Followers of the debates on globalisation will be well aware of a surge of recent books associated with the anti-globalisation movement which explore corporate brands have reshaped consumption and culture (Naomi Klein's No Logo) have infiltrated the state (Noreena Hertz Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy)and have also consumed political parties and refashioned them in their own image (George Monbiot's Captive State).
Colin Leys, the reputed scholar of third world development and of British politics, has entered the fray on behalf of a socialist alternative with an investigation of the response of national politics to global economic forces. He uses the experience of Britain for this project, but his story spans the world and is of world-wide relevance. The book moves its lens systematically from the global system towards the detail of rapidly proliferating real markets. Leys peers through two key holes to see the politics involved in the penetration by markets of areas of society formerly ring-fenced for non-market forms of provision and values. The two cases are public service broadcasting and health care; both regulated in distinctively British ways but now being privatised and commercialised in ways only too familiar worldwide.
Leys starts where most critics of globalisation leave off. The economy is replacing society as the subject of politics. In low intensity democracies (the phrase is Samir Amin's) ruling parties find it increasingly difficult to direct the terms on which governments regulate the economy, though there are conditions under which some do it better than others. Their politics is driven by corporates which operate not nationally but globally. Leys has a wealth of evidence with which he fleshes out this profoundly political process (globally in chapter 2 and in Britain in chapter 3).He asks: how do states get voters to endorse policies which meet the demands of capital? How do states pull off the theft of sovereignty from their citizens? How are markets to be naturalised and democratic politics to be insulated from demos? This book answers such questions.
There is a general logic to the process: capital must expand. 'Accumulate, accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets'! proclaimed Karl Marx. Capital expands in many ways, some primitive (resources are seized by force, peasants shoved off the land) others are sophisticated and carefully planned (the seething life cycles of products and their substitutes). Markets appear to slither into households (domestic service) and out again ('DIY', but read the book, for DIY is not what it seems..). Markets proliferate (markets for derivatives, markets for advertising, for management consultancy, legal advice, repairs..).
Leys follows markets expanding into the non-market public sphere. This is the arena for public goods, for national culture and for democratic expressions of citizenship. The novel insight powering Leys' analysis of market-driven politics is as follows. For markets to take over, four political conditions have to be achieved. First, public services have to be broken down into sets of private commodities (hip replacements, laundering, current affairs programmes popular with advertisers....) each of which can be supplied at (more or less) known prices. Second, needs and delights have to be reworked into effective demand expressed through purchasing power alone. Third, workers with collective values and a public service vocation have to be transformed into profit-makers and on less secure terms. Lastly, business requires and usually gets the risks of this transformation to be underwritten by the state. Those remnants of public services that cannot be completely abolished will be left as services of the last resort.
After this first phase looks like being successful, the general dynamic starts to grind; the costs of labour can be reduced; less specialised labour may be shed, components may be subcontracted to cheap sites. Products will be standardised for scale economies and a mass market. 'Flexible production' usually masks a standardised technological core. All other labour, all other costs, will be transferred to consumers. (And the buck stops with women.)
Private contractors do not have to be efficient to notch up rates of profit attractive to shareholders. Public resources will be transferred to retain poorly functioning private firms up to the point where the costs of maintaining an inefficient status quo exceed those of exposing deficiency or delinquence, together with the transactions costs of replacing the contract.
- to be continued - in part two of review