The Fog of Policy, Discourse and Life
by Dr Alan Sandry - Senior Lecturer, Morgan Academy
In today’s world there are many ‘wicked issues’. These are contentious matters which attract a variety of opinions, claims and counter claims. Obvious examples could be debates surrounding the privatisation of health services; the need, or otherwise, for the State to be the key provider of elementary education; the arguments for or against reducing our carbon footprint; questions about the diminishing role of libraries as ‘sites of public knowledge’, and so forth.
Some of these ‘wicked issues’ are openly discussed within society; be it that this process takes place through letters to newspapers, television talk shows, or radio phone-ins. As long as it remains moderately well-tempered, and good hearted, we are allowed to indulge ourselves in what appear to be open and transparent discussions. So far, so good!
The acute points arise when the ‘wicked issues’ confronted are more marginalised, controversial or divisive. Issues such as abortion and drug legislation have always been seen as ‘close to the mark’, possibly upsetting those adhering to traditionalist sentiments in the form of ‘family values’ Conservatism. But, over time, other bogey issues have arising; notably Euthanasia, and more recently Fracking, and the sensitive health, cultural and religious issue of Female Genital Mutilation.
Do these ‘wicked issues’ require local or global actions and solutions? Interdisciplinary and inter-sectoral working, and networking, can alleviate some problems, but do we require greater structural change and reconfiguration, in the Althusserian sense? Where should Government aid be directed, for example? If, indeed, it is to central financial and governmental sources such as this that we should turn for assistance. Could local, State-unencumbered organisations carry the burden? It may certainly be difficult to envisage intervention of this nature within the current climate, but, in terms of blue sky thinking, we can certainly theorise for our futures in order to influence policy makers and politicians along the way.
Decision making, and policy implementation, has to be radically rethought. We could possibly seek to nurture and encourage volunteer groups to run services that are currently controlled by local authorities. Similarly, fostering the establishment of People’s Senates, and a general intensifying of local ‘street level’ democracy, could unblock some of the current obstructionism. Or, conversely, is the opposite of these suggestions the way forward? Namely, fewer decision makers, and more centralisation.
Political ideologies come into play here, depending on how people perceive the Individual-Collective spectrum. Some ‘laissez faire’ liberals, for instance, would contend that freeing up people from their current middle management (bureaucratic) roles would allow space within society for more entrepreneurial activities and innovative thinking? From their perspective, this would be an act of economic and societal Manumission. This is the type of ideational thinking that the Jacob Rees-Mogg-led European Research Group envisage for a post-Brexit England. Those with alternative viewpoints would argue that fewer numbers and resources in key social and public policy sectors would merely lead to tardy delivery, economic slumps and rising unemployment.
In all of this, we experience the reality of the paucity, some would say the impossibility, of long term planning; a perfect contemporary example of this is displayed through the stasis of the Brexit process. Everything is concentrated on short-term dates, and small gains. The next Advisory vote or Summit is presented as imperative, but often turns out to be perfunctory. Discourse – at least intellectual, logical discourse – is being rapidly peripheralised and ridiculed. Soundbites and spin are replacing debate, as visceral attitudes come to the fore. The newspaper reviewers have become our lodestar.
As a mood of depression sets in, people with power are often challenged; albeit mostly by armchair critics who revel in deriding experts in the field. Criticism of the so-called ‘Political Class’ is now widespread. But does the ‘Political Class’ exist? Those who are normally labelled as such are merely our representatives, in a democratic system, and are themselves on short tenure. One aspect of this criticism is the level of abuse disseminated via new technology. Social media dominates the realm of instant reaction; notwithstanding that such reaction is often ‘off the cuff’ and rarely thought through. The predominance of this mode of interaction, however, is unquestionable and is embedded across societies. To paraphrase Rousseau, we are “born free but are everywhere on our mobiles”.
Clearing the Fog?
So where does this leave public policy and political discourse? At a low point, to be honest, though not necessarily unrecoverable. As every Tom, Dick and Harriet bangs on about Sovereignty and ‘taking back control’ the actuality of those terms appears more opaque by the day. If people who demand such things have real difficulty in describing what they mean, and how they would affect their lives and those of their communities, then how is it possible to engender a lucid set of policies to enact those concepts, and to ensure that economic and social amelioration occurs? The fog of policy, discourse and life remains, and becomes thicker by the day.