Britain’s Lonely Left
Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain By George Monbiot 430 pages, London: Macmillan, 2000 While reading Captive State, I was myself made captive by my state. I had gone to observe and report on a series of May Day demonstrations in London. Some 5,000 demonstrators, mostly in their teens and 20s, roamed around London, ...
Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain
By George Monbiot
430 pages, London: Macmillan, 2000
Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain
By George Monbiot
430 pages, London: Macmillan, 2000
While reading Captive State, I was myself made captive by my state. I had gone to observe and report on a series of May Day demonstrations in London. Some 5,000 demonstrators, mostly in their teens and 20s, roamed around London, inflicting minor damage on property, and shouting and waving banners that read "F–k capitalism." They were eventually penned in Oxford Circus by the Metropolitan Police and kept there for six hours through a cold and sodden afternoon and evening. I had escaped earlier, claiming — though with difficulty — press privileges. Several other reporters, a couple of German tourists, and a man dressed as a pirate en route to a fancy dress party were also detained, most for much longer than I.
I did not and do not feel outraged by the damage to my and their civil liberties. The demonstration was a mockery of democratic dissent, at times violent (though in minor ways) and wholly uninterested in reason or explanation. Only the far-left revolutionaries condescended to "explain," through repetitive slogan chanting ("IMF, hey, hey, how many kids have you starved today?"), their purpose.
On the day of the London event, George Monbiot devoted one of his weekly columns in the Guardian to disapproving of the demonstrators’ penchant for violent protest. Monbiot, son of an actively Conservative family, is a beacon for many on Britain’s left. That this should be so is itself a sign of the vast change in that left. Until the 1980s, its great figures were politicians like Michael Foot and Tony Benn or militant trade unionists, such as the miners’ leader Arthur Scargill. Now, as in the United States, the exemplars are authors, academics, and media figures. Monbiot has been named by the London Evening Standard as among "the twenty-five most influential people in Britain" and by the Independent on Sunday as one of "forty international prophets of the 21st century." Captive State, his latest book, is reported to be selling well and for the most part has been admiringly received by the left. It works best, it seems, at the inspirational level. The Guardian reported on June 15 that Thom Yorke, lead singer of the rock group Radiohead, had told an audience to "read this book: it’ll change your life."
Monbiot is one among a growing pantheon of international activist-authors, whose template was probably cast by the French engagé tradition, all the way from Émile Zola and Jean-Paul Sartre through to present-day tyros like Viviane Forrester (L’Horreur Economique, 1996) and Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello (Le Nouvel Esprit du Capitalisme, 1999). Recent "Anglo-Saxon" practitioners include the Canadian Naomi Klein (No Logo, 2000), the American Thomas Frank (One Market Under God, 2000), and most recently the British Noreena Hertz (The Silent Takeover, 2001), whose work sees in capitalism and globalization a malign conjunction that disempowers citizens everywhere, privileges corporations, and reduces democracy to an ever more hollow sham. In that sense, they are cartographers of the many terrains occupied by the protesters against globalization, like those loose in London on May Day.
Monbiot, however, was at pains to make a distinction. "If we can’t divide ourselves from violence, then violence will divide us from society," he wrote, having earlier agreed with the "advocates of violence" that "their aggression is insignificant by comparison to the violence of global capitalism." Monbiot was right to see the protesters as a danger to his kind of opposition to globalization. His journalism — and Captive State is a journalistic book, albeit that branch known as "campaigning journalism" — advocates a critical approach that is in some ways the opposite of theirs. Where the protesters’ tactics are those of a descent in anonymity on large cities to attack specified targets, his are to report, support, and encourage open and precise opposition to capitalist development by the communities who lose out from it. Both kinds of opposition, however, share much of the same theoretical base. Capitalism is plain bad. The "corporate leviathan," conjoined with the power of the state, is an incubus from which people and communities must struggle to free themselves.
Much of Captive State is a series of case studies of community resistance. That which Monbiot evokes most vividly is the protest action organized by the residents of the Scottish island of Skye against paying the relatively high tolls on a bridge to the mainland, for which they had themselves campaigned. (The company that had the toll franchise was ultimately owned by the Bank of America, for which the residents coined the slogan "the Bank that likes to say Gimme.")
Monbiot’s overall case — made through examples ranging from the severely local to the "global resistance" to the World Trade Organization and especially to the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment — is that business has taken over the British state, and by extension, all other advanced states. Quoting Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations to the effect that "the government of an exclusive company of merchants is perhaps the worst of all governments for any company whatever," he affirms that corporations have now so subverted governments that they run the world. "Throughout the 20th century," he writes, "companies learned new means of discarding their obligations."
Beyond its radical elite, Britain has so far proved to be infertile soil for this kind of view. Its political class is overwhelmingly composed of politicians who have been professionals since their 20s. It is serviced by a still-efficient civil service to whose senior levels there are very few additions after graduate entry. It is not being taken over by businessmen; indeed, a large body of opinion believes there are not enough ministers and officials who know anything from practical business experience.
Further, the culture is less hostile to globalization than, say, in France or Germany. This acceptance stems from several factors: Britain’s history and present reality as a trading and financial center; the public’s traditional support for foreign interventions by its efficient military; and Britain’s self-image as one of the top five world financial and diplomatic crossroads, even if it is no longer the center of world power, influence, and inspiration. The organizers of the fast-spreading antiglobalization group ATTAC, begun in France, have so far not tried to set up a branch in the United Kingdom, judging its soil too hard. There is also, for obvious reasons, a greater popular sympathy for the United States than in any other West European state; this "special relationship," much derided by radicals, remains in part because the two peoples see something in it.
It is also true, however, that in the current Labour government and in both the Conservative administrations that preceded it, several businesspeople have served in junior ministerial offices. Monbiot dwells on the example of the Sainsbury family, which owns one of Britain’s largest supermarket chains; three of its members have been parliamentarians and two have served as ministers.
Further, corporations are being invited to play a growing role in the provision of social services, which have been all but exclusive state monopolies since the Second World War. Indeed, one of the largest coming battles of the second Blair term is his government’s evident intent to increase the corporate role in providing education and health — where the failings are widely accepted and criticized — over the resistance of many professionals, public service unions, and most left opinion.
It is accepted that in some areas private provision can be better than state. In the area where I have some experience — prisons (as a prison visitor!) — people generally accept that the few private prisons are better for inmates and staff than the many state institutions. However, the privatization of the formerly state-run railway system has not been a success.
But a detailed, win-some, lose-some critique of this mixed approach to governance is not what Monbiot attempts. He wishes to show that a disaster is happening. He thus disdains any real treatment of several key themes, including the breakdown and growing self-protectiveness of the communities in whose causes he unreflectively believes; the desertion of the national and local political space by those who had been active in parties of the left and the right, leaving politicians without their traditional bases of support; and the struggle all democratic governments have in finding secure support for their legitimacy among comfortable and indifferent citizens. Nor does he deploy, or even mention, the counterarguments to those he advances or assumes. Most economists seem to think freer trade is better for poorer countries than protectionism, at least in the longer term. Contrary to his flat statement quoted above, companies at the beginning of the 21st century have many more obligations than they had at the beginning of the 20th. If, as he maintains, every one of the three members of the North American Free Trade Agreement — Canada, Mexico, and the United States — have suffered from it, why are all three governments keen not just to stay in it but to extend it to the rest of the American continent? Why are most of the developing states of South America avid to join this movement?
This is not to dismiss Monbiot by saying that the world has more complexities than his philosophy implies. It is to say that the complexities of modern life, and of capitalism, are such that government is a ceaseless process of negotiations with groups of greater or lesser power. The power to persuade is limited by increasingly indifferent or scornful media; the power to dispose is subject to complex compromises. It matters — greatly, at times — whether government is conservative or liberal. But in a world in which socialism is no longer an option, it must do what it can with capitalism. There is no decisive sign that the public is doomed to lose every battle, or indeed that the res publica is always and inevitably opposed to the corporate world. Monbiot, like the other authors who ply these themes, insist that things can only get worse. But there just isn’t the evidence to make it stick.
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