Book Review: Captive State by George Monbiot

The first thing to note is that this book is out of date now, and is best looked at with historical perspective in mind. Written as a critique of the Labour government, it was written after only 3 years after they were elected in 1997. This instantly throws open one question mark, which is somewhat answered by the text. That question is this: are the criticisms really due to a young Labour government or are they due to hangovers from 18 years of Conservative rule? There is then a motif that runs through the book of “this was initiated by the Tories, but because Labour didn’t stop it immediately, they’re the villains of the piece.” With this is mind it is no wonder that one of the recommendations on the back cover is from Michael Gove, who is currently (in Feb 2011) the Education Secretary and is in the process of forcing the education system down a cul-de-sac that will inevitably lead to a part privatisation of schools, colleges and universities.

The introduction is a very one-sided polemic which cherry-picks its data and draws rapid conclusions that are not based on sufficient evidence. The general theme is “big corporations are bad and seek to overrule the electorate” This takes no regard of the fact that big corporations are a source of employment which is vital to the economy and that their employees and their bosses ARE part of the electorate.

The structure of the book then looks at 11 main case studies at how the involvement of the private sector into public life has profited companies whilst ripping off the public. The trouble with this is that it lacks longevity. The book was only published 10 years ago (at the time of writing this review, which will be similarly out of date soon!) and already some of the cases are no longer relevant. It might have been good to have a review of the cases in a revised edition, though to the best of my knowledge, Monbiot is not presently working on such a project.

This is not to detract from the validity of some of the cases he makes. Some of them deserve the level of criticism they receive, my point is merely that they lack balance and this reads more as a piece polemic and less like a meticulous study, worthy of serious consideration. Probably the best chapter of the book, which is its most unusual, is a directory of individuals showing how their private roles have conflicted with their public duties. I think it would be quite right to keep this updated as often as possible, in order to be discern who can be trusted and who is compromised.

Where the book really gets unstuck is where it treads my speciality: science. The chapter on genetically modified foods is little more than unevidenced scaremongering. While it is intertwined with some very valid points regarding Monsanto, the core of the chapter doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and reads like it was written by a 16 year old who only found out 4 days ago what the term ‘genetically modified’ actually meant. From here, Monbiot looks at science funding in universities. His key “scare” is that big, scary, evil corporations will dictate the syllabus of university teaching and that by investing in research that is relevant for them, that this is somehow inherently corrupt.

Overall, the book is crying out for an update now that the era of New Labour is over and that of the Con-Dem coalition has begun. There are some really good arguments in here and issues raised that we should be right to get angry over, with PFI probably the biggest problem that is likely to curse this country for the next few decades. However, the lack of balance means that that which is best about this book is hidden amongst pages of rhetoric, polemicism and scaremongering.

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