Newsletter spring 2008
See below: The Olympics and the new servile state capitalism.
I chaired a consultative session at the Lib Dem conference in Liverpool about this new campaign, led by Julia Goldsworthy and Danny Alexander, which goes to the heart of the vast bureaucratic nightmare that the British state is becoming. What comes next is to name the monster: the dehumanising result of a combination of giantism, bogus efficiency and the sclerosis of centralisation, public and private.
The next green agenda: mental health
The latest research is revealing the dramatic effects of trees and nature on people’s mental health, on their recovery rates in hospital and their state of mind in prison. So why are we still designing our cities, especially for the poor, as wastelands of concrete and traffic?
Do good lives have to cost the earth?
My essay in the new book with that title says that the question isn’t new, that answers stretch back to a tradition that includes Morris, Ruskin, Chesterton, Cobbett, Schumacher and Gandhi – and the Distributist movement of the 1920s (see below). What we have that they didn’t is some practical answers.
The great public services debate
Why haven’t public services improved? Why are Beveridge’s Five Giants still alive? This it at the heart of the Lib Dem argument about public services, and I’m arguing about it online. Yes, there is a fault line between those who see people as active participants and those who see them only as passive supplicants. But it isn’t just those who want services to be privatised who are on the wrong side, it’s also some of the apologists for the local government status quo.
The Beijing Olympics and Servile State capitalism
Captain Scott, the Titanic, I’m just going outside and maybe some time – 1912 was a year of heroic sacrifice, among other things. One of the minor sacrifices was made that year by the controversial writer, historian and polemicist Hilaire Belloc, abandoning his coveted seat in the House of Commons in disgust with the place.
That same year, he published his most important book, The Servile State, which catapulted him out of the Liberal Party and launched the now almost forgotten Distributist movement. His thesis was that both capitalism and socialism tended towards slavery, and that only giving people an ownership stake – homes, smallholdings and small businesses – could guarantee their freedom.
Belloc wasn’t a critic of free trade in itself, but he was warning about its perversion. He and G. K. Chesterton made a critical distinction between free trade by independent business and trade by giant semi-monopolies, but for some reason the British political traditions have barely articulated this difference since.
The original Liberal argument for free trade was that it was an extension of the battle against slavery, another guarantee of freedom – and certainly free enterprise has swept away the privileges of land and aristocracy. The alternative is that landlords and employers can insist on single suppliers and lethal prices to their captive clientele.
But Belloc was right too, and current trends are such that it might be time to revisit The Servile State – and preferably before the Beijing Olympics. Because, as he predicted, we now face a tyrannical combination of capitalism and socialism that uses the rhetoric of free trade, but is turning its back on competition – and all in the name of ‘efficiency’. This contains the seeds of a new kind of oppression: the subjugation of everything to corporate efficiency and government-sponsored profitability.
You can see it in the new phenomenon of Chinese socialist capitalism, with its brutal suppression of communities, tradition, dissent and much else besides.
You can see it in the phenomenon of Bush-Cheney American capitalism, with its $10 billion monopoly contract to Halliburton in Iraq.
You can even see it in Gordon Brown-style UK capitalism, with its consolidations, its dwindling of potential bidders for local waste contracts, where you can have anything you like – as long as it’s Tesco, with a security guard watching you from a chair by the door.
This is a new kind of capitalism, more socialist than enterprising, where we are supplicants to distant monopolies, observed and recorded by smartcards and subservient to financial service companies based offshore.
This is a capitalism where spin is substance. When Monsanto says its GM seeds do not drift, then – when they grow uninvited on neighbouring organic farms in Canada – the farmers are prosecuted for theft.
And when the UK government says its ID cards are foolproof, then – when our identities are stolen by fraudsters – then we must be guilty, because the computer says so.
The unveiling of this servile capitalism is the historic significance of the Beijing Olympics. It is a definitive shift away from the original meaning of free trade, towards a supplicant, totalitarian capitalism. An important moment in human history – unless we’re careful...