Body politic wasted by corporate virus

Captive State

May 4, 2001

John Whitelegg calls us to fight industry's hostile takeover of universities.

This is a savage and compelling book. It is also very important. Its importance rests on three foundations. First, the book records in meticulous detail the ways in which the present Labour government has embraced the world of business and integrated its system of priority-setting with the priorities of the largest corporations. Second, it makes very clear the extent to which fundamental democratic freedoms and guarantees have been undermined by the extension of business, the activities of the World Trade Organisation and privatisation and deregulation. Third, it identifies a specific problem in British universities. Universities can no longer be relied upon to provide searching intellectual rigour across a range of disciplines and research areas. Not only have university finances come to depend on the private sector, the whole university apparatus has adjusted to this new reality in a way that dampens down analysis and revelation in areas that are of interest to corporations.

George Monbiot goes further than most authors would dare in pursuing these themes, but every step is taken with care, documentation, justification, referencing and the naming of names. The discussion of a corporate takeover of universities ("Silent science") pursues the discussion by examining the closure of the Centre for Human Ecology at Edinburgh University and by considering the work of the Foresight Panels, which were set up in 1994 to "identifyI emerging opportunities in markets". These panels have covered a full spectrum of governmental and private-sector activity, including the National Health Service. At the same time as public funds were diverted to Foresight Panels to develop markets, they were cut from science budgets:

"between 1983 and 1999, public research funds in Britain declined in real terms by 20 per cent".

Many names are named, and Monbiot goes into considerable detail: the Shell chair in chemical engineering, BP professorships in organic chemistry and petroleum science, a Price Waterhouse chair of financial accounting and a Marks and Spencer chair of farm animal health (all at Cambridge University). The "Fat cats directory" names a number of leading academics and identifies contradictions between the need for independence and the links with highly partisan sources of funds.

The problem with these appointments and funding arrangements is that they do not produce an environment that is genuinely conducive to research with no payoff or with negative payoff for the industrial sector providing the funds. There is also a great lack of equity. The new chair of sustainable aviation at Manchester Metropolitan University, funded by Manchester Airport, is not matched anywhere in the world by a chair that reflects the interests of those who are concerned about living under flight paths, near the huge concentrations of pollution produced by Heathrow, exposed to the threat of ever-rising demands for new terminals and runways. Industry funding of university research groups and chairs disenfranchises those at the receiving end of industry pollution.

Monbiot is at his analytical best in chapters on Monsanto and the ways in which the United Kingdom's government is emulating the United States's in facilitating genetically modified organisms, biotechnology and the patenting of life. There is a significant ethical and political dimension to the whole saga of biotechnology and GMOs.

Government is firmly behind biotechnology because of its economic and global "sunrise" industry significance. Not to be part of this brave new world is anathema to government. This political support is at odds with the ethical and global equity issues around the patenting of life and the impact of patents on the costs of medical care and developing countries.

Monbiot carefully draws out the consumer interests in this debate. Why do governments and industry object to labelling food so that consumers can make informed decisions?

This book should be regarded as a valuable source text for a number of academic disciplines. Biologists and those involved in biotechnology should find room in their curricula for a study of the political and ethical issues around links between government and industry and the high-quality, "revolving door" access of industry to ministers. Economists and accountants should study the information on private finance initiatives and the NHS. In whose interests is it that hospitals should be built as PFI schemes, with the result that over 25-30 years the cost to public expenditure is greater than if the project had gone ahead in the old-fashioned way?

Transport students should study the Skye Bridge saga. A supposedly private (PFI) project has received tens of millions of pounds in public money. The residents of Skye pay exorbitant tolls while the wealthy residents of Surrey pay nothing for the M25, and a project based on market arguments and private capital rhetoric could go ahead only with the state-determined closure of ferries. Clearly, full privatisation and market forces require the state to intervene to eliminate competition.

Planners should study the chapters on Southampton and on supermarkets. Again, there is ample "naming and shaming" - but more important, there can now be no doubt that the British planning system has run its course and is useless. What we used to call planning is now a business led by developers and supermarkets intent on subverting the objectives of the postwar town and country planning acts. Big retail developments, major airport developments, the approval of the (PFI) Birmingham Northern Relief Road - all point to a corporate-led system in which the interests of ordinary residents or the interests of those intent on protecting heritage, green belt, otters, countryside or even just peace and quiet count for nothing.

Monbiot's book is a serious academic text that presents a weighty challenge to the comfortable world of politics, universities and government. Because he is who he is and because he pursues an uncompromising analytical attack on all these topics, there will be a temptation in academia to ignore this book. This would be a big mistake.

The corporate virus that has already taken over government is well on its way to taking over universities. An indicator of good health in our universities would be the willingness and enthusiasm of all the disciplines touched on in this book to take up the challenge and to reflect on what is revealed. This would produce a much better, more rigorous and more relevant biology, economics, geography, transport, planning, politics and accountancy. Monbiot's health check on our key institutions indicates that it is already too late. Perhaps we can all prove him wrong.

John Whitelegg is professor of environmental studies, Liverpool John Moores University, and managing director, Eco-logica.

Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain

Author - George Monbiot
ISBN - 0 333 90164 9
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £12.99
Pages - 430

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