Licence to Live

This is a transcript of a speech given by Josie Appleton, at the launch of Freedom Summer, ‘What next for Freedom?’, on 14 May 2009

Josie Appleton There is no doubt that, over the past few years, there has been a fundamental shift in the relationship between state and civil society. But this has a peculiar quality. It is not that the state is oppressing society, or remoulding society in line with a political ideology. There are no New Labour boot camps; no smashing of newspapers that criticise the government.

The peculiar quality to state intervention was suggested by a letter I received this morning, from my local NHS trust. This was announcing ‘Walking Maps’, an NHS Camden initiative that ‘encourages local people to lead a healthier lifestyle by incorporating walking into their schedules’. The Trust had mapped five walks around the borough, and invited me to come to the launch – where I could try one of these walks, and also ‘get lifestyle advice from our health trainers’ about healthy eating and such.

It is not so much that the state is remoulding civil society – but rather, it is demanding that we live our everyday lives through it. We are invited for a walk with the state; we are invited to eat with the state. More and more of social life starts to be lived through the state as an intermediary. Our everyday actions are supervised – and authorised – by an official bureaucracy.

The emblem of this is the licence. Obviously in a pub such as this, you need a licence to sell alcohol. Now, however, you also need a licence for just about every other activity you might want to perform within these walls. You need a sporting license to play darts. If somebody wants to watch the darts, you need a sporting events license. There is a license for dancing, which can be strictly enforced: undercover council officials spotted people ‘swaying’ in a bar in Westminster. There is a licence to play music. There is even a ‘spoken word’ license, to cover poetry readings and plays.

The CRB check is in effect a safe adult licence – and if you don’t have it, you shouldn’t go anywhere near children who are not your own. There is a licence to protest. In some areas you need a licence to hand out political leaflets, or to take photographs.

The meaning of the license is, in effect, that you need the state’s permission to live. Your life is licensed. You can only dance, protest, photograph, volunteer, and so on, if you have the correct card.

Unlicensed social life is declared dirty and dangerous. If you don’t have the CRB check, you are a potential paedophile. If you don’t have an ID card, you aren’t a legitimate citizen. If you don’t have your photography licence, you are probably a terrorist.

Everyone who is not on a database, or does not have a card to account for their actions, is illegitimate at best, and dangerous or tainted at worst. The state puts itself in the position of constituting civil society – not, however, by remoulding it, but merely by requiring that everyday life is authorised. It becomes the mass issuer of permission slips – permission to dance, sing, or read poetry. The state doesn’t so much ban activities, as request that we ask it first.
We are seeing the bureaucratisation of everyday life. The methods of bureaucracy – which would have occurred in only very specific spheres – now become part of every sphere.

There is a code or policy for the simplest situations. The English golf association has a ‘late-pick-up’ policy – which is a policy to deal with the situation of parents picking up their kids late after golf practice. The volunteer should wait with the child – categorically not give the child a lift home! – preferably with another adult, and in open view. If the parents cannot be contacted, the volunteer should consider calling the police for advice. Getting a child to and from sports practice now comes with an instruction manual.

There is a ‘good behaviour’ contract – to get kids to behave better – with family relationships taking on the form of a deal between business rivals or hostile foreign powers.

Public space has been divided into zones: Home Zone, no-booze zone, low-emission zone, etc – although this is bureaucracy-speak, so it is not always clear what a particular zone means, and what implications it has for your behaviour. In a café in Elephant and Castle recently, I saw a sign saying that this was part of an ‘Age Check Zone’.

You could say: it’s only a drink in the park, it’s only the local nursery. These are not suitably dramatic freedom issues: these are not about police beatings, or smashing printing presses, or banning political organisations.

But I turn this around, and say – if we can’t even have a drink in the park, how can we have a demonstration? If we need permission to help out at our child’s nursery, how can we change the government? If social life is licensed at its every step, then we cannot be citizens or subjects in any other respect.

The Manifesto Club campaigns on we what call ‘flashpoint freedom issues’. These are the points at which there is a conflict between state regulation, and people’s aspirations, desires or sense of their own autonomy. These are the points where the silent process of state regulation can be revealed, made conscious, and protested against.

Our campaigns – including our campaigns against vetting, or against booze bans – have laid the groundwork for this. Our Freedom Summer events series over the next few months will take this project further on, and to say: social life should not be licensed!