Dictatorship by Consent

Saturday, 10th May 2014

Apparently, if we believe many opinion leaders, we fought most recent wars to spread freedom and democracy. Allegedly people across the world admire us because of our deep-rooted civic political culture. Never mind any inconvenient conflicts between personal freedom and true democracy, but what do the international ruling elites and their faithful cheerleaders actually mean by this Hellenic word for people power ?

Do they really want an open debate about issues that affect our daily lives? Are there really prepared to explain the inevitable dilemmas that arise from conflicting popular demands? Do they really understand the enormous sense of alienation and psychological inferiority that mass consumerism and an obsession with presentation and body image has created in so many of us? Given the choice, everyone would want higher wages, better working conditions, more leisure time, more green fields, cleaner water, better transport infrastructure, more affordable heating, larger houses, better healthcare, longer lives, more holidays, more fun, more friends and a higher social status. It hardly matters if we cannot have all these wonderful traits at once. However, if the mainstream media can set the agenda, stage-manage debates and isolate inconvenient critics, they can keep alive the illusion of democracy and free speech.

If we did as big business wants, we'd all halve our salaries, double our work load and triple our spending. If numbers don't add up, we can always ask banks or central government to create more money out of thin air, such is the logic of the debt-fuelled consumption-driven economy. Yet the more we are indebted and the more we rely on international trade, the more we transfer our theoretical sovereignty to unaccountable global entities. It often seems we can only debate how to boost the economy, how to attract more inward investment, how to accommodate more international commuters, how to deal with cross-border crime or how to combat terrorism. We do not debate whether any of these measures are necessary, i.e. do we really need to grow our economy?

As mainstream national political institutions become powerless in the face of tentacular transnational remote organisations, political debate is limited either to trivial parochial matters or is reduced to simple negative campaigning, blaming rivals for the collateral damage of policies that would have been implemented anyway. The recent Labour party political video, devised by the US media guru behind Barrack Obama’s electoral victory (David Axelrod), may fool a few young angry voters, who'd like to blame a few convenient scapegoats for their misfortunes, but it is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black. It perpetuates the myth that in the early 21st century any difference remains between the mainstream parties on any subject of importance. The video focuses on a few safe and simplistic issues, tuition fees, rising heating costs and bedroom tax. It then blames the old guard of British aristocracy. Just because modern CEOs wear jeans, listen to rock music and no longer have posh Etonian accents, does not make their huge financial superiority any less grotesque. Indeed the gap between rich and poor had been steadily rising for over 30 years. According to the top 10% earned just 7.1 times more than the bottom 10% in 1995, by 2008 this ratio had risen to 10.1 times.

It doesn't take long to disentangle any of these claims and see how Labour offers little alternative to the two other orthodox parties. Take, for example, the much-maligned bedroom tax. It is only an issue because housing has become unaffordable without huge government subsidies. Housing benefit effectively subsidises landlords, so why should hardworking low to middle income tax-payers in areas with lower property prices subsidise special categories of people entitled to housing benefit in wealthier areas? New Labour have become the biggest defender of spiralling housing benefits introduced by Thatcher after her government sold off council houses. Moreover, thanks to a rising population, largely driven by immigration, demand for social housing has never been higher, and thus needs to be rationed. Do New Labour plan to build millions more homes and where ? Will they admit the rather obvious environmental costs of more urban sprawl in Europe’s most densely populated region? I doubt it. Indeed their stance against bedroom tax is just an exercise in political point scoring. In 13 years in government they abysmally failed to increase the tax burden on international oligarchs, multinational corporations and banks, as they relied on their presence in the UK to artificially boost the economy.

Not only did New Labour introduce tuition fees in 1997 and increased them to £3000 later in 2006, they promoted a huge expansion in higher education that turned universities into businesses competing not just for corporate sponsorship, but in the lucrative international student market. As a result degrees are not only devalued, but reflect the needs of big business rather than of wider society. With so many other spending obligations and financial constraints, no government can now afford to return to the old grant system, where most students from poorer backgrounds received fully subsidised education, but until the 1980s only 15 to 20% went to university. Yet today only a minority of the nearly 50% of 18 to 21 year olds who now attend university attain degrees of any practical worth with social sciences, law, business administration and creative arts among the most popular subjects. Biology is now dominated by the needs of the burgeoning pharmaceutical, biotech, assisted fertilisation and private healthcare (cosmetic surgery) sectors. Only a fraction of medicine-related degrees produce new doctors, most prepare students for life as a pharmaceutical representative, fertility clinic lab technician or psychiatric nurse. Such professions are in greater demand as a growing proportion of the population is on prescription medication, opts to bypass nature through fertility treatment or succumbs to emotional disturbances that we have relabelled as mental health issues.

Most of us shudder at the thought of opening our electricity or gas bills, largely because back in the 1990s they were, by European standards, incredibly low because most gas still came from the North Sea. Now most gas is imported and energy demand has grown. Logically we need to either increase energy production, with all its potential environmental consequences, import more or consume less. Token gestures like unplugging your TV set at night will make little difference. By offering short-term subsidies for heating, New Labour would promote inefficiency and fail to provide a long term solution, i.e. adapting to a low consumption economy, ensuring people can live healthy lives with less waste. If you naively believe they would just tax a few fat cat energy firm bosses, just consider the real reasons behind the 2003 occupation of Iraq.

In reality although some debate still takes place even on contentious issues such as mass immigration, the hands of local, regional and national governments are tied. All they can do is present a narrow set of options and hope big business will work magic to bridge the growing gap between social and environment sustainability and economic expedience. If people really exercised democratic control, you can bet the ruling elite would change strategy, as they often do. Instead every few years we are just given the opportunity to vote for another set of middle managers. Sometime we elect mavericks, who may rant and rave in parliamentary talking shops, but all along big decisions affecting people's jobs, community, housing, transport etc. are decided in remote boardrooms and think tanks.

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