I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country ... corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow.' So said Abraham Lincoln in 1864. In 2000, environmental campaigner George Monbiot uses the words of the former US president to set out his stall in his excellent new book Captive State.
Anybody who is familiar with Monbiot's work, particularly his Guardian columns, will know what to expect - a well-written, well-researched and potent critique of the multinational corporation and its subversion of Britain's democratic institutions.
In Monbiot's words, today's corporations, 'the contraptions we invented to serve us, are overthrowing us ... they are seizing powers previously invested in government and using them to destroy public life to suit their own needs'.
Captive State tells the story of this coup d'etat. It may be a familiar theme, but few get to the heart of the matter like Monbiot, and very few write a compelling enough script to make you want to wave a placard outside a company HQ, show a clenched fist and shout angry slogans about the injustices of corporate greed.
Monbiot's skill is to use human stories to shine light on the murkier sides of public policy. By doing so he illuminates complex subjects, like the private finance initiative, and reveals them in all their iniquity.
In the first chapter he uses the fascinating story of the 'large and hairy' Scotsman Robbie Pict to write a superb account of one of the most scandalous tales of modern times: the building of the Skye Bridge.
Residents of one of the poorest places in the British Isles now have to scrape together a toll of pounds 5.60 each way to make the one-mile crossing to the mainland. Yet the Forth Bridge, which is several times longer, costs only 80p in one direction and nothing on the way back. Monbiot unravels this mystery, weaving a tale of greed, corruption and incompetence that would be hard to believe if it was not true.
His attack on the corporate takeover of the National Health Service via the PFI is spot-on. He shows how the PFI pill - a medicine prescribed by the Tories to pep up their troublesome balance sheet and dished out by Labour to invigorate their business friends - has done more harm than good to the NHS.
His analysis of the power of the supermarkets and how big business 'buys' planning permission will make uncomfortable reading for those in power, particularly John Prescott.
Chapter six is a useful fat-cat directory, which compares 'previous gluttony' with 'subsequent creamery'. Chief feline in this club is Lord Sainsbury, the man who inherited his fortune and financed the Liberal Democrats before swapping allegiance to Labour and handing Tony Blair a few million quid to get elected. The noble lord is now minister for science responsible for biotechnology - a subject and industry that Monbiot has long been a vitriolic critic of.
Indeed, the latter part of his book focuses on how firms like Monsanto - pioneer of genetically modified crops - have acquired influence at the highest levels to 'turn the food chain into a controllable commodity ... from which they can determine not only what the people of the world eat, but whether they eat'.
Over the past two years much has been written about this subject. Monbiot brings it all together to tell a frightening and convincing story of one of the most 'audacious' business strategies ever unleashed.
Working without freedom-of-information laws, Monbiot describes his plight as like trying to draw a star map on a cloudy night. He makes a good astronomer and Captive State is a timely guide to the heavens inhabited by the corporate and political bodies.
The final chapter makes clear who Monbiot's audience is and ends with a melodramatic call to arms: 'No-one else will fight this battle for us. There will be no messiah, no conquering hero to deliver us from the corporate leviathan. Most of our representatives have been either co-opted or crushed. Only one thing can reverse the corporate takeover of Britain. It's you.'
ON THE BEDSIDE TABLE OF ... LEO VAN WIJK
'I'm reading The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes. In this unfailingly entertaining book, Professor Landes takes a historic approach to the analysis of the distribution of wealth. It's a strong plea for the liberal ideas of freedom, hard work and open markets.'
Leo Van Wijk is CEO of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.
Books reviewed here are available from bol.com (www.uk.bol.com) at a discount of 10% or more.