Sunday, 21 February 2010

Predator: the Next Installment

In a previous post here I expressed my admiration for James K Galbraith's 2008 book "The Predator State", in which the US economist describes the way a cabal of politicians, bankers, businessmen, bent union officials and downright gangsters hijacked the social democratic state institutions created in the aftermath of World War II. The levers that Roosevelt's New Deal invented with which to regulate the economy, in these corrupt hands became shovels with with to loot the public purse.

When I reviewed this book for Political Quarterly (Volume 80 Issue 3, pp443-5, July 2009), for an instant I wondered whether its argument represents some sort of paranoid conspiracy theory, perhaps because I'd just been reading James Ellroy's Underworld USA trilogy. However Galbraith's sober and lucid arguments, illustrated with impeccably sourced statistics, soon convinced me otherwise. Events since then (only a year ago) have further reinforced that conviction, that Galbraith is the only commentator who comes close to grasping what is actually going.

First we had our own little scandal here in the UK - over MPs fiddling their expenses - which as I opined in that same earlier post is pretty small beer as these affairs go. Then this January came the "devastating" ruling of the US Supreme Court which threw out all limits on corporate and union political spending, enabling those with unlimited funds to buy political influence with impunity (see Ronald Dworkin's summary of this affair in the New York Review).

In the aftermath of the bank collapses, credit crunch and recession that many sensible people believed must lead to more regulation and responsible government, it's becoming clear that nothing of the sort is going to happen: the predators are still firmly entrenched, still cocky, still confident that nothing that Obama (still less New Labour) is going to do will hurt them.

In the latest London Review of Books there's a thought-provoking review by Peter Mair of Martin Bell's book on the MPs expenses scandal, "A Very British Revolution". Mair uses Bell's book as a launching pad for an extended essay on the moral degeneration of the political classes, a topic which he's well placed to observe living as he does in Berlusconi's Italy and being of Irish descent. He quotes plenty of examples of outright corruption from around the world, with figures, to which public opinion has become more or less blind - he deploys the corruption rankings compiled by Transparency International to amusing effect throughout (New Zealand, Denmark and Singapore are the least corrupt, the UK squats at number 17, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece are the bottom-feeders at 71). Charles Haughey's Fianna Fail rule in Ireland was in effect the rule of the Irish building industry; Gerhard Schröder passed straight from Germany's chancellor to the board of a Gazprom subsidiary, three months after signing a deal with Putin for a gas pipeline; the whole Russian Gazprom/Yukos business might provide a juicy future plot for Ellroy, were he not so provincially American.  

Mair draws attention to some of the more familiar factors - the steep decline in prestige of the political profession in recent decades, and the *relative* underpayment of MPs, not relative to the rest of us but to the super-rich financiers and businessmen with whom they eat, drink and negotiate every day. He points up the growth of populist parties throughout Europe, as citizens recoil from the political process altogether. But he is more interested in structural factors, like the cost of running a political party which is no longer a mass party, and hence no longer commands an army of unpaid canvassers and organizers. All those pollsters, marketing gurus and consultants charge predatory fees for their advice, and the advice typically costs millions more to implement (eg. TV advert time).

He claims that wealthy individuals and corporations have tired of corrupting existing political parties and seek to "cut out the middle-man" by setting up parties of their own. Berlusconi is the paradigm case: he set up Forza Italia as an extension of his media empire having tired of suborning Craxi's socialist party throughout the 1980s. Organised crime sponsors political parties throughout the former-soviet republics and, particularly the cocaine syndicates, in Latin America.

The lesson to be learned from all this is that our political classes have almost seceded from society at large to become a parasitic caste, but the solution is not to be found in preaching anarchism or anti-state libertarianism. Technology makes modern industrial economies extremely productive but also extremely fragile: we constantly live barely 72 hours away from the chaos of a Haiti, should our electricity, water and food distribution systems be disrupted in any significant way (we saw an inkling of this during the tanker driver's strike, when submerged panic was visible in Tony Blair's eyes on the evening news). Not only can we not do without the state, but the state is the only institution that can defend us against unfettered predation by the hard men - assuming, that is, we can wake up and wrest it back from the predators who are eating it from within.

The fact that Gordon Brown has recently started to remember some of the vocabulary of social democracy forces me to say, against all previous experience and my better judgment, that the next election matters a lot and that a Labour/Lib Dem coalition might be the least disastrous result... In the meantime, please, please read "The Predator State".

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