it is society's responsibility to step up and fill the gaps left by our less-than-omnipotent governments. But what is this society, and who are the 'we' to whom his challenge is addressed?

The central argument of his article is predicated on the notion that in the absence of drug prohibitions, a large portion of us will be whacked out on drugs, that the only thing preventing us being so now is the drug laws he supports. So surely he cannot expect the general weak-willed commonality to be banding together against the illicit narcotics trade? In which case, society must mean, not all of us, but a certain part of us; a coalition of the willing, a smaller body of the 'elect' amongst the doomed masses, which, if the first person plural of the question is to be taken literally, includes executive directors of United Nations Offices, and who else?

The term 'society' is being used to denote a kind of supernumerary, auxiliary force to drive home the state's agenda, in the same way as bands of armed irregulars are seen to operate in low intensity warfare, giving the government a measure of plausible deniability for the worst excesses of their forces. Thus the fake charities, tax-payer-funded lobby groups, UN-accredited NGOs etc. fan out across the societal landscape, a veritable janjaweed of concerned citizens, clearing a path for their uniformed allies.

The reason for this post, as stated in the opening paragraph, is that this is not the first time I have seen this notion. It seems inherent to Cameron's 'big society agenda', and is also found in the recent Demos report linking conspiracy theories and terrorism, where it is stated:
Civil society must play a more proactive role in confronting the lies and myths of conspiracy theories when they find them. Fighting conspiracy theories is something that, by definition, is almost impossible for government to do; but civil society groups do have credibility to do so more effectively.
Hidden within these exhortations to society, however defined, to do more in whatever particular case in point, is the brooding power of the state, which intends to relinquish nothing. Rather than backing off, admitting that its interventionist strategies do not work, and handing back the responsibility and the money it purloined from us for our own purported good, an even greater mobilisation is called for. The age of state-mandated voluntary service is upon us.

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