It is difficult, when considering how the pandemic has revealed the total incapacity of the British state, not to think of the parasitic tropical fungus Cordyceps. When an ant is infected by its spores, the insect is compelled to engage in behaviour disastrously fatal to itself, but essential to the fungus’ reproduction. Driven by a suicidal urge it cannot control, the ant climbs to the highest branches of a nearby tree, clamps down hard with its mandibles on a leaf and dies.
Its brain eventually erupts into a cylindrical fruit, which pushes its way, like an exploring finger, from the ant’s head to release its spores on the breeze and infect nearby colonies. The ant’s survival is not an evolutionary concern of the fungus; all that matters is its ability to totally manipulate the ant’s functions, and to spread its spores as far as possible, at whatever cost to its host.
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Such is the British state after forty years of exposure to neoliberal ideology. After four decades of privatisation and outsourcing, it hesitates to close the borders to a lethal pandemic because feeding a few thousand travellers in airport hotels is beyond its capacity; it can’t produce a functioning track and trace system; when the pandemic began, it had no stock of PPE and wasted millions trying to procure essential supplies from private profiteers. Even supplying free school meals to quarantined children transpired to be beyond the capacity of the fifth-largest economy on earth, leaving the government hostage to the ineptitude of the profiteers to whom it outsourced the role, and humiliated by a Premier League footballer’s PR advisor. Even as the British state is brought to the edge of destruction, it cannot shake itself free of the ideological parasite of outsourcing, deregulation, and privatisation which controls its every action.
All because the British state has been hollowed out to the point that it can barely be said to exist. Its survival, even within the short term, is doubtful: but then the host’s survival, and that of the colony to which it belongs, was always secondary to the parasite’s desire to reproduce itself and unleash the free-floating spores of capital.
A recent academic paper by the political scientists Lee Jones and Shahar Hameiri lays out, in forensic detail, how Britain’s record-setting death rate from Covid derives from the failures of what they term the “neoliberal regulatory state”, whereby both Conservative and Labour governments have retreated from active “government” in favour of hands-off, vaguely-directed “governance”. This has, they explain, resulted in “the deliberate reduction of popular expectations of public authority; the outsourcing of responsibility to technocratic, private and quasi-autonomous actors, weakening lines of control and accountability; and the hollowing-out of state capacities and authority to the benefit of frequently inept large-scale corporations.”
Over the course of decades, “state apparatuses were… reconfigured to reduce their responsiveness to popular demands.” State-owned industries were privatised and “authority and control over resources were extensively transferred to unelected technocrats, independent regulators, quangos (quasi-autonomous nongovernmental organisations) and public-private partnerships.”
The results, once this mutilated state was faced with a deadly virus, are clear to see: 100,000 dead and counting, and a devastating economic collapse. Yet there was nothing inevitable about this outcome. The destruction of the British state was a conscious, willed decision by successive governments, who adopted a naive and idealistic faith that deregulation and privatisation would make us richer, happier, and above all freer. The state, they declared, was unwieldy, bureaucratic and wasteful: shifting governance to market forces would be more cost-effective, responsive and, above all, efficient.
As we now see, this was pure fantasy, a construct of radical ideology marketing itself as “common sense”. Marketisation, however, has not led to the eradication of waste and inefficient bureaucracy, but to the vast growth of both, taken out of democratic control and oversight. As Jones and Hameiri observe, and as any of us can see every day, “the neoliberal regulatory state is actually characterised by greater bureaucracy and considerably higher governmental spending (including on welfare) than its predecessor”.
Costs and bureaucracy have risen exponentially, even as capacity and accountability were frittered away: “neoliberal states may be highly functional for large-scale, internationally-oriented capital, but they have clearly become dysfunctional for solving very basic social problems.”
Modern society is not, as was promised, based on a self-regulating market, correcting itself and achieving desirable outcomes through some “hidden hand” — a faith which betrays its roots in Enlightenment Deism. Instead, it has become a construction of purely parasitic private enterprises, the outsourcing firms and consultancies which waste vast sums of taxpayers’ money on the inept delivery of services that are rightfully the state’s domain. We have rendered what is Caesar’s to Deloitte and SERCO, and are presented with the bill in the daily litany of deaths announced on the evening news.
The reality of neoliberalism, Jones and Hameiri underline, is that “precisely because markets are not natural and spontaneous phenomena, they have required extensive state de- and re-regulation in order to create and maintain them, spawning vast, complex bureaucracies”. Yet at the same time, “rising government spending has often been directed to maintaining this burgeoning ‘quangocracy’ and related private-sector consultancies, and the outsourcing of public services to capitalist enterprises.” Today, they point out, the state has become so dysfunctional it has entered “an asymmetric relationship of co-dependency,” with the British state and its outsourced parasites locked together in a downward, deathly spiral of decline.
This is not a bug, but a feature of today’s society. As the left-wing writers Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams observed in their 2015 manifesto for radical futurism, Inventing the Future, “contrary to its popular presentation, neoliberalism differs from classical liberalism in ascribing a significant role to the state. A major task of neoliberalism has therefore been to take control of the state and repurpose it.” Like the Cordyceps, these enterprises depend entirely on the state for their survival — whether to bail out their failed adventures on the free market, or, functioning as a pure parasite, compelling the state to act as an accomplice in its own destruction.
It wasn’t always like this, Srnicek and Williams remind us, and it doesn’t have to be this way. “In its origins, neoliberalism was a fringe theory,” they observe, “its adherents found it difficult to gain employment, were often untenured, and were mocked by the Keynesian mainstream.” As the historian Peter Hennessy notes, before its spores infected Thatcher’s Conservative party, neoliberalism’s ideologues were mocked and marginal figures, frustratedly complaining about the “Tory paternalism and a dash of dirigisme” which marked her predecessors, and Macmillan’s “Tory government with a large chunk of socialism built into a consensus,” which emphasised state capacity and growth through government-directed investment in core strategic capabilities. The nation’s needs came first: the remorseless, destructive power of the market was kept at a cautious distance, where it belongs.
It took the oil crisis of the 1970s and the collapse of the Trente Glorieuses of post-war reconstruction for neoliberalism to achieve Western hegemony, the cultural and political dominance by which such a radical and unlikely ideology was adopted as “common sense”. Yet the dystopia in which we now live vastly overshadows the Winter of Discontent, the crisis used to justify this new order in Britain, in its severity. We are enduring the worst disaster since World War Two, and its effects have been vastly amplified by the deconstruction of the state. Now, the pendulum must swing the other way: our essential task is to revive the British state before its total collapse.
After all, who can say with a straight face that the British state of 1971, or of 1961 or 1951, would not have dealt with the Covid crisis more effectively than our current collection of hapless outsourcers? As Fukuyama observes, it is the functioning state bureaucracies, with their legacy of top-down dirigisme, of South Korea and Taiwan, that have performed best in this crisis, and we must turn to them as our example.
There is a tragic irony in observing today’s ideologues helplessly lament the British state’s incapacity on Twitter, like the sorcerer’s apprentice at the mercy of the forces he unwittingly unleashed. This is the country they built. And now that their ideas have failed, it’s up to us to rebuild our state in a way that works. It is time for a new hegemonic understanding, a new common sense, of the necessity and desirability of the state directing private industry and national resources in the pursuit of strong national capacity.
Jones and Hameiri remark that the one functioning arm of the British state in this crisis has been the armed forces, the one sector shielded from the destructive logic of the free market. To this we must add the marked success of the government’s programme of vaccine research, procurement and delivery. It has been a top-down marriage of private industry, the intellectual resources of Oxford University and the capacity of the NHS — directed by government under the realm of a politician, Matt Hancock, who we must now reassess as a serious and competent state functionary worthy of praise.
In the success of Britain’s vaccine programme we can discern the outline of a certain dirigiste future: not an enemy of private enterprise, but its director in the service of the national good; not the creative destructor of the state’s capacity, but its rebuilder in a modern, efficient and effective form. It is a return to a hegemonic understanding of the state’s role expressed by Macmillan himself in a diary entry that “[the] forces at work [are] now too complicated, [the] risks of setback too great to leave to market forces and laissez faire. Dirigisme. But it must be creative dirigisme.”
It may be too late for the British state, but we must try. The state is too weak to host its parasitic accretions any longer. Like the ant colony which discovers the Cordyceps infection amongst its number, we must remove the baneful ideological spores of self-destruction from our government if we intend our nation to survive.
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