Unbalanced Britain: Corporate Power and our Me-Based Culture

Jul 1st, 2014 | By Barry Winter | Category: Articles, Features, Frontpage

Over the past 30 years the New Right, aided and abetted in some respects by New Labour, has introduced changes that have profoundly damaged, not only our economy, but British culture and politics. The result, says BARRY WINTER, is a seriously unbalanced society.

We live in an era of what the American philosopher, Michael Sandel, describes as ‘market triumphalism’ – a society dominated by the demands of huge corporations, for which we are paying a heavy price.UB workshop - Barry&David

The morality of the free-market, encouraging selfish individualism, and the belief that ‘greed is good’, is dominant. Poverty is the fault of the poor and riches are the rightful reward for the so-called ‘wealth creators’.

This morality, for indeed it is a morality, has sunk deep into all levels of our society. To a greater or lesser degree it affects and unbalances us all.

Today consumerism and conspicuous consumption take precedence over earlier notions of fairness and shared lives. Fame and fortune are what matters. Celebrity grabs the headlines. Just look at the newsagents’ shelves filled with glossy magazines which are devoted to detailing the lives and loves of the famous. And much of the popular press follows suit in reproducing this kind of trivia.

Except to dismiss this simply as trivia is to miss the underlying ethos, the spirit of the times which it daily reinforces. As Colin Crouch writes: “The neo-liberal answer is to offer glittering prizes for a few and to coerce the rest with workfare and cuts in welfare spending.”

You can escape your lot, the dominant myth goes, if you try really, really hard. It’s simply a matter of willpower. Or as I read on a greetings card yesterday: ‘Difficulties are the stepping stones to success.’

Mind you, it also seems to help just a little if you are among the 7% of the population who have been privately educated. It is this select bunch of people who predominate in most walks of life, including the Cabinet.

Another example of the cultural shifts taking place is in higher education. Just as universities are increasingly marketising themselves, likewise many students tend to see studying in narrower, more instrumental terms. Not least because attending university requires most of them to go into substantial debt.

As a result, university education today is seen as primarily as a commodity, where learning takes second place to earning. ‘I must get a 2:1 so I can get a good job’ has become an oft-repeated student mantra. It’s one that’s perfectly understandable in an age of insecurity but, in the process, ideas of what really constitutes creative and critical learning are easily devalued.

Seedy barbarism

Mammon's Kingdom coverIn his recent book, Mammon’s Kingdom (a book that I would strongly recommend), former Labour MP David Marquand warns us that we are “sleepwalking our way towards a seedy barbarism; that our present way of life is unsustainable environmentally, emotionally and morally”.

For him, British society is denying the human need for continuity, dignity and meaning. He advocates a major change of direction based upon a very broad public debate. In a sense, our meeting today can be seen as part of that conversation.

These problems, he argues, are rooted the huge imbalances in wealth and power at work, nationally as well as globally. The dominant elites gain most from this me-based culture and its self-serving morality. It suits them very well, in good times as well as bad. Meanwhile, the social fabric is itself being undermined by growing inequality.

There is much talk of rebalancing the economy to redress matters. But the reality is that the City of London – a world of its own and a law unto itself – grows stronger; as does corporate power generally. Meanwhile, many regions continue to decline economically, and in many other ways.

Poverty is also severe in parts of London itself. Unbalanced London cannot provide affordable homes for its essential workforce and house prices there continue to climb upwards, out of reach for all but the most wealthy.

Across the country, housing has become a land of topsy-turvy, which in itself deserves a full-scale national debate. There are answers but they will take a fight, particularly over who owns and controls land.

As we know, even when their much-vaunted economic system crashes and burns as it did in 2008 – to be bailed out by the state and paid for by the rest of us – the elites have remained largely intact and certainly not out of pocket. Inequalities continued to grow. The bonus culture, although dented, remains largely intact.

The economic crash did result in a few changes in personnel among those responsible. One who eventually fell from grace was the then CEO of Barclays bank, then earning just under a meagre £21 million a year. His dodgy dealings meant he had to go and the bank paid a huge fine. But, fine fellow as he is, he soon bounced back. Today, rather than serving time in an institution, he heads one – yet another lucrative, financial firm.

It’s all very different to the treatment meted out to those found guilty of crimes during the riots in London.

In some senses, the crash itself has largely been erased from memory. The unbalanced, indeed lunatic, misdeeds of the bankers and financiers have been largely forgotten or, at least, eclipsed.

This ‘forgetfulness’ has been encouraged by the Coalition. Lib Dem and Tory Treasury spokespersons fondly repeat the simple message that the crash was all the fault of the last Labour government. This helps them to blame Labour for the current cuts in public expenditure. Meanwhile, they continue to privatise and marketise what remains of the public sector – without an electoral mandate: ‘Oh, there’s goes the Post Office…’

Such actions leave many people feeling resentful, but powerless.

Mistrust and cynicism

One of the most observable trends today is the growing public mistrust and cynicism about politicians, in particular, and politics in general. This is often accompanied by amazing levels of political ignorance.

A student recently told me she chose to write a dissertation on young people’s attitudes to politics when she overheard a short conversation between two second-year social science students.

The first asked: “Who’s the prime minister now? Is it someone called Blair?”
The second replied: “I’m not sure. I think he’s called Cameron. But I don’t really take much interest in politics.”

Of course, this level of ignorance and disinterest is not confined to the young, although it is perhaps more pronounced among them. In fact, alienation from politics long predates the MP’s expenses scandal, which is regularly cited.

In fact, since the 1950s the number of people participating in politics has been falling. Then the Tories could boast of some two million individual members, and Labour was not that far behind. Today the Conservative Party is a shadow of its former self. If I recall correctly, the average age of Tory members is 68.

As is widely known, turnouts in elections have also been in long-term decline. While the main focus of the elections in May this year was on the rise of UKIP, less noted, but no less serious, was how many fewer people went to the polls.

How do we explain these trends?

For decades, the Labour Party did precious little to encourage its own supporters to become politically active. Instead they were encouraged to be passive consumers of politics – except when their votes were needed. ‘Leave it to us’ was the implicit and paternalistic message.

Of course, Labour’s failings are only one part of a much bigger picture. Again this relates to the way neo-liberalism has helped to unbalance democratic politics, undermining the links between people and politicians. It has led many to feel that governments are incapable of making a positive difference to their lives.

The result? Passive, if resentful feelings about politics, which have real foundations.

Of course, a vibrant minority still find imaginative ways to get their politics across – as can be seen by campaigns using social media. But, precious as this is, it is never going to be enough on its own. I wonder how many more online petitions I can sign before I start to grow a little weary of them.

There are also signs of a new generation emerging within the Labour Party, which is keen to revitalise politics and its links with people, particularly locally. This is to be welcomed but it is still early days.

We all have a long, long way to go. As the political commentator Jacob Hacker puts it: to overcome people’s hostility to politics, we still need politics.

I would also emphasise that the breakdown of trust goes wider and deeper than alienation towards conventional politics. Widening social inequalities also lead to increasing isolation and fear, both within and between communities.

Perhaps this has become most clearly expressed in hostility to immigration and the rise of the populist right. Insecurity and widening inequality do not breed generosity and empathy. Instead they encourage us to look to our own and to single out identifiable targets to blame, whether people on benefits or migrants from Eastern Europe.

All this suggests that it’s going to take time and considerable effort to reverse the damage that has been done. But it is vital that we try. As part of this, we need our politicians to provide resources and support for communities experiencing rapid social change.

More than that, we are going to have to learn, indeed relearn, how to build shared lives with those around us. While the super-rich retreat into gated enclaves and further detach themselves from the rest of us, the wider society has to start building bridges across the social divides.

Without that, attempts to re-create a much-needed, alternative and morally-based politics will lack firm foundations. Institutions which once helped to foster a sense of shared lives, like the trade unions, are no longer the force they were – and were certainly not without their own faults.

More imaginative forms of trade unionism would be a help and, again, there are some signs of this happening. But much more is now needed. London Citizens, and similar initiatives across the country, show what’s possible.

Here, dare I say, the lead shown by the Church of England in taking on the extortionate loan company, Wonga, is to be welcomed. True, the church will have to put its own house in order too, but so much the better for that. If ways can be found to avoid people sinking into lives of permanent debt, then it will be a real advance.

Corporate excess

In these ways, it may be possible to start the long-term process of re-establishing trust and encouraging political conversations. Some of these discussions need to focus on how best to confront the political agencies responsible for unbalancing our society, namely the large business corporations that are the epicentre of our social earthquake.

How might we begin to counter the power of big business, to undo the damage it done over the last three decades? And how can we build public support to lay the basis for real change?

Miliband One Nation landscapeEd Miliband rightly identified the big six energy companies as needing strict monitoring over their pricing policies. Again, this is a useful and welcome start, but the challenge needs to be wider and deeper – and not just from the Labour leadership.

Wherever possible, this means generating and supporting campaigns that can connect with people. Politics has to be made far more directly meaningful and tangible. Parties have to show how they affect real lives and demonstrate that something can be done – and that process can only be effective with people’s active support.

Where to start?

Helpfully, David Marquand reminds us that, thanks to their market power, large corporations should be seen as political entities. Democratic left politics would do well to focus more closely on their activities – as has already happened with campaigns in relation to corporate tax avoidance.

Marquand highlights the rather-too-snug relationship that has evolved between corporations and governments. We already know the Tories are funded by the corporate sector. While the party’s membership is emptying, its coffers are kept well-filled by the super-rich and their companies. Often these friends and their enterprises are conveniently located in tax havens where they avoid proper scrutiny.

Governments are dependent upon firms to deliver jobs and economic growth, as Marquand notes. It helps their poll ratings. True the mighty corporations need governments as well, but the balance of power is increasingly one-sided.

As was recognised several decades ago by the Labour left, the mighty transnational companies wield considerable power that needs to be challenged. And today we also know that those who run them comprise the world’s wealthiest 0.1%, an elite group that’s not only getting richer but becoming even less accountable.

According to the Tax Justice Network at least £13 trillion is lodged in tax havens, many of them linked to the City. They include locations such as Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Gibraltar and the Cayman Islands. British banks have over 500 subsidiaries in seven secret British locations, as do the UK’s leading accountancy firms.

Marquand describes the transnational corporations generally as “mighty agglomerations of economic and political power”. He points out that the processes go well beyond the traditional practices of lobbying politicians.Strange Death cover

In his book The Strange Non-Death of Neo-liberalism, Colin Crouch makes a similar case. He argues that big corporations today are “right inside the room of political decision-making”. He says: “They set the standards, establish the regulatory system, act as consultants to the government, and even have staff seconded to government offices.”

There is a continuous interchange between politicians, civil servants, the military top brass and various transnationals. So when Tony Blair left office he became an adviser to the leading US bankers, JP Morgan, for an estimated £500,000 a year (some say it was double that). But he was not alone.

Many ex-ministers find consultancies and other posts for themselves in the private sector. Marquand notes that in 2011 seven former health ministers were working in private health care, while six former defence ministers took up posts in the defence industry.

Perhaps even more significant are the number of firms whose top staff occupy government consultancies, task forces and committees of enquiry. Thus, the government’s advisory food group conveniently includes representatives from McDonalds, Mars and Pepsico.

The chief executive of the Wines and Spirits Association chairs the state’s alcohol advisory group. Add to that the numbers of former civil servants who, on retirement, find employment in the private sector and you begin to see the scale of what’s happening.

It’s all very cosy and, of course, very lucrative for those concerned. One day you retire as a Field Marshall on a goodly pension and the next you find yourself working in the defence industry. A former military man described the yearly £100,000 he was paid for two days’ work a week as a “reasonable fee”.

Even more insidious than the fees is how such processes shape and corrupt politics. If you are looking for lucrative employment when you retire from the civil service or politics, then the temptation is to stay on very pally terms with prospective employers long before you go.

‘People like me’

Meanwhile, the vast majority of people feel shut out of any influence. They are effectively voiceless. Here, I was struck by what a single mum, living on a large council estate in Leeds, had to say. Asked what she thought of politics, she said, succinctly: “People like me don’t count.”

She is far from being alone in thinking in that way. Her words, I suggest, are a terrible indictment of the political imbalance of power in society.

Inequalities of wealth feed inequalities of power which, in turn, feed inequalities of wealth – and so it continues. Meanwhile, more and more people feel devalued and disempowered. They don’t count. The same applies to many people feelings about their lives at work, a subject in itself that urgently needs addressing.

Corporations should not be free to act in these ways. Stephen Wilks, author of a study into the growing political power of business corporations, argues it’s time to act.

He criticises what he sees as the illegitimate ways corporations are “colonising government”. For him, this poses risks that are “as serious as terrorism, nuclear war or epidemics”. He says: “The problem of how to make corporations accountable… is one of the most fundamental facing 21st century society.”

Wilks argues that “corporations have more influence within the democratic process than do voters. The design and implementation of public policy caters to corporate interests to a greater extent than to popular interests expressed in public opinion.”

The myths which uphold these powers constitute a dominant discourse, he argues. They are based upon notions like the sanctity of the private sphere. It’s a discourse that, he says, “legitimises corporate power, skews democratic politics, and delivers huge benefits to a narrow elite”.

As a result, democracy itself is being subverted, he argues.

In a comment which chimes with our theme of Unbalanced Britain, Wilks declares: “Until recently the power of the corporation was held in balance. Since the 1980s the balance has been overturned… During the time this book has been researched and written, the extent of the contemporary imbalance has become clearer and more worrying.”

He concludes: “Reforms are imperative if we are not to allow this governing institution to evolve into a source of oppression, exercising one-dimensional slavery.”

Does this professor of politics at Essex University overstate the case? Well, he is not alone. There similar messages coming from a variety of quarters.

Big business and the free market

Only last month, the governor of the Bank of England, appointed by the lovely George Osborne, warned that capitalism is at risk of destroying itself unless bankers realise they have an obligation to create a fairer society. As the Guardian reported: “He questioned whether traders met ethical standards” and warned that amid rising social inequality “the basic social contract at the heart of capitalism was breaking down”.

Had Ed Miliband uttered such words, the Daily Mail and the Tories would probably have denounced him as being, just like his dad, ‘a Marxist’.

Of course, Mark Carney’s remarks only refer to the damage being done by the world of banking. However, an interesting critique is emerging from another source, namely the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies, which Margaret Thatcher helped to found.

Recently, the centre organised ‘The Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty’, attended by an international audience of her many admirers. Among the speakers who came to praise the Iron Lady were the foreign minister of Poland and the prime minister of Estonia.

The Independent reported that a German professor asked the audience why “we Thatcherites and Hayekians are not much more popular?”

His answer is very interesting. He declared that it is because people mistakenly think of Thatcherism “as being pro-big business when it is really pro-market”. This was the theme of the whole event. The attendees argued that the misdeeds of big business were not their fault.

The director of the centre declared: “Crony capitalism, cartel capitalism have rightly attracted much flak. But we think the true long-term solutions are free market policies. We think the distinction’s been lost.”

Now, I am an advocate of broad alliances – particular against large corporations – but I’m not sure I could encompass this particular outfit. What they are blind to is how, in defeating and debilitating the trade unions, the Thatcherites removed one of the countervailing forces in post-war capitalism. This allowed big business to expand unchallenged. It was the Thatcherites’ actions that unbalanced society.

It was their policies that laid the basis for the present state of affairs, for the unhindered emergence of ‘crony capitalism’, as the director disparagingly calls it. Let’s not forget either that poverty tripled during the Thatcher years.

Like Frankenstein, these Thatcherites recoil from the monster which they created. Unlike him, however, they are in complete denial about their responsibility. It was their efforts that released what Keynes used to describe as the “animal spirits of capitalism”. This is where their beloved free markets take you.

Interestingly their hostility to capitalism’s cartels and cronyism shows that there is growing concern about the abuse of corporate power. When it reaches such levels, the time is surely ripe for the left to take up these issues.

Marquand, for example, argues that “stringent rules” must be introduced to counter the interpenetration of political and corporate elites, “to stop retired politicians and public servants from finding lucrative perches in the private sector”.

This, he adds, “would help tilt the balance of the economy in a new and better direction”.

In addition, company law should be changed so that stakeholder interests – the workers and local communities – have to be taken seriously, and tax havens under British jurisdiction should be suppressed. He calls for a lot more but I think this gives the flavour. Marquand, of course, is someone who in the 1980s left the Labour Party because it was too radical to join the breakaway SDP.

Of course, there is a bigger picture to consider. Unbalanced Britain exists within an unbalanced Europe and an unbalanced global capitalism. We need friends and allies at home but much more widely too if we are to lay the basis for a just society in which work can be meaningful and keep you out of poverty; where the next generation can have a much better future than the one currently on offer.

I admit all this is a tall order but it indicates potential routes forward. It is possible to challenge the injustices and insecurities that so many people face today. We have to learn to generate inclusive forms of politics, politics offering hope that the world can be made a better, environmentally safer, and fairer place.

It can’t be done all at once, and it can only be done by working with others to encourage public support and participation, both within and beyond the political mainstream. Progressive parties need radical movements and progressive movements need radical parties.

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This article was originally written as the introductory talk at the ILP’s first ‘Unbalanced Britain’ workshop at the Circle centre in Sheffield on 28 June 2014.

Click here for a report of the workshop.

See also: ‘Unbalanced Britain: What Can We Do?’ by Barry Winter, plus the Guardian’s report on super-rich supporters of the Tory Party revealed recently by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

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  1. [...] Barry Winter’s contribution, ‘Unbalanced Britain: Corporate Power and our Me-Based Culture’ can be read here. [...]

  2. [...] Barry Winter’s contribution, ‘Unbalanced Britain: Corporate Power and our Me-Based Culture’ can be read here. [...]

  3. [...] See also: Barry Winter’s ‘Unbalanced Britain: Corporate Power and our Me-Based Culture’ [...]

  4. [...] here for Barry Winter’s opening talk, which sets the scene for the series. Tags: Employment, ILP Friends, The ILP, The Labour Party, Unbalanced [...]

  5. [...] Britain: Work, Wages and Labour’ was the second in a series of meetings by the ILP on the theme Unbalanced Britain. You can read a report of the first meeting [...]

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