The cleverest politician cannot subjugate those who only wish to be free.
When Britain’s finance-dominated economic model collapsed in 2007-8, what in normal times passes unremarked became undeniable, the stuff of front pages and news bulletins. The state is the single most important factor in determining the distribution of material goods within the territory it controls. Through the operations of the central bank and the institutions of law enforcement, the state stood revealed as the ultimate arbiter of outcomes in the economy. It enabled grand larceny in the financial sector and then coordinated the getaway. Mainstream coverage has tended to shy away from the implications of this. Rather than denying what is plainly true those who dominate public speech have instead taken refuge in nonsense. Politicians resort to the occult principle ‘as above, so below’, and talk about ‘the nation’s credit card’ or they exploit the Sadean possibilities of concepts like austerity. The BBC tells us that quantitative easing is like putting ‘imaginary petrol’ in our cars as part of a wider effort to avoid serious discussion of money and credit. When particularly lurid crimes come to light they are dubbed scandals.
But despite all this, the secret is out. The state rewards and punishes. It inflicts pain and confers pleasure, exults some character types and forms of conduct, degrades others. It seeks to determine who knows what, and who can speak with some expectation of being heard. Around it congregate legitimating stories that are also tickets to sustenance for the tellers. The state seethes with mutually reinforcing fictions and fantasies, about sturdy British empiricism and distrust of abstraction, and the glories of our inherited arrangements, at once responsive to the needs of the present and a living link to the immemorial past. These stories form part of the state. They are how business is conducted, how the show goes on. Our uncodified constitution is constantly being restated – common sense and understatement transformed as if by magic into mystification and bombast.
Meanwhile, the state is avid for facts about the population and energetically infiltrates a nominally independent civil society. It finds, and lavishly rewards, partners in a nominally private economy. As I write, civilized men and women in official agencies are doing their best to ensure that nothing – not a demonstration, not a political movement, not a celebrity, certainly not a book - threatens what they understand to be national security. Yet their account of what they understand to be national security is as secret as their work to defend it. The brilliant technician of total surveillance works in the shadow of the loveable celebrant of timeless continuity.
The bailout of the financial sector and the subsequent revelations of widespread criminality in the political, economic and media directorate marked the beginning of a constitutional, as well as an economic, crisis. After all, bankocracy is a form of the state and replacing it will entail deep constitutional change. As I argue in The Magic Kingdom this constitutional change must encompass the systems of communication and credit and the strange property that is the corporate form. It must also do away with the anachronism and misdirection that provide a venue for the largest offshore network in the world.
None of this is widely acknowledged in the easily accessible circuits of communication. Instead we have been subjected to an energetic exercise in distraction, in which themes that appeal to an unreformed public opinion are being mobilized to prevent the obvious from becoming politically relevant. Though the need for constitutional reform is now acknowledged, the discussions that find general publicity have a hysterical quality. Against a backdrop of mountainous misrule, Mr Hague clambers up the molehill of the West Lothian question.
The Coalition government has pitted public sector workers against private sector workers and mobilized resentment against welfare recipients and immigrants. Now the English are being encouraged to vent their frustration against the Scots. The Labour opposition has refrained from questioning the fundamentals of the government’s programme and has been content to wait until the 2015 elections when it will promise hope and change without troubling voters with much in the way of detail. It can scarcely afford to be too forthcoming, given its own responsibility for the financial sector’s wholesale collapse, and its continuing commitment to a political settlement that converts public passivity into extravagant financial sector profits.
Nevertheless, the crisis is on us and it is becoming increasingly difficult for the state and its political franchises to keep majority opinion properly corralled. The Scottish independence referendum raised deep questions about the nature of Westminster rule and exposed the shortcomings of both the private media and the BBC. Meanwhile, evidence of widespread criminality in politics and the media sits uneasily with the idea that our system relies in the last resort on what Edmund Burke called ‘the prudence and uprightness of Ministers’.
The state is acting openly to preserve the power and wealth of the financial sector. The financial interest has become, in the official mind, the national interest. For politicians to talk about market forces and administrative expertise now seems ridiculous. Their efforts to impersonate the ruled are falling flat. People are on the brink of wondering if the state that underpins and protects a few favoured interests might be remade as an instrument for securing the common good. They will remain on the brink for years yet. And this is the heart of the constitutional crisis: we no longer recognise the impersonation of the national mood offered by Parliament via the BBC.
The odds will always favour what R.H. Tawney called ‘the oldest and toughest plutocracy in the world’. They have enormous powers of patronage and are experts in making synthetic arrangements seem like facts of nature. They offer wealth and status to those who accept their terms, ridicule and worse to those who do not. If necessary they will fund challenges to the established order that wind up enhancing their position. At the margins they will encourage those forms of radicalism that strengthen their authority. But the outcome is only foregone if we decide that it is. The current arrangements are indefensible and we all know it. Perhaps there is nothing we can do to change them. But not to try, not to draw on every resource we have, seems too disgusting to contemplate.
This piece is abridged from the foreword to Dan Hind’s The Magic Kingdom: Property, Monarchy and the Maximum Republic (Zero Books). The ebook edition is available for £0.99 from Amazon for the rest of the month.
Cross-posted with New Left Project, as part of our Great Charter Debate series.
Get our weekly email