Two days ago, I wrote about how the Tea Party’s resistance might be a good thing for America. Not necessarily because of the policies they espouse (that’s not what this post is about). The Tea Party in the US and the anti-cuts coalition in the UK are in fact two sides of the same coin, that coin being the rising up of society through mass grassroots movements to remind government where they come from and what their purpose is.
As I wrote before, the state has traditionally been seen as paternalistic, with responsibility forlooking after a childlike society. This view still resonates today, with current political philosophies such as libertarian paternalism. A father is still a father, no matter how easy going he is. In the feminist critique, however, the alignment of the state with one particular gender has created opposition. Most obviously, this has been between the sexes, but, where the feminine has come to represent the uncivilised or irrational, this also means between races, socioeconomic groups and between man and the environment. These ‘others’ of the white male have always been subject to oppression. It is this inherent gender polarity, says Jessica Benjamin in The Bonds of Love, that is the problem.
By eliminating gender polarity, the question becomes no longer who is the mother or who is the father but who is the parent. But we are not talking about an ungendered parent, but one who is bisexual or bi-gendered – that is, one who has attributes that have traditionally been identified as male and attributes traditionally identified as female. The important thing is that it is the parent who begets the child. So, if the state is the parent, say, who does the state beget. Does the state create society?
Benjamin argues from her psychoanalytic feminist perspective that the child identifies with the father in order to differentiate itself from the mother. Before this, from the child’s point of view, the father essentially doesn’t exist. In other words, the child created the father then gave up power to him. This is the obvious flaw with the notion of a paternal state.
Yes, the environment (Mother Nature, say) can be said to have ‘given birth to’ human beings in an evolutionary sense – according to how God designed the system, obviously – but it is the forming of societies that led to the creation of the state to govern societal relations. So, in reality, society is the parent of the state, with the responsibility to make sure that state behaves well (whatever that means).
The problem in many Western liberal democracies has been apathy in society. Voter turnout has often been quite low and this has allowed to the state to get away with proverbial murder, whether it be the Iraq war, the undermining of civil liberties, massive over spending and borrowing, large scale public sector cuts and lax regulation of the financial services industry, to name a few. But what the Tea Party movement, the anti-cuts coalition, the ‘Stop the War’ protests in 2003, the larger than usual turnout in the UK General Election followed by the forming of coalition , show is the importance of a powerful society, standing up for what it believes to be right and keeping government accountable. This is the parent’s job in relation to the child. When the parent can’t be bothered , children think they can do anything they want or they live in a fantasy world.
The state is the eternal child.
This doesn’t mean that the state doesn’t lack any power at all. As any child knows, parents can be out of touch with the times, so children do need to ‘educate’ parents as well. But obviously a child cannot respond to the parent in the same way that the parent responds to the child. But what’s important is that there is a dialogue or dialectical relationship between the parent and the child, the society and the state, where anti-thesis and thesis come together to form a synthesis, but even if they don’t, both understand the other better.
But even more important is that parents cannot be like children and children cannot be like parents. The Tea Party caucus can be the parent as part of society, but it cannot play that role if it is in government. There is a reason why the government is made up of ministers and secretaries, they have to take the more deferential or submissive role of a child. But this redefinition of the state/society relationship also means that we must abandon the idea of Montesquieu‘s three branches of government. Really, the legislature and the judiciary should rightly be seen as the highest levels of society, since their role is to keep the executive in check and acting in accordance with societal values.
Perhaps the parental society is the true Big Society – big, because it’s about not being a child anymore, it’s about growing up and taking its responsibilities seriously. It has nothing to do with a retrenchment of the state in terms of services provided. No, a small state is one that acts with the humility of a child towards the society that created it and gave it life.
Perhaps the current democracy movements in the Middle East are also an example of the dialectic between paternalism to parentalism. In which case NATO’s intervention in Libya must be like the reality tv show Supernanny, who comes in to help the despairing parent. So, it’s still questionable then.