A decade ago a political campaign group could set up a stall in a British town or city centre and hand out leaflets, sell magazines or obtain signatures. Now, the chances are that they would be approached in a matter of minutes and asked to move on. The justification would vary. They may be told that they require council approval for their leaflets or a charity collections licence. They may be told that stalls and structures are prohibited, or that these structures require a risk assessment or that it is prohibited to sell (or even give away) unauthorised publications. The specific form of paperwork demanded has a relatively arbitrary quality. What matters is that independent action is seen as illegitimate.
In Anglo-Saxon countries there is now a new and distinctive form of state. This is not any longer a welfare state, nor is it a nanny state (as some on the right would have it). It’s a busybody state. A state that is pushing and poking into social life, disrupting the things that people are trying to do, surveying and spying upon them.
The busybody state is a concept that begins from people’s everyday experience encountering the new official in public spaces. This everyday experience is embodied in a genre of YouTube videos in which cyclists, photographers or buskers are shown locked in a dispute with a badged official who is seeking to prevent them from continuing with their activity. The busybody’s intervention appears as unnecessary and unreasonable; the busker’s recalcitrant response as a defence of the essential legitimacy of free public action.
Some might see this as the eternal problem of ‘red tape’, but this is quite different to classical bureaucracy. Classical bureaucracy was about efficiency, public function: performing a task with a swift click, click. The busybody 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 official badge, the policy, the code and the procedure. It is defined by a growing body of largely incomprehensible, inefficient, rules and regulations, which appear to be set against social life as a whole.
The logic of officious regulation is not to represent an elite class interest. It is notable that officious rules do not target a particular class or group, but fall equally upon everyone: skateboarding children, political activists handing out leaflets, friends having a drink in the park. The officious disdain towards the public is not a snobbery or class alliance, but a general bearing towards the population at large. The officious rule is turned not against a particular group, and it expresses no alliance with any social interest or moral position. The target is social life in toto.
Specifically, the target of the officious rule is unregulated life, anything that people have done or chosen for themselves using their own judgement or initiative, or any relationship based on spontaneity and mutual trust. Pockets of spontaneity attract the officious like moths to a candle. The areas of life which were previously freest of regulation have become the particular focus for new rules.
For the first time in history, this is not a case of one class set against another, but of officiousness against civil society. It is no longer the elite versus the working classes but the officious against free social life itself.
The domain of civil society loses its independent and self-constituting quality. A public activity can be carried out only once it has been authorised, once you have been through the requisite procedures and obtained the necessary accreditation: a busking or leafleting licence, a child protection training course, criminal records vetting. Once it was assumed that everything was allowed unless explicitly prohibited; now it is more often assumed that everything is prohibited unless specifically allowed. The unauthorised action has become implicitly illegitimate, in some cases criminal.
There is a widely recognised public discussion about ‘meddling officials’ and ‘pointless red tape’. Although this is more associated with the right-wing popular press, it is present too on left-wing protest sites, and the key elements would be recognised by anybody who attempts to act in public spaces or to take part in local activities or volunteering organisations.
The officious state is defined by distinct forms of legal regulation, surveillance, and criminal punishment. The classical institutions of the bourgeois state have undergone substantial modification, with institutions tending to blur and merge into one another. Institutions lose their distinctive cultures and missions and become part of the amorphous realm of officialdom, which is defined not by a particular public mission but primarily by the extension of bureaucratic procedures over social life. It becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish some police officers from private security guards or council officials, as all move into the same zone of behaviour policing, collaborate together and sit on the same policy boards.
The officious state represents a new form of political authority. Every previous form of authority represented social interests in some way, some public constituency or political position which might be more or less popular or elitist. The distinct feature of officious regulation is its absolute detachment from all elements of social interest: it appears to come from nowhere and represent no-one. It represents the negation of social life and social meaning, and is as hostile to elite institutions as it is to working-class culture. The busybody doesn’t represent this or that political camp, but rather the third party which rises up over established social forms. War veterans must queue up with political activists to gain their charity collection licence; foxhunters are targeted as equally as football supporters. Officious authority rises up only in counter-position to the shady, dubious citizenry.
The busybody state is grounded on nothing other than its distinction from the citizenry. The only thing commending a new official is his or her possession of a badge: it is the badge that endows them with their being, marking them out as special, not an ordinary person, and with powers over ordinary people. An official now is increasingly defined not by the particular institution they represent, or their performance of a public function, but merely in their possession of a badge.
The rise of the officious state fundamentally transforms the lines of political conflict and allegiance. There is a new commonality of interest between varied groups who may previously have been in different political camps, such as foxhunters and football supporters, war veterans and political activists. When these very different groups enter into scuffles with official regulation they are all at base defending the same principle: the legitimacy of the domain of civil society and of their own free activity.
This context presents a new demand of social theory: to make conscious the commonality underlying apparently disparate conflicts between social groups and bureaucratic authority. This means a new politics defending the terrain of the unregulated or spontaneous, social relations or activities that are initiated on their own account and maintained on their own terms. The task is to grasp the underlying dynamics of officious regulation, and to affirm life against the code, independence against incorporation, sincerity against the tick-box.
At stake is nothing less than the existence of free social life itself.
This is an adapted extract from Officious – Rise of the Busybody State, published by Zero Books.
Get our weekly email