Saturday, 23 May 2015

The Meaning of ‘Pro-Business’

When we hear people waxing lyrical about the importance of being ‘pro-family’, ‘pro-freedom’, and of course, ‘pro-business’, we must ask: what do they really mean?

One of the commonest tricks in political rhetoric is to cover any ill-conceived or obnoxious proposal with a seemingly incontrovertible label. Who wants to be accused of being anti-family or anti-freedom? But we all know that we cannot allow parents to abuse their children or spouses to be beaten in the name of respecting the ‘family’. Loving relations make family valuable. And where such emotional bonds are missing or broken, changes are not only desirable, but in some circumstances, necessary.

So when it comes to the chorus of ‘we must be pro-business’, instead of blithely singing along, it is vital we take a look behind the label. If ‘pro-business’ means being supportive of everyone involved in business operations – for example, ensuring the people who work in them earn enough to live on; the business has a well-earned reputation that it will not harm the lives of those who use their products; the working practices are not injurious to those who work in them or destructive of the environment in which they operate; it generates sustainable benefits without deception or exploitation – then, let us all sign up to that ‘100% Pro-Business’ manifesto right now.

But what if when the smokescreen is blown clear, what we see is actually an agenda that is above all about giving even more power to the 1% most well-off executives in any industry to do as they please at the expense of everyone else – workers, suppliers, customers, local communities? What if ‘cutting red tape’ is just a code to liberate powerful executives to act irresponsibly? And the greater ‘freedom’ of the elite turns out to be a licence to impose pitiful wages and soaring prices on those who cannot stand up to them?

To champion such an agenda under the banner of ‘pro-business’ is not just disingenuous, but would undermine the development of productive enterprise. When rises in productivity are siphoned off, as they have done for decades in the US and UK, to fund astronomical salary increases for the few at the top, to leave stagnant wages for the rest, it destroys morale and deprives working people of the purchasing power to sustain a healthy economy.

So instead of parroting the calls to be ‘pro-business’, let us press those who hide behind this label to explain themselves. What is it that they propose to do to help everyone connected with business activities to do a better job and get a fair share of the benefits? If all they actually plan to do is to sidle up to the wealthy elite and offer them whatever they want, then their political position should be more transparently known as ‘pro-superrich’.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Money Can Buy You Votes

As pundits queue up to expound what went wrong for Labour and why the Conservatives won control, it is important to remember an old adage – follow the money.

A key political issue in any society is whether the benefits generated by people’s joint efforts as workers and citizens should be siphoned off to boost the bank accounts of a few, or shared out more fairly and productively in terms of people’s pay and the support for public services that serve the common good.

Seen clearly in these terms, most people would of course reject politicians who promote the former, and give their backing to those who champion the latter.

Unfortunately, plutocratic politicians have one big, financial advantage. By committing themselves to doing whatever they can to help the wealthy few exploit the masses even more, they get all the assistance that money can buy.

The UK has provided a case example of how this is done with a two-prong approach. First, the superrich, from hedge fund managers to property tycoons, make sure politicians on the right can substantially outspend those on the left. For example, in the final week of the latest election campaign, with many voters still undecided, the Conservative Party received 10 times more in political donations than the Labour Party. And it was no coincidence that the Conservatives in government had by then brushed aside the Electoral Commission’s recommendations and changed the law to allow a 23% increase on what can be spent in election campaigning.

Secondly, corporate moguls have been buying up media outlets for decades. Through those channels they continuously spin out stories about how society’s problems have little to do with laws and policies favouring the superrich, but are all due to vilified scapegoats such as benefit claimants and immigrants (and the EU too for good measure). As for any politicians who dare to stand up to corporate power – the tax evaders, the profiteers, the phone hackers – they are relentlessly presented as foolish, dangerous, incompetent, and untrustworthy.

If anyone doubts that advertising, direct selling/campaigning, media coverage etc can have a critical influence on people’s behaviour, they need to be reminded of how corporations spend billions on their marketing and PR, and the whole new online information and networking industry is sustained by money spent on advertising. And the goal is never to convert everyone, but just to get enough people to go with one product/political party on enough occasions.

So instead of pinning blame on those politicians who have tried to halt the rise of corporate power and challenge plutocratic politics for being ‘out of touch’ with the electorate, the most pressing task for any democratic society is to tackle the problem of money buying up political control.

It is the most insidious form of corruption. And until those in government are prepared to put an end to it, it will only spread further. But how can those who defy the plutocratic mantra get into government in the first place? That requires a new form of progressive populism that engages people on the ground through honest conversations. It can be done [1].

[1] Look at the electoral success of the left in Latin America for the past two decades.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Remember: Together We Can

Many people have written at length about the contradictions inherent in neo-liberal ideas. But they could have saved themselves a lot of time if they had seen neo-liberalism, not as a public philosophy, but as mere propaganda concocted to give the most unrepentant egoism a veneer of respectability.

Neo-liberal doctrines are not devised to show how society could be organised for the common good, but to convince the 99% beneath the plutocratic elite that any collective action by them would only make things worse for everyone.

The central theme is simple: do not join forces through unions, do not pool resources through taxation, do not protect each other with a public safety net, and do not support any international political institutions that may get in the way of transnational businesses. The benefit is supposed to be greater freedom for the individual. The intended outcome is that those in charge of powerful corporations can do as they please without anyone capable of reining them in.

Key to the neo-liberal deception is that collective action must necessarily be bad – less efficient, more unresponsive, and likely to deprive people of what they want. In reality, provided they are steered cooperatively and monitored democratically, collective action can in many cases deliver greater efficiency, higher responsiveness, and secure improvements that most individuals could never hope for on their own.

Of course, support for collective action in certain cases does not rule out individual action in others. In fact, one of the most important advantages of collective action is the provision of fair rules and effective enforcement so that people can pursue many of their goals in life through individual actions without being held back or injured by others who care only for themselves.

There is no disputing historically that unions have secured higher wages and safer working conditions for workers; public health systems have provided reliable care for more people than private firms prioritising profits; worker-run and worker-owned firms have greater productivity and higher worker satisfaction; international political bodies sustain peace and cooperation more effectively than when it is just left to individual states.

To ensure any collective action keeps its focus on the social purpose it is designed to serve, the approach known as ‘Cooperative Problem-Solving’ serves as a tried and tested guide. (See ‘Cooperative Problem-Solving: the key to a reciprocal society’). By embedding the elements of respect for participants, critical deliberation as the means for resolution, accountable decision-making, and systematic review and revision, people have been able to achieve much more than they could if they had been left to their own devices under the prevailing hierarchical structures.

Some of the examples illustrating how well it could work were captured by the last Labour Government’s ‘Together We Can’ programme - including how crime and fear of crime could be substantially reduced; pupils’ confidence and performance boosted; housing services and tenant satisfaction greatly improved; community enterprise developed and sustained. (See the guide to resources on ‘Together We Can’)

Ultimately, the hollowness of neo-liberalism can be seen in the contrast between the ‘Together We Can’ support for cooperatively guided collective action that demonstrably enhanced the common good, and the egoist politics that leaves individuals to fend for themselves so the powerful few can remain unchallenged in how they treat others.