The likelihood of the Conservative Party coming to an agreement with the Democratic Unionist Paty to retain their Commons majority highlights some interesting pointers about the Neo-Conservative project. Moreover, viewed in the context of their election campaign confusion over tax cuts the deep Tory fault lines are laid bare.
In earlier blogs I described the abrupt change in the nature and direction of the Conservative party since the accession to the leadership of Theresa May. In these blogs I pointed to a close meshing of ideologies between Donald Trump in the United States and Theresa May. You can read these posts here and here but the essence of my argument is the Conservative abandonment of the pursuit of neo-Libertarianism to a largely Neo-Conservative outlook.
Although the situation is a complex one the difference hinges on the size of the Government. Neo-Libertarians want to shrink the State and cut taxes, with the austerity policies of David Cameron and George Osborne providing a perfect cover. Nro-Conservatives, however, favour a much larger state (though not at the citizen level) with higher taxes to support it. Like the Neo-Libertarians they want the state withdrawn from the business of extendeing personal rights and protections (the Welfare State) and see a big project (Brexitm for example) as the best way of mobilising patriotism, maintaining social cohesion and justifying the destruction of those rights.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this
What went wrong? In my posts I pointed to an influential figure in American David Brooks. A central plank of his idea ifs that you cannot rely on consensus or inclusive politics to drive through a neo-Conservative programme, but instead it must be spearheaded by a closr-knit family (The Trumps) or a strong (and stable!!) individual (supposedly, Theresa May). To the disappointment of the neo-Cons, in the US Trump is proving too incoherent, unpredictable and ill-disciplined to really make a really effective impact. As we have seen in our UK election, Theresa Mat has proven to be uninspiring, uncharismatic and incompetent. Any similarity between May and a Boudicca/Britannia figure evaporated very swiftly during the campaign and she proved to possess almost no talent to persuade anyone to follow her in a bonfire of rights in exchange for national greatness.
In his rise to power Donald Trump articulated the grievances of much of middle America and harnessed those grievances by successfully persuading voters that he alone understood the causes and so possessed the remedies. Meanwhile, in the UK a successful Brexit campaign has greatly strengthened the power of authoritarianism and promoted isolationist tendencies.
Messiahs and Avarice
Historically, a vital factor in the rise of demagogic leaders has been the ability to convince large numbers of people that they, and they alone, knew what was best for them. In some cases they presented a solution to an injustice or oppression which was not perceived by the mass of the people. On attaining power, the execution of a resulting ‘liberation’ plan has been the cause of some of the greatest human tragedies. The holocaust, the liquidation of the Russian Kulaks and the Chinese Cultural Revolution are but three of the best known examples.
This form of populism stems from two main sources. The first is a messianic attempt to extend liberty. A despot may genuinely believe that they are ‘freeing’ the people; that it is his or her unique destiny to enlighten them and lead the way out of oppression. If this is successful, enormous power is available to the despot to pursue that goal, eliminating dissenting ‘erroneous’ views along the way, while executing the ‘will of the people’. The great thinker Isaiah Berlin in his 1958 Two Concepts of Liberty stated it this way:
One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals -justice or progress or the happiness of future generations, or the sacred mission or emancipation of a nation or race or class, or even liberty itself, which demands the sacrifice of individuals for the freedom of society. This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted goodman, there is a final solution.
The second source, which may be related to the first, is a naked attempt to grab status and wealth with no underlying ideological drive. It remains to be seen to which of the two Donald Trump actually conforms, but it is likely that viewing his governing team as a whole, all possibilities are represented.
For many of our fellow citizens the pursuit of neoliberal economics has resulted in atrocious working conditions, low wages, surveillance and an impermanent job on zero hours contracts at the beck and call of employers who can dismiss them with impunity. While writing a posta few weeks ago about the talent show Let it Shine it occurred to me that this form of TV normalises the neoliberal position in the name of entertainment.
This issue was highlighted a few years ago by Nick Couldry of Goldsmiths College in the context of reality programmes such as Big Brother (you can find a copy of his article here). Couldry calls such programmes a secret theatre of Neoliberalism as the structure of such programmes obscure their links to oppressive labour conditions in the guise of playful entertainment. Couldry points to a number of characteristics of such shows including continual surveillance and subservience to an absolute external authority which are both issues of concern at JD Sports and Sports Direct warehouse workers. Another feature, team conformity in which dissent is arbitrarily punished is clearly seen in the JD Sports situation. One of the problems faced by agency workers is the way in which their situation engenders a subservient mindset. While of a different nature the nature of reality TV formats impose similar psychological conditions.
What about the other genre of reality programme, the talent show? This, by the way includes Trump’s The Apprentice. Again we can see the factors of neoliberalism in play. The projection of manufactured authenticity is a vital component. the entertainment version of the Asda personnel manager’s insistence on a ‘mile of smiles’, where as Couldry mentions, every smile must nonetheless be a ‘real smile’. Likewise, if the contestant does not live up to expectations they are discarded by viewer votes and the competition rolls relentlessly onwards.
In the context of widespread discontent about the neoliberal pursuit of globalisation, Couldrey makes some a telling comment:
There is no basis for challenging the national vote, any more than we can individually challenge a corporate decision to downsize; the consequences must in both cases be borne individually.
Finally, programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing also demonstrate a feature of neoliberalism quite separate from working conditions, namely alienation and cultural exploitation. Artefacts (in this case dance formats) are appropriated, stripped of emotional content and repackage into a standard entertainment industry format.
So when you next sit down to enjoy a reality programmes, think about how the conditions endured by the competitors are shared by minimum wage and zero hours contract workers. The difference is that the contestants are there by choice and can decide to walk away ay any time. For many workers in Britain’s warehouses and supermarkets there is no such relief, fully justifying Couldry’s claim of cruelty.
Although Jeremy Hunt can be accused of many things, dissembling, incompetence and duplicity amongst them, it is my opinion that he actually works very hard. Unfortunately for us the aim of his efforts have not been improving the National Health Service but in managing the news to deflect the justified criticism of his actions and instead place the whole blame on the staff of the NHS or, incredibly, on us the users of the service Hunt is not looking for solutions to deep seated NHS difficulties, but rather to make HNS itself look unsalvageable. Here is how he is achieving this goal.
Missed targets are nothing new
This winter the NHS, especially its Accident and Emergency Departments are rarely out of the news. The main focus for the media has been the increasing inability to meet the target to treat 95% of A&E patients within 4 hours. The scale of the problem was leaked to the BBC last month. As a result Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt suggested that he may consider relaxing the four hour target.
It is a frequently held view that, in the UK at least, Republicanism is a concern of socialists and communists. ‘You’re just a bunch of ‘loony lefties’ is an occasional accusation, though I’m never sure whether the accuser is claiming that all ‘lefties’ are ‘loony’ or that only some ‘lefties’ are ‘loony’! Setting that aside, is the accusation correct?
Republicanism Predates Modern Political Notions of Left and Right
A brief look at the roots of modern Republicanism reveals that this cannot be the case. Influential early Republican thinkers such as Macchiavelli and his colleagues in Renaissance Florence lived during the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries well before the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’ were conceived. Later, during the English Civil War of the 1640s many of the Parliamentary forces which opposed the king, Charles Stuart, were led by aristocrats such as the Earls of Manchester and Essex who had no interest whatsoever in sharing either their lands or wealth very widely. Similarly, the aristocrats were joined by the wealthy traders and merchants who viewed the fact that the King possessed the rights to extensive natural resources such as minerals as an obstacle to the development of free trade. Interestingly the modern-day rivalry between the north-east cities of Newcastle and Sunderland dates to this era when miners of the Tyne were given the coal trading franchise by the King at the expense of their Wearside competitors. So at the outbreak of the Civil War, Newcastle was a Royalist stronghold and Sunderland fought for Parliament. It has been argued by CB MacPherson and others that the emergence of Britain as a modern free enterprise mercantile nation could not have occurred without a successful opposition to the monarchy. This was reinforced by the fact that the King claimed the power to raise taxes under certain circumstances independently of Parliament, such as for purposes of warfare.
The grotesque 20% pay increase to £14 million per year awarded to BP Chief Executive Bob Dudley has surprised even business organizations such as the Institute of Directors (IoD) who now rightly fear that the government will take action on corporate governance. But this act of naked greed illustrates a number of problems with our broken socio-economic model. First lets look at the tired old excuse that has been trotted out once again for Dudley’s award by a BP spokesperson:
BP’s performance surpassed the board’s expectations on almost all of the measures that determine remuneration – and the [pay] outcome therefore reflects this.
In a nutshell here is the application of possessive individualism in a pure form – the arrogance of assuming that the individual at the top has achieved an organizational target solely on their own abilities without the help and co-operation of their staff. So they alone deserve the rewards of extra millions! But Dudley is not the only one, the attitude is endemic – just look at Martin Sorrell at WPP for another example.
Thomas Jefferson was a leader of the American Revolution, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and a principal author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence. He became the second Vice-President (under John Adams) and the third President. He was a significant thinker and proponent of democracy and republicanism and there are many quotes expounding his ideas of liberty which resonate with us today. One I find significant is:
All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.
Something which we can also identify with is Jefferson’s warning of the dangers of corporatism, which was sadly ignored:
I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.
But the practical working out of his republicanism had a flaw which limited its application as the United States developed through the 19th Century. He was at heart an agrarian and influenced by the Country Party tradition of British politics. He saw society working best when it was a free collection of planters, small traders and smallholders which in many ways was a regressive concept harking back to a perceived agrarian golden era. Lest this be considered a criticism based on hindsight we can compare his ideas with his great friend and contemporary, Thomas Paine. Paine was an urbanite and correctly perceived that in the future land would be used for many purposes other than agriculture. Moreover republican theory would have to deal with the fast emerging capitalist culture. Paine’s solutions were very different and included, for example, the introduction of a Universal Basic Income to compensate the majority of citizens alienated from land ownership.