Two books, two approaches to breaking the British deadlock

Dissenters to the dystopic state of Britain, like David Marquand and Michael Meacher MP, set out the inequalities and economic policies than disfigure British society and propose overlapping remedies. Given the power of the institutions ranged against us, can we—and they—possibly prevail? 

Stuart Weir
7 August 2014

David Marquand, Mammon’s Kingdom: An Essay on Britain, Now, Allen Lane, hardback £20.00


We live in a political and economic prison, or more accurately, a plutocratic madhouse. A neo-liberal, or market fundamentalist, economic theory holds near totalitarian sway. Corporate and financial interests dominate state government and domestic politics; and the Keepers of the Madhouse, their media, validate their power and cow our political parties. We learn an economic morality that the market is sacred, all-knowing and self-correcting, that it is a sin for the state to interfere. Government and private business collaborate in the enclosure of the public realm and its assets. We are told that this is because private companies are essentially more efficient than publicly-owned organisations. We accept the use of GDP, biased as it is, to measure the progress of the economy and, by inference, our well-being, though it does neither well.

We do not all accept this state of affairs. There is an alternative vision of self-confident citizens in a democratic society—not clients in a market state—citizens who are willing to combine together for the common good, and who will seek to resolve political decisions in a deliberative democratic process. To name but a few, economists such as Ha-Joon Chang, John Weeks and Guy Standing, who are typically categorised as ‘heterodox’ economists, have all recently challenged the doctrines of mainstream economics; David Beetham has anathematised corporate power over government as an ‘unelected oligarchy’ for Democratic Audit. 

David Marquand and Michael Meacher both take odds with the new right’s political and intellectual ascendancy and the masterless market. They suggest how best we can escape, in differing but overlapping ways. Both are appalled by the gross and growing inequality in the UK; both renounce the pursuit of economic growth. Marquand’s main concern is with the decay of solidaristic and dutiful culture in Britain; Meacher takes a more policy-oriented approach (well to the left of the Miliband/Balls Labour Party).

I am afraid that I must cut a swathe through both books for the sake of simplicity. After a  distinguished political and academic career, David Marquand has become something of a social democratic seer. He finds “intimations of a challenge” to the prevailing right-wing cultivation of ‘choice’, ‘aspiration’ and individual aggrandisement among we inmates within the prison/madhouse that encircles our society: from among others, Occupy and Uncut; Citizens UK; Compass; the living wage campaign; the High Pay Commission; 38 Degrees and Avaaz;  openDemocracy. He could have added more, many more; for example, the Guardian, the New Economics Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Equality Trust, the Green Party, numerous Labour local authorities…

There is a Catch-22 of course. For all the vision, wit, campaigning activity, research evidence, argument, passion, etc, that these dissenters and doers bring to bear goes almost entirely unheard in a fractured Mammon’s Kingdom where “charismatic populism” and “hubristic media” smother debate. In the first place, who do we think will listen? How well do we make our case? A task that is especially difficult when the media ignore opinion and debate from outside the mainstream, or allow voices to emerge, to be derided or trashed, especially if the Labour Party, the TUC or a trade union, casts off their customary caution and dares to challenge orthodoxy. I felt the chilling effect of the right’s embargo at Democratic Audit, when David Beetham first presented his analysis of the tentacles of corporate power both over government and politics and its influence from within. There was an evident fear that the Audit might be accused of being left-wing or anti-business, and so lose its academic respectability.

Michael Meacher, The State We Need: Keys to the Renaissance of Britain, Biteback, hardback £18.99

The difficulties that the wall of silence imposes are often internalised: what is the point, it is said, of ‘preaching to the converted’? Well, first of all, most of the dissent cannot be narrowly conceived of as ‘preaching’; indeed, it is often too heavily evidence-based. Secondly, we will need a core of the converted if we are to transform society. We can all learn from what is being argued and presented, as I have from both the Marquand and Meacher books. My own understanding has grown, thanks to them both, although not necessarily in an optimistic direction. And the modest debate and reviews that the books engender adds to collective understanding.

Funnily enough, Marquand does preach. There is a strong ethical substance to his scholarly history of decline. Here is a crude very ‘condensed read’: Marquand invokes his own host of the departed good and great, from a 19th century ‘clerisy’, civil service greats, the heroes of the post-war transformation of Britain, Marx, Keynes, Amartya Sen, Burke—and a solidaristic “realm of service, equity, professionalism and public duty”—in contrast to the strain of individualism beginning also in the 19th century, through to R D Laing, Marcuse and the “lyrically communitarian but... hyper-individualistic” 1960s rebellion that was ultimately to be appropriated by Mrs Thatcher. This was done, ironically, as Andrew Gamble has pointed out, with the aid of a strong state serving as both midwife and nursemaid of “the free economy”, to create what Marquand describes as today’s “hedonistic and relativist culture [that has] elbowed aside the old culture of honour and duty”.

Where Marquand preaches, Michael Meacher prescribes. Meacher has suffered throughout his political career from being an ally of the late Tony Benn who did not abandon him when others did. But his is one of the best minds on the Labour benches and he has written a remarkably wide-ranging series of proposals for the response to the deficit, an alternative economic strategy (where have I heard that phrase before?): reversing inequality, checking corporate power, reinvigorating democracy, reviving manufacturing, restructuring banking in the national interest, and so on, to designing a new world order and respecting the ecological limits of the world itself. Meacher’s egalitarian spirit shines through as an approach that is very different from Marquand’s, even where they both confront the same issue. Where Marquand sees a fracturing society where distrust and inertia prevent us from acting collectively, Meacher’s is a society crippled by social immobility and class inequality: two sides of the same coin.

If Meacher’s prescriptions are to be discussed, let alone adopted, then Marquand’s plea for a new philosophy of open-ended dialogue, public deliberation and democratic reasoning, grounded in an ethic of stewardship and willing “to master capitalism” in  the cause of the public interest, must prevail. Marquand quite properly sets out the manifold obstacles in the way of such a transformation—among them the interpenetration of corporate and state elites in power, the over- blown financial services, growing inequality, the popular pursuit of economic growth—and alas, the limited nature and influence of the few platforms of dissent and argument. He refuses to despair. After all, the temper of public opinion has changed radically over time and the immediate past. Why not once again?


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