Analysing The Political Economy

Democracy: The Political Assault On Civil Society

By Graham Vanbergen – Originally published January 2nd 2020: It should be natural for Members of Parliament to support representative democracy above everything. They are, after all, supposed to embody all that it represents and serve the people accordingly. It has become clear, though, that it is not in their personal interests to manage civil society the way they should. So they don’t.

Take, for instance, The Justice and Security Act that expanded ‘Closed Material Proceedings‘ or secret courts, or the proposed abolition of the Human Rights Act, the recent Trade Union Act, or the Investigatory Powers Act. Legislation such as this are the actions of a government who are assaulting fundamental rights that were hard fought for by previous generations.  Civil society earned those freedoms and protections, and politicians are taking them away without our permission.

The Digital Economy Act and updating of the Public Order Act give sweeping powers to the police, such as having the ability to shut down our mobile phones, even if we have committed no offence or crime and arresting journalists at protests. Facial recognition systems are being used to store data about everyone without any public or parliamentary debate. Artificial intelligence is being used to make decisions over the lives of people. Civil society gave no permission for these, very often illegal acts of defiance against the will of the people.

An example of a lack of democratic representation is that 84 per cent of the population want the NHS to be wholly state-funded, i.e. no privatisation at all. A further 68, 67 and 66 per cent believe that energy, royal mail and railways, respectively, should all be managed by the state, not by private for-profit companies, especially as many aren’t even British entities. If 51.9 to 48.1 per cent of citizens gave a mandate for the government to withdraw from the European Union, then politicians are being more than disingenuous to the principles of democracy when it comes to a privatisation drive that will see £100billion of state assets sold under this government alone by 2020. They have no mandate for that at all. There has been no democratic debate on the subject of selling Britain’s assets to the friends of a political class. Many state assets then end up in tax havens, literally an act of sabotage against Britain’s economic functionality. The irony is best described when HMRC sold its taxpayer-owned property portfolio of 600 buildings it operated from to a company located in a tax haven.  Our state tax collection department was responsible for ensuring tax collection now pays rent to an offshore company that pays no tax in the UK.

While it is true that democracy can be interpreted in different ways, the generally accepted view in Britain is that one person will speak on our behalf from the geographical area voted in. But as a rule, they don’t. I have maintained for some time now that the sad consequence for modern Britain, is that we now have what looks more like a guided or managed democracy and post-Brexit, this will be positively dangerous for the majority of ordinary citizens.

A guided (or managed) democracy is, by definition, either a de facto autocracy or an oligarchy. Governments are legitimised by what appears to be free and fair state elections, but the people’s will end with a frustrating lack of being able to change state policies, no matter who they voted for. The government controls elections so that the people can exercise their rights without actually or meaningfully changing public policy. Under guided democracies, the use of propaganda, misinformation and disinformation campaigns are rife – as has just been amply demonstrated. These often take the form of ‘fear factor’ tactics, micro-targeting specific groups and rampant disinformation that we saw so much of in the Scottish and EU referendums and the last general election. When the mainstream media join them – these are the outstanding hallmarks of guided democracies.

Princeton University professor Sheldon Wolin describes this process as inverted totalitarianism, which he defines as the political coming of age of corporate power and the political demobilisation of the citizenry. In other words an oligarchy.

Chris Hedges, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist, agrees and states that democracy in America is nothing more than fiction. Hedges goes one step further. He says that “corporate forces carried out a coup d’état in slow motion. The coup is over. We lost.” It is now the same in Britain.

Wolin and Hedges agree that this comes about when enormous sums of corporate money are used to influence political outcomes. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organised groups representing business interest groups have a substantial independent impact on government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence” – says Wolin.

Wolin goes on to say that the same Princeton University study also described the United States as a de facto oligarchy. Our guided (or managed) democracy is, by definition, becoming the same as Wolin’s America. This is what Britain is turning into today.  As Matt Taibbi famously once said of American banking corporations: “The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” They and the rest of these corporations see Britain as yet another target to suck dry. Brexit was their Trojan Horse – it is parked in central London.

Another hallmark of a guided democracy is that political manifestoes are no more than pamphlets of propaganda. Within days of Boris Johnson’s electoral win, promises, pledges and even personal guarantees were dropped as they advanced an agenda designed to weaken the institutions that uphold civil society and dissolve protective legislation.

One only has to look at David Cameron’s last election win. He promised to the electorate that child tax credit would be protected, to turn the North into a ‘powerhouse’, dramatically increase affordable housing and to make government more transparent, amongst many other ‘pledges’. All of these were false promises. Indeed, the government became less transparent while privacy for the masses was dissolved under recent legislation. There was even a bid by the government to end the Freedom of Information Act, which thankfully failed due to citizen outrage. Not that that stopped government departments and agencies from not responding to legitimate requests for information.

Who could forget the “NHS is safe in our hands” – an appalling democratic betrayal and Theresa May’s woeful “dementia tax’ fiasco – both dishonest strategies that the citizenry saw right through. In the meantime, while citizens are distracted, the Conservatives continue to auction off to the most predatory bidders the very state-funded functions that heavily contribute to the good functioning civil society. One only has to look at water privatisation to realise the devastating effects of these policies.

The reality is that the West is in crisis. Trickle-down economics has failed, neoliberal capitalism has failed, globalisation is currently failing, and austerity has now been proven with evidence to be a failure. Civil society and the institutions that support it are breaking down as a result. This is evidenced by the reactionary forces now causing an alarming rise of nationalism, protectionism and isolationism – all leading to conflict from within as a wedge is driven into society at large. Tolerance, once a hallmark of Britain’s sense of fair play is being replaced by the worst factions on the extremities of society. Brexit is the manifestation of all these failures.

Far from solving ‘broken Britain’, governments from both tribes have fundamentally attacked civic society since the rise of Thatcher. Those ideologies – trickle-down economic theory, extreme capitalism and globalised markets are all the invention of an elite of that era.

Thatcher’s ‘Women’s Own’ interview in September 1987 after her third electoral victory ended with those famous words – “there is no such thing as society” which was promoted in The Times the following year. ‘Individualism,’ an American construct by the rich and powerful, is the ideology that has led us to where we find ourselves now. This corrosive ideology is nothing more than a social theory that favours freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control. That’s fine if you don’t want national taxpayer-funded education, health or welfare for the vulnerable – for young and old alike. But Britain does, and whilst the Americans have a poor experience of their infrastructure functionality due to the inexorable rise of the for-profit model, we in Britain have had a different experience because of social democracy. Britons like the promotion of social justice within the framework of a functioning capitalist economy. It’s the middle ground. Politicians used to fight over it – today a deep chasm has appeared. And it’s about to get worse.

The for-profit model is at the heart of all this. The universal experience for ordinary people of privatisation is the reality of rocketing prices, lower safety and lower standards of living. All this is sold to us under the guise of freedom of choice.

It’s also okay if your version of freedom allows you to abandon your responsibility to society – such as paying taxes. Society itself cannot, and does not want to make this escape. It is dependent on the reasonable goodwill of the nation to pay for all these essential functions we so depend on.

Well-known social and political commentators on both the right and left wing often think the same.

Peter Hitchins, the right of centre Daily Mail columnist, apologises for his previous Thatcherite tendencies and reflects on what has happened in his article – “The Great Con That Ruined Britain.” His first sentence reads: “I am so sorry now that I fell for the great Thatcher-Reagan promise. I can’t deny that I did. I believed all that stuff about privatisation and free trade and the unrestrained market. I think I may even have been taken in by the prophecies of a great share-owning democracy.

George Monbiot, the left-of-centre Guardian columnist, encapsulated all this in another recent article: “Freedom is used as the excuse for ripping down public protections on behalf of the very rich. When think tanks and the billionaire press call for freedom, they are careful not to specify whose freedoms they mean. Freedom for some, they suggest, means freedom for all. When corporations free themselves from trade unions, they curtail the freedoms of their workers. When the very rich free themselves from tax, other people suffer through failing public services. When financiers are free to design exotic financial instruments, the rest of us pay for the crises they cause.

In truth, Britain’s globally important democracy is being undone by parasitical politicians who have proven to be hopeless at holding to account the elites and the corporations who increasingly now preside over us. This is characterised no better than by the recent scandal of SCL Elections/Cambridge Analytica and Brexit. With this politically generated crisis, our guided democracy is pushing Britain and the West more widely towards dramatic changes as a direct result of its own failures. Perhaps something new will arrive and sweep away our decrepit system, one which is chronically misgoverned by what the electorate now thinks is the moral baron. But before that happens, another few years of undermining our democracy and civil society will be the price.

The answer, no doubt, comes from civil society itself. The workable big ideas don’t come from ministers but from the pressure civil society applies. As Civil Society Futures says “Manifesto ideas, from all parties, are lifted cleanly from the reports of voluntary groups.  And politicians will get the benefit of making these ideas real.”

It’s important to remember, though, that politics doesn’t just happen in parliament. Civil society and voluntary groups, civil liberty and human rights organisations, pressure groups and (some) think tanks all contribute to providing the public with a direct, national voice on the issues they genuinely care about. Constituency representatives can be forced to listen if we all shout loud enough.

It really is essential to get involved before it’s too late. And it is very late.




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