Our desperate quest for immortality in a culture of fear

July 29, 2007 at 11:24 pm (Civil liberties, libertarianism, rcp, voltairespriest)

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAm I turning into an RCP’er? I’ve been getting seriously concerned about the above point lately, because of my increasing agreement with uncle Frank and company about a particular political point. There’s an article this week in the New Statesman by one Lois Rogers (who I should make clear is not an RCP’er to the best of my knowledge), called “The End of Risk”.  Without going into too much detail, it describes a very real malaise that nowadays seems to infest our political culture in the UK – that of having become driven to legislate the risk out of our everyday lives. It’s an imperative that seems to hide an underlying wish to become immortal on the part of a populace fattened on affluence, lack of war and a general decline in want, coupled with an increase in material aspirations on the part of those who do not have that affluence in all its fullness.

Now how does this all relate to the contrarians so beloved of the theory of the lizard fart which provoketh global warming more than the car? Obviously I’m not someone who is inclined to agree with everything they’ve ever said; the gross lies that they told (and were sued for) over Srebrenica being an obvious example of where they and I parted company. However, where they do have a point is when it comes to the extraordinary willingness of people within today’s society to unquestioningly accept a certain bounded consensus. Funnily enough, both sides of the debate on the Iraq War accuse each other of being the representatives of that consensus, whereas in fact it’s perfectly possible to get either a pro- or anti-war opinion into the national press, as even a cursory examination of the national press shows quite clearly. But when it comes to minmisation of risk to ourselves, it touches something more primal. What could possibly mitigate against lifestyle choices that make us less “at risk” than we otherwise would be? Why not have a salad instead of an egg sandwich? Why not have a J2O instead of a beer? Isn’t it just common sense?

There’ve been several articles by people in the RCP’s online journal “Spiked” around this subject, many of which I’ve been very surprised to find myself in agreement with. But the most recent of these is by Emily Hill, on the subject of sanitising celebrities. There’s one quote in it (concerning the percieved foibles of artists such as Amy Winehouse) which I found particularly poignant and true:

“Nowadays, no one is allowed to be miserable. Or very thin. Or very fat. Or very different. They should all be balanced, happy, nourished by Omega-3 supplements. Rage, drunkenness, crying, screaming, feelings of misery, tears of longing – all are now pathologised, to the extent that even creativity (which often springs from all of these things) has come to be seen as a disease.” 

Hence, for instance, we get a massive popular upsurge in relief (fuelled of course by a media panic about passive smoking) which can be heard in general conversation, at the introduction of a smoking ban in public places. After all, if we can just sanitise our immediate personal environment a little more, we can perhaps convince ourselves just that little bit further that maybe our bodies can stave off their natural decline and death for a few years more. Maybe if we sterilised the ground at every step we took, shot dogs that crapped on street corners and shut down every greasy spoon takeaway in the country that didn’t obey an asparagus quota, we’d be able to force even more people to take sensible lifestyle choices which don’t “impact on the rest of us”. God forbid that we should be in a smelly room, or confronted with fat or inebriated people on the streets – they might become sick, and the one thing that we enlightened liberals cannot cope with is to be reminded of our own vulnerabilities. Far better to sanitise them out, slap conditions on their health care (or deny it to them, you know it’s coming), but however we do it, remove them from sight. After all it’s their fault, they could drink acai berry smoothies and shop at farmers’ markets like we do, right? And they could afford it too, if they didn’t insist on spending their benefits money on nights in the pub rather than on organic duck eggs…

It seems to me that all of the usual civil libertarian versus authoritarian/statist arguments around these issues rather miss the point. Isn’t the simple reality that we’re averse to understanding a universal truth, which is that I, you, gentle reader, and everyone else in the world will die, and that the great likelihood is that it will be of something deeply unpleasant, whether that something is neurological, physical, psychological, whether it’s genetic, accidental or self-inflicted? It won’t be nice, no matter whether you live off beansprouts or fried bacon. So move on, and stop asking governments to make laws to keep you alive forever. Pay some taxes and maybe the NHS will take care of you when you get ill. That’s what you get to ask for. 

It’s time to pull yourselves together. And for God’s sake have that kebab if you want it. You might get run over by a bus on the way home anyway.


  1. splinteredsunrise said,

    It’s weird isn’t it? I mean, I could never stand the RCP when they were they RCP, but these days I get a lot of enjoyment out of reading Uncle Frank. Even when I disagree with him, which is usually.

  2. voltaires_priest said,

    He’s certainly got a point, I think, when it comes to our unwillingness as the left to work outside of a certain liberal consensus on many issues. It seems bizarre that we now won’t offend Guardianistas, where we once called “no Gods, no Masters” and fought the state. Seems to me we’ve lost our way a little.

  3. splinteredsunrise said,

    See, this is why I actually prefer the old shouty Socialist Worker, crap as it was, to the current version. SW these days reads like a Grauniad supplement, which I suppose in a sense it is.

  4. voltaires_priest said,

    Well, yeah, that’s right actually. They were dickheads when they were shouting “all out action now” at every microphone they could reach, but at least you felt like they were dickheads with a bit of fight in them. Now all they do is cosy up to whatever liberal/stalinist/religious-political wanker is their latest desperate roll of the dice in their efforts to arrest their decline.

    Sad, but it’s not a phenomenon that’s limited to the SWP either.

  5. Jeff said,

    I don’t like that hoary old cliche about creativity springing from miserable feelings.

    However, I did like the rest of it. I was put in mind by the antepenultimate paragraph of a late-night basement bar (unlicensed) which I found myself in last Friday near Tottenham Court Road. Everyone was chain-smoking – bliss! One girl threw up on the floor next to me but they just swept it up against the wall and everyone carried on dancing…

  6. Dr Paul said,

    Another one of Frank Füredi’s pet theories is the ‘culture of low expectations’, that nobody these days wants to do anything challenging. He and his mates are the best example of this theory. From wanting to change the world as the Revolutionary Communist Party to whining about it like a cut-price Julie Burchill as Spiked.

  7. voltaires_priest said,

    As against precisely what shining example floating atop the cesspool that calls itself the “left” these days?

  8. a very public sociologist said,

    Don’t worry Volty, you’re not the only one who thinks the ex-RCP has got a point about this. Remember, even the insane have their lucid moments.

  9. Dr Paul said,

    The RCP wasn’t sued over what it said about Srebrenica, what happened was that its mag Living Marxism was sued by ITN because it said that it (ITN) had falsified its reportage of a Serb-run detention camp in Trnopolje in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Technically, the LM report was correct, so the mag lost on a technicality. However, what was grotesquely overlooked in the LM report was the purpose of the camp; LM was right to point out that it was not like a Nazi death-camp, but it was nonetheless a detention camp for non-Serb BiH men, and the internees were hardly there for a holiday. I thought before the writs were served that this story in LM was a hopeless case, and was not surprised that it backfired spectacularly.

    Basically, it was a typical RCP get-rich-quick scheme. I remember being told by an RCPer that this would be the story that would get the revamped magazine into the big time. It did of course, but not in the way it was hoped. The RCP ran stunt after stunt trying to get itself noticed (I was an RCP supporter for some time, so I know about these various schemes — most were a damp squib, all hype and no real substance). What they could have done over the press reports about Serb-run camps in BiH was to show that there were also detention camps run by Muslim and Croat authorities; that all sides were responsible for appalling behaviour. This, however, would have meant some hard investigative work rather than some get-rich-quick scheme.

    The ironic thing about the ITN writ on LM was that by the time it came to court, the by-now disbanded RCP and its mag were not interested in international politics and had become practically solely interested in what could best be called lifestyle matters, things with which it concerns itself today.

  10. Lobby Ludd said,

    Voltaires Priest said:

    “As against precisely what shining example floating atop the cesspool that calls itself the “left” these days?”

    I’m not quite sure what you are saying here. I’m sure there are parts of Spiked’s libertarianism which should be standard views on the left. Are you saying they provide a better ‘socialist’ analysis (or something else) that is currently available?

    Strangely, despite their insistence on the need for humanistic, positive politics they don’t have any. They are like that character portrayed by Harry Enfield some years ago – “you don’t want to do that, now do you”.

    ( For what it’s worth, I suspect that having set themselves absurd targets, the RCP decided that the working class had let them down and they are waiting for a more worthy one to come along. Meanwhile they sell their talents to the highest bidder, just as long as they are reassured by them that they are awfully, awfully, clever. In fact, they’ll settle for that, sod active poetics they are after all dead clever and get on TV and radio and that.)

  11. voltaires_priest said,

    No, I’m saying where’s this activist left that challenges popular consensus views and which pays more than lip-service to its stated ideal of changing the world? I think most of the left is actually co-opted by a “liberal” consensus that is actually anything but liberatory and which actually is about the state taking control of decisions which should lie with ordinary people. The libertarian tendency that exists more in the USA than here might have fucked-up economic views, but they’ve got the stuff about the state’s role in controlling social behaviour far more worked out than most of those on the left who proclaim their cause to be that of human liberation. Ironic, really, that the RCP tendency should be the only ones shouting the idea from the rooftops.

  12. Nick said,

    There’s definitely a lot in this, a case in point is the Guardiani/Independent ‘well you know the weed they smoke these days is a lot stronger’ argument against the legalisation of cannabis

  13. Nick said,

    Having said that Spiked always annoys me in exactly the same way as the Guardian does, I think it’s got something to do with fuckwit London based self righteous liberals who think they’re in some way radical

  14. twp77 said,

    Excellent stuff Volty! I’ve posted it to Facebook.

  15. Igor Belanov said,

    Some of us like the smoking ban, not because it means we’ll all live until 200 but because it has created a much more pleasant environment to sit and drink in. Smoking in public does not provide people with opportunities to take risks or try something challenging. It was an anti-social activity.

  16. Bruce said,

    Can I take it then, Volty, that you’re against Health and Safety legislation?

  17. Andy Newman said,

    As Will isn’t here at the moment can I just say Fuck off to Igor over the smoking thing.

    yes yes, smoking bad for your health, yawn, but it is also fun and is scientifically proven to make you look more cool and sexy (departments where I need al the help I can get). Tobacco is an excellent drug becasue it makes you happy (although cigarrettes are not the best way to take it)

    What I cannot get over is the sanctimonius self-congratulatory way that non-smokers were happy to ban all choice, so they banned any pubs or clubs being able to offer a choice – on rather boguc helath and safety arguments (becasue they refused to consider the posibility of legislating for compulsory air extraction as an alternative)

    The thing about the RCP is that they do have a point about moral panics, and being risk averse. But neverthless they are an extremely elitist bunch of annoying Londoners.

  18. voltaires_priest said,

    Can I take it then, Bruce, that you’re in favour of banning hamburgers? Imagine the lowering of risk to public health in terms of heart attacks. Not to mention that there’d be less of those burger bar smells about. And banning cars too. Imagine how much nicer inner cities would smell, not to mention the lowering of risk of respiratory diseases (the impact of which would dwarf that of the ban on smoking in pubs).

    And whilst we’re at it, ban white trainers too. The sight of them offends mine eyes. And I’m sure they must put me at risk of something bad.

  19. modernityblog said,

    it is interesting to read Andy Newman’s comments on smoking, as it shows an element which until recently was not a major of the Left’s thinking: faux libertarianism

    That fake libertarianism is normally concentrated around 1 or 2 issues and primarily related to the individuals activities or consumption.

    For example is the individual concerned is an American gun-nut, then any amount of hysteria will be invoked to hold on to those firearms. Alternatively if the individual is a foxhunter then spurious arguments will be forthcoming, simply because the individual is preoccupied with those activities.

    Similarly the ingrained smoker will justify his or her disgusting habit normally akin to the gun-nut or foxhunter.

    But when we look at the issue of smoking it becomes a class issue.

    The working class is detrimentally affected by smoking. The working classes and poor spend proportionately more of their income on smoking. The working classes and poor are more likely to suffer from chronic lung conditions, cancer, blindness and other conditions because of smoking.

    Parents that smoke are more likely to encourage their children to smoke, and waste £1000s a year on tobacco related products.

    Eye and smoking, http://www.mdsupport.org/library/nosmoke.html

    Passive smoking and blindness, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4542128.stm

    Smoking and lung cancer, http://www.chestx-ray.com/Smoke/Smoke.html
    Smoking responsible for 90% of cancer deaths
    Incidence of lung cancer is rising. Lung cancer is responsible for more cancer deaths than colorectal cancer, breast cancer, and prostate cancer combined. Lung cancer primarily strikes people over age 45. By the time that an individual develops symptoms, spread has usually occurred.”

    So anyone remotely intelligent or genuinely concerned with the welfare of the working classes should welcome the measures to reduce smoking in society.

  20. Renegade Eye said,

    Very interesting post.

    The Spiked Group is one, I’m sure we can find endless fascination. They are so different than how most of us evolved.

    Funny how the rumors of their funding, since their anti-global warming wasn’t discussed.

    I was invited to a futurist meeting. I’m going to be posting on that subject. Now I believe I’ll live to be 200 years old. Ok to smoke by me.

  21. voltaires_priest said,

    Nobody’s saying that smoking isn’t bad for you, Modernity, and with respect I think that by doing so you’re somewhat stating the obvious and missing the point of the debate. The question at hand is whether it’s the role of the state to ban stuff that’s bad for you. And why you’d want it to do so. Indeed, if you think the answer to every issue where there’s a practice which adds to health risks is for the state to ban it, then as I pointed out in my reply to Bruce, there are things which could be banned that would have as much, if not more, effect than banning smoking in pubs. But of course to advocate those would be to go outside of that cosy “liberal” (a misnomer in this case) consensus of which I spoke in my article.

    Furthermore, have people not noticed that mentality in operation during the course of this thread? I find it fascinating that a general article about the left operating within a public consensus whose agenda is often amenable to the state’s agenda, should be answered by (some) commenters furiously defending the ban on smoking in pubs/restaurants. That actually wasn’t the primary subject of my article, but it does rather prove my point.

    What’s more, all of those people who apparently now won’t die from going to the pub, actually will still die of something. And it still probably won’t be nice. 😉

  22. Igor Belanov said,

    I think it’s time to get off your soapbox VP. What about smoking in offices, cafes, buses or trains? I find it quite worrying that many people consider not being able to smoke in a public place to be an awful imposition but are quite blase about so many other things in life. I largely agree with Modernity, except that I would defend the smoking ban on the grounds that it improves the environment rather than the more dubious proposition that it’ll be saving people from an early death.

  23. Janine said,

    You really wanna be careful where that “We’re all going to die in the end anyway” argument takes you.

    A Hackney Councillor used that line a couple of years back to justify cutting back health and social services to older people.

  24. modernityblog said,

    igor, we are in complete agreement

  25. modernityblog said,

    Volty wrote:

    Nobody’s saying that smoking isn’t bad for you, Modernity, and with respect I think that by doing so you’re somewhat stating the obvious and missing the point of the debate

    er, no?

    Andy Newman wrote:

    yes yes, smoking bad for your health, yawn, but it is also fun and is scientifically proven to make you look more cool and sexy (departments where I need al the help I can get). Tobacco is an excellent drug becasue it makes you happy (although cigarrettes are not the best way to take it)

    I’d suggest that Andy is still working it out, seems like he hasn’t fully come to a conclusion yet? but who knows? he doesn’t make much sense at the best of times.

    I think a lot of smokers accept that they will have bronchial problems in the winter, also they accept that they smell (exposure to smoke) but what many don’t concede is that smoking significantly increases the probability of blindness.

    Add to that, premature ageing, hardening of the arteries, throat cancer and problems with internal organs, see http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5077308/

    Then there is the cost, lost earnings through sickness, unnecessary trips to the GP and the waste of money, as it goes up in smoke. According to a fairly “conservative” estimate 10 cigarettes a day will cost you in the order of £900 a year, see http://www.nosmokingday.org.uk/php/moneycalculator.php?status=calculatorsubmit&nocigs=10&Submit=Submit

    That at least £900 a year that could be spent on the kids, see http://hbcn.haveaheart.org.uk/costofsmoking.aspx

    Smoking adversely affects the working classes and poor, see

    “Currently, a 20 a day smoker will spend about £1,800 a year on cigarettes. People on low income spend proportionally more of their income on tobacco than wealthier people. In the financial year 2004-05, the lowest ten percent of income households spent £3.30 per week on cigarettes whilst the highest ten percent spent £4.70 per week. [4] This equates to 2.24 percent and 0.51 percent respectively of total weekly household expenditure.”, see http://www.ash.org.uk/html/factsheets/html/fact16.html and http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/humber/6039414.stm

    If you wanted to saddle the working classes with a more useless and death inducing habit, you would be hard put to find one.

    In terms of the liberties argument, all societies to a degree apply various forms of social engineering (telling people what is good for them), that is true of bear baiting, schooling and road traffic rules.

    An extreme libertarian could equally argue that they should be allowed to let bears fight in pits, avoid schooling (social indoctrination to them) and not comply with traffic rules. Each of these examples is a specific, but you could make comparable cases to smoking.

    The question is: where do you draw the line? ?

    The issue of smoking is compounded by the detrimental effects of passive smoking (indirectly inhaling someone else’s smoke), “Professor Konrad Jamrozik, formerly of Imperial College London, has estimated that domestic exposure to secondhand smoke in the UK causes around 2,700 deaths in people aged 20-64 and a further 8,000 deaths a year among people aged 65 years or older.”


    Not that most smokers care about secondhand smoke as long as they have their “fix”.

    The asocial nature of smoking is not fully appreciated by many smokers

    So the question of smoking can be approached on many levels: health, hygiene, addiction, detrimental effects and societal.

    Personally, I think people should be allowed to smoke if that’s what they want, and if they wish to be so stupid, but they should not be allowed to inflict their foul habits on others (passive smoking), and in particular children.

  26. voltaires_priest said,

    So basically Igor, you’d defend it on the grounds that smoking is smelly (so no Mod, you and he are not in complete agreement)? How very rrradical of you.

    The pair of you go back and read what I actually wrote, and then ask yourselves why your first instinct was to leap to the defence of the smoking ban, which was (at best) a supplementary part of my argument. Then come back and tell me how exactly you don’t act within a “decent people’s” consensus.

    And Mod, you quote me saying that everyone knows smoking is bad for you, and saying that you reiterating that point is stating the obvious. You deny having done so, and then “prove” your point by doing the same thing again. You further “prove” it by pointing out a quote from Andy which says “err” that he knows smoking is bad for you. You then claim that he doesn’t know what he’s already stated to be true. And then you post another shedload of links stating the obvious about a subject which isn’t the point of this thread. Methinks it’s you who are missing the point, I respectfully suggest.

    I repeat, this debate isn’t about whether or not smoking is bad for you. It’s only tangentially about the ban on smoking in pubs at all. In fact, by going on about it you’re rather proving the point that I made in my original article, which was about the “left” supporting state bans on scary threatening groups like people having a fag in the pub, whilst doing nothing at all to confront the power of the state. And tapping into a fattened affluent populace’s misplaced belief that if they do nothing “risky” they’ll never die, in the course of doing so.

  27. modernityblog said,


    my view was not an either or argument

    I think smoking is both detrimental to people in so many ways, as I said you could argue on many levels: health, hygiene (smell), etc all of which I think should be taken together

    I appreciate that you’re intelligent individual and probably realise the risks, but Andy is a different kettle of fish.

    my apologies for belabouring the point 🙂

    Mrs. Trillis argues the case far better than I can, see http://mrstrellis.cream.org/?p=280#comment-55324

    PS: I favour smokers being encased in hermetically sealed boxes and they can smoke as much as they like!

    ok, I promise rant about smoking again, for a while, at least

  28. voltaires_priest said,

    Jeezus God, man, my article’s not about the fucking smoking ban! 😆

    Although I think possibly, following a close reading of what I wrote in the article, you’ll agree with me that the fact that several people’s first instinct was to leap to the defence of something that I’d only mentioned in passing, rather proves my original point… ?

  29. KB Player said,

    An interesting post. I think it is the tangible v the intangible. So eg removing all hanging baskets of flowers may save one person from clonking their head. Clonking your head is tangible. But you have also removed the pleasure that those hanging baskets brought to those who put them up and to those who saw them. That is the intangible. And you can measure the tangible but not the intangible.

    It’s like the difference between excellence at sports or in the arts. In sport there are numbers, goals, clocks, finishing lines. So you can say who won. In the arts it is aesthetic value and you can’t make any objective criteria for what is good or bad.

    It is a kind of bottom line accounting. It is the price rather than the value. It’s an easy utilitarianism. When they built the Sick Kids hospital in Edinburgh about a hundred years ago they commissioned murals by a highly thought of artist at the time. These days there would be grumblings that the money should have been spent on kidney machines.

    Anyway I think it’s a subject that touches a lot of areas of society. Don’t know if you could make much of a political movement out of it though.

  30. modernityblog said,


    I had my RCP shades on, so I read only what I wanted too!

    I think in terms of the risk averse society it pays to follow the money

    my bet is a lot of these issues come straight from insurance companies, and petty bureaucrats throughout the land wants to err on the cautious side to protect their jobs, so some things then are “banned”, simply because it’s too much hassle to to argue with the insurance companies or have a dose of commonsense

  31. modernityblog said,

    oh I meant to write:

    I promise not> to rant about smoking

  32. Igor Belanov said,

    OK, I won’t mention the sm***** b**. I do think you’ve got a point with the fact that society is too risk averse, and a prime example of how this has become part of the capitalist system is the ‘compensation culture’. I think the reluctance of parents to let children play out, people calling in sick to work with a runny nose, and the sheer breadth and depth of the Sex Offender’s Register are all symptoms of this over-caution. On the other hand, regulation is inevitable in a developed society, and I’m sure we would all support traffic laws, health and safety rules, worker’s rights etc. Where you draw the line is a political matter, and unfortunately not one that always has a left-right rationale.

  33. voltaires_priest said,

    I guess it depends on where we see those social regulations as coming from – whether they’re to protect life and limb (for instance speed limits, about which there is also an argument to be had however), or whether they’re there because the government knows what’s good for us, and we don’t (for instance health warnings on bottles of wine, a proposed law). I think that in all too many cases we allow the latter to be couched as the former, when actually life and limb would be far better served by our pursuing real left-wing political projects than by acting as the radical wing of neighbourhood watch.

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