Our leadership is dire, so why shouldn’t we despise government?
A couple of weeks ago Jeffrey Sachs wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian: ‘Western politicians are dire, but we mustn’t despise government’. There’s no denying Sachs is a persuasive writer, but in this case he writes himself into a corner. The examples he marshals together as evidence for why we should despise governments are so compelling that his final assertion that we should nevertheless still trust them falls flat on its face.
Sachs argues that failed summits, policy paralysis in the face of corporate and bank financiers’ influence, technical incompetence, a contempt for the democratic process, and just plain old fashioned vanity are all good reasons to despise governments. But park these pecadillos, says Sachs, just for a minute, because:
“we desperately need to make the US and European governments work again – not for the politicians’ sake, but for ours”
Because? Well, there’s no because. That’s pretty much the end of his article. Convinced? I’m not. Sachs gives us plenty of reasons, if they weren’t already apparent, for despising governments for what they’ve done and are doing to our lives. Let’s recap:
Failed summits – 2011 was full of them. Durban was the worst. It is being described as a success; as an agreement to agree to do something, sometime, in the future. This is a failure, not a success. We have very little time to retard and (hopefully) reverse global warming – too little time.
As a metaphor for global warming, right now government is the glass in which the anecdotal live frog is slowly boiled to death. You can play around with the metaphor, of course – which sicko put the frog in the glass in the first place? could solar panels be an eco-friendly solution to frog boiling? and so on. But, to save the frog, one obvious response might just be to smash the glass.
Something positive did come out of Durban, however. Comparing the amount of funding available to buoy failing banks (lots) with that available to support a Green Climate Fund (not much), George Monbiot argues that the true function of government is revealed:
“If ever you needed evidence that our governments operate in the interests of the elite, rather than the world as a whole, here it is”.
A captive state - Understanding the function of government is an essential first step in learning to live without it (spoiler alert – the function of government is not to protect the rights of its citizens, facilitate democracy, or steward our society). Monbiot rightly alludes to elites. Elsewhere he has written about a captive state, providing a ‘fat cats directory’ of corporate-government conflicts of interest. It is essential reading.
For example, under the previous Labour government, Lord Sainsbury was Chairman of J Sanisbury PLC and minister in the Dept of Trade and Industry; was subject to the Foresight Commission with his Sainsbury’s PLC hat on and in overall charge of the government’s Foresight Programme as Minister for Science and Technology; and was principal backer of the biotechnology company Diatech and, at the same time, as Science Minister, led a US-bound delegation of the BioIndustry Association lobby group, which represents Diatech!
There are so many examples of this revolving door between government (and not just UK governments – see here for CPTECH’s eye opening table of US government/pharma cross over) and multinationals that it’s become something of a truism. The UK’s health sector has enjoyed a particularly cosy relationship between government and industry – see here for a list. I have blogged previously on MoH Lansley’s corporate connections, and since that blog we know even more about his and the ConDem’s links with corporations. See here, here, here, etc, etc.
Faced with such overwhelming evidence, it is difficult not to conclude that government is a function of corporate interest. The sooner we understand that, the better.
Failed policies – Sachs makes an unconvincing attempt to absolve government of blame. Governance is so poor, he argues, not because of bad policies but because of globalisation:
“Globalisation has undermined the manufacturing base of most of the high-income economies, costing millions of jobs and leading to stagnant or falling living standards for a large part of the workforce, especially those with basic skills and modest education attainment.”
This is convenient, but wrong. Blaming globalisation and not government for bad economic policy is a bit like blaming the weather when you don’t water your garden. In the UK, de-industrialisation is a history of successive government’s ideological predilections. Aditya Chakrabortty calls it “the thatcher argument, the Blair vision, and the Cameron update” but it’s pretty much the same story - typically privatisation of public services, exposing public services to competition, and drawing back the state as guardian of a nations’ interests.
Wither government? Sachs argues that a society can only function successfully if its citizens regard it as fair. Putting aside the objection that societies can function perfectly well while at the same time subjugating minority (think mid-20th century America or Nazi Germany) or majority groups (think North Korea or Burma), fair is not a word many UK citizens would use to describe their current economic circumstances – hence the protests outside St Paul’s and the call for a ‘Robin Hood’ tax on financial transactions
Sachs also argues that a economically successful society will be one that ”increases public investments in education, infrastructure, energy, job skills and more”. The reality for the UK is what public health specialists McKee and Stuckler describe as ”the assault on universalism” – a series of cuts to welfare support starting with the scraping of universal child care, moving to end affordable university education, and currently trashing public transport and the national health service.
A new politics for the penultimate generation? Having recently joined the ranks of fatherhood, I worry that my son will be amongst the last generation. Climate change is upon us, and even the most moderate scenarios presented to us by specialists are bleak. The health consequences of a too-hot planet are too horrible to dwell on, but see here and here for some important if difficult reading.
To come back to Sachs, he is right to identify the catalogue of government failures, and he does this convincingly; but I challenge him to come up with a good reason why we should believe government will get us out of the multi-sector, global, mess into which it has drawn us (other than to keep rioters off our streets). Until then, and taking to heart the examples he provides, thanks but I’ll draw my own conclusions. Government is fast becoming the end of politics not its guardian, and we should be thinking about a new model of political engagement that we can pass on to our children – before it’s too late.