Modern governments respond to only two varieties of emergency: those whose solution is bombs and bullets, and those whose solution is bailouts for the banks. But what if they decided to take other threats as seriously?
This week’s revelations of a catastrophic collapse in insect populations, jeopardising all terrestrial life, would prompt the equivalent of an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. The escalating disasters of climate breakdown and soil loss would trigger spending at least as great as the quantitative easing after the financial crisis. Instead, politicians carry on as if nothing is amiss.
The same goes for the democratic emergency. Almost everywhere trust in governments, parliaments and elections is collapsing. Shared civic life is replaced by closed social circles that receive entirely different, often false, information. The widespread sense that politics has become so corrupted that it can no longer respond to ordinary people’s needs has provoked a demagogic backlash that in some countries begins to slide into fascism. But despite years of revelations about hidden spending, fake news, front groups and micro-targeted ads on social media, almost nothing has changed.
In Britain, for example, we now know that the EU referendum was won with the help of widespread cheating. We still don’t know the origins of much of the money spent by the leave campaigns. For example, we have no idea who provided the £435,000 channelled through Scotland, into Northern Ireland, through the coffers of the Democratic Unionist party and back into Scotland and England, to pay for pro-Brexit ads. Nor do we know the original source of the £8m that Arron Banks delivered to the Leave.EU campaign. We do know that both of the main leave campaigns have been fined for illegal activities, and that the conduct of the referendum has damaged many people’s faith in the political system. But, astonishingly, the government has so far failed to introduce a single new law in response to these events. And now it’s happening again.
Since mid-January an organisation called Britain’s Future has spent £125,000 on Facebook ads demanding a hard or no-deal Brexit. Most of them target particular constituencies. Where an MP is deemed sympathetic to the organisation’s aims, the voters who receive these ads are urged to tell him or her to “remove the backstop, rule out a customs union, deliver Brexit without delay”. Where the MP is deemed unsympathetic, the message is: “Don’t let them steal Brexit; Don’t let them ignore your vote.”
So who or what is Britain’s Future? Sorry, I have no idea. As openDemocracy points out, it has no published address and releases no information about who founded it, who controls it and who has been paying for these advertisements. The only person publicly associated with it is a journalist called Tim Dawson, who edits its website. Dawson has not yet replied to the questions I have sent him. It is, in other words, highly opaque. The anti-Brexit campaigns are not much better. People’s Vote and Best for Britain have also been spending heavily on Facebook ads, though not as much in recent weeks as Britain’s Future.
At least we know who is involved in these remain campaigns and where they are based, but both refuse to reveal their full sources of funding. People’s Vote says “the majority of our funding comes from small donors”. It also receives larger donations but says “it’s a matter for the donors if they want to go public”. Best for Britain says that some of its funders want to remain anonymous, and “we understand that”. But it seems to me that that transparent and accountable campaigns would identify anyone paying more than a certain amount (perhaps £1,000). If people don’t want to be named, they shouldn’t use their money to influence our politics. Both campaigns insist that they abide by the rules governing funding for political parties, elections and referendums.
As they must know better than most, the rules on such spending are next to useless. They were last redrafted 19 years ago, when online campaigning had scarcely begun. It’s as if current traffic regulations insisted only that you water your horses every few hours and check the struts on your cartwheels for woodworm. The Electoral Commission has none of the powers required to regulate online campaigning or to extract information from companies such as Facebook. Nor does it have the power to determine the original sources of money spent on political campaigns. So it is unable to tell whether or not the law that says funders must be based in the UK has been broken. The maximum fines it can levy are pathetic: £20,000 for each offence. That’s a small price to pay for winning an election.
Since 2003, the commission has been asking, with an ever greater sense of urgency, for basic changes in the law. But it has been stonewalled by successive governments. The exposés of Carole Cadwalladr, the Guardian, openDemocracy and Channel 4 News about the conduct of the referendum have so far made no meaningful difference to government policy. We have local elections in May and there could be a general election at any time. The old, defunct rules still apply.
Our politicians have instead left it to Facebook to do the right thing. Which is, shall we say, an unreliable strategy. In response to the public outcry, Facebook now insists that organisations placing political ads provide it (but not us) with a contact based in the UK. Since October, it has archived their advertisements and the amount they spend. But there is no requirement that its advertisers reveal who provides the funding. An organisation’s name means nothing if the organisation is opaque. The way Facebook presents the data makes it impossible to determine spending trends, unless you check the entries every week. And its new rules apply only in the US, the UK and Brazil. In the rest of the world, it remains a regulatory black hole.
So why won’t the government act? Partly because, regardless of the corrosive impacts on public life, it wants to keep the system as it is. The current rules favour the parties with the most money to spend, which tends to mean the parties that appeal to the rich. But mostly, I think, it’s because, like other governments, it has become institutionally incapable of responding to our emergencies. It won’t rescue democracy because it can’t. The system in which it is embedded seems destined to escalate rather than dampen disasters.
Ecologically, economically and politically, capitalism is failing as catastrophically as communism failed. Like state communism, it is beset by unacknowledged but fatal contradictions. It is inherently corrupt and corrupting. But its mesmerising power, and the vast infrastructure of thought that seeks to justify it, makes any challenge to the model almost impossible to contemplate. Even to acknowledge the emergencies it causes, let alone to act on them, feels like electoral suicide. As the famous saying goes: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Our urgent task is to turn this the other way round.
George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist and this column was first published on The Guardian on 13 February 2019.