For an old Red like me, bowed down by years of Thatcher, Reagan, Clinton and Blair, these two books are full of exhilaration and hope. George Monbiot writes mainly about Britain in a terse investigative style that I had feared was out of date. Naomi Klein, based in Canada, ranges all over the world and writes infectiously with verve and passion. Again and again their themes converge. Both contemptuously reject the view, which seemed supreme after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and what used to be known (quite wrongly) as Communism, that the world is now set fair on a course to libertarian capitalist prosperity. Instead of the torch of freedom, Klein writes, ‘it seems that it may be the torch of authoritarianism that is being carried by those determined to go global.’ Both identify the chief menace of the modern world as the multinational corporations and their unelected boardrooms. Both suggest that the power and greed of these corporations is rapidly overtaking what is left of the power and responsibility of elected governments. Both revel in the growing anger against this menace, from the spontaneous protests against antisocial roads and supermarkets to the demonstrations which over the last two years have taken London, Seattle, Prague and Nice by storm and threaten every future international meeting of trade ministers.
‘The struggle between people and corporations,’ Monbiot writes, ‘will be the defining battle of the 21st century’; and he sets out to prove his point by telling a series of shocking stories from contemporary Britain: the scandal of the toll bridge over the sea to Skye whose financiers – originally the Bank of America – will pocket £88m in tolls from a bridge which originally cost someone else (mostly the British and European taxpayer) £25m; the profit-based ramp known as PFI which now dominates almost all government construction policy, the most glaring example of which is the building of new hospitals at public expense for private gain (with the resulting loss of thousands of hospital beds); the flouting of planning regulations by house-builders and supermarket chains; the wresting of control of the food and drug industry by the big food and drug companies, especially those making genetically modified foods; the surrender of academic objectivity to corporate greed in the universities, led by the proudest and oldest. He lists eight professorships at Cambridge named after and financed by big corporations: Shell, BP, ICI, Glaxo, Unilever, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Marks and Spencer. He records that the Committee of Vice-Chancellors decided in 1998 to stop taking money for cancer research from the tobacco industry, but notes that before the ban was imposed Cambridge accepted £1.6m from British American Tobacco to establish a Chair of International Relations named after BAT’s former chairman, Sir Patrick Sheehy. Though he is chiefly concerned with Britain, Monbiot sees what is happening here in a wider context, recognising that international ‘trade agreements have become the greatest threats to representative government.’ He describes how groups of businessmen meeting in secret under the auspices of shadowy international organisations such as the European Round Table and the Transatlantic Business Dialogue are setting up their own regulatory system, which makes boycotts of oppressive regimes such as that in Burma, for instance, almost impossible. They enforce this new concept of the rule of law by trade boycotts of their own, which are far more powerful than sanctions imposed by recognised international organisations under the United Nations.
Two factors are crucial: confidentiality and the shrivelling power of elected governments. Whereas governments pretend that their decisions are open and subject to debate, and scientists publicly insist that progress depends on sharing and publicising information, corporations seek to protect themselves, their decisions and their funds from public scrutiny. Thus the inhabitants of Skye, confronted with a bill for costs connected with the toll bridge, ‘have no means of discovering whether or not the costs are fairly incurred. Indeed, as Miller Civil Engineering won’t tell them, they are unable to discover how much nearer they are to paying off the bridge than they were when it opened.’ As for the current obsession with privately built roads, there are two conflicting official stories. The Government’s Highways Agency, deeply influenced by the private roads lobby, announced that private roads were 15 per cent cheaper than those funded by the state. Whoops! The National Audit Office conducted a detailed investigation into the first four privately built roads and found that two were more expensive than they would have been had they been publicly funded. Who was right? When the campaigning group Transport 2000 tried to find out, they were told by the Highways Agency that the figures were ‘commercially confidential’. As for science, Monbiot writes: ‘While openness has long informed the ethics of science, corporations demand confidentiality. Information that the companies find uncomfortable can be withheld, even when it arises from projects half-funded by the government.’ Again and again the sponsors of such projects disguise their costs from the people who are partly, often mostly, funding them. This new craze for commercial confidentiality has not been in the least affected by the Government’s new Freedom of Information Act which, unlike its counterpart in the US, will prove absolutely useless in busting open the padlocks so firmly clamped on these important statistics.
As for the dwindling power of elected governments, Monbiot started his book in May 1997, the month Labour was elected to office with an impregnable majority. He gives no clue as to what he expected from the new ministers, and certainly there is no trace of any ideological commitment that would have set him against them. But what he has written emerges, almost incidentally, as the most sustained indictment of the Blair Administration yet published. As the ministers’ names fluttered past my eyes, I found myself remembering each of them in their days as radical reformers: Brian Wilson, once abrasive editor of the West Highland Free Press and socialist champion of the Scottish Highlands, now defending the Government’s policies on the bridge to Skye; Nick Raynsford, whom I recall coming to see me at the Daily Mirror to seek more publicity for the single homeless people in whose interests he was then battling, now as Planning and Construction Minister swanning round the world with executives from the construction industry, including (several times) Balfour Beatty, the potential privatisers of the London Tube and the company which holds the record for the biggest fine ever imposed under Health and Safety legislation, even before the authorities have fully investigated its crucial role in track maintenance at Hatfield; Jack Straw, radical campaigner for public enterprise from Barbara Castle’s former seat, who in May 1996 told the Prison Officers Association that privatisation of the prisons was ‘morally unacceptable – this is one area where a free market does not exist,’ and promised to take any privatised prisons back into public ownership ‘as soon as contractually possible’, now as Home Secretary negotiating with yet more big corporations for the privatisation of yet more prisons; ‘bluff John’ Prescott, the authentic voice of proletarian Old Labour, who made it ‘crystal clear’ to the 1993 Labour Party Conference that a Labour Government would renationalise the railways if the Tories privatised them, and promised, for instance, that the Birmingham relief road would be built ‘only over my dead body’, now, as Huff and Puff John, presiding over the privatised railways during their most disastrous period since before nationalisation fifty years ago – as well as giving the go-ahead for the Birmingham relief road. John P.’s soul may be mouldering in the grave but his body goes marching on.
The list of ministers once critical of the corporations but now slavishly supporting them goes on and on throughout the book: Geoffrey Robinson who, as Paymaster General, defended the PFI proposals (and the loss of beds) for Walsgrave Hospital in his constituency, and then, when he lost office, rediscovered his opposition to the plan; Alastair Darling, who in opposition denounced the failure to disclose taxpayers’ contributions to PFI projects as ‘inexcusable’ but who has not objected to the same failure to disclose PFI figures under his stewardship of the Department of Social Security; Stephen Byers, who as former chair of the Council of LEAs again and again denounced the Tories for the privatisation of education but has stood solidly in support of privatisation and deregulation as Trade and Industry Secretary; and last but by no means least, the genetically modified Science Minister himself, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, who has achieved the all-time record for a serving minister donating private money to the party which made him a minister – in his case at least £4m.
The Blair Government is now almost entirely servile to its masters in big business. Any minister who for a moment threatened the corporations – David Clark on freedom of information, Nigel Griffiths on consumer influence, Mark Fisher on the arts – has been summarily sacked. Meanwhile, corporation tax and capital gains tax have been cut to ribbons, but income tax has stayed the same. The theoretical regulators of corporate power have become its champions.
Naomi Klein’s book takes off when she reflects on her college obsessions with gender and race discrimination. ‘Our criticism, focused on women and minorities, assumed an atmosphere of plenty . . . class fell off the agenda . . . we were too busy analysing pictures on the wall to notice that the wall had been sold.’ This worried her and her worries led her to the places where ‘branded’ goods are made, especially to the ‘industrial slums’ of the Philippines, where half a million people, most of them women, are hoarded into free trade zones and obliged to work in conditions which hark back to the darkest years of industrialisation in the US and Britain. At Cavite in the Philippines she found three vital ingredients required by the contractors to the big US clothing and computer corporations: ‘tax breaks, lax regulations and the services of a military willing and able to crush labour unrest’. Here was everything a corporate executive dogged by regulations and recognised trade unions at home could wish for: not just luxury housing, golf courses and an ample supply of cheap domestic servants (they could get most of these back home) but rules against talking and smiling in the factories similar to those contested in Lancashire and Cheshire a hundred years ago. The workers in Cavite are shovelled into stinking dormitories, scratch out a living on starvation wages and are warned every day of the terrible sanctions awaiting anyone who talks to a union organiser. These chapters about exploitation lead Klein on to what she calls the ‘bad mood rising’, the discontent which first raged in Seattle in November 1999. The corporations, she argues, ‘are stunting human development . . . what good is an open and accountable parliament if economic policy is unchanged?’
Shelley wrote that some atrocity on the part of the wealthy set ‘the blood boiling in indignation in my veins’. Ever since I first read that, I’ve subjected any new political analysis to a BBIV (blood boiling in veins) test. Do these two books pass? The unequivocal answer in both cases is ‘yes’. The blood boils all right, both at the corporate exploiters and the politicians who dance to their tune. But as the blood boils, so the mind casts around for a solution. Both authors anticipate this yearning, but they deal with it unsatisfactorily. Both have rejected conventional arenas for political dissension – councils, parliaments etc – and both champion the admirable protests of organisations like Reclaim the Streets. But that seems the limit of their advice. Monbiot concludes that ‘corporations are powerful only because we allow them to be’ and will cease to be so when ‘people reassert their control’ (when did we ever have this control?). He goes on: ‘Our strength lies in our citizenship, in our ability to engage in democratic politics.’ This means, he concludes, ‘putting the demo back in democracy’. Klein ends her book in much the same way. ‘We will find our way out as citizens on our own. Political solutions deserve another shot.’ These optimistic formulae come at the end of analyses which prove in devastating fashion that the corporate power that rules our lives and our parliaments is backed by the most enormous resources of economic wealth. This power can be shaken and even deflected by vigorous mass protest such as took place at Seattle and at Nice. But if it is to be defeated and transformed, there has to be a power on our side big enough to hurt the corporations where they hurt most, in their pockets; and go on hurting them there.
At the end of her book Klein describes a discussion about international codes of business conduct among a gang from the Workers Assistance Centre in Rosario in the Philippines. One worker, Zernon Toledo, pounded the table. ‘These documents,’ he bellowed, ‘are written by the transnational corporations, so that they will only serve the transnational corporations – haven’t you read Marx?’ This seemed to me a fair question, if a little patronising. The indignation which these books ignite needs more food for its flames than vague appeals to citizenship.