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John Pilger: Brainwashing the polite, professional and British way

In Britain as in America, the object of training professionals in everything from banking to the media is to produce a class of “managers” who instinctively muffle dissent — even if no one tells them to do so.

One of the most original and provocative books of the past decade is Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt (Rowman & Littlefield). "A critical look at salaried professionals," says the cover, "and the soul-battering system that shapes their lives." Its theme is postmodern America but also applies to Britain, where the corporate state has bred a new class of Americanised manager to run the private and public sectors: the banks, the main parties, corporations, the BBC.

Professionals are said to be meritorious and non-ideological. Yet, in spite of their education, writes Schmidt, they think less independently than non-professionals. They use corporate jargon - "model", "performance", "targets", "strategic oversight". In Disciplined Minds, Schmidt argues that what makes the modern professional is not technical knowledge but "ideological discipline". Those in higher education and the media do "political work" but in a way that is not seen as political. Listen to a senior BBC person sincerely describe the nirvana of neutrality to which he or she has risen. "Taking sides" is anathema; and yet the modern professional knows never to challenge the "built-in ideology of the status quo".

Outsource your curiosity

A key to training professionals is what Schmidt calls "assignable curiosity". Children are naturally curious, but along the way to becoming a professional they learn that curiosity is a series of tasks assigned by others. On entering training, students are optimistic and idealistic. On leaving, they are "pressured and troubled" because they realise that "the primary goal for many is getting compensated sufficiently for sidelining their original goals". I have met many young people, especially budding journalists, who would recognise themselves in this description. For no matter how indirect its effect, the primary influence of professional managers is the extreme political cult of money worship and inequality known as neoliberalism.

The ultimate professional manager is Bob Diamond, the CEO of Barclays Bank, who got a £6.5m bonus in March. More than 200 Barclays managers took home £554m in total last year. In January, Diamond told the Commons Treasury select committee that "the time for remorse is over". He was referring to the £1trn of public money handed unconditionally to corrupted banks by a Labour government whose leader, Gordon Brown, had described such "financiers" as his personal "inspiration".

This was the final act of corporate coup d'état, now disguised by a specious debate about "cuts" and a "national deficit". The most humane premises of British life are to be eliminated. The "value" of the cuts is said to be £83bn, almost exactly the amount of tax legally avoided by the banks and corporations. That the British public continues to give the banks an additional annual subsidy of £100bn in free insurance and guarantees - a figure that would fund the entire National Health Service - is suppressed.

So, too, is the absurdity of the very notion of "cuts". When Britain was officially bankrupt following the Second World War, there was full employment and some of its greatest public institutions, such as the NHS, were built. Yet "cuts" are managed by those who say they oppose them and manufacture consent for their wider acceptance. This is the role of the Labour Party's professional managers.

In matters of war and peace, Schmidt's disciplined minds promote violence, death and mayhem on a scale still unrecognised in Britain. In spite of damning evidence to the Chilcot inquiry by the former intelligence chief Major General Michael Laurie, the "core business" manager, Alastair Campbell, remains at large, as do all the other war managers who toiled with Blair and at the Foreign Office to justify and sell the beckoning bloodbath in Iraq.

The reputable media play a critical role. Frederick Ogilvie, who succeeded the BBC's founder, Lord Reith, as director general, wrote that his goal was to turn the BBC into a "fully effective instrument of war". Ogilvie would have been delighted with his 21st-century managers. In the run-up to the Iraq invasion, the BBC's coverage overwhelmingly echoed the government's mendacious position, as studies by the University of Wales and Media Tenor show.

Security matters

However, the great Arab uprising cannot be easily managed, or appropriated, with omissions and caveats, as an exchange on the BBC's Today programme on 16 May made clear. With his celebrated professionalism, honed in corporate speeches, John Humphrys interviewed a Palestinian spokesman, Husam Zomlot, following Israel's massacre of unarmed demonstrators on the 63rd anniversary of the illegal expulsion of the Palestinian people from their homes.

Humphrys: . . . it's not surprising that Israel reacted the way it did, is it?
Zomlot: . . . I am very proud and glad [they were] peacefully marching only to . . . really to draw attention to their 63-year plight.
Humphrys: But they did not march peacefully, that's my point . . .
Zomlot: None of them . . . was armed . . . [They were] opposed to Israeli tanks and helicopters and F-16s. You cannot even start to compare the violence . . . This is not a security matter . . . [the Israelis] always fail to deal with such a purely political, humanitarian, legal matter . . .
Humphrys: Sorry to interrupt you there but . . . if I marched into your house waving a club and throwing a stone at you then it would be
a security matter, wouldn't it?
Zomlot: I beg your pardon. According to the United Nations Security Council resolutions, those people are marching to their homes; they have the deeds of their homes; it's their private property. So let's set the record right once and for all . . .

It was a rare moment. Setting the record straight is not a managerial "target".

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue

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“It's nothing radical”: Jeremy Corbyn supporters on why his politics are just common sense

The new Labour leader's backers are opposed to austerity and passionate about grassroots democracy – just don't call them “radical”.

Stand-up comedian Grainne Maguire has been a long-time supporter of the Labour party and regularly performs at their events and rallies. When Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader, she was happy to see the party take a decisive turn to the left. "We have a radically right-wing Conservative government at the moment. We need a clear left-wing alternative. Of all the candidates, Corbyn was the only one offering that,” she explains.

“It's not a bad thing that we now have a leader who is as left-wing as David Cameron is right-wing. Corbyn's been presented in the press as being radical, extremist – a placard-carrying lunatic – but putting his ideas down on paper, I don't think anybody would really think they're that crazy."

On the BBC’s recent Panorama tracking the rise of Corbyn, Maguire was presented as an almost obsessive supporter of the party’s "radical" repositioning – but like many young Labour members, she doesn’t class her views as extreme: "I find the 'radical' label patronising. It's a way of dismissing the genuine passions and issues facing a lot of young people today. What is radical about thinking we should have affordable housing? What is radical about saying we should support workers and make sure people are treated properly? On the issue of renationalising the railways, you couldn't have a more populist policy. There's nothing radical about these things. They’re common sense.”

Maguire doesn’t think of herself as a particularly active campaigner, but over recent months she has become more engaged with Labour’s movement, especially through social media, because of the party’s left-wing positioning and support for democratic principles.

“I like that Corbyn has a strong anti-cuts agenda and that he seems comfortable standing by the unions. We're supposed to be a party of the unions and of the people – there shouldn't be any squeamishness about it," she says. "The other candidates kind of said, 'We'll do the same things that the Conservatives are doing, but we'll feel really sad about it.' Corbyn offers an alternative; a real opposition."

Over the past week, I’ve spoken to dozens of Labour party members and supporters like Maguire with the aim of unearthing Corbyn’s most radical advocates. But what I found instead was a widespread movement; people drawn from a variety of backgrounds who have come together under the umbrella of Corbynism to support principles of equality, fairness and democracy.

Corbyn symbolises an issues-based politics and a cohesive vision for the country’s future that challenges the widely accepted political narratives that exist in society today. As well as engaging the young – a supposedly apathetic political demographic – Corbyn is building a widespread consensus around the issues that matter to people. In doing so, Corbyn has attracted the support of various fringe parties who are concerned with specific political and social issues.

“Corbyn’s rise as Labour leader opens up debates on the left, shows there is a mood for change and gives confidence to everyone fighting austerity and racism,” says Charlie Kimber, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). His party is thought by many to be far-left, yet there is considerable crossover between Corbyn’s principles as a social democrat and the key issues that SWP members care about.

“We oppose nuclear weapons, austerity and racism, and we are against imperialist wars. We are anti-capitalist, anti-racist and we fight for positive social change and against austerity and climate change,” Kimber explains. “We want to lay the basis of a socialist society where people come before profit. We are for socialism, and so is Corbyn. We may differ about how to achieve our ends, but we share key aims.”

Clive Heemskerk, national agent for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), agrees that the level of consensus across campaigns from unions and fringe parties shows the extent to which Corbyn has already built a new, democratic consensus around his politics. “Corbyn’s victory has the potential to completely change the terms of mainstream political debate. We fully support his anti-austerity stance, his defence of public ownership and his opposition to Trident renewal,” he says. “We are part of Corbyn’s movement. Linking together all those who oppose austerity, defend trade unionism and support socialism, regardless of whether they hold a Labour party card or not, is the model of how the Corbyn movement needs to develop in the next period.”

In its core policy statement, the TUSC indicates that it is prepared to work with any Labour candidate who shares their “socialist aspirations” and is “prepared to support measures that challenge the austerity consensus of the establishment politicians”, but Heemskerk has concerns about the undemocratic influence of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). “The 95 per cent of Labour councillors who did not back Jeremy – and the party officials nationally – have already begun to restrict his stance and undermine his leadership,” he adds. “That includes a retreat from opposing the neoliberal EU and, on rail renationalisation, waiting for the franchises to expire rather than immediately taking all the rail companies back into public ownership.”

These are examples of areas on which the fringe parties are prepared to scrutinise and even oppose Corbyn and the Labour party – surely a symptom of a healthy democratic movement, not widespread socialist "radicalisation".

“Where Labour councillors or candidates are not prepared to follow Jeremy’s stance in opposing George Osborne’s austerity agenda, the TUSC will be prepared to stand against them in local elections,” Heemskerk asserts. The SWP holds the same concerns about the PLP, and sees scrutiny and accountability as key in taking Corbyn's movement forward. “We think that these changes won’t come through parliament. We need a mass movement outside parliament and independent of Labour. The experience of Syriza and Hollande shows the problems of just winning a parliamentary majority,” Kimber adds.

Cat Conway, a PhD student in poetry, is a founding member of the Women’s Equality Party and a supporter of both Corbyn and Labour. “I am most supportive of Corbyn's policies on social issues, particularly housing, the NHS, and welfare, as well as his attitude to the economy,” she says. “I also support his re-nationalisation of public utilities and railways. Not everything has to be a for-profit enterprise: education, healthcare, utilities and public transport should earn enough to pay their staff a fair wage and maintain their services to a high standard at the lowest cost possible for the consumer.”

Like Maguire, she feels that the "radical" label is a reductive and inaccurate portrayal of the burgeoning grassroots politics that has emerged over the past few months. “I do not consider an anti-‘f**k the poor’ platform to be in the least bit radical. Radical, to me, has always been synonymous with 'irrational' and 'inflexible'. I believe in compromise. I don't believe you have to be 'centrist' to compromise,” she asserts. “The constant use of the term 'radical' is meant to frighten people, to make them feel insecure. ‘Corbyn is radical’ translates to ‘this man is out of control, hysterical, angry, and a danger to us all’, as though he's some kind of madman anarchist and not a 66-year-old man who cycles everywhere.”

Opposition to privatisation is a key part of Corbyn’s movement, and something that Jen Hamilton-Emery, director of a small literary publishing house in North Norfolk and Corbyn backer, fully supports. I believe that this is the time that people across the party, at grassroots level, will be properly listened to. It’s a great opportunity to engage with as many people as possible, both inside and outside the party,” she tells me.

Though Hamilton-Emery has always voted Labour, she only joined the party after Tony Blair stepped down. She worked in the NHS during the New Labour years and was appalled by moves to accelerate the privatisation of healthcare by a party she felt should be opposing it in principle. With changes in the Labour party’s positioning, she now intends to get more involved with issues-based campaigning: “With Corbyn encouraging local constituency parties to discuss policies and inform debate, I intend to mobilise members and get everyone more involved. It is people on the ground that we need to engage with, inform and bring on board.”

It seems to me that those supporting Corbyn are not simply naive idealists, but rather, politically-engaged citizens concerned for those who are currently losing out in British society. “I don't consider myself radical. I see myself as standing up for and supporting the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. I don't think that Corbyn is a radical either. He's a man of strong and unshakeable principles,” Hamilton-Emery says. “But I do think that labels matter – he, and his supporters, will no doubt be called 'radical' by the press and, by extension, the public. It's reductive and potentially damaging, with no room for unpacking his message. As the Tories implement their cuts to public services, Corbyn will look increasingly radical by comparison.”

The Tories can label Corbyn and his supporters radical as much as they want, but the grassroots politics of the day seems much more likely to highlight the injustice and radicalism of Cameron and Osborne’s right-wing agenda: of tax breaks to corporations and the super-rich, of attacks on civil liberties and labour rights, of broad privatisation and of soulless ideological austerity.

What "grassroots" means under Corbyn is an issues-based and highly relevant politics. And the democratic strength of his position is self-perpetuating; the more he engages with individuals, organisations and communities about their social and political desires, the more likely he is to develop solutions in terms of policy and strategy that bring about the changes people want.

Welcome to the new British politics.

Lauren Razavi is a freelance columnist and features writer. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRazavi.