Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Apple Cart

I've been reading the preface and the text of "The Apple Cart", which is George Bernard Shaw's play, written around 1930, about a constitutional crisis where a popular monarch intervenes politically against an unpopular and remote government, triggering a crisis which leads to his abdication.

Some of the preface could almost be written about today's bankers, who expect to be bailed out, and are already returning to "business as usual" with bonuses for risky investments:

Money talks: money prints: money broadcasts: money reigns; and kings and labor leaders alike have toregister its decrees, and even, by a staggering paradox, to financeits enterprises and guarantee its profits.  Democracy is no longer bought: it is bilked.

Shaw is also extremely sharp at pointing out the profligate wastefulness of the consumer society:

Our solution of the economic problem is the Capitalist system, which achieves miracles in production, but fails so ludicrously and disastrously to distribute its products rationally, or to produce in the order of social need, that it is always complaining of being paralysed by its "overproduction" of things of which millions of us stand in desperate want.

Of course, the "planned bureaucracy" of Stalin's Russia was in fact no better about distribution, with queues for even the most basic of foodstuffs, but that doesn't mean there is something rotten about a system in which food is chucked out by the truckload in the West, while people are starving in Africa.

There's also a remarkably cynical or astute comment on elections - you take your pick depending on your point of view!

As it is, the voters have no real choice of candidates: they have to take what they can get and make the best of it according to their lights, which is often the worst of it by the light of heaven.  By chance rather than by judgment they find themselves represented in parliament by a fortunate proportion of reasonably honest and public spirited persons who happen to be also successful public speakers.  The rest are in parliament because they can afford it and have a fancy for it or an interest in it.

Politics, once the centre of attraction for ability, public spirit, and ambition, has now become the refuge of a few
fanciers of public speaking and party intrigue who find all the other avenues to distinction closed to them either by their lack of practical ability, their comparative poverty and lack of education, or, let me hasten to add, their hatred of oppression and injustice, and their contempt for the chicaneries and false pretences of commercialized professionalism.  History tells us of a gentleman-statesman who declared that such people were not fit to govern. Within a year it was discovered that they could govern at least as well as anyone else who could be persuaded to take on the job.

And Shaw has a wonderful picture of elections, and how they don't really often change much. Listening to lots of comments, mostly by people who either didn't vote, or who were singularly depressed by some of the results in October's election, I think his picture of a balloon - and I love the "hot air" keeping it afloat - has some merit as an accurate representation:

I am going to ask you to begin our study of Democracy by considering it first as a big balloon, filled with gas or hot air, and sent up so that you shall be kept looking up at the sky whilst other people are picking your pockets.  When the balloon comes down to earth every five years or so you are invited to get into the basket if you can throw out one of the people who are sitting tightly in it; but as you can afford neither the time nor the money, and there are forty millions of you and hardly room for six hundred in the basket, the balloon goes up again with much the same lot in it and leaves you where you were before.  I think you will admit that the balloon as an image of Democracy corresponds to the parliamentary facts.

And Shaw has another comment to make about democratic choice, and the way in which the Chief Officials often are the tail wagging the politician's dog. Certainly the regime presided over by at least one Chief officer in recent years seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to Shaw's example:

Let me invent a primitive example of democratic choice.  It is always best to take imaginary examples: they offend nobody. Imagine then that we are the inhabitants of a village.  We have to elect somebody for the office of postman.  There are several candidates; but one stands out conspicuously, because he has frequently treated us at the public-house, has subscribed a shilling to our little flower show, has a kind word for the children when he passes, and is a victim of oppression by the squire because his late father was one of our most successful poachers.  We elect him triumphantly; and he is duly installed, uniformed, provided with a red bicycle, and given a batch of letters to deliver.  As his motive in seeking the post has been pure ambition, he has not thought much beforehand about his duties; and it now occurs to him for the first time that he cannot read. So he hires a boy to come round with him and read the addresses. The boy conceals himself in the lane whilst the postman delivers the letters at the house, takes the Christmas boxes, and gets the whole credit of the transaction.  In course of time he dies with a high reputation for efficiency in the discharge of his duties; and we elect another equally illiterate successor on similar grounds. But by this time the boy has grown up and become an institution. He presents himself to the new postman as an established and indispensable feature of the postal system, and finally becomes recognized and paid by the village as such.

Here you have the perfect image of a popularly elected Cabinet Minister and the Civil Service department over which he presides. It may work very well; for our postman, though illiterate, may be a very capable fellow; and the boy who reads the addresses for him may be quite incapable of doing anything more.  But this does not always happen.  Whether it happens or not, the system is not a democratic reality: it is a democratic illusion.  The boy, when he has ability to take advantage of the situation, is the master of the man.  The person elected to do the work is not really doing it: he is a popular humbug who is merely doing what a permanent official tells him to do.

The Prime Minister in Shaw's play is a grey man, someone who simply has ended up as Prime Minister without really striving for it, and who is really not very competent, just letting matters drift, he is "good for nothing else". It would be invidious to mention local names, but I suggest that most people can probably think of one!

PROTEUS.  I am not a wonderful man.  There is not a man or woman here whose job I could do as well as they do it.  I am Prime Minister for the same reason that all Prime Ministers have been Prime Ministers: because I am good for nothing else.  But I can keep to the point--when it suits me.  And I can keep you to the point, sir, whether it suits you or not.

The Press also come in for come criticism. The King, Magnus, tells the Prime Minister that the press are in the hands of business men who make sure that the media line is that which is in their own financial interests:

MAGNUS.  You know that I have no control of the Press.  The Press is in the hands of men much richer than I, who would not insert a single paragraph against their own interests even if it were signed by my own hand and sent to them with a royal command.

And another of the lines makes me think very much of outsourcing, and sweat shops in other countries producing cheap goods for cheap labour at long hours, much like Victorian industrial factories did. This seems remarkably prescient for its time:

MAGNUS.  No: we have not abolished poverty and hardship.  Our big business men have abolished them.  But how?  By sending our capital abroad to places where poverty and hardship still exist: in other words, where labor is cheap.  We live in comfort on the imported profits of that capital.  We are all ladies and gentlemen now.

"The Apple Cart" has rather fallen out of favour, and to tell the truth, it has some very long wordy speeches in it which really are Shaw using characters as a mouthpiece for a conflict of ideas. But it has, I think, some rather good nuggets buried amidst the lengthy monologues, and in its preface.

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