Bem Bulletin #4: February 2015 -We Don’t Live In A Democracy Special, starring Lord Fink, Peter Oborne, Jack Straw, Malcolm Rikfind and Capitalism

democracyThis month: we wrote something outlining what for the moment we’re calling Modern Socialism, an attempt at a non-dogmatic, ecologically-sound twenty-first century redefinition of radical Left politics. It’s really what this blog was started for, and it only took us four years to finally get round to it. And that’s about it, because we spent most of February helping someone recover from major heart surgery, so here’s a list of fairly recent posts for you to peruse instead.

Fantasy fascism: how to enjoy action films, despite the politics

Podemos and pragmatic radicalism

Bemolutionary Mix-Tape 2014

Doing It For The Kids: The environment, the future, and whether they have one

The NHS in ‘The Apprentice’ society

That said, given that it’s been such a glorious month for British democracy, we still found the time for an extra-specially long Bem Bulletin to celebrate.

Music: Jimmy Witherspoon & Robben Ford; Paco de Lucia (on the first anniversary of his death) with John McLaughlin

In this month’s Bem Bulletin:

  1. Tax Avoidance for Everyone
  2. Peter Oborne and the Corporate Media
  3. Cash for Access
  4. Taking Liberties
  5. I Married ISIS


1. Tax Avoidance for Everyone

Ex-Tory Party treasurer Lord Fink has claimed that “everybody does tax avoidance” at some level, after being criticised for engaging in the practice by Labour leader Ed Miliband. The multimillionaire one-time hedge fund manager protested that his tax-dodging measures – including moving shares into a Swiss bank account – were “vanilla”, and that he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.

This followed revelations that HSBC has helped thousands of super-rich customers avoid tax by letting them set up secret accounts in a private Swiss bank it owns. Documents obtained by BBC Panorama show that HMRC, the UK’s tax authority, first became aware of this practice in 2010. Despite concluding that over a thousand British citizens used the scheme to avoid tax, to date the government has only prosecuted one – and the sizeable-sounding £135m it’s clawed back in fines from those involved is actually less than that recovered by the French and Spanish governments, despite more British consumers partaking of the scheme than French or Spanish ones.

We could lay into Lord Fink and the enthusiastic tax-dodgers of the feckless neoliberal elite, but that would be very hypocritical – because we can officially announce that The Bemolution has been avoiding tax for years. In the most effective, widely-practiced, “vanilla” manner of all. We’ve been avoiding tax by not getting paid enough to have to pay tax.

Originally, this bit was going to wrap up with a surly denunciation of the blank-eyed amorality of the upper orders, but then the whole cash for access scandal happened, so we’ll save it for later.

oborne telegraph2. Peter Oborne and the corporate media

Leading conservative journalist Peter Oborne has resigned as chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph. In an article for the Open Democracy website explaining his reasons for leaving, he alleged that the paper had repeatedly suppressed stories that reflected negatively on major advertisers, the broadsheet’s main source of income.

Topically, he was especially critical of the Telegraph’s preferential treatment of HSBC – which he claims one Telegraph executive described to him as “the advertiser you literally cannot afford to offend”. Oborne recounted how a 2012 Telegraph investigation into HSBC’s activities in tax haven Jersey was scuttled at the last minute by the intervention of lawyers representing the Barclay Brothers, the paper’s multimillionaire owners. “You needed a microscope”, he says, to find the Telegraph coverage of this month’s HSBC/tax avoidance story.

Oborne had already decided to leave the paper before the latest HSBC scandal broke, citing what he saw as declining standards under the stewardship of the Barclay Brothers. However, in the light of recent events, he claims to have felt obliged to make public his own personal investigations into the relationship between the Telegraph and its advertisers.

The Bemolution has a reasonable amount of respect for Peter Oborne. He wrote The Triumph of the Political Class, quite a good book attacking the careerism and insularity of the current generation of Westminster politicians. In that, he demonstrated the same kind of free thinking he’s displayed in his assault on the Telegraph. But if the two share the same positive features, they also share the same negatives – naivety, a tendency to romanticise the past, and, despite a fairly critical brain, an inability to see the wood for the trees as far as the ideology of modern mainstream journalism is concerned.

The Political Class book argues that national politics was essentially fine until relatively recently. Here, he portrays the Telegraph as a rigorous, incisive, bias-free paper until the arrival of the Barclay Brothers in 2004, and discusses examples of its corporate bias as though they were a new, unusual phenomenon.

But really, all mainstream newspapers are compromised – they need corporate advertising to survive, and, as numerous examples attest, advertisers expect special treatment in return for their money. That’s happened since the beginning of print media.

But it goes a lot deeper than just the advertisers. To reach into the drawer of dissent and pull out our Chomsky hat for a minute, corporate media outlets are never going to be very good at providing pure, unfiltered, objective news coverage. That’s because, first and foremost, corporate media outlets are businesses.

Private companies exist to make money. A privately-owned newspaper doesn’t exist to provide the people that buy it with impartial news. It exists to make money out of people’s desire to know what’s going on in the world. The papers are run like businesses, usually owned by hugely wealthy businesspeople or corporate media groups, and rely on income from corporate advertisers to keep going.

So, given that all the mainstream papers are profit-making businesses, almost all owned by profit-making businesses, and largely funded by profit-making businesses, what are they very likely to downplay, or distract from, or ignore altogether? Anything that harms the ability of profit-making businesses to make profit – not just everyday news items that might paint big business in a negative light, but, more fundamentally, any suggestion that big business shouldn’t dominate society, or shouldn’t even exist at all in its current, corrupting form. If you want to be a successful journalist, you just have to accept this. The best ones internalise the values system to the extent where anything outside of it just doesn’t compute anymore.

But because big business does dominate society to such a terrifying extent, most people don’t even notice. In fact, we see the mild criticisms of our economic system that occasionally come from outlets like the Guardian as proof we’ve got a balanced, trustworthy news media featuring ‘voices’ from across the political spectrum.

But while they might give platforms to genuine left-wingers like Owen Jones and George Monbiot, the Guardian and the Independent are simply the most moderate outlets in a media mainstream that’s firmly centre-right. As far as their general editorial stances are concerned, we might need to cut public spending a little less, we might need to think about climate change a little more, but no amount of finger-wagging Polly Toynbee editorials laying into David Cameron can disguise the fact they broadly endorse a morally, socially and ecologically disastrous status quo. In a society organised like ours, even the best big papers are only really the least worst.

cash for access3. Cash for Access

Two senior politicians have been caught offering to use their influence to benefit private companies in return for thousands of pounds. Undercover reporters from Channel 4’s Dispatches and the Telegraph posed as representatives of a fictitious Chinese company to meet with Tory grandee Sir Malcolm Rifkind and New Labour Girl Friday Jack Straw.

Straw, who previously served as Home, Foreign, then Justice Secretary under Blair and Brown, was filmed claiming he’d operated “under the radar” to change EU law on behalf of a private company that pays him £60,000 a year.

Rifkind, a cabinet minister under both Thatcher and Major and until now chairman of the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee, boasted that he could offer “useful access” to every British ambassador in the world.

Straw charges £5,000 to make a speech. Rifkind charges between £5,000 and £8,000 for half a day’s work.

Appearing on Radio 4’s Today Programme to mount what he seemed to think constituted a defence his actions, Rifkind argued that it was “quite unrealistic” to expect MPs to live on “simply £60,000” a year without seeking additional income. Even as both he and Straw were suspended from their respective parties, they were adamant they’d done nothing substantially wrong. Apparently, it’s not unusual to be bunged by anyone.

4. Taking Liberties

What can you say to all that? In instances as dumbfounding as these, it’s all you can do to try and seek a bit of solace in the wisdom of wiser and more articulate men – and in the immortal words of the Brothers Chuckle: “oh dear, oh dear”. What a mess. Just in time for the General Election, a sharp, horrible, convenient reminder that we don’t live in a democracy.

No, we don’t live in a fascist dictatorship either. But we live in a society riven by massive, intolerable inequalities of power, and access to power. No-one in the country gets more than one vote. But one millionaire, one abhorrently huge, abhorrently rich corporation, has more influence over the political process and what direction society takes than hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens. And if you pull our ‘representatives’ away from the cameras and get them behind closed, oak-panelled doors in side-rooms in the Palace of Westminster, a lot of them won’t even try to deny it. It’s just how the system ‘works’.

And most of them see absolutely nothing wrong with it at all. There’s apparently no limit to the moral and logical contortions they can perform to conclude, time and time again, that they’re doing nothing wrong. When they ransacked the public purse with outrageous expenses claims, you got one of two excuses – “it’s within the rules”, or “everyone does it”. When Lord Hanningfield was found to clock in at the House of Lords then immediately leave just to claim his £300 daily attendance allowance, he said “everyone does it”. When MPs whore themselves to big business – “it’s within the rules”, “everyone does it”.

With grim irony, the BBC’s currently running what it calls ‘Taking Liberties: The Democracy Season’, a series of programmes examining the workings of our bizarre political system and how it came about. Faced with a choice between watching television or bellowing existentially out the window, we reluctantly sat through an episode of ‘Lifting the Lid’, a documentary about day-to-day life in the House of Commons. The worst bit saw attempts by a well-meaning Lib Dem to nullify the worst effects of the Bedroom Tax sabotaged by laughably horrible North-Somerset MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who sunk it by quoting poetry until the allotted time ran out. This kind of thing is quite common.

Are all MPs that bad? No. A fair few genuinely try to serve their constituents despite the stifling limitations of the system we’ve been lumped with – even if they meekly go along with the general majority-squashing agenda most of the time. Far fewer are far better – they do all that while holding views that lie miles outside the suffocating Westminster-Whitehall consensus. We’re thinking of the last remnants of Labour’s dissident Left, the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas and others. But MPs like these make up a tiny minority, and, sadly, their impact on the legislative process is negligible. They’re vastly outnumbered by more typical MPs – people who just go with the flow of rampant neoliberalism whether they believe in it or not, because a) it’s personally lucrative, and b) it’s a lot easier than trying to resist it.

Here, and in practically every other developed nation in the world, political power has been monopolised by a small portion of society whose priorities, values system, moral outlook and general way of doing things goes starkly against the interests of the majority. These are people who live almost entirely separate lives from those they claim to represent – physically, economically, culturally and emotionally detached from the everyday experiences of the vast majority.

But as the Fink/HSBC case illustrates very well, this isn’t just about elected politicians. The tax-dodging financiers and the Rifkind/Straws of the world are just two sides of the same coin, different branches of the same thing – a parasitic establishment that seeks to milk a dysfunctional, corrupt and wrenchingly unjust status quo for everything it can get.

What we’re left with, crushingly, is a two-tier society. Normal rules apply for the floundering majority – they work hard for not very much, they pay their taxes, when they do bad things they go to jail, they send their kids to state schools and use NHS hospitals when they get ill. And then there’s an untouchable elite that doesn’t – that kicks up a hysterical, system-rattling fuss whenever it doesn’t get entirely its own way, and expects us all to be grateful, like a nation of BDSM subs who have to thank their masters every time they get paddled on the arse.

In the thoroughly neoliberalised twenty-first century, Parliament’s largely a sham. Now no party with a serious chance of forming a government will consider doing anything that majorly goes against the interests of finance and big business, it basically exists to rubber-stamp the gradual sacrifice of society as we know it to ensure the richest and most powerful keep getting richer and more powerful. We’ve now reached a cheery situation in which a political class that has sponged practically everything it has from the hard-working majority earns a living by castigating the nation’s strugglers and strivers as feckless spongers, and making life harder for almost everyone.

And it’s for all these reasons (and the obvious populist satisfaction to be had from saying it) that, in a sanely organised society, most of the people in Parliament would be in jail – charged with the chronic neglect and abuse of the people they allegedly represent.


5. I Married ISIS

Three teenage girls from Bethnall Green, London, have left the country to join Islamic State militants fighting in Syria. Grainy CCTV images showed Amira Abase, 15, Shamima Begum, 15, and Kadiza Sultana, 16, walking through Gatwick Airport on route for a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul. Abase is pictured sporting a bright yellow top and trainers. Begun’s wearing a leopard-print scarf. Neither are likely to go down well with the medieval-revivalist Islamofascists they’ve gone looking for.

Practically everyone is baffled by what’s driven them to it. They’re young, modern British Muslims. They fit the same perplexing profile as a lot of the other young men and women who’ve run off to join ISIS – relatively privileged, comfortable. Little grasp of Islam.

But the thing that seems to bamboozle the news media most of all is that they’re “straight-A students” – as if academic achievement is some kind of immediate guarantee of worldliness and common sense. If stupid poor people ran off to join fundamentalist Islam, the implication seems to run, that’d be more understandable. But clever middle class kids? How is that possible?

The Bemolution’s experiences of Cambridge taught us that chart-toppingly intelligent people can still be incredibly stupid and crushingly naïve. The three schoolgirl jihadis have certainly proven themselves to be both.

But it’d be all too easy to lump the blame on the individuals themselves. ISIS is ploughing resources into luring Western girls to join them, grooming them over the internet, preparing them for life as the wives of jihadi fighters – essentially, sex slaves with no rights, confined indoors except when accompanied by their owner. Presumably, ISIS leaves that bit off the recruitment posters.

And we can’t possibly end without unsubtly indicting neoliberal-consumerist society. So many people nowadays are forced into leading shallow, meaningless, rudderless lives. Post-ideology, most people don’t believe in anything much anymore, except the weekend. You do your soul-sapping day job, you come home, you vegetate in front of the telly or the laptop, you go out and buy useless things you don’t really need. People starve, the world turns, you don’t really care.

Against that backdrop, the kind of numbing, vacuous modernity the last half-century has left us with, it’s quite easy to see how the naïve-in-the-extreme and romantically-inclined could think running off to join Jihadi John and friends was a good move. These are people who crave some kind of meaning and purpose – they want something bold, vivid, stark, uncompromising, not the uninspiring grey mush of twenty-first century Britain. In Syria, they think, they can help build a new Islamic society, be part of something big and exciting and important.Tragically, it means we’re likely to see a lot more of this kind of thing in the months and years ahead.

And now, to finish… for the people dying of starvation at a rate of one every three seconds, and of malaria at the rate of one a minute, and the people sleeping under newspapers in alleyways, and having human beings they’re quite fond of blown to bits before their eyes, and everyone else suffering needlessly in a world that can’t be bothered to do anything about it, please be upstanding for the Bemolutionary anthem, on permanent loan from the late Johnny Cash.

You can find all the previous Bem Bulletins here.