The final chapter of Roger Lancaster’s Sex Panic and the Punitive State, a book lauded by many heretics, is titled “Whither the Punitive State?”
Frustratingly, it doesn’t really address its own question. While it would be unrealistic to expect firm predictions, or a rousing action plan (“Sex offenders of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your tags!”) all we get is a lame – because also unrealistic – list of “pointers for a sounder public discourse”. What it lacks is any sense of agency: good things would happen if his suggestions were adopted, but there no indication of who is ever going to do so. It is as though Lancaster had been sitting at his desk thinking “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone thought like me?”
But they don’t! Many of his readers, to be sure, may think like him and will benefit from his penetrating analysis of our woeful times, but we are left with little sense of engagement in making better things happen. Perhaps the closest we get is this:
“Concerted efforts by scholars, public intellectuals, journalists, and others could begin to make tabloid culture less respectable.”
But who is to do the concerting?
The political landscape might change if, say, the increasingly huge expense of incarcerating ever more sex offenders becomes unsustainable; in that eventuality, economic facts will have been the driving force towards a new discourse, not the conscious efforts of Lancaster or his readers. But concluding that history is just the working out of blind forces beyond our control might have seemed too bleak a note on which to conclude his book.
Nevertheless, it is one of several difficult considerations we must face unflinchingly if we are to “keep it real” as heretics. Another is whether the existence of a powerful state is necessarily a bad thing.
Marx, Engels and Lenin all asked not so much “Whither the state?” as “Wither the state?”
Friedrich Engels was the first to articulate the idea (which he attributed to Marx) that the state in a socialist society would wither away: the propertied classes needed coercively enforced laws to protect their unfair advantage; once the war against such injustice was won, the state would atrophy from lack of any purpose. But famously this vague “withering” thing, magicking the state away with a wishy-washy wave of Marxism’s rhetorical wand, never happened, either in the Soviet Union or in any other avowedly Marxist society: on the contrary, the state under Stalin, Mao and other Communist leaders grew ever more totalitarian and oppressive without even being efficient.
Likewise, we heretics have our own radicals who quite rightly oppose both “sex panics” and “the punitive state” but fail to propose plausible alternatives.
Recently, for instance, I unexpectedly found myself in a debate with the generally excellent Ben Capel at Inquisition 21st Century. At one time I was somewhat contemptuously dismissive of “unscientific” psychoanalysis grounded in the Freudian tradition. Ben put me right, alerting me to the radically humane potential of such therapy as compared with the supposedly more scientific CBT, which is used in coercive and degrading ways in penal settings.
So I value Ben’s thoughts highly and was pleased when Brian Rothery, editor of Inquisition 21, invited me to respond earlier this month to an article by Ben titled “Cruel and unusual punishment”. He had written that parents, as well as MAPs, sometimes find themselves subjected to unjust treatment at the hands of the state, suffering “harassment from social workers to the point where they are driven to mental breakdown or flight”, then seeing their children taken from them into state custody.
The article was part of an initiative called “The Rallying Point”, designed “to bring together isolated and fragmented groups” to fight back against the exercise of power by a state perceived as heartless and arrogant, blundering and bureaucratic.
I like the idea of rallying together with others who suffer injustice, but nevertheless found myself uneasy over the uncompromising anti-statism. Yes, I thought, social workers can sometimes be excessively interventionist. But should it be ignored that children are murdered at the rate of around one every 10 days in the UK at the hands of their parents, sometimes following unspeakable neglect and cruelty? I think not. What we do not hear so much about, and perhaps we should, are the cases where social workers intervene successfully and children are found better homes with loving adoptive parents.
Ben was unmoved when I made this point, insisting that the state should “withdraw and leave its citizens unmolested” until a whole bunch of tough conditions had been met, such as “until cops and social workers are required to have deep and enduring insight into their own irrational drives and sadistic tendencies”.
But, I asked, would the citizenry be left happily “unmolested”? Or would life be nasty, brutish and short? The Hobbesian nightmare of violent anarchy in the absence of a strong state is no mere imagining, I said, but well grounded in man’s truly savage history. The challenge is how to keep the baby (the rule of law) while throwing out the bathwater (unjust laws and unjust law enforcement). Note that my “savage” assessment relates to our history: prehistoric times are another matter, and I will be coming to those below.
I suggested that human rights law, a recent development, is a beginning.
Children’s rights, too, as I have argued here before, are only sustainable in a context of enforceable law backed by state power. And, believe it or not, those rights are being successfully used in Britain right now as a bulwark against intrusive police inquiries into the sex lives of young people.
How? Through Gillick Competence.
And here’s the context: the big, bad state in full panic mode has resulted in police forces around the country being tasked to hunt down teenagers exploited through so-called “grooming”. Publicity following a report last year that had claimed 1,400 victims in just one town, Rotherham, put pressure on the police and other official agencies to reveal the “true” scale of abuse elsewhere – which in practice meant intruding into the intimate behaviour of many youngsters who do not regard themselves as victims at all.
Gillick Competence, as I discovered obliquely from a BBC radio report, is protecting these youngsters. The Gillick principle, enshrined in a House of Lords ruling, acknowledges the competence of many young people under 16 to make important decisions in their life, including, implicitly, the decision to have an active sex life. This ruling, made in 1986, enables them to get advice on contraception and other sexual matters independently of their parents. That is an important reason why, as the BBC reported, police forces asking their intrusive questions found they encountered difficulty in getting answers from other public bodies, notably the National Health Service (NHS). The NHS is important in this regard because children are likely to be seen by healthcare staff, such as their local doctor, or school nurse, if they are sexually active and need contraception advice or have related medical needs. Thanks to the Gillick ruling, these staffs have been able to rebuff police enquiries in the name of patient confidentiality.
Thus a legal ruling, backed by the force of the state’s laws, is here seen in support of children and against the police. What this tells us is that reliance on a narrative of the oppressive state crushing the individual is hopelessly simplistic.
As for the ignorance and malevolence of police, social workers, etc., it is easy to reject the state that employs them. But then what? Ben talked about the “spontaneous cultivation of informal networks of trust and solidarity between people” as an alternative to state power.
Umm, really? Like a modern love relationship, say, which is a spontaneous coming together of two people who love each other and set up house together? But what happens if they fall out? Who gets the kids? What if one partner is murderously jealous after a betrayal? In the absence of law, it’s every man (and woman and child) for themselves and devil take the weakest.
And so the debate went on. Readers can decide for themselves who “won”. I like to think my logic was strong but persuasion comes mainly through the heart not the head and Ben definitely had a better story to tell in that regard.
In another debate, though, this time with Nick Devin of the Virtuous Pedophiles on the Sexnet forum, the roles were reversed. Nick was characteristically dour, dull and “realistic”, while I was the “romantic” rebel. In an earlier exchange, I had blasted him as being part of the problem, not the solution. He snapped back at my “fatuous” efforts, saying I spend far too much time blogging to “like-minded people” who collectively wring our hands over the unreasonableness of the world at large and accomplish nothing. “Occasionally,” he said “you speak to the press and invite blowback which leads to more derision and hate.”
You can read the full exchange here. Part of my response addressed fundamental aims:
At heart I am a “make love not war” type. I was never a drop-out or a hippie. I am too driven for that, rather than “laid back”. But my vision sort of harks back to the 1970s and invites us to think how we could take the most promising elements of those times forward while ditching the bad, especially the gender inequality and male chauvinism. Having just finished reading Douglas P. Fry’s wonderful recent book, War, Peace & Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (O.U.P., 2013), I am persuaded that the deep prehistory of humankind was not Hobbesian as Steven Pinker and other popular writers would have us believe, and that our future as a species will more and more depend on cooperative strategies rather than the intense competition that has prevailed from the agricultural era onwards. This shift away from extraordinary and often deadly intra-species competition, which arose initially in response to relatively recent Malthusian resource-pressure crises not evidenced in the EEA [environment of evolutionary adaptedness], will be far more compatible with gentler and less rule-bound erotic styles: more bonobo than chimp, if you will. I would argue this as a feminist vision bearing in mind that the erotic governance of bonobo society depends fundamentally on strong female alliances capable of holding males in check.
I admitted, though, that I have little idea of how to plan politically for the achievement of any such exotic utopia – or zootopia! So did I have more rationally defensible grounds for swimming against the tide of public opinion? Something more rooted in the here and now? I continued:
Looking first at the social ills we face in society, there is an urgency to many problems which appears not to concern Nick, or he regards them as a matter for “experts”, people above his pay grade. He wants to help paedophiles deal with the strain of their sexual repression – the hopelessness, the depression, the suicidality – but seems wholly blinkered as regards the social context of their lives. As a result, his remedies are like trying to cure a cancer with a band aid. He ignores, for instance, that the sexually so-called “moral” cultures are the most disastrously violent on earth, as we see from Islamist extremism and kick-ass, gun-toting, America, where sexually repressive, moralistic beliefs are instilled from childhood.
My approach at least engages with discussion of this social context rather than focusing narrowly on “adjusting” the “abnormal” individual to the procrustean bed of a sick society – an enterprise doomed to contribute to the sickness not alleviate it.
Can it be any accident, I ask myself, that all the desperate, at-their-wits-end people turn up at Nick’s door, looking for help he cannot give, whereas the bright, cheerful, upbeat, full-of-ideas folk come to my parties and have a ball…
My blogging for a constituency of “the like-minded” as Nick claimed, is certainly no big deal in terms of what the wider world thinks. Within that constituency, though, something significant does take place… Heretic TOC has a therapeutic function. Sure works for me: despite all the hammering I’ve had in terms of wrecked career, prison terms, missing out on family life, …vilification and sometimes physical attack, you won’t find me depressed or suicidal these days, or drinking too much…
… we are not afraid to critique society vigorously and engage with the media on unapologetic terms. Usually they ignore us; but to dismiss the exercise on that basis as a waste of time and energy is to miss its massive value to us. I fight, therefore I am. To resist is to be alive and to be me… not just the meek, compliant, person our oppressors want us to be.
Back to Roger Lancaster. I started by slagging him off for his lack of answers, or rather his failure to project his own big questions into the future with any conviction. I find Fry’s vision more interesting, even though, bizarre as it will seem to anti-statists, he holds up the European Union as an example of the way forward. He accurately notes that the EU, much derided these days as a corrupt bureaucratic monster, was founded soon after the Second World War in order to secure lasting peace through trade and prosperity.
But for the most part it has worked. It has delivered a peaceful life, backed by relatively efficient governance and the rule of law, for hundreds of millions. Has it resulted in the acceptance of child sexuality and freedom for adult-child sexual relations? No. Is it heading, like national governments, towards risk-averse child “protection” and entrenching a victim culture? Yes. Does the expansion of supra-national institutions like the EU threaten a world monoculture, potentially culminating in the tyranny of the “moral” majority across the globe? Yes.
Does this dystopian vision terrify me? Sure it does. What I share with Fry, though, is the perception that focusing on strategies of human cooperation – strategies developed in our prehistory, as he demonstrates, and now extended into modern statecraft – offer the best long-term hope for a rational, peaceful, future in which loving intimacy for all may be allowed to thrive.
Love and peace, brothers and sisters, love and peace!