Harry Potter and the Menace of Global Capitalism

<i>Captive State:the corporate takeover of Britain </i>by George Monbiot (Macmillan, &pound;12.99)
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The Independent Culture

George Monbiot is the Harry Potter of British public life. Bespectacled, slightly dishevelled and boyishly endearing, he gives the impression of being earnestly engaged in the great battle between good and evil. In his case, Voldemort is what used to be called Big Business. His Manichean assertion is that "the struggle between people and corporations will be the defining battle of the 21st century. If the corporations win, liberal democracy will come to and end."

George Monbiot is the Harry Potter of British public life. Bespectacled, slightly dishevelled and boyishly endearing, he gives the impression of being earnestly engaged in the great battle between good and evil. In his case, Voldemort is what used to be called Big Business. His Manichean assertion is that "the struggle between people and corporations will be the defining battle of the 21st century. If the corporations win, liberal democracy will come to and end."

Monbiot aims to prove this apocalyptic statement by showing how large corporations have wormed their way into the heart of national and international government, manipulating things to their own advantage.

He fails. He fails because the claim is not substantiated by the text. He fails because the claim turns out to be too large for him, or perhaps he is too small for the claim. Had he set out to persuade us that governments and councils have been naive about the motivation of private companies, his book would be a qualified success. If his objectives had been to warn against grandiosity in city planning, against playing fast and loose with accountability, against "planning creep" in which bad decisions are caused by refusing to go back to basics, the book would have been a triumph

Unfortunately, Monbiot's view of life is underwritten by a Socialist Sunday School notion of how capitalism works. Private bad, public good. The two spheres cannot mix because capitalists seek to make the largest profit in the smallest time, regardless of the cost in terms of community, environment and their long-term interests. These short-sighted money-grubbers will end up blowing up the world.

This is too simple - even for Harry Potter. The relationship between business and government is neither a new phenomenon, nor - by itself - a hugely damaging one. In the Victorian era, the local politician, factory-owner and art-gallery endower were often one and the same person. These ties have indeed led to instances of corruption, but does this mean that they were, of themselves, corrupt? On the contrary, it's possible to argue that great things have resulted from the collaboration between public good and private money. What usually queers the pitch is arrogance - arrogance and secrecy.

What grates is his patronising and simplistic way of writing. Protesters are all poor ordinary folk who have interesting regional accents. All the inhabitants of Skye are labelled "impoverished" not once, but twice. Their opponents are - where encountered - "rotund" or "ponderous". So this becomes a bipolar, almost visual, fight between people and business - like in Hollywood.

This sentimentality breaks down spectacularly when it comes to the retailing superstores. "It is true," he concedes, "that the superstores are adept at attracting custom, and many British people enjoy shopping in them. But the key to much of their success lies not within the market but outside it. They enjoy more political influence than almost any other corporate sector in Britain." Which fails to explain why the American chain, Walmart, has been allowed to open here.

And it's nonsense; nonsense that lets the consumer off the hook. Do we shop at Sainsbury's because we "have no alternative"? Because local shops have closed down? Or because we prefer it to the ancient Saturday ritual of walking the High Street for hours looking for things? Do we drive cars because buses are worse than in our grandparents' days, or because cars are more affordable and we like them?

It is comforting, in a democracy, to shift responsibility from our own backs and on to Freemasons, politicians, supermarkets and shadowy forces. But in the age of the media, what we have is the most complex possible relationship between politics, public, perception and power. In this matrix, business can lose as well as win. Monbiot is a child of the media, and one might have expected him to have noticed all this.

The reviewer's 'Paddling to Jerusalem' is published by Fourth Estate

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