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An abundance of flattery

Among the most grating habits of government ministers is the tendency to answer a slightly different question to the one which was asked.  For example, in response to a question about how the government is going to respond to the recent report that more than 14 million Britons are living in poverty, the minister will respond by telling us how much money the government spent on benefits and social care in the last budget.  That’s fine as far as it goes; but we are still left with 14 million people living in poverty.

One reason for this is that governments do not allocate specific amounts of money to particular causes.  Rather, they give block grants to local authorities and government agencies; which then decide how best to spend it – or, most often these days, which areas to cut and which to maintain.  One consequence of this is that ministers can double count the money.  For example, the £10m the minister claims was allocated to alleviating poverty this week is the same £10m that supposedly was improving social care services last week.  Worse than this, however, is the fact that in our neoliberal system in which every public asset that wasn’t nailed down was sold off years ago; most government spending disappears into the pockets of the corporations that mismanage our public services.  The UK’s failing social security system costs more than £2bn per year to administer; largely because of the high charges made by the insurance-busting firms that administer Work Capacity Assessment tests that are so flawed that they declare terminally ill people fit to work; and by “employment coaching” services whose track record for getting people into employment is significantly worse than doing nothing at all.

The collapse of Carillion last year exposed the degree to which graft, deception and even fraud has infected a public sector that is little more than a Potemkin façade, designed to pacify a population that might otherwise be outraged at the degree to which the most despicable forms of debt-driven corporate capitalism have taken over what are often still portrayed as mutual social services.

In effect, when a government minister announces an amount of money that has been spent in a particular area; all he or she is really doing is telling you how much his or her corporate backers have trousered by pretending to deliver services that largely fail to achieve the outcomes that government pretends it seeks.  As Anthony Stafford Beer explained:

“The purpose of a system is what it does.  There is after all, no point in claiming that the purpose of a system is to do what it constantly fails to do.”

It is difficult, therefore, to argue anything other than that the purpose of Britain’s railway system is to delay and frustrate millions of travellers while doing nothing to relieve Britain’s congested roads and airspace.  In the same way, the purpose of the social security system is socially cleanse the poor, to euthanize disabled people and to massively increase the numbers of people sleeping on the streets.  The purpose of the Treasury, in contrast, is to ensure that those who are already wealthy continue to accumulate wealth at an ever faster rate.  In the same way, the purpose of the various police forces and enforcement agencies, courts and penal system is to ensure that rich criminals go scot free while the poorest, least educated and especially those from minority populations are disproportionately arrested and imprisoned.

In achieving this state affairs, the neoliberal project – which has been pursued by governments of both the centre left and the centre right on both sides of the Atlantic for four decades – had just one simple rule to abide by: Never let the number of losers overtake the number of winners.  That is, even if the wins were illusory – an annual percentage wage increase that was eaten away by inflation, greater access to credit, or a rising house price that means nothing unless you sell, etc. – enough people had to be made to believe that their lives were improving that they would ignore the plight of those who lost out.

The rank stupidity of the British Tories, the US Democrats and the European centrist parties is that, in the wake of the 2008 crisis, they imposed precisely the same austerity policies that were used in the wake of the 1929 crash.  The result was exactly the same – they succeeded in creating a majority of losers; an army of people whose prosperity has collapsed in the decade since.  The political consequences were easy enough to predict too.  Not in the simplistic mechanical manner that many leftists claim of “austerity = Nazis”.  But rather in the sense that people have rejected an elitist political centre in favour of populist parties of both the nationalist right and (where they exist) the nationalist left.

The consequences are potentially devastating.  Institutions that were created to prevent the worst excesses of the 1930s are being torn apart by movements that regard them as part of a “globalist neoliberal conspiracy” against the people.  In their place is a return to hard national borders, trade borders and tariffs of the kind that can very easily lead us to resource wars as nations find themselves unable to obtain one or more key fuels and minerals that their economies depend upon.

Such dangerous times require the hard-edged and often cynical approach to politics set out by fifteenth century Italian diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli in The Prince.  In particular, Chapter 23 of The Prince has a word of warning that our current crop of political leaders would do well to heed (assuming, that is, they do not have some deep-seated psychological flaw that seeks the noose, the guillotine or the firing squad to put them out of their misery):

“I do not wish to leave out an important branch of this subject, because it is a danger from which it is difficult to protect princes, unless they are very careful and discriminating. It is that of flatterers. The courts are full of such people, because men are so wrapped up in their own affairs, and in a way so deceived in them, that it is difficult to protect them from this danger…”

Neoliberal leaders have a problem today born out of the insecurity of earlier leaders.  Beginning in the 1980s, government ministers embarked upon a project to institutionalise flattery.  Concerned about the “bad publicity” they were receiving as they dismantled and sold off their countries’ industrial base and gutted their public services; governments demanded that their statisticians tell them what they wanted to hear rather than what was actually happening to the society and the economy they were elected to govern.  As Larry Elliott at the Guardian reminds us:

“[In the 1980s] the Conservative government made more than 30 changes to the way in which [unemployment] was calculated, almost all of them leading to a lower total.”

Thatcher famously used Incapacity Benefit – which was intended for people too sick or disabled to work – as a convenient place to park older unemployed workers so that they would not show up on the official unemployment statistics; a practice that informed the horrendous backlash begun under New Labour and enthusiastically pursued by the Tories to deny genuinely sick and disabled people the support they need.  Nor was unemployment the only data that the statisticians were instructed to fiddle.  Income statistics were based on the average wage rather than the much lower median wage.  The way in which inflation was calculated changed so that the largest costs impacting poorer households were no longer counted.  We are told today that inflation is low because the price of an Apple i-pad has gone down; but this is of little comfort to the poorest households, whose rent, utilities and food bills have been rising much faster than the official inflation rate.

There was cynicism in the way data was gathered too.  In the early 1990s, the UK government adopted so-called “citizens’ charter” targets that were reached using subterfuge.  For example, the Post Office gave the impression that it was offering faster services when it promised “to cut the number of queues.”  All it actually did was to funnel customers through a single queue to the counters – waiting times remained the same.  Railway companies promised customers refunds “if their trains were more than 15 minutes late at their final destination.”  They would then add 20 to 30 minutes to the journey time between the penultimate and final station.  Hospitals and clinics promised patients that they would “be seen within 20 minutes of their appointment time.”  The hospital would then send an administrator or auxiliary nurse to double check patients’ names and details in order to record them as having been seen – the two hour wait to see the doctor stayed the same.

With the world awash with debt-based currency in the 1990s, governments could get away with this kind of nonsense because there were more winners (and pseudo-winners) than losers.  The imposition of austerity policies in the aftermath of the 2008 crash changed everything because those policies finally created a majority of losers.  Furthermore, even those who – on paper at least – were not losers, became painfully aware of their own economic insecurity as job losses began to rise and visible signs of decay like the army of people now living on the streets became impossible to ignore.  The shrinking affluent “never-Trump”/”Remoaner” middle classes safe within their suburban enclaves had become a minority group without anyone noticing it until the impoverished majority began to wreak revenge at the ballot box.

One reason why this appeared to come out of the blue and why western elites are still struggling to come to terms with what is happening is that they ignored another of Machiavelli’s instructions:

“A prince, therefore, always ought to take advice, but only when he wishes and not when others wish. He ought to make it clear that he does not want advice unless he asks for it. However, he ought to constantly inquire, and afterwards be a patient listener concerning the things he asked about. Also, on learning that anyone, on any matter, has not told him the truth, he should let his anger be felt.”

Far from expressing their anger at those institutions that constantly fed them misinformation about the state of society, neoliberal governments rewarded those who flattered them.  Even after 2008, governments failed to purge the institutions whose fawning courtiers had failed to see it coming.  Instead, economists, accountants and bankers who should have been banished from the kingdom were employed to find even more devious ways of fiddling the already distorted official information being fed back to government.  So it was that Jim Edwards at Business Insider could famously write in 2017 that:

“Unemployment in the UK is now so low it’s in danger of exposing the lie used to create the numbers…

“The problem with this record is that the statistical definition of ‘unemployment’ relies on a fiction that economists tell themselves about the nature of work. As the rate gets lower and lower, it tests that lie. Because — as anyone who has studied basic economics knows — the official definition of unemployment disguises the true rate. In reality, about 21.5% of all working-age people (defined as ages 16 to 64) are without jobs, or 8.83 million people, according to the Office for National Statistics.

“That’s more than four times the official number.”

Among the most cynical government ploys in fiddling the unemployment rate is that people who are subject to sanctions (when an official charges them with breaking some minor rule such as being a couple of minutes late for an appointment in order to stop their benefits) are not counted as unemployed; explaining why Job Centres have targets to sanction large numbers of claimants, and why ministers continue to claim that depriving people of a means to feed themselves is good for them.

Official statistics may allow government ministers to bask in their reflected glory; but they hide socially explosive conditions on the ground.  For example, one consequence of social security policy is that large numbers of women have been forced to turn to sex work in order to survive.  As Patrick Butler at the Guardian reports:

“The government has dropped its hardline refusal to accept that destitution caused by five-week waits for universal credit payments has been a major factor in forcing some women to turn to sex work.

Giving evidence to the work and pensions select committee, the minister for family support, Will Quince, apologised for a memo his department sent to the committee last month and said it ‘did not very well reflect my views on this issue’.”

These are precisely the kind of conditions from which revolutions are born; and it is a foolish ruler who chooses to ignore them.  However, across the board, ministers are more inclined to trumpet flattering headline figures than to dig beneath them to uncover unpleasant hard truths.  Even away from the margins, official economic data is hiding the near collapse of an economy only barely visible on the surface in the shape of:

  • The so-called “productivity puzzle”
  • The collapse in non-food retail spending
  • The rise of in-work poverty.

As Richard Partington wrote recently in the Guardian:

“Record jobs figures hide the true story of UK economy…

“First, it is worth noting that jobs figures are notoriously backward-looking, providing a snapshot several months old by the time they are released. Companies have started to announce more job losses in recent weeks, including Honda. But beyond this, there is something else more sinister about our record employment levels.

“Economists think they may have found the reason why, in an idea put forward by the Bank of England rate-setter Gertjan Vlieghe late last month…  People are easier to hire and fire when companies are reluctant to invest for the longer term, and we know business investment has been weak: corporate spending in the UK has fallen for four quarters in a row for the first time since the last recession.”

Partington goes on to note that:

“Two-thirds of the jobs boom has also come from growth in atypical work, such as self-employment, work on zero-hours contracts and agency work, according to analysis by the Resolution Foundation think tank. Atypical work has plateaued in recent years but nonetheless remains elevated versus pre-crisis levels.”

In other words, the headline employment figure tells the opposite story to what is happening on the ground.  Consumers are not spending and so businesses are not investing.  If jobs need doing – such as the recent stockpiling of goods in preparation for Brexit – firms are turning to cheap labour rather than expensive technology.  As a consequence, the old belief that work was the route out of poverty no longer holds.  Outside the shrinking salaried class, most people’s experience is of insecure employment and pay rates that have failed to keep pace with the rising cost of essential items.  At the same time, the public services and social security safety net that used to make life bearable for the low-paid have been gutted.

When Machiavelli advised rulers to avoid flattery and to encourage chosen advisors to tell the truth to power, he wasn’t doing so out of some bleeding heart liberal concern for the plight of the poor and the dispossessed.  Rather, his advice was designed to protect rulers from being usurped by claimants to the throne who would play on the people’s discontent to overthrow the ruler.  Trump, Brexit, the European populist right, Jeremy Corbyn and the yellow vest protestors are all manifestations of usurpers all too happy to draw on the people’s growing discontent to overthrow the neoliberal Prince.  And after decades of self-generated flattery, the neoliberal prince has only himself to blame.

As you made it to the end…

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