Well, I saw this coming a mile off. I knew that Ferdinand Mount was a novelist, Sunday Times columnist, Thatcher-era Tory grandee and former TLS editor when I heard him deliver his talk on ‘Orwell and the Oligarchs’ last night at the annual George Orwell Memorial Lecture hosted by Birkbeck. However, I had no idea he was also a cousin of David Cameron’s Mum and a former baronet, yet I still managed to guess, about ten minutes in, on which side his fois gras was buttered.
More sophisticated than John Lloyd, whose carefully selected quotes at last week’s talk on Orwell and Russia skewed Orwell into a hater of all things socialist rather than someone opposed to the Stalinist betrayal of the revolution, Ferdy knew how to get his audience on board.
He began well enough with the bleedin’ obvious crowd-pleasing observation that the new oligarchs of business are having a larf with their pay. Directors are trousering hundreds of times the average pay of their own workers and Ferdy laid out how it’s done with satirical aplomb.
Remuneration for boards of directors is out of control and has little to do with worth, stitched up by “mutual admiration societies” of executives and non-executives, leading to widescale looting and pillaging.
He highlighted the case of US company Household, bought by HSBC for £9 billion and which turned out to be an aggressive lender in the sub-prime market. Its inevitable fall was one of the first examples of collapse leading to the recession.
And yet …
Building up to a full head of steam, he pleaded for self-examination, pointing out that while Marx and others in the leftist pantheon were willing to tear the mask off others, they failed to fully introspect themselves. And so Ferdy showed us how to do it, generously allowing himself the assumption that his way was the straight and narrow, pursued with enviable crystal clarity.
Thus Ferdy took us from George Orwell’s critique of James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution and through to his own conclusion. Burnham, according to my Lovely Companion, made the rightward trek from Trotskyist to “ferocious right-wing-conservative”. But he didn’t travel far enough to the right for Ferdy, who detected a residual Trotskyism in Burnham’s analysis that “capitalism was doomed”. The state would take over, he warned, and rentier private capital would be smashed rather than retain any place in business. Orwell disagreed, foreseeing a trajectory towards an oligarchy where bankers and managers displaced scientists and productive talent, snatching a disproportionate share of the rewards. Power would be concentrated in fewer hands at the top and, indeed, Britain now has one of the most concentrated power elites in Europe.
And how does this destructive state of affairs manifest?
Not in the rich and powerful who make up the oligarchy: the upper classes salting away their cash in tax havens, dominating the media, and sucking out all the wealth with devil-take-the-hindmost gusto, apparently. Not in the smashing up our arts, culture and education and returning us to Victorian levels of poverty.
According to Ferdy, it is centralised government that is the Big Bad. After all that preamble, with one bound banking and business were suddenly off the hook and out of the equation, while the “thickening networks of controls” and “gigantism” were doing the damage. The Department of Education, f’rinstance, imposed its power on all aspects of education. What’s more, municipal housing equates not with putting a roof over the heads of our citizens but with the loss of freedom for the tenants.
He harked back wistfully to a time of individual freedom before financial controls and regulations became oppressive. We all like to relive our glory days, and Ferdy’s would have been around 1982-3 when he was a member of Margaret Thatcher’s inner sanctum and heartthrob Ronald Reagan was dismantling US financial controls with the results we are still feeling today.
Ferdy wittered on about the virtues of the coalition government. Theirs is true liberalism, don’tcha know, an “apprehension of oligarchy concentrated in too few hands” aiming at a “devolved, plural, liberal” system without central government telling the little people what to do. The policy of Tory cuts, backed by the LibDems, is “the result of genuine dialogue designed to put right what’s gone wrong.” A “refreshing” “surfacing impulse to examine and put right the oligarchy”.
Thus a banking crisis is turned into a crisis of public services. See what he did there?
It was fitting that this lecture should have been held in Senate House, the architectural inspiration for Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.
Such was the tortured logic of the argument that the purpose of the lecture appeared to be to give succour to the Bullingdon bullies and legitimise the coalition government’s savage policies. Do these guys sit down over dinner and work out a strategy for deceiving the public via the various media organs and propaganda outlets? Or does this stuff spring fully-formed like Minerva from heads hard-wired to work in self-serving concert? As Orwell wrote, you don’t need a beaten dog when well-trained ones will do just as well.
The surreal lurch from a deserved castigation of the greed and corruption of the elite — Ferdy’s peers — into an attack on our public services, and everything that made this country a pleasure, was bizarre to behold. If this is the best the right-wing intelligentsia can offer, pack them off to the dreaded Media Studies they loathe so much where perhaps they will learn to make their propagandising a teensy tad less transparent.
Birkbeck’s invitation was a truly generous and charitable act, providing Mount’s threadbare intellectual cast-off with home and shelter. Ferdinand Mount should be grateful that the great man himself was not in the house to offer the drily stinging rebuttal which some of us were aching to hear.
At close of play, Orwell may have been Mounted, but he certainly wasn’t stuffed.
Gauche asks what sort of state is it that Labour wants?
Video: Ferdinand Mount’s George Orwell Memorial Lecture, “Orwell and the Oligarchs”.
Richest 1,000 could clear the deficit here
Anna’s food blog here: