BOOKS: Anti-capitalism gets hip - Another attack on globalisation convinces Charles Leadbeater that direct action is here to stay. But this book underestimates the power of governments

BOOKS: Anti-capitalism gets hip - Another attack on globalisation convinces Charles Leadbeater that direct action is here to stay. But this book underestimates the power of governments - The Silent Takeover by Noreena Hertz; William Heinemann; pounds 12.9

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Silent Takeover by Noreena Hertz; William Heinemann; pounds 12.99

In the mid-1970s the British Communist party published a pamphlet by Martin Jacques, who in the 1980s became one of the most influential voices in British politics as editor of Marxism Today. Jacques' pamphlet, The Menace of the Multinationals, was slim but cogently argued: corporations were gradually taking over large parts of our lives, including our political apparatus. At best, the pamphlet had a readership measured in tens of hundreds.

The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy is by Noreena Hertz, a prodigiously energetic young academic. The book is linked to a Channel 4 documentary series of the same name, and charts the pervasive influence of large companies. It could turn Hertz into Britain's answer to Naomi Klein, author of the best-selling No Logo. In a final masterstroke of bad timing, anti-capitalism has become hip a decade after the British Communist party went into its death throes.

After Klein's account of the power of brands, and George Monbiot's The Captive State, an exhaustive attack on corporate influence in British politics, much of the argument in The Silent Takeover will be familiar.

For those who have read David Garten's When Corporations Rule the World or a stream of Demos pamphlets, there will be little new in the argument that governments have been diminished by the power of footloose corporations shifting investments around the world.

Hertz makes her case with passion, incredulity and verve. Although she peppers it with stories and examples from all over the world, she still manages to drive the argument forward.

The book's energy could also be its weakness: the danger of over-simplification.

Corporations can do evil things, but so can governments, families and religious sects. Giving poor people access to markets where they can sell their goods is not equality, but it is better than being shut out. Trade brings enormous benefits in terms of culture, ideas and peace.

Hertz also runs the risk of over-estimating the power of corporations.

All books predicated on the threat of an enemy run the risk of caricature.

Corporations are more powerful than they used to be, yet my experience of working with large companies is that many are also confused, and fearful of protestors as well as competitors.

It is also easy to under-estimate the remaining powers of governments. Even within the constraints of global financial markets, governments still have enormous room for manoeuvre: the British Government still spends 44% of GDP. How that money is spent on education, childcare, transport and health matters hugely.

Governments still have enormous powers to change society through regulation and taxation structures.

Hertz's book gets really interesting with her insights into the protest movements that confront corporations. At the end of it she evokes a picture of giant corporations facing direct protest from an eclectic range of protesters brought together by the media and the internet, often around single issues.

This complex ground needs exploring. The protesters she refers to do not follow a common creed. Hertz says she is not anti-capitalist, yet many in this movement are. She has been a protester but presumably does not espouse violence, although some in the movement do.

The big issue that Hertz raises, but doesn't address adequately, is where this clash between corporations and direct action will lead us. As she acknowledges in her conclusion, protest will act as a check to balance the power of corporations. But could it ever become more than that: a fully fledged political movement with an agenda for government?

What reforms would we need to make to our political life, at local, regional and global levels, to create a political process that business has to answer to? Earlier protests succeeded when they gave rise to reforms and institutions: trade unions, the welfare state, universal education. Something similar needs to happen in our globalised economy.

This is an argument that has only just begun. A clever publisher would be dusting off The Menace of the Multinationals to give it a new airing.

Charles Leadbeater is the author of Living on Thin Air (Penguin).

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