Monday 4 July 2022

Roe v Wade and Brexit

 A is for anti abortion. B is for Brexit. C is for chaos.

The anti abortion movement in the States and Brexit here in Britain are the same thing, wedge issues chosen by people with right wing authoritarian tendencies with a long term plan for asserting control over an entire body politic. They are on the surface utterly different issues, but they each performed the same function. In each case it took their proponents forty years starting in the 1970s to get their way. Each was chosen because of the characteristics of the country concerned. In the States anti abortion could be made to appeal to powerful and rich right wing fundamentalist churches. The churches’ views had to be nudged into shape, but that too was part of the long term project. In the UK Brexit / sovereignty was particularly powerful because of the gentle but tenacious grip imperial nostalgia had on large numbers of British people. The fact that Brexit became Russian policy is tangential to the main thrust of native and global right wing forces. Arguably Brexit only became Russian policy after twenty years of tabloid headlines convinced them that it was possible.

A key feature of a wedge issue is that it divides people. Abortion in the States and Brexit in the UK have divided the population so fundamentally that the kind of broad alliances that sweep megalomaniacs from power have become much more difficult.

In each case the headline issue itself was not the main point. Each in a way was a staging post, a symbol of what was wanted. The main issues were what was needed to achieve each and what was the overall purpose. The aim was for right wing policies to be embedded in the governance of the country concerned, and for the temper of that governance to be gradually altered so that policies which tend towards the fascist became acceptable. Some things were done differently and some similarly. In both countries right wing media were very important, and very compliant. Regulators, if not already powerless, needed to be rendered so in order to enable media to peddle lies. Gerrymandering and the capture of elected office were used in the States, in the UK the revolving door between government and business, and the favouring of donors.

Both strategies in the end hinged on the fortuitous* appearance of a maverick – Trump in the States, Johnson in the UK, both people for whom principle and the rule of law were meaningless. But the mavericks are just the icing on the subversive cake, they are by no means the whole story – they could only get to where they got with the support and nurturing of many other people, and they could only achieve their ends with the active involvement of others, eg Trump’s packing of the Supreme Court aided and abetted by the house republicans’ abuse of procedure. And in the UK, the number of people still willing to pay Johnson's bills is astonishing. Principle and the rule of law had already become meaningless for many; they were just not quite so egregious in their rule breaking.

*I'll stick to "fortuitous". Some would argue that the development of political and media culture in our two countries made the elevation of mavericks inevitable. I would say more likely, but not inevitable.

And in both cases, that is not the end. The right wing justices on the Supreme Court have made it clear that they will be moving on further rights, and in Britain the government have moved on to dismantling our very effective human rights apparatus. This was always intended; the aim is to concentrate power in the hands of a few, and to demoralise and disaggregate the rest.

As I see it, the way back may be easier in the UK than in the States. Movement away from fascism requires an alliance of the centre and the left groupings which are usually fragmented. Fortunately, British voters are on the whole more sensible than the parties that represent them. Anti Tory tactical voting is now well established when circumstances require it, and Johnson has become a liability. One election may change the temper of British politics, though there would still be a very long way to go to root out the corruption that has been seeping into the UK’s system for several decades. But I fear the road back for the USA is much longer and much thornier.

The two narcissists: peas in a pod?

 Trump and Johnson are both narcissists, but in very different forms. It is true to say that neither cares for anything other than themselves. But their relationships to other people are very different. Trump cares deeply about other people – not “for” them, “about” them. In his world there have to be winners and losers. He has to be a winner and you can only be a winner if somebody else loses. (There is no such thing as win-win in Trump’s world.) So his activities are based very largely around making other people lose; he gets into intense relationships with people, many of whom he has never met, in order to make them lose so that he can be a winner.

Johnson does not see the world in this way. He doesn’t care about other people at all; he does not deliberately set out to destroy people, but he has no thought for any misery that his decisions might inflict. His calculations are only about what is good for him. If he had calculated that backing Remain would win him the premiership, then we might now be a corrupt and failing state within the EU instead of a corrupt and failing state outside the EU. It would make no difference to Johnson. That was very unlikely though – in order for Johnson to be as free as possible to behave the way he wants, he cannot be fettered by greater powers. He knows he can bend British institutions to his will – the bending has mostly been done for him already by his real boss (PM refers to Telegraph as his 'real boss', Dominic Cummings claims) and others; he knows he could not have bent European institutions the same way.

Money is like water on a carpet

 Money is like water on a carpet. It gets everywhere, as long as people let it. For a long time money, in the form of profit seeking, was kept out of systems that were hard or impossible to run competitively. But since the 1980s, when monetary policy began to win the battle for top people’s hearts and minds, money has sneaked – or been openly invited in – to almost every sphere of public life. They would privatise the air you breathe, if they could (it has been suggested).

For a while I’ve been watching one of the more recent manifestations of this phenomenon, the fact that big money, I mean really huge, vast, global money has embedded itself into the UK children’s care sector (where forced competitive tendering was introduced in the 1980s). Many, many homes for deprived children or difficult children are now run by investment funds and the like. The dogma of privatisation has soaked right through into the responsibilities of local authorities, and money is being allowed to run riot. It shows in the number of children’s home rated poorly by Ofsted, and also in other figures:

June 28th 2022 Serious incidents more common in for-profit children’s homes in England: Privately run homes have more police callouts and staff complaints than council ones, data shows (Private providers say that is because they deal with more difficult children. I have no evidence as to whether that is true, but if they do then they should have better systems to cope with the difficulties.)

April 18th 2022 English councils pay £1m per child for places in private children’s homes: Private providers accused of making ‘obscene’ profits out of some of society’s most vulnerable children

March 10th 2022 UK has ‘sleepwalked’ into dysfunctional children’s social care market, says regulator: CMA finds local authorities are being forced to pay excessive fees for substandard privately run services

October 22nd 2021 Private children’s home providers charging councils too much, report says: Market in England is broken and failing too many children, says chair of independent review

Huge fees are now being paid by local authorities for poor standards of care in essential services. Why and how did we get to this point? Money does not care. That is one of the key issues with using the market to solve any social issue. Funds have invested in children’s homes because they see an opportunity for profit. They get a decent profit because they do nto care about the morality of charging hard pressed public authorities through the nose, and neither do they care about the outcome for the children they make themselves responsible for. This should not be surprising. The only responsibility of fund managers is to make a profit for their funds.

The only way to make funds do a good job of running a children’s home is to have contracts with penalise them heavily for getting things wrong, and a regulator that has and is prepared to use robust tools for enforcement. (There is one, and only one, effective way to regulate funds that run children’s home – by fining them heavily so that they lose the one thing they care about – profit.)

We are in this situation because, for forty years, those in charge of this country have worked on the unsupported assumptions that the market works better than other forms of provision, and that the market only needs to be lightly regulated in order to keep it efficient. Those assumptions have been made in other countries too, but in the UK we have raised it to an art form. There are examples in almost every sphere – sewage in our bathing water, with a regulator that is just beginning to wake up, having previously done hardly anything to ensure the investment that the firms promised they would make, or to prevent profit extraction from customers who have quite literally nowhere else to turn. (see Filth for a local example); crushing costs of energy, with an energy regulator that has done hardly anything to ensure the companies pass profits back to consumers rather than to shareholders and overpaid executives. Childcare is just a more extreme form of this behaviour.

The mantra that regulation is bad still holds sway. That is despite the disaster of 2008 which demonstrated with the utmost clarity what happens when you under regulate. Over regulation is indeed a bad idea; under regulation is just as bad. But that is still what we are told – markets work, entrepreneurs need to be free to make bold decisions, (global Britain ha ha) blah, blah, blah.

It might make sense to have commercial companies running some of our systems, like parts of the NHS under contract, but only under strict regulatory control. (And regulation actually costs money – a lot of it. One of the most fundamental misconceptions about the market mantra is that regulation can be done on the cheap.) But in some fields it makes no sense. Childcare is one of them, but we are still stuck with a system in which all the key decision makers maintain their cruelly compromised faith in the effectiveness of the market, and their fealty to money.

In my view there is a deep connection between the obeisance that has been paid to money since the 1980s and the current political crises working their way out in the UK and the USA. The overwhelming temper of market decisions is that money and the market must rule. No space is left for humanity, for caring about anything. Forty years of reducing caring about anything to second class status in any high level decision making has seen both the USA in 2016 and the UK in 2019 elect leaders who quite literally cared for nothing beside themselves. It didn’t have to be like this but the tendency was always there and the tendency in the end won.