'The State It's In' - Squall Editorial
A view from Squall central 6/98
Squall 16, June 1998
We are being asked to believe that we have arrived. That the adolescent mood swings of British political history are now becalming with a more mature and considered distillation of the best of all previous politics. The new brand image suggests that the 'Labour' Government have alchemically extracted the 'social' from socialism, the 'capital' from capitalism and so devised... the third way.
This strap-line is now touted as the encapsulation of the Labour Government's embrace of the centre-ground, but conceptually it is nothing new. Buddhist philosophy speaks of 'the middle way', the balanced charting of a course which steers the ship between the extremes. "If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same," is Rudyard Kipling's famous way of putting it.
In short it is a familiar concept, perhaps even aspiration, deeply embedded in our collective psyche. The idea is enticing; the accompanying rhetoric has resonance. But we have every reason to be extremely wary. For in our advert-saturated world, huge financial rewards await those who identify social resonance and harness the resulting market opportunities for commercial persuasion. Politics is a product and we, the electorate, are its consumers. Once we tear off the packaging and consume the goods, are we satiated?
When the party political leaders rose to deliver their conference speeches last October, they did so with five television screens arranged in a semi-circle before them. Their speeches, partly written by paid speech writers, were read out from the semi-circle of tele-prompters, inducing those in the auditorium - and those watching through the eyes of television cameras - to feeling they were being personally talked to by someone who meant what they said. In the same month, Fidel Castro - 71 years old and falsely rumoured by the western media to be of poor health - stood up at the Cuban Communist Party Conference and spoke for six and quarter hours without a tele-prompter. Which of these deliveries were the more genuine? The organic or the processed?
It is now well-known that the present Labour Government's PR strategy studiously avoids using the 'S' word. Along with communism, socialism has now been manoeuvred into the dangerous dustbin, to be fished out at the user's political peril.
Capitalism, however, remains in regular usage, unfettered by the political embarrassment which hangs round the necks of the other two words like mighty millstones. This selective acceptability of language represents a propaganda triumph.
Capitalism survives in current usage because the political lexicon itself is a competitive market and, by disposition, capitalists are well-versed with the techniques of seeing off competitive products. Margaret Thatcher's advanced deployment of PR and advertising strategies saw to it that the competitive socialist product was ruined in the minds of the political consumer. As with all advertising strategies there was resonance in the assertion that old socialism was dogmatic, but her successful 'loony left' tag saw to it that the baby went with the bath water and would trouble the Capitalists no more. If in her mind there was "no such thing as society", what use Socialism? The consequences of her propaganda successes paved the way for Tony Blair and his band of 'non-socialists', to arrive with a 'new' more socially acceptable face of capitalism.
It was the Americans who saw to it that western democracy would no longer entertain the concept of Communism. The dictatorial nature of the Soviet example was easily deployed in propaganda strategies designed to rubbish the entire concept of Communism. Yet the fact that Christianity still survives in the lexicon of social acceptability, despite the Spanish inquisition et al, provides a clue as to the intention of such ideological targeting. So too does America's dealings with China.
China's powerfully capitalist tendencies ensure that America turns a blind eye to its communism, proffering it with a 'most favoured trading nation status'. And whilst America consistently attempts to persuade the world that communist Cuba's human rights record is poor, it sees no hypocrisy in trading with China despite its far more appalling human rights record. Meanwhile, we in the West hear little about the CIA operatives in Cuba working to undermine Castro's government, and therefore consider the draconian state security in Cuba, not as a counteraction to American subversion, but simply as the repressive lack of human rights we are taught to view as an inherent characteristic of the politics of the communal.
One hundred miles off the coast of America is one of the last genuine experiments with the 'ism' of the communal. And yet, to begin with, the Cuban revolution did not view itself as communist at all. Fidel Castro expressed his version of 'the third way' just after the revolution in 1959: "Our revolution is neither capitalist nor communist. We want to liberate man from dogmas, and free his economy and society without terrorising or binding anyone. We have been placed in a position where we must choose between capitalism that starves people, and communism that resolves the economic problem but suppresses the liberties so greatly cherished by man. Our revolution is not red, but olive green, the colour of the rebel army that emerged from the heart of the Sierra Maestra." According to his co-revolutionary, Che Guevara, the Cuban revolution was "Socialism with pachanga" (a popular Cuban rhythm).
However, the Americans had little time for the niceties of genuine debate and persistently portrayed the new Cuban government as commie red, to be feared and ostracised. With little choice but to seek full commercial relations with the USSR, the Cuban Government were effectively cornered into defending themselves as communists, and so developed a form of communism which provides perhaps the best example of such political ideology to be found anywhere in the world. The story is a formidable one; organic and humanitarian beyond the wildest dreams of the current political spin doctors with their wafer-thin messages of compassion and ethicality.
Thirty nine years ago, Fidel Castro lay pinned down by gunfire on the shores of his native Cuba. The island's corrupt President, Fulgencia Batista, had conspired with the Mafia to run Havana as a rich American playtown whilst US companies owned 90 per cent of Cuba's plantations, industry and services. Keen to restore Cuba to the ownership of its people, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and 80 fellow revolutionaries crammed onto an old ten-berth yacht and sailed to the island. Notified of their arrival, Batista attacked them with fighter planes, killing all but the twenty who managed to hide in the swamps. Batista must have laughed at the ease with which he had killed off the revolution. However, over the next two years, the revolutionaries with their seven surviving rifles, lived and grew stronger amongst Cuban peasants in the Sierra Maestra mountains. From there, they succeeded in deposing Batista and kicking both the Americans and the Mafia off the island. To this day, regardless of your political perspective, Cuba offers one of the rare, modern day examples of an alternative to the system of American corporatism which has been foisted on much of the rest of the world. In 1958, one year before the revolution, life expectancy in Cuba was 57 years. By 1993 it was 76. In 1958, infant mortality was 60 per 1,000 in Cuba. Today, despite material shortages brought on by the US blockade, it is 8. In 1958, there was one doctor per 5,000 Cubans, whereas in 1993 there was one doctor per 231. Cuba had a literacy rate of 76 per cent in 1959; it is now 96 per cent.
This Caribbean island's audacious stance against the imperial might of America induced a US reaction described by one EU commissioner recently as "obsessive", with America seeking every opportunity to force other nations to abide with its draconian and highly undemocratic trade embargo on Cuba - the country that dared say no to the United States of America.
In sharp contrast, Tony Blair's 'third way' involves almost complete allegiance to the wishes of the United States. In May this year, Blair expressed his devotion thus: "Part of Britain's role and function is to be a bridge between the US and Europe, to say to Europe 'Recognise the value of American leadership in the world', and to say to the US 'Believe me, people do value the leadership'."
The British Government were, indeed, the first off the starting block to support the largely American-drafted Multi-lateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). This monster of a free-trade agreement will pave the way for multi-national companies to operate anywhere in the world without the interference of the host nation's government. For instance, France operates special incentives for home-grown movie makers, ensuring their survival in the face of the well-resourced aggressive marketing power of the titanic American movie industry. Under the MAI these incentives will be illegal. The only reason this Agreement was not ratified, as expected in April of this year, was because many of the powerful economic nations have proposed a series of special exceptions. It is no mere irony that the United States themselves have insisted their trade embargo on Cuba - which would be illegal under the MAI - should be exempt from the Agreement. Despite the MAI's teething problems, this framework for global capitalism is set to make a reappearance, to be pushed back onto the agenda at a later date. There is hardly a country in the world that will be able to afford not to sign up to it.
The British Government's willingness to slavishly abide by such American initiatives suggests that capitalism is by far the largest ingredient in Tony Blair's so called third way. The casual ease with which the Labour Government have rescinded those manifesto promises which are not supported by corporate forces provides further proof of the processed pudding. Labour Government commitments to curb the excesses of the British arms industry - the second largest in the world after the US - have progressed little further than the rhetoric. Despite making much political noise about refusing seven small arms contracts to Indonesia, the Labour Government have granted licences for another 56.
The CIA-backed succession of Suharto to the presidency of Indonesia in 1965 involved the killing of 500,000 communists in the country. Since 1975, a further 200,000 East Timorese have been murdered. As Squall goes to press, over 500 demonstrators have been killed by Suharto's security forces in the brutal suppression of public dissent this year.
We would all be cheering if Robin Cook's rhetorical commitment to an "ethical foreign policy" would amount to anything. However, with Britain acting as Indonesia's biggest arms supplier, a resonant symbol of the lack of substance behind Cook's rhetoric is to be found on page 13 of the first annual report on human rights published by the Foreign Office. For there at the bottom of the page is the purported model of ethicality, Robin Cook, shaking hands with President Suharto.
In the last issue of Squall, published just after the general election, we questioned whether the rhetoric of 'compassion' which peppered much of Labour's electoral promises would be of sufficient concentration to survive the inevitable desires of corporate forces. But promises came and promises were laid aside.
The commitment to ban all tobacco advertising disappeared when the financial interests of formula one racing were deemed more worthy of protection than the health of the nation. Meanwhile, the promise that all British citizens should have the enshrined right to roam in their own countryside was retracted following a visit to Downing Street by a lobbying group from the Country Landowners' Association in March.
Further incredulity over the proportion of capitalist desires satiated in Blair's version of the 'third way' occurred when the Government recently touted the idea of allowing private companies to be involved in the running of schools not performing well in the school league table system; a controversial measure of educational success originally introduced by the Tories. The Education Action Zones, as they are to be called, will allow executives from the investing private company to take their place alongside school governors and parents in the decision-making processes concerned with how a school is run. The first company to show a public interest in the scheme is American.
In fact, take corporate interests out of the 'new' Labour equation and there is very little left. So much for 'the third way'.
When the turnout for the May '98 local elections proved so low, political apologists suggested this was due to the public's contentment with the new admirals of British politics. And yet evidence has proved once again that the orders crackling through from high command are the same as they ever were, albeit repackaged to keep up with trends in modern advertising. The only medicine to this malaise of continuing disillusionment is coming from those outside the strait-jacket of parliamentary politics.