[last updated - 29 / 1 / 2010]
Who I am
I'm currently studying for an PhD in Political Science at University College London's School of Public Policy. My research aims to identify the concentrations of socio-economic power, domestic or external, that shape British foreign policy, and to explain how their influence is exerted in practice.
Here's my homepage at UCL.
As well as studying, and blogging here, I write analysis and comment articles for The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique and the New Left Project, a site which I co-edit. I also micro-blog daily on Twitter.
When I write
I post here maybe 3 or 4 times a month, so a better way to follow my writing is via my Twitter page. I post there daily, mainly with links to interesting articles and reports in the global media. When I produce any original material, either for one of the publications mentioned above or for this site, I'll link to it via Twitter. Major stuff will appear on my UCL page.
What I write
My main interest is Western foreign policy, so I write a fair bit about current affairs where they fall into that broad catagory. Sometimes I'll post a formal, detailed article on a given topic, other times something quicker and shorter. I also post up anything I discover in the course of my PhD research that I think may be of interest to people visiting this site, be that on the historical evolution of Britain and its foreign policy, or various analyses of how elite groups exert their influence over policymaking.
Why I write
I take the view that, because I enjoy a good level of political freedom in my country, I therefore share responsibility for what my government does in the same way as I'm responsible for the predictable consequences of my own personal actions. This website, and my PhD research, is an attempt to make use of the freedoms I enjoy in order to honour those responsibilities. Any genuine progressive change that's ever occurred in politics has nearly always been the result, not of gifts from the powerful, but of the small collective and individual efforts of people articulating a case, trying to change people's minds and generate pressure on those in power. My writing represents a small, personal contribution to that end.
The short essay below is an attempt to set out the principles and the general interpretation of the global political economy that underpins my writing.
My writing frequently explores the extent to which the policies of Western governments (principally the UK and its allies) are consistent with their purported liberal democratic values, and the dissonance between words and actions. Readers will find that the views I express are at odds with much of mainstream political debate in the West. This itself is instructive since the fundamental basis of my political thought is the same set of liberal-democratic principles upon which, we are told, our government's actions are based. These were best articulated over two centuries ago, in the words of the American Founding Fathers:
“We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable; that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying it's foundation on such principles and organising it's powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness”.
Most of us are probably aware that many of the individuals who subscribed to that original declaration at the time it was made were themselves guilty of acting somewhat contrary to its core principles, e.g. by owning slaves, committing genocide against the native American population, and so on. Sadly, it is just as true in the early 21st century as it was in the late 18th that powerful figures who praise the virtues of liberal-democracy often display profound contempt for those ideals in practice. There remains a sharp dissonance in other words, between the things our leaders say and the things that they do.
The West is often mistaken for a beacon of democratic liberalism (though that mistake is made rather less often outside its own borders, where the luxury of ignorance of the true nature of Western power is not something most can afford). The freedom the Western peoples have won for themselves in their own societies should not be underestimated, but that freedom - and the liberal nature of those societies in the way they engage with others in the world - is heavily compromised. In my view, Western liberal democracy is most significantly and effectively undermined by the fundamental conflict between the democratic and the modern capitalist systems.
Democracies distribute social power – in the form of the vote – on the basis of human equality. Markets distribute social power – in the form of control over resources - according to ability to pay. Governments must answer to the electorate every four years or so, but they must answer to those who own the country every day of the week. Every day the corporate media can bring pressure to bear on our government the like of which the average voter alone could never muster. Every day, private employers can threaten to take their business to another country; somewhere that will permit them to employ people more cheaply and with less employment rights. Every day, business can threaten to withdraw its resources from national economies unless these, and other favourable investment conditions, are created or enhanced. These pressures and threats - sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, never democratic – govern capitalist democracies with much greater effectiveness than mere votes. They drive nation states into a race to the bottom; a bidding war whose costs are paid by their citizens. In the end, the line between the democratic state and the concentrations of material wealth dissolve as both collaborate in manipulating the social machinery to serve their own interests and to lock the public out of power to the greatest extent possible.
The American Founding Father John Jay once said that, "the people who own the country ought to govern it". For all the fine talk of democracy and open markets, Jay's maxim remains the operative principle for his successors in the governing class.
Under neo-liberal democracy, therefore, the effective role of a single-mother on a minimum wage is to ensure that the wealthiest in society can fill their off shore bank accounts at an ever increasing rate, and maintain the lifestyle to which they are accustomed. If they cannot, the great and the good will demand that our single mother be a little poorer in the next financial year, in order to improve their margins. Those are the priorities of the deformed polyarchy that develops in a democracy where material wealth holds the whip-hand.
While real and widespread popular freedom is an anathema to social elites, its promise certainly makes for a potent sales pitch. Just as the Bolsheviks used the prospect of release from bondage to consign their subjects to a dungeon, so western capitalist states use the language of freedom – laissez faire, the free market - to justify transferring socio-economic power from the general population to narrow private ownership. But these privatisation programmes are designed to advance not the freedom of all people to pursue happiness on an equal basis, but the freedom of the economically powerful to feed their self-interest.
Thus, in the neo-liberal capitalist democracy, the extent to which you are free, and the extent to which you are able to influence the way your society is run, is the extent to which you have economic power. Not quite the same as the human equality of democratic principle. As an example, contrast the dedication of our politicians and corporate media to the freedom to make profit, one the one hand, with their views on the free movement of human beings to cross national borders in order to find work, on the other. The relative positions of money and human beings in this value system are revealed in clear and unmistakable terms.
In the “War on Terror”, like the Cold War before it, western powers have eagerly grasped an opportunity to further debase the democratic ideal. The West has, to be sure, a record of alliances with relatively free societies (e.g. NATO) and even of creating new ones (e.g. modern Germany and Japan). However, the West has also created, armed and otherwise backed some of the most brutal regimes in the post-war era. The rogues gallery includes such butchers as Pinochet, Suharto, Saddam Hussein, the Nicaraguan Contra death squads and many more; mass murderers who enjoyed material support from the west while they committed their worst crimes. In addition, the West has itself intervened to devastating effect where its creations and/or allies have failed to serve its interests. More memorable highlights include the liberation of around 3 million souls from this mortal coil during the Vietnam War, and the continuing slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis through wars and economic sanctions. The theme common to all this behaviour is not a reverence for democracy or a yearning for human rights – the ideals our leaders invariably proclaim when embarking on adventures abroad - but the pursuit of policies designed to further Western strategic and economic interests whatever the human cost.
Crucial to this system is the ability of state-economic power to shape political discourse in order to defend itself from those most able to challenge it: the Western publics. Through the corporate-owned media, through academia, and through material restrictions on the range of options in public policy, a single ideology becomes embedded in our political culture in the form of a set of deep and unquestionable assumptions governing thinkable thought in the mainstream political arena. This seriously devalues the democratic process, for example with two wings of the business party constituting the only alternatives for voters on election day. An effort to challenge the political assumptions underpinning mainstream discourse - thus widening the range of possibilities for society to consider for itself - must therefore be a significant part of any serious attempt to effect meaningful societal change. This is what I aim to do with my writing.
If our ideals and principles are what we say they are, then our task is to reclaim them from the fraudulent rhetoric of political and social elites, and act collectively to apply them in line with their true meaning. As humankind develops its ability to destroy itself, through environmental degradation or the development of WMD, the consequences of our failure to do so scarcely bears contemplation. The Democrat's Diary is my own contribution to a broader effort, currently manifesting itself in a wide variety of ways throughout the world, to reclaim liberalism from the "liberals" of state-economic power and to finally put its principles into practice.