Monday 21 October 2013

George Osborne and Ruling Class Decadence

If you think this is about the chancellor's youthful larks with Natalie Rowe, you will surely be disappointed. What's more important - and far more damaging - from the standpoint of British capital is his current game of footsie with the Chinese Communist Party. The very notion that not only is he letting the Chinese state build and run a cornerstone of Britain's electricity generating capacity at Hinkley Point C, but will also be shovelling hundreds of millions of taxpayers' cash their way as a sweetener is flabbergasting. Forget the EU and its silly rules about straight bananas, if I was a UKIP'er I'd be hopping about in a panic because the chancellor has handed over a large chunk of British sovereignty to a COMMUNIST power! In fact, what is interesting about this deal is how the hard right, those doughty defenders of this sceptred isle, that die-in-a-ditch-for-queen-and-country brigade haven't so much as raised a murmur of protest. Instead, it has been the liberal-left Keynesian Will Hutton to jab the boot in.

I don't want to spend any time condemning Osborne's obvious lack of aptitude, especially as Will does it so well. But there is one paragraph summing up what is wrong with British capital:
British energy policy, post-privatisation, is a mess. Centrica, which owns British Gas, was EDF's partner in building nuclear power stations. It dropped out claiming that the probable financial returns were not high enough and too uncertain, preferring to spend £500m buying back its own shares to support their price and thus the bonuses of its directors, the kind of capitalism Bambi refuses to reform.
Centrica had the money to build power stations, but concentrated on buying back shares instead. Read that again. Given the option to invest in new power generation and therefore the long-term health of their company, they blew half a billion quid on an immediately profitable but totally non-productive purchase.

Marx often noted that capitalist relations of production are fetters on the development of the forces of production, and today this is an almost banal observation. Even the dogs in the street know that people continually go hungry because there's no money in ensuring everyone's basic needs are met. But perhaps what Marx did not appreciate was the extent to which one country's bourgeoisie differed from another in the degree to which they acted as a brake on capitalist development. And that is Britain's curse, to be lumbered with the most decadent ruling class in Western Europe.

What do we mean by 'decadent'? Writing on China at the beginning of the last century, the classical German sociologist Max Weber observed that the Chinese nobility and mercantile class (sometimes, one and the same thing) were guilty of "irrational" behaviour. In their dealings with the West rather than invest profits in productive capacity so they could compete for emerging markets in manufactured wares, instead they put all their money into land. At that time in China, so went Weber's argument, status in ruling class circles was measured by landholding. So, internally-speaking, this was entirely rational behaviour. But externally this was not the case. Their shortsightedness condemned China to semi-colonial servitude until the Communist Party assumed power in 1949.

The British ruling class are guilty, as a whole, of exactly the same kind of behaviour. Short-termism, flogging off successful companies to overseas competitors, pushing billions into unproductive and socially worthless ventures for a quick turn around, toadying for gongs and royal fripperies - this is the pattern of behaviour our ruling class has grown accustomed. And it's nothing new at all. Will Hutton's political classic, The State We're In forcefully criticises British capital's inability to see further than the end of its nose. He talks about institutions that are par the course in Britain's competitors - state banks, planning, varying levels of corporatism - and how the British state has time and again either avoided these structures or implemented them in a half-arsed way. And this to the detriment of the long-term interests of our beloved bourgeoisie.

In a way, you can understand how we were saddled with the bourgeois equivalent of idlers and wastrels. Britain is where capitalism was born. Capitalism grew "organically" out of the class struggles that attended the final collapse of feudalism. The break down of the ties between landlord and serf under the impact of plague, monarchal absolutism, and war saw the emergence of freelance wage labourers in the countryside. Rather than produce a surplus for the manor out of obligation (backed up by the threat of a visit from the lord's heavies) the relation became an economic one. Gradually, landlord and peasant were replaced by the agrarian capitalist and the rural worker. Seeking outlets for new found wealth, some of these landlords invested in government bonds, but others in new commercial opportunities beginning to open up in towns and cities. Coupled with vast riches flowing into Britain through monopolising high seas trade routes and piracy, capital on a large scale was set into motion, ultimately providing the fund that went on to kickstart the industrial revolution.

This very rough and broad sketch of the emergence of capitalism shows one thing clearly - the bourgeoisie, the class of capital owners, more or less arose "spontaneously". They emerged from the wreck of feudalism as sections of the aristocracy that became something else. They retained their ties to other landed families and crucially the English, and then the British, state and, of course, the royal court. Hence, as Ellen Meiksins Wood has argued that the "backwardness" we associate with Britain - the monarchy, the lords, the unwritten constitution, the baffling pomp and circumstance remained intact because none of it acted as a fetter on the development of emerging capitalism. The French and the other republics that dominate the European mainland are, perversely, symptoms of an earlier backwardness, of a need to reset the states of those nations to enable catch up. Corporatist institutions, long-term planning, both these are characteristic of starting at a lower level and of having to take an interventionist, state-led approach to capitalist development. In Britain where the first bourgeoisie emerged they didn't need any of that. They emerged on the historical scene without the handmaiden of the state, which probably explains why the cretinous liberalism of small state thinking struck deep roots in our ruling class.

Unfortunately, this remains the ruling class conceit now. It doesn't matter that the real economy is beholden to the rapaciousness of finance capital, or that inequality is widening, or that the infrastructure is crumbling, or that London and the regions are dangerously imbalanced, or that their government has pursued self-defeating policies. As long as the dividends continue to pile in and they get their six or seven holidays a year they really, really don't care. This is the class that would sell their granny for a few extra quid, that would sink Britain to preserve their privileges. So much for patriotism, so much for loving their country.

The British ruling class are decadent and clueless, their privilege has made them stupid. They are unfit for purpose, to mangle a phrase.


Roger McCarthy said...

But what if there is no longer a British ruling class?

20-odd years ago Christopher Lasch described the Revolt of the Elite - the rise of a new global plutocratic class which becomes more deracinated with each year.

And all this looks perfectly rational from the perspective of a global plutocrat.

Phil said...

The bourgeoisie have always been more international than they pretend, but I believe the case of transnational corporations or the truly rootless global elites have been overstated. As a tendency within the ruling class they might be growing, I don't know - I haven't seen any hard data - but the perception they are is widely accepted.

That said a British ruling class clearly still exists, even if they tend to flog their businesses off and latterly live off the proceeds while enjoying a lavish lifestyle.

WillORNG said...

I think the state, particularly the huge jump in demand for copper to hull our ships was a significant catalyst in the move to mass industrialisation. The state was heavily involved, significantly this was the driver for the formation of the Bank of England (sic).