Privatise my arse…

“You now have 15 seconds to comply”

Those words were spoken by the ED 209, a robotic private solution to public lawlessness in Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, his 1987 vision of a dystopic future wherein corporations are running the world. Despite the object of the ED 209’s attention indeed complying, he found himself turned into so much Swiss cheese. The robot’s handler explains “It’s just a glitch” and the ED 209 is set to be rolled out. Robocop was intended to be a satire on the increasing ambition of corporations to profit from every aspect of our lives, or it was a fun shoot ’em up depending on your perspective. Now, with the announcement that police services are to be ‘outsourced’, has Verhoeven’s dystopia arrived in the UK?

Privatisation has been a central tenet of neoliberalism since it began its inexorable surge three decades ago. In the UK we saw one utility after another, each with decades of public money (yours, mine and our parents, grandparents etc.) invested in their infrastructure, subjected to the vulturism of the markets to be asset stripped, rationlised and made fit for ‘competition’. Ah, competition, along with ‘choice’, a buzzword of those who seek to justify the commodification and monetisation of life’s little essentials, like water, heat and health.

Senior police officers have been defending the decision to sell off some of their less glamourous tasks – radical changes are needed in the war on public services, they argue, although they may not quite have put it that way. The impression given is that the important stuff will be kept in house and it will ‘only’ be the ancillary matters that face being farmed out. Well, that’s worked splendidly in the NHS, hasn’t it? Take hospital cleaning services – the rise of MRSA is a shining example of how private companies cutting costs to the bone in order to satisfy shareholders provides a more efficient service. Oh, hang on…

The increasing encroachment of the private into the public is seen to serve two purposes: to cut public spending and to aid the creation of the ‘smaller state’ so desired by neoliberal capitalism. And yet in just one example we have recently learned that Emma Harrison of A4E was paid £8.4 million last year. Of public money. State funds. All for a flawed and far from efficient service seemingly riddled with fraud. Rail companies, energy firms, PFI in education and healthcare – all of these receive huge public subsidies and will continue to do so as private ‘investors’ will only take on the task of profiting from the public need for life giving essentials should there be a suitable sweetener from the state on the table. The selling off of these concerns is reprehensible enough, the fact that we are also paying through the nose in order to motivate investors just adds salt to the wound.

I’ve written before on how Blairite Labour was a major force behind the idea that private sector methods and management styles are the answer to public sector ‘failures’. As a long time local government worker I’ve seen how, since 1997, the public sector has become increasingly corporate and private sector notions of targets, efficiency and best value have taken over. The problem is that these notions are aimed at quantifying ‘output’ in order to rationlise it and produce the maximum amount of surplus value. While there is surplus value to be found in the public sector, it is not of the type that can be easily quantified and monetised. It is there in the millions of unpaid hours worked each year by public sector workers who believe in what they do and so will stay late to finish their casework; will take the extra time needed to help a vulnerable client; will put their heart and soul into providing a service that helps people. You cannot subject a child protection case or a heart attack to market forces; you cannot put quotas on the number of people who can be ‘accepted’ as being homeless and in priority need. At least, you cannot if you truly value humanity and society above profit and enterprise.

The public sector has been ill served by the introduction of KPIs and corporate branding – the target culture is not one that can be enforced on human need. In the privatisation of the utilities and outsourcing of ancillary health services we have already seen how much worse that becomes when it is not only targets that have to be met, but also the needs of the shareholders. The crux of the whole thing is that it is immoral to profit from the essential needs of a population – how can we have more and more people entering fuel poverty when energy companies are announcing record profits year on year?

This government, and others before it, will tell us that it is all about ‘choice’ but this is nothing more than window dressing. Local authorities were ordered to introduce ‘choice based lettings’ systems but this didn’t mean there was more or better housing available. Choice is merely a word used to give the illusion that we are being ‘enabled’, that we are taking back power from the state. In reality people do not want a choice when it comes to the essentials, they want services that are straightforward and can be relied on. They do not want the ‘ability’ to be able to switch energy providers, they want a service where prices are not continually raised in order to boost dividends. The truth is we have no choice – we are being sold a pup in the name of capitalism, a pup that we and past generations have already paid for many times over. The true investors in water, health, education, the railways, and the police service have been and will always be us. Can we truly stand and watch as all that we have achieved is pillaged by corporate raiders?

The irony is that in this quest to end state ‘interference’, inefficiency and red tape we are instead being subjected to a more sinister interference. Decisions that affect lives will increasingly be made on grounds of efficiency and cost rather than urgency and need. Just how far will the outsourcing of police services go? How long before a murder investigation is deemed to be not cost effective? It may seem far fetched, but then again so did Robocop.

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  1. March 8, 2012 at 11:56 pm

    I concur.

    The truth is that both governments and corporations are really forms of collective purchasing on a very large scale. Whilst there can be said to be a degree of wastage in government, the same is actually also true for private enterprise and proof of this is in the exorbitant salaries of executives.

    The essential difference between an infrastructure asset in the hands of government or a corporation is that at least we have a chance to vote for the governance of those assets via the elections of governments, whereas corporations are ruled by shareholders who in many cases are themselves collective funds under management and thus actual people don’t get a vote.

    I think that the people of Britain would rather hold the governance of assets like the NHS accountable through the ballot box rather than have unaccountable people literally in charge over people’s very life and death itself.

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