Book reviews

Public cost and private benefit Global Auction of Public Assets Dexter Whitfield Spokesman, £18 Dexter Whitfield has been one of the most well-informed and effective critics of the whole programme of privatisation of Britain’s public services, begun by Margaret Thatcher and continued by New Labour. He is the director of the European Services Strategy Unit, […]

February 11, 2010
15 min read

Public cost and private benefit

Global Auction of Public Assets

Dexter Whitfield

Spokesman, £18

Dexter Whitfield has been one of the most well-informed and effective critics of the whole programme of privatisation of Britain’s public services, begun by Margaret Thatcher and continued by New Labour. He is the director of the European Services Strategy Unit, continuing the work of the Centre for Public Services, which he founded in 1973, and has more recently sought to spread his critique worldwide, as more and more countries have begun to move their social infrastructure from a public service into private profit-making businesses. This new book is the result of this extension of his interest. It is, as were his earlier books on the attack on UK public services, both thoroughly researched and immaculately presented.

What began as a specifically British exercise by Thatcher to strengthen the power of capital in relation to labour has been taken up by giant corporations of capital operating in both the developed and developing world. It is the claim of all the new forms of infrastructure organisation that they are public private partnerships (PPPs), but the partnership is generally a very unequal one.

Dexter Whitfield describes it as ‘public cost and private benefit’. In this book he presents detailed accounts of PPPs not only in Europe, where his new strategy unit is based, but in the US, Australia, South Africa, India, Brazil, Russia and even China. As the PPPs spread across the world, more and more of the giant international finance and commercial corporations become involved. Whitfield concludes that, because the relative scale of manufacturing in the global economy is declining, investment in the infrastructure becomes of increasing interest for international capital.

The privatisation process began with the physical infrastructure – the railways and roads, energy supplies and telecommunications. But Whitfield shows how it is being extended into social provision. The privatisation of social infrastructure has been seen by many commentators simply as a means for governments to finance projects, especially buildings, without increasing their capital expenditure beyond their budget limits. The PPP private partners, however, have begun increasingly to take over more responsibility for whole projects – not just for the building, but for the governance, management, consultancy, employment of staff, receipt of revenues, and reinvestment of funds.

This has the effect of removing from national or local public control and accountability the operation of social services. Health and education are key examples, where Whitfield shows particular cases of the shift in responsibilities for a social service.

The analysis in this book is closely related to the latest developments in the worldwide financial crisis and in governments’ responses to the dangers of climate change. Whitfield is able to show the extent to which the private ownership of public assets, and the income streams flowing from them, are used by financial institutions as leverage for further profitable lending. The state guarantees that

are generally present in social infrastructure provide a

base for private speculative activity in what has become

a casino of public finances.

At the same time, the effects of climate change are demanding increasing expenditure from governments on national infrastructure that can provide some degree of protection against rising sea levels, more and more damaging storms, heavier rainfall in some areas, drought in others. Extended investment to meet these demands cannot be left to a casino.

The arguments that have been employed in favour of privatisation are shown by Whitfield to be largely spurious. The chief of these is that the costs in the public sector are higher than in private provision. Whitfield shows this is manifestly untrue when all costs incurred in the long run are taken into account.

It is also said that public projects frequently over-run their budget in time and cost. Whitfield shows that such claims are seriously flawed and cannot always be checked because so-called commercial secrecy can be invoked by private suppliers to prevent publication.

Finally, there is an argument about innovatory design and managerial efficiency, which is said to favour privatisation. This can be easily refuted by the large number of PPP projects that Whitfield lists as abandoned, distressed or failed.

It is a pretty well unanswerable case that Whitfield mounts in defence of the public sector – and well worth quoting for its wide-ranging assembly of the evidence.

Michael Barratt Brown

Objective fiction

Newspeak in the 21st Century

David Edwards and David Cromwell

Pluto Press, 2009

‘Opinions are not facts,’ announced a condescending advertisement for the Guardian newspaper in March 2007. ‘What happened and how you feel about it are two different things. And people should know which is which.’ In this superb new book, David Edwards and David Cromwell –

co-editors of the Media Lens website – expose the conceit of the mainstream media’s much-vaunted objectivity.

The liberal media, in hock to state or corporate sponsors as the case may be, find themselves structurally bound to follow an editorial line that tends towards sympathy with the political and economic status quo. This is reinforced on an individual level by an expectation that critical faculties should be suspended for the sake of personal career progression. The consequence is that what passes for balanced reporting on the ‘war on terror’ means allowing British and US leaders to ‘frame reality without challenge’.

For example, the standard media portrayal of the ongoing Iraqi insurgency centres on the involvement of dark external forces stirring up trouble for their own ends, although in actual fact the majority of insurgents are Iraqis – militias composed of ‘tailors, barbers, and car mechanics’. For the mainstream media to accept this would mean to accept by extension that the insurgency is a war of national resistance, and hence legitimate. Iranian involvement in Iraq, in negating the role of the Iraqis as actors in the drama, is therefore a critical component of how the US-led coalition constructs its mission; accordingly, the mainstream media, liberal and conservative alike, dutifully refrain from highlighting the primarily national character of the Iraqi resistance.

As well as a providing a well-researched indictment of the failure of the liberal media to live up to their own platitudes about objectivity, the authors also challenge the notion that objectivity per se is desirable in media reporting. They describe this as ‘the fiction that journalists can or should be disinterested technicians standing neutrally between murderers and their victims’. Linked to this is the politicisation of the very idea of journalistic style itself: why is it that the Pilgers and Chomskys of this world are regularly accused by their opponents of ‘ranting’, despite the serious and rational quality of their work?

Nathaniel Mehr

The root of the problem

What is Radical Politics Today?

Jonathan Pugh (ed)

Palgrave Macmillan, 2009

The English word ‘radical’ is derived from the Latin ‘radix’, meaning root or foundation. Yet there is precious little sense today that our politics is likely to be effective in getting to the ‘root’ of the problem. Anger and frustration are widespread enough, but there is little confidence that our existing civil and political structures could deliver global political transformation, or indeed in what kind of alternative it might be possible to create. This stimulating and impressively diverse collection of essays helps us to begin re-thinking our predicament.

Anyone who finds themselves in agreement with all the authors here must be seriously confused, since several pieces offer directly contradictory analyses. But the strength of the book as a whole lies precisely in bringing different political traditions into productive dialogue.

The historic dilemma of how best to act in relation to the state is one such matter of controversy. So whereas Saul Newman makes a case for the relevance of the anarchist tradition of operating outside ‘authorised’ structures, Chantal Mouffe and Saskia Sassen offer cogent arguments for retaining a commitment to engage and transform the state. As Jo Littler and Jeremy Gilbert suggest, this essentially requires a highly strategic alertness to the conditions in which hegemony is reproduced.

But are traditional models of political organisation sufficient to meet present demands? Jason Toynbee’s reading of neoliberalism as a massive intensification of attacks on the global working class is persuasive, but his unreflective appeal to rebuild traditional structures seems problematic. The fluid movement of capital across the globe and increase in migration, the unprecedented feminisation of the labour force, the revolution of media and communication technologies, and the critique of unsustainable patterns of mass consumption all require us to develop new organisational responses.

This is not to vacate the field of action on our

own doorsteps. On the contrary, we must appreciate that – as Doreen Massey puts it – the meaning of the ‘global’ is necessarily constructed through a succession of local interventions.

Michael Calderbank

Questioning, we walk

The Value of Nothing

Raj Patel

Portabello Books, 2009

This is a fascinating and useful book about the problems caused by using the market to value everything in our world. It is particularly useful for three reasons. The first is that despite dealing with economics, it is not a difficult book to read. As with his earlier Stuffed and Starved, Patel aims his book at a general audience, with a conviction that economics is comprehensible to most people if explained well enough.

Part of this approach is to write a book that is actually entertaining, jumping between different academic disciplines and making jokes and lighthearted remarks along the way. If some of these made me groan instead of laugh, it was more than made up for by the fact that I made it through the whole book easily instead of getting three chapters in and

never quite getting round to going back to it.

Second, Patel puts the neoliberal obsession with the ‘market’ in historical context, drawing on a variety of theorists and history. In particular, he draws on Karl Polanyi and his explanation of the ‘great transformation’, the historical process whereby commonly held resources were captured for marketisation and, therefore, the benefit of the few. This process is still going on.

Patel also devotes significant room to real-life alternatives, from the Shack Dwellers Movement in South Africa to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida. These alternatives vary in their tactics and goals, but all show that it is possible to reclaim democratic control for communities from the imperatives of the market.

Neither these movements nor this book as a whole add up to a full alternative to capitalism. But that’s actually a strength of the book, as a response to the way things are and a discussion of what actually existing movements have managed to do. Patel quotes the Zapatistas in saying ‘preguntando caminamos’ – questioning, we walk. It’s a useful way to think about radical politics, and this book should encourage more people to do just that.

James O’Nions

Angry, incisive and original

One Dimensional Woman

Nina Power

O Books, 2009

In the 21st century, feminism can be anything you want it to be. Feminism can be a lap dancing class, or a sexy photoshoot, or a gun-toting, pro-life ‘hockey mom’ running for vice president. Feminism can help you start a war or make a porn flick or sell a car.

Or can it? One Dimensional Woman despairs of this logic of commercial assimilation, asking: ‘Where have all the interesting women gone?’

With her punishing blend of polemic and philosophical interrogation, Nina Power whips away the veneer of this faux-feminism – this synthetic, plucked, deodorised politics of pornification – and shows us that the empress has no clothes, because she’s obligingly tossed them all at an audience of drooling punters.

Power deconstructs the mechanisms by which ‘Feminism TM’ has been used to market everything from push-up bras to the invasion of Iraq, and reminds us that, at its heart, feminism is a social and economic discourse that sticks in the craw of the machinations of commercial patriarchy. One Dimensional Woman is a refreshing break from the slew of ‘feminist’ books that have been promoted this year, most of which aim to gently ‘explain’ feminism to an audience of sceptics, reassuring us that high heels and submission can be part and parcel of the tentative process of female liberation. Power takes that philosophy of commercial capitulation and rips it to bloody shreds with a toolbox of bile and acid logic.

Power wastes no time explaining just why men and women should be equal and aren’t, and leaps right in at the deep end with a short, punchy collection of critical essays explaining where the one-dimensionality of contemporary femininity fits into the schema of patriarchal capitalism.

Unfortunately the essays are somewhat unbalanced. Her soaring critique of western attitudes to the Islamic veil is offset by rather too many of the scant 100 pages of the book spent discussing the semiotics of a small range of contemporary films, suggesting that Power has leaned rather too heavily on her predilection for film theory in the writing process.

The wit and robustness of Power’s hypothesis, however, carries her argument through some of the patchier chapters. This is contemporary feminism as it should be: angry, incisive and original, tearing away the curtain of commercial hypocrisy to expose the skull beneath the skin-flicks.

Laurie Penny

A representative of the people

Bill Brand

Trevor Griffiths

Spokesman

Another magnificent and timely offering from Spokesman: the screenplay of Trevor Griffiths’ 11-part series Bill Brand, first shown on ITV in 1976. The story follows the political and personal journey of a newly-elected young left-wing Labour MP in the 1970s as he challenges the politics and programme put forward by the Labour Party in government.

What makes this publication of the screenplay so timely is that as we, the readers, follow the debate that Brand and fellow members of the labour movement – left, right and centre – engage in, we are inevitably led to reflect on and take up our own positions on more recent Labour government politics and decision making.

In the series, Griffiths explores social democracy in practice, drawing on the governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. He creates a complex, dense and convincing picture of the MP’s life, in parliament, in his constituency, in committee meetings, the Whip’s office, the tearoom, at the party conference and so on.

As Griffiths explains: ‘We’re investigating the stuff, the actual tissue and texture, of the social democratic processes within a major party. About which people know next to nothing.’

So, as we engage with Bill Brand and the men and women he interacts with, we also learn a lot about the inner workings of the system, the compromises and the deals and the personal and political prices paid to stick to one’s principles.

The writing, as always with Griffiths, is sharp, richly textured, truthful, often very funny and also very moving. He demonstrates his deep understanding of the socio-political and cultural issues that underpin the series – which remain remarkably similar 30 years on.

The holders of different points of view within the Labour Party and the trade unions, and in Brand’s personal life, are all given the space they need to air them, and we, as readers, are thereby also given the space to make up our own minds. For example, we witness Bill Brand’s frustration with the party’s economic policies:

‘A Labour government kept in power by the likes of me, is currently fulfilling – yet again – its historic role as the supreme agent of international capitalism in Britain. And all the classic features of that process re-emerge: chronic large-scale unemployment, massive sustained cutbacks … coupled with the steady, sheltered recovery of profits in the private sector … [and the] definition of the left ends with a Labour government … which they must then keep in power at all costs …’

We also read/listen to the chair of his constituency party executive committee voice his frustration at Brand’s vote against the government’s attempt to extend temporary measures introduced under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1974 for detention without trial from seven days to ten:

‘You’ve gotta stay in touch. You can’t run all the time. So that people can see where you’re going. [Brand looks down at his boots again, head on hands.] Do you know what Gorki said when he arrived at some godforsaken spot in outer Russia to lecture the peasants on socialism? He said, “Is this the rabble on which we are to build a revolution?” Well, the answer’s yes Mr Gorki, yes Mr Brand. Because without them there is no revolution. We’re all you’ve got, comrade.’

Don’t be put off reading this because it is a screenplay. As always, Griffiths includes detailed scene descriptions, which give us insights into each of the characters and help us visualise their complex interactions. It’s almost as if we were reading a novel in 11 chapters and animating it in our own heads. It engages us dramatically because we are constantly being pulled in different directions by the arguments and wondering whether Brand, too, will end up compromising his principles.

One small caveat about the published text: it would help to have the positions held by the characters included next to their names in the cast list. I found myself backtracking a lot and writing in the information myself. A great read nonetheless.

Romy Clark


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