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One view of the state… February 16, 2017

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

Entertaining piece on Zero Books which interviewed Josie Appleton, who has written Officious – Rise of the Busybody State. This, as the accompanying blog for the book notes is predicated on the following assumption:

In Anglo-Saxon countries there is a new and distinctive form of state: the busybody state. This state is defined by an attachment to bureaucratic procedures for their own sake: the rule for the sake of a rule; the form for the sake of a form. Its insignias are the badge, the policy, the code and the procedure. The logic of the regulation is neither to represent an elite class interest, nor to serve the public, nor even to organise social relations with the greatest efficiency as with classic bureaucracy, but rather to represent regulation itself.
This book analyses the logic of the busybody state, explains its origins, and calls for a popular alliance defending the free realm of civil society.

She’s worked for Spiked (natch) amongst others and there’s a lot of their low level grumbling about her (and she admits she doesn’t support the welfare state either).

But I have to wonder at what she is suggesting and whether it is correct. For example, she points to New Labour as the genesis of a range of laws affecting public space – where for example she suggests it is now impossible to erect public stalls for campaigns, or public drinking etc. And yet and yet, is that accurate? I think it seems very over… ahem… stated. Yes, unquestionably there is significantly greater efforts to police public spaces – though as per usual no mention at all of, say, armed conflict as part of that.

But Britain was always much more tightly constrained in odd and unexpected ways, licensing laws in Britain were always crazy.

And I wonder too is she getting the dynamic quite right. She mentions homeless people not being allowed to drink publicly or even lie down, but I’d tend to think this is driven by the public more than the state. And then one huge aspect is ignored, that of the baleful influence of the media. It is the commercial media which have whipped up safety concerns – over children in the public sphere, etc. But again that’s not a pressure from the state and this seems to over-egg the problem. She attempts to argue, profoundly unconvincingly, that commercial interests aren’t the same, that they’re not wedded to busy-bodyness as the state is. But that ignores – with surveillance and other aspects of what she describes the huge commercial interests behind these manifestations – cameras, the marketisation of the securing of public spaces and so on. Or what about a legal profession all too keen to monetize this contestable area?

Moreover her analysis of non-state busy-bodies, the traditional busy body as it were who poked their nose into others business, as essentially apolitical with no agenda is rather naive. They were, at the least, about exerting passive or active social control mechanisms.

But paradoxically what’s fascinating is how – for all that she tries to chart this to a depoliticisation more widely – it seems so bloodless and depoliticised in itself, an attack on symptoms rather than cause. She talks about the lack of political contestation but then points to the fact towns and cities had labour clubs or garden parties and ‘a very institutional’ society with people connected to organisations that linked them to the people running the state and how this was broken in the 1980s. But is that a genuine reading of the social and political function or contesting function of such organisations or a sort of nostalgia for the past.

The Manifesto Club is the public manifestation of her thoughts and looking at its concerns they seem so parochial, so relatively low-level.

All that said I’m not completely unsympathetic to the complaints expressed. Hyper regulation of the public sphere is an issue. An example, the creature’s school rang recently asking for permission for the creature to go out with the class picking up rubbish in the park as part of a clean environment project. There had been a form but needless to say it had got lost in the school bag so the necessary permission wasn’t there. The school couldn’t get through so the creature remained in a room with a couple of other classmates. I’ve mixed feelings about that. I understand that the school might need legally to have that permission – God forbid anything would happen on that sort of a trip. On the other hand a slightly diffuser permission covering that and other events might be given… I’m pretty sure when in the early 1970s my national school teacher brought us out to the field across from the school in the heart of Kilbarrack to listen to him read The Old Man and the Sea there were no permissions flying back and forth. Or perhaps the creature should have remembered to get the bloody thing signed because for all that the school was taking the kids to the local park. Does that anecdote tell us anything about a society too afraid to bring children hither and yon? Not so much. More about the necessity to keep up to speed (for example a text from the school to parents noting the need for the signature would cover the lot). And does it tell us much about the state?

A balance between safety and autonomy is necessary and I’m usually inclined towards the latter – as a thought example, not every cliff needs a railing built along its edge when signs will suffice. But it seems that at least some of the problems are somewhat exaggerated or can relatively easily be remedied (there’s a quote of her talking about a teacher who was fired because they gave a lift to a student after school – this may be entirely crazy in her view, but there’s a long and continuing history and legacy of child abuse that would at the least make one recognise that there are certain issues about this area that make it a little more problematic than simple busy-bodiness and also perhaps amenable to sensible solutions), and where they’re not, as with a societal aversion to allowing children greater latitude to roam, it is commercial and social pressures rather than state pressures that are at fault (possibly even demographic pressures in that last instance).

It’s one of the real problems of the Zero Books podcast format, there’s no direct opportunity for those speaking to have what they say analysed in somewhat greater detail.


1. sonofstan - February 16, 2017

I remember being at a festival in Norway a few years back supervising some students on a work placement. Some of them were visibly uncomfortable with the lack of overt security on the sight; unlike British events of a similar nature, it was possible to lookaround and not see a hi-viz vest anywhere. The festival was on an island and the beaches were open – my students were most concerned that people might drown. In fact, of course, the Norwegians festival goers, despite much drunkenness – at least as much as would be apparent in the UK – did not drown as a result of midnight swims, did not set fire to their tents or rob each other, and didn’t fight just because they couldn’t see a security guy. The site was also amazingly tidy; people used the bins and sorted their rubbish as they did so. My students couldn’t get their head around the idea that people might behave responsibly in the absence of regulation.

It’s a rather distressing view of human nature that the simple ability to live together can only be achieved by enforcement and that, left to themselves, people will revert to animality.


Michael Carley - February 16, 2017

I had a similar experience in England when we organized a march in Bath (!) in support of the public sector pensions dispute in 2011. We were taking a chance but reckoned it was worth risking a flop. The police were told we’d have 500 marchers, we reckoned we’d be happy with 300. In the end, we made it 1500, and the police said 2000.

What was interesting was that we had laid in stocks of bin bags and organized people to collect litter from the rally venue, at the big bandstand in one of the public parks, and we needed none of it. When we went round afterwards to collect litter, I picked up literally two bits of paper, and other collectors did likewise. Turns out trade unionists, especially in the public sector, are decent tidy people.

Tolpuddle also has some of that atmosphere: lots of boozing, much of it by large working-class men, but zero trouble.


6to5against - February 16, 2017

I have to admire the skills involved in being at ‘work’ at a Norwegian music festival.

Liked by 1 person

sonofstan - February 16, 2017

Unfortunately, at this stage, I’ve worked at so many music festivals that even a watching brief, and in very pleasant environs, remains work.


2. deiseach - February 16, 2017

“She attempts to argue, profoundly unconvincingly, that commercial interests aren’t the same, that they’re not wedded to busy-bodyness as the state is”

At this point in my life, I simply won’t entertain the witterings of anyone who refuses to entertain the concept of market failures.


3. EWI - February 16, 2017

Note as well that the ‘Institute of Ideas’, referenced as part of the background of her supposed movement is another RCP/Spiked! front.

‘Spiked!’ is a lobbying business posing as a Marxist group posing as a libertarian outfit.

Liked by 1 person

4. FergusD - February 16, 2017

While I resist cut backs to state services etc I do worry that the left is often seen as “statist” and therefore ideologically predisposed in regulating people’s lives. I think, somehow, we have to question the very nature of the capitalist state, suggest alternatives, while at the same time fighting against the dismantling of valuable state services e.g. the NHS in the UK.


Michael Carley - February 16, 2017

It might be worth sometimes drawing a distinction between “public” and “state”.


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