There is no alternative to becoming Leadbeater

Nick Cohen

  • Living on Thin Air: The New Economy by Charles Leadbeater
    Viking, 244 pp, £17.99, July 1999, ISBN 0 670 87669 0

A few years ago, in the mid-Nineties, the Independent attempted to halt its decline with a bold stroke. For the first time in the history of journalism a national newspaper sold itself as a think tank pamphlet. Two of those hired to fill senior editorial positions, Charles Leadbeater and Martin Jacques, were ex-Communists who had wound up their party and formed Demos, a research centre aligned to Tony Blair’s New Labour project. Geoff Mulgan, a former Trotskyist and director of Demos, became a contributor to the paper’s opinion pages, as did a strange young man who had changed his name from Keith Ashworth to Perri 6. Hacks have a strong craft consciousness: they regard all senior editors who have not proved they are tough enough to cover hard news as effete and overpaid timewasters who will bring ruin on a newspaper. To make matters worse for the leftish reporters on the Independent, our new masters’ ideas, in so far as they could be understood, appeared to be as reactionary as those of the right-wing press. Yet however hard we tried to oppose, our hostility was muted and unsatisfactory. The Demos crowd didn’t talk like Tories. They appeared to care about inequality and rejected accusations of complicity with Thatcherism with bewildered impatience. The very notions of ‘left’ and ‘right’ were dead, we were told. In their place was a modern paradigm which lay in the tiger economies of the East, much celebrated for a couple of years – until they had the bad manners to collapse. In the end, it was the tone of voice, rather than what was said, that jarred. Leadbeater and the rest had lost their faith in socialism, but in their conversation you could still hear the sharp accents of Marxist teleology. The gap between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ was hardly worth arguing about. History was moving down the tracks; questioning the inevitable was pointless. After being given a long lecture in this vein, an old hand staggered out of an editorial conference. ‘These people used to go to Moscow and say, “I’ve seen the future – and It Works!” ’ he bellowed. ‘Now they go to Singapore and cry: “I’ve seen the future – and Gosh!” ’

In claiming that history is on his side, the idoliser of globalisation lays himself open to the charge that he is trying to rig the battle of ideas. By presenting his politics as a natural order rather than a debatable preference, he skips away from honest debate. Of course, he may be right. His opponents may be the unwitting occupants of Trotsky’s dustbin, wasting their lives on dreams as impossible as restoring the Bourbons. The seriousness with which he deserves to be treated depends, therefore, on the success of his description of the world; on what he means by ‘the modern’.

Leadbeater left the Independent, after confirming the reporters’ fears about the adverse effects of policy-wonking on circulation. He became a management consultant, author and adviser to Peter Mandelson. Living on Thin Air is, for the most part, a celebration of hip and chaotic capitalism. It is written in the regulation giddy style that Thomas Frank and the Baffler school in Chicago have dissected so well. Once again we are presented with the lives of the saints of middle management, Leadbeater’s magnificent pilgrims are full of daring. They struggle for personal fulfilment and venture capital. They are thwarted by hopelessly square organisation men who cannot innovate and would have rejected the Beatles, the personal computer and Christopher Columbus’s first voyage as utter lunacy. But they don’t give up. They struggle, they sweat blood, they network in coffee bars until – at last! – they get the power and the page lead in the Financial Times; the glory and the marketing budget. ‘It is only by treating people like Drayson and Bellhouse as heroes for creating wealth from knowledge’ – Paul Drayson and Brian Bellhouse are both medical inventors – ‘that Britain will develop a fully fledged entrepreneurial culture,’ Leadbeater puffs, as if Thatcherism had never happened, and Britain was not a country so infused with the corporate spirit that Richard Branson is the first citizen of choice, according to opinion polls, for the unavailable post of president of UK plc.

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