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Laurie Penny: The Chancellor’s an economic sadist – and we love it

There's something about punishment and hierarchy that holds a guilty appeal for the British public.

This is going to hurt. Perverts and politicians love a bit of dirty talk and for months the coalition government has been intimating exactly what it is going to do to us, oiling us up with simple, seductive moral offensives on the poor and vulnerable in anticipation of the economic violence to come.

This past week it was university funding; before that, it was child benefit. Now, Chancellor George Osborne's cuts have been revealed in all their glory and no government department has been saved from the coalition horsewhip.

Unsure where the first blow would fall, the country seemed to freeze into some kind of rigid inertia, refusing to acknowledge the totality of our barelyelected leaders' assault on social democracy, on the postwar Attlee settlement, on welfare and health care and everything that once made life on this rainy island bearable. The proper term for this approach is not "economic masochism", in the shadow chancellor's phrasing, but fiscal sadism.

Power games

Only politicians and perverts truly understand sadism. Amateurs think that sadism, fiscal or otherwise, is about hurting people. They are mistaken. Sadism is not about pain. It is about power. It is about the power to inflict pain at random, for no reason, with the most cartoonish and fetishistic of implements, just because you can.

Sadism is about having the power to decide when and if and how much to hurt people, because that kind of control makes you feel important, because that's how you get off.

This is precisely the sort of power play we are dealing with, on both a national and a global scale, as the oligarchies of the world react to the public humiliation of the recession with whiplash efficiency. The phenomenon of fiscal sadism is not unique to this government, although the wet-towel-whipping changing rooms of exclusive private schools do perhaps foster a specific fetish for kinky brutality.

The fiscal sadism of these cuts is part of an international war on social democracy whose agenda is mutating into a terrifying form of kamikaze capitalism. However this government wishes to dress up its decisions, whether in the language of economic pretext or a little rubber dress, there is still no pressing reason for these cuts to be made at such colossal speed, in so calculatedly regressive a fashion, besides the ugly Conservative conviction that poverty is a moral failing.

There are patently more efficient ways to make savings than slashing the heart out of the welfare state. For example, the money saved from George Osborne's crackdowns on benefit fraud could be recouped simply by persuading one man -- the government's efficiency tsar, Philip Green, to pay his taxes like the rest of us. This is not about saving money. This is about control. They plan to hurt us because they want to show us that they can.

The truly awful thing, though, is that we like it. There's a guilty appeal to the easy narrative of punishment and hierarchy, especially if it seems -- whisper it -- that only people worse off than us will really be taking the full whack of the Chancellor's changing-room economics. The French, who, as amply demonstrated this month, don't quite have our fetish for grumbling political obeisance, describe bondage and sadomasochism (BDSM)
as "the British perversion"; perhaps there is something in our national character that delights in ritualised deference, especially if it stings a bit.

Make it hurt

It can be grotesquely reassuring to know that someone else is taking charge, even if they're doing so cruelly. Just as sadism is about power, masochism is about the pleasurable surrender of power.

The right-wing press has squealed in gleeful horror every time a new cut was announced, their only real objections being to the relatively minor excisions from the defence budget. Unfortunately, nobody has yet questioned whether there will be anything left worth defending when the Tories have finished slashing the state into submission.

I have many dear friends who enjoy a little private torment, but the proper place for savage power play is not the theatre of politics. Those in power have co-opted us into a dangerous game of kamikaze capitalism and if we want to continue to live in a country with pretensions to freedom, tolerance and justice, we have to risk rearing up against our chains and ruining the game. We have to risk a bolder refusal to submit to this sick assault on social democracy.

We need to throw their filthy talk back in their faces, before it's too late.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, What a carve up!

Photo: Getty
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Ruling the waves: should the UK own its offshore wind?

A new report from Labour Energy Forum makes the case for greater public ownership in the offshore sector.

Rule, Britainnia! Britons never, never, never shall be slaves to EU policy again. So goes the thinking of the Brexiteers. But little mention is made of the foreign companies ruling our waves – via offshore wind.

According to a new report by the Labour Energy Forum, over 90 per cent of the UK’s offshore wind is owned by non-UK entities. Plus, over 50 per cent of is controlled by public, often state-owned entities, like the Danish wind company DONG.

In contrast, UK public entities own less than 1 per cent of the total wind farms already built or under construction. That translates to just one single wind turbine: a lonely creature, barely off the beach at Levenmouth in Scotland.

At a time when UK already generates more energy from offshore wind than any other nation and the costs are tumbling, does this ownership model put Britain at a disadvantage?

The government's Department for Business, Energy and industrial Strategy avoids answering this question head-on. Instead it focuses on how overseas investment can benefit service businesses: “Over £11bn of investment in new UK offshore wind farms is due to take place over the next four years with around half of the expenditure in planning, building and running offshore projects going to British companies,” a spokesperson told the New Statesman.

But what about future profit? If offshore wind is eventually able to power domestic demand six times over, as the Offshore Valuation Group predicts, how can the UK public reap the rewards of potential sale abroad?

“The UK has such enormous resources we should be leading, not lagging,” says the Labour Energy Forum’s report author, Mika Minio-Paluello of Transition Economics. Theresa May’s sale of the UK’s Green Investment Bank in April ended the coalition’s experiment in public sector ownership of the green economy, and since then their ambitions have been “limited”.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Minio-Paluello has spent a lot of time in Germany and seen the benefits of the public ownership route. The city of Munich never privatised its local energy supply system, she says. They are now working towards a 2025 target of 100 percent clean energy by building offshore wind farms, including around the UK. “They hadn’t farmed the staff out to the private sector or made as many cutbacks, which meant they could engage with [the renewable transition] as a society as a whole.”

The potential gains for the UK are substantial: from more control over where money is spent and who is employed, to greater tax revenues. “Offshore wind is already breathing life back into ports like Grimsby,” the report says, “but more stimulus and direction is needed. Especially as the fossil-fuel sector gives way to the clean energy economy.”

Yet is the UK already too far behind to catch up and compete with Europe's energy giants? Creating a fully independent public offshore wind company that builds its own wind farms is not a realistic short-term goal, Minio-Paluello says. But you have to start somewhere; the important thing is to be an active partner in the process.

Some UK local authority pension funds have already put money into the Green Investment Bank’s offshore wind fund – yet the hands-off approach means they have no direct influence on how the projects are carried out, staffed and supplied. A more involved option could see UK public bodies operating within the sector in partnership with more established companies. Even as non-operating partners, such bodies could still set requirements on local content and job creation – something that is especially important considering the low union density within the sector at present, the report notes.

A joint enterprise between the non-profit company Energy for Londoners and the Danish energy giant DONG, for example, could build a new windfarm with part UK public ownership. This is not fundamentally different from the councils who already invest in onshore wind and solar farms, Minio- Paluello suggests, “it’s just bigger”.

Such a scheme would allow the UK entities to build up their experience and staffing in the sector, opening the door to grander ambitions in the future. Plus it could bring down energy costs: public companies like DONG and Vattenfall have already led the way towards building subsidy-free sites, while access to cheaper capital can be passed on as savings to the consumer.

Without such interventions, some fear a return to the ill-winds of the Thatcher era, when the revenues from the North Sea Oil boom were squandered and government stakes sold off. “I think it’s quite possible that in 30 years we will look back and ask why did we privatise all our offshore wind sector?” Minio-Paluello says. 

The Labour Party is starting to explore the options, and campaigns like Switched On London and Manchester’s Energy Democracy are also doing their part. But a wind of change must blow from Westminster too – and soon.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.