promised to save us from bureaucracy. Instead, it has delivered a mad, semi-privatised
By George Monbiot,
published in the Guardian 10th April 2019
My life was saved
last year by the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, through a skilful procedure to remove a cancer from my body. Now I will need another operation, to remove
my jaw from the floor. I’ve just learnt what was happening at the hospital
while I was being treated.
On the surface, it
ran smoothly. Underneath, unknown to me, was fury and tumult. Many of the staff
had objected to a decision by the National Health Service to privatise the hospital’s cancer scanning. They complained that the scanners the
private company was offering are less sensitive than the hospital’s own
machines. Privatisation, they said, would put patients at risk. In response, as
the Guardian revealed last week, NHS England threatened to sue the hospital
for libel if its staff continued to criticise the decision.
The dominant system
of political thought in this country, that produced both the creeping
privatisation of public health services and this astonishing attempt to stifle
free speech, promised to save us from dehumanising bureaucracy. By rolling back
the state, neoliberalism would allow autonomy and creativity to
flourish. Instead, it has delivered a semi-privatised authoritarianism, more
oppressive than the system it replaced.
themselves enmeshed in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, centrally controlled and micromanaged.
Organisations that depend on a cooperative ethic – such as schools and
hospitals – are stripped down, hectored and forced to conform to suffocating
diktats. The introduction of private capital into public services – that would
herald a glorious new age of choice and openness – is brutally enforced. The
doctrine promises diversity and freedom, but demands conformity and silence.
Much of the theory
behind these transformations arises from the work of Ludwig von Mises. In his book Bureaucracy, published in 1944, he argued that there
could be no accommodation between capitalism and socialism. The creation of the
National Health Service in the UK, the New Deal in the US and other experiments
in social democracy would lead inexorably to the bureaucratic totalitarianism
of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
He recognised that
some state bureaucracy was inevitable: there were certain functions that could
not be discharged without it. But unless the role of the state is minimised –
confined to defence, security, taxation, customs and not much else – workers
would be reduced to cogs “in a vast bureaucratic machine”, deprived of
initiative and free will. By contrast, those who labour within an “unhampered
capitalist system” are “free men”, whose liberty is guaranteed by “an economic democracy in which every penny gives a right to
vote.” He forgot to add that some people, in his capitalist utopia, have more
votes than others. And those votes become a source of power.
His ideas, alongside
the writing of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and other neoliberal
thinkers, have been applied in this country by Margaret Thatcher, David
Cameron, Theresa May and, to an alarming extent, Tony Blair. All of them have
attempted to privatise or marketise public services in the name of freedom and
efficiency. But they keep hitting the same snag: democracy. People want
essential services to remain public, and they are right to do so.
If you hand public
services to private companies, either you create a private monopoly, that can
use its dominance to extract wealth and shape the system to serve its own
needs, or you introduce competition, creating an incoherent, fragmented
service, characterised by the institutional failure you can see every day on
our railways. We’re not idiots, even if we are treated as such. We know what
the profit motive does to public services.
governments decided that, if they could not privatise our core services
outright, they would subject them to “market discipline”. von Mises repeatedly
warned against this approach. “No reform could transform a public office into a
sort of private enterprise”, he cautioned. The value of public administration
“cannot be expressed in terms of money”. “Government efficiency and industrial
efficiency are entirely different things”. “Intellectual work cannot be measured
and valued by mechanical devices”. “You cannot ‘measure’ a doctor according to
the time he employs in examining one case.” They ignored his warnings.
Their problem is that
neoliberal theology, as well as seeking to roll back the state, insists that
collective bargaining and other forms of worker power be eliminated (in the
name of freedom, of course). So the marketisation and semi-privatisation of
public services became not so much a means of pursuing efficiency as an
instrument of control. Public service workers are now subjected to a panoptical
regime of monitoring and assessment, using the benchmarks von Mises rightly
warned were inapplicable and absurd. The bureaucratic quantification of public
administration goes far beyond an attempt at discerning efficacy. It has become
an end in itself.
afflict all public services. Schools teach to the test,
depriving children of a rounded and useful education. Hospitals manipulate
waiting times, shuffling patients from one list to another. Police forces
ignore some crimes, reclassify others and persuade suspects to admit to extra
offences to improve their statistics. Universities urge their researchers to write
quick and superficial papers instead of deep monographs, to maximise their scores under the Research Excellence Framework.
As a result, public
services become highly inefficient for an obvious reason: the destruction of
staff morale. Skilled people, including surgeons whose training cost hundreds
of thousands, resign or retire early because of the stress and misery the
system causes. The leakage of talent is a far greater waste than any
inefficiencies this quantomania claims to address.
New extremes in the
surveillance and control of workers are not, of course, confined to the public
sector. Amazon has patented a wristband that can track workers’ movements and detect
the slightest deviation from protocol. Technologies are used to monitor peoples’ keystrokes, language, moods and tone
of voice. Some companies have begun to experiment with the micro-chipping of their staff. As the philosopher Byung-Chul Han points out, neoliberal work practices, epitomised by the gig economy, that
reclassifies workers as independent contractors, internalise exploitation. “Everyone
is a self-exploiting worker in their own enterprise”.
The freedom we were
promised turns out to be freedom for capital, gained at the expense of human liberty. The
system neoliberalism has created is a bureaucracy that tends towards
absolutism, produced in the public services by managers mimicking corporate
executives, imposing inappropriate and self-defeating efficiency measures, and
in the private sector by subjection to faceless technologies, that can brook no
argument or complaint.
Attempts to resist
are met by ever more extreme methods, such as the threatened lawsuit at the
Churchill Hospital. Such instruments of control crush autonomy and creativity.
It is true that the Soviet bureaucracy von Mises rightly denounced reduced its
workers to subjugated drones. But the system his disciples have created is
heading the same way.