Low Life in High Places: The Political Scandals
Our politicians have recently been looking rather like a man who has found the first flakes of dry rot in his house and who knows that as he crumbles away each piece of dead wood he will reveal more and more damage. The uncovering of scandalous goings on in high places has caused some excited voices to ask whether capitalism is being undermined by its own rottenness. Journalistic fashion, which at other times can be preoccupied with war, or crime, or economic crises, now luxuriates in stories of secret cameras and microphones and boardroom deals.
Watergate, of course, is the hottest piece of scandal, with its insight into the muscle tactics of American politics. Over here we have no Watergate, only Lambton and Jellicoe who show how capitalism’s rulers do not always keep to the standards of conduct they like to lay down for the rest of us. The Poulson case has revealed something of how firms can win contracts and influence people. The News of the World’s tireless muckraking has helped in turning up the BBC payola case, which promises to let us in on the well-known secret that although we may pay our money we do not necessarily take our choice. (America also has a payola scandal, but to the relief of its participants it is crowded off the front pages by Watergate.) Lonrho will go down in the history of British boardrooms as an example of how to succeed in business without really trying.
A big tax evasion scandal is about to break in France, which may involve a couple of hundred companies in accusations of fraudulent operations. In Germany there are rumblings that the hero of the left, Chancellor Brandt, held on to his office last year only by bribing a deputy to change his vote in Brandt’s favour.
We Never Closed
Now the surprising thing about all of this is that it is so surprising. Scandals are exposed only intermittently but the evidence is that they are happening all the time; there is always some group or individual who is trying to steal a march on the rest of the ruling class by bending the rules.
As anyone who has heard of Mayor Daley knows, American politics are almost synonymous with corruption. It was never established whether Kennedy did get his microscopic majority over Nixon in 1960 by virtue of a bit of vote-fixing in Illinois. At any rate, the Kennedys were probably too smart to allow themselves to be connected with any such dealings. Kennedy’s successor Johnson came into power on a cloud of suspicion over his connection with Bobby Baker, whose career included manipulated government contracts, questionable bank deals, diversion of party funds and the employment of the services of call-girls as a gainful investment. Johnson denied any suggestions that he was involved and while his one time protégé floundered in miserable exposures the great wheel-and- dealer president lived to fight and win another day.
How is it with the Empire?
Rumour has it that things are more gentlemanly in England; or is it that British workers suffer from a different strain of gullibility? Remember, for example, Horatio Bottomley, who swindled his way into and out of several fortunes before he overstepped even the bounds of working class hero-worship. Bottomley’s first swindle was pulled off in the 1890’s but during the 1914/18 war the workers queued in their thousands to join up after hearing one of his famous recruiting speeches. He carried on during the war, while the men he had recruited died in the trenches, and afterwards, rooking rich and poor until it all caught up with him and he went to prison in 1922. Bottomley’s fall was not quite the distressful event it might have been for his admirers, because he had already been through the courts many times. Indeed, it was his success in these cases which made his enemies wary of challenging him; he once tried to bribe someone into taking out a hopeless action against him, to reinforce his reputation for legal invincibility.
Perhaps Bottomley picked up some tips from that other great popular man of the people, Edward VII, who resembled him in many ways — gross, vulgar, audacious and with enough sensual fixations to satisfy the most fervent Freudian analyst. Edward, especially while he was Prince of Wales, gambled, ran up debts, ate massively and indulged a copious and wide ranging sexual appetite, which landed him in scandals in which his only protection was his eminence. On at least one occasion he was the subject of a successful blackmail. None of this prevented him, when he became king in 1902, assuming the leadership of a church which instructs workers that of all sins the deadliest is sexual deviance. It even gave him a mild popularity with some of the workers who suffered deprivation in such bitter contrast to Edward’s vulgar opulence; they thought well of him for his racehorses, for what they called his sportsmanship and — more incredible than all — for his common touch.
Spies and Ribaldry
Under the memory of Edward VII Lambton and Jellicoe are small fry. It was perhaps their misfortune that their exposure, coming just ten years after the Profumo affair, should revive that episode. Profumo, the War Minister who became involved with an expensive prostitute called Christine Keeler, committed his indiscretions at an especially unfavourable time. When Edward VII was stamping the brothels British capitalism was powerful, secure. In 1963 it was a different story and much of Prime Minister Macmillan’s time was taken up with trying to persuade his followers to accept the reality of the decline of British power. It was a popular fantasy, to which the Labour Party was as attached as were the Tories, that British capitalism had secrets which powerful rivals like Russia were itching to steal. That was partly why the Foreign Office spy Vassall got as much as 18 years for allowing himself to be blackmailed into passing information and why soon after there was such a wave of hysteria over Profumo who was said to be, among other things, a security risk.
What memorable summer days they were, with ministers each week awaiting with dread the latest instalment of Christine Keeler’s story, the endless jokes and with the Daily Mirror, feeding the notion that the scandal reached to the peaks of society, suggesting that Prince Philip was involved by the simple ruse of publishing an outraged denial. Somewhere there had to be a halt and in the end the British ruling class took their revenge upon Stephen Ward, the toady who had introduced Profumo to Keeler. Ward was abandoned, then destroyed, by his influential friends — an ending with its own tragic but typical irony.
That dirty episode was representative of a social system which cannot come clean. Capitalism has rules which are moulded by the privileged interests of the property-owning minority. It is a society in which there can be no general harmony of interests, in which agreements are signified by the knife in the back, the foot on the neck. Within the privileged minority there are other minorities continually forming, attempting to seize extra privileges and to bend the rules in their own favour. To some extent these are accepted and contained by the rest of the ruling class; it is when they overstep the limits of prudence and become a threat to capitalism’s public face that they have to be dealt with.
Watergate, unsavoury as it is, is no worse than the everyday usage of capitalist politics, which could not continue without a succession of consciously formulated deceptions upon the working class. During the presidential election last year the American workers were aware of a lot of what was involved in the Watergate scandal, yet they gave Nixon an historical vote of confidence — because he promised them, if anything, a more controlled and repressive capitalism and wrapped it all up in the familiar smooth avowals of the used-car salesman.
The Lambton affair has demonstrated little beyond the fact that the privileges of the ruling class extend into all aspects of human life. Lambton himself (Daily Telegraph 21 June 1973) justified it in a predictably audacious way:
“. . . men with great ambitions also had a strong sexual urge that was not satisfied easily.
If such men were limited and ordered to be irreproachable, there was a danger of the creation of the power élite. This would undermine the the fundamental purpose of democracy.”
And he rubbed in his advantage, when the scandal broke, by holing up in an expensive hideaway. Workers who are caught in similar tangles have no such relief available to them; they have to sort out their personal and emotional difficulties at the same time as they cope with the drudgery of housework, of the office or the relentless production line.
Smoothing it Over
Heath tried to salvage something from the Lonrho affair, which showed up another aspect of privilege, by making his instantly famous remark about the “unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism.” There are no reports of him choking on the words. The shareholders displayed their feelings by packing the company’s special general meeting and enthusiastically supporting the management policies, big handouts, tax avoidance and all, simply because they had produced big dividends. That is the normal face of capitalism, much more logical than Heath’s pathetic attempt to humbug his way out of the matter. The Tory leader, like any other politician, can accept any face of capitalism without a thought for the savagery of its exploitation. Beside that, there are no grounds for objecting to some company directors fiddling a few hundred thousand on the side.
In one way Heath was pointing to a danger in the present situation. The working class are continually allowing themselves to be diverted from attending to the essential matter of abolishing capitalism and replacing it with Socialism. They are diverted by the notion that capitalism would he more acceptable, were it organized by one bunch of tricksters rather than the other. They are diverted by the glamour of a princess marrying a man who is rich partly through a family interest in selling sub-standard food for working-class consumption. They are diverted by the idea that capitalism need not be run as a cut-throat, scandalous business, by this sort of assurance:
“It was the Government’s prime concern to see that capitalism worked fairly and effectively because it was on that that our prosperity was established.” (Geoffrey Howe, Minister for Trade, replying to questions in the Commons about Lonrho; Daily Telegraph 12 June 1973.)
It is instructive to observe how the ruling class as a whole unite in fostering these deceptions. Brezhnev’s visit last month to America signified another stage in the resolve of the Russian and American ruling classes to divide the spoils of world capitalism as peaceably as they can. Not so long ago, in the depths of the Cold War, the Russians could have been relied upon to make the most of something like Watergate. Yet there was Brezhnev, helping Nixon to divert attention from Watergate and look like the weighty statesman so beloved by all workers — and doing it with a deliberate measure of publicity-catching clowning. Seeing those two robbers at the White House, beaming and waving, who would have believed what they are both capable of, both responsible for? In
The world working class should match this with a unity of their own. As the scandals put capitalism’s leaders under pressure, they respond in a familiar way. Nixon adopts the mask of a betrayed innocent, Heath of outraged decency. They are papering over the rot, trying to delay the awful moment when the leprous reality can no longer be hidden.