Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Disaster Capitalism: Could Monbiot be Right?

George Monbiot is a very talented and dedicated environmental campaigner and man of the left. His piece today argues that the Chicago School of economists, led by Milton Friedman believed crises and disasters provided opportunities to change things their way. He also argued that bold action was necessary within 'six to nine months' of such disasters to effect radical change.

OK, we all know the leftwing critique that Cameron and co. are pressing for deep and drastric cuts not because they are solely concerned to eliminate the deficit but because they are using the situation to shrink the state and allow the private sector become dominant again. My view is that this might be the case and, from comments on my blog by rightwing Conservatives, I'm sure it's what they would love to happen. Perhaps I'm naive but I'd like to see a bit more evidence. Monbiot thinks he's got it in what has happened in the cull of quangos.

The Commonwealth Development Corporation has been a scandalous waste of money for some time and has been effectively exposed by Private Eye over a considerable period.

When New Labour tried, and failed, to privatise it, the CDC completely changed its mission. Now it pours money into lucrative corporate ventures, while massively enriching its own directors

Monbiot claims the same thing goes for the Export Guarantee Department and the Sea Fish Industry Authority. He elaborates:

Can you see the pattern yet? Public bodies whose purpose is to hold corporations to account are being swept away. Public bodies whose purpose is to help boost corporate profits, regardless of the consequences for people and the environment, have sailed through unharmed. What the two lists suggest is that the economic crisis is the disaster the Conservatives have been praying for. The government's programme of cuts looks like a classic example of disaster capitalism: using a crisis to re-shape the economy in the interests of business.

I'm too old a bird to be persuaded by most leftwing conspiracy theories but add the forcible shrinking of the state to Monbiot's two lists and the argument begins to sound pretty compelling don't you think?

It's an interesting thesis. I would have said, however, there is one tiny flaw in his argument. While fully agreeing that too many bent quangos appear set to survive, it's not as though most of the ones that are going are any loss whatsoever.

The Food Standards Agency is a classic. It was set up to do what? To separate the food safety remit from the farming industry. Fair enough. Its main job was to keep standards of hygiene in food up to the mark. Did it succeed? No. We still had random outbreaks of food poisoning much as before. Instead, it spent most of its time trying and failing to get a 'traffic light' system of warning on packaged food to show the level of salt and fat, plans which it constantly changed at the diktat of the supermarket lobby. Hardly 'holding corporations to account.' It frankly became an embarrassing farce by the end, and no-one will miss it. The Department of Health will almost certainly do a much better job.

I suspect the real reason the CDC - which I agree is a scandal looking for somewhere to happen - was retained is as simple as its department was not required to cut anything, so nobody paid it any attention. I can't answer for the other two he particularly mentions, although the SFIA may be a sop to the fishing lobby. Which would also be wrong, but at least understandable given the crisis in the industry at present.

But to say 'bodies holding corporations to account are being cut' is both bizarre and simplistic. A more accurate rendering would be 'bodies that should be holding corporations to account but are so corrupt and ineffectual that they don't' would be more accurate - at the cost of wrecking his argument.
You, as many other liberal, left-wing and green-leaning commentators are outraged by George Osborne's spending review, claiming it will lower people's living standards and throw thousands on to the dole queue. A bit rich doncha think ? (considering that many of the lib intelligentsia have been agitating for austerity for years). Time and again, liberal "thinkers" have told us that we must learn to live with less "stuff", for the sake of our own sanity and for the good of the people-plagued planet. Austerity hypocrites have short memories. This week, the Guardian's Gorgeous George Monbiot wrote an angry piece about the Tory-led cuts agenda, claiming that it will help the rich and hurt the rest. "When we stagger out of our shelters to assess the damage, we'll discover that we have emerged into a different world, run for their benefit, not ours", he said.

Wasn't this the same Monbiot who wrote a piece in 2007 titled 'Bring on the recession' ? "I hope that the recession now being forecast by some economists materialises", he said, because only a recession could give us "the time we need to prevent runaway climate change". A recession would hurt poor people, he acknowledged - but that was a price worth paying to halt out-of-control economic growth. Inspired (yes really) by Monbiot, in 2008 some deep greens kick-started a campaign called Riot 4 Austerity.Their reactionary demand, dolled up in radical garb, was for a 90 per cent cut in carbon emissions - a move which would have a far more devastating impact on people's daily lives than any of the slashes Osborne has had come up with. In 2008, the Independent's greeno columnist Johann Hari called on the government to enforce wartime-style rationing in order to save the planet from almost certain fiery doom. "Just as the government in the Second World War did not ask people to eat less voluntarily, governments today cannot ask us to burn fewer greenhouse gases voluntarily", said Hari. No, it must "force us all" to live more frugally and sensibly.
This week,the Independent headed its coverage of Osborne's big day 'Axe Wednesday' and carried a cartoon of the Chancellor as Edward Scissorhands, cutting all around him. Elsewhere in recent years, Olly James, the lefty psycho(logist) beloved of the liberal press, has diagnosed Britons as suffering from 'Affluenza'. That is, our desire for "stuff" - nice cars, big houses, fast food - is apparently making us mentally ill and the only solution is to learn to live with less.
Writing in the Times in 2008, the English-Nigerian poet Ben Okri said recession would help us to develop a "new social consciousness", adding: "Material success has brought us to a strange spiritual and moral bankruptcy". In the Sunday Times, India Knight wrote: "Aah, what a relief the boom has turned to bust". The recession, she argued, had "an especially sparkling silver lining" - that is, it would force us to be thrifty.The Kultural zeitgeist today says that wealth is bad, frugality is good; abundance is destructive, austerity is eco-friendly; wanting stuff warps us, giving things up is pure.

The new age of austerity is built as much on these liberal prejudices, propagated by the well-off, as it is on Osborne's cutting.

Mind how you go
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