Monday, 11 March 2013
Apartheid South Africa and neo-liberal Britain are large chapters of my life. As a child I wondered what a world beyond apartheid would be like. In the gathering storm of resistance I suspected racism was not the sum of our troubles. It was easy enough to understand that British capital informed apartheid economic doctrine and to accept that Westminster had legalised the system. But the British sense of superiority – over African and Afrikaner alike – remained an enigma, outside the colonial explanation.
Apartheid imposed inferiority. Only the emancipation of your soul could break its spell. But its overt legal formulation also provided relief; stoking resistance and moral solidarity, undermining cant and breaching isolation. In Britain the elite regard the lower-classes as an inferior race, feral and lazy, like the Irish from bygone times. They are rewarded with deference. The masses suspect but are in the main obedient. They do not wish to be hanged, drawn and quartered and instead choose the terrible solace of cognitive dissonance.
Radical resistance has been no match for duplicity over a thousand years. The cult of monarchy persists. The dilution of the aristocracy by pop-singers and football stars is a necessary concession. It is possible to imagine that a feudal heart still beats. The elite remain mysterious but the pursuit and relish of superiority is in the social DNA. Beyond the codes of decency, democracy and fair-play they defend their collective interest jealously, in their papers, at Oxbridge, in Parliament and the courts. Hypocrisy has been more effective than a clutch of race laws.
Now Britain’s power elite have tightened their grip. The late 20th century has been a period of consolidation without parallel. Historian Hywell Williams (‘Britain’s Power Elites’) says, “A broad base consists of a Parliament which is both decayed and decadent, an executive layer of government which is both haughty and incompetent and a professional class which has been subverted by a managerialism which is bland in tone but potent in its effects… Above this base…stand the business and financial elites whose power extends in a way which seems so obvious and matter-of-fact it is no longer seen as the remarkable and novel thing it truly is.”
It accounts for why banks can speculate recklessly beyond belief, pay obscene bonuses, launder drug money, directly cheat the public, rig interest rates, freeze the economy and still hold the government and taxpayer to ransom. And all of this has happened after the crash of 2008 and the bank bailouts. Over the past three decades the cold-blooded rationality of the market has become the ultimate arbiter of social policy.
Attitudes have hardened. Democracy is a decorative feature and frustrating illusion. Austerity is imposed with killer instinct. Children mean nothing and every penny is squeezed from the poor. Inequality rockets; the middle classes fall increasing into the rabble and new forms of elite control make science fiction reality. There are lessons for South Africa from what has befallen Britain.
Two dystopian novels – Aldoux Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ published in 1931 and George Orwell’s ‘1984’ which appeared in print in 1949 – have proved prophetic. Huxley envisioned a world in which people, overcome by consumption and lobotomised by entertainment, are willing to embrace their oppression; Orwell foresaw a repressive surveillance security state in which history, language and thought are controlled. They summarise the recent experience of Britain.
On the back of a housing boom, primed by cheap money from the banks, Britons were fed the idea that they were now all middle-class. Their houses were wealth creators. Invitations to join the credit card party flew into letterboxes. Consumerism became an epidemic as voyeuristic television, infotainment, celebrity news, themed marketing propaganda and trivia displaced the joy of thinking. The popularity of shopping channels swelled to command dedicated audiences. Political engagement found its most earnest expression in the after Xmas sales which now began before Santa arrived.
The technology revolution has recast society as a community of ‘apps’ users. Almost 30 years ago in his book ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ Neil Postman recognised the peril. “To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple.”
The “Game the News Project” which “explores” topical subjects using games available online illustrates the point. “Endgame: Syria” is one of its latest offerings. Players lead the rebels against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They must balance fighting the war with maintaining political support. The game received extensive media coverage.
“Foreign Policy” said, “A simple computer card game may not be deep, but when players ponder whether to play a “Saudi Support for the Rebels” or a “Rebels Assassinate Key Regime Leader” card, they are making decisions, and that is how humans learn best.” Clearly this does not work for bankers and politicians.
British consumers are waking up to the Orwellian nightmare that unfolded while they were eating strawberries in winter, shopping for clothes made at a pittance in the “special economic zones” of Asia, watching trash TV and forgetting to think. They believed surveillance was for their own safety. Now motorists are learning the hard way as councils use video equipped spy cars to impose fines remorselessly and unfairly.
A crude rentier mentality has emerged in government complementing the extortion racket run by the banks. Next month benefits paid to those who cannot afford to live on their miserable wages will be slashed by 14 percent – about £16 a week – if they are deemed to have an extra room. A little box qualifies. In Wales alone it is estimated that some 4 000 families will have to move out. The iron fist of the municipal state is everywhere as cash-strapped councils scrabble for income. Cheating is the default setting for all revenue collection.
By contrast the government has been incensed by a European Union cap on banker bonuses which affect the 5000 top gamblers in the industry. Stuart Gulliver, head of British multinational bank HSBC, got a £2 million bonus last year – after the bank was fined for rehabilitating Mexican drug money and ripping-off its customers. Meanwhile energy bills soar as the privatised and foreign owned utilities fleece the UK’s “consumer peasants”. Ironically, EDF which operates eight UK power stations is a publicly owned French company and supplies electricity at home at the lowest production price in Western Europe.
Politicians cheerfully lie about the austerity economy. A trap has been set and is now being sprung. Banks have lent money created out of thin air and at no cost. As the economy crumbles and individuals and businesses fail electronic entries will become real assets in the hands of the banks. These banks are technically insolvent – flooded with toxic derivatives – which the government is replacing with taxpayer money.
This is biting the hand that feeds you. The austerity programme has only just begun. Analysts are warning it will last another 10 years. By then what’s left of Britain’s national assets will be sold-off at fire sale prices and the privatisation project completed.
There is also the Terrorism Act. It was used to force Iceland to pay back British depositors who invested in one of its banks that failed. Student Samina Malik, 23, the “lyrical terrorist”, received a suspended sentence for a thought crime – scribbling “extremist” verse on the back of till receipts. This is all-purpose legislation to crush free speech and protest.
Orwell wrote in 1984 “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake…Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”
In retrospect the settlers under apartheid appear relatively innocent; replicating the pretensions of insular, class-ridden England; exercising the opportunity abroad to mimic their betters at home. The bankers on the other hand are part of a transnational elite, at home in Johannesburg and London, for whom countries do not matter.
The “proles’”who make up 85 percent of Oceania’s population in “1984” have lives even if stunted. “Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer, and above all, gambling, filled up the horizon of their minds.” In “Brave New World” the population is limited and goods and resources are plentiful.
There is no Plan B for the masses of people who will be dumped on Britain’s streets as austerity deepens. How curious.