Analysis | A future in the balance: why the G8 must be stopped
Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, November 10, 2012 0:00 - 5 Comments
In the first of his Reith Lectures broadcast on June 19th, the financial historian Niall Ferguson explained ‘why the young should welcome austerity,’ citing the defence of what he called ‘Western democracy’ as a primary reason. With Britain’s debt approaching 88% of GDP, he suggested this figure does ‘not include the often far larger unfunded liabilities of welfare schemes,’ such as ‘defined benefit pensions for public employees’ (‘defined’ meaning coming out of Ferguson’s pocket in the form of taxes, and so naturally unjust).
The health and wellbeing of the general population, the perceptive historian claimed, is not to take precedent over the wealth of privatised healthcare schemes – concentrations of private capital which Ferguson has expressed almost philosophical fascination in during various interviews on shows such as Wealth Track, defending investor rights over those of the public or natural environment (as the Economist also did after Indonesia’s genocidal destruction of East Timor from the 1970s to 1990s, describing the climate after General Suharto granted western firms access to the newly ‘acquired’ natural resources as an ‘investor’s paradise’). Gregory Nunn can perhaps characterise this tendency more accurately: ‘A conservative is a man who wants the rules changed so that no one can make a pile the way he did.’
But the estimated £1 billion of annual public funds paid to the arms industry, or George Osborne’s consistent cutting of corporation tax, are not, oddly, considered ‘welfare’ measures. Instead, Ferguson and other notable public figures consider the defence of such economic tyrannies a ‘subsidy,’ an essential part of ‘democracy.’
Feeling himself not quite so overwhelmed with Britain’s liberal achievements, Aldous Huxley, in a description surely worthy of Joyce, instead characterised parliamentary democracy as ‘the bedraggled and rather whorish old slut’ pleasuring the many undeserving, cowardly and greedy aristocrats who roam the state’s chambers and the boardrooms of the City of London.
The cuts to public expenditure which Ferguson sees as necessary to reduce Britain’s deficit also do not seem to hinder the flow of public money being fed, for instance, to BAE-Systems, the country’s leading arms company deemed vital to ‘national security.’ But the deficit, noted John Pilger during an interview with the excellent New Internationalist, ‘is ideological: the product of an almost cultish obsession of central banks and financiers with shifting the wealth of nations to the very top and keeping it there.’ Britain is far from the edge of bankruptcy: ‘this is one of the world’s wealthiest economies; the richest 10 per cent control $6,300 billion with an average per household of $6.3 million. An equitable rate of tax would see off the so-called deficit in no time.’
There is also very little substance to the stereotypes surrounding ‘welfare’ and ‘benefits,’ but the media and political theatre do a good job making them seem a reality. The modern IT revolution does, however, allow the top performing companies and financial institutions to offer better services to the wealthy and side-line the poor – what Business Week calls ‘consumer apartheid’ (23 October 2000), an important but often ignored factor, helping create what Woody Allen called ‘a time of unequalled prosperity.’
But facts are marginal nuisances to those in positions of power and privilege. Considering his call in February for a US-Israeli strike on Iran, it’s quite possible that Ferguson suffers from what we might call ‘Grand Theft Auto protagonist syndrome’ – or the self-righteous, self-centred belief that any action one takes is just and moral by definition, no matter what the costs.
A few months earlier in July 2011, during a TED talk for which he received a standing ovation from an audience of early iPad users, the Harvard historian attacked those foolish enough to blame the suffering of third world countries on imperialism by saying that ‘everybody did empire’ back then so we can’t just blame the West. QED.
It’s clear, then, that Ferguson, like Liam Neeson’s character in Taken, has a very particular set of skills. Employing some of the more academic ones he acquired during his years at Oxford studying PPE; he backs up his argument by selectively quoting Edmund Burke (to whom the working classes were ‘the swinish multitude’). ‘Society is indeed a contract,’ wrote Burke.
‘The state is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.’ With a heavy metaphorical interpretation one might see Burke’s reason for believing this. But in reality states are violent, exploitative and hierarchical institutions which are concerned solely with their own commercial and military interests.
Presumably seeing himself as a father figure and the Occupy movement as immature adolescents, Ferguson concluded his lecture by blandly claiming that ‘the biggest challenge facing mature democracies is how to restore the social contract between the generations.’ But the actually existing social contract he promotes and maintains is one in which the imposed austerity measures on the young, poor and old help protect those who are ‘too big to fail’ (or in the words of two more accurate commentators, Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery, the leading financial executives have instead proven themselves ‘too big to jail’). Daddy Ferguson then added patronisingly that ‘the young find it quite hard to compute their own long-term economic interests,’ before calculating, astonishingly, that ‘if young Americans knew what was good for them, they would all be in the Tea Party.’
It’s within this intellectual and cultural climate that the ‘Stop the G8’ movement in Britain has emerged, facilitating against ‘irresponsible greed, corporate protectionism, overwhelming inequality and ruthless exploitation,’ as their website puts it.
The annual summit will be held in Britain (general rumours point to London), and ‘it is here, at the G8 summit, that the economic, political and military objectives for the year ahead will be discussed and agreed.’ Following the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement and the Zapatistas, Stop the G8 have adopted the Hallmarks of Peoples’ Global Action: namely, a rejection of capitalism; a rejection of systems of domination, hierarchy and discrimination; a ‘confrontational attitude’ as opposed to lobbying in a world where ‘transnational capital is the only real policy-maker’; and a call to non-violent direct action and civil disobedience.
Stop the G8 plan to hold various workshops over the coming months, both for awareness raising and direct action training. An early flyer for the group states that capitalism needs to be ‘chased off our streets. It infests nearly every aspect of our lives: from our education to our health, from our friendships to the ways in which we create, work and build.’
Following Wilhelm von Humbdolt (who believed that if an artisan produces something beautiful, but does it under external command, ‘we may admire what he does, but we despise what he is’), the nascent movement believes ‘work doesn’t have to mean labouring for the profit of others. Work can be creative and liberating’ – it can become, as Marx hoped, ‘the highest want in life.’
Particular attention should be drawn to Stop the G8’s rejection of ‘irresponsible greed’ and ‘corporate protectionism,’ with corporations now having rights which go far beyond those accorded to persons of flesh and blood.
In words which would have appalled classical liberals such as Adam Smith and Thomas Paine (and empiricist philosophers such as Locke and Hume), according to the Survey of Current Business in December 1996, a ‘‘Person’ is broadly defined to include any individual, branch, partnership, associated group, association, estate, trust, corporation or other organization (whether or not organised under the laws of any State), or any government entity.’
The amount of personal privacy granted to these tyrannical entities obscures their internal affairs to a level of virtual invisibility. Low growth, low wages and high profits are a corporation’s natural port of call. Money is its free speech. And as the Economist assured its wealthy readers, ‘The legal conceit that companies are natural persons is vital to capitalism’.
Adam Smith would surely have none of this, believing instead that only under conditions of perfect freedom would markets leads to perfect equality. This didn’t mean ‘freedom’ in the self-labelled ‘libertarian,’ ultra-business tradition of Hayek, Rand and the American Right. Rather, Smith promoted a market-based economy lacking extreme state protection for private concentrations of capital, arguing against any state which stood at the ready to be used as a tool of business in protecting, bailing out, and handing out ‘goodies’ (to use Business Week’s term) to corporate boardrooms and banks. Here are David Korten’s perceptive thoughts:
‘[Smith’s] vision of an efficient market was one composed of small owner-managed enterprises located in the communities where the owners resided. Such owners would share in the community’s values and have a personal stake in its future. It is a market that has little in common with a globalized economy, dominated by massive corporations without local or national allegiance, managed by professionals who are removed from real owners by layers of investment institutions and holding companies.’
Decades after Smith, mid-nineteenth century reformers of corporate law, the Economist poetically reports, ‘used the idea that companies, like people, should be captains of their own souls, to free them from these restrictions’. These ‘restrictions’ include the auspices of public regulation or moral obligations to the environment.
If we simply analyse the internal structure of financial institutions, we soon realise talk of ‘greedy’ bankers and corporations is slightly beside the point – corporations are greedy by their very nature. That they exist to serve the public is pure fantasy; they exist to make profits, and are legally compelled to do so, no matter what ‘externalities’ may arise (the recent debacle over Starbucks illustrates this neatly).
The Canadian lawyer Joel Bakan has noted that the senior managers of corporations are legally obliged to maximise profits for shareholders, and ‘must always put their corporation’s best interests first and not act out of concern for anyone or anything else (unless the expression of such concern can somehow be justified as advancing the corporation’s own interests).’ But as Kenneth Boulding cautioned, ‘Anyone who believes in indefinite growth on a physically finite planet, is either mad – or an economist.’
These neo-Hegelian notions of organic legal fictions being accorded rights above those of ordinary people derive from the English concept of limited liability, whereby the owners and investors of a company are not liable or accountable for their actions if sued, and the plaintiffs instead are forced to sue the company. In the seventeenth century, the jurist Sir Edward Coke complained that companies ‘cannot commit treason, nor be outlawed, nor excommunicated, for they have no souls.’
The similar words of the Lord Chancellor of Britain during the American War of Independence, Edward Thurlow, still ring true today: ‘Corporations have neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be condemned; they therefore do as they like.’ Talk of freedom in a society dominated by corporations is simply ludicrous; the only ‘freedoms’ granted are the rights to rent yourself to them by getting a job or to buy, if you like, whatever it is they sell.
As Stop the G8 attempts to highlight, many of the arguments in the mainstream corporate media between the advantages of cheap foreign labour versus home production accept the illegitimate framework of debate, which presupposes that transnational corporations (essentially command economies) should have the right to make such decisions in the first place.
This corporate ‘culture’ poses ominous dangers wherever it’s to be found; as when Anglo-American business interests – like Kodak, Shell Oil, and General Electric – became ecstatic over Mussolini and Nazi Germany, with both providing huge investment opportunities. The Coca Cola Company advertised in the Nazi press, helping finance the state’s propaganda, according to the astute Mark Thomas: ‘It built bottling plants in occupied territories. Then in 1941, when Coca-Cola GmbH could no longer get the syrup from America to make Coke, it invented a new drink specifically for the Nazi beverage market, out of the ingredients available to it. That drink was Fanta.’
This ugly marriage of state and corporate forces was predicted by Woodrow Wilson (whose administration likely holds the record for being the most violent and oppressive towards the labour movement), writing in 1914 that corporate managers will soon become ‘rivals of the government itself.’ The IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organisation (the ‘unholy trinity’ in the words of the Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang), the G8, UN and European Union executives are ‘the masters of the universe,’ to quote the Financial Times, all being part a ‘de facto world government.’
Britain and other major western powers promote the subsequent ‘free flow’ (or ‘liberalisation’) of capital around the globe as modes of healthy progression for business, approving WTO rules which ‘massively restrict the ability of governments to promote policies in their own national interests,’ as Mark Curtis put it in Web of Deceit.
Philip Alston, the chairperson of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adds that the IMF and World Bank, headed by the G8 leaders, ‘have been extraordinarily human rights averse.’ Unless one is a specialist, there are very few ways of finding out what the G8, IMF or WTO are up to. But as Niall Ferguson is all too aware, they above all provide welfare for the rich and protect the dominant ‘banking institutions and monied incorporations’ from market discipline, in Jefferson’s words. Entire economies, writes Curtis, are still ‘being geared to cater to the demands of transnational capital. Ministers see their role simply as administering these demands, while preparing their citizens for the cut-throat international competition ahead through ‘education.’’
The privatisation of profit and socialisation of debt (defining features of the G8 economies) are the fundamental virtues of what’s come to be known as ‘actually existing capitalism.’ As Winfried Ruigrok and Rob van Tulder point out, companies ‘socialize their losses.’ Free market discipline is a fine thing for the superfluous public (it builds character), but not for wealthy companies and banks, who are perfectly willing to make profits but rely crucially on the nanny state to provide the ‘goodies’ of public subsidies and bailouts.
Russell, in his essay ‘The Theory of Surplus Value,’ viewed matters differently: ‘The owners of capital, collectively, are monopolists as against borrowers; that is why they are able to charge interest. The control of credit is a form of monopoly quite as important as land. Those who control credit can encourage or ruin a business as their judgement may direct; they can even, within limits, decide whether industry in general is to be prosperous or depressed. This power they owe to monopoly.’
Even the dedicated Thatcherite Matthew Parris has written that ‘Nothing like a real competitive market exists among banks or energy suppliers. They are classic cartels, robbing their customers.’ Insider trading, he writes, is ‘absolutely endemic. In many spheres and all sorts of ways within the financial world, nothing even approaching a free, fair or open market exists. The protection and enhancement of entrenched advantage is, to a far greater degree than capitalist competition, the key dynamic in many markets’ (The Times, 16 July 2011).
Multinational corporations, writes Brian Griffiths in his insightful Morality and the Marketplace, are today ‘viewed as beyond the control of any single government, intent on maximising their global profits without regard to the needs and interests of individual countries.’ ‘Some economic decisions,’ adds the historian John MacInnes in his neglected study Thatcherism at Work, ‘are best left to market forces – those relating to consumer goods, for example. There are others which markets clearly cannot handle – natural monopolies, long-term decision-making or training, for example.’
As an autonomous and non-hierarchical organisation, Stop the G8 rejects the capitalist ideal of an atomised society, with individuals – waving their business studies and management degrees – pursuing wealth to amass artificial wants; to be, in many ways, like Eliot’s ‘patient etherised upon a table.’ Instead of organising our lives together and seeking out illegitimate forms of oppression, we should be distracted by national sports, celebrity news, or the weather (that there exists an Emmy award for ‘Outstanding Commercial’ should give us an insight into the media’s priorities and preferred forms of inspirational entertainment).
This principle applies generally, as a glance at any ‘aspirational’ television show like Friends will tell you. Typically, they re-enforce the ideals of consumerist fantasies. Modern sitcoms comprise of a group of friends and families who spend their entire lives discussing and joking about personal issues (canned laughter not far behind, reassuring the audience that they’re having a great time), with no concern given to anything else.
Advertisements also seamlessly depict their version of happiness, friendship and love, all of which (quite consciously) bear no relation to human experience. The public relations industry (created solely for deceit) has succeeded since its pre-war inception of spreading consumerist values and selling ‘extremely merry things, viewed by extremely sad people who do not know what to do with them,’ as Max Scheler put it in his 1915 Ressentiment.
In his meticulous and illuminating study of English left-libertarian and anarchist ideas, David Goodway writes that ‘the central problem of our time [is] the imperative to counter irresponsible politicians, bankers and industrialists and the delinquent acts of their states and corporations.’ An anti-capitalist movement like Stop the G8 could, with enough support and organisation, form a considerable force in the fight against this ‘central problem’; an effort which may in turn revive concerns articulated by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, who argued in his 1987 book On Ethics and Economics that ‘economics lost its way when, shortly after Adam Smith, it forgot its connection with ethics – that is, with reflections on the ethical ends, the account of the good life, that economic production should serve.’
With the G8 countries continuing their pollution of the environment, a report commissioned by 20 states announced on September 26th that more than 100 million people will die by 2030 if climate change isn’t tackled. Reuters elaborated that ‘five million deaths occur each year from air pollution, hunger and disease as a result of climate change and carbon-intensive economies, and that toll would likely rise to six million a year by 2030 if current patterns of fossil fuel use continue.’ The state-corporate forces which comprise the G8 benefit substantially from this silent genocide, as they do from the deforestation projects in Indonesia and the excessive consumption of the ‘developed’ nations.
Hans Blumenberg once said that there must have been a point in human history when we stopped hoping for immortality and instead started to prepare for our great grandchildren. For reasons of our fragility, submission to the illegitimate authority of the G8 (and their allied corporate forces) at this revolutionary stage of human affairs is not an option any of us can afford or risk to take.
This pathological corporate pursuit of profit, the destruction of the environment and the devastating, aggressive foreign policies of the G8 states (part of ‘the savage injustice of the Europeans,’ for Smith) need to be undermined and dismantled if we are to secure a decent survival for later generations.
The Stop the G8 initiative comprises numerous local grassroots groups, including Stop the G8, Nottingham, which is currently being organised by the Autonomous Nottingham movement, ‘who aim to exist within a non-hierarchical, stateless society that is free of all forms of domination’.
Autonomous emerged alongside the student occupations in 2009 in solidarity with the people of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, and is today largely based in the lively Sumac Centre in Forrest Fields. For info and updates on the group’s next meetings visit its website.