The cynical state

Colin Leys


In recent years state cynicism has broken new ground. The British government's flagrant abuse of military intelligence to persuade parliament and the public to endorse its attack on Iraq was a dramatic case in point. Most famously, Blair told the House of Commons that it was 'completely and totally untrue' that there was disquiet in the intelligence community over the 45-minute claim, but a senior intelligence officer told the enquiry that he and one of his colleagues had submitted a written report about their disquiet. These stories, which could be replicated for almost any field of public policy in contemporary Britain, illustrate the emergence of a new, neoliberal policy regime that is more brazenly willing to dissemble, more indifferent to evidence, more aggressive towards critics and distinctly less accountable--to the point of being virtually unaccountable--than ever before. This policy regime is not peculiarly British. The old 'liberal/social democratic' policy regime which it has displaced did have distinctively British features. The new neoliberal policy regime is a more standardized affair. It not only spans the Atlantic but thanks to neoliberal globalization it is being gradually replicated, in essentials, throughout the world. Its key feature is that policy is now fundamentally about national competitiveness and responding to global market forces. The crucial roles are played neither by political parties nor by civil servants but by personnel seconded into the civil service from the private sector, a handful of 'special advisers' to the prime minister, a small group of certified market-friendly civil servants, and polling, advertising and media experts. Scientific evidence is still relied on, but only in so far as it serves competition policy; otherwise it is treated uncritically, if it helps the government, and dismissed if it does not. When this new policy regime is properly understood the lies about Iraq no longer appear as a special case, but only as a special dimension of a general one. Cynicism, we realize, is a necessary condition of neoliberal democracy.

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