Corporatocracy


The two politicians that have had more space devoted to them on this blog than any others – Presidents and Prime Ministers excepted – have been Liam Fox and Denis MacShane. Both men, since I began to write of their exploits, have resigned in disgrace: the first after allowing his friend, advisor and well-paid neocon lobbyist Adam Werrity extraordinary access to his official affairs and the second after filing almost 20 fraudulent expenses claims.

I am not suggesting that I contributed to their downfalls. (Though I also used to write about Brian Coleman and now that greedy thug’s career is no more. No, no – while I had to take a moment to celebrate that fact I am aware that it took only one man to disgrace Brian Coleman: Brian Coleman.) I can, however, say that both Fox and MacShane were representative of a certain type of political actor; political actors that, among other things, are more than usually liable to disgrace themselves. I call this breed the Pootercrats.

Pootercrats are not terribly influential themselves but serve the purposes of people who are influential. They are would-be intellectuals and sycophants: the hangers-on of men with bigger wallets; better friends and grander dreams for the advancement of their interests or ideologies. They sit on the advisory councils of think-tanks with swanky websites and portentous titles. They write columns that present ambitions of the powerful as if they are nothing more than splendid ideas. They jet off to conferences and might, if they’re lucky, have the chance to sit behind the jugs of water and say a few words.

MacShane, then, spent a career snarling and sneering at the people who threatened the ideas of men that he admired. Fox made a second career of flattering them with invitations to address, attend or receive jumped-up baubles from his little social club. Such men are not powermongers but, through the desire to be, reduce themselves to being the guard dogs and event planners of the people who are.

One needn’t be a politician to be a Pootercrat. Journalists and academics succumb to the temptation. Niall Ferguson (who is, I’ll grant, a real intellectual) writes lofty essays in Newsweek that give one the impression that he is a man to be reckoned with but then you read his shrill defence of Henry Kissinger and the blustering seems reminiscent of the kids that threw insults from the shadows of their stockier friends. The essays themselves, meanwhile, seem a bit try-hard: conveying not the bland assurance of a Kristol or a Kagan but a keen desire to win their arguments for their side. This is often a neat way of separating people that matter from those who support them: the latter act as if there’s an argument they have to win; the former act as if it’s won. It is not, I think, that they need have a great desire to prove their case but a great desire to prove themselves.

Lots of us, if we’re honest, have Pootercratic potential. Why do I write as if I’m addressing the nation? Partly because I’m influenced by writers that do but also, perhaps, because there is a part of me that would like to be significant. It’s an exaggerated sense of this that drives the Pootercrat: the desire to be a force in history. There is something almost endearing about this. While so much of politics is driven by self-interest and ideological fervour there is something far more human about yearning to be someone. There is something poignant, too, in their habit of self-destruction. Such is their desire to be highflying jet-setters, and such is the relative modesty of their positions, that they are liable to support their activities and lifestyles through lowly illicit means. It’s sort of relatable. Has anyone read the Adrian Mole book where he gets some credit cards and starts buying cappuccino machines as if they’ll turn him from being a sales assistant into a member of the literati?

These human qualities, however, are also why Pootercrats are of value to more influential men. They can rephrase their ambitions in more relatable terms. A Bruce Jackson or a Richard Perle could never have sold the Iraq war to the public. They needed people who would be more suited to conveying the fear and self-righteousness that would make their soulless ideas seem more attractive. Avoiding such a menial status demands that we carefully maintain the independence of our own minds. It’s an obligation: not only for the good of our societies but for the dignity of our souls.

The media has been respecting its summer tradition of ignoring or trivialising the Bilderberg conference. Among those who’ve been tasked with the latter duty is Annie Gowen of the Washington Post, who, while forgetting to mention that the CEO of the mass media company who owns her paper has been in attendance, chuckles that…

Over the years, conspiracy buffs have embraced notions such as the group is behind the creation of the euro and meets to select the winners and losers in the U.S. presidential election…

This is funny because, as I’ve noted previously, Etienne Davignon, the former vice-president of the European Commission and the chairman of the Bilderberg conference, has openly stated that the group was instrumental to the creation of the euro…

A meeting in June in Europe of the Bilderberg Group – an informal club of leading politicians, businessmen and thinkers chaired by Mr Davignon – could also “improve understanding” on future action, in the same way it helped create the euro in the 1990s, he said.

Ah, Mr Davignon – you old “conspiracy buff”!

It’s not my contention that these people are devising schemes of grandiose malevolence in an atmosphere of total unanimity. Yet the truth of the events could be a lot less “dime novel” and remain significant. Such a union of state and corporate power could hardly fail to be significant: as I’ve said, the chairman of Google, the Chancellor of Austria, the CEO of Shell and others don’t clear their diaries for a week’s golfing. While I’m sure there’s debate and discord it’s in our interests, especially in a time of political and economic turmoil close to home and far afield, to know which ideas are popular, which values are predominant and which influences are of the greatest consequence. And, yet, it’s clearly been decided that we aren’t entitled to be told.

The Brits in attendance this year include Kenneth Clarke, a longtime participant whose federalist views presumably make the events a congenial place for him, and Nicholas Boles, a Conservative MP and the former Director of Policy Exchange whose Atlanticism, as evidenced by his membership of the Henry Jackson Society, ensures he’ll fit right in. I wonder if their constituents in Rushcliffe and Grantham and Stamford are at all interested to know what their elected representatives have been saying to the chairman of Goldman Sachs, the CEO Deutsche Bank and the bomber of the Cambodians. I know I am.

It’s that time of year again! The Bilderberg conference is taking place in Virginia in 2012. In the past couple of years we’ve been assured that it’s just “a group of willy-waggling old men…dreaming of past glories”. Given that they’ve taken the unprecedented step of publishing their guest list one can see that the Bilderbergers include Fu Ying, the Chinese vice minister of foreign affairs; Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, the vice-president of Spain; Josette Sheeran, vice chair of the World Economic Forum; Jutta Urpilainen, the Finnish Minister of Finance and a fair few other women. It’s no sausage factory. More importantly, these powermongers are far from being past-it. The CEOs of Deutsche Bank, Siemens, The Dow Chemical Company, Caixabank, Unilever, Shell and many others are present. The chairmen of Goldman Sachs, Google, Barclays, Novartis, AXA S.A. and others have swung on down. The Chancellor of Austria, the PM of the Netherlands, our own Secretary of Justice and a bunch of other politicians are in attendance. And, of course, wizened old veterans like Mandelson and Kissinger wouldn’t miss it. These men and women are among the superclass: the one-percent of the one-percent.

Despite the fact that it’s attended by the Editor-in-chief of the Financial Times, the CEO of The Washington Post Company and others you’re unlikely to read or hear of the conference in the organs of the established media. And, even if you do, it’s liable to be a sneer about how it’s “it’s a lot of vaguely uninteresting people giving vaguely uninteresting lectures”. Well, that’s bullshit and shameful bullshit at that. The presidents of banks, the chairmen of oil companies and the CEOs of multinational corporations worth more billions than I have fivers don’t clear dates in their diaries for idle get-togethers. How much of the course of international politics they’re actually deciding and how much they’re stumbling towards agreements over is, of course, a mystery but either is a matter of formidable significance and makes their furtiveness, isolation and general desire to exclude their citizens from the proceedings damn sinister. In a time of political, economic and environmental turmoil, where radical prescriptions are being enacted as I write, this is especially true.

A curious diversion in the Leveson Inquiry took us back to 1983 and the serialisation of the fraudulent “Hitler diaries” in The Sunday Times. I’ve been reading Selling Hitler, Robert Harris’ terrific book on the shameful affair, and may write on it further at some point. For now, though, here are two thoughts. Firstly that I’d love to be around to see the exposure of the archives of Kim Jong-il’s LiveJournal. Secondly that the case is a marvellous illustration of the poisonous influence of Rupert Murdoch.

Gerd Heidemann, a journalist for Stern magazine, obtained the diaries over time from “Dr Fischer”, who was known for selling Nazi memorabilia. “Fischer” was, in fact, Konrad Kujau and a gifted if inelegant forger who was swotting up on Hitler’s life and writing the diaries himself. Germany’s most credulous man had met one of its most dishonest. Over time Heidemann talked more of his colleagues into trusting the validity of the documents he’d received from Kujau and as they invested more and more of their funds into the project they had no option but to convince themselves they were authentic. Under the pretence of secrecy they sent mere fragments to be studied by handwriting experts and decided not to let historians observe the diaries. One of the pair that did was Hugh Trevor-Roper, who was dispatched by Times Newspapers. The quantity of the documents, and the belief that they’d been firmly authenticated, led him to the presumptuous view that they were valid. This was enough for Murdoch. He imposed the publication on his doubtful employees.

Frank Giles, editor of the Sunday Times…[was] unenthusiastic, yet comforted by his belief that [the diaries] would be running in The Times. His sang froid had been shattered the previous day by a brief, transatlantic announcement from Murdoch that the Hitler diaries were going to be serialized in the Sunday Times after all: now that the Stern would be appearing on the Monday, Sunday had become the perfect day to print the extracts. It would enable the paper to avoid the risk of rivals getting hold of advance copies of the German magazine and printing pirated extracts of the diaries twenty-four hours ahead of them.

Murdoch was not a proprietor who encouraged dissent. Even strong editors found it had to stand up to him. Giles was not a strong editor.

On the day before publication Trevor-Roper, whose doubts had been simmering within his cerebrum, admitted to himself that the diaries were probably fraudulent. He rang Giles. (“These doubts aren’t strong enough to make you do a complete 180-degree turn on that? Oh. I see. You are doing a 180-degree turn.”) The Deputy Editor phoned Murdoch to ask if they should consider rewriting the paper…

“Fuck Dacre,” replied Murdoch. “Publish.”

Murdoch, then, dismissed the scepticism of the man on whose authority he had accepted the diaries as valid. Before Leveson Murdoch granted that he was responsible for the subsequent rhapsodising over Kajau’s scrawls and described it as a “major mistake”. But, of course, he was as liable to accept its implications as a Trophozoite is the feelings of its host: that his work is premised on gratifying his and his allies’ interests and that he’s prepared to enforce his plans across his fiefdom without care for principles of truth and hopes of enlightenment. The dangers of this would clear when he promoted a far more destructive hoax almost exactly two decades later.

Simon Kelner, who edited the Independent, tells of being abused by Murdoch fils after his paper had disparaged the family name…

I sat on a sofa, Brooks perched on the arm of another sofa, and Murdoch walked and talked. He was excitable and angry. “You’ve impugned the reputation of my family,” he said at one point. He called me “a fucking fuckwit” and became furious at my bemusement that he should find our campaign so upsetting, given that one of his newspapers famously claimed that it did indeed decide elections.

Brooks said very little, but, when her boss’s rage blew itself out, chipped in with: “We thought you were our friend”. Their use of language and the threatening nature of their approach came straight from the “Mafioso for Beginners” handbook.

The Mafia comparison fell flat when voiced by Tom Watson but Kelner likes it and so do I. (His mistake, as Alexander Chancellor notes, was to accuse James, the consummate consigliere, of being the boss.) As Jeremy Hunt is accused of aiding the family in their attempt to purchase BSkyB it seems that like the Cosa Nostra the Murdochs have apparent public servants who are willing to serve their business interests. Their gang idly transgresses ethical and legal boundaries. Their critics are liable to be subject to campaigns of persecution and disinformation. And, yet, as with all the most notorious of Mafiosos, they appear to stay ever so slightly detached from the misdeeds of their soldi, er, employees and are still perceived as upstanding members of society by the dignitaries that they bump into at functions.

Crucially, their empire is one that defies the conventions of society while feeding off and corrupting it. This doesn’t merely refer to the scale of the criminality that much of it seems to be founded on but the scope of its ideological penetration. Let’s recall that almost everyone one of Murdoch’s titles backed the war on Iraq (the exception, it seems, was the Papua New Guinea Courier Mail). So, let’s tear apart the doors that reveal the backroom dealings that our supposed enlighteners have worked so hard to conceal. I only hope the Leveson Inquiry is as or more effective than Giovanni Falcone’s Maxi Trials.

Time, I think, for more earnest investigation of the horrifying reality of adverts. We’ve seen the miserable image of family life that they’re promoting to a nation that’s already torn by familial division. Here, though, I’m going to take it up a notch; to some of the products they’re implying add a gloss to the sterility of life; to the promos so disgusting they’d even offend Denis Bagley’s furuncle. I speak, of course, of fragrance adverts: so materialistic they make P Diddy look like a Franciscan monk; populated by the sorts of wankers who’d make a full week of dinners with Come Dine With Me contestants seem quite appealing. Here’s a good example…

This fetishisation of wealth couldn’t be more obnoxious if he’d done a line of coke off her backside; stuffed a wad of notes into her hand and kicked her out the door. Heck, at least they’d have stopped smiling.

One thing that allows my hair, nails and computer screen to make it through a full viewing of this advert, though, is that it’s so superficial it’s almost kitsch. This, somehow, is even worse…

Yes, with a dash of “Only the Brave” fragrance you too can risk death in a car accident. At least the prosperous pinheads in the first advert were completely frivolous. This dude is bastardising our emotions; the things that make us human. It’s like a nu-metal band covering What a Wonderful World.

This, however, is the worst of all…

Now, people in advertising – for all of their hatefulness – can’t be entirely idiotic. They’re given massive piles of cash with which to craft their noxious works and their employers must see profit or they wouldn’t hire them. But the terrifying conclusion one must draw from that is that bequiffed wankers basking in the smugness that the exclusivity of their appalling parties has inspired in them appeal to prospective customers. Is it? Well, I’m not sure. No, really – I’m no expert on psychology; I can’t be sure. But I suspect it’s more that these adverts appeal to basic urges in humans: for acceptance, for identity and, yeah, for a bedmate. Yet they frame these desires as bland and boorish, and push them in barren, base directions. For that reason, and despite the fact that I’m of course being somewhat facetious, they’re as vile as a pool of day-old sick.

The abundance in 21st Century life, and the scale of innovation that’s given rise to it, is in many ways a splendid thing. Of course it is! I’m grateful that I can tap away at the computer, a drink at my elbow, with the boiler staving off the December chill. On the other hand, the ampleness of stuff has served to disorientate humans, who’ve evolved to make the best of what little they’ve caught, scavenged and made. Profiteers have been happy to exploit this.

On several occasions I’ve made reference to the hijacking of the Western diet by “hyperpalatable” concoctions of the food industry. Stephan Guyenet draws my attention to a programme on the “flavorists” – mercenaries for processed food corporations. Teams of scientists devise alluring tastes and smells from a host of weird synthetic sources. (“Strawberry and vanilla flavour,” the reporter tells us, “Can come from the gland in a beaver’s backside.” Mmm. Nice.)

These creations are generally a means of enhancing ingredients that are (a) cheap, (b) simple to package and (c) simple to repackage as a basically similar but apparently original new product. (There are more brands of cereal than Chinese women nowadays.) These are typically the least nutritious: refined starches, sucrose and hydrogenated fats. The flavours are so powerfully concentrated that – along with the sugarsalt and other stuff in the products – they help to derange the physiological functions that help us control our diets. Appetite isn’t simply a matter of eating until that last baked bean fills up the last recess in our stomachs; it’s balanced by a host of complex and delicate mechanisms. Such foods can send our brain reward systems wild, but they lacks the nutrition that the body’s actually unting for. Thus, consumption continues. That, indeed, is why they do it. “You’re trying to create an addictive taste?” The reporter asked. “That’s a good word,” came response.

People like to mock the notion that obesity is the result of anything more pathological than human weakness but the failure of unhealthy people to exert control is, to some extent, the consequence of societal trends that hinder faculties that should advise this regulation. They’re not simply weak, in other words; they’ve been weakened.

Fans of consumerism are predictably averse to such heresies. The e’er reliable Brendan O’Neill appears to think that folk who are concerned about modern diets are just a bunch of pâté-pecking, lobster-lunching snobs; or, worse, muesli-munching Guardianistas. In fact, the wisest course, I’d guess, is a return to simpler not more rarified consumption habits,  and the people who should have been wise to unhealthy trends aren’t liberals but conservatives. The problem, after all, has stemmed from wacky modern innovations and a shift from traditional diets. By reversing the process – to some extent, at least – Westerners could get their collective eating back in order.

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