Budget 2011: shock doctrine in the UK

George Osborne’s Budget will attempt a radical social re-engineering of the UK.

So will next Wednesday's Budget be "Shock and Awe: phase II" for the UK? The government's mantra of a "budget for growth" would have us believe otherwise. But even if we are spared any bombshells of the 20 per cent VAT variety, we can still anticipate what Pentagon planners call the "smart war" approach. Expect the Budget to be a more precision-guided follow-up to the original onslaught – and with the words "enemies of enterprise" chalked all over the warheads.

But, smart bombs or otherwise, the underlying coalition programme remains the same: a refashioning of the balance of power between social classes and public and private interests that George Monbiot lambasted last year (referring to the bestseller by Naomi Klein) as tantamount to the UK's very own "shock doctrine".

Klein's book of the same name shows how vested interests may capitalise on times of crisis to impose the sort of economic restructurings that folk would normally reject as sheer folly. It is becoming increasingly clear that, from cuts to tax breaks, the coalition is taking all the steps it can to refashion the country along pro-market, anti-equality lines.

Against such accusations, the government claims it is merely being level-headed: paying off all that burdensome debt and warding off the markets that prowl about our neighbours. But just as Margaret Thatcher proselytised the virtues of private ownership to cover her clawing away at public institutions, so today does David Cameron preach about devolved responsibility to hide the true intention behind making the cuts.

The Iron Lady's cold individualism may appear to have been shuttered out from this by talk of the "big society", but in truth Cameron has simply tacked up the garish swags of community empowerment in its place. Either way, we are left with little more than window-dressing for an ideological crusade.

Which is why we can expect further moves in this direction from the Budget.

Cue the anticipated setting aside of money for the sort of "enterprise zones" that Thatcher tried to introduce. These will be hoped-for pockets of success to be pointed to later, against the tide of the country's widening geographical inequalities.

And watch out for Osborne's preference for Pareto optimality as a policy tool: outlawing any policy intervention on behalf of the needy if it stands to impinge even marginally on the interests of the rich. These may well be interests he is now reliant upon to kick-start the economy.

But at times of cutbacks it is the least well-off who need most protection, and women among those most of all (one analysis of tax and benefit cuts after the June Budget shows that women bore 72 per cent of the cutbacks). Their basic needs are hardly the "enemy" of future growth.

Add to this the government's ongoing "war" on bureaucrats and the ratcheting up of a culture of aggression against "the forces of stagnation", the government's assault on local councils, the housing benefit cuts driving poorer people into cheaper rental "sinks", the cuts to and reshaping of the education system, and we are already well up to our necks in the sort of social re-engineering that Klein would be only too pleased to call a shock doctrine. A land that Thatcher would have been only too pleased to call home.

And with the Budget coming before the cuts agreed to last year start to make themselves properly felt, we have some chastening longer-term consequences to look forward to. As a recent study has shown, the combined effect of the ongoing and anticipated further precision targeting of welfare benefits and public expenditure will be to render the UK's public expenditure even less than that of the United States by 2014/2015. If fully implemented, this "unprecedented" development will equal, in the words of the study's authors, "a radical new departure in British policy directions".

Is this the brave new world that favours the boldness extolled by George Osborne at Davos in January this year? It may be for the decreasing few who can avail themselves of its pleasures. For the rest of us, it won't be a step towards the future at all. When Osborne's economic surgery is complete, it is more likely we will wake to find ourselves back in the night-time of Thatcher's Britain. Only now the lights will have gone out, too. And the trains still won't run on time.

Simon Reid-Henry is a lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London.

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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era