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Issue 35, February 1999

Promoting global poverty

East and West
By Chris Patten, MacMillan, 1998, £22.50 (hbk).
Reviewed by Jean Walker

IF YOU ARE interested in the detail of the negotiations around the introduction of 'democracy' to Hong Kong before China took over in 1997, you will like the first part of East and West. Personally, I found it all a little too smug and, frankly, tedious. What is more interesting and relevant is the reason the last governor believed it necessary to insist on limited forms of democracy a mere century and a half after the beginning of British rule.

'Pluralist democracy', Patten argues, is an absolute necessity for the maintenance of the best operating environment for the free market. He condemns the totalitarian or authoritarian regimes in Indonesia, Singapore, etc not because of the brutal repression of all working class opposition but because open government, in his view, is in the best interest of capitalism. He does not condemn the now fallen Suharto for torture and other human rights abuses, but for his insistence on awarding contracts to his family rather than enabling rich pickings for a wider capitalist class. Democracy, then, is nothing more than a convenient tool to ensure the best conditions for the 'free' market.

The myth of Asian values being the core reason for the 'tiger' phenomenon is dispelled as nothing more than self justification of autocratic rulers in order to keep their ill gotten gains and positions of power. The emphasis on education - supposedly greatly supported throughout Asia - is a value Patten believes we need to adhere to more. (Although the introduction of tuition fees in Britain is 'welcome' and apparently 'long overdue', so we can assume he means education is vital as long as the individual foots the bill.) We learn that the rapid growth in South-East Asia was not a miracle but only a replay of the industrialisation of capitalist Western economies a century ago. The only difference was the rapid pace because of the greater levels of technology now available. However, a 'small state' concentrating only on primary health care and education made South-East Asian economies more competitive, and that is the lesson the West has to learn.

This is at the heart of what is essentially a manifesto from the former Tory Party chairman who believes that he will never be party leader because he is on the left. Frank Field is trumpeted as "a dear personal friend, a committed Christian socialist, a man of principle whose ideas on private insurance… rather than reliance on the state are on the right track". There is no difference between Patten's agenda and the pronouncements of Blair and his New Labour cronies: "There are also profound moral arguments for a fresh look at the role of government. The nationalization of welfare has subverted local and voluntary effort and has hence circumscribed pioneering and innovation. It has also sapped the local community's sense of responsibility for dealing with the need in its midst… Voluntarism has always been at the cutting edge of public conscience, of cost effective service delivery and of the discovery of new needs and of better ways of attending to them".

  This quote, which could easily have come from Blair, forms part of Patten's contention that not only is welfare protection from the cradle to the grave unaffordable, it is also undesirable. He asserts that the breakdown in the family is a direct result of a welfare system that promotes dependence on the state.

Superficially these concerns are born out of a desire for freedom and independence of the working class. He rightly asserts that means testing and much of the benefits system in Britain is intrusive and demeaning. No argument there, but what is the answer to the art of 'good government'? The question itself is revealing because it's only half a question. We should ask, good government for whom?

Despite much hand-wringing and weeping and wailing about the need for dignity for all and for freedom from torture and oppression, the economic repression of the working class is not a problem as far as Patten is concerned. As long as the 'free' market can operate with a workforce that is educated enough to make profits for the free marketers; as long as there is enough of a primary health care system to provide a relatively healthy pool of labour, then you have 'good government'. If you want a pension then you should take out private insurance. If you are unable to work then communities, your family and the voluntary sector will look after you. Your welfare is not the interest of the state beyond your ability to be fodder for capital. After all you live in a free market pluralist democracy so you can look after yourself, you have law and order and the safety valve of pluralist democracy to take the steam out of any opposition movements.

The conclusions in East and West, then, are in agreement with Frances Fukuyama's assertion nearly a decade ago: history is at an end; liberal free-market economies and their accompanying ideology have triumphed throughout the world; pluralist democracy has to be introduced into the newer free-market economies like China. This will be a painful process.

Unemployment in far higher numbers is inevitable, as is the need to savagely cut all provision by the state that does not directly translate to profit or, more precisely, workers' ability to create profits. The fact that this will plunge millions more people into poverty across the planet is not the affair of the 'free' market because those who are able to 'get on the ladder of opportunity' will still be able to buy the products of their labour.

These ideas are by no means new. What is rare is to see them written down so precisely and blatantly by a current prominent politician and 'statesman'. Patten tells us that the next century does not belong to the Pacific Rim or any one area of the world but to the 'free' market generally. Reading East and West convinced me more than ever that the next century has to belong to socialism, worldwide.

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