Thursday, August 14, 2008


The assertion that Government plays a “libidinal function” in our capitalist reality illustrates a fact about that reality: that it gives us the liberty not to change the world, but merely to complain about it. We truly stopped having any influence on economic policy when Gordon Brown passed the setting of interest rates from the Treasury to the Bank of England in 1997. But effectively, we never have had any influence in the private world of business. Our sphere of influence is limited to the election of Government, so we must project all of our miseries onto the one thing that we can change.

A sign, perhaps, that, at the level of the political unconscious, it is impossible to accept that there are no overall controllers, that the closest thing we have to ruling powers now are nebulous, unaccountable interests exercising corporate irresponsibility...

This works both ways. If, in a moment of generosity, one imagines that some politicians, in some limited way, want to make the world a fairer place, one must then admit that their task is an impossible one. The iniquities of modern society, the barbaric pursuit of profit, the desertion of the majority in favour of the few, the obscene class prejudices that keep everyone in their right place, the fact that these sort of people can flourish, ignorant of how the rest of society lives – all of these are impenetrable. No government can dismantle them. So, like the rest of us, they must project their frustrations elsewhere. Their scapegoat is the public, just as ours is the government.

The LRB article to which k-punk refers reveals further anomalies. When water was privatised in 1989, the Thatcherite axiom of competition couldn’t have been further from the truth:

Far from being exciting new entrepreneurial ventures, the companies involved were settled operations that had been around in one form or another for almost two hundred years, and had benefited, for more than half that time, from steady infusions of ratepayers’ and taxpayers’ money.

The most striking contradiction between water privatisation and Thatcherite free-market romanticism is the monopoly nature of the water companies. Millions of customers who have no choice of supplier, no choice but to take the water, and no choice but to pay for it.

Indeed, for all our talk of late capitalism, this reminds one of the patriarchal Conservatism of the 19th century, when corrupt businessmen-politicians squabbled in darkened committee rooms to earn monopolies to provide for a captured market. James Meek tells how in 1863, Edward Warner Shewell, the Victorian architect of the Mythe Waterworks in Cheltenham, chaired “a meeting of shareholders, who voted to pay themselves a massive dividend and bonuses worth 95 per cent of the company’s profits.” A century and a half later, as 350,000 people went without water because Severn Trent, the private water monopoly who run the Mythe Waterworks, had failed to plan for the biggest floods on record, “Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator OFWAT, announced that it would not be compensating customers.” One of the shareholders was an ex-Union leader who had once vehemently opposed privatisation.

“I had no conscience about it at all,” said McMurray. I’d campaigned against privatisation, but we’d lost that particular battle. Privatisation was inevitable. I wasn’t going to leave the water industry and so I thought well, I’ll buy some shares, and try to continue to serve the public as best as I can.”


This is a global phenomenon, but attitudes to politics and business in Britain are somewhat unique. People brood resentfully here, whereas in France or Argentina they rise up and fight. Perhaps, to quote Patrick Keiller's Robinson, it's a failure of the English Revolution, where we never quite managed the transition from subjects to citizens.

Robinson in Space takes as its subject post-industrial, post-Thatcherite Britain, a spectral spacetime where "real world effects matter only insofar as they register at the level of (PR) appearance". In their "peripatetic study of the problem of England", Robinson and his companion travel across the Pennines from Rochdale:

We had ascended the Pennines at Blackstone Edge, by the route of Daniel Defoe. When we arrived at Yorkshire Water's reservoir near Ripponden, there were twenty four tankers waiting to load water to be taken into Halifax. At the time, there were altogether forty lorries working from this reservoir, twenty-four hours a day. Later in the year, there were as many as a thousand tankers moving water in West Yorkshire.

Keiller adds, as a footnote, that "in June 1995, Yorkshire Water announced that its operating profits were up almost a fith to £200 million, put its dividend up by 25% and gave its consumers a £10 rebate in an attempt to counter two years of bad publicity while losing at least 27% of its supplies through leaks. The company's directors had previously awarded themselves £869,000 in share optiond."


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