No, Armando Iannuchi, it was Always About Money

A post made by Armando Iannuchi for the “Comment is Free” section of The Guardian news website makes the claim that, “Politics was once about beliefs and society. Now it’s a worship of money”. In the post he goes on to describe how money has become the dominating force in the halls of British Parliament and laments the days when they were filled to the brim with ideas about how to run society and vigorous debate over these issues.

He begins by complaining that politics is all about money and that the discussion of ideas and policies are all related to money. As issues are debated one must speak well when discussing money or you are dismissed in debate, “Other issues come out for an airing but in the end, no matter how passionate you are about the NHS, devolution, immigration or the environment, if you can’t talk competently about money, you’re nothing.” I don’ t think he is wrong at all here about this complaint, in fact he has a very real criticism to make. I however feel that the source of this dismal situation is not quite understood by him.

His words here are quite telling:

“Money is the root of all politics. It sounds so obvious it’s hardly worth writing down. Yet I was amazed by how shocked and surprised we were meant to be at that footage of Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind selling their services and talking hourly rates. The film made them look like two hungry foxes backed into a pile of brambles, a bunch of feathers in each mouth: but really, this was no different from what Rifkind and Straw’s bosses do all the time.”

“But dare to express a single doubt over the supreme rationale of having the business community running the whole show, and you’re derided as an economic nincompoop, unfit for office. We can launch inquiries into the police, the war and the press, but it’s the stuff of fantasy to imagine we’d ever launch a full-blown investigation into why our business community lives under permanent impunity. That’s because this belief that, fundamentally, we should all be like businesses, has expanded exponentially. It is political life itself. There’s nothing left. It’s taken on the status of an unshatterable truth: if we are to have any credibility, business is what we must do.”

I too am sometimes bewildered by how people can be stunned by the news of people being found willing to shill their skills to the highest bidder regardless of its possible effects on society. Often accusations are thrown at such people of being “unethical”. Is this not what capitalism tells us? That we must sell our labour and/or talents to the highest bidder in the market for our rational self-interest? If we stand on the premise that capitalism is the mode of production of society, and this is the logic of that mode of production, how can we claim it to be unethical? This is a very real manifestation of the commodification of labour. Our labour and/or talents are not something we use to benefit society, but something well sell at an hourly wage. In Marxist terms, it is used for its exchange-value, not its use-value.

As for his second paragraph there it’s true, you are attacked for daring to question the grip of big business on government. I think this is where he goes off track because he questions why it is a crime to ask if business should have such power without question. I think the answer is quote obvious, Britain is a capitalist country. In his whole post he never makes that connection. He only laments that we’re not allowed to question business’ influence in the role of government. This is capitalism, the super structure serves the base. This isn’t any different than the monarchy serving the feudal mode of production. This whole society is a product of the relationship we have in the work place, also called the “social relations of production”. We are merely economic units interacting with each other in a capitalist system manner. Thus the society, media, interpersonal relationships, concepts of religion, and even politics are shaped by that order. Our social relations are determined by our economic relations. or as Marx put it:

“The community of men, or the manifestation of the nature of men, their mutual complementing the result of which is species-life, truly human life – this community is conceived by political economy in the form of exchange and trade. Society, says Destutt de Tracy, is a series of mutual exchanges. It is precisely this process of mutual integration. Society, says Adam Smith, is a commercial society. Each of its members is a merchant.”

– Karl Marx, Notes on James Mill

The fact is the capitalist class has always had control over the government. There never was a time when this was not true. The government serves the capitalist class by regulating society along a course that benefits capitalism. They themselves need the government to regulate their disputes, maintain public order, even make war in the name of profits. They need it to enforce contracts, make legal definitions, and keep the market as honest as possible. There has not been a time when this was not the case.

What we see next from him is a description of the disintegration of the welfare state that was set up after World War Two. He describes how it has been dismantled by big business. In his view it went from discussing society to discussing how best to serve that big business. To him, what happened was business got involved in politics and ruined everything.

“From the early 1980s those grand but difficult questions about what kind of a society we wanted to build were replaced by a much more direct calculation: how much money could we make? Economics could still be dressed up as a moral passion for social improvement, crystallised in Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that the Good Samaritan wouldn’t have been able to be good if he didn’t have any money. This political recalibration was later undersealed by Peter Mandelson’s remark that New Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes”.

“It didn’t matter that we stopped making things. Deregulating the financial sector allowed us to puff up a whole new industry we could then christen the new engine-room of the British economy. Politics and finance were one: business leaders trooped in and out of No 10 as frequently as heads of state. Some of them were made ministers. Politicians doted on business people; they swooned and twerked in front of billionaires; they ran after the likes of Richard Branson and Philip Green like giggling teens chasing Harry Styles down an alley and begging him to autograph their body parts.

“Soon cabinet posts were filled by people with very little life experience outside politics but with a stark directive: talk about money, and run your department like a business. Education became all about getting us ready for jobs. Culture became a commodity that could be quantified by how much it fed into the economy. Health became a mysterious and un-debated obsession to turn our hospitals into market economies, where GPs are obliged to buy into the unquestioned belief that market forces can improve our wellbeing, and that doctors, nurses and paramedics can reduce a fever by competitive tender.”

We see what Iannuchi is talking about, the Thatcherite era that was the massive deregulation of business and the privatization of whatever they could get away with. To him this represented business intruding upon the world of politics for its own benefit. The fact is, as we’ve previously seen, business has never been separated from politics. What he is describing is an alteration in public policy that shifted away from what had become the traditional political choices and debate.

After World War Two socialism and the socialist movement was growing by leaps and bounds. Europe in general in the wake of Nazism was turning socialist, or at the very least leaning very Left. At the time socialists had a lot of influence in many societies, particularly Europe where it was the strongest. In the U.K. communists had been spreading the information, quite correctly, that capitalism and its imperialist contradictions had lead to the war. This recognition was quite strong in the U.K. and a lot of bold Leftist demands were being made of the government. With the destruction of a good piece of London, which happened largely in the Battle of Britain, the people of Britain were looking for a society that took care of people. There was a real threat of communists and socialists taking power in the country. The social welfare system that appeared after the war was a concession to the working class that had been gaining a lot of momentum towards socialism. The policies implemented were intended to placate the working class so that it did not become revolutionary and destroy the capitalist class. The most successful of these measures was the creation of the National Health Service in 1948.

Iannuchi notices that this whole social welfare thing began to be dismantled in the early 1980s. British society took a very sharp turn during that time. This effort largely spearheaded by Margaret Thatcher, began a process of privatization and a general abolishment of politics with the people’s welfare in mind. This certainly did happen, but it is not as Iannuchi thinks. This was not some sort of great betrayal where the power of big business started decided that government needed to be run on a principal of “how much money can we make”. Very significant things were taking place at that time. Most importantly the rate of profit for British companies was reaching an all time low. This is a general phenomena in capitalism that can lead to economic crisis. The power of the working class, with concessions made by the bourgeois state, had allowed the people to cut too deeply into the capitalist class itself. It was decided that if a major crisis was to be avoided, much of the social welfare system had to be dismantled. This was not something limited to the UK. The capitalist world in general was suffering from a serious falling rate of profit.

Marxist economist Michael Roberts has put together very useful information regarding the falling rate of profit in the UK:

“There are data that go back further to 1950, but they rely on gross operating surpluses not net figures. But if we use these to get an idea of what was happening to the UK rate of profit in the whole post second world war period, we find the same trends, whether measured in current cost or historic cost terms. The overall period from 1950 to 2009 shows a downward trend in the UK rate of profit. But that is because the rate of profit was so high in the early 1950s and declined thereafter to reach a low in the first great post-war capitalist slump of 1974-5. That seems to have been a turning point. UK manufacturing industry was decimated and the process of transforming the UK capitalist economy fully into services-based sectors began in earnest. This led to a gradual improvement in the rate of profit, although the rate did not get back to the levels of early 1960s (except, on some measures, in the recent credit-fuelled boom of the early 2000s). Also, from about the mid-1980s, the rate of profit on an historic cost basis trended pretty much flat (the green line in the graphic below).”

rate of profit uk

This situation heading into the 1980s was a very dangerous time for the global capitalist order. It is no coincidence that this is the time when imperialism ramped up and attacks upon the First World working class began. The class antagonism between workers and the capitalists were at a breaking point that threatened to throw that global capitalist order into crisis. The response by the British government and many others around the industrialized world was not big business getting its way. It was the state mechanism which they control taking drastic action to save themselves. Labour movements had gotten soft, and in many people’s eyes (justly or unjustly) socialism in the U.S.S.R. had been discredited. The early 1980s was the right and the necessary time to act.

“It’s so tempting to conclude that the subjugation of politics to business is just the political class prepping themselves for lucrative directorships and consultancies when their parliamentary career is over. I think that’s what we’re meant to take from the Rifkind and Straw story. Snouts in the trough, good ’uns gone bad.

“I’m not convinced. My pet theory is that politicians with no real experience of work outside Westminster are paranoid that they don’t look grown up enough unless they act as though they run something. So they run things like business, since business is most of the outside world they encounter. The tougher they talk business, the less they’ll be laughed at by the grown-ups in boardrooms they meet daily. Outwardly, politicians act like company directors because inwardly they actually feel like eunuchs. I could be wrong. But if you think my theory pretty mad, consider how sane the reality is we have now.”

I would disagree with Mr. Iannuchi here. Politicians are not afraid they will not look grown up enough. They are concerned with controlling the debate of what is to be done in society. They are the elected representatives of the capitalist class in what we call bourgeois democracy. It is a system where we have a choice, so long as we choose a representative from among the various interests of the capitalist class. More often we call this a class dictatorship. Their job is to support the capitalist system as they are funded by and the system is owned by the capitalist class. Society serves the continuance of the economic prosperity of the capitalist class. Economics is not a “neutral party”, it is a class based system, those with power and those without. That system will serve those that have power. In this class dictatorship it would be the capitalist class. We would be remiss to think that capital could serve any other master.

In the end Mr. Iannuchi is both right and wrong. He has noticed a very real occurrence, a shifting of political goals. The real problem lies in what he thinks causes them. If we view these occurrences from a class perspective, then we get a decent explanation of what has happened.

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Politics was once about beliefs and society. Now it’s a worship of money, Armando Iannucci

Karl Marx, Notes on James Mill

The UK rate of profit and others, Michael Roberts Blog