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Tony Blair and the Corporatization of Social Democracy

Tony Blair, by any sensible yardstick, is a douchebag.

Recently, The Guardian, under the headline “Toxic”, detailed Blair’s “downward spiral”. This included the revelation that he may have been having an affair with Wendi Murdoch, the now ex-wife of media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Blair was once good pals with Murdoch and Wendi and is godparent to one of their two children.

Other recent revelations have emerged during the on-going Rebekah Brooks trial over the News of the World phone-hacking scandal playing out in a London courtroom. Brooks was once editor of this Murdoch-owned scandal sheet, which for years hacked into the phones of hundreds of British citizens, politicians and celebrities, while also paying huge sums to police, military and government officials to feed the paper juicy gossip. During 2011 when News was forced to close and Brooks on the verge of being arrested, Blair offered her and Murdoch comfort and advice, even suggesting how they could whitewash and manage the scandal caused by the media empire’s illegal behavior (such as paying off public officials).

Blair, of course, was once the leader of Britain’s Labour Party and UK prime minister for 10 years. He was a proponent of New Labour and its “Third Way” mantra – the party’s right-wing wing element that steered it to the center and embraced neo-liberal economic policies while curtailing the influence of the labour movement.

Since leaving office in 2007, Blair has continued to champion a corporate ideology for personal gain. He’s joined the 1% globe-hopping elite, becoming an advisor to the American bank JP Morgan in 2008 just as the credit crisis was cresting (paying him $4-million a year), created a consulting firm that includes oil-rich and authoritarian Kazakhstan among its clientele (a country where torture is commonplace), and hobnobbing with the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. He bought a pricey mansion in England’s countryside and a big London flat. Meanwhile, he continues his efforts to whitewash his government’s mendacity during and after the run up to the 2003 war in Iraq, where he claimed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, despite knowing that this was not the case (evidence has since emerged that Blair ordered his intelligence service “to find” the evidence after George W. Bush persuaded him to join the invasion cause).

And then there is Blair’s chummy relationship with Rupert Murdoch. Blair first wooed the arch-conservative, union-busting media mogul before the 1997 election for reasons of political expediency. Murdoch’s backing of the Tory party helped Thatcher and Major win four straight elections. Blair managed to persuade Murdoch to switch to Labour, which undoubtedly helped Blair defeat the Tories. But Blair’s relationship with Murdoch continued long after Blair left office and right up until there was suspicions he may have been having a fling with Wendi Murdoch. Given how Murdoch, the owner of the Fox Network, has used his media clout on behalf of the most rabidly conservative elements of the corporate elite and its political supporters – including helping foster the quasi-fascist Tea Party movement in the US – Blair’s friendship with Murdoch defies explanation, beyond his craven need to be close to the circles of economic power. A desire that includes helping Murdoch when his media empire’s decades-long efforts to co-opt and corrupt the British state were finally exposed (which included doing reputational “hits” and hiring private investigators to spy on critics of Murdoch).

The story of Blair is a cautionary one for social democrats who believe his route to power should be copied. He embodies the belief that quaint notions like “socialism” and workers’ controlling the commanding heights of the economy should be dispensed with in order to win elections. Hence, by the time he won power in 1997, the Labour Party was no longer willing to re-nationalize any element of the British economy that was privatized during the Thatcher and Major years. The party, in effect, had become a liberal party in the guise currently embodied by Canada’s Liberal Party.

This transformation is exposed in the wonderful new documentary made by the leftish British filmmaker Ken Loach called “The Spirit of 45”. It’s a remarkable look at the immediate post-war era in the UK after the 1945 election of Clement Atlee’s Labour government and the groundbreaking social reforms it implemented.

These, of course, included the National Health Service, social housing, and the nationalization of the railways, water, steel and auto industries. Ministers like Aneurin Bevan, the son of a coal miner, implemented the NHS in face of vociferous opposition from the medical establishment. He also oversaw the building of social housing estates that finally provided clean and decent housing for Britain’s working class. All of these reforms benefited and improved the lot of the British working man and woman immensely.

Yet the last quarter of the film is about the rise of Thatcher and the dismantling and privatization of the reforms Labour introduced. You also hear many of the interview subjects complain how today’s Labour Party has done nothing to stop the deluge and prevent the rollbacks Thatcher began.

In fact, Blair represents the culmination of decades of effort by the right-wing of social democratic parties to weaken and Red-bait the left, ostensibly to win power at the ballot box. It’s a process that commenced within the NDP in the 1970s when the Waffle was driven from its ranks. And continues today as seen when NDP leader Thomas Mulcair differed with Linda McQuaig over her desire to tax the super-rich. McQuaig, who ran last year for the NDP for the Toronto Centre seat, has said she would be content with a 60% tax rate on those earning over $500,000. Mulcair, on the other hand, was opposed to this idea, or of even increasing any personal income tax at all (although the NDP does support increasing the corporate tax rate).

What’s happened to social democratic parties like the NDP and Labour is they’re no longer willing to challenge the rich and the corporate sector. In a column printed in the Guardian last fall  entitled “It’s business that really rules us now”, the British writer George Monbiot talks about how the mass media and political elites refuse to talk about the big elephant in the room: namely that corporations now control everything, including the state. “The role of the self-hating state is to deliver itself to big business,” he wrote. “In doing so it creates a tollbooth economy: a system of corporate turnpikes, operated by companies with effective monopolies.”

But Monbiot also wrote about how the Labour Party acceded the ground that permitted this domination by the corporate sector. “Tony Blair and Gordon Brown purged the party of any residue of opposition to corporations and the people who run them. That’s what New Labour was all about. Now opposition MPs stare mutely as their powers are given away to a system of offshore arbitration panels run by corporate lawyers.”

The result of this abandonment of an anti-corporate platform by social democrats can be depressing: I was in Greece last fall filming a story for Gobal TV on the consequences of offshore tax havens. The current right-wing Greek government has taken a hacksaw to the public sector, laying off 200,000 civil servants, slashing wages, and privatizing state agencies and assets. While we were there, hospital staff told us they had not been paid in five months. Meanwhile, the government used the fiscal crisis to close down the public broadcaster overnight. Greece is in deep trouble (which includes 25% unemployment) that is fostering the development of the fascist right, namely the Golden Dawn party.

And which political party is allowing this damage to be done? PASOK, Greek’s most prominent social democratic party. PASOK ran Greece from 2009 to 2012 where it’s credibility was shattered by its willingness to do the bidding of international lenders, while refusing to crack down on Greek’s corrupt political and economic elites who’ve been plundering the country for years. In fact, Greek’s PASOK finance minister was given a list of 2,000 Greeks who were hiding their taxable funds in Swiss bank accounts – and he simply stuck the list in his drawer and refused to act on it. In 2012, PASOK got 13% of the popular vote (and currently is polling at 3%) – and yet is a partner in the current coalition government that is among the most conservative and authoritarian in Greece’s history.

Today, we are seeing the rise of what I call corporate social democracy. And the model is Germany, a country still enjoying robust social programs, trade unions, a healthy left and enviable standard of living. Yet behind Germany’s success is the fact it’s mostly in aid of corporate power and profits. Moreover, the ascendancy of Germany as an economic and banking power has destabilized all of Europe and the EU, with countries unable to compete with German corporations watching their industries and economies get pummeled. Even France, which has fewer problems with corruption and incompetence than Italy or Greece, has seen its economy de-industrialize and tank because of its inability to compete with the German juggernaut.

Social democrats who desire winning elections so badly they wish to embrace right-wing polices and the corporate sector do so at the risk of becoming the next Tony Blairs: mere pawns and apologists for the business elites and their inherent corruptions and contradictions.

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Comment from Paul Weinberg
Time: April 6, 2014, 2:47 pm

Hi Bruce. Nothing about Tony Blair surprises me. But at least I thought he was a consistent douche bag as you called him. The revelation of him cheating on Cherie Blair — more interesting a personality and a more socially concerned lawyer to boot but you can correct me there — shows that Tony Blair to be a sanctimonious hypocrite. All this stuff about discovering God, family values, was just the smelliest kind of dreck imaginable.

Comment from judy haiven
Time: April 6, 2014, 8:13 pm

Bravo Bruce.
We saw in NS the contempt that the former NDP government had for unions, for working people and for the poor in this one of the poorest provinces. As recently as July, the NDP government took away paramedics right to strike and now that the Liberals (now the government) have done the same to nurses, and homecare workers, the NDP is crying its crocodile tears. So much for social democracy. …

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