Middlemas on the British State

In 2014 I wrote a brief post on the role of superstition in economic management. Paul Schloss wrote an interesting response on his Serenity Science blog, which I entirely missed at the time. With his permission it is reproduced below:


Here’s something you might like.  It is a richer and more nuanced version of the Paul Samuelson quote you recently posted.  Its rich analysis identifies the creation of a shared political culture as the determinate factor in the limitation of debate within a society; a process whereby the public come to agree on a few quite basic assumptions, which then protects that culture from severe critical attack.  The author is Keith Middlemas, who has written one of the great books on British politics.  Here he is running at full speed (which may account for his somewhat clumsy sentences)…

Behind the formal doctrine, with its bland projection of the virtues of party and parliamentary politics and its tacit avoidance of discussion about the influence of pressure groups and institutions, lay the real and important process of opinion-testing and assimilation, accompanied by political education, and propaganda designed to distinguish, among other things, between legitimate and deviant forms of political protest and participation.  It can, of course, be argued that this diagnosis is old-fashioned conspiracy theory: a version of history open to the objection that:

The public is seen as an atomised mass, passive receptacles of messages originating from a monolithic and powerful source.  In the left-wing political version of this model, the source is controlled by and represents the interest of the ruling class… In some right-wing versions, the media are also seen as powerful, but their influence is in the direction of lowering cultural standards and propagating values of permissiveness. (S. Cohen and J. Young, eds., The Manufacture of News: Social problems, deviance and the mass media.)
Yet every case examined reveals a constant element.  From the days of Lloyd George, continually improved agencies transmitted to central government an ever-widening range of information about public opinion.  At the same time, a series of filters was evolved to reduce this torrent to a form manageable by, and palatable to, Ministers, thus enhancing the residual power of civil servants and the Cabinet Office, and tempering or diminishing the flow of party opinion in the majority of policy decisions.  The tightening of public secrecy, and security over the Ministers’ own freedom to reveal, must be seen as complementary to the creation, from an originally corrupt series of essays in opinion manipulation, of a formal system of opinion management.
Awareness of the need to take public opinion into consideration did not lead politicians and civil servants on to acceptance of popular democracy, but rather the reverse, as the political elite superimposed on the traditional cycle of general elections and party warfare something which can be called continuous contract.  Continuous contract means, simply, the fine measurement of opinion and its careful management by propaganda, together with the creation of a degree of mystification* about the political process, in the interests of harmonious government.  What governments considered to be their worst failures were precisely those where they got their estimates wrong, in highly contentious fields such as demobilisation after 1918, immigration, unemployment benefit, or rearmament.  These taught them that conformity could not be enforced.  Authority existed only where it rested on consent…  Wisdom about the tolerance of the public that government claimed to represent prevented opinion management from slipping back into manipulation, like precise metal transmuted downwards into dross; and this helps to explain why it survived unchecked into the brief golden age after 1945.
* I have in mind here not so much the formalities and fictions surrounding modern government, the orotund images of ‘government objectives’, ‘national interest’, etc., or the due processes by which citizens, individually or collectively, must approach government if they are to be heard, which are common to all modern societies, but their acceptance by the public.    To take the case of the hunger marchers: government, as the CPGB saw very clearly, could not concede their demands for direct representation, except at the risk of overwhelming the party electoral system.  In February 1934 MacDonald told representatives of the NUWM that they would not be received in Downing Street: ‘This deputation can do no service to the unemployed.  The Communist purpose of those marches is well-known.  The Government is responsible for a Bill which, when in operation, will facilitate the more satisfactory treatment of the whole question of unemployment, and that Bill is now receiving consideration in the House of Commons whose knowledge and experience enable it to discuss the best way to achieve the object of Government.’ [my italics]  What is curious, given the conditions of the depressed areas in the thirties, is that such dicta were not widely repudiated.  Bagehot’s theory of deference has to be modified to fit twentieth-century circumstances: only a theory of submission to the dominant political ethic, encouraged by opinion management and institutional collaboration, suffices. (Politics in Industrial Society)
This book, which contains many insights into twentieth century British politics, offers one answer to your question about why the trade unions are reluctant to set up their own TV studio (Why Don’t We Have an Alternative to the BBC and Corporate Media?).  The purpose of such a studio is surely to create an alternative political culture which radically questions the existing one.  But do the unions really want to own such a radical voice?  For we must remember that beginning in the First World War, the unions gradually became part of the process of government. After accepting its capitalist underpinnings their main concern was to negotiate with the state for a share of political power; not so much as to benefit their members, but so as to receive recognition as powerful institutions in their own right (one consequence was their relative indifference to improvements to working conditions in individual factories).1  Once accepted as a realm of state (Middlemas’ term) they participated in the obfuscation described above.  That is, they were as guilty as the politicians in deceiving the general population; helping to hide the truth that the business of government was no longer carried out in parliament, but had been transferred to the offices that surrounded it; the ministers and officials of state bargaining with a limited number of interest groups, such as the large corporations and the TUC, for a share of power and wealth.2  Trade unions want influence and respect, but they also want to maintain the corporate bias (Middlemas again) of the system, which they (correctly) believe will give them that influence.  After helping create this system, they have since lost nearly all control of it, as the British state has been taken over by the corporations.  Nevertheless, it is a system they want to retain, at least in some modified form.  Your ideas are as much a threat to them as Margaret Thatcher’s.
Neither must we forget that even in the social democratic decades after the Second World War the tendency of ministers and civil servants was to accept the received dogma of a limited state and a free competitive market.3  Indeed, one of the reasons for the relatively poor performance of the British corporate state was its inability to jettison its nineteenth century political culture, which found it difficult to adjust to the more state-managed capitalism of the twentieth.4  By now that culture is more ingrained that ever; making it even harder for the British government to intervene in the economy for the benefit of the nation as a whole (of course the structural constraints are greater now than in the 1950s, and so require an even stronger ideological faith to overcome them).
Middlemas also suggests one answer to your question about the supineness of the British Left.  It too has submitted to the dominant political culture, accepting its normative values through absorbing its messages and by participating in “institutional collaboration”; the long and complex history of the Labour Party a record of the incorporation, even repression, of much Left radicalism (Middlemas gives some interesting details, particularly on the early decades of the century).  Donald Sassoon seems to confirm this in his great work, A Hundred Years of Socialism; this book shows that by the 1920s the mainstream of the West European Left had accepted the legitimacy of capitalism; their role to make it work better and with more social justice.  In the 1960s the Communist Party reached the same conclusion.
The problem for Britain was that its Left accepted the nineteenth century idea of capitalism, while its European coevals had a later and more socially inclusive model with which to work, allowing them to help make their national capitalisms both more productive and socially just.  Indeed, according to Shonfield’s book, it would appear that the most radical and progressive activists, the ones that wanted a more integrated and planned economic system, tended to be the managers of the largest British corporations.  They were defeated by the conservatism of both the smaller, less technically dynamic, businessmen and the trade unions, who used the shibboleth of political representation to prevent the state acquiring the power it needed to reorient the economy.  The result?  In the crisis of British capitalism that occurred in the 1960s the City of London was to well-placed to emerge victorious; Thatcherism an ideology justifying the City’s eventual triumph, which was a return to the position of power it had lost during 1930s (Middlemas has some wonderful stuff on this too).5
The idea of a DIY radicalism that lives outside the existing political structure and seeks to replace it is a dangerous one for the organised British Left, and goes against its gut instincts, which is to complain about the system rather than to actively transform it (we must ignore all the utopian rhetoric).  That’s why its left to the bohemians, such as those at Resonance FM.  Those crazies live completely outside the established political culture, and are not affected by its norms and restrictive practices.  The American Left is a lot like these bohemian weirdos.  They also are too far outside America’s political system to be conditioned by it; and this is one reason that a show like Democracy Now! can be such a limited success; creating its own world that is yet recognisably sane and rational.
I only meant to post the quote.  I’ve gone on and on, of course.  But hey, you might like it.  I certainly did!


1. Andrew Shonfield’s Modern Capitalism contains some revealing details.
2.  For an insider’s account of the period see Ian Gilmour’s The Body Politic.  This book inadvertently confirms Middlemas’ thesis – Gilmour argues that while the British parliament is very stable it lacks the ability to act vigorously.  What he is actually describing is an institution losing its power.
One could argue that the 1960s were a failed attempt by the political class to reassert their control (over the executive, the corporations, the unions, the officials of the nationalised industries, and interest groups generally), in order to actually govern a country where the economy had become the source of both power and legitimacy.
Any future attempt to use politics to control the economy has to properly understand that failure, which had much to do with a lack of respect for history and culture (and their ability to create institutions and mentalities that shape and control change), and which led to the illusions of technocratic intervention, and the idea, particularly prominent in the early 1960s, that the experts would sort things out.*
We must also try to understand the limits of politics, and how little power politicians actually have in a democratic state.  Robert Michels in classic work (Political Parties) writes that the fundamental nature of modern democracy is organisation.  This is absolutely right!   Democracy is no longer about votes, and has very little to do with calling individual leaders to account. It is too organised for that.  It is a set of institutions which have created a system of processes that can only be changed from within the system itself.  To give a very simple example. In East London a number of active residents are opposing the planning decisions of the local council. However, they have discovered that calling a public meeting and demanding the presence of the lead official cannot change the planning process at all.  The same decisions will be made tomorrow as yesterday.  Why?  Because the council officials themselves have to follow the planning framework that has already been agreed; by the council in consultation with government, the European Community and big business; the whole process safeguarded by law. What can the local residents do?  They must form a group, with the aim of taking over the planning committee. They also need to form another group to lobby parliament; and perhaps another to go Strasbourg…  That is, in order to fight the institutions they have to become an institution themselves.
What I am describing is a kind of entryism, to which the Labour Party gave a bad name in the 1980s.  However, this is precisely how corporate power works; well described by Thomas Frank in his The Wrecking Crew.  The New Right are Trotskyists in reverse – they infiltrate Congress to bolster capitalism not destroy it.
Our first problem is that most people have no idea what a modern democracy means;  for we are still living with ideas and images from the 1840s, a time when British politicians really did have power, and used it.  A time, incidentally, before mass suffrage.
(*See my Freedom Against Freedom for an alternative history of this decade.)
3.  Shonfield has some extraordinary stuff on this.
4.  This is not the whole story.  David Edgerton’s Warfare State; Britain 1920-1970 is a useful corrective, showing how important the defence industry has been to the British economy, and how conventional Left-Liberal opinion has tended to dismiss it.
5.  Susan Strange’s Casino Capitalism has some very interesting things to say about the Labour Government’s encouragement of the City in the 1960s, and how this helped to create a more fluid and unstable financial services industry.  Britain, according to this argument, was a significant factor in the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system.




Seriously, what is to be done?

Two articles I read today, an opinion piece by John Pilger and an interview with Wolfgang Streeck, revealed something interesting about the two men; neither of these critics of the current order have the remotest clue about what to do now.
When pressed by Aditya Chakrabortty, this is what Streeck came up with:
The press always talks of a lack of business confidence, he says; now is the time for the voters to demonstrate a lack of public confidence.
Streeck offers a recent Occupy protest in Frankfurt as an example of the kind of action he wants to see more of:
“The authorities were scared shitless. I think more such scariness must happen. They must learn that in order to keep people quiet they need extraordinary effort.”
In the face of a crisis of capitalism, Streeck suggests that we need “more such scariness”. How a heavily armed and increasingly unaccountable state will deal with this “scariness” is left unexplained.
John Pilger is even less helpful in his piece for the Media Reform Coalition. He tells us that “the word ‘reform’ leads us down a blind alley.” He then goes on to say that:
Media courses should challenge relentlessly the myths of the so-called mainstream and offer their students, at the very least, a way of navigating through a bent system and challenging it and becoming its honourable exceptions.
What we need is not reform but a Fifth Estate, in which journalism reclaims its independence. But that’s another story. Thank you.
So, in the face of a crisis of credibility in the media, he wags his finger at media courses and then conjures up a “Fifth Estate” whose nature is left entirely mysterious. One might think that he is suggesting that we need to bring media reform into the broader context of constitutional design. This would be welcome. But since he stops there we have no idea.
Let me set out what is apparently beyond the grasp of Streeck and Pilger.
The overriding need now is for an articulate, informed and autonomous public opinion. That is, we need as a citizen body to discover our preferences and act on them. The medium term goal is to establish the assembled public as the sovereign body in society. In the short term this requires a revolution from below in order to subordinate representative institutions in civil society to the wider needs of the public.
The immediate objective is a communications platform that we own and that allows confidential communication and the sharing of collectively generated data. It will be a platform that does not seek to divide its users into economically useful categories but instead helps citizens to make common cause around a transparently developed common sense.
Such a platform is not technically unattainable but it requires that individual NGOs, political parties and other civil society groupings subordinate their own interests to the wider interests of the people that they claim to serve. A broad coalition of groups could create a competition and assemble a large judging panel to select a platform that would then be populated by an independent citizen body. This citizen body could then make clear what it thought was important, what it wanted to know more about, and how it wanted the state and other synthetic persons to behave.
To the extent that it was better than newspapers and commercial social media platforms at describing us to ourselves, this platform would become interesting and attractive to people who are currently dejected and disengaged from politics. Co-operative enterprises and small businesses  could generate commercial returns that would then cover the running costs. But the Assembly is prior and will determine how these returns are generated.
Let me try to be practical. If you give money to an organization that claims to take seriously the overlapping crises of political and economic inequality, environmental collapse and endemic warfare, then ask them to publish an article by you and co-authored with me that sets out a programme for establishing the public in its collective capacity as a motive force in country’s political system.
This programme will centre on the creation of an independent platform for discussion and decision-making along the lines outlined above.
If the organization to which you belong refuses to allow the proposition a hearing we then set up a shadow organization that pushes them to accept the overriding need for democratic communications, even if it weakens their communicative grip over their existing audiences.
This programme of revolution in civil society will build the conditions for its eventual success, if enough people can bring themselves to commit the time and share what they learn with others. Most people won’t want to do it, at least at first. Maybe no one will. But if a handful start we can do far more than now seems possible. Of course, it means recognizing that representative institutions cannot be trusted as a matter of institutional design. The interests of members and the governing centre are never exactly aligned. It means growing up, in other words.
If you can afford to act independently, and can be bothered, then drop me a line. I can be found on Twitter and Facebook. But I’d rather we continued the conversation on a platform intended to serve the needs of democratic power.
I have sought for more than five years to persuade the self-described progressive institutions of the need to create democratic communicative power, to almost no avail. They will not move until they are forced to do so by a citizenry capable of self-government that will not be lured back to docility.
Time now to take the idea to the Assembly. If no Assembly exists, then perhaps we can build it together. No one we vote for, or pay a monthly subscription to, will build it for us.
(If you are too selfish and lazy to help, the least you can do is buy multiple copies of this, The Public and the Mass)





Maybe Chamberlain, Maybe Baldwin

The outlines of Theresa May’s response to the Brexit vote could be glimpsed briefly in July. In her one major speech before she entered Downing Street she committed to worker representation on the boards of companies, something that successive Labour government neglected to do. She also talked of the need to improve productivity and to make houses more affordable. She talked about unscrupulous bosses and about insecurity at work. The debt to Labour’s left turn was as obvious as it was unremarked upon.

In the same speech she insisted that “yes, some have found themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration.” But there were other signs that she had been paying attention to the language that had given Leave its majority and that she was determined to make it her own:

Talk to almost any ordinary member of the public, and the frustration they feel about the loss of control over their day-to-day lives is obvious.

The 52% wanted to take back control, and May wasn’t going to stand in their way.

As she entered Downing Street, there was more on the One Nation theme, and again an emphasis on addressing the needs of those outside the, increasingly hated, “Westminster bubble”:

If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school.

If you’re one of those families, if you’re just managing, I want to address you directly.

I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.

After the Conservative Party conference the May approach to government is even clearer. The aim is to combine right-wing populism on immigration with a more interventionist state. Laissez-faire, which is French for letting the City sell everything that isn’t nailed down, will be put back in its box. On Brexit May has made it clear that she will not give up control of immigration in order to trade freely with the EU. Meanwhile, her Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, was giving us the heavy stuff on immigration. Landlords will be in trouble if they rent to illegal immigrants. Firms will have to publish lists of foreign workers. All sorts. And this from someone with at least one foot offshore.

What’s going on here? Is it just a tactical mistake? If the rest of the EU insist that the free movement of capital, labour and goods are indivisible will the markets and pressure from the City push her into line? Nick Pearce has likened May to Joseph Chamberlain, who tried to combine protectionism (“Imperial Preference”) and social reform before the First World War. Chamberlain ran into opposition from the City of London and he never became Prime Minister. As someone who has written about Britain’s interstitial offshore empire it is tempting for me to agree with Pearce. The City – or most of it – wants to be in Europe and May will have to do what she is told. Either this talk about social justice for the native and nativist British is a rhetorical flourish that will join compassionate conservatism and the march of the makers on the bonfire of things that the Money Power doesn’t want, or she will find herself out of a job.

Certainly there are signs that this approach is going to face strong opposition. Amber Rudd has already dropped the idea of publishing lists of foreign workers. Stocks of Marmite are running dangerously low. The pound is falling, as is the appetite for sterling debt. But where else can the City and its allies turn? The whole point of UKIP is to stop free movement, whatever the real world consequences. And while I am sure there are plenty of Labour MPs who would love to return to Blair’s project of combining social liberalism with the liberalisation of the trade in services, the pesky members won’t let them. They could split and join up with the Liberal Democrats, but that doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that successful careerists would contemplate.

May and her people are probably hoping that her approach has more in common with Stanley Baldwin’s successful marriage of Imperial Preference with Conservative domination in the 1930s. In September 1931 a National Government, nominally led by Ramsey Macdonald but run by Lord President of the Council Stanley Baldwin, took Britain off the Gold Standard. A year later the government signed a free trade deal with rest of the Empire and put tariffs on goods from everywhere else. For the rest of the decade the country experienced modest growth and a degree of industrial recovery. The City of London weren’t happy about the dumping of gold or the imposition of tariffs. It was the end of almost a century of free trade and “sound money.” The (previously Labour) Chancellor Philip Snowden was openly baffled when he was informed of the option of leaving the Gold Standard in the new administration. He is said to have admitted that “they didn’t tell us we could do that.” Snowden had thought, like the architects of New Labour, that the regulation of the currency was a matter best left to experts. Baldwin knew that it was the supreme matter of politics. He also knew that the City would have to put up with the move, if the bankers didn’t want an as-yet untamed Labour Party back in Downing Street.

Similarly, perhaps the City of London will have no choice but to accept that the glory days when the offshore empire could operate with all the benefits of full EU membership are over for the time being. The party of the propertied can only remain the natural party of government if it pays close attention to the popular mood. And the people want change. The Brexit vote was the latest sign that something serious is stirring out there in Not-Westminster-Land. But the long howl of UKIP’s rise and the resurgence of the Labour Left made it obvious long before then.

Cameron conceded a referendum in the 2015 Conservative manifesto in order to head off the electoral threat from UKIP. It is now being reimagined as a moment of Neronian carelessness. But, absent his referendum pledge, it isn’t clear that he would have secured an outright majority, however slender. Yes, Cameron was willing to put Britain’s grand strategy of European membership and military-intelligence integration with the US at risk for the sake of narrow electoral calculation. Of course he was. And his successor seems to be working on the assumption that, if the Conservatives concede free movement, working class Toryism in England will defect to UKIP.

Meanwhile, the emergence of a left-wing economic programme under Corbyn-McDonnell spells trouble for the wealthy. Its implementation would spell disaster. For all their faults, those two aren’t kidding around and if they reach Downing Street a Hard Brexit will look like a walk in the park and an ice cream by comparison.

Hence May is combining One Nation rhetoric and talk of an activist, developmental state with opposition to free movement. If this means the City has to tweak its business model, then so be it. Even if it means the offshore empire is over, then that’s the cost of doing business in a country that is still run by and for a dazzlingly narrow set of interests. The Big End of Town sometimes has to take one for the team. And the Conservative Party’s job is to give them the news, keep the process obscure, and harvest the ensuing political capital.

Everyone knows that protectionism is bad, and that money is best looked after by neutral experts (who are also known as bankers), so the 1930s never happened, as far as the national memory is concerned. Similarly, we all know that the Labour Party’s is unelectable and that its ideas are moonshine. Its threat to the Conservative Party therefore doesn’t exist, even though, as a matter of boring old fact, it does. And so what if immigration isn’t really the cause of the problems that face the ordinary working class families of Mays’ political imaginary? They think it is, and the Conservative Party is not about to disenchant people of fantasies that incline them against voting Labour. Indeed, they cannot do so without disowning the evasions and untruths that have dragged public attention away from the collapse of a finance-led economic model.  The parade of welfare scroungers, conniving foreigners and effete left-wing spendthrifts cannot stop. Anthony Barnett is right in this regard, May has no choice but to adopt Dacreism wholesale.

Empire is always something of a confidence trick. It relies on an uneven distribution of knowledge even more than it relies on brute force. If even I can see that London is the world capital of money laundering and tax evasion perhaps this particular twist on the English way of making a killing has had its day. Besides, as any Conservative worth a damn knows, some things are more important than money.  Control of the state, for instance. Great fun in and of itself, and the only really sure way to keep the money you have, and to make even more in the future.

Big Food and the Politics of Diabesity

“What did they live on?” said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking. “They lived on treacle,” said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.

“They couldn’t have done that, you know,” Alice gently remarked; “they’d have been ill.”

“So they were,” said the Dormouse, “very ill.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland


1. The Word of the Day is Diabesity

The UK is in the midst of a public health crisis. According to the NHS’ most recent Health Survey for England 24% of men and 27% of women are obese; 41 percent of men and 31 percent of women are overweight. Obesity has increased markedly over the last twenty years. In 1996 only about 15 percent of the population was classified as obese. The change over fifty years is even more alarming. In the 1960s obesity rates were at 1 and 2 percent for men and women respectively. Since then they have increased by 1150%.

Being overweight or obese is associated with increased risk of a number of diseases, most notably diabetes. According to Diabetes UK there are currently 3.5 million people diagnosed with the disease, up from 1.4 million in 1996. Another 0.5 million are currently believed to be living with the disease undiagnosed, although recent research suggest that there might be many more than that. In 2014 a University of Leicester / University of Florida study estimated that a full third of the UK population has abnormally high blood sugar levels.

Such is the scale of the problem that politicians have slowly come to acknowledge it. Wherever possible they talk about the need to exercise more and leave it at that. But recently there has been talk of taxing unhealthy foods, particular foods with high sugar content.

The previous Chancellor George Osborne went as far as to announce a levy on sugary drinks. The latest government plan for action on childhood obesity tells us that they “have given producers and importers two years to lower the sugar in their drinks so that they won’t face the levy if they take action.” Meanwhile, “HM Treasury are consulting on the technical detail of the soft drinks industry levy over the summer, and will legislate in the Finance Bill 2017.” So the details haven’t been worked out yet, and where all know who lives in the details


2. Big Food

For years now the major producers of sugary and highly caloric processed food – Big Food – have fought to keep their business model safe from state intervention. They need to sell more and more product to keep their shareholders happy. Sweet foods, particularly sweet foods that artfully integrate salt and fat, are cheap and taste good. As an added bonus, sugar in the form of fructose also seems to stimulate our appetite.

At the level of health policy, Big Food has fiercely opposed the publication of clear and authoritative recommendations  on sugar consumption. There is no such thing as an unhealthy food, they say. Everything has its place in a sensible diet, even if only as an occasional treat. True, they can only hit their financial targets if we can’t control ourselves. But it isn’t their fault if we eat too many of these moreish-by-design confections.

Big Food is on the side of proverbial wisdom; everything in moderation, nothing in excess. The important thing is that we shouldn’t get fixated on a sector that, after all, provides jobs and investment. Besides, political interference with what people choose to put in their mouths is a dangerous affront to individual liberty.

This note of world-weary reasonableness is one that Big Food hits whenever it can. Critics are paranoid and guilty of myth-making. The comparison between sugar and tobacco is hysterical and unworthy of anyone who wants to be taken seriously. Besides, the data is nowhere near as clear cut as the industry’s critics make out. It’s true that people weigh more on average, but in the UK surveys tell us that we are eating far fewer calories now than in the 1970s, when obesity scarcely registered as an issue. The tight focus on diet as a driver of obesity is therefore deeply unhelpful. If only people would exercise more!

(For examples of this style of Big Food apologetics, see these two articles by Christopher Snowden of the Institute of Economic Affairs –  “One fact the sugar tax report misses out: our consumption has been falling for years” and “Don’t dismiss the data: a fatter Britain really is consuming fewer calories”.)

3. Breaking the Spell of Big Food

Big Food’s resistance has been very successful at slowing down or preventing reform of the food economy. Worrying about sugar and processed food is one more flypaper for our age’s buzzing anxieties – not something that winners waste time on. Eat your salad and mind your own business is the message tirelessly conveyed to the fit and healthy. Meanwhile, the unhealthy are told with an indulgent wink that this or that treat should be enjoyed as part of a healthy, active lifestyle.

Meanwhile we are gaining weight. And as we gain weight we become less healthy. Millions of us end up diabetic. In some instances this might be because, although we are eating less, we are also exercising much less. But in some cases we are gaining weight because we are eating more calories in absolute terms than people did in the past. And many of those calories are coming to us via the ingenuity of Big Food.

The discussion in its current form focuses for the most part on individual behaviour, which is how Big Food likes it. Almost all of us could eat less sugar and refined food with no ill effects. Many of us would benefit greatly from losing some weight, and the simplest way to do that is to cut down, or cut out, sugar consumption. This puts the common good at odds with the interests of a powerful industrial sector. Some of us will be able to see through the fog of misleading information and advice generated by this industry and overcome our own reluctance to forego the pleasures afforded by the technicians of mouthfeel. But, unaided, most of us will not.

Only collective action in the public interest stands a chance of improving our diet. For a start, the public must have access to clear and evidence-based guidelines on what to eat. This could be achieved by including a health advisory notice on high-sugar (including high fructose) food and drink based on NHS England’s 3og /7 sugar cubes daily limit. By all means eat a Mars bar, but you are entitled to know that, at 35g of sugar, it contains more sugar than the NHS thinks you should eat in a day. A Mars a day … is bad for you.

Much more can be done. The state needs now to take steps to reorganize the food economy so that it favours local, diverse and energy efficient production. This is not a matter of dictating to others. It is a chance for us to redesign the production and distribution of food so that stressed and time-poor people in particular have a shot at eating well. Cheaper, fresher and more nutritious food is possible. We need only begin to take the politics of food more seriously and think through how together we can change the structure of incentives that help determine what we end up eating.

At the moment the food economy is geared towards the industrial production of a small number of commodity crops. These commodities are processed into a range of branded, and often unhealthy, product lines. The apparent variety on the supermarket shelves is achieved through the ingenuity of food scientists and packaging designers, rather than at the level of the crops themselves. Non-standard items are imported, even when it would be almost farcically easy to produce them domestically.  All this is not a natural outcome of market forces. It is a feature of the current subsidy regime and the extant patterns of land ownership and control.  Large scale agriculture is energy intensive, environmentally damaging and supports a national diet that is killing us in large numbers.

A new food economy would bring suitable land, especially in and near residential areas, back under the control of  people who live nearby, especially those who are poorly served by the current system. There would be a presumption in favour of using land rather than leaving it vacant and the tax and subsidy regime would encourage its efficient use. Users of the land would pay rent to a co-operative in which they were also voting members. These tenancies would be supplemented by common pool resources – public tool stores, market places, grazing meadows, libraries etc – as well as businesses such as fish farms, apiaries and orchards. Where necessary the regulations and subsidies that structure the food economy would be changed to remove the obstacles to small scale, diverse and highly productive farming. Everyone would be free to carry on eating junk, but they would also have greatly increased access to fresh, locally produced food at much lower prices.

None of this is particularly radical. The 1908 Small Holdings and Allotments Act required local authorities to provide land for allotments where demand existed, by compulsory purchase if necessary. There are plenty of food deserts – areas where it is difficult to find affordable, fresh fruit and vegetables – next to prime agricultural land in this country. At the moment these fields are eyed hungrily by developers who want to plant car-dependent McMansions on them.

Defenders of the existing food economy have been adept at mobilising a kind of class warfare against its critics. When a book called Fast Food Nation became a bestseller there was a flurry of books and films that explored the iniquities of Big Food. One response was to argue that these critics were middle class snobs who wanted to meddle with the food choices of the working class. In a 2004 Spiked piece Brendan O’Neill claimed that while the ostensible target of Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me might be McDonald’s:

Its real target is the people who eat in McDonald’s – the apparently stupid, fat, unthinking masses who scoff Big Macs without even asking to see a nutritional and calorie breakdown first. Spurlock and his ilk might hate McDonald’s, but they seem to loathe the McMasses even more.

It’s true that there is a long and inglorious history of bien pensant attempts by the rich to regulate the eating habits of the poor. We are told that one Edwardian evangelist for better living through thoughtful eating showed a roomful of East End women how to make a delicious and nutritious soup out of fish heads. At the end of the demonstration she asked whether there were any questions. “Yes,” one of the audience asked, “who ate all the fish?”

Wealthy people are sensitive to accusations of snobbery and high-handedness, not least because they are often guilty of both. It is up to mass constituencies to secure control of both food production and the common sense that shapes our diet.

A sugar tax would be yet another imposition on the poor, goes the reasoning, another attempt to reform their morals from on high. But the tax might attract greater support if the money raised was distributed back to wards and parishes in proportion, say, to the numbers of fast food outlets and off licences in them. The people who paid the most sugar tax could do what they wanted with it, having consulted with public health professionals as well as all manner of do-gooders and cranks. The people debate, publicly and privately, and then they vote. We might use the money to buy land and create an intensive, sustainable food production sector. But that would be up to us. Importantly, the collective control of a regular income stream would provide us with an experience of real and immediate self-government, for which there is a healthy and growing appetite.


If you want to lose weight and change your eating habits, I can personally recommend Michael Moseley’s The 8-Week Blood Sugar Diet: Lose weight fast and reprogramme your body. In July it prompted me to take a long hard look at myself and since then I have lost about a stone of weight, by eating fewer calories, much less sugar, while exercising a little bit.

The classic text on Big Food and its discontents remains Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: What The All-American Meal is Doing to the World.

(If you buy either book from Amazon.co.uk via the links above I receive a modest commission.)

Sanders on the Media

In his recent MSNBC Bernie Sanders here mentions the possibility of the Democratic Party funding an alternative to Fox News.

Here’s what I wrote in The Public and the Mass:

“The lessons from Scotland are clear. We can cease to fund media operations that do not serve our interests. We can fund new, public-oriented media with some of the money we thereby save. We can begin forming publics where they don’t exist and we can restore the public character of existing institutions by participating in them energetically and without illusions. Indeed, these lessons are so clear that millions of people who know little or nothing about the politics of the independence referendum are applying them in Bernie Sanders’ attempt to capture the Democratic party and in Jeremy Corbyn’s efforts to reform the Labour party.

The threat to the existing order in Scotland revealed biases in the communications fabric and prompted the creation of an alternative. The attempt to save the economic system that collapsed in 2007-8 has revealed similar structural biases in the Anglo-American mass media that compromise their attempts to describe and explain contemporary reality. The brute facts of the economic system, never mind the inequality and injustice they generate, cannot be treated adequately in the existing communications order and the need for a new one is becoming increasingly obvious. A fraction of the millions Bernie Sanders has raised for his campaign would be enough to put this alternative into beta.”

An actually fair and balanced description of current conditions would make highly effective propaganda for social democratic and socialist politics. Combined with proposals for practical reform and some Charlie Chaplin clips it would be pretty much unstoppable.

What Does it Mean to Publish?

On Tuesday Mark Fisher invited me to talk with some MA students at Goldsmiths about publishing, publicity and the public. As is usually the case I didn’t really know what I wanted to say until slightly after I had stopped talking, so I am leaving a couple of notes here.

In the morning session Federico Campagna (who works at Verso, but was there speaking in a personal capacity) talked, among other things, about how a book publisher does more than present individual books to the public. He or she acts as the organizer and articulator of a world-view. And this is a useful place to start.

Publishers are actors in time. They make good on editorial decisions through the market and media relations that they carry from project to project. Most of their books might lose money, some of them will wildly underperform, but the occasional successes subsidise the failures and mean that shops will continue to give them shelf space. Similarly, the publisher might, as it were, mis-speak, publish a book that sits uneasily with the rest of the list. But for the most part the books, taken together, are part of a unified proposition, a way of approaching the world.

The publishers I have met, those who were serious about what they did, were up to something with the books they published. None of the books were exactly right in themselves – the publisher knew that the books belonged to the authors and, ordinary commercial hypocrisy aside, they didn’t go along with everything in any of them – but the individual books were pieces in something larger and more mysterious that they, the publishers, were making. Together they were a self-effacing monument to a publisher’s taste, to their acumen, to their ambition to make the world a little different.

A book publisher, a fully realised book publisher, is in the world-view business. He or she is always one among many in the same line of work, and far from the most important. Nowadays they find themselves inside media conglomerates with limited room for manoeuvre. Even at their most powerful and autonomous they barely registered when compared with the state and the mass media. The development and propagation of world-views is a deadly serious thing. It’s what lies at the heart of the relationship between Google and the NSA, just as it lay at the heart of the relationship between the CIA and the networks, between MI5 and the BBC.

And it’s the world-view business I want all of us to take an interest in. Not because I think we should all be book editors. I don’t want to be a book editor most of the time, and I am a book editor. But because the decision to test our ideas against the best evidence is the decision to become adult. And this is only possible if we are commissioning as well as consuming the information on which we rely.*

An audience that cannot reflect on what is presented to it, that cannot take a view on the sum of cultural output, and that is kept innocent of the material conditions of political reporting, such an audience cannot call itself adult. It cannot function as a governing public.

That’s what I wanted to explain on Tuesday.

*The social media campaign to persuade the BBC to discuss questions about Conservative campaigning in the 2o15 election is perhaps a kind of embryonic public commissioning.

The Public and the Mass

In 1956 the American sociologist C. Wright Mills set out to describe the difference between a ‘community of publics’ and a ‘mass society’. It was a difference that derived from the forms of communication found in each. Egalitarian communications that connects to the conduct of the state fosters a public culture and effective democracy; centralised and concentrated media power underpins the enigmatic and unaccountable rule of elites.

A new ebook from Commonwealth, The Public and the Mass revives Mills’ account and explores its relevance in the age of social media and mass surveillance. We can already see the outlines of a new communications structure, in which the corporate sector and the state ensure that the majority are denied the means to deliberate on the basis of the best available information. Technology that could reinvigorate popular participation is being made safe for domination by manipulation.

This is not inevitable. The data leaks from Manning, Snowden and others have alerted us to the need for root and branch reform of the media as a preliminary to a revived democratic culture. So far the emphasis has been on restoring online privacy. But, as Mills pointed out sixty years ago, there is more to a public system of communications than privacy.

The debate about media reform has been delayed long enough. If we want to live in democracies we need to change the way we communicate with one another and with the state. Mills’ public/mass distinction remains an excellent place to start.

Democratic Media Fund Paper, #1

(Buying The Public and the Mass via the Commonwealth site will mean that you receive DMF Papers as they are published over the summer. It is also available as a Kindle.)