The Canary is Dead: Britain is Corrupt

Examining the corpse of the News of the World is all very well...

When the Murdoch hacking-dead-people’s-phones scandal hit I had just finished writing something about the corruption of the British government. I had not written much about the role of the media in the corruption of our political system and that now seems rather remiss. However I am not going to fundamentally change anything I wrote, because what the hacking scandal has revealed about how British politics works simply confirms what I had already said. John Harris in the Guardian in particular nails some of the more unsavoury social aspects of the corruption we face.

As for what the whole scandal/investigation means for British politics right now: not much I fear. It is still being treated as an isolated incident, as another of those unfortunate aberrations from the way politics is normally done. If the public debate continues to regard it in this way then it can all be swept up and swept under the carpet.

There is another way to see it: the entanglement between the Murdoch empire and the political establishment, which created a culture of impunity for people with power, is the normal way of doing politics in Britain. The Murdochs are not the source of all evil in our democracy, and nor were the staff of the News of the World. They are simply the canary in the coalmine. Now the canary is dead and we must decide what to do about it. Which brings me to my intended starting point for this piece of writing before the current scandal broke:

Our government is corrupt. I feel confident about making this statement, as confident as I would saying it of Mubarak’s Egypt, or of the government of Equatorial Guinea, or the one-man-state machine of Berlusconi.

It’s true that, at least in the highest UK political circles, there’s very little need for passing round wads of cash in brown envelopes, and this seems to be why we don’t think of Britain as thoroughly corrupt. But the corruption that has replaced it isn’t really much more sophisticated. It doesn’t appear when examining individual parts of our political and economic system, but to anyone keeping an eye on the political system as a whole, the corruption becomes very clear. The failure to expand our definition of corruption to encompass what is happening in Britain suggests some uncomplementary things about the media who are meant to keep the politicians in check, but eloquent critiques of the current mediascape are out there already. The result of the failure of the media is that it is rare to hear people talking about how our political system really works, as opposed to how it is meant to work.

What do we see when looking at the system as a whole? We see that certain interest groups – banks might be a good example, private healthcare another – have become very good at getting their own way, against the interests of British citizens. Some of their methods are very obvious. John Major and Tony Blair both work in the financial sector. David Cameron will certainly work for banks when he leaves power. The former Prime Ministers are paid millions of pounds by the institutions that lobbied them while in power. The financial sector lobbied to be deregulated, and the politicians did what they asked, and we got our financial crisis. It was their crisis of course, not ours, but by that time they had their claws so deep in the politicians that there was no question about who was going to pay for it. I should point out that it is perfectly possible that Major, Blair and Brown all believed that deregulating the banks was the best way to create wealth, but it is easier to believe fairy tales if you know you’re going to be paid for believing them, and if, like Blair, your life’s ambition is to hang around with all the important and wealthy people who believe them too.

The financial crisis, the subsequent recession, and the current public spending cuts are a result of the corruption of our political system. This is something we need to say loud and clear. The corruption didn’t come just in the form of payments to Prime Ministers and Chancellors after they left power. It also came in the form of a revolving door between government and the industries they are regulating. That government might want to recruit top industry talent is not remarkable. That these ‘top talents’ are allowed to offer fat-salaried jobs and influential positions to their old colleagues might raise a few suspicions. What is remarkable is that, having regulated the industries just so (i.e. not at all really), they are allowed to go back and work in the industries they helped provide the framework for in government. In other words, you can go and deregulate your own industry as part of a very smart career move that will make you popular with all the right people. That we do not regard this as corruption is astonishing.

The third leg of the corruption that has developed over the last few decades is a very sophisticated lobbying apparatus that is not just about simply buying politicians nice dinners or having a cosy chat with your old school chums. We have ‘campaign groups’ and ‘think tanks’ all over the place, often presented as impartial, actually pushing highly political agendas for their funders.

The Taxpayers Alliance was set up by members of the Conservative party, in order to push the Conservative Party and politics more generally toward a tax-free society for the wealthy. It uses the national media to do this and probably contributed to the increased acceptance of the Conservative Party at the last election. They were repeatedly cited on the BBC as some kind of impartial source or democratic citizen action group. So irritated were some people with the notion that the Taxpayer’s Alliance represented taxpayers that several competing groups, such as The Other Taxpayers Alliance, were set up. They got far less attention because they didn’t have wealthy and strategically-minded Conservatives behind them.

2020Health, a self-declared ‘grass-roots’ think tank, was targetted by NHS Direct Action the other week. In response the think tank did a very good job of pretending to be the affronted innocent citizens who simply wanted to improve our healthcare. Yet when you look at their staff histories and their output, you can’t help seeing the ‘think tank’ as a lobbying front group for the private healthcare industry. It is chaired by Tom Sackville, CEO of the International Federation of Health Plans, a group that represents 100 private healthcare companies in 31 countries. If this is grassroots, it is a ‘grassroots’ global corporate movement, not a grassroots UK citizens movement.

The way individuals move between private sector, campaigning groups, public sector, politics and think tanks reveals a deeply dishonest political class that presents an image of a thriving democracy in which many different sectors all have influence on government, and yet these are all the same people, all with the similar outlooks, all doing very well thank you from the policies they push, and helping their friends to do well too. It is a false-front democracy, and one of the pillars of the new corruption.

None of this is entirely new of course – self-serving and dishonest elites have always been a part of the political landscape – what is new is the degree to which it is happening, and the lack of any entrants to the political system who are not already part of the game. What emerges when we look at all these forms of corruption is that rather than competing elites, which is the best approximation to democracy that representative democracy has managed to produce, we are currently ruled by what you might call a conglomerate elite that presents itself as one thing one day, something else the next, but who always move together towards one goal: greater wealth for themselves and people like them, often at our expense.

This is corruption. Our parliamentary ‘democracy’ is thoroughly corrupt, throughout all major parties, systemically, in a deeply embedded form, in ways that go directly against the interests of most British people. Almost no one voted for the privatisation of the NHS – only a minority voted for the Tories, and even they didn’t dare put ‘privatise the NHS’ in their manifesto. The NHS has been shown to be a highly efficient healthcare system in several comparative studies of developed country healthcare systems. It compares very favourably in outcomes with the rest of Europe, even though we spend less money than many of the wealthy economies. The politicians of all major parties are privatising the NHS anyway. Because they want to. Because they can, because no one will call the corruption what it is and fight it.

It isn’t bundles of cash passed under the desk. It’s far more dishonest than that. So what do we call it? Systemic corruption? Faux-democracy? Bogus political diversity? Total institutional corruption? Perhaps we could opt for ‘Lord Browne-ism’, after the former chair of BP, once a non-executive Director of SmithKline Beecham. He became a friend of Tony Blair, got appointed to the House of Lords, chaired an ‘independent’ review of education at the request of Peter Mandelson, then adopted by the Conservatives, that resulted in the new tuition fees. Lord Browne now works for the Coalition government as ‘lead Non-Executive Director’ on the Cabinet Office board, ‘improving governance’ in Whitehall by recruiting business leaders to serve on government departmental boards. His appointees include Andrew Witty, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline and Ian Davis, once on the board of BP. For his day job Lord Browne is Managing Director of Riverstone Holdings, a private equity firm specialising in the energy and power sectors. Riverstone Holdings works in partnership with the Carlyle Group, whose European Chair is John Major.

As I have already said, this way of doing business is not entirely new. While we see a particular incarnation of corruption right now, the ability of the political elite to organise amongst themselves, against the interests of the populations they supposedly represent, is a built in feature of representative democracy. So this is not malfunctioning democracy we are talking about here, it is the way democracy has always worked. It’s difficult not to suspect that the politicians who made the original concessions towards ‘democracy’ did so precisely because they knew they could still keep a grip on power, they knew the ‘democratic’ institutions were far enough away from us all that we couldn’t keep an eye on what was going on . We’re supposed to depend on the media to do that of course. So we’ve got two instutions that don’t do what they claim to do. The important thing to realise is: they never have.

Whatever we prefer to call the current incarnation of corruption – systemic corruption, false-front democracy or Highly Organised Crime – we need to call it something fast, because if we’re going to fight it, we’re going to need a name for it. If we don’t fight it, the next financial crisis is just a matter of time and the NHS will soon exist only in name. Thankfully, once the mechanisms are publicised and widely understood, it won’t need any original names or any qualifiers and we will be able to name it simply and for what it is: mere corruption.

Understanding the corruption also leads to the conclusion that, while it takes different forms in different eras, our system of representative democracy has always been this way, to a greater or lesser degree. There were moments of triumph for people-power but they were the exception not the rule. Corruption is the rule. Britain has always been corrupt and it is our lauded system of representative democracy that makes it so. We can clean up some of the newer and more extreme dishonesty behind the democratic masquerade – and that is very much worth doing I think – but that will only give us a temporary lull before the next corruption/economic crisis hits.

Seeing the once-all-powerful Murdochs squirm has been a genuine pleasure, a moment of minor accountability in the usually vacuous Punch And Judy Show of parliament. But let’s not celebrate too much: the canary is dead, and we are still in the coalmine.

Government propaganda announcement: Anyone can be a success

[FIZZZ, *CRACKLE*]

THIS IS YOUR FRIENDLY NEIGHBOURHOOD LOUDHAILER AGAIN. YOU HAVEN’T BEEN LISTENING TO ME RECENTLY HAVE YOU? I KNOW YOU HAVEN’T. I HAVE CCTV EVERYWHERE. PLEASE LISTEN TO THE FOLLOWING ANNOUNCEMENT CAREFULLY. IF YOU SWITCH OFF HALFWAY THROUGH YOUR POWER AND WATER WILL BE SWITCHED OFF.

[…SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEECH…]

ALL PRAISE OUR GLORIOUS DEMOCRACY FOR ITS BENEVOLENT MERITOCRACY! OUR SYSTEM OF ECONOMICS AND GOVERNMENT IS BETTER THAN ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD FOR ONE SIMPLE REASON: ANYONE CAN BE A SUCCESS. YES, YOU HEARD ME: ANYONE.

WE’RE NOT LIKE SOME TINPOT DICTATORSHIP WHERE YOU HAVE TO BE IN THE RIGHT FAMILY TO MAKE MONEY OR RUN THE GOVERNMENT. WE’RE NOT LIKE CHINA WHERE YOU HAVE TO BE IN THE COMMUNIST PARTY. WE’RE NOT LIKE IRAN WHERE YOU HAVE TO HAVE THE RIGHT RELIGIOUS BELIEFS. WE ARE A MERITOCRACY! ANYONE CAN BE A SUCCESS! ANYONE CAN MAKE MONEY! ANYONE CAN RUN THE GOVERNMENT!

IT MAKES ME LAUGH WHEN I HEAR PEOPLE IN THIS COUNTRY COMPLAINING ABOUT THE GOVERNMENT. WELL IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, GET IN THERE AND CHANGE IT! THAT’S WHAT WE’RE ALL ABOUT! IT MAKES ME SAD WHEN PEOPLE COMPLAIN THEY DON’T EARN ENOUGH MONEY. START A BUSINESS! ANYONE CAN DO IT! ANYONE CAN BE A SUCCESS!

I DON’T WANT ANYONE SAYING THEY HAVEN’T HAD OPPORTUNITIES TO BE A SUCCESS – PUNISHMENT FOR THIS CRIME IS HAVING YOUR BANK ACCOUNT FROZEN – SO I’M GOING TO GIVE YOU SOME TIPS ON HOW TO BE A SUCCESS.

ANYONE CAN DO IT! ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS THE FOLLOWING:

1. ACCEPT OUR DEFINITION OF SUCCESS I.E. YOU MUST WANT MONEY AND POWER OR YOU WON’T GET IT.

2. SACRIFICE YOUR FAMILY TO YOUR AMBITIONS. THE REASONS FOR THIS ARE OBVIOUS.

3. BE PREPARED TO IGNORE THE EFFECTS OF YOUR DECISIONS ON OTHER PEOPLE. THE NEED FOR THIS IS OBVIOUS.

4. MANAGE YOUR VALUE. NO ONE ELSE IS GOING INVEST IN YOU, SO INVEST IN YOURSELF! TREAT YOUR LIFE AS A BUSINESS OPERATION AND YOU WILL SOON SEE THE RETURNS.

5. BECOME YOUR OWN PR COMPANY. MANAGE THE IMAGE YOU PRESENT TO THE WORLD. WHEN YOU SCREW PEOPLE OVER, PRESENT IT AS AN ACT OF BENEVOLENCE. WHEN YOU ARE UNSURE OF YOURSELF, PRESENT UTMOST CONFIDENCE.

YOU SEE? THAT’S IT! ANYONE CAN DO IT! WE’RE NOT LIKE THOSE MEDIEVAL COUNTRIES WHERE ONLY CERTAIN TYPES OF PEOPLE CAN BE A SUCCESS. IF YOU’RE NOT A SUCCESS, IT’S YOUR OWN FAULT AND I DON’T WANT TO HEAR YOU WHINING ABOUT IT, OR ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE’S SUCCESS. AND I CAN HEAR YOU: I AM NOT JUST A LOUDHAILER, I AM A NETWORK, AND I HAVE A DIRECT LINK TO YOUR HEAD.

PUNISHMENT FOR WHINING ABOUT YOUR LACK OF SUCCESS OR ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE’S ‘UNDESERVED’ SUCCESS IS SOCIAL OSTRACISM. NO SUCCESS IS UNDESERVED. THAT’S WHAT MERITOCRACY MEANS. THAT’S WHY YOU ARE THE LUCKIEST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD.

THIS IS THE END OF THE ANNOUNCEMENT. THANK YOU FOR LISTENING.

[FIZZZ, *CRACKLE*, SCREEEEEECH]

Jousting with your Inner Thatcher (Part 3): You must contribute to society to get the benefits of society

Things to do with a Thatcher

This is the last in a series of posts about the Inner Thatcher that hides in the dark depths of our souls. After decades of propaganda for a dog-eat-dog world the fight against the ideology of the day is not just a fight against our rulers but a fight in our own heads, like one of those scenes in a film where an actor (Johnny Depp let’s say) has an internal struggle with himself, illustrated by a montage displaying his internal conflict while he stands there looking pretty.

The idea that we should all contribute to society in order to get the benefits society offers didn’t originate with Thatcher or her acolytes of course. It’s a much older idea than that, but the era of Thatcher and Blair created an intensification of the idea that we must all contribute to society by working and paying tax. On the surface it can seem common sense, but first allow me to wonder why it appeals so much to low-tax, small-government obsessives. Well, the richer you are, the more you can contribute, but the less you need society’s help in return. So it creates a wonderful logic in which those who deserve society’s assistance don’t need it, and those who need society’s assistance don’t deserve it. In case it is not already clear to you, the purpose of this feat of logic is to lower taxes on the rich.

However my first gut reaction to this manifestation of the Inner Thatcher is not to do with justice and wealth distribution. Instead I find myself thinking: you’re talking as though we’re on the edge of starvation as a society. As though we’re some hunter-gatherer society where everyone will suffer if one or two people do nothing. The reality is the opposite: we have available to us absurd excesses of wealth that we piss up the wall on Olympic stadiums and other vanity projects. So why this pressure to force everyone to work? What is all our technology for if it doesn’t allow some of us to put our feet up sometimes? I think the answer to that is another side-effect of the contribute-or-suffer argument: pushing everyone to be available to work increases the supply of labour and thus lowers wages. This idea is a real beauty for those at the top raking in the profits isn’t it? Time to get our war hammers out and root the bastard out of our heads.

But come on now, I hear the Inner Thatcher cry, the motives of our rulers may be rotten, but surely they are right: surely it is only just that everyone contribute to society to the extent they are able? Well…perhaps. But the politicians’ arguments only hold true if we allow that sneaky Inner Thatcher to pull a trick on us. The trick is to deliberately confuse money and value – I use the word value in a broad sense here, not in the way it is sometimes used in economics. Many things have value to us, as people and as a society. Some of them have a monetary value, like washing machines, some of them have apparently arbitrary monetary value, like art, and some of them we choose not to put a monetary value on at all: a mother’s love for example.

We can go further than this and say that the monetary reward for labour is not in proportion to the usefulness of the labour. The bike you ride, assembled in China, probably strikes you as more useful than, say, high street phone shops that never have the best deals (try the internet people!). So it is clear the high street phone salesman does something a lot less useful than the chinese worker who built your bike, but you know who gets paid more.

And then there’s people working in finance. From time to time they move resources to where they are needed but the majority of what they do is parasitic upon that. They are the highest paid people in society and tend to go to great lengths to avoid paying tax. When you think about it, there appears to be very little link at all between wages and what we really need or value. The link is more generally between wages and power, but that’s another subject really. It’s true that richer people pay more taxes of course, but if that’s a tax on parasitism then we can’t just go congratulating them on contributing so much.

So what does our Inner Thatcher mean when she talks about people contributing to society? Does she take into account the value of a single mother who devotes herself to her children? Does she take into account the pleasure we can give each other through art, through conversation, through simply being there for each other? No? Does she take into account the people creating beautiful front gardens in their free time, or campaigning to improve the lives of other people? Then it’s probably time to get dirty. A firework under the hooves of her charger perhaps. A poisoned dart aimed through the slit in the helmet. If she’s not fighting clean then why should we?

But the Inner Thatcher is not yet defeated: she has more arguments in favour of making us all work until we’re wrung out. Work brings self-respect apparently. And it’s true that achievement can help build self-respect, but only some jobs achieve things, and much achievement happens outside of work. Many jobs give no sense of achievement at all and – in my experience at least – these jobs undermine the very meaning of your life, let alone your self-respect. I also can’t help thinking that you will only gain self-respect in work in which you are respected by your employers and colleagues. So this argument only works if the jobs unemployed people are being pushed into are meaningful jobs in which they will be respected. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Kill your Inner Thatcher now.

But the Inner Thatcher has another defence and David Cameron is the man to sell it to us all: ‘Why should the assistance of society mean the assistance of the state?’ Says she, and he. It is a very good question. It also has a good answer. The state is the body that frames the legal entities (companies and corporations) that both produce things in our society and concentrate the profit from them among very few people. The state is therefore, until the end of those legal structures, the only body with the power to correct the wealth distortions they create. Very probably the spending mechanisms should not be centrally controlled, but within the current economic system, so beloved by Thatcher and perhaps by your Inner Thatcher too, we have no choice but for taxes to be centrally collected. You could almost say it’s a logical product of corporate power: only the creator of the corporations has the ability to ensure that a wider benefit can come from their activities.

There is one last weapon in the toolbox of your Inner Thatcher. What about those people who are genuinely just lazy spongers? What should we do about them? Well I don’t know, but I don’t think they’re a big problem to society. Really. I think they’re a big problem to their friends and relatives. To society? They’re pretty insignificant I think. They’re certainly not worth producing an entire linguistic and political apparatus in order to fight. It’s like swatting a fly with an RPG. That apparatus is there for other reasons, already mentioned.

That apparatus is also there because redistribution is a dirty word to the people in power now. Everyone gets what they deserve, according to them, and the state shouldn’t interfere in that. Everyone gets what they deserve? That’s the thinking of a child. Or a greedy, lying political operator. If you find one of the latter in your own head, be sure to challenge her to a joust, and remember not to fight fair.

Reasons not to…call particular politicians arseholes

Reason enough

Okay, fine, I hate Tony Blair. I despise him for his greed and self-interest like I despise few other people on the planet. I hate David Cameron. I think he is a spoilt brat with dangerously high levels of competence. These are emotional reactions to some of the most noxious human turds ever to float to the top of our political toilets, but they are not political analysis. I think it’s dangerous to focus on these thoughts too much because it leads us into one of the most useless dead ends of all political thinking: the idea that what we need is nicer people at the top.

There are a couple of problems with that idea. We all, at least dimly, have some idea of what it takes to get ahead in politics. We know that politicians have to lie and cheat and manipulate. We know we can’t trust a word they say. We know they betray their fellow party members for a sniff of power. We know they have to put on a good face as a likeable person but that they don’t act according to their public face. So we know there is a filtering process in place, and it is the turds that get through. So how do we want nicer people to get through? By sheer luck? Sneaking in the back entrance by bribing security?

The second problem is much bigger: the niceness or not of politicians is probably not that important. For one thing, as soon as they get anywhere near power they start to feel the pressure from various powerful groups: financiers, media moguls, other politicians, lobby groups with lots of money but low public profiles. Some of these groups are so powerful that they can and do hold politicians hostage. The finance sector and the media in particular has the power to do this. Conventional wisdom in the UK says that whoever Murdoch and The Sun supports will win the election. This may be an exaggeration but it is certainly not lacking in truth altogether. When certain people and lobby groups ask for an appointment with the Prime Minister they get it.

But I’m more interested in another thing that prevents a person’s ‘niceness’ being any good. They act within certain political and economic structures with long histories. When they get into office they are put in the cockpit and presented with the levers of power, so to speak. And these levers do have a lot of power still, despite the power held by corporations and other unaccountable groups. The problem with the levers of power is they are very blunt instruments. They force the person at the helm to start making decisions in certain ways: utilitarian decisions that sacrifice some people for a greater goal or for some other section of  society. The person at the helm is a long way away from the people who are affected by their decisions. They don’t hear the screams as they pull the levers. Power corrupts not just in allowing leaders to be greedy and self-interested but in insulating them from the effects of their decisions. Power forces our leaders to make those decisions that result in them appearing on television and explaining to us that they had to make ‘difficult’ decisions: code for YOU HAVE BEEN SHAFTED.

And conventional wisdom says leaders do have to make these difficult decisions, have to sacrifice certain people for the ‘greater good’. This conventional wisdom is used very dishonestly much of the time of course – in fact they are sacrificing many of us for the benefit of a few, as David Cameron is doing right now – but let’s assume this is done honestly too.  Should we accept a system in which this is the only way of operating? Is there really no way for us to imagine a political system in which individuals do not have so much power? Is there no way for us to imagine a world without those levers in the hands of a few? Where those levers don’t exist even? To take that leap maybe we need to steer away from thinking of certain politicians as arseholes. Maybe that’s a distraction. Because the insult implies there would be some other politician whose ‘niceness’ would save us, when the political and economic structures currently in place make it impossible for that to happen.

So those are the reasons not to call particular politicians arseholes. I think they’re good reasons. But I just can’t leave the post there. Because there are reasons we should call them arseholes after all – reasons that go beyond George Osborne’s face I mean. When institutions have been in place a long time, with those levers of power sitting there toyed with by different people for decades and centuries, it is pretty likely that a political culture is going to develop to match it. What will be considered desirable in politics are the qualities needed to pull those levers and not worry too much about the consequences. What is needed are people who can take ‘necessary’ and ‘difficult’ decisions and still sleep at night. The qualities most admired will be those that enable the ‘pragmatism’ needed to use power: a shrivelled sense of empathy and an acceptance that the distance between you and your victims is right and proper.

I suspect there are social circles to go along with this: ‘prestigious’ circles of people, the requirements for entry of which will be an uncritical attitude to those levers and their use. A sense of entitlement even, a feeling that they must be used, and we are the people to use them. These personality characteristics may well develop in public schools, yes, but they are also the markers of a certain class in our meritocracy. I think the lack of the more old-fashioned markers of class – country manors, barbour jackets, butlers – at least outside the Tory party, often deceives us into thinking we don’t have a political class with a high barrier to entry. In the world of New Labour’s new meritocracy, the barriers to entry are personality traits, attitudes, ways of seeing the world. Anyone can be an arsehole now.

So the individual arseholedom or not of politicians is not the point. They are arseholes as a class, as a matter of ‘necessity’, to make the institutions of the state function. That’s not to say one doesn’t slip through the net sometimes, someone with highly developed empathy and the ability to hide it from those around them. But as I said above, they won’t get far once they do get some power. And they don’t appear often enough to undermine the ways our meritocratic liberal democracies actually operate: we are ruled by a class of arseholes. And I now use the term ‘arsehole’ as a technical term, to denote a certain set of personality traits that make a person suited for power.

We accept this, or many people have done for a long time, partly because it wasn’t us that suffered for it. Our lives were comfortable enough. The wars happened in other countries. Now the chickens are coming home to roost. The Structural Adjustment Programs once used to asset-strip poor countries are being imposed on Western economies. Don’t blame David Cameron the arsehole for it. Blame the power structures of meritocratic liberal democracy. Not many people chose David Cameron, but for too long too many people have given explicit or implicit consent to a system that relied upon a class of arseholes.