Big Brother, Big Sister and control-freakery

Chris reckons the totalitarians have won, citing some recent examples of managerialist control-freakery. He might also have pointed to the ever more regimented hothousing of teenagers and this creepy letter from a primary school, threatening parents with a ‘Racial Discrimination note’ for refusing to let their children go on a school trip.

But is our country more authoritarian now than it was in previous decades or is the control-freakery just different?

Go back to the 1950s and the government forced young men to do two years in the armed forces. This was regarded as normal. Until 1967, children could be separated from their parents and shipped overseas with neither having any contact with the other for the rest of their lives. In the 1950s you could be arrested for dancing to rock n roll in a cinema and it was God-help you if you got on the wrong side of the police. As for being gay, don’t even think about it.

Most of us today, if we were beamed back only as far as the early 1960s, would find the laws and social norms very repressive. It was in the 1960s that deference began to decline and the cracks in the old authoritarian order began to open up. It may be (and I say may be because I can’t really remember the period) that the late 1960s and 1970s were the apogee of libertarianism, after the oppressive structures of the 1950s collapsed and before the new authoritarian liberalism began to appear. There were a few years when, it seemed, anything went. In the crazy freewheeling’ spirit of the age, for a time, even the Paedophile Information Exchange was deemed to be right-on.

A few years ago, I read an amusing article (I can’t remember where) which contrasted the old authoritarianism of Big Brother with the new authoritarianism of Big Sister. Big Brother forces you to join his gang and fight for him. He beats you up if you disagree with him or if you do anything ‘queer’ like dance to funny music or fancy people of the same sex. Big Sister nags you to do your homework, eat healthily and play nicely. She admonishes you if smoke, call each other rude names or wear t-shirts that might upset the other children.

Maybe in the 60s and 70s there was a brief interregnum between Big Brother and Big Sister. Maybe. But control-freakery is nothing new. It just takes different forms according to the spirit of the age.

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5 Responses to Big Brother, Big Sister and control-freakery

  1. briansj says:

    During Big Brother, the State and its agents were largely competent, were allowed to use their commonsense, and were not driven by targets from power-crazed bureaucrats. From memory, I’d say you were right about the late 1960’s early 1970’s being about the apogee.
    But do remember this quote from AJP Taylor

  2. Pingback: Big Brother, Big Sister and control-freakery - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  3. TickyW says:

    Big Brother is far more insidious nowadays.

    Using an expletive on Twitter, as Paul Chambers found to his cost, can be prosecuted. Yeah, the CPS has now developed guidelines, blah, blah, blah, but the fact remains that swearing (or otherwise being insulting) can still be prosecuted under the law. CPS discretion does not change the legislation or its power to prosecute those of whom the CPS disapproves..

    In the workplace, workers are nowadays expected to subscribe to their employer’s values. It’s not enough anymore for workers to exchange their conscientious labour for cash. Oh no. They must now effectively join a cult and attend “induction” sessions, “staff development” days, etc,which could easily be mistaken for brainwashing sessions, and which often demand and resemble North Korean levels of conformity and repression. All this is enforced by the state and its employment tribunals.

    As Steve Coogan’s comic character Pauline Calf used to say, “Bag of shite”.

    Whoops, I just swore. Hope Keir Starmer is not reading.

    If you are Keir, then it’s just a joke !

    If you’re not, Keir, then.what a waste of time and space you are.

  4. There are two problems with this analysis. First, you largely focus on the official forms of authoritarianism, i.e. the actions of the state. For most people, day-to-day authoritarianism is about the mores and sanctions of community. The bigger issue for young men in the 50s was not National Service, but the assumption on the part of their elders that they could be bullied and that this was character-forming.

    The second problem is that authoritarianism looks very different depending on your class. For working class kids, “permissiveness” was associated with the breakdown of traditional patriarchy following deindustrialisation, so in parts of the North it didn’t arrive till the late 70s / early 80s. While the 60s and 70s saw the harbingers of social revolution, this was, as with all revolutions, initially the concern of a minority, many of whom showed their elitism by subsequently framing it as a transient moment (i.e. a party that the rest of us weren’t invited to). In fact, the counter-culture went mainstream in Britain in the 80s (you can even pinpoint it for emblematic purposes to Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood hitting number 1 just before the Battle of Orgreave).

    The paradox is that authoritarianism (in the wider sense of argument from authority, rather than the narrow sense of government by diktat) declined under Margaret Thatcher (a point you yourself made last year), largely because neoliberalism broke down the traditional patterns of social authority. There was no golden hour for most people in the late 60s and early 70s. That’s just middle-aged nostalgia.

  5. guthrie says:

    Surely the issue is partly that authoritarianism has been centralised and potential and actual gaps closed. In ‘the good old days’ authority was exercised more closely to its subjects, now it is the distant hand of some bureacrats.
    Thus in the 60’s my dad and his teenage friends could fire fireworks at each other from tubes, and only get into trouble if they fired them at an adult, because adults in general had authority, there was a good chance an adult they ran into would know their parents or know someone who would, and it was okay for them to disappear off for a while away from the direct knowledge of their parents, in contrast to the more paranoid parenting style which seems to be encouraged today.
    Of course this was also the period when belting recalcitrant pupils (and any you didn’t like the look of) was permitted. So it’s complex.
    Is moderate authoritarianism better if exercised by people you know, for your own good, rather than by the government’s minions?

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