what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, May 7, 2012

The New Oligarchy

Woke up at 01.30 to check the French Presidential results (and the supermoon) – and delighted with what I saw - on both counts. Only the second soi-disant socialist President in the 60 years of the 5th French Republic
Although the commentaries all mention the political and financial constraints in which Hollande will be operating, I see no mention of how quickly Francois Mitterand had in 1981 to reverse his radical strategy in response to speculative pressures. Nor of the role which Jacques Delors played as his Finance Minister in those days in capitulating to such pressures.  
Significant that I can’t even find a google reference to these traumatic events. 
Proof again of the pitiful lack of even recent history our political and financial commentators have. 
I alighted a few days ago on a wonderful term about this - neophilia 

Drove at midday to Brasov in order to book myself a plane to Glasgow ( I refuse to put my credit card details online) and found a great one-way deal for only 190 euros which gives me the flexibility on return date which I had wanted. Had a notion to buy a lightweight netbook to take with me – but a bit put off by the small keyboard still costing 300 euros - and decided to deny myself ( and my readers!!) the pleasure of instantaneous web access for the last 2weeks of the month. 
Found a powerful article on the  currentinequities by an arch-conservative – Frederic Mount (who was, for a time, Head of Margaret Thatcher's Policy Unit. By virtue of its source, the argument (and book  - "The New Few" -  of which it is effectively a summary) should have a larger impact on the apolitical citizen than similar points made by a leftist - 
Wealth is not trickling down to anywhere near the bottom. The rowing boats are stuck on the mud. Many of the worst off are sinking into a demoralised and detached underclass, just as the top earners are congealing into a super-class who hardly belong to the society which they flit through. What is so dispiriting is that the gap appears to be widening all the time, regardless of whether we are going through a boom or a slump, and certainly regardless of which party is in power. As a result, we begin to sense that we are living in a dislocated society. It's much the same story with the other disquieting trend that we cannot help noticing: the trend towards centralisation.
Power in Britain used to be spread around in a rather casual fashion that had grown up over the years. We rather looked down on continental countries such as France, which had inherited a highly centralised state from Napoleon and Louis XIV. General de Gaulle once said that centralisation was the one thing that France would never be able to get rid of. But now the roles are reversed. While many other European nations, not least the French, have been busily decentralising their arrangements, power in Britain has drained away from private individuals and local communities up to central boards and bureaucracies and government agencies and ministries. Central control is our orthodoxy, in private and public sector alike. And for the men and women at the centre, the salaries and bonuses go zooming up, for hospital administrators and university vice-chancellors and the director-general of the BBC and the head of the Post Office just as fast as they have for bank chiefs, retail tycoons and the bosses of privatised utilities. 
Again, we lament the change without having much clue about its causes. Why in one area of life after another has centralisation become the default solution, the irresistible option? What or who is driving this apparently inexorable trend? How come local government was so effortlessly stripped of its old powers? Why have political parties become hollowed-out shells, relegated to impotence and contemptuous manipulation by their leaders? Is it possible that centralisation and inequality are related, that the one trend enables the other, and that both are facets and consequences of oligarchy? Is it possible that, as well as sheltering the oligarchs of other nations, we have been hatching our own? It is oligarchy – the rule of the few – that appears to be the common denominator of the system. So perhaps we need to ask what are the factors that make oligarchy possible. Certainly you can blame Margaret Thatcher for the careless liberation of financial services in the big bang of 1986, but then you must also blame Bill Clinton for making exactly the same mistake in 1999. The roots of our shared illusions lie deeper and further back in modern history. After all, George Orwell said in 1946 that "for quite 50 years past the general drift has almost certainly been towards oligarchy." He detected then "the ever-increasing concentration of industrial and financial power and the diminishing importance of the individual capitalist or shareholder". In their classic, The Modern Corporation and Private Property , published in the depths of the Great Depression, Berle and Means pointed out that the powers of shareholders to control runaway executives had already become an illusion. The concentration of power had brought forth "princes of industry", or as Tom Wolfe called them half a century later, "masters of the universe". The princes dazzled us. We lost our bearings.
Worse still, we lost the will to defend our institutions. Two centuries ago, Adam Smith warned us about the dangers of merchants conspiring together and of ownerless corporations. The trouble is not that our policy-makers had read too much Adam Smith, but too little. So they let corporate governance go slack, and believed everything the bankers told them. For our part, we watched the big political parties wither away with indifference if not pleasure – who needed those gangs of outdated obsessives? We let local government, so unglamorous, so drearily provincial, fall under the total control of Whitehall. We watched Parliament decay into near-irrelevance – or rather we didn't watch, for BBC Parliament was reserved for the anoraks and the bedridden. And now at last, at a cripplingly slow pace, we might be waking up to what we have allowed to happen.
 I remember making myself very unpopular in the mid 1980s at a political rally in Liverpool warning the protestors against the Thatcher attack on local government that we would never get popular support as long as we, on our part, continued to allow the salaries of senior local government officials to escalate. 
Now – almost 30 years on – some municipal Chief Executives get paid more than the Prime Minister!

And, for those waiting breathlessly. here is the latest version of my booklet on Bulgarian Realist painting

No comments:

Post a Comment