Friday 21 March 2008

Why Chinese capitalism is spreading to the West

Watching the events unfolding in Tibet has made me think about the strange combination of socialism and capitalism in China, where free trade has emphatically not created the conditions for freedom. I’ve been wondering – as Hilaire Belloc predicted nearly a century ago – whether there isn’t a new kind of capitalism, East and West, which is so devoted to big systems that individual freedom counts for nothing

The current trends are such that it might be time to revisit Belloc’s 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.

See longer version of this post on my newsletter:

Thursday 13 March 2008

Only connect II: this time, skyscrapers

Brian Paddick was absolutely right in his condemnation of Ken Livingstone’s insane policy to destroy London’s skyline with tall, inhuman, glass monuments to the vanity of architects and the greed of corporations.

I was pleased and relieved that he did, having wondered rather what he thought on the issue. But why do politicians, and Liberal Democrats in particular, leave themselves so open to the charge of empty-headed bandwagon-jumping?

If we just say we agree with the furore about tall buildings, will anyone remember? Of course not. If they do remember, will they believe it derives from a distinctively Lib Dem analysis? Definitely not – any more than they do when we get excited about post office closures.

Brian badly needs to explain the background, explain why we are concerned, and why Ken is making such a mistake. Because the Mayor’s policy is currently the old-fashioned socialist objective of growing London’s population by an extra million, squeezed somehow into these glass towers. That is the explanation for the enthusiasm for skyscrapers, and the constantly repeated instructions to developers to make them higher. Read the LDA’s London Plan, and you’ll see.

What we need to do is to condemn this for what it is: short-sighted, selfish sucking of population and resources into an already over-crowded city, at the expense of our sanity, green spaces and traditionally human-scale city. I queued for 20 minutes just to get out of Leicester Square tube station recently. Goodness knows what it will be like with Ken’s extra million – people don’t stay in their towers, you see.

So, for goodness sake, let’s make these connections. Let’s go for a coherent critique – on this and other issues. Let’s raise the level of debate to a higher moral plane (not just whether London looks pretty or not). Otherwise it’s all so forgettable.

Sunday 9 March 2008

The supplicant state

Simon Titley is at the very forefront of the attempt to renew the intellectual underpinnings of the Lib Dems, and his commentary in this month’s Liberator is an important contribution to this:

The real division in the party is now, he says, about what it means to be human. “Are we primarily partners, parents and relatives; friends, neighbours and colleagues? Or do we define ourselves more in terms of the things we buy?... Do the Liberal Democrats envisage a society of active citizens or supplicant consumers?”

That is exactly the right question (though I might quibble with the use of New Labour-speak like ‘active citizens’), and Simon is quite right that there is a dividing line in the party over this issue which is preventing us from articulating a genuinely Liberal narrative.

Where I take issue with him is exactly where that dividing line lies. Simon identifies the wrong-headed wing with those who subsume this human relationships within economic relationships, with the idea that people are individual consumers faced with a series of passive choices.

That is right, but Simon misses out the other side of the argument. Because that reduction of people into dependent supplicants is not confined to those can see no further than narrow consumer choices in public services; it is alive and well among those who don’t believe in choice at all – who are quite happy that people should be grateful but passive recipients of services defined by the local state.

Because, in practice, the wrong-headed idea that we oppose is not confined either the private or the public sector. It is an insidious combination of them both – the idea that people are defined narrowly by their needs, and should be administered by giant agencies part-public, part-private, by huge databases and remote call centres.

This is the new centralised supplicant state, and Simon is absolutely right that it is the heart of a new Lib Dem critique of public services. Not because the supplicant state is too public sector, or too private sector – it borrows from the worst of both – but because it is deeply alienating, deeply inefficient and deeply ineffective.