Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Book Notes: Captive State by George Monbiot

Although now over a decade old, and in some ways out-of-date, George Monbiot's "Captive State" is nevertheless a shocking expose Big-Business in the UK. Monbiot's case-studies demonstrate that across many areas of life, corporations have successfully used their power, and influence to work against the public good. Corporations relentlessly pursuing their own profits, Monbiot demonstrates, frequently trample on other legitimate concerns, regularly use corrupt and secret methods, are undermining the relevance of democracy and have in many cases held governments to ransom, endangered public health, or extracted inordinate sums from the public purse.

Monbiot was one of the first analysts to expose the short-comings of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) which Labour in opposition warned against, but expanded under Blair and Brown in office. Readers of Private Eye, will know that the warnings Monbiot issued over a decade ago about the way in which the PFI would work almost exclusively to the benefit of the corporations and to the detriment of tax-payers has been proven to be an astute prediction. While PFI might have delivered 'instant results' and enabled New Labour politicians to cut the ribbons at opening ceremonies for many public utilities, it has effectively mortgaged government to the corporations; while keeping the real debt off the public-books. Monbiot's case-study is the Sky-Bridge fiasco.

As the book moves through issues such as town-planning and local government ("how to buy planning permission"), the all-pervasive influence of the supermarkets, science, medicine and marketing, and world trade. He demonstrates the way in which corporations have been able to tame-governments in order to reduce them to becoming underwriters of their risks, developers of their markets, promoters of their products and spin-doctors for their images. Time-and-again Monbiot documents cases in which critical political decisions have been made by corporate-placemen with deeply conflicting interests - by government/industry co-operations in which poachers are also expected to 'gamekeep' with integrity. The results that the book documents include scandalous planning decisions by local authorities that harm people but enrich corporations, the public being denied the right to know when they are eating GM produce, unjust word-trade agreements, and the control of all aspects of food production by supermarkets. And more..

When corporations first began to develop they had to seek a license from the King! They were allowed to keep their Royal Patronage as long as they were seen as operating in the public good, they did not exists simply to propagate their own profitability. That was an extreme position which gave undue power of the state over free-enterprise. Now however Monbiot argues, we have reached another extreme in which the legitimate operation of the state to protect public good cannot operate effectively without the permission of the corporations. Their trump-card is obviously to remove capital from the jurisdiction of un-cooperative governments.

In a final chapter Monbiot includes a list of other issues that he could have written about in depth. The point of the book however - and one which clearly has not changed in the decade since its publication, is that there needs to be a serious discussion about the influence of the largest corporations in the UK. Monbiot would argue that the results of such a discussion should be a serious attempt to re-assert the primacy of democratic power-structures over boardrooms. Not to restrict free-trade, not to damage business, (the only business he specifically calls for breaking-up into smaller less monopolistic units are supermarkets) but to re-balance the decision marking processes of state so that for instance in planning processes, communities have a level-playing-field with corporations where their interests collide. He certainly has a point.

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