Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Tony Benn and the neoliberal orthodoxy

I've already written an article about the factors that made Tony Benn a great politician that stood head and shoulders above most of his political peers (the elected ones and the unelected ones), but I've decided to do one more because having looked up some of his old speeches, I've come across a number of quotations that ring even truer today than when he originally said them.

I'll begin with a quote from what is perhaps his most famous speech, which he made to parliament in the wake of Margaret Thatcher's resignation (after being stabbed in the back by her own MPs):

"Despite the fact that we have been told that this is an entrepreneurial society, Britain has an utter contempt for skill. If one talks to people who dig coal and drive trains, or to doctors, nurses, dentists or toolmakers, one discovers that no one in Britain is interested in them. The whole of the so-called entrepreneurial society is focused on the City news that we get in every bulletin which tells us what has happened to £ sterling to three decimal points against the basket of European currencies. Skill is what built this country's strength, but it has been treated with contempt."
The references to professions such as coal miners and toolmakers clearly identify this as an old speech (heavy industry and manufacturing have been ruthlessly crushed as a result of 35 continuous years of ideological neoliberalism), as does the reference to "a basket of European currencies", which have now been replaced by the economically flawed single currency. Other than these minor anachronisms, the speech could perfectly well be referring to the situation in 2014.

The argument could be made that the contempt is even more apparent now than it was during the Thatcher administration. I mean she was a stubborn and divisive woman, but would she really have allowed any of her chancellors to be as brazenly contemptuous towards ordinary voters as George Osborne is, with his campaign of wage repression for "hardworking people", whilst using taxpayers money to appeal against an EU ruling that bankers can no longer pay themselves more than 200% of their (already ludicrously high) salaries in bonuses?

When Tony Benn made this speech, the country had suffered a little over a decade of destructive ideological neoliberalism administered by Margaret Thatcher. After the orthodox neoliberal regimes of Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron that have succeeded her, the neoliberal experiment she started has continued uninterrupted for 35 long years.

In the next excerpt from the speech Tony Benn identifies "the idea that we have responsibilities one to another and that we are not just greedy all the time, looking out only for ourselves" as a traditional British virtue (which I still believe stands true), then goes on to say:
Without being personal, the philosophy that has been propagated over the past 10 years has been wicked and evil. I am not talking about the qualities of the people who advocated those policies. But to set man against man, woman against woman and country against country and to build on nationalism and racism - we remember the warning about how we would be "swamped" by immigrants - and all the damage that has been done by the Conservatives has been disgraceful."
This statement can easily be applied to the divisive policies of the current government too. Just think of Theresa May's divisive "go home" vans (which were even condemned by Nigel Farage as "un-British") and the tabloid fueled fearmongering over the inundation of immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria which never materialised. Look at the way the unemployed are demonised to draw attention away from the banksters who caused the crisis in the first place with their spree of unregulated gambling with other people's money.

The establishment political system is still clearly contaminated with this same divisive "divide and conquer" mentality that Thatcher used in the 1980s.

"One cannot change human nature. There is good and bad in everybody, and for 10 years the bad has been stimulated and the good denounced as lunatic, out of touch, cloud-cuckoo-land, extremist and militant. The Conservatives in power have been the cause of that."
This continues to stand true, with the only necessity being the need to replace "10 years" with "35 years". The worst thing about it is perhaps the fact that dissident opinions have become much more marginalised since then. All three establishment political parties have embraced neoliberalism as the ideological orthodoxy.

Just look at the way Gordon Brown created a boom industry in insane PFI neoliberal economic alchemy schemes, and the way that the Liberal Democrats have willingly assisted the Tories as they simultaneously dismantle and privatise the NHS and the justice system from within.

Anyone that denies that all three establishment parties have all been infected by the neoliberal ideological orthodoxy is clearly the person who is actually "out of touch" and living in "cloud cuckoo land".
"The rotten values that have been propagated from the platform of political power in Britain during the past 10 years will be an infection - a virulent strain of right-wing capitalist thinking which it will take time to overcome."
This last quote from the speech is perhaps the most striking. He was right that the UK had become infected with a virulent strain of "right-wing capitalist thinking", but given that adherence to this neoliberal ideology has now become the unquestionable orthodoxy, and the voices of dissent have died, and their successors have become ever more marginalised, we seem to be even further from Tony Benn's hopeful aspiration that we could overcome it, than we were back in 1990 (before the Labour party was usurped by adherents of the neoliberal ideology).

Back in 1990, when Tony Benn made this speech, many of the neoliberal reforms that have happened subsequently would have sounded like the plot of some dystopian science-fiction film. Never mind the fact that British Rail and the Royal Mail still remained national industries when Tony Benn spoke these words, just think of some of the ideological lunacy that has come to pass since then.

The Britain of today has intrusive state surveillance infrastructure that the KGB and the stasi could only have dreamed of; countless functions of the state have been sold off to unaccountable mega corporations (outsourcing parasites like Serco, Capita, G4S, A4E, Atos, Sudexo ... ) operation of the UK nuclear deterrent has long been privatised, the UK tax collection offices have been sold off to a shell company based in the tax haven of Bermuda, the banks have had bailouts that amount to more than the entire UK sovereign debt, but these vast sums are carefully hidden off balance sheet* just as Gordon Brown's insane PFI economic alchemy schemes remain hidden too; the right to trial by jury is long gone, as now is the right for you and your own lawyer to attend your own trial and to know the charges and evidence against you.

Even Terry Gilliam couldn't have made most of that stuff up, but it's all real, it's all happened, but thanks to the complicity of the mainstream media, probably 95% of the public remain completely ignorant of most of these facts.

The fact is that Tony Benn was right that this infection of the British establishment with the virulent ideology of neoliberalism would "take time to overcome" (if we allow for the fact that it was such an understatement).

This reckless binge of highly destructive ideology must come to an end eventually, if it doesn't the consequences will be dire. The neoliberal orthodoxy is utterly unsustainable, either it gets usurped from within by a new economic paradigm, or it descends into chaos as all ossified and unquestionable ideological orthodoxies always have done, only the scale of the disaster will be bigger than ever because of the globalised nature of the ideology, the vastly increased global population and the historically unparallelled reliance upon energy resources and technology.

I'd like to finish with one last quote from Tony Benn, which is nowhere near as famous as his Thatcher's resignation speech. I heard him say this in an address he made to Oxford University as a very old man. It is one of my favourite quotes, not for its eloquence (because it isn't particularly by his standards) but because it so closely matches my own worldview.
"I believe that progress has been made by two flames that have always burned in the human heart; the flame of anger at injustice and the flame of hope that we can build a better world"
I firmly believe that for all of his mistakes (of which he admitted there were many), if civilisation does somehow manage to escape from the deathtrap of the neoliberal orthodoxy he persistently warned us about, history will surely judge Tony Benn to be one of the ethical voices of reason.

If on the other hand the unsustainable neoliberal orthodoxy continues, he will be largely forgotten, because history is always written by the winners. But if the status quo continues, civilisation itself will inevitably fall into terrible decline, meaning all versions of history will be forgotten in the desperate fight for survival brought about by harsh competition over dwindling resources caused by the unsustainable nature of ideologically deregulated markets and an economy based on the pursuit of pure self-interest.

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* = The establishment hide the vast cost of bailing out the insolvent banks off the national debt figures using the Public Sector Net Borrowing Excluding Financial Sector Interventions (PSNBex) calculation.

More articles from
The five factors that made Tony Benn a great politician 
The Great Neoliberal Lie
Margaret Thatcher is dead, but her toxic legacies live on

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