Sunday, 29 July 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Democracy

The unintentionally hilarious comments on the Olympics opening ceremony by various right-wing curmudgeons have been revealing. Most attention has gone to Aidan Burley's attack on "leftie multi-cultural crap", but a review of the rest shows a shared worldview that extends beyond a dislike of urban music and miscegenation. The NHS is seen as "socialist" and a "nationalised stranglehold", and its celebration is a party political broadcast for Labour.

The NHS isn't socialist. It's fundamentally a liberal institution, owing more in its design to Bismarck than Marx. Though hospitals are nationalised, the pharmaceutical and medical supply industries are not, and nor is hospital construction, which means private profit is drained from the public sector. Doctors remain private practitioners, with little incentive to invest in preventative care. There is no workers control, the privatisation of ancillary services has been common for decades, and local democratic oversight is now non-existent. Of course, if you believe "socialist" is synonymous with "not privately-owned", then I can see why the confusion arises.

My favourite comment was Rupert Murdoch's: "London Olympic opening surprisingly great, even if a little too politically correct", implying that there might be an appropriate level of political correctness on such an occasion. What, I wonder, would make it less PC in Rupe's eyes? An all-white cast, a celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit of drug dealers, a tableau of famous Sun headlines? Political correctness is a straw man, so this comment is just an example of how it tends to be crow-barred into the conversation at every opportunity. Coincidentally, I came across an interesting quote on the subject from the misanthropic right-wing psychiatrist, Theodore Dalrymple (a sort of minor-key Celine):

"Political correctness is communist propaganda writ small. In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, nor to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is to co-operate with evil, and in some small way to become evil oneself. One's standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control. I think if you examine political correctness, it has the same effect and is intended to."

Enforced silence and "assent to obvious lies" are characteristic of the classic Orwellian trope of self-repression in a totalitarian society. This not only "humiliates" the individual, but corrupts them to a point where their ability to resist anything is "destroyed". The problem with this is that it doesn't accord with reality. Did 40 years of Communism result in the people of Eastern Europe losing their sense of probity "once and for all"? Did they "in some small way" become evil? Were they easier to control in 1989 than in 1949?

The segue implies that political correctness should be seen as an organised propaganda effort, with some shadowy bureaucracy coordinating a masterplan. I bet they even use spreadsheets and hold team meetings. Central to this effort is the dissemination of lies and the enforcement of silence on particular topics. Thus political correctness prevents us from criticising Islam for misogyny, or suggesting that rap culture glorifies crime, or that poor people are congenital failures. Nope, you'll never see mention of any of that in newspapers or online.

It's easy to laugh at this paranoid conflation of the Stasi and political correctness, but the point about silence is suggestive. If we are living in a society that is repressed by PC, then the evidence for this would include an unwillingness to talk about certain subjects. Not just minor issues that we can push to the margins, but big issues that affect most people. So what are the things we don't speak of?

We praise democracy and even seek to "spread" it to other countries, sometimes through war, but we have an aversion to it in the workplace. The overwhelming majority of businesses are run as dictatorships. Literally. The word of the guy at the top is law. Dissent will result in sanctions and ultimately expulsion. We secure advancement through flattery and groupthink. The guy at the top doesn't really know what is going on because he is out of touch and we fear speaking truth to power (we even celebrate this in reality TV shows). In this, the NHS is no different to a private business.

One of the themes of the Olympic love-in has been admiration for the opening night supremo, Danny Boyle. Many of the anecdotes tell of his willingness to listen to anyone, his inclusivity and humility. He is, in other words, the ideal boss, and as such he's about as representative as Mary Poppins is of child-minders. Talking of the cast and crew, he said "The show belongs to them, the country belongs to them." A nice sentiment, but neither is true.

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