Category Archives: Politics and Power

The Gaza Peace Boats

I haven’t posted in a week or so, largely because I’m on holiday in the South of France, and because I’m working on a longer post about the Climate Camp. This said, I have to flag up the incredible voyage of the Gaza peace boats, as well as the delightful hypocrisy in the response from the defence ministry, who claim that

“You can demonstrate, that’s OK with us. But you are not allowed to break international law.”

The beauty of this project is that it shows the alternatives to waiting around for a lull in government inertia. The response of the international community to the crisis in Gaza has been a mixture of general approval and mild criticism, but the countries that matter have supported Israel wholeheartedly. Earlier this year we were shown that the citizens of Gaza have the power to tear down the walls of their oppression. Here, we see that citizens of the world can take part in this mass struggle against oppression.

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Investment Bankers are Stupid

I’m sure I’m not alone in being irritated by Polly Toynbee. It’s not her intent I have trouble with – her tireless fight for a fair, just and equal world is to be celebrated. My gripe comes from her moderation. Whenever one reads her articles, there is a sense that she is hoping for a slightly more benevolent government, who will realise the sins of the past and kick the minimum wage up to £6. I agree that governments can help to alleviate the problems of the world, but they cannot be the ultimate solution, for reasons that will make up another blog post I’m sure. This is all really just a drawn out introduction to me recommending her article in Monday’s Guardian, which is really a condensed version of her new book, Unjust Rewards. The book and article see Toynbee interviewing Lawyers, Bankers and other such parasites, to examine their opinion on society, taxes, and the poor. The results appear to go beyond what were already pretty low expectations:

How much, we asked our group, would it take to put someone in the top 10% of earners? They put the figure at £162,000. In fact, in 2007 it was around £39,825, the point at which the top tax band began. Our group found it hard to believe that nine-tenths of the UK’s 32m taxpayers earned less than that. As for the poverty threshold, our lawyers and bankers fixed it at £22,000. But that sum was just under median earnings, which meant they regarded ordinary wages as poverty pay

One banker, bearing a distinct resemblance to Mr Scrooge, said: “People don’t starve in this country – it’s OK. Compared with other countries, here you don’t go hungry because you can just go and get money for free.” Some thought benefits already too high. One banker said he thought a family of four receives “say, £3,000 a month in their hands, and they’re somewhere miles up north. They’re not going to earn that sort of money, so where’s the incentive for them to go out to work?” In fact, a family of four would in 2008 receive a net total of £1,328 a month.

Whatever, the poor didn’t deserve it. Masters of the universe our groups might be, but their outlook was pure Daily Mail: “Single people . . . get pregnant and get a flat and more money. You just see everybody pushing prams, then they’ll get more income and a little flat that they can stay in for life.” There was much talk of the perverse incentives for single parenthood, with one banker complaining that the 18-year-old mother on benefits “doesn’t get that much less money than another 18-year-old working in a shop”. It didn’t seem to occur to this speaker that the shop worker’s pay might also be too low. They were contemptuous of anything that gave extra money directly to poorer people: “This thing of giving pregnant women £200 for dietary supplements. Like, as if they’ll really spend it on fruit.” Most were adamant, along with this banker: “We don’t think just chucking money at the welfare state is the answer.”

I’d like to think this Victorian and ignorant attitude was merely a statistical anomaly, a sampling accident which meant that Polly had accidentally ended up interviewing Patrick Bateman. However after three years at Warwick the views expressed sound only too familiar. As with Hard Times, it looks like Toynbee has again done us a favour in exposing in detail a murky and despicable aspect of modern British society.

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Corruption and Leaders – Why Commentators Miss the Point

Obama too thin?!

Obama too thin?!

During the slow news period which characterises the British summer, we’re treated to an increase in the amateur Kremlinology that passes for journalism in today’s news-on-demand culture. A quick glance at today’s Times shows up articles on how Obama may be too thin for US voters,* on how to interpret the books that Tory MPs are reading on their holidays, and on Boris Johnson’s distant blood relation to the royal family (not online yet). This fascination with the lives and personalities of our politicians is perhaps symptomatic of the representative system we live in. What is interesting is how it translates into a facination with personal scandals.

Political conversations have become dominated by shock and outrage at the latest corruption or sex scandal. Whole books and careers are dedicated to exposing and condemning such activities. There’s nothing inherently wrong with condemning politicians (or indeed anyone) for blatant disregard for moral conduct. However, when we focus on the personalities, there is an implication that our political system would be fine without these corrupt politicians. Such thinking obscures the fact that such problems are a natural sympton of the society we live in.

The latest scandal is always shocking. Commentators are appalled that Blunkett used ministerial privilege, and that Ian Blair gave the contract to a friend. When it happens constantly (as it has over the past fifteen years) the problem is presented a downturn in moral conduct in modern society, and poor delegation by those appointing the offenders. Boris Johnson, who has been involved in his fair share of scandals, was quick to fire Ray Lewis because of “financial misconduct”, to show that there can be no impropriety under his watchful eye. This is highly misleading; if the likelyhood of being found out were a sufficient deterrent, then corrupt practice would be a thing of the past. Instead, malpractice, ranging from a councillor skimming a few quid, to Berlusconi rearranging a country’s legal system to suit himself, is endemic.

This is not because of a few bad eggs. New Labour, and the Tories before them, have shown that payoffs and privilege can corrupt an entire government. To find the answer we have to go back to Lord Acton and his observation that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, and to the namesake of this blog Percy Shelley, who said that “power, like a desolating pestilence, pollutes whate’er it touches”.

When individuals rise to the top of the hierarchy, there is a feeling, well explained by C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite, that they occupy a higher plain than those below them. Their actions are inherently justified. Those around them are doing it anyway, it’s the way things are done at the top, why get left behind? Such arrogance peaked with Richard Nixon, who famously insisted that “when the president does it, it’s not illegal”. We can criticise these people all we like, but the reality appears to be that they are products of an elite plateau which teaches its members that they are special, and that they are powerful. Power corrupts, and people start believing their own myths.

Barack Obama was criticised this week for being arrogant. Assigning such a term to any man who believes they have the capacity to be President of the USA is an impressive way to understate a situation. If we insist on having humble, loyal, honest and moral leaders, then we are begging for deception. The powerful are rarely any of these things, and never all of them. Our political system elevates some individuals into positions of great power, and from here they can and will do terrible things. Whenever we are shocked at the individual, we have missed the point. The focus should not be on achieving a system of pure leaders, but on abolishing the hierarchies which produce corruption and contempt for the voters. Anything else is a waste of time, a red rag which directs attention from the structural problems of modern society. It creates an obsession with personalities that has little or nothing to do with making the world a better place. We should criticise corruption, but through a broader critique of the system which produces it.

* The Andrew Marr show assured us that all may not be lost; he’s a heavy smoker, which apparently plays very well.

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