An older favourite
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Most days if you read the front pages, watch the news, or even go to the FCO or Ministry of Defence website, you would barely notice that the UK is involved in a war that has been going on for over a decade. Even the body bags coming back from Afghanistan don’t seem to have a lot of impact now.
If you read the FCO explanation of the war, it is that we are ensuring that Afghanistan cannot harbour terrorists who might attack the UK or our allies. This has clearly failed, and will likely be a continuing failure whether or not they manage to pull out most troops by 2014 as they promise. Since our own country intermittently harbours terrorists – admittedly uninvited except for the usual heads of state – it hardly seems like a logical explanation for the war.
Meanwhile how much do people in Britain know about the war? None of the participants keep a record of Afghans killed, though we know some small part of it from the MoD’s payments to the families of civilians killed by accident. We don’t get regular updates about where ‘our’ troops are as we would in a war that people cared about. There is no serious discussion of Afghan politics among the press or politicians. How often do you hear the economy of Afghanistan mentioned? Yet doesn’t the end of conflict rely on stable economic systems? The general public does not know where power really lies in Afghanistan or who is doing what in the country, nor is there any discussion of what policies the allies have imposed on the country through their puppets.
The war is barely noticed, in other words. It is barely taken seriously. But the problem is, once you start a war, it’s hard to stop. And once you get into a habit of fighting wars, it’s hard to stop starting them. Britain has never fallen out of the habit since the end of the colonial period, and while it has such a large military it is unlikely to. Sometimes I think people attribute far too much cunning and forethought to our politicians. I think a major reason they start wars is because power feels good. They are human too and if you hand them the command of a reasonably effective fighting force they can’t help using it.
The elephant in the room is not just the war in Afghanistan, it is the fact that ‘we’ are constantly getting involved in wars, and none of them for the last sixty years have been at all related to self-defence. We need to stop being used to being in wars. The best way to do this practically speaking is to drastically downsize the army so that the temptation to politicians is removed. When was the last time you heard anyone in the mainstream suggest that, or point out that our army is not used for self-defence? You’re as likely to hear it as you are a discussion about the US military payments to the Taliban for the protection of their supplies as they travel around the country. In other words, as likely to hear it as any serious discussion of the war and its problems at all.
Progress is wonderful! The Shard now looms above London like a symbol of our might. Admittedly it is a symbol of Qatari ruling elite might but it is like a symbol of our might. We are at the top of our game – or someone is – and the view is just amazing!
The party marches on, and we should be so proud of our moving fiesta because we pick our leaders. Not like those savages in…Qatar or China or wherever. We pick our leaders from among those people at the back of the march, driving us on with whips and Tazers, because we know they know the way. They want the same things as the leaders of…Qatar, or China or wherever, which seems odd, but look! We can swap them round! Not like those countries! It is great! The fact they are all the same – and all the same around the world – just proves democracy works! They all take us in the One Direction so that just proves they are right and we all want the same things. We’re all right, we’re alright, and the party will never die – that’s what the Olympics proves: we might be down but we’re not out!!!
I’ll tell you where could do with a party like ours. I’ll tell you who needs a reviving Olympic tonic. Greece! That’s who! Look at them! What’s that you say? Oh sure they’ve had the Olympics but that was thousands of years ago wan’t it? Now they’re so backward! They are finally being marched forward, in the One Direction. It will be good for them, this discovery that they are expendable. It will teach them to put up with the low wages their country needs.
And we need it too! Remember! We must compete with the far east! In wages too! It’s true! No one told us this when we outsourced half our economies but it put us on a one way street to wage competition with China and India. And look, if there’s one thing Greece teaches us, it’s that if we don’t allow ourselves to go down this path we too will be slaughtered like diseased cattle and abandoned by the side of the road. It’s amazing that we can vote and amazing that the joys and liberties of the free market means it makes no difference any more – if your leader does the wrong thing a technocrat can be found! Perhaps we should lose our bank holidays, say our technocrats in waiting. We have been warned! We march onwards! And we party! Towers! Missiles! Stadiums!
This party is who we are people!! We must hate those who try to stop it! We must hate those angry and desperate enough to STOP ROWING RACES!! People trained hard for that party moment!! How dare he interrupt the march!! We can’t see the corpses from here so what’s all the fuss about! I’ll worry when the smell of death hits me as I step out the front door thank you very much! The Olympics is coming and if any killjoy gets in the way our rage will be IMMENSE!! March! Party! Onwards! Prizes will be won!!!*
*But not by us
While many people active in the Occupy movement have what I might see as a weak crique of why those decisions were made (idiots in power, wrong-headed economics, greed) one of the great strengths of the movement has been the desire of people involved to get involved in collective self-management rather than just running begging to the people in power to set things straight.
But today I popped along to the Occupy London site in Finsbury Square and was reminded just how difficult self-organisation is. At the moment people at the camp are struggling with multiple issues arising from the evictees from St Paul’s moving into Finsbury Square. I also overheard a conversation in which someone fell quickly into the idea that labour should be divided between those doing technical tasks and those doing…er, thinking. At the welcome tent a man arrived and effectively asked for endorsement for a campaign in which he was involved, an idea that makes little sense within Occupy structures.
The problems of collective working in our society are often presented as the problem of getting people to stop thinking individually and start thinking collectively. This may sometimes be the case but I would attribute a lot of the problems to something else entirely: that we are used to being managed.
Much management emanates from the world of work but it is also noticeable that there is little difference between the management structures used in corporations and in governments: they are all top-down hierarchies. The purpose of these hierarchies is almost solely the management of resources. We get sucked into this system of management of resources, often with not much more significant a place in it than a barrel of oil.
The reason people do not necessarily notice the extent to which they are managed is that there is no one person telling them what to do. At work they might have a boss but the rest of the time they can ‘do whatever they want’. But the key to the collective management system we are caught in is that it is both decentered and hierarchical. It is without a head and yet is entirely dominated by organisations that do have heads.
We are caught in a network of organisations that control resources (including us) and every last one of them is a top down hierarchy with internally authoritarian working practices. It is inevitable that their ways of working seep into us, from work, naturally, but also from our involvement in other organisations across society, from transport organisations through corporations to governments.
What we deal with when we attempt to escape being managed is our own habituation to top-down management. What Occupy and other social movements strive for is more horizontal or ‘democratic’ self-organisation, but our habits – the management techniques – from ordinary life constantly seep into what we do.
Working together is not difficult because we are too individualistic to work together but because we are used to other people making decisions for us while we work together – we are used to authoritarian collective working. We are used to being caught within a network of hierarchies that shapes every part of our lives. The management is top down but it also schools our thinking because it depends on our complicity with the hierarchies, including our ability to manage each other and our acceptance that certain things should be left to experts we have no control over.
Having learned how to organise within top-down hierarchies but being used to other people taking decisions, we tend to fall back on learned management techniques once the hierarchy is gone. A guy I know who has been politically active for some years has a tendency to say ‘committee’ when he means ‘working group’, because that was what he was used to in older leftist organisation. He always has a bit of a chuckle at people’s annoyance when he makes the slip, and with good reason. He gets confused because they are pretty much the same. In theory a ‘working group’ is meant to be more more part of a horizontal democratic process than a ‘committee’ but the reality is often different – swinging between a complete inability to make decisions and someone taking it upon themselves to ‘manage’ the group.
I’m not writing this to offer solutions to the problem. I don’t think there are quick solutions. I just think we should stay aware of where our ‘instincts’ will lead us – either into paralysis or back to the management systems that we all know so well – if we don’t keep an eye on them. We need to resist the management within ourselves as well as within banks or parliaments.
No one can argue against the idea of freedom of speech. John Stuart Mill put forward the most famous defence of it and the truth of his case is now widely accepted, at least in the civilised places of the world. When I read Mill when I was younger his arguments seemed so much like common sense that I wondered he had even had to make them.
A few years ago I was working – for reasons that now seem as naïve as my appreciation of Mill – in the UK government’s Department for International Development. It was a merry place full of well-intentioned liberals who were for the most part quite genuinely committed to ending poverty across the world.
I soon began to notice that, while certain criticisms of the Department were acceptable, others were not. Questioning the efficacy of certain methods was fine – welcomed in fact. But questioning the rule of profit, trade and efficiency, and questioning the power relations between Department staff and poor people was entirely beyond the bounds of reasonable criticism.
I tried to talk about these things for a while but in the end I shut up. It wasn’t that I didn’t hold to my criticisms any more, but I discovered that the more I voiced them, the more I got pigeonholed as some kind of crank, or worse, useless to their cause. I stopped saying what I thought in meetings. I knew that if I did speak, any attempt to get a permanent job would be ruined. When I stopped caring about that – who the hell would want a job there? – I still said nothing. There seemed no gain to anyone from establishing myself as a useless weirdo.
That was when I went back to the past in a time machine, found John Stuart Mill, and dragged him forward to the future, just so that I could give him a hearty kick up the arse. ‘I didn’t want freedom of speech,’ I told him. ‘I wanted freedom to speak. An abstract freedom does nothing for my dignity if eight hours a day, five days a week I can’t practice it. Freedom of speech is nothing but a bad joke if the economic power of my managers renders them deaf.’
Then I began to notice that in the Department, so committed to the poor people of the world, no one gave much thought to the fact that they, a professional class of people extending across NGOs and government departments across the world, had granted to themselves a vast amount of decision-making power over how aid and development was done. It never seemed to occur to them that every decision they made was a decision that poor people could not make for themselves. Of course they admitted they got the decisions wrong sometimes, but they could always try again, there would always be another chance to be effective.
It seemed to me that the managerialism of the Department was a microcosm of a greater managerialism: the wealthy countries managing the poor countries and we, the wealthy, managing the poor. The roles we all played in this vast managerial empire could not be questioned. My freedom of speech – such as it was – meant far more than the freedom of speech of a poor person, and that was fine with the Department, even though the poor had much more at stake. The trick was simply for us all to play our roles as well as possible.
This made me, I’m afraid, quite irate, and I grabbed John Stuart Mill, who I had refused to return to his own time, and kicked him up the arse not once but several times. ‘We didn’t need freedom to speak,’ I said to him as I kicked. ‘We needed the power to speak. We needed to break out of the managerial regimes we were taught to regard as ‘natural’. We didn’t want to be supplicants asking favours of the elite, we wanted to speak as equals.’ I then put John Stuart Mill on a leash and tied him to a stake in my garden. I had a feeling I was going to need him again.
Soon I noticed that the professionals of the development industry were very keen on something called ‘voice’. The voices of the poor should be listened to if development was to be a success. This seems very laudable, unless you have already noted the power relations of the managerial regime, and so you become suspicious.
What is this ‘voice’ they mean? How does it fit in to the development industry? And you find that it means surveys, questionnaires, occasional interviews with poor people. These can then be summarised – with the more extreme views filtered out of course – and fitted into a report to come back to the Department. This will then be added as an annex to another report that doesn’t pay any attention to the mild conclusions of its own annex.
I began to realise that any time someone talks about ‘voice’, it means they intend to keep the powerless powerless. While the ‘voice’ of the poor floats through the corridors of power, the poor have to get on with their lives. As the ‘voice’ of the poor goes into the NGO newsletter – discreetly edited of course, since the donors wouldn’t understand the complexities of the project – the poor have to do things in order to live. Usually, and in the long run, it is their own actions that will create better lives for poor. Meanwhile in the Department the poor had become passive bodies, recipients of our help. The talk was of how our actions could save the poor.
So I went out to the garden to see John Stuart Mill again. This time I gave him a damn good thrashing. ‘The power to speak is not enough,’ I said to him. ‘I realise now that speaking won’t put food on anyone’s table. We needed the power to act. That means political power. You talked so much of liberty and freedom but you always assumed that the political structures of the elite were the right place for politics to happen. You assumed that if the people did have politics, it would be processed through the institutions of the elite and so find expression. But the elite have their own politics, their own desires to enact, and so our own desires and actions become swallowed by theirs.’
I don’t work in the development industry any more. Two days before leaving the Department for International Development I vented my frustration at the months of silence by telling a lot of the staff exactly what I thought of the place. It’s true I didn’t get locked up for doing that but it didn’t make a damn bit of difference either, except for ending any chance that I could work in development again. Everyone knows everyone you see, and they all know the kinds of things you should and should not say.
No one can argue against the idea of freedom of speech. Except, that is, for criticising the word ‘freedom’, the word ‘of’ and the word ‘speech’. No one can argue against the idea of freedom of speech, except to say that it is not the power to act. If you do not have the power to act then freedom of speech becomes subsumed into the control techiques of those who do have the power, if you do have the power, freedom of speech is a triviality.
I still keep John Stuart Mill in the present, locked in my basement. Every now and then I go down and give him a good kicking on general principles. I suppose he suffers a bit but no one could call me a cruel man. I always allow him to say whatever he wants to me, however hard I’m kicking him.
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.