At Least We Won’t Be Bored
Review of Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics, by Peter Geoghegan, Head of Zeus. Democracy for Sale has been our Book of the Month, see also our interview with Peter here.
I suspect I’m not alone in never having heard of Richard Cook. In Democracy for Sale we learn that the Clarkston based businessman channelled unprecedented sums of money to the DUP in the weeks leading up to Brexit. The book also delves into the labyrinthine multi-million dollar export deals that Cook’s recycling company became involved in. The firm seems to have been in the habit of shipping a range of questionable cargoes to India, Malaysia, South Korea and Ukraine. In a text filled with incongruous locales and characters, the twists and turns of these particular dealings read, ‘like excerpts from an airport thriller.’
Although a digression from the meat of the book, this tale points to a wider problem. If a trade as mundane as recycling can become embroiled in global intrigue; is it really any wonder that that the higher-stakes realm of politics seems increasingly beyond our grasp?
Democracy for Sale is a page turner: a compendium of thrilling, grotesque and surreal sub-plots that together constitute an extensive assessment a sustained an authoritarian nationalist backlash. All manner of networks and connections are unpackaged at a bewildering pace. This is a great testament to the investigative journalist’s zeal. But it would be naïve to consider the range of scoops compiled by Geoghegan and his colleagues here as akin to the genre’s classic triumphs of the last century. Indeed, by the end of the book, you yearn for the relative innocence of an era in which elites at least felt obliged to cover up their bad behaviour.
Of course, bad characters, acting with impunity, make for good stories. The worst, and their passionate intensities, know how to blend politics and entertainment as celebrity self-image. However, a coherent response must be both systematic and structural: and thus destined to only be of interest to the woke/liberal/normie establishment.
This brings us to a conundrum that the traditional frames of politics and journalism struggle to contain. Trump’s global saturation and reach is more akin to that achieved by Elvis than the state-centric project of, say, Mussolini (brand reach was of course Trump’s original intent in running for office). It is unsurprising then that the new breed of ‘strongmen’ are invariably so skittish, bitchy and infantile – time and again this book reminds us that it is the dynamic of attention seeking that has evicted politics from the agora and dumped it in a murky and seedy alleyway. Yet, a bit like the transformation of Bedford Falls into Pottersville in It’s a Wonderful Life, the dark inversion of upstanding civic virtue can promise a lot more fun.
Whether it’s the legacy of HIGNFY, the ‘stand-up comedian’ founder of pseudo-militia Proud Boys, or the glee with which a man as powerful as Aaron Banks courts notoriety, a significant part of the dynamic that has disrupted democratic custom is the desire to be in on the joke: to be amongst the laughing, rather than the laughed at. For want of anything more substantive, the media-incubated rulers we’ve ended up with only really promise us one thing – at least we won’t be bored. Those of us who want to resist their policies need to get better at understanding how tempting this offer can be, whilst also admitting that our own indignation fuels their communicative power. Why bother with the all the slow and difficult work of politics: empathy, consensus building, self-education, compromise, when you can simply tune in to whatever ‘shitshow’ happens to be on air? Writing in The New Republic, Osita Nwanevu points out: ‘Support for Donald Trump and the Republican Party is as much, if not more, a cultural practice as it is an abstract political stance or a reflection of clear policy preferences.’ The rites of this cultural practice are all about gaming the public sphere: shitting in all the places where dialogue in good faith might occur, mining outrage, refusing, above all, to accept that any concern alien to your own experience deserves to be taken seriously.
Geoghegan doesn’t shy away from pointing to the origins of the unfolding erosion of trust that has created this dark politics of spectacle. After neoliberalism gorged on the innards of public institutions, and post-war paternalism collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions, the logic that certain holy cows in society should not be available to the highest bidder has inevitably worn thin. In unpicking a vast catalogue of bad behaviour, Democracy for Sale invariably returns to a trio of problems now haunting public life: big-data monopolies, offshore finance, and a reluctance to regulate. With these vital ingredients still in play, it is hard to read this book and not conclude that the devotees of self-interest may indeed finally roll back the last bastions of the state. Global-Singapore-Free-Port Britain here we come.
Because this is a long process (the Institute of Economic Affairs was founded in 1955) it’s difficult to fix a point at which democracy was cleaner and more enlightened. Looked at another way: if there was a Trente Glorieuses of better politicking between 1945 – 1979, this is surely an aberration in the grand scheme of things. Graft and corruption seem inevitable in polities defined by enormous inequalities. We are, as the author concludes, in a new gilded age with more opaque robber barons: then as now, the exaltation of private wealth is destined to produce an ever more impoverished public life. When the pinnacle of public service demands a six figure income: as made so clear by Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind (and for that matter, any head of a Russell Group university) there is only one gut-level conclusion for the rest of the populace – if everyone’s in it for the money, who can’t be bought?
Some of the problems dissected in Democracy for Sale are also less novel than we might like to imagine. George W. Bush, now frequently wheeled out as an exemplar of moderate bipartisanship, oversaw an administration that lavished budgets on ‘message force multipliers’: a cast of nominally independent paid-for talking heads who pushed pro-war opinions across broadcast networks. As Jodi Dean points out, strategies to flood communication channels in this way are better likened to spam than propaganda. They presaged the current torrential slurry of politics as shitposting that this book, so eloquently and hygienically, delves into.
While the author’s political self was birthed under the lodestar of possibility achieved by the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, for those of us who came on the scene only a few years later, it was another document, trumpeting claims about 45 minutes, that set the tone. Before I was old enough to vote, mainstream politics had been dominated by a debate on the gravest matters of state that was deliberately disinformed. Those at the apex of the system didn’t require webs of dark money or the wild-west of digital disruption to orchestrate that particular coup. They now enjoy magnificent careers as elder-statesmen and lifestyle coaches. At the risk of straining a metaphor to death: if the lights are going out for democracy due to authoritarian nationalism, ‘moderate’ politicians who thought they could control the dimmer switch for their own ends have just as much to answer for. Here we arrive at an awkward truth. The success of this book in charting the shocks to established political systems may allow for the more presentable charlatans of yesteryear to point to the rise of malign Kremlin interreference in democratic contests. But they will, presumably, gloss over passages which reference the catalogue of past disruption, often fuelled by dark money, that has long been pivotal to the conduct of our foreign policy. Perhaps the practice of protecting democracy at home by undermining it abroad was always destined to come home to roost.
The fierce and meticulous intellect at work in Democracy for Sale has sent up a flare, but a distress signal is not enough. Increasingly, tiny numbers of journalists, funded largely by philanthropy, end up providing the only alternative to the cloying secrecy and non-disclosure that defines contemporary politics. Might a generalised, reforming, sense of shame emerge from this work? It’s possible, and a range of practical fixes are offered here. But when we consider the example of the paltry resources of the UK Electoral Commission (with a staff of only 140 compared to Facebook’s 3,000 in London alone) and the inconsequential fines it doles out, we have to first admit that these are yet another example of malnourished Thatcherite offspring. When so many in power believe that the market is the ultimate democratic system, we cannot be surprised that so much of value has been left to wither. As it happens, the original ‘gilded’ tag referred to the shallow facade of wealth distracting from an era of political upheaval. Scratch away the bling and you find a society in turmoil.
Meanwhile, the chaos of the new media technologies continues to merge with the worst of the old. Geoghegan points out the strikingly similar content that many of the plethora of new ultra-partisan platforms news websites share with outlets such as the Mail and the Express: part of a ‘raging digital wildfire’ of conspiracy, disinformation and partisanship. In contrast, Democracy for Sale is an all too rare exemplar of the old fashioned notion that journalism as public service ought to be about wading into a sewer and bringing something back to the surface. Left to the online world of clicks and metrics – time and again journalists will be tempted to go native in the netherworld in the drive to compete for attention.
Unsurprisingly, Clarkston cowboy Richard Cook responded to details of his company’s misdemeanours as ‘just fake news’. In a political sphere where the implausible feels constant, deniability is a given, and the matter of your money and what you choose to do with it is deeply personal and private. Such assumpetions have brought us to a point at which, as Geoghegan concludes, ‘the rules of the democratic game are not fit for purpose.’ However, with electoral breakdown looming in America next month there is also the more immediate problem of the range of current players: cosseted narcissists elevated off the back of long careers as rule breakers and fixers. At least they’re not boring.