Why Politics Fails

Nothing will change until we confront the real sources of power.

by George Monbiot

It’s the reason for the collapse of democratic choice. It’s the source of our growing disillusionment with politics. It’s the great unmentionable. Corporate power. The media will scarcely whisper its name. It is howlingly absent from parliamentary debates. Until we name it and confront it, politics is a waste of time.

The political role of corporations is generally interpreted as that of lobbyists, seeking to influence government policy. In reality they belong on the inside. They are part of the nexus of power that creates policy. They face no significant resistance, from either government or opposition, as their interests have now been woven into the fabric of all three main parties.

Most of the scandals that leave people in despair about politics arise from this source. On Monday, for example, the Guardian revealed that the government’s subsidy system for gas-burning power stations is being designed by an executive from the company ESB, who has been seconded into the energy department(1). What does ESB do? Oh, it builds gas-burning power stations.

On the same day we learnt that a government minister, Nick Boles, has privately assured the gambling company Ladbrokes that it needn’t worry about attempts by local authorities to stop the spread of betting shops(2). His new law will prevent councils from taking action.

Last week we discovered that G4S’s contract to run immigration removal centres will be expanded, even though all further business with the state was supposed to be frozen while allegations of fraud are investigated(3). Every week we learn that systemic failures on the part of government contractors are no barrier to obtaining further work, that the promise of efficiency, improvements and value for money delivered by outsourcing and privatisation have failed to materialise(4,5,6). The monitoring which was meant to keep these companies honest is haphazard(7), the penalties almost non-existent(8), the rewards stupendous, dizzying, corrupting(9,10). Yet none of this deters the government. Since 2008, the outsourcing of public services has doubled, to £20bn. It is due to rise to £100bn by 2015(11).

This policy becomes explicable only when you recognise where power really lies. The role of the self-hating state is to deliver itself to big business. In doing so it creates a tollbooth economy: a system of corporate turnpikes, operated by companies with effective monopolies.

It’s hardly surprising that the lobbying bill – now stalled by the Lords – offered almost no checks on the power of corporate lobbyists, while hogtying the charities who criticise them. But it’s not just that ministers are not discouraged from hobnobbing with corporate executives: they are now obliged to do so.

Thanks to an initiative by Lord Green, large companies have ministerial “buddies”, who have to meet them when the companies request it. There were 698 of these meetings during the first 18 months of the scheme, called by corporations these ministers are supposed be regulating(12). Lord Green, by the way, is currently a government trade minister. Before that he was chairman of HSBC, presiding over the bank while it laundered vast amounts of money stashed by Mexican drugs barons(13). Ministers, lobbyists – can you tell them apart?

That the words corporate power seldom feature in the corporate press is not altogether surprising. It’s more disturbing to see those parts of the media that are not owned by Rupert Murdoch or Lord Rothermere acting as if they are.

For example, for five days every week the BBC’s Today programme starts with a  business report in which only insiders are interviewed. They are treated with a deference otherwise reserved for God on Thought for the Day. There’s even a slot called Friday Boss, in which the programme’s usual rules of engagement are set aside and its reporters grovel before the corporate idol. Imagine the outcry if Today had a segment called Friday Trade Unionist or Friday Corporate Critic.

This, in my view, is a much graver breach of BBC guidelines than giving unchallenged airtime to one political party but not others, as the bosses are the people who possess real power: those, in other words, whom the BBC has the greatest duty to accost. Research conducted by the Cardiff school of journalism shows that business representatives now receive 11% of airtime on the BBC’s 6 o’clock news (this has risen from 7% in 2007), while trade unionists receive 0.6% (which has fallen from 1.4%)(14). Balance? Impartiality? The BBC puts a match to its principles every day.

And where, beyond the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, a few ageing Labour backbenchers, is the political resistance? After the article I wrote last week, about the grave threat the transatlantic trade and investment partnership presents to parliamentary sovereignty and democratic choice(15), several correspondents asked me what response there has been from the Labour party. It’s easy to answer: nothing.

Blair and Brown purged the party of any residue of opposition to corporations and the people who run them. That’s what New Labour was all about. Now opposition MPs stare mutely as their powers are given away to a system of offshore arbitration panels run by corporate lawyers.

Since Blair’s pogroms, parliament operates much as Congress in the United States does: the lefthand glove puppet argues with the righthand glove puppet, but neither side will turn around to face the corporate capital that controls almost all our politics. This is why the assertion that parliamentary democracy has been reduced to a self-important farce has resonated so widely over the past fortnight.

So I don’t blame people for giving up on politics. I haven’t given up yet, but I find it ever harder to explain why. When a state-corporate nexus of power has bypassed democracy and made a mockery of the voting process, when an unreformed political funding system ensures that parties can be bought and sold, when politicians of the three main parties stand and watch as public services are divvied up by a grubby cabal of privateers, what is left of this system that inspires us to participate?




  1. George
    I cannot disagree with a word and offer Buckminster Fullers solution

    “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
    To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

    ― Richard Buckminster Fuller


    1. Indeed Bill. And we need a constant, persistent, unremitting visual and manifested representation of that model.
      Keep going everyone.
      And appreciations to George Monbiot for revealing the hidden connections. The more we know about them the easier it is to bypass/ignore/make irrelevant their apparent stranglehold

  2. This is part of a recent email I sent regarding Climate Change, but also the need to transition away from conflict based political systems to co-operative based direct democracy…
    (This is an Australian Perspective…)
    Noting also that again fundamentally the impact of mans activities is essentially driven by the ever increasing footprint of more people, and the fundamental need for the current fiscal and economic system reliance on population growth to maintain economic growth.

    It is clear that a system of society that is reliant on the need to produce more people to maintain the basic underlying system of control (money) is fatally and fundamentally flawed, as population growth and hence continued fiscal growth in real terms is not sustainable.

    So at some time there HAS to be a dialogue started regarding the human footprint and sustainable population.


    (Sorry just a divergent tangent for a moment)

    The main aim of this email apart from all of this to this point, is to raise what I see as the only logical way forward…. which is very strongly aligned with the concepts of the lock the gate movement.

    Lock the gate is providing a method of community networking that in effect magnifies the democratic voice of the individual.

    The ultimate extension of this is encapsulated in Article 21.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country,
    DIRECTLY or through freely chosen representatives.

    I think it can be argued that this statement infers that the preferred scenario IS “Direct Democracy” and the fall back position being “Representative Democracy”.
    ( Meaning that current politician should be promoting direct democracy?)

    The lock the gate movement is a form of direct democracy in action, which has had to come about due to the ongoing failure of representative democracy to reflect the aspirations of the general populous community over those from the corporate community. In fact perhaps corporate community is in fact an oxymoron, as how can a corporate entity who’s aim is to wipe out its opposition, extract as much value from the community for its own purposes be seen as communal (no co-operation there).

    This also raises issues regarding the current political landscape being based fundamentally on conflict rather than co-operation. This old system of governance has simply been outgrown. Representative democracy is failing on many levels for many reasons which again highlights the need to move to something different which ultimately must be a form of direct democracy.

    And the craziest thing of all…… there is no reason why it can not be implemented except again only the status quo of needing to appease the corporate world, and possibly the ego’s of some of our politicians?

    Surely a blood less transition to a more co-operative form of governance is preferable over what can be the only other outcome (that we are seeing elsewhere in the world) violent change, to more of the same as an end less cycle.

    Are corporations and banking entities so blinded by money, profits and control, that they would oversee the relentless destruction of what is again fundamentally maintaining their own existence…. This is insanity is it not? There does seem to be a lot of evidence of corporate insanity when viewed from a community perspective.

    I think the Lock the gate movement could provide a catalyst to not only change in Australia… globally a more direct form of democracy is being screamed for, but the language has not solidified as yet. Maybe there is an opportunity to introduce some new language and new concepts that may eventually lead to a global change resulting in a co-operative harmonious approach to governance.

  3. “Every daring attempt to make a great change in existing conditions, every lofty vision of new possibilities for the human race, has been labeled Utopian.”
    ~ Emma Goldman

  4. As a Brit who now lives in the US (and who has visited the Alternative Technology Centre a number of times when in the UK) I am conflicts about the article.
    He forgets Neo-Locheans who adhere to the non aggression principle. Such folk abject to much highlighted, but are less vocal, in that, at the point of Agorism, don’t see too much point engaging in the political process, which is the real “war of all against all”. What the political process incentivised the highlighted begahviors of organisations, perhaps the problem is politics not corporations (which would be so much smaller under a really free market).
    The State – Corporation Nexus is driven by the State. The Union –State nexus is equally worrying is the entire public “service” class

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Back to top button