Tip of an iceberg
Bribery, fraud, nepotism and graft are all endemic to the bourgeois order, writes Derek James
The Cameron-Greensill affair has all the ingredients of a thoroughly contemporary scandal - the revolving door between politics and the very lucrative private sector, arcane financial dealings and shadowy lobbying, and a sense that privileged individuals can get away with playing the system at the expense of the rest of us. Just as predictable are the calls for greater transparency and new legislation to close the obvious loopholes, whilst the existing independent watchdog assures us that, despite appearances, everything is all above board and that nothing actually illegal has occurred. So that’s OK then - nothing to see here, so let’s move on.
Although new revelations are still appearing in the press, the basic facts are now quite clear. Lex Greensill, an Australian financier and founder of Greensill Capital, acted as an unpaid advisor to David Cameron whilst he was prime minister - a position which gave Greensill access to 11 government departments and agencies. During his time at No10, insiders have claimed, Greensill had free rein throughout the heart of the Whitehall machine, and boasted in his dealings with senior civil servants that he “spoke for David Cameron”.1 Although Greensill received no salary for his public service efforts, The Sunday Times reported that he directly benefited from a government loan scheme which he had forced through by citing the personal authority of the prime minister only weeks after senior civil servants had warned that it was potentially unlawful.2
After he left office, Cameron went on to work for Greensill Capital, receiving share options worth tens of millions of pounds in return for representing the interests of the company and lobbying members of the cabinet, such as chancellor Rishi Sunak, to act in its favour.3 He reportedly told friends that his reward for going through the revolving door from Downing Street into the private sector would be a mere $60 million!4 Nice work, if you can get it, Dave.
All this came to light when Greensill collapsed, leaving Cameron’s share options worthless and threatening 50,000 jobs - 5,000 of them in Britain.5 In the days that followed the breaking of the story, other figures from the tangled undergrowth at the interface between the state and business also found their names in the frame, including a former cabinet secretary - the late Lord Jeremy Heywood - various junior treasury ministers and Sanjeev Gupta of Liberty Steel.
Cameron’s deafening silence in response to the allegations, and an independent watchdog’s findings that the former prime minister had not broken any lobbying rules, only added more fuel to the flames.6
For the hacks at The Sunday Times, The Times and Daily Mail it was the story that wrote itself, whilst for the Labour opposition it became the gift that kept on giving, especially when Cameron’s lobbying could be tied to possible job losses at Liberty Steel and the pervasive air of corruption and sleaze that hangs over Johnson’s government. Labour took the expected high moral tone by demanding an inquiry into Cameron’s contacts with Tory ministers, combined with calls for “greater transparency” and extensive new legislation to cover the types of lobbying undertaken by the ex-prime minister.7 However, despite apparently echoing the widespread disapproval of Cameron’s exploitation of his ‘public service’ and political contacts for very lucrative personal gain, Labour’s measured approach really failed to chime with the public mood, which seems to see the Cameron-Greensill affair as just the tip of a very large corruption iceberg.
As The Times commentator James Kirkup reminded us, the former prime minister was only doing what countless other Tory and Labour politicians had done or attempted to do, and would continue to go on doing so, unless “the elders of the political tribe … make an example of Cameron”. This is important for the ruling class, he seemed to suggest, because it must now
demonstrate to the public that even for the greatest politicians, actions have consequences … ‘One rule for them, one rule for the rest of us’ is bad for politics and everyone in it. David Cameron may be shameless, but politics can’t afford to be.8
Many on the left will echo similar criticisms and focus on Cameron’s individual greed and sense of entitlement, in order to make an indictment of the political system.9 That is, of course, true - there are, and will be, countless other venal and self-seeking Tory and Labour politicians who will seek to feather their own individual nests, even if, like David Cameron, they already own three houses and possess private wealth that runs into millions.10 However, Kirkup’s rather guarded comments point to a deeper problem that these periodic scandals pose - not just for the Johnson government or even the ‘political class’ more generally, but for the legitimacy and authority of the ruling class as a whole.
In a bourgeois democracy like Britain, the normal form of capitalist rule usually relies to a great extent on securing the consent - or the very least the acquiescence - of the working class in various ways. Electoral politics and the incorporation of the organisations of the working class into the political system are important ways of securing consent and the broader legitimacy necessary for such a ‘normal’ political structure to function. In such parliamentary systems careerism, bribery and lobbying have been essential parts of the stock-in-trade of political life for centuries. Which opponents of the dominant political group in parliament from the late 17th century onwards did not accuse ministers and their supporters of being ‘placemen’ seduced by corruption and jobbery, and in the pocket of ‘the Court’? Patronage was simply the other side of the coin to Whig liberty.
However, corruption has a wider importance in the development of a specifically capitalist state, which gives it a different form, function and significance from the patronage and corruption of pre-capitalist states and societies. Unlike the classical world or feudalism, the capitalist class does not usually take a direct part in government. Whereas the great Roman landowner or feudal magnate ruled directly over the subaltern groups - as, say, senators or as part of a territorial aristocracy - the capitalist class generally gives its full attention to business and is rarely at the helm of the state in person.
Rather, it is politicians and state bureaucrats, albeit with intimate personal and ideological connections to capitalist interests, who carry out this function on behalf of capitalism, not the capitalists themselves.
Furthermore, as Marx first observed in the 1840s and 1850s - especially in relation to Louis Napoleon Bonaparte and French politics - and Engels saw later with Bismarck and the German empire in the 1880s, this form of specifically capitalist state tends to increase both the autonomy of the executive within it and its autonomy with respect to the rest of society, including the ruling class.11
Seen in this light, corruption - whether employed to buy politicians, parties and officials during factional battles within the ruling class, or as a means of controlling the executive and thus restraining its tendencies toward autonomy - is an essential tool to serve the interests of either individual capitalists or of the bourgeoisie as a whole. Because capitalism will always seek to corrupt the state in this way, it is endemic even within the most ‘transparent’ and democratic capitalist states: however tightly drawn the legislation may be or how closely regulated the relationships between politicians and private interests, laws will not end corruption within the capitalist state.
If this is the fundamental determinant of the nature and forms of corruption, a range of other factors have facilitated it in contemporary Britain. The end of ‘gentlemanly’ capitalism in the City following the ‘Big Bang’ and the wider financialisaton of British capital; the privatisation of state assets, and the growth of public-private partnerships and private financial initiatives in core state functions; light-touch regulation, less rigid tendering and contractual procedures, such as in healthcare and the provision of personal protective equipment during the pandemic; the appointment of outside ‘experts’, drawn from the ranks of business, to advise governments on ‘value for money’ and ‘cutting red tape’ - such as Lex Greensill and Sir Philip Green; the cult of the entrepreneur and the deification of ‘business’, which have dominated both Tory and Labour governments since the 1980s - all of these developments have provided opportunities in their various ways for the growth of corruption and jobbery in the British state, whether nationally or in local government.
When taken together with the lenient culture of the judiciary and the bar during corruption cases, certainly in comparison with the US courts dealing with Enron and Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and the intensely relaxed attitudes of the establishment towards even quite blatant corruption and wrongdoing, such as tax avoidance and ‘secret loans’, we can see why the ‘chumocracy’ has finally replaced the ‘good chaps’ in directing key parts of the British state, and thus how the revolving door that helped both David Cameron and Lex Greensill opened so easily.
thetimes.co.uk/article/cast-out-david-cameron-for-the -good-of -politics-rrx6zl8qw.↩︎
For a discussion of these features, see H Draper Karl Marx’s theory of revolution London 1977, Vol 1, pp311-38.↩︎