The New Observer Book Reviews Officious – Josie Appleton

Officious – Josie Appleton

For several years Appleton has been documenting the ever-increasing reach of petty bureaucracy in the UK. She has focussed on several areas including: ‘Safeguarding’ and the notorious ‘Criminal Records Checks’ (now re-branded as ‘DBS’ checks), excesses of local authority litter enforcement officers, the introduction of ‘Public Space Protection Orders’, controls on photography, and many other areas of increasing regulation of everyday life. This work has been voiced through the web site the ‘Manifesto Club‘ and associated campaigns as well as articles in the press and appearances on Radio.

These campaigns have been backed by thorough and detailed research. For example; Appleton’s excellent report on litter fines by local authorities [1] showed that this system has lost touch with any rational purpose of improving the environment or educating the public. The aim of the system is simply to issue as many fines as possible. One of the keys drivers is to raise revenue for the local authority. Many local authorities sub-contract the work to private companies, either on a commision basis or on the understanding that a certain level of fines will be issued; in either case the private firm is simply in the business of issuing as many fines as possible. Even when local authorities harvest the fines themselves changes in legislation mean that they are able to use the profits to support their own Environmental Health departments (thus freeing up funds for use elsewhere). Fines are seen a sa a source of income. The result of this has been an enormous growth in the number of fines issued by local authorities for littering, as well as some extreme cases – people being fined for discarding an apple-core into a hedge, feeding the ducks, a mother fined for her child dropping a crisp etc. Because, as Appleton points out, a warning issued in place of a fine is a missed opportunity to issue a fine and thus lost revenue, the system is totally oriented towards issuing fines – even for accidental and trivial errors. The local authorities simply wage a war of conquest on the population, treating them as a source of tribute. When local authorities hire private firms to issue fines on their behalf they use legislation which allows them to ‘appoint’ members of these companies as having the powers of local authority enforcement officers. [2] The blanket of officialdom grows wider and becomes fiscalised. (This is what Julian Assange refers to as ‘fiscalised power relations’).

In her new book, ‘Officious’, Appleton has brought together many strands of her work on individual campaigns. In this book Appleton is attempting to understand the the increasing levels of petty state interference in everyday life. For those who have come to know Appleton through her work on individual campaigns there may be a slight disappointment in store; this book is not a litany of abuses by local authorities the retelling of which gives us a vicarious opportunity to revel in their absurd excesses and in doing so feel that we have taken back a little bit of power. This is a theoretical work, in which Appleton unifies some of the work she has already done in her previous campaigns into a theoretical framework. The development which Appleton is discussing is a real and distinct social phenomenon. It is most welcome that an author is attempting to understand this phenomenon; adrift as we are in a sea of philistine claims about ‘efficiency’ and ‘the right thing to do’ from the political class. Appleton’s book is important and timely.

The following discusses each section of ‘Officious’ in turn.


Appleton notes that the target of the new form of hyper-regulation is independent civic life. One of the most obvious examples of this is ‘Safeguarding’. ‘Safeguarding’ has succeeded in poisoning all relations between young people and adults, casting the cloud of suspicion everywhere. It is doubtful if it has stopped much child abuse; the measures are crude and clumsy and any determined abuser will simply be more careful. Indeed; the incessant discussion about child sexual abuse and related topics (including adverts on public radio about childrens’ pants) has almost certainly encouraged some people at the margins of personality disorder to step over the edge. It may even be that this – authentic and spontaneous relations between young people and adults – were the direct target of ‘Safeguarding’ – and not child abuse per se at all. Another element of this broad sweep of power to control all aspects of social and independent life is what is known in youth work circles as the “outcomes agenda”; the introduction of a political culture that all interactions between young people and youth workers must lead to specific, measurable, outcomes, often educational certificates. Other commentators have noted how the autonomy of teachers has been similarly eroded. For example the editors of Corruption of the Curriculum (2007) had this to say: “Teachers are no longer treated as professional people, capable of exercising judgment, but are micro‐managed by Whitehall, where every hour of their day is prescribed” [3]. The kind of excessive and petty regulation which Appleton is concerned about in this book is part of an overall bloat of power. This bloat of power reflects not the confidence of the authorities but their insecurity. It is as if they can’t bear the possibility of people talking amongst themselves and having relations which do not involve them.

Appleton correctly notes that there has been a growth in “behaviour policing”. The police take on roles more associated with “naughtiness” than crime. New officials are appointed who also deal with behaviour. Anti-social behaviour has become a police concern. And, at the same time, local authorities and Housing Associations have “officers” appointed specifically to deal with Anti-social behaviour. The management of crime and anti-social behaviour merge.

Appleton has noted that hyper-regulation is “closing down” civil society: “Thus the domain of civil society loses its independent and self-constituting quality. … The unauthorised action has become implicitly illegitimate, in some cases criminal.”  The new form of bureaucracy, argues Appleton, is detached from any one specific social interest. It seems to float above all the traditional departments of the state bureaucracy. As Appleton says: “it represents the negation of social life and its meaning”. Appleton sees the officious state emerge from a process whereby the traditional state has been “hollowed out”. Appleton writes: “The officious state is ultimately the product of a social vacuum, a causative condition that it amplifies with every extension of regulation”. The analysis appears to be that the state used to represent class interests. The state mediated class interests in a class society and in particular promoted the interests of the dominant social class. In this mode the state was bureaucratic but rational. (This is the traditional Marxist-Leninist view of the state). However; the state no longer does this. It is marked by “…the hollowing out of elite institutions”. And so it casts around, thrashing like a fish which has lost its sense of purpose, making rules for the sake of rules-making – and waging war on its instinctive enemy; civil and independent society. As a characterisation of the phenomenon this cannot be faulted. But it would be interesting to try to understand this “hollowing out”of the state in more depth.

If elite interests are no longer being maintained through the state bureaucracy how are they being maintained? (For, surely, they have not been given up?) Or; where has power gone? The answer is probably that power has become even more fiscalised. Before power was content to maintain the dominance of the elites through repressive measures of the state. Now, power has shifted its focus. It has become less reliant on acting through traditional forms of authority and at the same time more fiscalized. In actual reality power has shifted from the magistrates who penalised the occasional litterer and thus maintained the superiority of the gentry, to shareholders of the companies (such as Kingdom Security International Ltd mentioned by Appleton [4]) who “enforce” the litter fines (even against the gentry). Power has quite literally moved camp – from the state to the even more invisible and even more unaccountable locus of (often international) finance capital funded companies. A classic example (of interest to the reviewer) is how controlling the minority of school students who are too young/immature/undisciplined to sit still in class is no longer a matter of authority and punishment (state power) but of prescription of expensive but crude behaviour controlling drugs [5] – drugs which turn a large profit for their (mostly US) producers. The state has withdrawn and commercial interests have stepped in. Power used to operate though the state. Now it operates through the commercial companies.

We agree with Appleton’s analysis of the state which has lost its purpose. But we think that she does not sufficiently follow-up the question as to where power has gone if it no longer operates through the state. Power has on the one hand ‘pulled back’ and, on the other, returned, in a doubling-up operation, and now makes ‘discipline and punishment’ (or surveillance and repression) a source of revenue. Power may be quite indifferent to the exact forms that regulation takes, forms which, as Appleton remarks, are often quite arbitrary. Perhaps power is even amused by some of these forms. But, in any event, power has become more precisely focused on revenue and profit and while not driving the hyper-regulation nonetheless is in some kind of alliance with it.

Appleton calls for a common front of civil society against this new hyper-regulating activity of the state. This is well as far as it goes. But it may be that this would be a war against the foot-soldiers of the enemy only, or even against a mob vaguely allied to them. Their generals are elusive and in any event not on the battlefield in person. As Foucault says power likes to disguise itself. Today it has divested itself of the Mayoral chains and other trappings of state office –  and almost merged with money. How do you fight a fog?

Chapter 1 The New Busybodies 

Appleton gives a nice characterisation of the new “busybody”, officials who restrict and stifle and whom seem to have no obvious moral authority; “They are representing no particular authority but are a sort of generic ‘authorised person'”. And; “At base, these officials’ only positive allegiance is to the mechanisms of officialdom; their only belief is in the inherent virtues of regulation”. Appleton identifies a number of job roles which are of an officious nature, for example; health and safety officer, healthy eating officer, child protection training officer. These are roles wherein the function is to tell other people what to do. And, as Appleton remarks, what people should do is behave according to standardised and approved forms of behaviour (and indeed thought). Officials in these roles are not helping the public, as a traditional public sector worker or officer might (for example a bin man collects your bins, an environmental safety officer checks that restaurants are clean). These officials frustrate and obstruct the public.

Appleton comments that in relation to the behaviour of young people a new officiousness has replaced traditional authority. No longer a telling off – but a form to complete for an ‘Acceptable Behaviour Contract’. And such contracts are issued precisely by the new busybodies – for example local authority officers and Housing Association officers. The government refers to these people as ‘practitioners’. For example; “ABCs are recognised as part of the toolkit available to the police and other frontline practitioners to deal with anti-social behaviour.” [6] We can note that the language (“frontline”) is precisely that of war. It is also the law which is being displaced here; Acceptable Behaviour Contracts are not even a legal instrument and breaking one carries neither a civil nor a criminal penalty. However, as the “best practice guidance” reminds; breach can be used as support for an application to court for an Anti-Social Behaviour Order, itself a quasi-legal instrument. This is an amorphous use of power. Power shows up at every turn. The law itself is being usurped by the authorities.

At the same time this is personal. The new busybodies are often personally vindictive. They have suspicious minds and act in bad faith.  This is power adrift, without even the anchor of traditional authority.  The suspiciousness and bad faith spreads. People who are not officially appointed busybodies nonetheless adopt the suspicious and self-righteous ‘policing’ mindset of the busybody. An example of this phenomenon (from the reviewer’s own experience); in the role of a youth worker he was talking with a young person (aged about 14) in the street. A passing man slowed down and hovered around the conversation. It was evident he was ‘checking’ that everything was in order. This snooper was carrying out his own self-appointed act of surveillance. When it was absolutely evident from the conversation (about the young man’s youth arts project) that this was a ‘legitimate’ (state sanctioned) relationship the snooper breathed a public sign of relief gave a big smile of approval and left. He was perhaps unaware that in most countries in the world people seeing a man taking to a boy in the street would think nothing of it, would assume, if they thought about it at all that there would be a good reason for it, would certainly not see it as something suspicious. This encounter matches the template for Appleton’s description of the officious gaze: “The officious eye is the third eye of constant suspicion, which presides over interactions and sees them in the worst possible light”. Appleton notes that historically this kind of suspicion (constructing matters in the worst possible light) was based on majority values and was directed towards deviant (or supposedly deviant) minorities. Now, in the busybody culture, it is directed at anyone at all in society who does not bow to the injunctions of officiousness. The new officiousness official hovers above society in quite a detached way casting the pallor of suspicion over all unregulated social life. As Appleton notes there is an egalitarianism here; people from all social classes can be subject to the gaze – and punishment – of these new kinds of officials.

We said at the start of this review that this current work by Appleton is theoretical and those seeking plenty of examples of ludicrous local authority excesses may be disappointed. However; they will be more than compensated for by such accurate characterisation as: “Pockets of spontaneity attract the officious like moths to a candle”.

Officiousness has no roots in either traditional morality or even class interests and repressiveness. It is a form of authority which is entirely negative. It takes its authority from nowhere else but the presumed illegitimacy or incompetence of others. The new kind of officiousness is against all unregulated social life, against exchanges between individuals which are not scripted in advance by the state. As Appleton remarks there is always the possibility that the surveiller will himself be surveilled. The one whose function is to cast suspicion can himself fall under suspicion. This leads to a culture of checking the checkers. We would add that some people who exist in this milieu have learned that one strategy to avoid falling under suspicion is to be the first and loudest to cast it at others. In a childcare setting raising “concerns” or making “allegations” about ‘Safeguarding’ can be an effective pre-emptive defence against such allegations being made against oneself. Further; we would suggest that just this dynamic was in play during the purges in the Soviet Union in 1937-38. Better to denounce than be denounced. This is what happens in a totalitarian state.

Chapter 2 Officiousness in Context

In this chapter Appleton considers the nature of the state bureaucracy. She accepts that the state bureaucracy exists to coordinate large-scale infrastructure projects (such as controlling the flooding of the Nile). However she chiefly appears to follow Marxist-Leninism in seeing the state as the product of class antagonisms. Appleton cites Engels and writes: “It is with the emergence of class divisions that bureaucratic forms first appear, arising over conflicting social relations”. In State and Revolution Lenin, also following Engels, writes: “The state is the product and the manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms”. [7] For Lenin class antagonisms form the sole explanation or ‘causal’ factor for the emergence of the state.  Lenin would not disagree that the bureaucracy does fulfill a public need. He would say that it fulfills it in a special way. It is not the functions of social organization he questions but the state as the political form which undertakes these functions. For Lenin the organising functions of the state could all be undertaken by self-organising citizens. Lenin was clear: the state exists to mediate conflicting interests. If there are no class conflicts there will be no state. In a bourgeois democracy the state acts in the special interests of the minority capitalist class. The state is always an institution of repression. Even in socialism (a historical stage on the way to Communism) the state is an instrument of repression; here the majority repress the minority. The final destination of humankind is a classless society, a society without exploitation and repression. A society of self-regulating citizens without a state; Communism.

Lenin (following Engels) discussed the state as the body which stands above society. It represses society in the interests of the dominant class. Adapting this idea Appleton explains ‘officiousness’ as the repressive force of the bureaucracy. However, because the elite institutions of the state have been “hollowed out” the state now acts in a relatively purposeless way. It no longer acts on behalf of the ruling minority class but in its own self-interest. The state for itself. Thus officiousness is explained in terms of Lenin’s theory of the state. However; the state is now acting not on behalf of a class-interest but in its own interest.

We accept that the state is now in a “hollowed-out” form and no longer acts to protect traditional class interests in the traditional (or “classical”) way. However; this collapse in the ‘sense of purpose’ of the state does not fully explain the rise of officiousness. There are positive reasons for the rise of officiousness as well. Officiousness has drivers. The attempt to explain officiousness solely in terms of Lenin’s analysis of the state fails because it does not address these positive forces. The force behind officiousness is power. If the state has collapsed to some extent that is because it is no longer supported by power. Where then has power gone? We suggest that power has relocated itself away from political authority and now acts more in the arena of purely fiscal relations. The relationship between power and the state is changing. In some ways power now acts directly on civil society without the mediation of the state. At other times it acts by forcing state mechanisms to conform to its new ways of acting. The function of power cannot be fully understood as ‘repression’ in a purely negative and crushing sense. Power has a cultivating role. It disciplines subjects to be more productive. From the point of view of this analysis the new ‘officiousness’ is not seen solely as repression without purpose, the death throes of a purposeless bureaucracy; but as a new form of disciplining. Much of the recent ‘Anti-social behaviour’ legislation and extra-judicial systems – with their raft of orders and ‘contracts’ concerned with the minutiae of a person’s behaviour and with the attendant blurring of the boundaries between nuisance behaviour and crime – can very readily be seen in this light. (In passing; the sheer philistine nature of this “mob authoritarianism” can be seen in the appalling level of language used in such documents. For example; an official government guide to ‘Acceptable Behaviour Contracts’ suggests that a young person might be encouraged to sign a document saying “I will not congregate in groups”. The culture seems to permit a new and philistine use of language altogether).

Appleton explains that with the rise of ‘officiousness’ we see a new form of expression of bureaucratic authority. Bureaucratic authority no longer acts in a rational way to support the class interests of the capitalists and the stability of society as a whole. It has expanded beyond those forms (the policeman, the courts, the psychiatrist). Now anyone can call themselves a psychiatrist. As Appleton points out; now anyone can set themselves up to ‘diagnose’ or denounce their neighbour, for example make allegations about someone or say that their behaviour is ‘inappropriate’. Anyone can take a 6 week training course, acquire a badge, and take on bureaucratic functions, issuing fines and penalties. Appleton remarks that behind these new bureaucratic mechanisms there may lie “a variety of private or personal interests, or indeed no interests at all”. And Appleton correctly notes that officiousness in fact negates the classical form of bureaucracy. The classical bureaucrat with his ordered world of precision, and rules of conduct is surely (inwardly if not outwardly) aghast at this new mob-like form that state bureaucracy has taken. Our difference with Appleton is that we do not see officiousness as simply the result of a collapse in state authority and structures but as the result of a positive shift; power is operating in new ways.

Chapter 3 The structure and origins of the officious state

Appleton sees the chief factor behind the rise of the ‘officious state’ as being a collapse in the traditional forms of social regulation. There has been a “hollowing out” of the elite institutions of the state and a “vacuum” has arisen in civil society. The vacuum has been created by the dismantling of older forms of social regulation. For example; elite institutions such as the civil service are no longer held together by informal agreements based on the sense of each other being a “decent chap”. Mass organisations such as Trade Unions have been weakened by the anti-Union legislation of the Thatcher government of the 1980s/1990s. However; these are not the root causes. There is a circularity to this: hollowing out and vacuum; but what lies behind this collapse? It can’t all be blamed on Thatcher! There are positive forces at work here which are not included in Appleton’s explanation about “hollowing out” and “vacuum”. We need to look for the forces behind these social changes.

The “vacuum” in social life cannot be attributed convincingly more to one political party than the other. The ‘Anti-social behaviour’ legislation was the creation of New Labour. This legislation in particular created officiousness. To take one example; head teachers were empowered to issue fines to parents for their children’s non-attendance. [8] This is a prime example of the creation of ‘officiousness’ and the setting up of ‘busybodies’ over other people. It was also under New Labour that we saw such micro-management as the Every Child Matters agenda – an attempt to enforce a state prescribed set of values onto every encounter between a teacher or youth worker and a young person; precisely eroding long-standing civil norms and indeed the very principle that such matters are matters for civil society. Penalty Notices for Disorder were introduced in the 2001 Criminal Justice and Police Act. [9] The legislation which created ‘Community Support Officers’ [10] and which created powers for local authorities to delegate powers to appointed private operatives was legislation put on the statute book under New Labour. Indeed we could almost say that officiousness was the fruit of New Labour. It is strange that in discussing the origins of officiousness Appleton references Thatcher and not New Labour. However; we are not suggesting that officiousness is more New Labour than the Conservatives. It is more likely that these parties were “going with the flow” rather than initiating the changes which have had as one result the rise of officiousness. Powerful and large forces of money and influence are at work here. (In practice what seems to happen is that the Conservatives serve power in a way which is consistent with their ‘brand’ and Labour serve power in a way consistent with their brand. This took a certain amount of re-inventing on the part of New Labour of course).

Appleton does not provide a full account of how civil society has collapsed. For example; Appleton describes how, with the “collapse of political camps”, officials can talk instead “from the position of the no-camp, the blank abstract authority above camps”. This is a profound explication of the phenomena. But; what has led to the collapse of political camps? One answer, no doubt only touching the surface of what happened, is New Labour’s abandonment of socialism. This assured complete ascendancy of corporate and financial power since, whoever was in power, they could now be assured of full cooperation. Having abandoned any idea of mass social change New Labour then adopted an ideology which promoted individualised psychological explanations for social “dysfunction” and the attendant micro-management remedies. In need hardly be said that (as Appleton has noted in connection with the explosion in litter fines and the involvement of private companies) that all these micro-management procedures provide a new source of profit for private capital. Private prisons were introduced in the UK from the 1990s. [11] This was a policy started by the Thatcher and continued wholeheartedly by New Labour. Private prisons (and privatized custodial services and probation services) are an excellent example of the collapse in traditional forms of state power and a transfer of power to fiscal interests. By handing punishment over to private businesses the state abdicates its role as the meter out of justice. The wrongdoer is no longer punished by a state official on behalf (at least nominally) of society. The wrongdoer is now punished for a commission by a private company who may well be based abroad and whose primary accountability is to its shareholders.  The state is indeed hollowed out. But – certain financial interests have gained. An active shift in power has occurred. Not simply a “hollowing out”.

What has happened is that power is no longer content to rule through the ruling class and be limited by the limits of the state. Power, in the form of finance capital, has burst the bounds that the requirement to rule through the state placed on it. The power which used to exist in the state has been handed over directly to financial power by successive governments in the United Kingdom, of both party-political flavours. Following from this hollowing out of the state we do indeed see new and strange forms of power. These new forms of power serve two positive purposes. Firstly; they control a population who might otherwise bridle at being controlled not by their elected officials but by private and often distant financial interests. (There is also an element here of a distraction; by talking up ‘Anti-social behaviour’ the discourse can be moved away from poverty and social justice while still retaining a semblance of being concerned with the ‘quality of life’). And secondly, they provide a new source of profit for just these private interests. Appleton draws parallels with the Roman Empire in the 4th century. This is an accurate parallel. A burgeoning state structure which does not in any way, even through its connections to the dominant social class, represent or embody the interests of society, is sucking society dry. At the same time there is a difference with the later Roman Empire. (This is not to critique Appleton’s parallel to the later Roman Empire but to extend it). In the case of the later Roman Empire the state was simply feeding off society. This state of affairs could not go on. In the contemporary case the corporate and financial interests which feed off society at the same time create. They build hospitals and roads and prisons. They deliver ’employment training’ and correctional services and luxury holidays and kindergartens. They do this outside of political control but nonetheless there is an enormous creative and productive aspect which the later Roman State did not have. But the population needs to be disciplined to learn how to produce and consume these services and goods in a way which keeps the whole project expanding.

Appleton notes that power (or ‘state authority’ as she would put it) has spread its tentacles widely. The Anti-Social behaviour campaign has seen teachers, schools, (newly created) Police Support Officers, social landlords, local authority officers and even in some cases private contractors all given powers to fine – or apply to the courts for various kinds of orders – ordinary citizens for a wide range of petty offences. The boundaries between crime and civil nuisance are blurred. Private companies and various organisations which present as charities but which are to all intents and purposes organs of the state are added to the mix. This is an unprecedented explosion of state power. Further, and worse, officiousness starts intruding into personal relations. Officiousness undermines trust. Without an anchor in knowing how to behave based on autonomous decision making people look to officiousness for guidance. Officiousness is self-replicating. It undermines normal human relations and the undermined individuals then look to officiousness for guidance on how to behave. (Incidentally this is the same tactic used by Al-Qaeda who use terrorism to seek to undermine peoples’ confidence in their government to protect them so that the people eventually turn to them).

Power has destroyed the old morality. It has done this because the old morality – with its scruples about pornography, sexual mores, excessive consumption, hedonism – was denying it money making opportunities. But you cannot have a society without any morality. Officiousness, has its own moral code. This is the language of “appropriate” or “right thing to do”. The vacuous substitute for morality for an age of hedonism and fiscal power.

The exact same process of destruction and rebuilding is taking place in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and (if they can succeed) in Syria; destruction of existing forms of state authority giving rise to chaos – and then hugely profitable opportunities for rebuilding – which means (in these countries) Western style institutions; prisons, hospitals, schools; a stock-exchange. (However; the forms of disciplining are much more advanced in Western countries where treating adults like little children is now considered completely acceptable in a way in which these traditional societies are not yet ready for). Appleton is not unaware of how foreign interventions have a common base with control of the population at home. In the next chapter she links CCTV at home to use of drones to surveill the colonised population of Basra.

Appleton ends this chapter, which began with a discussion of the collapse of the class-dominated state bureaucracy, by noting that a new class has sprung up. This new class is made up of all those people who stand to profit from officiousness. The distinguishing feature of this class is that it is purely parasitic. The old elite class at least contributed something even if only the grandeur of its stately homes which we could admire from a distance. This class contributes nothing except more paperwork and forms.

Officiousness can be understood as an expansion, a splurging, of power, beyond its previous confinement in law and institutions. As we have suggested above the driving force is probably money. Power-money has not directly and by intention invented officiousness. However in its pursuit of its own ends (more power, more money) power-money has destroyed traditional forms of authority. (Thus creating the “hollowing-out” and “vacuum” about which Appleton speaks). As soon as this process, the development of officiousness, starts (the result of destructive effects of power-money) then power-money sees new opportunities to weld itself to these new forms of officiousness. Private prisons, private probation services with “payments by results”, litter fining on commission, no end of ‘charities’ offering courses in ‘Safeguarding’, and so on. Power-money did not create these mechanisms directly. But it is their godfather – and it reaps the rewards. Appleton describes the phenomenon of officiousness only too well but misses the positive forces which lie behind the changes she discusses. There has been a “hollowing-out” of the state and a collapse in civil society but to understand the background to these phenomena we need to look to see what power-money is doing and how power is shifting – away from the state and the “gentry” and to finance capital. The forces at work are more invisible and larger than those we see at work in party political programmes such as Thatcher’s anti-Union legislation – though these programmes may be serving those forces and may embody them.

While we think that Appleton’s explanation for the origins of the officious state does not go far enough we think that her explication of the phenomenon itself is peerless.

Chapter 4 Officious language

Appleton notes that officiousness has its own vocabulary. Words are taken up into its discourse and given new, specialist, meanings. In some cases the actual meaning of the word is an inversion of its use in ordinary language.

Of particular importance is how Appleton notes how words such as ‘inappropriate’ are used for both trivial deviations from following the correct ‘policy and procedure’ and absolutely serious ones (such as the death of a child following a social services error). This shows how the new system of ‘morality’ is in fact value-free. Adherence to ‘policies and procedures’ is not just a new set of values. Nor is it simply a question of the state mandating a single unified set of values (such as tends to happen in more authoritarian countries such as Russia). Officiousness substitutes a bland adherence to its strictures in place of any value system. The stricture themselves do not embody values. It is “obey” for the sake of obedience.

Appleton notes how the new language of officiousness is used in place of debate. Rather than argue against someone’s views one can say that that their remarks are “inappropriate”. During the non-debate on gay marriage in the UK the Guardian ran an editorial explaining that the issue was so clear-cut it was “beyond argument”. The government minister tasked with seeing through the policy announced a period of public debate and then shortly afterwards followed up by saying that anyone who didn’t agree with the change was an unmentionable bigot and the period of discussion was closed. Appleton notes examples where local authority Councillors denounce something another member has said and demand that they apologize. The denounced representative then duly apologizes for his offence against the new norms. No actual debate or rational discussion has taken place. An exact case-study of this kind of interaction can be seen in this report about a City Councillor in Oxford. [12]. The Councillor made a disparaging remark about homeless people in the city. A rival Councilor made an “official complaint” and the original Councillor feel on his knees and offered an apology. In this, strangely, the homeless people seem to occupy a very secondary and background role. The problem was with the words used.

As Appleton remarks: “Officious language is like a wall: you cannot argue or have a conversation with it. It is not a form  of communication, but a form of white noise, which evacuates thought and blocks response… Language is used as a stun-gun; the aim is for you to be silenced and to submit”. The aim is to neutralize opposition. (Not win the argument).

In ordinary argument one party may seek to gain the high-ground by aligning herself with officialdom and by deploying officious language. As Appleton says: “To use officious language is to flash a badge”. The actual meaning of the words used is somewhat amorphous. The point is that by using them one establishes that one is linked to authority/power and thus is superior to other people. The language neutralises and “declares null and void” “ordinary concrete passions and reasons.”

Chapter 5 Red tape

Appleton notes the profusion of policies covering a welter of areas of life. There are policies for what may go in a child’s lunch-box; where teachers may touch children; at what point in the school play parents may take a photograph. Appleton explains that the rules embodied in these policies are often arbitrary; the point is that there is a policy. Policies may sometimes be arbitrary. However; there is also another operation of power going on here. Often the policy is an embodiment not of some arbitrary code but precisely of an obvious and previously accepted social code. For example; (in general) it is good sense for a teacher not to touch a student ‘below the shoulder’ in class. This is a rule which previously might have been unconsciously adhered to by teachers. It would have been something to which no thought would have been given. (Of course; there are always exceptions). The policy has hijacked this unconscious operation of good sense and made it an overt requirement. The teacher’s actions (even if ‘right’) are no longer so because she has her own good sense but because she is following the mandates of the policy. She has been undermined and surreptitiously turned into an agent of the state. Thus the state (or power) insinuates itself into ordinary civil life, undermining it. (In connection with the question of training courses Appleton realises exactly this point: “The role of the course is to undermine free action, to sell social life back to itself but as something external and not its own …”)

As Appleton notes while this world of policies and procedures is presented as being to do with concern for the welfare of people it is anything but. Usually the text of the policy is simply copied off the Internet. This casualness reveals the value-emptiness of the policies. This is about observance of a ritual.

Appleton notes the return of licensing. In the democratic-constitutional state the assumption was that an activity was lawful unless it was specifically unlawful. Under officiousness it becomes necessary to obtain licenses for all sorts of activities; busking, spoken word performances in a pub, a license for handing out leaflets in a town square. The assumption is that unless an activity is licensed it must be unlawful. Again; this shows the extent of the state’s interference in ordinary civic life.

Related to licenses are contracts. Appleton gives the example of ‘Acceptable Behaviour Contracts’. These are quasi-judicial documents signed “between” (for example) a school and a student. They specify behaviours required of the young person. The relationship is denuded of its inner meaning and content. An empty paper-based ritual replaces traditional discipline and care; the spontaneous and unscripted relationship between adult and young person. These institutions become necessary when it is no longer possible to assume that (in the majority of cases) discipline and care will actually be there. At the same time they undermine what discipline and care might exist. Consent forms e.g for photography represent another way in which spontaneous and unscripted interactions are suppressed. Only interactions which are mediated by the surveilling third-party are permitted. The is destructive towards actual human relations; as the normal play of interaction is suppressed. Again; we see that the state cannot tolerate independent civil life. Often these forms are legally pointless. (For example; though there is no legal requirement to obtain consent to photograph someone’s children an organisation may still invent a ritual around this).

Many (all in all likelihood) of these procedures of officialdom do not make the world a safer place. For example; the risk assessment, by transferring the thinking onto a piece of paper, may reduce the attentiveness of the one carrying out the act to his actual actions. The purpose of these documents is often to protect officialdom from a risk of being criticised or sued. As Appleton remarks, at the bottom of this is an attitude of bad faith towards human relationships. One expects and plans for the worst.  Paperwork such as risk assessment forms puts a burden onto the individual who now finds himself treated as an oppositional element by state authority. The individual has to simply decide not to carry on (for example take photographs at an event, hold a conkers championship, volunteer to work with young people), or they have to wearily sign the form and hope that they aren’t sued/accused of something. The main point of many of these procedures is to insure the authorities against any risk of any kind (PR risk, legal liability). That this approach stifles civic action is a matter of indifference to them. The authorities are entirely disconnected from the public and their public service mission. They are an independent, self-interested, parasitic body feeding off society.

In summing up her review of ‘Red Tape’ Appleton compares different approaches to social regulation. There are ethical codes of conduct such as existed in Ancient China which specified, for example, how children should behave towards parents. There is a statist approach (Appleton cites the Marxist legal theorist Evgeny Pashukanis) who (seemingly) approved of codes of conduct designed to organise collective conduct efficiently such as railway timetables – while criticising Western contract law as being about “two litigating parties who, vindicta in hand, claim their right”. And there is, of course, that Western contract law itself, based on the idea of free individual subjects voluntarily entering into agreements. It is not entirely clear whether Appleton shares the views of Evgeny Pashukanis and the apparent negative evaluation of Western contract law. (It is out of scope of this short review but without necessarily defending contract law we can note that the idea of state codes designed for ‘collective efficiency’ seem to carry their own risks of denial of individual freedom). Either way the main point that Appleton makes is that with officious regulation we see an extension of contract law but into areas of social life which previously did not need to be so regulated. Not just business (where people might arguably be expected to have opposing interests) but now ordinary human relations are construed as being between formally opposing parties. The parties need to be bound by state approved strictures in order to be able to do anything safely and without harming each other. In the case of contract law (for regulating business relationships) and in the case of the codes of conduct of Ancient China there is a positive form to the regulation. The regulation casts into a law, code or contract a positive and fruitful relation. In contrast to this officially regulation is purely negative. It seeks to frustrate human relations. It is, essentially, the state vandalizing independent civic life.

Chapter 6 Surveillance

Appleton observes that the rise in the use of surveillance cameras by the authorities is in fact indicative not of their engagement in public life but of their withdrawal from it. No longer a bobby on the beat mingling with the people, but an unseen operative (if the cameras are manned at all) reviewing the footage at a distance. On searches Appleton is again incisive. The routine searches which we all undergo (when entering a museum for example) are, from a security point of view, redundant. They are so rudimentary that as a security barrier they have no purpose. As Appleton points out: “The role of the search is the disruption of privacy as an end in itself”. And again: “Anything private or kept from public view is de facto seen as a threat to authority”. Of course, and Appleton would probably concur, the biggest example of this outlawing of the realm of the private is the culture of compulsory ‘sharing of feelings’ which is so prevalent these days, and which the social critic Professor Furedi has characterised as Therapy Culture. In this case the very existence of private, unspoken, feelings is seen as a threat to others. On the question of data and privacy Appleton notes how people often express concern about their personal data being exposed in some way. (That is data about their ‘identity’ – not their financial data which has obvious practical consequences). The people who express this concern have internalised the idea that this abstract data says something about themselves. When or if it is shared with the ‘wrong’ people they are concerned. This type of concern is encouraged by the authorities; for example the absurd EU legislation about web page ‘cookies’. No one in their right mind would feel personally threatened by a web browser cookie – but there is a whole legal framework about how consent has to be obtained to use them. The authorities are happy for people to be fussed about their ‘personal data’ – because, presumably, if people are fussed about this question they will not be asking about more serious matters. (For example; at the time of the 2011 Census there was some public resistance to the fact the Office for National Statistics had subcontracted the census number crunching to one of the world’s leading arms companies, Lockheed Martin. The government was keen to present this conflict in terms of concerns about data being ‘compromised’ in some way by being handled, or not as the case may have been, outside of the UK. And of course people were assured that the data would be properly handled. Meanwhile; the more serious questions about what exactly the government was doing using a US arms company, which had played a major role in the illegal and discredited Iraq invasion, to run the UK civil census were avoided). On biometric surveillance Appleton observes how biometrics focus on people in their most passive aspect; their inert body-signs. (Indeed biometric signs can still be taken from a corpse). She contrasts this with how the Stasi were concerned with peoples’ activities; who they met, where they went, what they did. The modern surveillance state wants to nail everyone down in their most denatured form. Appleton references Marx who sees real life being reflected into systems of bureaucratic categorisation which reflections are then taken as real life. A form of alienation. Appleton identifies the role that surveillance plays in this: “Surveillance is the process of converting a people into a bureaucratic form, arranging their specific features into various boxes”. The database becomes primary. “If somebody is not on a database do they really exist?”. (A small example of this mentality may be encountered by people who need to be credit checked for something, for example to open a new bank account. An absence of any records is seen not for what is is; evidence of thriftiness and avoidance of credit, but as a cause of suspicion; why is he not on the database?).

Appleton concludes this brilliant chapter by observing how people now relate to each other via this gaze of the camera – not just official surveillance but though reality TV shows such as Big Brother. As we affirm one another in the gaze of the camera so we disappear from each other’s view.

Chapter 7 Crime and Punishment 

Appleton notes that the ban has become commonplace. Authorities ban smoking in certain places, drinking alcohol in certain places, even, apparently, in one instance kissing on a train platform. The ban is, says Appleton, a characteristic expression of the negativity of the authorities.

Appleton then discusses the more serious question of how the core criminal law has been taken over by officiousness. Laws are created which are quite open-ended in their interpretation and applicability. (Appleton does not mention it specifically but the law which creates the public order offence of  intending to cause someone ‘alarm, harassment or distress’ – introduced in the 1986 Public Order Act creates a very wide scope for criminal prosecution). The language of official documents describes these laws as being “part of a toolkit”. The aim is to enhance the power of the official. The aim is not to enhance order and thus protect civil society. There has been an explosion of “orders” such as Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and Parenting Orders. Orders seek to control the behaviour of recalcitrant individuals. The terms of the behavioural injunctions can be almost anything which a local authority – or other authority applying for the order – can come up with and persuade a magistrate to grant them. (Most orders are waved through by magistrates [13]). The law is no longer a standardised set of rules which apply to all. It  ‘descends’ onto each individual in a personalised way. It is, quite literally, personalised punishment. There has been a shift from the law as the guarantor of everybody’s rights to the law as, quite explicitly, a toolkit for power to do whatever power chooses.

As Appleton remarks, alongside this growth in “orders” etc we can see that “The officious state representative is relatively uninterested in actual crime, in actual violations of person or property”. The authorities intervene in a general way. They are concerned with social conditions in which crime occurs rather than in crime itself. (For example; witness how local authority Youth Justice teams often create programmes not for young offenders but for much younger young people who are deemed to be “at risk” of crime). At the same time there has been an explosion in recent years in the issuing of penalty notices – on the spot fines. These fines are ‘amoral’. As Appleton remarks, they are issued with a shrug of shoulders and can be paid online. Justice is perfunctory. There is a belief, notes Appleton, that “..society can be regulated and held together by this ever-growing pile of £75. and £80 tickets”.

Appleton explains how the traditional understanding of the law – as the enforcer of the rights of one individual over another – has eroded. In its place we have “the idea that the law is a ‘tool’ [which] suggests it is merely a detached coercive instrument, lying around, which can be used for this or that”. The authorities are no longer (even partially or hypocritically) defending some principle when they apply the law. The authorities no longer understand or respect the concept of the “rule of law”. They just understand law in its coercive aspect. Appleton notes that this creates a situation in which individual corruption can flourish. Local authority departments start to live off fines and as a result engage in “low-life practices” in order to issue as many as possible. The fine is no longer an instrument used sparingly to promote good behaviour. It is used as much as possible so as to raise money, with no regard whatsoever for the values of civil society.

Another way in which the rational and civil exercise of authority is undermined is through targets. Police officers and social workers, amongst others, may work in targets environments. The need to meet targets (in order to gain promotion for example) skews the exercise of authority. For example police officers may focus on certain easily prosecutable offences and drop others.

Chapter 8 State and Society, freedom and coercion

In this chapter Appleton cogently explains how the realm of independent civil life barely exists any more. More or less all social relations are now subject to control and regulation (we would say surveillance) by the state. Appleton gives the example, common, apparently, on US campuses of sexual encounters between students being regulated and controlled by University authorities.

In the UK the only sphere of civil life remaining outside of regulation and control by the authorities is the family. However; the authorities are making inroads even here. For example; in Scotland there is the proposed ‘named person’ scheme. Under this scheme the state appoints a busy-body to snoop on every child – and, by extension, their family. It is not necessary to have done anything wrong. It is not even necessary that there be some kind of suspicions against the family. Every family is to suffer this external monitoring by the state. Currently the scheme is on hold due to a successful Human Rights challenge in the Supreme Court. [14]

Another example we would add is the largely successful charity/social worker led campaign against all forms of physical punishment in the home. It was notable that this campaign only got off the ground after legislation was passed that made corporal punishment illegal in the state care sector in 1998. The clear inference is that these “children’s care professionals” do not object to physical punishment per se. But they are certain that they cannot tolerate a situation where they are not allowed to administer corporal punishment to children in their care but parents are. This neatly illustrates how the officious cannot tolerate the existence of a realm of independent civil life over which they have no control. As Appleton points out, before the advent of officiousness it was always understood that the realm of the state overlapped with the realm of civic life. The state had a role to support civil society and to intervene in egregious cases. But it was always accepted that civil society had its own dynamic and autonomy. It is this assumption which has been eliminated by officiousness.

The only way that freedom is exercised in this context is to coerce someone else. Freedom for officials. Coercion and control for everyone else.

Chapter 9 Opposing Officiousness 

Appleton starts this chapter by reiterating her view that “the primary cause of officiousness is the vacuum in civil life”. As we have already discussed (in our review of Chapters 2 and 3) we believe that this explanation is partial. A vacuum is part of the reality. But that vacuum is not the ‘primary cause’. We have indicated that the phenomenon of officiousness is best understood in terms of an analysis of power and money. Power is no longer content to operate through traditional authority which, ultimately, restricts it. At the same time, forms of disciplinary control are increasingly monetized. Punishment in all its forms is operated for profit. Power has abandoned its backing for authority and relocated to finance. As power has abandoned authority so authority loses any legitimacy (even the limited forms of legitimacy it had before). This explains why and how authority is now so often exercised by “low-lifes” in seemingly “random” ways as Appleton points out.

Appleton’s analysis of the ’causes’ of officiousness does not go far enough. Nonetheless Appleton’s elucidation of the phenomenon is profound. She asserts the “essential innocence and competence of social life” against the intrusions of officiousness. This is a welcome call.

Appleton points out that when people resist the intrusions of officiousness into some area of social life, such as bans on photography or dog-walking they are resisting the attempt by authority to designate ordinary, simple, social life as something inherently shady and suspicious.  Again; Appleton has a profound understanding of the issues at stake here. She notes, for example, that people often say of the DBS check that “It is only a form; if you haven’t done anything wrong it should not concern you”. But that: “…within the criminal-records check, is contained the whole question of ones’s subjection to arbitrary authority, one’s submission and unfreedom”. Each confrontation is about the principle.

Appleton cautions that campaigns for the freedom to carry out some social act should not lose sight of the fundamental issue at stake; that of the the freedom of individuals to regulate their own lives in the civic and social sphere. There is a danger that individual campaigns can take the easy way out; of campaigning not on principle but for a unique exemption from the regulation for just their particular group. If a group does this they are intrinsically supporting the system of regulation. However; Appleton takes a pragmatic viewpoint. So long as groups who are in contest with the authorities do not actively call for the suppression of other groups then their actions may in time lead to more freedom for all. However; the main aim should be to unite these protests, these localised forms of resistance, into a broader campaign which seeks to re-assert the value of independent civil life.


The essential problem in Appleton’s analysis is that she can only attempt to explain officiousness in terms of an analysis of the state. She borrows an analysis of the state from Lenin. In this model the state is understood as an organ arising out of class contradictions. The state is ‘above’ society. It acts in the interests of the capitalist minority and bears down on society with repressive measures. With this as her model Appleton then seeks to explain ‘officiousness’ as a malfunction of the state. She offers the explanation that officiousness is state authority in its ‘pure form’ – stripped of even the meaningful content of operating in the interests of the ruling class. At this point the analysis fails. Officiousness is a real phenomenon and you cannot it explain it in terms of Marxist dialectics – a purely theoretical analysis of the state. To understand officiousness – which is a real force – it is necessary to understand the forces behind it. (If the state has malfunctioned – what forces have led to that?) We have to be aware of power, how power acts, and how power is shifting and acting in new ways. The real ’causes’ of officiousness require an analysis of forces which go beyond the state.

We have indicated that in our view officiousness is a result of a significant shift in power. Power is no longer content to operate through the state and through ‘normal’ mechanisms of authority. Power has abandoned its support for traditional authority. This has left state authority floundering and acting in seemingly “random” and “low-life” ways. At the same time power has doubled back and now turns the new mechanisms of officiousness into money making opportunities.

With those limitations in her analysis of the background to officiousness mentioned it is possible to say that ‘Officious’ is a brilliant and timely book. Officiousness is indeed the defining political issue of our time. Appleton’s understanding of and ability to express the phenomenon is superb and no doubt reflects her work of several years supporting a range of different campaigns. This is easily the most important book on philosophical and political matters which this author has read in recent years. Appleton may be a voice of one crying in the wilderness. If we ignore this critical voice we may simply continue the blind march into a totalitarian money-fascist state that we are currently on course for.


1 Josie Appleton. The Corruption of Punishment. 2012.

2. See for example Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 19) 5).

3. Corruption of the Curriculum. Civitas. 2007.

4. Manifesto Club Litter report follow-up



7. State and Revolution. Chp. 1. V. I. Lenin. First published 1917.

8. Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 Section 23.


10. See Section 38.



13. see p7