Pageant of the Toothless

Dominic Cummings’ piteous press conference is rightly being cited as yet more evidence that he and his host are wholly contemptuous of public opinion. In Cummings’ case this can’t possibly be a surprise if, as The Times reported in March, his initial strategy was ‘herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad’. By that yardstick, he’s contemptuous of our actual lives, never mind our opinions. Indeed, his cross country jaunt to his family’s estate of farms (surely where he first conceived his war on the elite) may have been this shirt sleeves rolled up man of action’s attempt to restart his original plan single-handed.

But let’s leave the particulars of Cummings’ Progress to one side and focus on his interrogation at the hands of Britain’s finest political journalists. This should have been a bloodbath, with the press pack rounding on the wounded gazelle trembling in the long grass of the Downing Street Rose Garden. Instead, this herd of hacks, grown fat and lazy on a steady diet of press releases and off the record briefings, barely bit a lump out Cummings scaly hide.

Instead, we suffered Laura Kuenssberg (who won’t bite on anything that isn’t slathered in her favourite Downing Steet Sauce), Robert Peston, Beth Rigby, and others all taking it in turns to ask Cummings how he felt, whether he was sorry, how he felt the nation felt about him, and what he felt the nation felt about what he felt about them, and a string of other mostly fatuous non-questions and appeals to empathise with those who have followed lockdown to the letter and at great personal cost. Factual questions were few and far between and there appeared to be no appetite to test the cohesion or facticity of Cummings’ account. If only they’d turned on their Twitter. They’d have seen questions being screamed at the screen, all presumably too obvious for those who luxuriate in six-figure salaries to conceive:

  • Does your wife drive?
  • Why would you take your wife and small child with you on a trip to test whether you were safe behind the wheel?
  • Why did you need to travel to Barnard Castle and back to check your eyes?
  • You’re ‘not sure’ whether you needed to fill your tank on a 500-mile round journey – what do you drive, a petrol tanker?
  • Why did the PM deny you’d been to Barnard Castle?

Instead, we got a circus of preening and grandstanding, of a hectoring tone being used to hide pulled punches and under-arm bowling. If I were on trial, I would hope to get a prosecutor of Robert Peston’s calibre. He’d likely get me free pardon and the latest iPhone. They all got their little moment in the sun and their clip to run on their bulletins. They each got to tremble with controlled rage on behalf of the public and burnish their credentials as a champion of the people and scourge of the elites. They have that in common with Cummings. All purport to be on the side of ‘ordinary people’ while showing them contempt. A succession of facades, interrogating a fraud.

Bad Medicine

The ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, in his Bibliotheca historica, tells of the Brazen Bull. It was created by Perillos of Athens for Phalaris of Akragas (now Agrigento in Sicily). The Bull was made from bronze, hollow, and had room for a single occupant. Perillos fashioned the Bull’s head with a series of pipes so that, when the occupant was shut inside and a fire lit beneath, their screams would be as the ‘melodious of bellowings’ as they roasted. Perillos was proud of his invention and probably quite hurt when Phalaris, horrified, ensured that he was the first to try it out.

I mention this tale only in passing, as I imagine there are many recent or imminent corpses who voted Tory in December on the assumption that it would be only other people who got roasted in the fire of ‘getting Brexit done.’

There’s a symmetry between Covid-19’s effect on the body and upon the body politic. In both cases, it’s most deadly to those who are already weakened. And Britain surely has a long list of comorbidities: toxic inequality, elevated poverty, fractured infrastructure, palsied public services (including atrophied public health programmes), and a septic press. Forty years of the same crank medicine and the doctors picking our pockets have left Britain an emaciated, impoverished apparition, barely covered by a cloak of newsprint. It’s been chemo without the therapy.

It’s banal to say that the senior members of the government aren’t doing a good job, but let’s remember that combatting a global pandemic wasn’t the reason Boris Johnson entered politics, which was Boris Johnson. The entirety of the newsmedia’s coverage is shaped by the assumption that our political leaders sincerely care about protecting the public as best they can. And of course, many people in senior positions within our bureaucracy do care, but why assume that Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and so on do? Have they ever shown any indication of caring before? Even before this, the signs were there, but as a nation we noted them with all the apparent concern of Fred West’s corner shopkeeper pondering his healthy purchases of black sacks and air freshener. They’ve not even been particularly assiduous about counting the corpses, having decided only yesterday that care home residents count as human. Oh, for the heady days when ‘we don’t do body counts’ was reserved only for the brown unpeople living on top of our oil.

How apt, then, that the newly restored Prime Minister describes us as coming to the end of the first phase of the ‘conflict’. Meanwhile, medals are minted, we hold a minute’s silence for heroes not so much fallen as tripped, and Tobias Ellwood suggests the Red Arrows and other military aircraft should perform flyovers of British cities — because nothing raises the morale of lifesavers as much as being buzzed by machines built to crush lives under rubble.

The war idiom has always been a profitable one for the Tories; particularly recently as it’s how many of their supporters (those still alive) understand our relationship with the EU. It also helps the Government excuse its many, egregious failings. It would have been acceptable to ask nurses to reuse aprons when our the country was being rattled by German bombs, but not when the worst hardship most of us have had to face is Netflix going down. This is not a war; it is the shadow of decades of theft and neglect.

Yet, if polls are accurate, the British public is as happy as their great grandparents to climb out of the trenches and march pointlessly into enemy fire because ‘we’re all in it together’. We’ve been gulled this way before. As the late Alex Carey wrote, because modern wars require broad-based support, wartime propaganda ‘idealizes the humane, egalitarian, democratic character of the home society in a way that no elite or business interest has any intention of allowing actually to come about.’[1] Coronavirus is being painted as the equivalent of war and we’re being mollified with the same promises of a fairer society tomorrow. We need to be vigilant: as soon as the crisis abates, the people who have long prospered at our expense will try to press the reset button and their media will work to make us forget the promises and blame the victims. That is the real fight ahead – not to forget.

[1] Alex Carey (1996) Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, p. 137.

The Veil of Ignorance

Mass graves are a traditional British gift to foreigners, so it was a bit of a jolt to read that the freshest is in Chislehurst. The news every day is grim, and COVID-19 may eventually kill so many vulnerable and infirm people that the Tories have no choice but to give it a peerage. So, we should probably thank the BBC and much of the press for trying to take our minds off the mounting bodies by focussing on the personal journey of our beloved Prime Minister. As the Daily Telegraph’s Allison Pearson, working from home in Pyongyang, told us recently, ‘For millions of people, that was our first thought upon waking yesterday. And our last thought before we fell asleep the night before.’  When Johnson was taken to intensive care, I’m surprised Pearson didn’t exhort us all to save him by clapping our hands to prove we still believe in Borises.BorisFronts

It was almost obligatory to say that the PM was in ‘good spirits’, whether he was enjoying Withnail and I or doing the odd Sudoku. I like to imagine him, sitting up in bed in his ‘good spirits,’ sharing his love of mathematical brainteasers with the Ward Sister, her exhausted smile fixed as she repeatedly tries to divide one face mask between five nurses. The Health Secretary, inexplicably Matt Hancock, has recognised the dearth of PPE and responded by promising a badge (which I suspect won’t really be large enough) and urging NHS staff not to be greedy and to only use the right amount – very much a case of adding insult to infection.  Priti Patel – who even Hancock would have to concede needs at least two face masks — has said she is ‘sorry if people feel’ there isn’t enough PPE, if nurses wrapped in bin liners feel that they don’t have enough aprons. At least as a nation we’re experimenting with radical approaches to the problem – ignoring the obvious route of taking multiple opportunities to join the EU ventilator scheme and instead sourcing them directly from Holby City.

But I’m being uncharitable. This is an unprecedented challenge and we should be grateful that this time the Government is killing us through incompetence rather than as part of an ‘ideological project causing pain and misery’. Because COVID-19 is still in the little league when it comes to killing the poor, elderly, and sick. It’s only managed 20,000 so far and is far less sophisticated in its targeting than, say, Universal Credit.

But COVID-19 has shone unneeded light on the problems that afflict 21st Century Britain. Rough sleepers have been accommodated in hotels after Luke Hall MP, the Minister for Local Government and Homelessness, told councils that ‘it is now imperative that rough sleepers and other vulnerable homeless are supported into appropriate accommodation,’ presumably as it hadn’t been imperative since way back in 2012 when the Met allegedly cleansed a path for the Olympic Torch. Or maybe we really do want to protect vagrants from dying of COVID-19 before they’ve had the opportunity to freeze to death. At least when all this is over, they’ll be able to take full advantage of a greatly expanded supply of empty shop doorways.

Has it really taken the current crisis to persuade us that no one should have to sleep on the streets, that you can’t live on £94 a week, that nobody should be made homeless because they can’t afford to pay their rent, and that we need to pay healthcare workers a decent wage? Who needed a virus to show them that the country is manifestly, hugely, consciously, suicidally unfair? Emily Maitlis, it seems.

Or is this stirring of popular compassion merely collective hedging of our bets borne from a temporary sense of shared vulnerability; John Rawls’ theory of justice enacted as an emergency power because we’re all living behind a veil of ignorance as to who will be next? I might not be alright Jack, so let’s deal with some of those ‘burning injustices’ — at least until we get Brexit done. And once the virus has receded? How long before we stop clapping for nurses and leave the survivors to trudge back to the foodbanks?

Colluding in the Lie

A few days ago, just after the sun had first begun to warm the rooftops, I saw a large, fat blue worm on a grass verge. It curved six feet long and a couple of feet thick and lay motionless under a sheen of dew. I told myself there was nothing I could do and kept walking.

The image of the person in the sleeping bag, motionless and completely cocooned against the chill, has stayed with me. We’re so used to the comfort of brick walls and glass windows to keep the outside out. What must it be like to not have that? For one’s private world to extend no farther than the damp, fusty inside of a sleeping bag zipped over one’s head. To have no more protection from the world than a thin, nylon shell. Buried alive in a convenient body bag, ready to be cleared away by the council.

Locally, rough sleepers have become a common sight in the past few years. Where once there were one or two, there will now be several apparently homeless people sitting along the main shopping streets. That’s not the most reliable of metrics, since homeless people sensibly congregate in areas with the highest footfall in order to beg for money (and some beggars will not be rough sleepers). But I also see them in less prominent places, where their lack of a roof is indisputable. They’re sleeping under a large pedestrian bridge near the railway station. There’s a man who now resides in the grounds of a nearby retail park with a garden chair to sit in and a shopping trolley to hold his world. There’s someone else camping in a meagre patch of woodland bounding my local Tesco; like the pioneer for a 21st century Hooverville. Whoever this person is, they’re comparatively well provisioned, with a tent and a radio hanging from a tree.

Seeing homeless people on our streets can provoke strong feelings. Compassion, pity, anger, and shame, of course. But there’s worse: embarrassment, irritation, revulsion, hostility and contempt. All of these flicker and spark underneath our more consciously civilised feelings. Beneath them all, I think, is guilt. Guilt for our society, guilt for our own better circumstances, guilt for the fact that we don’t do something or don’t do more. It’s the guilt that drives the hostility. Often unable to reconcile our inaction with our sense of ourselves as a ‘good’ person, we place the fault with them. We blame them for not having a job, as we bustle off to the Amazon Locker after buying a bag of self-scanned groceries. We note superciliously that they’re smoking and drinking, as we look forward to that glass of wine after our tough day. We remind ourselves that society rewards hard work and thrift, as we pore enviously through celebrity magazines and dreamily choose our lottery numbers.

I know — I confess — that I’ve felt at least some of this. I donate to Shelter at least a couple of times a year and I have given money to people in the street, but they’re necessarily the exceptions. If I put only a fiver in every outstretched hand or bowl, I could be down thirty quid a High Street. Most often, I’ve been embarrassed to make eye contact with a rough sleeper sitting on the pavement. Maybe I’ll mumble an apology, pat my pockets feebly or even slow enough to half mouth, ‘sorry I’m not carrying cash’ (which generally is true but makes me feel no less wretched for saying it). And I’ve felt irritation at times: that beggar is there again, at just the spot I need to walk past. Typical. It’s like he’s positioned himself deliberately to shame me: the nerve of the man. How dare he chill my day with his gaunt, grimy presence? He doesn’t even have the decency to look angry or shout abuse at me when I don’t give him anything. Instead he gives me a thin smile and an amicable ‘have a good day, mate.’ Bastard. But then why would he get angry? He must get a dozen hurried, wincing knockbacks every hour; he hasn’t got the spare calories to stew with rejected rage.

As ever, we can add edges to this social problem with a fleet of statistics. Counting the number of rough sleepers isn’t easy but, in England, one assessment is a 169 per cent increase since 2010 to just shy of 5,000 people. This is an official extrapolation of local authority estimates and counts that, while undertaken according to a common methodology, are widely believed to ‘substantially’ understate the scale of the problem.[1] The UK Statistics Authority has expressed serious concerns about them and many local authorities themselves don’t consider them reliable. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter whether these figures are needlessly bleak or overly rosy: it’s still thousands and thousands of people. The real message is that, as a society, we don’t care enough to obtain a precise accounting.

We can add to the rough sleepers the number of homeless people more generally. ‘The scourge of homelessness extends far beyond our streets. Hidden away in emergency B&Bs, temporary bedsits and on friend’s sofas are hundreds of thousands of other homeless people, including families with children.’ That’s the Chief Executive of Shelter, Polly Neate.[2]

In the first quarter of this year, 79,880 households were in temporary accommodation, up 3 per cent from the same quarter in 2017.[3] Add to this the people who become homeless but are lost to official figures because they find a temporary solution, such as staying with family and friends or squatting. The charity, Crisis, suggests that about 62 per cent of single homeless people may fall into this category.[4] And let’s not forget that more of us who aren’t living in the gutter may be teetering on the kerb. 4.7 million households now rent privately in England, up 74 per cent since 2008[5] and the English Housing Survey, 2016 – 2017, reports that 9.1 per cent of private renters were in arrears or had been within the previous 12 months.[6]

These numbers suggest the width of suffering but cannot speak to its depth. It’s telling, I think, that we say ‘homeless’ rather than merely ‘houseless.’ We acknowledge, at least with our use of language, the trauma of having nowhere to call one’s own. We understand all that the word ‘home’ holds within it – shelter, escape, warmth, support, peace, solitude, companionship, love. A home is the soil in which we grow; uproot us and we wither. The everyday life of homeless people must be a weary pendulum of survival and boredom. The sheer, dreary timelessness of having nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no one to see. The strangling frustration and loneliness of watching the legs of the world walk past, day after day; those endless, wasted days. In a society that increasingly communicates from behind walls, where plastic community pours in through a broadband connection, rough sleepers are exiles. With no walls to call their own they are shut out by everyone else’s – the living dead, buried in plain sight.

And we accept this. As an intellectual proposition we know it’s wrong but, as a nation, we don’t feel its wrongness enough to fix it. Instead, we allow government to lie to us that ending rough-sleeping is intractable, a generational task at best. Let’s be clear: homelessness is a twisted snare of societal and personal barbs, including community collapse, debt, relationship breakdown, substance abuse, mental health problems and plain, simple bad life choices. All of that takes time to address and some personal lives can never be ‘fixed’. But rough-sleeping is not a complicated problem. It’s hard and large and heavy, but it’s not complex. It’s people, who don’t want to, having to sleep outside. There is no reason, aside from our own lack of care, that means we cannot end it. What are we as a nation when ‘we need to stop people from having to sleep outside’ is a radical aspiration?

A few years ago, the Cameron Government sought to persuade us that they cared so much about ordinary Libyans that they were willing to mobilise huge military force to bomb their country into a democratic utopia (Remember? Just as we did with Afghanistan and Iraq). A few years later, while Libyans try to escape utopia on anything that floats, we watch them drown while victimising any who somehow manage to crawl ashore at Dover. Yet, we keep lapping up the same ‘Responsibility to Protect’ effluent spewing from politicians’ backsides. Are we guilty of unforgiveable, serial gullibility or is it worse? Do we collude in the lie of government benevolence because it is more convenient than accepting that we are ruled by brigands and all that entails? Perhaps any politician advocating a ‘war of liberation’ should be forced to stand before a parliament of grim, unforgiving homeless people and explain why we can afford the love bombs but can’t care for our economic wounded.

We can fix the problem if we want to. Give every rough-sleeper who wants it somewhere warm and dry. Use empty buildings: more than 11,000 UK homes have been empty for over a decade.[7] Make buildings empty: Buckingham Palace has 775 rooms. Do whatever is needed to quickly make it happen. If it were a personal friend, it would be an emergency and we would never allow them to sleep in a shop doorway so long as we had even a few square feet of floor. As a nation, we need to adopt this view and to remember our compassion. Treat it as a national emergency — because it is.

We have spent decades being told by the most powerful that compassion isn’t practicable, isn’t workable, isn’t ‘grown-up.’ It’s the great shame of so many of us, again, that we find it easier to collude in what we know is a lie. We know what we are seeing is wrong, but we keep walking.

Header image: The New York Hooverville, 1932.


[1] Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Hal Pawson, Glen Bramley, Steve Wilcox, Beth Watts & Jenny Wood (2018) ‘The homelessness monitor: England 2018,’ Crisis, pp. 48-49, available at (accessed 25/10/2018).

[2] Press release ‘Shelter responds to new government figures on rough sleeping,’ 25th January 2018, available at (accessed 24/10/18).

[3] ‘Statutory homelessness data, January – March 2018 (Q1)’ Homeless Link 2018, available at (accessed 25/10/2018).

[4] Crisis (accessed 25/10/2018).

[5] Shelter ‘Private renters now key to political battleground, Shelter research shows,’ 2nd October 2018, available at,_shelter_research_shows

[6] Figure quoted in ‘Behind on the basics. A closer look at households in arrears on their essential bills,’ Step Change (2018 Foundation for Credit Counselling) May 2018, pp. 10-11, available at Note that the equivalent figure for housing association tenants was 25.4% and for local authorities 24.1%.

[7] BBC News ‘More than 11,000 UK homes empty for 10 years,’ 1st January 2018, available at (accessed 24/10/2018).

Beware the Few

The newspapers received the elevation of Perkins with unprecedented hysteria. “Go back to Moscow,” screamed the Sun, unable to come to terms with the fact that ‘Red Harry’ (as the papers insisted on calling him) had never actually set foot in Moscow… in the run-up to polling… newspapers published lists of ‘Communist-backed’ Labour candidates. By way of evidence they offered an article in the Morning Star or a platform shared by a Labour MP and a member of the Communist Party. A week before election day… newshounds ‘discovered’ documents purporting to show that four senior Labour leaders were paid-up members of a Trotskyist cell.

Not to be outdone, the Express took to publishing a picture of Perkins daubed with a Hitler moustache… Another paper splashed on its front page an internal Labour Party document outlining plans to abolish tax relief on mortgages and confiscate all personal wealth over £50,000. Enquiry revealed that the document was a forgery, but the retraction was tucked away at the bottom of an inside page.[i]

The passage above is from the novel, ‘A Very British Coup,’ by the former Labour MP, Chris Mullin. Though published in 1982 and dated, it’s a stingingly prescient work that, if Labour forms the next government, should become required reading for anyone who still harbours any affection for democracy. The novel was a success and, later, playwright Alan Plater wrote a (loose) adaptation for Channel Four.

CorbynPutinStoogeIn his opus, Mullin imagines the various phases of an establishment coup mounted in response to the election of a socialist government led by his protagonist, newly minted Labour PM Harry Perkins. Naturally, Mullin portrays the corporate media as one of the principal fronts in his imaginary battle between democracy and the state and, last month, I touched on this subject when I argued that it is foolish to believe that a genuinely socialist Labour Party could win over the corporate capitalist media. One has only to look at the batterings meted out to Labour under Foot, Kinnock, ‘Red Ed’ Miliband, and Corbyn to see the entirely understandable hostility of private power to anything other than the mildest social democracy.[ii] New Labour, which was substantially (though in fairness not totally) a capitulation to neoliberalism, received a much fairer wind; particularly from the Murdoch press.

The establishment campaign to destroy the Corbyn project, which is currently veiled as a furore over antisemitism, began before he was elected when, in July 2015, senior Labour MPs briefed the press that ‘Corbyn would never be allowed to remain in the job long enough to fight the 2020 general election’ and that ‘a coup could be launched within days of the result.’[iii] Three years later, for all its digging, the establishment has so far found very little to work with, as the paucity of the ‘scandals’ so far illustrate. When your enemy is cropping photos to make it CorbynJigMaillook like you’re dancing at the Cenotaph, you know their battery’s down to one bar. The insinuations and allegations concerning Corbyn’s associations with Sinn Fein and Hamas before the 2017 election fell flat, especially with younger voters, for whom the 80s are not even a memory. Indeed, such was the failure that many were tempted to see it as another portent of the collapse of redtop influence.[iv] This year, allegations that Corbyn was a Kremlin agent, a traitor, or a Czech spy proved so obviously absurd that even Andrew Neil bridled at them, demolishing the Brexit Minister, Steve Baker, in an interview so bloody it could have been directed by Eli Roth.

Inevitably, if Labour win the next election, the media will gain new material. Instead of rummaging through Corbyn’s bins, they’ll be able to blame everything that goes wrong in the country on Labour and on him (and sometimes they may actually be right to do so). As with Corbyn’s election as leader, the media will show scant regard for fairness, honesty or intellectual self-respect. And this will be only one front. In office, a Labour government will find itself having to fight on a much broader battlefield if it also wants to be in power.

LabourSpiesIt’s easy to forget how much any government relies on consent: not merely that of an electorate it has to win over every five years but rival power centres that it has to win over every day. It’s easy to confuse ‘the government’ with the wider apparatus of the state.  It’s worth us remembering exactly what a Labour Government would be in actual physical terms: approximately 120 people running twenty-five ministerial departments.[v] That would be the Labour Government: 120 people. Add to that a further 20 non-ministerial departments and 300+ executive agencies of one sort or another; all of which is staffed mostly by the 560,000 civil servants. Think of 120 people against that. And that of course is just the formal government. To this, we must add all the other centres of power in the country – the finance sector, large multinational corporations (and their media arms), and even the diminished but still influential trades unions. The Government for the Many against the (not so) Few.

And we live now in an incomparably more globalised world with far faster CorbynCollaboratorcommunication than that envisaged by Chris Mullin. Internationally, we are subject to the ‘virtual senate’ of investors and lenders, who ‘conduct moment-by-moment referendums’ on government policies;[vi] what the press refers to euphemistically as ‘the markets’. Capital is capable of ‘staging a general political strike’ against the policies of any nation, with even the US not immune from its ‘veto power.’[vii] A number of studies have shown that ‘the markets’ punish left wing governments and reward right wing administrations. The reason for this is obvious: ‘the probability of policies that are harmful for returns on investments increases under left governments, while right governments are more likely to choose policies that are beneficial for financial returns.’[viii] In other words, financial institutions punish any government that puts people over profit.

I’d argue that much of what is commonly portrayed as the competence of a government is, in reality, the degree to which other actors within the system play ball. Once Labour is in office, its enemies will have countless opportunities to jam the mechanisms of the state and frustrate Labour’s mandate. We’ve already seen the drama acted out on the smaller stage of the Labour Party itself, when Corbyn found himself in office but not in power; a predicament described by his political biographer, Alex Nunns:

The staff wore black for the day of the result… There was minimal help for the new leader — the campaign’s press officer James Mills had to organise an impromptu round of media interviews. There was no car arranged to transport Corbyn through the thronging streets… On member of staff approached Mills and said: “See those three files over there? That’s how the Labour Party works. See you Monday morning.”[ix]

CorbynLungeIndeed, we saw a foreshadowing of the likely problems ahead in September 2015, when an anonymous ‘senior general’ briefed that a Corbyn government would face a mutiny if it ‘tried to scrap Trident, pull out of NATO or announce “any plans to emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces.”’[x] It’s no secret that Labour are conducting strategy sessions to, as John McDonnell put it, ‘answer the question about what happens when, or if, they [the establishment] come for us.’ In the first instance, that will very likely take the form of a TimesRussiaSwingrun on the pound (currency traders selling the pound so that its value against other currencies drops) or sudden capital flight (people pulling their money out of the country).[xi] In the longer run, there will be a steady war of attrition between a Labour government and institutions that have a vested interest in obstructing even Corbyn’s comparatively mild programme of social democracy. Increased propaganda against the domestic (and foreign) population, non-cooperation, and active sabotage: power protects itself.

Finally, while I’ve concerned myself here with institutions, allow me to suggest that theseExistential Threat are not the fundamental enemy that the Corbyn project faces. That is the class identity, values, and interests shared by that tranche of society we call ‘the establishment’. The institutions are merely the semi-permanent expression of the establishment, accumulated over decades and centuries.  The substance is the people — they are the bricks that make up the buildings, bound by the cement of their common ideology. We might demolish the buildings but the bricks themselves scatter and slot themselves into new buildings (or parties). The longer struggle of socialism will always be to bring about a change in collective wisdom: a ‘battle for hearts and minds’ (but without the bombing). That will take time and the battle for the buildings is a necessary step in winning the war for the bricks. It’s vital that Labour and its supporters don’t under estimate this challenge. Getting elected is not the summit but a foothill on the journey. I’ll leave you with some words Chris Mullin gave to Harry Perkins, which could be as true the morning after the next election as they were in 1982:

All we have won tonight is political power… [b]y itself that is not enough. Real power in this country resides not in Parliament, but in the boardrooms of the City of London; in the darkest recesses of the Whitehall bureaucracy and in the editorial offices of our national newspapers. To win real power we have first to break the stranglehold exerted by the ruling class on all the important institutions of our country.[xii]



[i] Chris Mullin (1982) ‘A Very British Coup,’ Hodder & Stoughton pp. 44-45.

[ii] The treatment of Tony Blair was far kinder, as I discussed in my previous article. John Smith was leader only two years before his untimely death at 55.

[iii] Tim Ross and Emily Gosden, ‘Jeremy Corbyn Faces Coup Plot if He Wins Labour Leadership,’ The Telegraph, 27th July 2015, available at (accessed 03/09/18); The Guardian reports that ‘ [The] argument about antisemitism in the party threatens to turn into a battle over its future…’ neatly reversing the actual events, in which the battle by the Labour right to wrest control of the Party back from the membership has recently morphed into an antisemitism-flavoured souffle (Dan Sabbagh ‘Antisemitism row: Hodge and Brown pile pressure on Corbyn,’ The Guardian 2nd September 2018, available at (accessed 03/09/18).

[iv] See, for example, Suzanne Moore ‘The Sun and Mail tried to crush Corbyn. But their power over politics is broken, The Guardian 9th of June 2017, available at (accessed 03/09/18). Steven Barnett reports that ‘commentators, pollsters, politicians and voters alike, some media pundits were quick to pronounce the end of tabloid power. “This election proves that media bias no longer matters” announced Peter Preston, suggesting that while the printed press “has seldom seemed more overwhelming” in its pro-Tory bias, 2017 heralded the final supremacy of social media over the dinosaurs of the printed press. Veteran media commentator Ray Snoddy also proclaimed “the decline in power and influence of the right-wing tabloids”. Nonetheless, Barnett cautions that this judgement may be ‘simplistic’ (Steven Barnett ‘Is our national press a fading dinosaur? Don’t bank on it’ in Einar Thorsen, Daniel Jackson, Darren Lilleker (eds) (2017) UK Election Analysis 2017: Media, Voters and the Campaign, p. 55.

[v] I’m basing this on the assumption that a Labour government would be broadly the same size and configuration as the current one, which is described (in fairly ‘Janet & John’ terms) here:

[vi] Two phrases from the economics literature used frequently by Noam Chomsky, for example in his ‘The high cost of neoliberalism,’ The Spectator 28th June 2010, available at (accessed 02/09/18).

[vii] Timothy A. Canova, ‘The Transformation of U.S. Banking and Finance: From Regulated Competition to Free-Market Receivership,’ Brooklyn Law Review Vol. 60 No. 4 Winter 1995, pp. 1295-1354.

[viii] Thomas Sattler, ‘Do Markets Punish Left Governments?’ The Journal of Politics 75, no. 2 (2013): 343-56. In Sattler’s study, he qualifies this central assertion by demonstrating that the reaction of markets to left governments depends on their assessment of how otherwise constrained that government is. In other words, a left government that has little room to operate will not be punished so heavily as one with more latitude.

[ix] Alex Nunns (2016 [2018]) “The Candidate. Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power,” OR Books, London.

[x] Caroline Mortimer, ‘British Army ‘could stage mutiny under Corbyn’, says senior serving general,’ The Independent 20th September 2015, available at (accessed 02/09/18).

[xi] Jim Pickard, ‘Labour plans for capital flight or run on pound if elected,’ Financial Times 26th September 2017, available at (accessed 02/09/18).

[xii] Mullin (1982) p. 10.

I See No Ships…

Very often, when one points out the incessant and almost exceptionless thumping the mainstream media has given Jeremy Corbyn since (before) he was elected Labour leader, the response from his detractors is to blame Corbyn’s team for their poor media management. That the press is against Corbyn is a conspiracy theory or, if it is true, it’s a founding block in the edifice to ineptitude that is ‘Compo Corbyn.’ A savvier leader,  one with sharper suits and no bicycle clips, wouldn’t suffer so; he’d simply caress the jackals’ bellies until they sang ‘The Red Flag’ — while still finding time to single-handedly stop Brexit.

On Twitter, I’ve several times seen the following quotation from Enoch Powell invoked in support of this view:

For a politician to complain about the press is like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea.

But it’s a poor metaphor and a poor argument. Yes, the sea can be choppy and destructive; it can run you aground, leave you in the doldrums, or sink you altogether; but it has no agency or will. Whatever it does to you, it’s nothing personal. To think otherwise is the same superstitious ascription of intent that has led people to worship both sun gods and sons of god. So the metaphor fails because the press is not like the sea. My guess is old Enoch was never a sailor, not even on a river of blood.

The press most certainly can sink a politician and will often mean to do just that. Despite its name, the media is not a neutral medium, bestowing fair winds and misfortune without favour, through which politicians chart their course. To think that buys into the fish tale of the press as the ‘Fourth Estate,’ some more or less fair arbiter between political competitors. In fact, the media is largely the corporate media  — not an independent power centre but one largely subordinated to big business.

I’m not going to spend several thousand words unpacking this argument. If you’re new to it, read Manufacturing Consent by Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky or look at the work produced by Media Lens. In short (and to simplify) the media is a sub-department of business and is structured by its imperatives. This happens in two ways. The first is its structural dependence on advertising revenue. Looked at in simple, institutional terms, the bread and butter of a newspaper company is not selling newspapers but selling readers to advertisers. That’s why newspapers can be given away and why news websites hate ad-blocking. A celebrated historian of British newspapers, Francis Williams, asserted in 1958 that the press ‘would never have come into existence as a force in public and social life if it had not been for the need of men of commerce to advertise. Only through the growth of advertising did the press achieve independence.’[i] Note the use of the word ‘independence,’ there. It’s only intelligible when we recall that the principal threat to press freedom was once the state. There’s a whole history of state control and the radical ‘unstamped’ press that I shan’t go into here. It’s enough to say that the press gained its freedom from government at the expense of being owned by rich men.

The same criticism applies to the commercial broadcast media – it sells viewers’ attention to advertisers on whose revenue it depends. This view was endorsed as long ago as 1989 by the Economist, which noted that, since projects ’unsuitable for corporate sponsorship tend to die on the vine,’ the media ‘have learned to be sympathetic to the most delicate sympathies of corporations’.[ii]  In a 2000 Pew Centre for the People & the Press poll, about one-third of the 287 US reporters, editors, and news executives who responded said that stories that would ‘hurt the financial interests’ of the media organization or an advertiser go unreported. 41% admitted avoiding or moderating stories to benefit their media company’s interests.[iii] Even the influential right wing US radio pundit, Rush Limbaugh, hardly a fellow traveller of Noam Chomsky, agrees. A ‘turning point’ in his career came when he realized that ‘the sole purpose for all of us in radio is to sell advertising’.[iv]  In 2004, Patrick LeLay, the head of the French media giant TF1, described the purpose of his company thus:

…let’s be realistic: fundamentally speaking, the job of TF1 is to help Coca-Cola to sell its product … If an advertising message is to register, the viewer’s brain needs to be made available. The object of our programmes is to make it available: that is to say to entertain the viewer, to relax him and prepare him between the adverts. What we sell to Coca-Cola is an availability of human brain time.[v]

The second way that the media is subordinate to business is through a process of ideological filtering of its staff, which occurs from school through higher education and into the workplace. There is little need for advertisers or owners to actually tell journalists what they may or may not write because by the time they’re in the job for a while they will have internalised the ‘correct’ values. As Alan Rusbridger, late editor of the late Guardian, conceded several years ago in an interview with Media Lens,

I’m sure… that the pressures of ownership on newspapers is, is pretty important, and it works in all kinds of subtle ways – I suppose ‘filter’ is as good a word as any; the whole thing works by a kind of osmosis. If you ask anybody who works in newspapers, they will quite rightly say, ‘Rupert Murdoch’, or whoever, ‘never tells me what to write’, which is beside the point: they don’t have to be told what to write… It’s understood. I think that does work, and obviously the general interests of most of the people who own newspapers are going to be fairly conventional, pro-business, interests.[vi]

Or, as Noam Chomsky once said to Andrew Marr, ‘I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.’[vii]

It’s not a perfect system, as Hermann and Chomsky concede, but it is very effective.[viii] There will be occasional deviations by a few more independently-minded journalists, but the overwhelming weight of the system still favours the neoliberal consensus of the past forty years. And this isn’t to touch on the personal preferences of many journalists at the higher end who have done very well out of the current system and so have a class interest in keeping it.

It should be obvious, then, that the idea that a socialist party simply needs to manage the press better is a nonsense. The corporate media is not there to be won over, it can’t be ‘managed’ into giving Corbyn a fair hearing. In fact, once one understands how the media works, the burden of proof would rest with anyone those who claimed that it  wouldn’t be biased against Corbyn.

The only time the media has approached even-handedness with Corbyn was during the imposition of impartiality rules on broadcasters during the 2017 General Election campaign. For the BBC, these came into force on 3rd May, although for commercial broadcasters, they began with the announcment of the dissolution in Parliament, which was  27th April. Their coincidence with the upturn in Labour polling, as shown in the Britain Elects poll tracker, is striking. The Blue and Red horizontal lines represent Tory and Labour polling and my addition of the green vertical line shows when the OFCOM broadcasting rules came into effect.

Opponents of this line of thought will point to the Blair Governments and their far better treatment from the corporate media when compared with both Foot, Kinnock, and Smith before, and Brown, Miliband, and Corbyn afterward. It’s certainly true that Blair and Alasdair Campbell employed a thorough and systematic approach to managing the media, from the ‘Rapid Rebuttal Unit’ and the Excalibur computer, to combative press briefings and a deliberate campaign to ‘woo’ newspaper editors and previously ignored areas like women’s magazines. Yet Rupert Murdoch besieged Labour before and after Blair; it’s not tenable to believe that this changed merely because his editors had been bought a good lunch. Rather, New Labour were the Sun on Sunday to the Tories’ News of the World. New Labour’s real success was not to win over business but to capitulate to it. A genuinely socialist party can make no such concessions, which is why a cellar-full of Krug won’t win editors over to Corbyn. Hence, we see that, once again, old Enoch was wrong. The press is not the sea on which Corbyn sails, it’s a fleet of enemy ships.

Correction 9th August 2018

Following feedback in the comments, I have corrected a typo in which I incorrectly stated that Theresa May called the election on 27th of May. I have also clarified the timeline of events. For more details, see Eleanor Bley Griffiths ‘Here’s why the media is banned from reporting on general election campaigning while the polls are open,’ Radio Times 8th June 2017, available at

For OFCOM rules, see the ‘Election Reporting’ section of the Channel Four Producers’ Handbook:



[i] Quoted in James Curran and Jean Seaton (1981 [2010]) ‘Power Without Responsibility. Press, broadcasting and the internet in Britain,’ p. 4.

[ii] ‘Castor oil or Camelot?’ in The Economist, 5th December, 1987, quoted in Noam Chomsky (1989) ‘Necessary Illusions. Thought Control in Democratic Societies,’ p. 8.

[iii] ‘Fear & Favor 2000: How Power Shapes the News’, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting Annual Report available at (accessed 06/08/2018).

[iv] Quoted in Pratkanis & Aronson (2001), ‘Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion’ p. 56.

[v] Cited in Ignacio Ramonet, ‘Final edition for the press’, in  Le Monde Diplomatique (English Edition), January 2005,  available at (last accessed 06/08/2018); Full quote available at (last accessed 06/08/2018). The full quote in French reads: ‘Mais dans une perspective business, soyons réaliste : à la base, le métier de TF1, c’est d’aider Coca-Cola, par exemple, à vendre son produit… Or pour qu’un message publicitaire soit perçu, il faut que le cerveau du téléspectateur soit disponible. Nos émissions ont pour vocation de le rendre disponible: c’est-à-dire de le divertir, de le détendre pour le préparer entre deux messages. Ce que nous vendons à Coca-Cola, c’est du temps de cerveau humain disponible’. My thanks to Daniel Simpson for the translation.

[vi] Media Lens (2000) Interview With Alan Rusbridger, Editor,The Guardian, available at (accessed 06/08/2018).

[vii] Andrew Marr interviewed Noam Chomsky for a series called ‘The Big Idea,’ which was broadcast on the BBC in February 1996. The thirty minute programme can be viewed here:

[viii] The model proposed by Herman and Chomsky has been criticised. James Curran (2002), for example, argues that the radical critique is ‘bedevilled by a simple “system logic”’, which assumes that ‘business-controlled media serve business’ thus ignoring or downplaying countervailing influences such as the need to maintain audience interest to remain profitable, the need to preserve their legitimacy, and the need to consider the ‘professional concerns of their staff.’ (James Curran ‘Media and Power’ p. 223).

Tales of Self-Laid Eggs

Nadine Dorries tweet

A fundamental misunderstanding of cause and effect.

Last month, news-sellers reported that BAE Systems (Purveyors of Finest Quality Death to the Gentry) had won a contract to flog the Australian government nine new warships, which will ‘provide the Australian Defence Force with the highest levels of lethality and deterrence.’[i] British companies will supply a number of the internal systems and so play a very real role in Australia’s ongoing battle to repel the onslaught of drowning asylum seekers.[ii]

As one might expect, a clutch of Brexiteers, led by the Ragged-Trousered Stockbroker, Nigel Farage, took time from managing their foreign citizenship claims and overseas investment funds to trumpet this £20bn victory for Global Britain. Nadine Dorries MP lauded it as an example of just the sort of trade deal (completed while we’re still a member of the EU) that the EU (of which we are still a member) has prevented us from doing (it hasn’t).

In fact, though a BAE design, the ships will not be built in the UK at all, but in Australian shipyards, and Britain will receive only a slice of the £19.6bn headline figure. But I’m not concerned here with Brexit, Tory boosterism or even exactly how much national pride should attach to selling engines of nautical slaughter. Instead, consider this caveat, tucked away in the analysis by the BBC’s Scottish business editor Douglas Fraser,

However, this looks like a design which was heavily subsidised by the UK taxpayer, being sold overseas, and wholly to the benefit of BAE Systems. It appears that the UK taxpayer sees none of the direct payback or royalties from that investment.[iii]

This is not unusual. There is a long record, in the US and UK, of the public sector incubating and subsidising private sector success stories; something that the champions of capitalism generally try to hide under a thicket of ‘free market’ euphuism. They prefer instead the ideology of the ‘self-made man’ (or company) that rises to prominence and wealth through nothing but their own vision and hard work. Sometimes, this pretence requires the most preposterous elision; take for instance Philip Anschutz, who the Forbes 400 Rich List in 1998 described as ‘self-made’ even though he had inherited an oil and gas field worth $500 million.[iv]

More generally, there is a long story of the public sector supporting and protecting the private sector and free market. I’ll list a few examples that I don’t have space to discuss: developing and promoting a culture of property rights and, later, intellectual property rights; providing infrastructure, such as roads, railways, ports, power, and communication; providing an educated workforce through a public school system; subsidising low wages through a welfare state; underwriting risky overseas sales (e.g. British export credit guarantees); offering tax breaks and inducements for investment (such as export processing zones); privatisations, bail-outs (such as of the banks in 2008), treating work- or product-related illness;[v] repairing environmental damage; and providing cheap fuel through periodic liberation of oil supplies.

The most obvious form of public sector support for the private sector, and the one that has the worst reputation, is to prevent a free market at all through protectionism: the use of tariff and non-tariff barriers to prevent overseas competitors trouncing one’s domestic industries. While it’s officially denounced – especially by enthusiastic practitioners such as Reagan and Trump –  it’s fair to say that protectionism has characterised US and UK industrial development (and elsewhere); not least through the acquisition of empire.[vi] The US began to champion freer trade only following World War II; at least partly fulfilling the prediction of its 18th president, Ulysses S. Grant, that ‘within 200 years, when America has gotten out of protection all that it can offer, it too will adopt free trade.’[vii]

Even when they don’t protect industries from international competition, governments still provide considerable support in other ways. Despite the fall of communism and the ascendance, until 2008 at least, of ‘free market’ ideology, it’s accurate to say that western capitalist societies still have substantially planned economies. Most obviously, governments plan economies through state-owned enterprises, through Research & Development (R&D), infrastructure spending, and through sectoral industrial policy. Additionally, modern corporate capitalism ensures that a handful of enormously powerful transnational corporations plan their activities, often in concert (often in conflict) with governments.[viii] It’s R&D spending and the use of government purchasing that I’m going to discuss here.

In the UK and particularly the US, government spending on scientific and ‘defence’ R&D has been enormous. For instance, between the 50s and 90s, US federal government spending accounted for 50-70% of the country’s entire R&D spending.[ix]  As late as 1958, federal funding covered an estimated 85% of total R&D on electronics.[x] In the 1950s and 60s, the Pentagon supplied more than 30% of IBM’s R&D budget.[xi] Mariana Mazzucato, in The Entrepreneurial State, summarises the history of hi-tech as one in which ‘nearly all the technological revolutions of the past – from the Internet to today’s green tech revolution – required a massive push from the state.’[xii]

The US’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is a fine example of the US Government incubating hi-tech before it’s released to the market. DARPA was set up in 1958 to give the US ‘technological superiority’ in multiple sectors of its economy and has always been ‘aggressively mission-oriented’ rather than merely profit-oriented. With a budget of $3bn annually, it is structured to ‘bridge the gap between blue-sky academic work, with long time horizons, and the more incremental technological development occurring within the military.[xiii] 

Going way beyond simply funding research, DARPA funded the formation of computer science departments, provided start-up firms with early research support, contributed to semi-conductor research and support to human-computer interface research and oversaw the early stages of the Internet… such strategies contributed hugely to the development of the computer industry during the 1960s and 1970s, and many of the technologies later incorporated in the design of the personal computer were developed by DARPA-funded researchers[xiv]

Early achievements for DARPA were ‘key technologies’ such as ‘high-speed networking, advances in integrated circuits, and the emergence of massively parallel super-computers’.[xv] Such was its success that, under the first Clinton Administration (1993-96), DARPA became the ‘lead agency in a new effort to help fledgling technologies gain a hold in commercial markets.’[xvi] In the 1970s, DARPA funded a laboratory affiliated with the University of Southern California where anyone who believed they had developed a superior design of microchip could get it fabricated to prototype stage. By so doing, the state subsidised the birth of personal computers in the 1970s, the first of which Apple introduced in 1976.[xvii] As the New York Times reported as far back as 1989, ‘many fundamental computer technologies… can be traced to [DARPA’s] backing, including the basic graphics techniques that make the Apple Macintosh computer easy to use’.[xviii] More of Apple in a moment, but let’s also note that much of this spending was disguised (or at least rendered more ideologically palatable) by being conducted by DARPA. The NYT again:

Under the rubric of national security, the Pentagon can undertake programs like Sematech [a research consortium to help the US semiconductor industry compete] that would arouse opposition if done by another agency in the name of industrial policy…[xix]

And DARPA is not the only instrument of government support. Mazzucato discusses several more, including the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Programme and the Orphan Drug Act. Founded in 1982, SBIR plays an increasingly influential role as the first port of call for entrepreneurs looking for funding and, with a budget of $2bn annually, has ‘guided the commercialisation of hundreds of new technologies from the laboratory to the market.’[xx] The Orphan Drug Act of 1983 provides tax incentives, R&D subsidies, fast-track drug approval and strong intellectual property and marketing rights for products designed to treat conditions suffered by fewer than 200,000 people. This support played an important role in the development of major players, such as Biogen and Genentech, but has also successfully been exploited by giants such as GlaxoSmithKline, Roche, and Pfizer.[xxi]  DARPA, SBIR, and the Orphan Drug Act are just three, very large, programmes of market intervention that the US has run over decades.

Let’s go back to Apple for a moment. Discuss the achievements of free market capitalism on Twitter for more than ten minutes and someone will be bound to hold up the ubiquitous iPhone as clinching proof that the profit motive leads to shiny, unscratchable utopia.  Mazzucato makes Apple’s flagship a centrepiece of her study and devotes an entire chapter to tracing the origin of almost its every bell and whistle to the public sector. As a ‘smart’ phone it would be nothing without the Internet; the earliest incarnation of which (ARPANET) was developed by DARPA in the late 60s (with a parallel system built by the National Physical Laboratory in the UK). Touchscreens can be dated back to the work of E. A. Thompson at the Royal Radar Establishment in Malvern in the 1960s and the Centre for European Nuclear Research (CERN) in the 1970s.[xxii] Siri began life as the SRI-led Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes (CALO) project within DARPA’s Personalized Assistant that Learns (PAL), a joint programme with the Swiss Institute of Technology (EPFL). SRI spun off Siri in 2007 as a commercial venture and Apple bought it in 2010, integrating it into the iPhone 4S in 2011.[xxiii] LCD screens were first created by Westinghouse in the 1970s and the work was funded almost exclusively by the US Army when companies such as Apple, 3M, IBM, XEROX, DEC, and Compaq refused to take the risk. The Lithium Ion battery was developed with government funding and the cornerstones of the World Wide Web (HTTP and HTML) were first implemented at CERN. Finally, GPS began life as NAVSTAR, a strictly military use system, to this day still funded by the US Airforce.[xxiv] For a fuller view, consider this schematic:


Taken from Mazzucato (2013[2018), p. 116

So that’s a sample of the US picture. Over the pond, there is Innovate UK, which in 2016-17 had a budget of £561m and, through competitions, awarded grants of between £250K and £10m to businesses and research organisations working on emerging technologies; health and life sciences; infrastructure systems; and manufacturing and materials. The London Co-Investment Fund supports start-ups in the capital and disburses money from a purse including £25 million from the Mayor of London’s Growing Places Fund. Up until 2015, the Government also provided discounted broadband to 50,000 businesses.[xxv]

As of 2017, the British government (like the US) is ‘pouring billions of pounds’ into Artificial Intelligence research, 5G, and driverless cars. ‘Investment in electric vehicles,’ reported Cnet last November, ‘includes £400 million for a charging infrastructure fund, an extra £100 million in Plug-In-Car Grant, which subsidises purchases of electric vehicles, and £40 million in charging R&D.’ This government spending, which also includes more computer science teachers in schools, is to ‘help businesses grow to scale and hopefully find the UK’s next tech unicorn.’[xxvi]


E. A. Thompson’s early touchscreen

A notable difference between state investment and private investment is that the state provides ‘patient capital’ while the private sector is ‘impatient’.[xxvii]  The state takes the long-term view, often sinking large sums into areas that are merely theoretical. In this sense, it deals with uncertainty rather than merely risk. Risk is quantifiable and can be priced into business decisions. Venture Capitalists (VCs) can deal with risk and accept a certain amount of it; a quantified possibility that a given investment won’t come off.  Uncertainty, conversely, cannot be quantified or priced into a business venture. It’s the ‘unknown unknowns’ that may mean years of patient research lead into a wall. Much government investment occurs long before VC comes into play; using public funds to gradually carve eldritch clouds of uncertainty into a still risky but, at least defined, landscape upon which a market can be built.

The Internet and nanotechnology are both examples of this process. The market had no interest in either because they were too long-term (‘blue sky’ as the jargon has it). There was no clear idea of a product, a demand for that product, or the attendant risks. There was only uncertainty. What was required was mission-oriented rather than profit-oriented effort. Similarly, it’s highly unlikely the market would ever have put a man on the moon. There was little obvious commercial opportunity, too much basic research required, and the uncertainty was simply too high. It took the public sector — the vast sums of money, the herculean intellectual effort, and the terrible sacrifice of life — to conquer that uncertainty and create a world in which, decades later, Elon Musk could spend millions proving that no black hole sucks as hard as an arsehole.


Welcome to Earth. Intelligent pop: 0

The state doesn’t merely incubate products by funding their development or the science that leads to them. Government can be the main, if not their only, customer. The US Government is the ‘single largest purchaser of goods and services in the world’ and a ‘vital source of business for companies…’[xxviii] To take a past example, Fortune Magazine conceded in 1948 that ‘the aircraft industry today cannot satisfactorily exist in a pure, competitive, unsubsidized, “free-enterprise” economy.  It never has been able to. Its huge customer has always been the United States Government, whether in war or in peace.’[xxix]  As late as 1968, the US military bought 40% of all semiconductor production and the willingness of the US Government to buy processor chips ‘in quantity at premium prices allowed a growing number of companies to refine their production skills and develop elaborate manufacturing facilities.’[xxx] In 2016, the US Government became the top purchaser (along with private households) of healthcare products, spending $918.5bn annually.[xxxi]

In the UK, the government ‘acts as a significant purchaser in various sectors of the economy,’ with the two ‘stand out’ areas being pharmaceuticals and defence.[xxxii] Since 1957, the UK Government has regulated the price of pharmaceuticals with a policy, which (since 1969) has also had as its objective ‘a strong and profitable pharmaceutical industry’.

Participation by drug companies is voluntary, but universal. Every five years the government sets out a price trajectory that is designed to provide a reasonable rate of return, while ensuring value for money for taxpayers.[xxxiii]

The policy is seen as a success, in that it has kept prices down for the consumer, but is also believed by some experts to have been ‘critical in explaining the difference between the success of British pharmaceutical firms and the failure of their French rivals.’[xxxiv]

In defence, the Government is essentially the sole customer because our exports are comparatively slender. According to an evidence paper submitted to the UK Government’s ‘Foresight Future of Manufacturing’ project in 2013, ‘government purchasing decisions in defence have directly led to the maintenance of a defence sector of reasonable size’.[xxxv] The authors note that, while expensive, the system is successful in that it at least allows Britain to ‘preserve some modicum of military independence.’[xxxvi] Interestingly, they also argue that since foreign exports are so limited, policy in this area should be seen as being about preserving domestic military production capability and so a part of defence rather than industrial policy. In which case, one might wonder why we recycle larges sums of public money into private profit when these companies who are effectively sub-departments of the state.

All of the forgoing raises an obvious question. What does the public sector get in return for its investment; for all the forms of support we’ve discussed? It’s an axiom of business that those who take risks should also take a fair share of the reward when those risks pay off. For the state, this could take two forms. One would be a direct return on the investment made in a new technology, product or supportive measure. This very often does not happen; costs might be socialised, but profits are largely privatised (or the money is squandered). Where was the return on the public sector’s investment in computing or the Internet? SIRI cost at least $150m to develop and, while Apple paid hundreds of millions for it, that money did not go back to the American taxpayer but to the spun-off company that owned it and some VCs who put in an extra $24m late in the development process.[xxxvii]  Take for another example the US telephone companies. As David Rosen wrote in 2013 for Counterpunch,

They’ve pocketed an estimated $360 billion through questionable rate increases, subsidies, tax breaks and overcharges.  Instead of building out the “information superhighway” promised by Al Gore two decades ago, they directed the money to building-out 2nd-rate wireless businesses, overpaying their executives and rewarding stockholders – and all at the customer’s expense.  As a result, the U.S. has become a 2nd tier communications nation, ranked 15th in broadband.[xxxviii]

One can argue that jobs (effectively state-subsidized jobs) are created, but hi-tech firms in particular specialise in producing their goods offshore and for low pay. For example, Mazzucato cites figures estimating that the top nine executives working for Apple together pocketed in 2012 the same amount of money that it took 95,000 of their workers to earn.[xxxix] And we should all remember that jobs are not a gift or a favour from business – they are a transaction, in which the employee comes off worse.

Of course, the main way that the public sector should recoup its investment in the private sector is through taxation and here, dear reader, we hardly need tarry for long. The headline stories of the likes of the GAFA companies (Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple) distract from a far larger story of big business avoiding, evading, and lobbying-away tax that I’m not going into here. It suffices to say that the current controversy over large companies not paying their fair share of tax isn’t merely about the state imposing duties on companies in order to fund its expenditure. Rather, it’s often a case of payback: companies returning on the investment the public sector has made, if not in them directly, then in creating the arena in which they operate. The GAFA organisations only exist because of the public sector. It was the American and British state that created the personal computer, the Internet, the World Wide Web, and the capacity to process ‘Big Data’ on which Facebook and Amazon rely. It was the American state, via the SBIR Programme, that provided Apple with its start-up funding. It was the American state that created the Backrub search algorithm on which Google is based.[xl] And it is the state that keeps them safe, builds roads for their customers to reach them, ports and railways for their suppliers to stock them, educates and cares for their workers, and — through welfare payments — subsidizes their wage bill.

What can we conclude from all of this? Five things, I think. Firstly, that the stereotype of the bold, dynamic private sector versus the conservative, staid public sector often reverses the truth. History shows the public sector very frequently to be far more adventurous and farsighted than the private sector. It’s the first dragon in the den: there on the ground floor, thinking out of the box, looking up at the blue sky and scanning the horizon, generating the thought shower, running with it, then taking it to the next level, and not just going for the low-hanging fruit.  It’s Big Business’s mentor, its patron, its partner, and its best customer. We’ve seen how the state is a heavy investor in innovation but, more than that, the public sector is space in which the market is born and thrives. Without the state clearing the ground and guarding the perimeters, there’s nowhere safe to put the market.

Secondly, the conservatism of the private sector is driven by its need to keep one eye on the bottom line, the quarterly return. While the state, at its best, can be driven by a mission, corporations are powered by the fiduciary duty; the need, above all other considerations, to make money for their shareholders.[xli] Yes, there are genuine entrepreneurs, people with a dream, and start-ups with a vision, but corporations as legal entities care only about making the next buck. Putting the argument at its strongest, there can be no sense of public service among these paper psychopaths.

Thirdly, all economies are planned by somebody. Pretending that ‘leaving it to the market’ means that one’s economy is not planned is disingenuous. Rather, the question should be who does the planning: democratically-elected government at the national level and workers’ councils lower down or barely accountable private capital driven by profit?

Fourthly, its past time for an accounting of the true role of the public sector in the world we see around us and carry in our pockets. Not only that, but the investment of workers in innovation should be properly understood, acknowledged, and rewarded – rather than merely perpetuating a culture in which people are told to just shut up and be grateful for the gift of employment.

Finally, the giants of the private sector must be made to realise that they’re cutting away the branch on which they sit. By avoiding tax, and contributing to the hollowing out of the state, concentrated private capital is increasingly parasitic on a withering public sector. And I do mean parasitic rather than merely symbiotic, since the parasite is in danger of killing its host and, before that, of cutting the vital stream of nourishment that keeps it alive: basic scientific research. The less material capacity and ideological freedom the state has to imagine, research, invest, and — yes — often fail, the less fruit will be there for the likes of Apple to pluck. The well of ideas will run dry. The golden eggs need to take better care of the goose that laid them.



“Self made men, indeed! Why don’t you tell me of the self-laid egg?” is a quotation attributed to the political scientist, Francis Leiber, in 1882

[i] BBC News ‘BAE wins multi-billion pound Australian warship contract,’ 29th June 2018, available at (Accessed 08/07/2018).

[ii] See Jonathan Pearlman ‘Australia sends in its navy to push asylum-seeker boats back to Indonesia,’ The Telegraph, 7th January 2014, available at (Accessed 12/07/2018); Ben Doherty and Calla Wahlquist, ‘Australia among 30 countries illegally forcing return of refugees, Amnesty says,’ Guardian 24th February 2016, available at (Accessed 12/07/2018); Mark Isaacs ‘There’s No Escape From Australia’s Refugee Gulag,’ Foreign Policy 30th April 2018, available at (Accessed 12/07/2018)

[iii] BBC News, op. cit.

[iv] Responsible Wealth (2004 Press Release) ‘Forbes 400 Richest Americans: They Didn’t Do It Alone’ 24th September 2004, available at (accessed 09/07/2018)

[v] To give just one example, according to one estimate, between 2000 and 2004 in the US smoking caused more than $193 billion in annual health-related costs, including smoking-attributable medical costs and productivity losses (cited in David Rosen ‘Socialize Costs, Privatize Profits,’ Counterpunch, March 1st, 2013, available at  (Accessed 09/07/2018) ).

[vi] See Ha-Joon Chang (2007) “Bad Samaritans. The Guilty Secrets of Rich Nations & The Threat to Global Prosperity,” chap. 2.

[vii] Chang (2010), pp. 55-67.

[viii] See Ha-Joon Chang (2010) “23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism,” pp. 199-200.

[ix] Chang (2007), p. 55.

[x] Laura D’Andrea Tyson (1992) ‘Who’s Bashing Whom?: Trade Conflict in High-Technology Industries,’ p. 90.

[xi] Winfried Ruigrock and Rob Van Tulder (1995) ‘The Logic of International Restructuring,’

  1. 220-21, quoted in quoted in Michael M’Gehee ‘Free Market Capitalism and the Pentagon System,’ Znet March 30, 2010, available at Note that this may not be the correct authorship of the article as the url attributes it to a Donald M. Ferguson.

[xii] Mariana Mazzucato (2013 [2018]) “The Myth of the Entrepreneurial State. Debunking Private vs Public Sector Myths,” p. 6.

[xiii] Mazzucato (2013 [2018]), p. 81 DARPA is also often referred to as ARPA, dropping the ‘Defense’.

[xiv] Mazzucato (2013 [2018]), p. 82

[xv] Elizabeth Corcoran, “Computing’s controversial patron,” Science, April 2, 1993, p. 20, retrieved from  (07/07/2018)

[xvi] Corcoran, op. cit.

[xvii] Mazzucato (2013 [2018]), p. 84

[xviii] Andrew Pollack, “America’s Answer to Japan’s MITI,” New York Times, March 5, 1989, section 3, p. 1, quoted in M’Gehee (2010).

[xix] Pollack, op. cit.

[xx] Mazzucato (2013 [2018]), pp. 85-86.

[xxi] Mazzucato (2013 [2018]), pp. 87-88. Mazzucato notes that, as the act allows multiple versions of effectively the same drug to be designated ‘orphan’, Big Pharma has been able to clean up at public expense. She cites a drug developed by Novartis for chronic myelogenous leukaemia that, when marketed as a treatment for four other conditions, received the same designation (and support) each time.

[xxii] Johnson described his work in an article entitled ‘Touch display—a novel input/output device for computers,’ published in Electronics Letters. For more of the history, see Florence Ion, ‘From touch displays to the Surface: A brief history of touchscreen technology,’ ARSTechnica 4th April 2013, available at (Accessed 12/07/2018).

[xxiii] SRI International, ‘SIRI’ undated, available at!&innovation=siri (Accessed 10/07/2018).

[xxiv] Mazzucato (2013 [2018]), p. 6, chap. 5.

[xxv] Scott Carey, ‘How the UK government supports technology start-ups | How to get government backing for your start-up,’ techworld, 11th January, 2017, available at (accessed 08/07/2018).

[xxvi] Katie Collins, ‘AI, 5G, driverless cars on the government’s tech agenda,’ Cnet, 22nd November 2017, available at (accessed 08/07/2018).

[xxvii] Daniel Cichocki ‘Impatient for growth? Time to unlock Patient Capital…’ UK Finance, 27th November 2017, available at (accessed 11/07/2018).

[xxviii] K&L Gates Public Policy and Law Practice ‘Government Contracts and Procurement,’ 2011, available at (accessed 13/07/2018).

[xxix] ‘Shall we have Airplanes?’ Fortune, January 1948, quoted in M’Gehee (2010).

[xxx] Tyson (1992), p. 88.

[xxxi] Kerry Young ‘Federal Government Emerges as Top Health Buyer in New Analysis,’ Commonwealth Fund, 5th December 2016, available at (Accessed 13/07/2018).

[xxxii] Stephen Broadberry and Tim Leunig (2013) ‘The impact of Government policies on UK manufacturing since 1945. Future of Manufacturing Evidence Paper 2’, Foresight Government Office for Science, pp. 28-30, available at (Accessed 10/07/2018)

[xxxiii] Broadberry and Leunig (2018) op. cit.

[xxxiv] Broadberry and Leunig (2018) op. cit. Note that authors cite other experts who question the decisive role the scheme may have had. However, as the other factors they cite as perhaps being more important (‘Britain’s strong record in biomedical research at university level, the early introduction of efficacy regulation and the role of the NHS’) are all examples of public sector support or intervention, this does not detract from my argument.

[xxxv] Broadberry and Leunig (2018), p. 4.

[xxxvi] Ibid, p. 30.

[xxxvii] Erick Schonfeld ‘Silicon Valley Buzz: Apple Paid More Than $200 Million For Siri To Get Into Mobile Search,’ Techbuzz 28th April, 2010, available at (accessed 12/07/2018); Note that an argument can be made to justify this, as it was by Norman Winarsky of SRI in an interview in 2010. ‘When I put it to him that $150 million was a lot for taxpayers to spend on a technology that’s now been taken inside Apple, he corrected my premise on several counts, arguing that acquisitions are a natural outcome of SRI’s spinoff process. “I think the Bayh-Dole Act is one of the most brilliant acts in the history of Congress,” Winarsky says. “What you call ‘taking the technology inside’ has been responsible in large part for the creation of companies like Intel, Cisco, Apple, and Sun. The government would have had to pay billions of dollars, perhaps, to continue to advance this technology, while instead the commercial marketplace is making it available to everybody. Consumer revenue is what drives future products, rather than our taxes.”’ This argument still does not address the loss made by the state and, even assuming Apple went on to spend ‘billions’ developing SIRI, it has made billions selling it. Plus, it has invested its billions much later down the line when the state has turned the uncertainty into manageable risk. Wade Roush ‘The Story of Siri, from Birth at SRI to Acquisition by Apple—Virtual Personal Assistants Go Mobile,’ Xconomy 14th June 2010, available at

[xxxviii] Rosen (2013) op. cit.

[xxxix] (Shapiro 2012) cited in Mazzucato (2013 [2018]), p. 185.

[xl] John Battelle ‘The Birth of Google,’ Wired 8th January 2005, available at (accessed 11/07/2018)

[xli] See Joel Bakan (2004) ‘The Corporation. The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power,’ Chap. 2.

No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper

The Guardian ran an opinion column last week by its foreign correspondent, Peter Beaumont, about chemical weapons.[i] He opened by evoking the blood and misery of World War One before coming to his central question: ‘why is it that we regard the apparent use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime (which has claimed relatively few lives overall) as more terrible than the crude pummelling by conventional arms which have [sic] resulted in hundreds of thousands of Syrian deaths?’

It’s a worthwhile question but I was sincerely taken aback by the emaciated reasoning that followed. Before I come to that, first the disclaimer required for those of bad faith or worse intelligence. I do not approve of chemical weapons, I don’t support Bashar al Assad, and I offer no view on whether his forces were responsible for the Douma chemical attack or, indeed, whether it was a chemical attack at all.[ii]

It seems to me that Beaumont attempts to answer his chosen question at two points in his article. His first attempt is partly historical. The Hague convention of 1899 set out the humanitarian principles that would ‘later form the basis of the modern law of conflict.’ Among these was the section that limited the ‘right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring the enemy’. The first instance of this was the ban on poisoned weapons, itself building on a 1675 agreement between France and Germany that banned poisoned bullets.

But what of poisoned gas? This was singled-out because it ‘inspired a particular horror, in large part psychological.’ That it ‘has remained a special case is because of the way its prohibition has become emblematic of restrictions on warfare. We decided gas must not be used because of our horror of being gassed ourselves.’

Is this why we regard gas as more terrible than bullets, because we were its victims? When we become the victims of nuclear weapons will their possession also move beyond the pale? Were the thousands of Japanese adults and children incinerated in our twin fireballs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki not enough for us to forever renounce these most indiscriminate of means? Evidently not. They’ve not even been enough for states like the US and UK to take seriously their obligations, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to make good faith efforts to eliminate them (and certainly not to develop more ‘useable’ nuclear weapons.[iii]). Indeed, the atom bombs are still defended as having helped ‘shorten the war’ – a defence Beaumont seems reluctant to allow Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons. The salient different, of course, is that Assad is on the ‘other’ side. Being on the ‘other’ side forbids our enemies the right to make such decisions, to wage ‘just’ war or to self-defence at all.[iv]

In the Great War, we were supposedly horrified by chemical weapons but, as Beaumont mentions, not enough to forswear them ourselves. In 1919, Porton Down boffins in Wiltshire developed the ‘M Device’, an exploding shell containing diphenylaminechloroarsine. 50,000 ‘M Devices’ were shipped to Russia to be used in British bombing of Bolshevik soldiers. Though few were ever used, those caught in their green cloud reportedly vomited blood and then collapsed unconscious.[v]

Winston Churchill infamously did not understand the ‘squeamishness about the use of gas’ against ‘uncivilised tribes’ (he was speaking of India), noting that it was not ‘necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.’[vi] Churchill’s defenders often assert that he was talking only of tear gas and not poison gas per se. Yet, this  distinction might seem a little academic when, as the War Office noted of one then common variant of tear gas in 1921, while it was ‘classified as non-lethal’ and was ‘far less noxious than even mustard gas,’ at the same time it might have ‘serious and permanent effects on the eyes, and even, under certain circumstances, cause death.’[vii] I’ll also note that, while the historian Ray Douglas has pored over the evidence for Britain actually using CW in Iraq and found it wanting, he most certainly acknowledges that our lack of use arose from ‘practical difficulties rather than moral qualms’. Even in the oft-cited passage above, Churchill did not appear to think it wrong to use the ‘most deadly gasses,’ merely that it was not ‘necessary’. There’s no ‘horror’ there, simply a candid acceptance of chemical weapons as another tool in the white supremacist’s armoury. For some, in fact, chemicals were perhaps even a better weapon since their effects were ‘less terrifying’ than artillery shells or flamethrowers. Indeed, Douglas quotes a General Staff memorandum from 1919, which mused: ‘if it is advisable and possible to abolish gas on purely humanitarian grounds, the abolition of High Explosive, a far more terrible weapon which removes limbs, shatters bones, produces ‘nerves,’ and generates madness, is equally advisable.’[viii]

There may well be a public revulsion to chemical weapons but evidence of the same within elites seems thin. It certainly wasn’t suggested by British and American support for Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Iranians – for which the US provided logistical support[ix] – or of Halabja, for which the US provided diplomatic cover[x] and the UK rewarded with £340m of additional economic support.[xi] To take just one more example, in 2006, a Ministry of Defence Inquiry reported that scientists at Porton Down had exposed 11,000 people to mustard and nerve gas in experiments carried out between 1939 and 1989; experiments which claimed the life of one serviceman and inflicted lasting damage on many more.[xii]

Beaumont then deploys his perfunctory second argument:

‘The argument that relies on the idea that other weapons are equally deadly misses the point, which is that we have decided that this class of killing – like the wanton murder of civilians and shooting prisoners – is beyond the pale.’

Is this really the point? That chemical weapons are uniquely horrific because ‘we’ have decided that they are? This is to invoke that old parental standby, ‘because I said so’. The argument betrays a certain western bias and the usual reek of hypocrisy. I can well imagine that other parts of the world might think we ‘miss the point’ that much of our arsenal is equally, if not more, reprehensible. We clutch our scented handkerchief to our nose at the whiff of chemical weapons while our depleted uranium leaves ‘babies with two heads. Or missing eyes, hands and legs. Or stomachs and brains inside out.’[xiii] Our white phosphorous burns people to their bones,[xiv] we perforate limbs to unstitchable mush with Dense Inert Metal Explosives,[xv] and rupture people’s internal organs or burn them to death while showing off the Mother of All Bombs, which might also be said to inspire a ‘particular horror, in large part psychological.’[xvi] Beaumont’s ‘fitful advances in the laws of war – contradictory and permissive as they remain’ seem all too ‘optional and reversible’.

So why do we pillory chemical weapons, which are revolting but not uniquely so? Perhaps it is because they, unlike our latest glittering engines of fully-automated luxury death, are not beyond the pocket of the Lesser Nations. To quote the Iranian politician Hashemi Rafsanjani, they’re ‘the poor man’s atomic bomb’.[xvii]As such, the taboo on their use is not only prophylactic but also a useful moral lever to justify our enlightened intervention.

[i] Peter Beaumont, “The taboo on chemical weapons has lasted a century – it must be preserved,” The Guardian, 18th April 2018, available at

[ii] Robert Fisk, “The search for truth in the rubble of Douma – and one doctor’s doubts over the chemical attack,” The Independent, 17th April 2018, available at

[iii] Most recently, see Clark Mindock “Trump administration considering developing two more ‘usable’ nuclear weapons,” The Independent, 16th January 2018, available at Note that such intentions are portrayed as a response to Russian behaviour but as Charles Ferguson of the Centre for Non-Proliferation notes, the US has been ‘downplaying and, in key instances, repudiating arms control agreements’ since at least 2002 (see Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Nuclear Posture Review” 1st August 2002, available at )

[iv][iv] According to one BBC Radio Four new report I heard, Trump ‘warned’ of his recent attack on Syria while Russia ‘threatened’ to respond.

[v] Giles Milton, “Winston Churchill’s shocking use of chemical weapons,” Guardian, 1st September 2013, available at

[vi] J. A. Webster, Air Ministry, to J. E. Shuckburgh, Colonial Office, September 15th, 1921, PRO, CO 537/825, quoted in R. M. Douglas, “Did Britain Use Chemical Weapons in Mandatory Iraq?” The Journal of Modern History, Vol 81, No. 4 (December 2009), pp. 859-887. Italics mine.

[vii] Webster, op. cit. Note that the effects of exposure to mustard gas include blistering, blindness of up to ten days or in some cases for good, severe abdominal pain, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, chronic respiratory disease, cancer, and death.

[viii] Webster, op. cit.

[ix] Patrick E. Tyler, “Officers Say U.S. Aided Iraq in War Despite Use Of Gas, New York Times, 18th August, 2002, available at  Shane Harris and Matthew M. Aid,  “Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran,” Foreign Policy 26th August 2016, available at

[x] Prof. Juan Cole, “US Protected Iraq at UN from Iranian Charges of Chemical Weapons Use,” Informed Comment, 28th August, 2013, available at Robert Fisk reported that ‘the CIA – in the immediate aftermath of the Iraqi war crimes against Halabja – told US diplomats in the Middle East to claim that the gas used on the Kurds was dropped by the Iranians rather than the Iraqis (Saddam still being at the time our favourite ally rather than our favourite war criminal).’ (Robert Fisk,  “This was a guilty verdict on America as well,” The Independent, 6th November 2006, available at

[xi] A month after Halabja, the UK Government extended a further £340m in export credit guarantees to Saddam Hussein (John Kampfner (2003) “Blair’s Wars” Free Press, London, p. 7. See also Alex Danchev, Dan Keohane (eds.) (1994) “International Perspectives on the Gulf Conflict, 1990-91,” Palgrave Macmillan, London p. 148.

[xii] Rob Evans, “Porton Down chemical weapons tests unethical, says report,” Guardian, 15th July 2006, available at

[xiii] As Barbara Koppel wrote in 2016, “what is little known is that for the past 25 years the United States and its allies have routinely used radioactive weapons in battle, in the form of warheads and explosives made with depleted, undepleted or slightly enriched uranium. While the Department of Defense (DOD) calls these weapons “conventional” (non-nuclear), they are radioactive and chemically toxic. In Iraq, where the United States and its partners waged two wars, toxic waste covers the country and poisons the people.” Barbara Koppel, “How the U.S. Made Dropping Radioactive Bombs Routine,” Newsweek, 4th April 2016, available at For detail on the US use of DU in Syria, see Samuel Oakford “The United States Used Depleted Uranium in Syria,” Foreign Policy 14th February 2017, available

[xiv] See George Monbiot, “Behind the phosphorus clouds are war crimes within war crimes,” Guardian 22nd November, 2005,

[xv] DIME weapons were developed by the US and use a fine powder of tungsten or carbon fibre to confine the blast to a small area, perforating flesh and bone. Allegedly have also been used by Israel in its colonisation of Palestine. See Raymond Whittaker, “’Tungsten bombs’ leave Israel’s victims with mystery wounds,” The Independent 18th January 2009, available at  According to a report commissioned for the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2016, there are ‘concerns that wounds from DIME weapons are particularly difficult to treat surgically, and may have ongoing health impacts’ (Cross, Kenneth, Ove Dullum, Marc Garlasco & N.R. Jenzen-Jones. 2015. Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas: technical considerations relevant to their use and effects. Special Report. Perth: Armament Research Services (ARES), available at )

[xvi] Thermobaric weapons like the MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast) were developed by the US Government and used in Vietnam as well as being used by the Russians in Chechnya. Human Rights Watch quote a 1993 Defence Intelligence Agency Report on the Russian bombs (although the effects don’t differ with whichever flag is painted on the casing): ‘The [blast] kill mechanism against living targets is unique–and unpleasant…. What kills is the pressure wave, and more importantly, the subsequent rarefaction [vacuum], which ruptures the lungs…. If the fuel deflagrates but does not detonate, victims will be severely burned and will probably also inhale the burning fuel. Since the most common FAE fuels, ethylene oxide and propylene oxide, are highly toxic, undetonated FAE should prove as lethal to personnel caught within the cloud as most chemical agents.’ Human Rights Watch (2000) “Backgrounder on Russian Fuel Air Explosives (“Vacuum Bombs”),” available at One Pentagon report into the MOAB used typically anodyne language: ‘It is expected that the weapon will have a substantial psychological effect on those who witness its use.’ Robin Wright, ‘Trump Drops the Mother of All Bombs on Afghanistan,’ The New Yorker, 14th April, 2017, available at

[xvii] ‘While nuclear weapons represent the zenith of mass destruction, their fabrication requires advanced industrial capabilities as well as access to rare, tightly controlled materials. Chemical and biological weapons, on the other hand, are cheap and easy to build using equipment and materials that are used extensively for a host of civilian purposes.’  Lord Lyell “Chemical and Biological Weapons: The Poor Man’s Bomb Draft General Report,” North Atlantic Assembly International Secretariat 4 October 1996 Draft, available at


Life Versus Liberty

There’s been another mass shooting in an American school. Well, I’ve not checked Twitter for ten minutes but I’ll assume there has been.

The massacre in Parkland Florida last Wednesday may have killed 17 and injured 15 but we should stay upbeat: the five mass shootings since then[1] killed only six and injured 19 between them. No wonder Al Qaeda had to fly planes into skyscrapers in 2001; in the US atrocity is a crowded market.

In the face of this, Congress is paralysed by a deep sense of frustration. There is no obvious tax cut for corporations that will address the problem, bombing would be too costly, and victimising Muslims – while satisfying – is only indirectly effective. In the absence of a workable programme of appearing to do something, the only options left are too effective to contemplate.

The public have of course been praying; expressing their faith that, in a country where the weekly school shooting is timetabled in with the grim inevitability of double games on a Friday morning, some god or other will finally notice the hashtag and decide that enough is enough. One can only hope that it’s not Jesus, who previously tried to drown humanity in a fit of rage and rejection lacking only a trench coat and his Father’s AR-15.

JesusGunFor the gun-owning minority, the principal answer to the problem of mass shooting is not fewer but more guns. The problem, they say, is not children with guns but children without them. Were the US to properly support a policy of No Child Left Unarmed, then we could trust to the inherent wisdom, judgement, and restraint of teenagers. Indeed, the problem could become self-regulating with little need to for authorities to intervene.  If teachers and students all carried guns and there were more metal detectors, armed security patrols, and bullet-proof screens then schools would not only become safer but, almost indistinguishable from adult prisons, would provide useful orientation to those black kids who went on to reach adulthood.

I guess this reasoning proves the old adage that, when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like the bullet-peppered corpse of a child. For those softer-hearted folk who don’t want to see schools turned into fortresses, it’s hard to think of a way of protecting children that might find favour with the American right: compulsory home-schooling perhaps, or a change in zoning laws to move schools from ‘Residential’ to ‘Womb.’

Naturally, the NRA, which is funded by the gun industry, wants to see more people carrying guns, just as tobacco companies want to see more people smoking. But the NRA also serves to draw much of the wider public’s rage on to it and away from gun manufacturers. I imagine that America’s target shooters, survivalists, recreational sadists, and Birthers are delighted to be the industry’s flak jacket when one of their number flicks off his safety for the final time.

The obvious solution to gun violence is to restrict or eliminate private ownership of guns but this runs into the customary objections. The US Constitution is a sacred, inviolable, and immutable document handed down by God to the Founding Fathers and the right to bear arms is one the most cherished amendments to this sacred, inviolable, and immutable document handed down by God. Gun owners will also accurately point out that ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ and that these vital tools of self-defence confer no real advantage. Without them, perpetrators would only use knives, cars, or perhaps their teeth. We should be thankful that guns have so far saved us from an epidemic of mass bitings or the black farce of an angry young man trying to negotiate his parents’ SUV down narrow school corridors in search of the girls who laughed at his penis.

Guns, so the reasoning goes, are just a tool like any other. Yes, they can be used to kill people but they are also used every day for a range of purposes such as injuring people, damaging property, protecting people from deer and rabbits, and facilitating unorthodox banking and retail transactions. That they might confer some marginal tactical advantage over unsuspecting children sitting in classrooms is strictly true but then so would any weapon. One wonders, really, why humans bothered to invent such a patently inconsequential toy as the handgun in the first place. Also, gun advocates claim, banning guns won’t stop professional criminals from obtaining them. This is true but one wonders how many  professional criminals would shoot you because you didn’t like their poem.

It is also true that there is higher gun ownership in some other countries where mass shootings are far, far lower. So, the presence of guns alone isn’t the whole of the problem. Maybe there is some issue with the American psyche that needs to be addressed, something that would explain their tendency to shoot not only each other but the rest of us as well. What does lead otherwise sane members of the public to shoot up their classmates or kill in petty disputes over parking places, romantic rejection or crude oil deposits?

Here, then, the American reputation for practicality over ideology should come into play. They need to decide which is the quicker fix: a centuries-long thoroughgoing and fundamental realignment of American cultural, spiritual, and economic values to remove major sources of anger and alienation, recast the conduct of interpersonal relationships, neutralise toxic masculinity, and thereby engineer an epochal remodelling of human nature OR ban guns, which might take years. There are no easy answers.

Still, I should try to end with something positive. Statistically speaking, kids are still more likely to die from obesity than from being shot and fat kids, while slower at fleeing down corridors, are also less adept at climbing on rooftops with heavy ammunition. And widespread gun ownership means more US medallists on the podium for Olympic shooting events – even if they do look surprised to see an American flag flying at full mast.

Sleep tight, little ones.



[1] Oklahoma City (16/2), Keego Harbour (16/2), Memphis (17/2), Kansas City (17/2), San Antonio (18/2); data courtesy of Mass Shooting Tracker (accessed 19/02/2018).

Blighted are the Shelf-Makers

I’m old enough to remember video tape with affection. My family acquired its first video cassette recorder around 1982 when the novelty was still vivid. It was VHS, front-loading, the size of a small family hatchback and by modern standards almost Heath-Robinson in it brute mechanical beauty.

It’s hard to explain why I feel such nostalgia for what objectively was a clumsy cacophony of rubber, metal, and plastic but I do. For the six year old me, it was irresistibly encrusted with buttons, knobs, sliders, and dials. The customary shopfront of its principal controls – play, rewind, and pause – were pleasure enough but other treasures were hidden beneath a hinged flap on the lower front and a detachable panel inset in the top. Beneath these glittered the more exotic controls like ‘tracking’ and ‘input,’ eight mechanical  tuning dials and the ‘AFT’ button.[i] When Channel Four was born in November 1982, my dad had to get on his hands and knees, pop the top panel and seek out primordial Countdown through the crashing surf of static.

I can remember pressing the Standby button, opening the door and seeing tantalising glimpses of the illuminated heads, capstans, and spindles within. I can hear in my head, as clearly as you can remember your favourite song, the refrain of its mechanism as I pressed a tape into the front door and watched as it was drawn inside the beast. Sometimes it was a video mechanism, other times its was the landing bay door of a secret base.

It even had a ‘remote’ control: play, pause, fwd, rew, and rec attached via a 3ft cable that plugged in at the back and, once passed over the machine, afforded one the luxury of operating the machine from about 18 inches away. I’m even fond of the problems that afflicted its dotage (and my teenage years when it became mine alone) – the way it would sometimes crimp the edge of the tape, irreparably knackering the sound on some of my favourite tapes.

These were the days when I had a library of blank cassettes, some labelled (most not) and packed with recordings of Doctor Who and Star Trek: The Next Generation. The E120, the workhorse E180, the mighty E240s. The Scotch ‘lifetime guarantee’ fronted by an amiable skeleton. The etheric and unrepeatable[ii] magic of TV, captured and tamed in a shiny box like a ghost trapped by Venkman, Stantz, Spengler, and Zeddemore.

I remember, into the 90s, the archaeological pleasure of watching old tapes, especially those borrowed from friends, through to the end. The first recording would finish, there’d be a wash of static, and then the fag end of the recording beneath would slide into view. Then another and another. I’d often watch tapes through right to the point when they’d click off and rewind. One minute, you’re watching ITV’s bowdlerised 90s cut of Heartbreak Ridge (complete with the minced oath, ‘maggot farmer’), then you’re transported into the technicolour fantasy of an 80s ad for Kellogg’s Fruit n Fibre (with one with Ross Kemp) or those weird 80s Weetabix commercials in which booted and braced skinhead biscuits of wheat would intimidate other cereals (and we accepted this as normal).

At the weekends, I was allowed to accompany my dad to the Six Hills Video Shop and choose a title from the seemingly enormous array of display cases that bejewelled its walls. Only from the Us and PGs, of course, although I was obviously far more enticed by the 15s and 18s, which all had far more exciting and stimulating covers (especially some on the top shelf in one corner) and were alluring because they were forbidden.

It’s all gone now. Funai Electric manufactured the last video recorder in July, 2016. While there is a small but enthusiastic market for old video tapes, particularly the more obscure horror movies, I doubt there’ll ever be a ferrous oxide resurgence to mimic that of vinyl. Yet, our language is an analogue recording of history. I still hear people talk about ‘taping’ and ‘rewinding’ and we’ll still be discussing the medium of film long after celluloid takes its place next to wax cylinders and daguerreotypes. One day film will exist only in films.

The big selling point of video recorders was convenience and, notably, control. Watch what you want to watch, when you want to watch it. Don’t be a slave to those damned TV channels but the master of your own viewing pleasures. As Troy McClure said to Delores Montenegro (in ‘Calling All Quakers’) ‘have it your way, baby.’

Fast forward thirty years and we’re now in another revolution of convenience and ‘control.’ The age of the DVD and the brief blu dawn are coming to an end and now we are dipping our toes in the Great Stream. We now watch even more of what we want to watch, when we want to watch, and without a chilly walk to the video shop or the need to endure the crunching, chattering rabble at the local flicks. We watch, listen, chat, and shop online. But how much of the new control is real?

It’s easy to focus on the petty irritations of the digital world. Netflix’s co-founder recently

adric 4

Silent credits attend the death of Adric in the 1982 Doctor Who story, Earthshock

declared their aspiration that one day it would ‘get so good at suggestions that we’re able to show you exactly the right film or TV show for your mood when you turn on Netflix.’[iii] But what if I aspire to read the credits uninterrupted? What if I think that the programme makers might sometimes use the credits for dramatic effect? Instead Netflix, like an overeager waiter, whips away the programme and algorithmically catapults me toward the next course. It’s not wholly new, of course; even on terrestrial TV credits have been squeezed for years by the cajolery of continuity chatterers. But it’s still annoying.

Trailers have always been part of home media. They were there in the VHS days but at least fast forwardable. Nevertheless, imagine visiting a Blockbuster and having a doorman compel you to watch one before you even reached the shelves. This is now what the Android Amazon Video app does at least once per day. Yes, one can stop it once it has started but one cannot stop it from starting. At least at the cinema people can use the adverts and even the trailers to have a conversation, check their phone, or return to the foyer to secure yet more food. Much as they do with the eventual film.

We tolerate behaviour online that we would likely never put up with in person and here I’m not discussing the hourly scorching belligerence of ‘social’ media so well summed up in this video. I mean the behaviour of companies online. Imagine for instance that, near the end of your weekly shop, a store assistant blocked your path and wouldn’t let you get to the checkout until you’d accepted or rejected a list of items in which she thought you might be interested. I think most people would find that hectoring and coercive yet it’s precisely what one has to accept in order to shop online with Sainsbury.

Worse still, imagine the indignity, the sense of violation you would feel if someone broke into your house and stole your CDs. Imagine then instead how much worse you’d feel, how much more soiled, degraded and sullied, if instead of perpetrating such a theft – or merely having a shit on your couch – they left you an album by U2.

Speaking of music, some of you who’ve used the Amazon Music Player might have noticed that it has a subsidiary function, carefully hidden, of allowing you to actually play the music you’ve purchased. Its core function, of course,  is to pelt you with inducements to buy more music, preferably via a subscription. This is quite reasonable since, putting chummy marketing aside, Amazon’s sole objective is to persuade you to take money out of your account and put it in theirs. The product itself  is a mechanism for selling you more products (again, not new but accelerated online). Helping you to actually listen to your music is very much a secondary concern in what should really be called the Amazon Music Seller. Apps are less like faithful servants and more like pestering children.

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

1) Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2) Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3) Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

Douglas Adams –The Salmon of Doubt.


Lest I simply sound like a grumpy old man adumbrating a litany of my peeves, let me make clear that there’s a political edge to my grousing; namely increased control masquerading as choice. The range of baubles for us to play with has increased but the price is that our leisure time – socialisation, entertainment, education and consumption – occurs conveniently on something else’s property. We’re shopping, playing, watching, chatting and searching by their rules. We’re steered where they allow us to go, finding what they want us to find, knowing what they want us to know. Our physical space has already been colonised – what isn’t owned by government is owned by private capital, public town squares have already become private malls. Now cyberspace is heading the same way (and with a massive in-built head start). Sound overblown and conspiratorial? Perhaps today -but tomorrow?

One of the great sleights of hand in recent years, for instance, has been the promotion of ‘the cloud’ – with all the connotations of ownerless neutrality this inspired piece of thought-steering conjures. After all, nobody owns a cloud; it must just float above us like some beneficent 21st century commons. In fact, the cloud is a network of servers belonging to commercial companies ranging from relatively modest independents to the GAFA behemoths of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple. Of course, invitations to store one’s data in ‘the cloud’ sound much more  benign that ‘on our servers.’

Well, OK, storing one’s property on someone else’s turf isn’t necessarily a one way ticket to Oceania, is it? After all, people dump their shit in Big Yellow Storage all the time without having to affirm that they love Big Brother. Except that it’s no longer your property. No, that film you bought last night from Amazon isn’t yours. In fact, you’ve merely leased it for an indefinite period. Now, you might argue that it was never really yours before. The contents of DVDs, books, CDs, and VHS were all copyrighted – yours to own but subject to strict conditions – so what’s really changed? Well, check Amazon’s T&Cs – they can remove your purchase at any time. Unless you download it to your own storage, you don’t have the unconditional possession that you had over an Amaray-enclosed disc. You’re not purchasing anymore. You’re renting -on a very long term, granted – but you’re renting. Soon, there’ll be no more borrowing a DVD or a book from a friend and you won’t be taking yours  down your favourite charity shop when you’re done, either. Like the message, the medium is now theirs. Your shelves of DVDs, CDs, and books  will evaporate into a cloud library hosted (held) within someone else’s property. One day, all visitors will have to judge you by will be some misguided ornaments and your personality.

And the capacity to monitor our viewing habits has also increased. The obvious concomitant of Netflix being able to suggest what we might want to watch is that it knows what we have watched. For most people this is no real practical concern but it’s another piece of infrastructure for a surveillance state, another category of data to add to all the others potentially allowing for a detailed picture of us to be constructed and – ask any lecturer wanting to talk about Brexit – some people are just itching to know as much about us as possible. The next time you binge-watch The Handmaid’s Tale remember that you might be munching Doritos in the prologue.

And what happens when Amazon goes bust? Where will your prized collection go when the company no longer exists? True, other companies might buy out the rights and the infrastructure but they don’t have to and won’t if they don’t think there’s money in it for them. Amazon use a proprietary format for Kindle, for example, so there’s no guarantee you’d be left with anything other than what’s stored on your hardware. And when that dies?

Video tapes, CDs, and even books are standards based. So long as your equipment complies with those standards you can read the content. A CD manufactured to the Red Book standard should play on any CD player. Region codes aside, a DVD of The Force Awakens will play on any machine. The latest Dan Brown novel is accessible to anyone who can read, although obviously appreciated to its fullest extent by those who cannot. Streaming and download services rely heavily on proprietary file formats to ensure that material isn’t shareable. There are presently exceptions but how long will they last? Look at the stranglehold (now slipping) that Microsoft has had on word-processing by making sure its file .doc and .docx formats are as opaque as possible.

Digital content such as films, audio files and eBooks are effectively software with all the (potential for) control and restriction that implies. The apps on a smart TV can be withdrawn during forced ‘upgrades’ when licensing deals expire. So, that £700 set you bought with iPlayer and YouTube built in could be without both one day and there won’t be anything you can do except buy a new TV. And this isn’t a hypothetical -it already happens. Let’s not be in any doubt what this is – the company from whom you think you’ve bought something has taken it back from you. Of course, this may be because of genuinely unavoidable incompatibility but it’s hard to believe that this isn’t also another mechanism for enforced functional obsolescence.

Holodeck-800x420There’s no easy answer to this. The technology isn’t inherently wrong but it is massively corruptible. Nor is it going to go away: people will always be lulled by convenience. Alternatives to digital online consumption as part of our increasingly shut-in economy will wither unless we take positive action to keep them alive. They’ll be seen as troublesome, archaic eccentricities, like wanting to travel around New York without a car or live near an A&E.  Being offline and off social media will never be forbidden, merely absurdly inconvenient. You’ll always be allowed to walk off the holodeck but why would you want to when beyond lies only isolation, and dark, dark silence?




[i] ‘Automatic Fine Tuning.’

[ii] Well, repeated a lot less in those days.

[iii] Unknown author, Streaming on screens near you. Can Netflix stay atop the new, broadband-based television ecosystem it helped create?’ The Economist