Indignant… to what end? Private Island Reviewed

by Tom Blackburn

14 November 2014

In January 2014, James Meek caused a sizeable stir with his impassioned London Review of Books (LRB) essay, ‘Where Will We Live?‘ The essay – one of five revised LRB pieces compiled in Private Island (Verso, 2014), alongside an article originally written for the Guardian  – documented with startling clarity the pernicious social disaster that is housing policy in post-Thatcher Britain.

Of course, the essay struck a chord with so many because housing precariousness is an everyday experience for millions in Britain. Housing – arguably the single largest privatisation of the Thatcher era – is perhaps the epitome of today’s ruling-class intransigence. In housing as elsewhere, capital has systematically sought to obliterate any lingering traces of the collective public provision characteristic of the post-war social-democratic consensus. It’s the dismemberment of this consensus which Meek laments in Private Island.

In Private Island, Meek focuses on six major public utilities turned over to private profit – public housing, water, post, health, energy and rail – and his findings are unsurprisingly galling. Whether it’s the lethal hubris of the private sector execs parachuted in to mismanage the railways under John Major, the penny-pinching of profiteering water firms or the staggering corruption of the Royal Mail sell-off, Meek is highly effective at detailing the corner-cutting, ineptitude, cronyism and looting so definitive of Britain’s privatised utilities.

One key point in Private Island‘s favour is the fact that Meek makes his case without being at all wonkish, and the bevy of statistics he wheels out to drive his argument home make the book a useful primer on the topic. Capitalists employ a multitude of middling think-tank and media shills to muddy the waters on their behalf, but by contrast Meek shows that discussing privatisation needn’t be arcane.

That said, Private Island has some serious shortcomings – and these are primarily political. In the book’s introduction, no less, Meek makes clear that he regards the market economy as indispensable; his politics are broadly social-democratic. Meek is a good journalist and while he documents the effects of privatisation well, what he can’t do is explain them convincingly.  There is therefore a void at the heart of Private Island, as Meek’s insightful reportage isn’t matched by similarly coruscating analysis. The book’s subtitle, ‘Why Britain Now Belongs to Someone Else’, is telling in this regard. For the British working class, there was never a time when it didn’t.

What is it about capitalism that compels it to turn public sector services to private profit? Even at its peak, the state sector was clearly subordinate to the private sector – post-war social democracy ultimately strengthened British capitalism – so why couldn’t capital just leave it be? And why is it that the privatised utility markets tend towards oligopoly? This book doesn’t really tell us. For David Harvey, privatisation is part of the broader process of ‘accumulation by dispossession’; public goods and services represent a particularly lucrative opportunity for private investment, especially when – as now – capital is faced with a shortage of profitable outlets elsewhere.

Although asset sales provide an immediate fillip to state finances, privatisation frequently ramps up long-term costs to the state – the burgeoning housing benefit bill being one glaring example. Still, the capitalist state’s primary objective above all else is to facilitate private profit. The privatisation of public services has clearly delivered the goods for capital in recent decades. This is partly why no major political party is seriously interested in renationalising energy, post and transport even though public opinion strongly favours it.

As Harvey among others has argued, neoliberalism is class war from above, red in tooth and claw. The public sector – with its heavily unionised workforce – has therefore always made an obvious target for capitalists and their pet ideologues looking to boost profits by attacking labour across the board. This devastatingly effective reassertion of capitalist class power has, if anything, been entrenched even more firmly since the global financial crisis of 2008. The social-democratic left, meanwhile, still seems bewildered that the sheer moral force of its arguments hasn’t single-handedly driven back the neoliberal tide.

Class power and social struggle don’t get a great deal of attention in Private Island; the book therefore offers little guidance for those looking to resist the seemingly inexorable slide towards neoliberal dystopia. Much of the left has been reduced to mere moral indignation, without any real idea of what else to do. Meek’s book shares this flaw. Indignation is fine as far as it goes – it’s entirely rational and correct to be angry, so long as that anger is directed at worthy targets – but what’s needed is precision. Woolly attempts at analysis risk perpetuating mystification, inadvertently hindering and misdirecting struggle rather than facilitating it.

Margaret Thatcher herself once said that “economics are the method; the object is to change the soul.” The fact that there remains such firm public support for renationalisation – despite an extreme pro-market consensus among politicians and mainstream media – suggests she wasn’t entirely successful. Private Island is smart, informative and eminently readable. The definitive account of its subject, however, is yet to be written.

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