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You Live In A Privately-Owned World: An Anti-Establishment Reading List

In 2016, a pervasive sense that elected politicians serve ‘The Establishment’ rather than ordinary voters contributed to two political shocks: the UK’s exit from the European Union and the election of Donald Trump. There has been frantic discussion of ‘The Establishment’ ever since, but the term continues to elude easy definition, in part because global power in the modern world is exercised in more complex and secretive ways than ever before.

What does "The Establishment" mean? When the phrase was coined in the nineteen-fifties, it referred to the peculiar way in which the government of Britain and its empire functioned. While Parliament and other institutions—the BBC, the judiciary, British Petroleum—wielded formal and accountable power, at least as much influence was exerted behind the scenes, through informal social networks and the exchange of favours.

Since that time the power of formal and accountable government has arguably only waned. The ease with which capital can be moved around the world, together with the multinational scale of many businesses, means that elected governments have little ability to control or even monitor the world’s wealthiest companies and individuals. In many instances it is wealthy individuals and corporations who influence national governments.

Some individuals own media organisations with the power to shape political conversations all over the world. Others provide financial backing to political candidates. Some companies maintain standing private armies in sovereign states.

To unravel this complex web of power, writers and journalists have undertaken fearless and frustrating investigations. Here are five books that get close to the heart of modern power, and point to the ways we might be able to resist it.

Private Empire

If revenue is counted as GDP, Exxon Mobil is richer than most countries. And in the territories where it operates, Exxon Mobil is more politically active than the diplomats of any nation state. ‘Why should it be otherwise?’ Coll observes. ‘Exxon Mobil’s investment in the Chad-Cameroon oil project would amount to $4.2 billion. Annual aid to Chad from the United States was only about $3 million.’ Exxon has also maintained a private army and intelligence operation in Chad, while in Nigeria they took over sections of the local army and police force, to the extent that Nigerian policemen wore Mobil’s logo on their uniforms.

In the United States, Exxon has spent millions of dollars trying to influence the public and scientific conversation on climate change—naturally, in favour of the idea that burning oil is not a contributing factor—while making millions by speculating that melting ice caps will make Arctic oil reserves accessible.

Revelations like these come thick and fast in Coll’s epic study of one of the world’s most powerful and secretive corporations. He travels to many of the two-hundred-plus countries in which Exxon operates, and he profiles all the company’s senior figures. The most senior of them all, then-CEO Rex Tillerson, has since come to greater public notice as Donald Trump’s Secretary of State.

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Private Island

From the 1980s onward, successive British governments have sold previously state-owned assets to private companies. James Meek examines the impact of this process on the Royal Mail, the NHS, railways, water, electricity and social housing.

He makes some very unsettling findings. Tracts of land, essential public utilities like the power grid and water pipes, and above all the right to levy certain charges on British citizens—in effect, to tax them—rest in the hands of multinational companies. When Enron went bankrupt, it owned Wessex Water, to which a large part of the West Country pays its water bills. Meek advances the thesis that much of this privatisation has been ideologically driven, and that all of it has enriched a minority of people, rather than serving the public good.

Meek, a Booker-shortlisted novelist, is especially good at showing us the impact privatisation has had on the lives of individuals: the precarious work, the callous response of companies to personal difficulties. But he also argues persuasively for alternative ways Britain might husband its most precious resources.

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Dark Money

In the run up to the 2016 Presidential election, the billionaires Charles and David Koch, respectively CEO and Executive VP of Koch Industries, announced that they and other billionaires in their circle intended to spend $889 million promoting their own political agenda and candidates. That’s more than either the Republican or Democratic party had spent on the preceding cycle.

Since Donald Trump won in 2016, he has appointed people who have worked with the Kochs to several senior roles in his administration. Perhaps the most worrying is Trump’s choice for head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, who while Oklahoma attorney general collaborated with Koch-funded institutions to oppose climate regulation.

Dark Money unravels the whole history of the Kochs’ involvement in American politics, starting with Charles’s ascent to the throne of the family company—he and David more or less blackmailed their eldest brother into stepping aside—and concluding with the unprecedented network of influence they have built within American politics. And what do they use this influence for? Mayer concludes: ‘It was impossible not to notice that the political policies they embraced benefited their own bottom lines first and foremost.’

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Who Governs Britain?

The short answer is: no-one in particular. But King has a bit more to say than that. His thesis is that since the decline of the British Empire, UK governments have continued to talk as if their power to effect change at home and abroad is undiminished. The reality is very different. Even within the UK, Westminster has very limited power and must cooperate with a wide range of powerful organisations and individuals within and outside the country.

Most of the power Westminster does have is concentrated in the hands of ministers, who, King argues, are incentivised by the precariousness of their positions and the vindictiveness of the media cycle to act decisively rather than sensibly, quickly rather than thoughtfully and all too often disastrously.

King, who died earlier this year, was an eminent political scientist. This short book provides insightful academic analysis in an accessible and ruthless prose style.

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The Constant Gardener

There is no shortage of excellent (and shocking) non-fiction books about the pharmaceutical industry. Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma is a great overview, David Healy’s Pharmageddon is a particularly insightful critique and Marcia Angell’s The Truth About the Drug Companies provides a plausible programme for regulation.

But to appreciate how the pharmaceutical industry works with governments, John Le Carré’s novel The Constant Gardener, though certainly speculative, is as persuasive and powerful as any non-fiction account.

The story is based on a real-life incident involving the company Pfizer, who were alleged to have tested new drugs on Nigerian children without their parents’ consent. Eleven children died in the trial, and Pfizer eventually settled a number of lawsuits. Le Carré relocates the action to Kenya, and follows the activities of British spies and civil servants when one of their number goes rogue and attempts to uncover a drug company’s illegal activity.

Like anything by Le Carré, The Constant Gardener comes dressed in impeccably stylish prose. More than his other work, it is propelled by anger.

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I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.

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