A Stealthy Form of Authoritarianism

This article was originally published on Shifting Grounds on 19th February 2013. Since then I have been interested to see in Sir George Cox's review of short-termism in business, commissioned by the Labour Party, the proposal that infrastructure be removed from democratic political control (see page 11). That is precisely the sort of thing I mean by "A Stealthy Form of Authoritarianism":  perhaps not so stealthy though...

“I think we really are the victims of a discursive shift, since the late 1970′s, toward economics”, the late historian Tony Judt said in a recent book.

“Intellectuals don’t ask if something is right or wrong, but whether a policy is efficient or inefficient. They don’t ask if a measure is good or bad, but whether or not it improves productivity…Until you’ve generated resources, goes the refrain, there’s no point in having a conversation about distributing them. This, it seems to me, comes close to a sort of soft blackmail.”

Judt talked of ‘intellectuals’, but his point is surely more relevant to the general public sphere than the fusty rooms of academia. Our national discourse in media and politics focuses relentlessly on economic questions and technical matters rather than fundamental questions of ‘what should be done?’. It is as if the latter has already been decided behind closed doors by a panel of superior minds without the rest of us getting a look-in.

The prevailing narrative that dominates our public life as a result is relentlessly narrow in focus. Ever-expanding air travel is treated as a matter of growth and jobs alone; decent wages and working conditions are subject to remaining ‘competitive’ with sweatshop economies whose people would rather live here; a couple of decimal points off economic output is hyped up into a national crisis, as if we were really at war.

Advocates of this economic determinism effectively see politics as a branch of economics rather than vice versa, while proclaiming a quasi-Marxist ‘inevitability’ of economic progress and ignoring or denying the legitimacy of opposing viewpoints.

On the right wing of politics, this narrative manifests itself mostly through a free market fundamentalism in which the runaway train of global capitalism is reinvented as some sort of supreme moral arbiter.

On the left, we have our own, muddier and more pragmatic versions.

Particularly for Labour, a narrative focusing only on economic growth is an easy choice in practical political terms. It fits in with the dominant media narrative. It winds up Conservatives on the economy and encourages those, not least in the unions, who want more spending in their favoured areas.

This pragmatism is particularly evident on aviation, a touchstone issue for both left and right which asks us to commit on core issues like what sort of economy we want, how serious we are about climate change and our attitudes to the countryside and green spaces.

The New Statesman’s Rafael Behr showed off this tendency when he wrote:

“The point about the need for more airport capacity has effectively been conceded [my emphasis], so the environmental argument is much diminished. Ultimately reducing the UK’s carbon footprint will be as much a question of cleaner planes as fewer flights. Eventually, the government will U-turn on the third runway. [Ed] Miliband would be smart to get in there first.”

Behr’s use of the passive voice to disguise who has conceded the need for more capacity is instructive. The message is that someone else has decided it. We will not tell you whom, but do not worry yourselves about it.

This is a stealthy form of authoritarianism that is all-too-common from those of an economic determinist tendency – a willingness to shut people out, even from discussion.

The strength of this narrative in politics today can also be seen in the sight of power-hungry politicians falling over each other to give away powers to ‘independent’ bodies. The Government’s aviation inquiry is headed by Howard Davies, a former director of the CBI (which is one of the most vociferous lobbyists for expansion).

So many of the left’s ‘Elephants in the Room’ can be placed under the generally unspoken and undefined division between those of this tendency on the one hand and the disparate advocates of meaningful political change on the other.

On immigration, Ed Miliband has said of Labour’s record, “by focusing exclusively on immigration’s impact on growth, we lost sight of who was benefiting from that growth – whose living standards were being squeezed. We became disconnected from the concerns of working people”.

Our cost of living crisis is exacerbated in London and the South East by an insane property market that shuts out ordinary young people. At the same time the internationalised super-rich guzzle up properties (many left empty) in the poshest areas, pushing the merely wealthy elsewhere and squeezing the market all the way down.

Land and housing is a finite resource, yet the political consensus tells us that we should welcome this ‘investment’ because it makes the country wealthier.

These are examples of a democratic society that has lost (or perhaps never found) a sense of itself and what it is for.

Alexis deTocqueville, that great chronicler of democratic societies, regarded ‘associations’ as vital to prevent them from sinking into ‘despotism’.

The state of our main political parties offers cause for concern here, with memberships decimated over the years and coffers stoked up by vested interests. The ‘despotism’ they are submitting to is of a feral economics that is making claims on the whole of existence, despite its many failings (as evidenced in repeated financial crises) and against the wishes of its more intelligent practitioners.

Edward and Robert Skidelsky for example have pointed out that John Maynard Keynes, a hero of many left-leaning economic determinists, believed that increasing wealth would enable us all to work less.

Instead, here and now, we are told how we need to work harder to serve the economy, as if there are verdant uplands over the horizon that we will reach whenever we achieve whatever it is the continuously growing economy is meant to achieve (which is never specified).

From the politicians’ point of view this growth narrative is surely linked umbilically to the tax receipts that make tax cuts and spending plans possible.

Nevertheless, it is not an attractive political project.

As the Skidelsky father and son point out, “all we can offer our children is insecurity and hard graft”.


  1. Hi Ben, it's a very interesting piece and I found myself in agreement with some of your points. I think we can both agree that although there are negatives to globalisation, there are also some benefits too. I just feel that in order to gain those benefits, we have to remain connected to the rest of the world. Before it was through ports and harbours, now it is through airports etc. I also think that British people could benefit from the job opportunities it could bring. I just happen to think that Heathrow is the lesser of three evils because a 'Boris Island Airport' would be disastrous and expanding Gatwick could risk jobs at Heathrow. Also, according to Tim Yeo - once a huge opponent of Heathrow expansion - said it won't make any difference to emissions.

  2. Hi Renie, the idea of us being unconnected to the rest of the world is irrelevant for me, especially on this issue of airport expansion. The aviation lobby wants to make more profit through expansion. The issue for people and politicians is whether this expansion is worth it. Certainly airports provide some jobs (Unite is right on your side there), but not having more airports mean those jobs can go elsewhere, into different activities.

    It's about priorities. What do we care about? And is it worth sacrificing one thing we care about for the other? (health and wellbeing plus nature versus a certain form of economic activity).

    For me personally, I'm completely against further expansion. I've lived under the Heathrow flighpath for most of my life and suffered respiratory problems since I was a child - there is a pattern there though, with thousands of extra deaths amongst people on the flightpaths. Are we prepared to accept that collateral damage?

    I don't think we should. A lot of the aviation lobby's propaganda is baloney - for example with flights to China they just happen to omit Hong Kong, which I think London alone has more flights to than any other nation.

    The aviation lobby has been relentlessly pressing in the media, and I find it shocking how journalists accept their narrative of 'inevitability' about airport expansion. There is nothing inevitable there, but they have created a situation where it feels that way. This is precisely the Stealthy Form of Authoritarianism I was talking about.


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